Slovaks vs. Czechs on Gypsies

by The Economist

Slovaks v Czechs on gypsies THE European Union excluded Slovakia from the first wave of would-be members because it was not “democratic” enough. One worry was about minority rights. So no surprise, perhaps, that one of the first decisions of the new Slovak government, formed on October 29th under Mikulas Dzurinda, a Christian Democrat keen to get Slovakia on the EU fast track, was to appoint a minister for “minorities and human rights”.

The new minister, Pal Csaky, is an ethnic Hungarian, from an ethnic-Hungarian party in the new coalition. But his remit is wider than the concerns of this minority, 10.5% of Slovakia’s population. In particular, he declares that better relations with the Romanies, or gypsies, are his priority.

There are worries about the estimated 800,000 Romanies in both parts of the former Czechoslovakia. “Romany rights have become one of the most important issues in EU accession negotiations,” says Rals Dreyer, acting head of the EU mission in the Czech Republic. Concern has grown since last year, when thousands of Czech and Slovak Romanies, trying to escape what they called persecution at home, sought asylum in Britain (which reacted by slapping visa requirements on all Slovaks, and threatening to do the same for Czechs).

Nobody doubts that Romanies in both countries have a rotten time. Many live in ramshackle ghettos, or in crude huts clustered higgledy-piggledy near the Tatra mountains. Ethnic intolerance of them is pervasive, suspicion—not all of it entirely unjustified—of their criminal involvement widespread. Unemployment among them reaches 90% in some areas, and two-thirds of their children are shunted into “special schools” for the dysfunctional. Romanies live in constant fear of skinhead attacks—and in dismay at police indifference. Since 1990, racial assaults in both countries have soared; some Romanies have been killed.

Politicians inflame the problem. Ladislav Hruska, the mayor of Usti nad Labem, a Czech town, recently tried to build a ghetto wall to separate some of its Romany population from other residents “to keep out the noise”. The solution to the “gypsy problem”, according to Jan Slota, head of the Slovak National Party, which was part of the previous Slovak government, is “a small courtyard and a long whip.”

While the EU did not punish the Czech Republic for ill-treatment of Romanies, and put it on the fast-track to membership, Czechs in some ways have behaved as badly as Slovaks—if not worse. Certainly that was true in the past: some 95% of Romanies in the Czech part of ex-Czechoslovakia were exterminated during the second world war, many in a concentration camp, at Lety, guarded by Czechs. The camp today is scarcely sign-posted, and used as a pig farm. The Slovaks, in contrast, spared their Romanies. Many were then resettled in towns on the Czech side. But thousands were refused citizenship when Czechoslovakia split in 1993: a new Czech citizenship law, designed indirectly to exclude the Romanies, was introduced, and only belatedly changed.

Human-rights groups say the Czechs are still doing little. Thirteen months ago the Czech government set up an “inter-ministerial commission for Roma community affairs”, now chaired by Petr Uhl, a respected former dissident. The commission has set about improving Romany rights. These were spelled out in a 1997 report on the Romanies; most, say outsiders, are “mere window-dressing.”

Will Slovakia now do better? Mr Dzurinda, whose coalition government replaced the authoritarian one of Vladimir Meciar after elections in September, went to Brussels this week to persuade the EU that his country is now a more decent, freer and fairer place. But his government is far from stable. It took weeks of haggling to put together, and is made up of four parties—including his centre-right Slovak Democratic Coalition—that straddle, awkwardly, the left and right. It may not survive long enough to do the job.