Bridging Social Distance in Slovakia

The social distance between Roma and non-Roma communities in Europe is quite large. In other words, there is not a great deal of mixing between the two communities. Applying the scale developed by Emory Bogardus in 1925 – which asks people questions about willingness to intermarry at one end to eagerness to deport at the other – we see that the majority population generally wants to keep its distance. True, some Roma are not interested in marrying non-Roma or living in non-Roma neighborhoods – as this study of Roma attitudes in southern Serbia suggests. But the attempts to bridge social distance generally come from one side. Roma are often expected – and sometimes encouraged – to reach across the social gulf and become integrated into the majority culture. Many do so.

Very few non-Roma, meanwhile, try to go the other way. Tomas Hrustic is one of the few non-Roma to have closed the social distance. As a social anthropologist, he has learned the Roma language and lived in a Roma community in eastern Slovakia. He focused his research on religion among Roma. And today he works on Roma issues with the National Democratic Institute out of Bratislava.

In his fieldwork, Hrustic looked specifically at the issue of religious conversion in the Roma community. “In Eastern Slovakia, their identity as Roma or Gypsies is very stigmatized,” he told me in an interview in Bratislava last February. “Part of the reason for the conversions was really that among evangelicals or among Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were not confronted with their Gypsieness in the same way as within the Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic Church. I listened to all these stories of Roma trying to attend Roman Catholic Church services and experiencing discrimination. They were not allowed to attend. But when they were approached by evangelicals, there was no discrimination. They were welcomed as brothers and sisters.”

But conversion was not really a way to escape racism. “People are converting because their brother or their sister-in-law converted, and that’s how they were able to learn more about the church and the services,” Hrustic explained. “So the main reason for conversion was not to avoid racism: ‘Now I will be a Jehovah’s Witness and people will not treat me as a Roma.’ Rather, being a Jehovah’s Witness was a more natural way of spirituality or of seeking something more in life.”

Today, Hrustic works on Roma empowerment projects. He is careful to avoid the paternalism that clings to outreach to the Roma community and does nothing but preserve social distance. “This is about working with Roma as partners,” he said. “If there is a village in eastern Slovakia where 50 percent of the inhabitants are Roma, I don’t see a reason why 50 percent of the local council shouldn’t be Roma who then discuss their priorities with non-Roma. Where there is a discussion about policies that can help Roma, Roma must be an integral part of the decision-making.”

There are few Roma active at the national level (there is only one Roma politician in parliament). But there has been more success at the local level. “In Slovakia more than 330 local Roma councilors have been elected,” he told me. “That’s a very very small number compared to non-Roma councilors. But in many municipalities Roma are elected to office and are able to negotiate with their non-Roma colleagues and find good solutions for their people. There are more than 29 Roma mayors in Slovakia, and many of these mayors have been re-elected. Many people, not only Roma voters, are very satisfied with their work.”

Despite these successes, anti-Roma sentiment still runs high in Slovakia. The neo-Nazi politician Marion Kotleba recently won 55 percent of the vote on his way to becoming regional governor of Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia. And the social distance between Roma and non-Roma remains nearly as wide as ever before.

“There was some recent polling about how the mainstream population views Roma: many of them actually do not want to have Roma as neighbors or have their kids in the same class as Roma kids,” Hrustic pointed out. “Everywhere anti-Roma sentiments are increasing, not only in Slovakia but also in Central Europe. In part, these sentiments increased because of the economic crisis of two or three years ago. It has a lot to do with the fact that it’s more difficult for Slovaks in rural areas to find a job and make a living.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were, and what you were doing, when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I was in elementary school. When the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia fell, I was 11 years old. So, I was in in the sixth grade. I was young, and these changes were of course very interesting for me. I was following the news and discussing it with my parents. I was worried. I had low expectations. But I was just learning and learning and making up my mind about what’s going on in the space around me.

 

And when did you become kind of politically active? Was there a moment in your life when you decided to become an activist in some sense?

