The policy-making environment in Slovakia regarding majority/minority relations is in a state of upheaval. Progress on the many issues involved has been blocked by the absence of two key elements: new ideas and clear information.
Roma and other minority leaders, policy makers, NGOs, business and community leaders are floundering for a lack of solutions. The rush to bring the nation into line with European Union standards and frustration at the elusiveness of progress has added a sense of urgency.
The discussion about this issue has been static and circular rather than dynamic and progressive. Many feel an impasse will result if new ideas and points of view are not forthcoming. When the discussion comes to positive discrimination, even progressive NGOs and experts are very cautious.
Obstacles in every sector
Anybody who wants to work with Roma issues in Slovakia will surely face many obstacles from every sector. The debate suffers as well from increasing anger and resentment directed toward minorities by the Slovak majority. This is based in part on the widespread belief that minorities are fundamentally at "fault" for their own situation and, somehow, for the majority's woes as well.
The mainstream Slovak media focuses its coverage on negative portrayals of minorities and the detriment they bring the country, an editorial slant that serves only to reinforce existing biases and encourage further acrimony.
All of this stands in the way of cogent, cooperative problem solving between minority groups and the majority. Policy makers and community leaders cannot work together amidst a storm of mutual recrimination. Neither can they move the debate forward in an environment devoid of new ideas and fresh approaches.
There are many declarations and agreements the Slovak government has signed and adhered to regarding legislation concerning the human rights of its citizens, including minorities. At the present time, the ongoing process of economic reforms, involving many unpopular decisions, puts restrictions on the capacity of the Slovak government to implement politically sensitive
This approach, while focusing on Slovakia, will incorporate NGOs in other Central and East European countries into a common effort seeking to affect national policy in these countries, so that it will result in legislation that is both in accordance with EU standards and developed in such a way that it will demonstrate the commitment of governments to promoting regional stability and social justice.
Benefits to be gained from helping the Roma
One of the innovations that should be brought to the debate is an appreciation of the benefits to be gained by considering the issue in terms of a wider context—that of an economically marginalized and vulnerable population struggling to stay afloat. This wider context encompasses the plight of women, the handicapped and others challenged by lack of resources and opportunities.
The debate in Slovakia would benefit from an examination of how other nations have dealt with similar questions, focusing on improving educational and economic opportunities for the disenfranchised, as well as establishing anti-discrimination legislation and the means to enforce it.
One such incentive to improve the situation of the Roma in Slovakia has been set up by the Sándor Márai Foundation in partnership with the Slovak Foundation for a Civil Society. In order to maximize the effectiveness of the above-mentioned measures, a consortium of six Slovak NGOs and 13 Roma organizations—the Consortium for Equal Chances—has been established, with the goal of helping the Roma community improve their social situation.
The Consortium's two objectives are to increase the social status of Roma in Slovakia and to improve relations between the Roma minority and the Slovak majority.
Pooling and coordinating energy will help all of the organizations to successfully implement the independent programs of its members, such as research, training, public awareness campaign and advocacy. The Consortium, with the possible help of the Slovak government, will train a large number of Roma activists who will be able to work in their communities as "state officials."
Equal Chances are the key words of the project as well as its title. Slovakia desperately needs cooperation among all players on the Roma issue at every level and a common approach from all sectors and groups involved. The Consortium for Equal Chances is an excellent first step.
Balázs Jarábik, 27 November 2000
photos courtesy of Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov
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