The prime minister of Slovakia, Mikuláš Dzurinda, recently invited the European Union's commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, to visit Slovakia. As part of this visit, Dzurinda expressly said that he would accompany Verheugen to areas of the country experiencing interethnic strife between Romani and non-Romani citizens. In recent years, Slovakia has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union and international human rights organizations for violations against its Romani population. Although thousands of Slovak Roma have sought political asylum as a result of discrimination, others argue that such discrimination does not exist in Slovakia.
Whose side is the court on?
Disagreements concerning discrimination in Slovakia exist not only between Roma and non-Roma but also between national and local government officials. For example, a dispute between the national government and local governments representing several towns in northeastern Slovakia is heating up over the issue of Romani housing.
Several Romani families in the municipalities of Rokytovce and Ňagov have been homeless and living in miserable conditions since the early 1990s. In 1997, Rokytovce threatened that "Roma who settle in the village will be expelled." One month later, Ňagov issued a similar order. Ňagov's decree explicitly stated that the municipality should "not allow Romani citizens to enter the village Ňagov or settle in shelters in the district of the village."
In response to the actions taken by the local governments, a case was brought before the Slovak Prosecutor General and the Constitutional Court on behalf of several Romani citizens and the Košice-based Foundation for the Legal Defence of Ethnic Minorities in autumn 1997 and spring 1998. The court, however, ruled that it found nothing wrong with the ban on Roma.
On 12 March 1999, three Romani Slovak citizens, two of whom are permanent residents of the villages in question, turned to the European Court of Human Rights for redress. They filed their complaint in conjunction with the European Roma Rights Centre, a legal advocacy organisation. The complaint argued that the municipalities' resolutions made use of explicit racial classifications which constitute "an affront to human dignity" and provide evidence of "discrimination based on race," in direct violation of Article 3 of the European Convention.
Furthermore, the complaint alleged that the adoption of the resolutions violated the applicants' rights to respect for family life and privacy (secured by Article 8 of the European Convention), freedom of movement and choice of residence (secured by Article 2 of Protocol IV), and freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of each of these rights (secured by Article 14). Finally, the application contended that by permitting the racially discriminatory ordinances to remain in force, the government of Slovakia itself violated Article 13 of the European Convention.
International, national and local pressures
Numerous international organizations, such as the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as human rights groups and the United States government, expressed their concern regarding the treatment of Roma in Slovakia. As a result of this enormous pressure, the Slovak deputy prime minister and chairman of the parliamentary committee for human rights, László Nagy, ordered the towns of Rokytovce and Ňagov to repeal their decrees. While the Roma are now technically allowed to enter the two municipalities, they continue to live in squalor as a result of local refusal to house them.
Rokytovce and Ňagov are not the only examples of local governments deliberately ignoring national policies adopted in order to integrate the Roma. For example, in the municipality of Medzilaborce, the Roma live in inhuman conditions in paper-shack barracks in an area called Čabiny. Although Medzilaborce is responsible for providing decent housing to socially vulnerable citizens with legal residence, over the past ten years the local government has repeatedly blocked proposals to build such housing for the 24 Čabiny Roma.
The refusal to implement policies in support of the Roma is now causing friction between the Slovak national government and local administrations. While the national government came up with a policy document aimed at improving the situation of Roma by May 2000, the local municipalities maintain the power and responsibility for implementation of the policy. In Slovakia, nearly all rights (schooling, housing, social welfare, health care, etc) depend on local residency. Local mayors often refuse to even think in terms of improving the situation of Roma, arguing that there are no Roma living in their districts. This claim is based on census information that cites "Slovak" as the nationality of all.
This attitude has been criticized by the national government and is slowly disappearing from the scene of local politics. However, in some places antagonism toward the implementation of policies designed to improve the lives of Roma continues. In Medzilaborce, the fact that Čabiny Roma and their children have lived in cold, paper-shack barracks for three years has had little impact on local decision-making.
Real or imagined discrimination?
In December 2000, the Slovak national government gave a special financial subsidy of SKK (Slovak crowns) 3.3 million (USD 82,500) to the municipality of Medzilaborce in order to start a re-housing project for the Čabiny Roma. To date, nothing has been done. The reconstruction of the building chosen for the project has been blocked by bureaucratic procedures as well as by a petition signed by 2000 of the city's inhabitants. The petition protests the movement of the Roma from Čabiny to Medzilaborce.
According to Mr I Hlinka of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma issues, this case is a typical example of latent racism, which Slovakia is known for world wide. "It is really alarming," he said. "This type of racism that does not allow the citizens to see the real situation of Roma... will never allow us to solve anything."
According to the mayor of Medzilaborce, the inhabitants of the city will have a chance to express their opinion, by way of the petition, through till the end of March. While 2000 people have already signed, it is possible that several hundred more names from Medzilaborce's population of 6500 may be added. It seems unlikely that human sympathy for the Čabiny Roma will increase any time soon.
International criticism of Slovakia continues, as the national government struggles to influence policy toward the Roma at local levels. Ongoing legal challenges mount, yet opinions remain embarrassingly divided. Perhaps Prime Minister Dzurinda might reconsider his slogan, "EU membership by 2003," when he takes Guenter Verheugen to visit the Roma in Čabiny.
Eva Sobotka, 5 February 2001
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