 

There was no single moment like that. It was more a process of realizing different things in my life. Basically I was more of an academic person. I was studying social anthropology and comparative religion at the university. Then I decided to study further. I applied for a Ph.D. program in Bratislava at Comenius University.

At the same time, I started to work with different organizations that related to Roma. In the beginning, these organizations were focused on collecting data from various settlements, so it was a natural process for me. At university I actually had a small job as an interviewer in different research projects organized by different local and international organizations. So that was the first time I got more information about Roma. I also visited Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia. That was an important moment for me, when I first went to Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia and interviewed families and households there. It was not just learning about the very poor living conditions. I also visited Roma families that were working and were integrated and were doing very well. At that moment I was really surprised by the fact that it’s not just about poverty: it’s about different conditions for different people. I was thrilled to learn more about Roma and how they actually fight their way from their difficult starting positions. And I actually became more involved.

I’d chosen a PhD dissertation topic that focused a lot on the Roma. I was doing comparative studies of religion and ethnology, and I focused on the religious conversions of Roma. For long-term research, I decided to live in a Roma settlement in 2004. I went to eastern Slovakia and spent one year in a Roma settlement near the Hungarian border. There I actually learned the Roma language. I was living with a family in very poor conditions, so again it really opened my eyes. I learned a lot, not only about Roma culture, but also about life in a segregated settlement. It’s not just about ethnicity. It’s about extreme poverty, generational poverty. That was a unique experience for me not only from an academic perspective but from a human perspective.

When I finished this research, I looked for a job where I could be more involved in helping Roma. I started working for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at that time. They had a strong program on Roma political participation. It was based in Bratislava, but we traveled a lot working with young Roma all around Slovakia. We conducted different trainings for the political participation and civic engagement of Roma – in Slovakia and also in other Eastern European countries. I’m still trying to find a balance between academia and activism. There are certain periods of my life when I am more into academia and times when I am more into political engagement.

 

The topic of your dissertation was religious conversion. The family you were living with, or the community you were studying, they were converting to evangelical Protestantism?

 

It’s more complicated actually.  The family that I was living with didn’t convert. They were religiously indifferent. They were formally Roman Catholics, as most of the people there are. But there were Roma from different religions around. There were a lot who became evangelicals or Pentecostals, and also Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was also a movement within the eastern Catholic Church. There was a Roma priest trying to make Roma more enthusiastic about their own beliefs. A lot of different churches focused their missions on the Roma.

For me, the locality was very interesting because many Roma converted more than once. They’d start in the Roman Catholic Church and convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses and then they started to be engaged with evangelicals and Pentecostals. Others stopped being very active religiously. Since I focused in my dissertation on these religious conversions, it was natural that I had to look at everyday life in the settlement, which involved basic ethnography but also family life, the social situation, economic behavior, and so on. I tried at first to get a complex picture of how the settlement works and how Roma function. Later on I began interviewing converts, priests, and religious leaders, as well as non-converted Roma. I was able to put together a picture of how these conversions actually function, and how they affect the families and the social situation.

 

Did you have a hypothesis as part of the research?

 

In the beginning, yes, I worked with the hypothesis that many Roma actually convert to different – and from the Central European perspective – new religious movements because Pentecostals and evangelicals are rather new to this cultural space. Part of the reason that Roma convert to these movements is that they want somehow to compensate for their stigmatized identity as an ethnic group. Once they convert they tend to be understood by the majority more as Pentecostals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Eastern Slovakia, their identity as Roma or Gypsies is very stigmatized. By converting, they can actually operate at more levels of identity. Of course it was not so simple. But part of the reason for the conversions was really that among evangelicals or among Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were not confronted with their Gypsieness in the same way as within the Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic Church. I listened to all these stories of Roma trying to attend Roman Catholic Church services and experiencing discrimination. They were not allowed to attend. But when they were approached by evangelicals, there was no discrimination. They were welcomed as brothers and sisters. It was more welcoming to be around them.

I then focused on the process of conversions. These mechanisms were not as important as, for example, family lineage. The conversion mechanism follows genealogies. People are converting because their brother or their sister-in-law converted, and that’s how they were able to learn more about the church and the services. So the main reason for conversion was not to avoid racism: “Now I will be a Jehovah’s Witness and people will not treat me as a Roma.” Rather, being a Jehovah’s Witness was a more natural way of spirituality or of seeking something more in life.

 

Were you able to compare that at all with conversion narratives in non-Roma communities?

 

Not really in my dissertation. For example, I never witnessed such massive conversions of non-Roma populations to Pentecostals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never witnessed non-Roma chain conversions. My research was only on one locality in Slovakia. But from my colleagues I know that there are some other communities that recorded massive waves of chain conversions of Roma to one church or movement, and then massive conversions to another. This never happened with the non-Roma population. This is a big difference in how mainstream populations tend to behave around religious conversion.

 

How was the experience of moving to the community and living with the family? Was there a period of time when it was challenging, or were you immediately welcomed into the family and the community?

 

Of course it was a long process, and even the preparation for this process was long, from my perspective. I didn’t just show up with a backpack! At first I was trying to build connections and better relationships. And then I was preparing this particular family for the fact that I would like to move there for a month, initially, and then come back later. When I came there to live for a longer period of time, it took me several months actually to gain trust and to learn the language, which was very important. At the same time they were gaining my trust. It was a very small and slow process, and it took me maybe two or three months before I was in some way part of the family.

Still, for other members of the segregated community, it was a longer process to gain their trust. It was a very interesting phenomenon: as I was more becoming a member of the family, then my research became more limited because I had to keep the rules of the family. For example, it was more difficult for me to talk to someone else in the settlement if they were not related to the particular family that I was living with. On the one hand I was getting more and more insight into the family structures, but I had to keep to the unwritten rules of how the social universe worked in the settlement.

 

You succeed at one level, and then it becomes more difficult.

 

Yes, but that’s classic anthropology. A lot of social anthropologists have similar experiences when they are conducting long-term research and living within one family.  You are gaining more insight, but you have to keep certain rules of the society.

 

You called the community “segregated.” Is this self-segregated or segregated in a different sense?

 

Maybe it’s not the best terminology, but it’s used widely in Slovakia. Many Roma settlements and communities around Slovakia are not part of the village or the municipalities. It goes back to the beginning of the 20th century when different regimes in this part of the world tried somehow to separate the Roma from the mainstream population. In the 1940s, for example, the fascist regime here adopted certain laws forcing Roma to move from the centers of the towns. Many villages and settlements in Slovakia today are where they were actually forced to move, where they had to build their houses outside of the cities. So, it’s not as though Roma decided to live outside the municipality. Every Roma settlement has a different history, and many of them have a history of resettlement in the 20th century or even before.

 

Over the last 20 years, have there been efforts to integrate these segregated communities into the larger Slovak society – politically, economically, or socially?

 

It’s really complicated. The Socialist government did not recognize Roma ethnicity: the Roma were just a social category. One of their goals was to assimilate these Gypsies as socially defined individuals. Different government programs focused on liquidating different settlements and moving people to cities. But this program failed, for different reasons. On the one hand it was not conducted properly. They encountered a lot of problems when they tried to destroy all these settlements. They literally resettled thousands of Roma from eastern Slovakia to the Czech Republic to integrate into the workforce in industrial parts of the country. The policy was to assimilate the Roma.

Then in the 1990s, the government recognized the Roma ethnicity. Roma gained the status of one of the national minorities. Unfortunately many sociologists speak of the Roma as the “losers of transformation.” Socialism created for Roma a greater dependence on the state and the programs of the state. The majority of Roma during socialism had very low qualifications, so the socialist government used Roma as a cheap labor force for many manual jobs. So, in the 1990s, the Roma were not prepared to transform and adapt to capitalism or a market economy. And many of them lost their jobs. To deal with that situation, many of them moved again from the cities to rural settlements, or they returned to their parents and their families living in rural areas. In other words, at the beginning of the 1990s, the population of Roma living in the settlements increased as they lost their jobs, and they again became more dependent on the social welfare system, without any possibility of finding good jobs. Especially for Roma concentrated around central and eastern Slovakia, there are not many opportunities to find employment. And because of discrimination and racism, Roma were the first people fired from their jobs. The state, from my perspective, ignored this: it was not their priority.

In the 1990s, not much was done for the integration of Roma. The first organized efforts were done at the beginning of the 21st century when Slovakia was discussing pre-accession to the European Union, and the EU was pushing potential member states to adopt measures to integrate Roma. Some strategies and conception papers were written, and the office for the plenipotentiary of Roma was established. Many things were started in that period. But after EU accession, paradoxically, many of these activities were not exactly stopped but they were no longer taken seriously. All the governments from the beginning of the 1990s until now have ignored these problems. Some thought that the Roma issue was not very popular and that they’d lose the support of mainstream voters. Some were actually aware that this issue is very complex and that’s why they didn’t want to get too heavily involved. Now, however, everybody realizes that unless something is done this issue will come back to haunt them. The current government is trying to do something — not because it wants to be proactive about integrating Roma but because it feels that this is a hot issue that’s not going away.

 

When you decided to get involved on the Roma issue, what did you have in mind at the beginning? What did you think would be the most appropriate policy? And have you changed your mind about this since then?

 

Actually, I didn’t focus on any particular policy. What was important for me, and also for NDI when I started working for them, was to empower Roma themselves. When decisions are made, Roma must be there because they are part of the community being affected. We tried to work mostly with young Roma leaders, to give them skills on how to influence decision-making. This could be through direct political work, for example by running for elected offices at a local or regional level and then later at the national level, but also in civic advocacy groups, through networking and lobbying for specific policies at local and regional levels. Our idea was not to tell Roma, “Okay, these are the things that are important for you, and we will try to lobby for them.” Instead, we chose to empower Roma to give them the power to say what’s important for them and then make these policy priorities happen.

It’s been a very slow and long process. But I think this is the only way to help without turning Roma into the object of our paternalism. This is about working with Roma as partners. If there is a village in eastern Slovakia where 50 percent of the inhabitants are Roma, I don’t see a reason why 50 percent of the local council shouldn’t be Roma who then discuss their priorities with non-Roma. Where there is a discussion about policies that can help Roma, Roma must be an integral part of the decision-making.

 

Can you give me some examples of where that’s been successful and some areas where it continues to be a challenge?

 

It’s always a challenge! But most of what we should call “successes” are at the local level. In Slovakia more than 330 local Roma councilors have been elected. That’s a very very small number compared to non-Roma councilors. But in many municipalities Roma are elected to office and are able to negotiate with their non-Roma colleagues and find good solutions for their people. There are more than 29 Roma mayors in Slovakia, and many of these mayors have been re-elected. Many people, not only Roma voters, are very satisfied with their work. So in certain municipalities, many people are engaged, are skilled, and have the capacity to address not only Roma problems but the problems of the whole municipality.

The biggest challenge is still at the national level. Until 2012 we didn’t have a Roma MP elected to the national parliament. In the last year’s election, only the first Roma MP was elected, Mr. Peter Pollak. Still, it is not enough. It’s not because the Roma do not want or are not prepared to work on the national level. It’s because of the system. Maybe in the next election there will be two or three more Roma MPs, and more Roma will be appointed to different positions in government. This also needs to be done in the ministries and the political parties. Non-Roma in power must admit the necessity of talking to Roma and bringing them into the decision-making process. Many political parties and many officers at the ministries really don’t want to see this.

It’s not just a problem with Roma issues but with social issues more generally. Many politicians believe that they are competent to be part of decision-making on social issues because they’re part of society. Take the issue of unemployment. Many governments in Central and Eastern Europe think that when they decrease social welfare payments to the unemployed, then the unemployed will be more eager to find jobs. But it’s not so simple. And it takes a lot of effort to explain that it doesn’t always work this way.

 

How unusual is it for a non-Roma person to speak Roma language here in Slovakia?

 

There are not many people who speak Roma language. But mainly on the local level, there are some fluent social workers and others who work with Roma. But Roma language is not very popular. And there are also many regional dialects. Also a big portion of the Roma population in Slovakia doesn’t speak the Roma language because their parents didn’t speak it to them when they were children. There are estimates that at least 50 percent of Roma speak different dialects of Roma in Slovakia. But there is a big group that doesn’t speak Roma.

 

Can children study Roma language in school?

 

There are some initial programs, but there is no Roma language at the elementary school level. Of course, since the Roma are an official national minority, they should have this. But there are no teachers able to teach the Roma language. There are certain Roma high schools where Roma language is part of the curriculum, but this is an exception. A few universities have programs focused on Roma where you can study the Roma language, but it’s still very unusual. It was only four years ago that the Roma language was officially recognized here.

 

By the Slovak state?

 

I’m not really like an expert on this issue. There is a department of Roma linguistics at Charles University in Prague where they established a Roma language that is now recognized and that’s based on the dialect from Spis in eastern Slovakia. The Roma language was officially standardized in 2008, and the Slovak state officially recognized it. Now there are several publications in Roma language, including dictionaries and a few textbooks.

 

Are there any places in Slovakia where there’s less segregation of Roma and non-Roma, where there’s more mixing?

 

There are many such villages and municipalities. In southern and southeastern Slovakia, where there’s a significant Hungarian minority, the position of Roma is a little bit different than in northern Slovakia. For example, in the region of Rimavska Sobota there are not many segregated settlements, and Roma are a lot more integrated within the villages. For example there is a village that is 60 percent Roma, 23 percent Hungarian, and 10 percent Slovak. In the belt that is predominantly Hungarian in southern Slovakia, Roma have a better starting positions than in the Spis region where there are ethnic Slovak villages with very specific Roma minorities. There the segregation is much deeper.

 

Is there any sense of solidarity between the Hungarian minority and Roma minority, as minorities?

 

I wouldn’t call it solidarity, and actually I do not even know the reasons why this is so. When you have a village dominated by Hungarians, and there’s a certain percentage of Roma, this Hungarian majority also segregates the Roma. Maybe there’s a historical reason connected with how the cultural context of how Hungarians view minorities when they were minorities. A colleague of mine at the Institute of Ethnology is doing his dissertation on exactly this, comparing attitudes toward Roma of ethnic Slovak villages and Hungarian villages.

 

NDI continues to do work with Roma here in Slovakia? I was under the impression that the NDI work here has shifted in some sense away from Slovakia.

 

It is shifting. But we still have some small activities here. In 2008 and 2009 we focused more on the western Balkans. But there has been this major focus on Roma political participation. We’ve focused on providing young Roma with trainings focused on developing their political skills. Later we worked with elected Roma officials, mostly on the local level, offering them good governance trainings and then advice and networking them with how to actually help them do their job better. We have a solid group of Roma who are really good trainers and can provide really good services for Roma at the local level. We’ve also tried to work with mainstream political parties to somehow open doors for Roma and make those political parties more open to consult with Roma on their policies.

In the last two years, we have successfully put Roma and non-Roma together in one training group. We’ve focused on the youth wings of mainstream political parties, and we do workshops for both young Roma activists and university students. For example, we put together a group of 30 people, 15 of whom are non-Roma members of different youth wings of the political parties and 15 are Roma activists and university students. The workshops are on specific topics, for example housing education policies, and the participants get a different context for the information we provide them. Non-Roma, after these workshops, will say, “I had no idea that there was this group of educated Roma who are able to debate with solid arguments.” And the Roma are actually very surprised to meet a group of people who want to be politicians and yet are open. We also conduct study visits and site visits, for example to distinguish between good housing projects and bad ones.

 

Have you seen any change in non-Roma perceptions of Roma in Slovakia?

 

Yes, there is a change, but I wouldn’t say it’s been a positive change. There was some recent polling about how the mainstream population views Roma: many of them actually do not want to have Roma as neighbors or have their kids in the same class as Roma kids. Everywhere anti-Roma sentiments are increasing, not only in Slovakia but also in Central Europe. In part, these sentiments increased because of the economic crisis of two or three years ago. It has a lot to do with the fact that it’s more difficult for Slovaks in rural areas to find a job and make a living. It’s natural to look for a scapegoat. They see Roma from their villages who are not working and living on social benefits, and they turn their anger on those who are the most vulnerable. Politicians misuse this anti-Roma sentiment. In their election campaigns, they promise to cut benefits for Roma, even though no such “benefit for Roma” really exists, and there are just general social benefits for every person in material need regardless of her or his ethnicity.

Even many mainstream parties are making more extreme speeches. If I compare the political programs of parties from the last elections with those from eight years ago, they’ve become much more radicalized. For example, the center-right party that was dominant in Slovakia held a press conference in the Roma settlement saying that they will destroy these houses of the poor because they stand on illegal land. This would have been impossible several years ago. So, this intolerance and anti-Roma rhetoric is more and more tolerated.

 

This kind of sentiment is common among far-right parties in Bulgaria or Romania. But here the far right has practically disappeared. So has the rhetoric of this far-right been absorbed by mainstream parties?

 

In a way, yes. Of course there is a far-right party here. It attracts a really small percentage of voters, but it is becoming more visible. It uses the frustration of non-Roma in eastern Slovakia when organizing in those villages. They said to non-Roma: “Look, the politicians in Bratislava don’t care about your problems. But we are here, and we will make Roma in this village go away.” And many ordinary people are listening to these radical voices. Comparing the elections in 2010 and then in 2012, their small percentage is increasing. It’s a very dangerous signal. Maybe you know about the case of the Roma settlement in Krasnohorske Podhradie. Some of the houses are standing on land that does not belong to Roma. The owners are Slovaks from the village. They donated the land to the leader of the radical political party, Marian Kotleba, who is openly neo-Nazi. And now he is the owner of the land where these Roma houses are standing.

So, ordinary people are more willing to listen to radical voices, and not just listen but act. We can somehow compare it to the 1930s, for example, and what happened in Germany. When you read Internet discussions, when you hear university-educated people speak about Roma: their eyes blink and their mind freezes over. They speak about their stereotypes and their prejudices, and they are not able to hear arguments. They think they know how it really is.

 

There’s an assumption that people with university educations are more open-minded. They might be more open-minded except when you get to this issue. It’s the Roma exception.

 

Yes, education doesn’t play any role in it. On the other hand, you can also meet non-educated people who are open and tolerant toward Roma.

 

This suggests that more education won’t necessarily change the situation. How would you compare the situation of the Roma here in Slovakia and the situation of Roma in other countries in the region?

 

In other countries there’s a group of educated middle-class Roma who declare themselves to be Roma and are willing to work on Roma issues. In Romania or Bulgaria, there’s a relatively large group of Roma in Bucharest or Sofia who are really educated, who run Roma thinktanks, who speak English, who can really influence the situation, and who can be active on the international or European level. In Slovakia, we have these people, but the group is not so big. That is the main difference. The reason might be that the capital of Slovakia is Bratislava, in the western part, and the Roma are concentrated more in eastern Slovakia. But that’s a very simple answer. And there are much more complex reasons for why this is. During socialism, many Roma were actually able to achieve education and good jobs. But they stayed hidden. They did not openly declare their Roma ethnicity. They just tried to live their lives and work their jobs. So again, maybe this is part of the reason for the difference.

There’s also the stereotype that Roma are a homogeneous, unified group. People ask the question, “Why, if there are so many Roma here, don’t they have a single party and vote for their representatives?” But that’s nonsense, because Roma are a very heterogeneous group with many interests, and they don’t have strong representation. They’re not like the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, which is a politically more or less homogeneous group, which looks like a community from the outside, and also shares a strong interest with Hungary as a neighbor. There might be a community of Roma all living in the same space, but they are actually three or four communities that do not communicate with each other. Slovaks are wondering, “Why doesn’t this Roma settlement have a single leader that we could elect as a mayor or as a councilor?” It’s because they need four leaders, from four different families, because these four communities live next to each other but don’t trust each other.

 

Which you discovered very quickly.

 

Yes, but not only me. This is one of the first things you start to understand about how the settlement works.

 

What about at a cultural level? In Hungary or in Romania, people might even be anti-Roma in their political sentiment but they listen to Roma music. They go to a restaurant and there will be Roma musicians. Is Roma culture represented in any way in Slovakia, even stereotypically?

 

There are many projects that Roma are an integral part of, and this is mostly music. Music is a positive stereotype, but still a stereotype, about Roma all around the world. It’s limiting in its own way. When you talk to a member of the majority, they’ll say, “If they are Roma, they can be good dancers or good singers. So, why do they want to be doctors? Or lawyers?” This is also part of the thinking at the local level when the mayor, who might be pro-Roma, will give a small amount of money to the Roma settlement or to a Roma NGO to organize a Roma festival. But they don’t invest in building infrastructure in the community. They put a thousand Euro into a Roma festival when it’s much more important to desegregate the school.

 

In the United States, they will put in some money for a basketball court for African-Americans in the inner city and that’s all they will do.

 

Yeah, and they are proud of it!

 

What about representation on TV or in films? Are Roma represented in any way in popular media?

 

Not much. Certain NGOs try to promote things Roma, like a famous Roma singer or a particular Roma teacher. But these are just recent campaigns, and the campaigns are not very widespread. On national TV or on the different commercial TV stations, not many Roma are being presented as successful members of society. Of course there are some, but it’s just a very few. Moreover the media tends to report about it in negative ways. It’s very difficult to fight this trend because the commercial news shows want to sell their news. And they sell their news when Roma do something negative. Then the report will show shouting people in the settlement. But if they report on a good school that was able to desegregate Roma children, that’s not interesting.

 

We’re in the Decade of Roma Inclusion. There’s been a lot of money, not an immense amount, but a good amount, coming from the European Union, from different foundations. In your estimation, has the money been well used? Is money really the issue in terms of promoting integration?

 

As for the Decade of Roma Inclusion, it’s been a failure, not only from my perspective, but also from the perspective of different NGOs for Roma. The main goal of the Decade of Roma Inclusion was to involve Roma in decision-making processes. Many countries will do anything to prove that they’ve successfully included Roma.

Of course money is important, but it’s not a crucial part. There’s been a lot of money allocated for Roma issues, for example from European structural funds, but a lot of this money was used for projects that have nothing to do with Roma. For example, in one municipality they used it to re-construct a firehouse and then declared that this was also for Roma because they would be protected by it. Or they built a bicycle trail and said that Roma could also use it. There were many examples of money not misused but used for different purposes. Then the general population has the feeling that there’s been an enormous amount of money used for Roma, but they aren’t aware that the money wasn’t used properly or it never went to the settlement or it was used for different trainings and useless activities and only a small amount was used to improve living conditions.

The money isn’t really important. It’s just a tool. What really needs to be changed is the setup of general society. People need to see that it’s important to look at the Roma from a different perspective, not as a problem but with a greater focus on positive things and ways of coming up with solutions together. It’s not a “Roma problem.” It’s a problem of society in general, which is not able to admit that Roma have been a part of this geographical space for almost 700 years. They are not intruders or aliens. They are a part of society here. We should treat them as part of society and not as somebody who wants to actually steal our money, steal our space…

 

Thinking back to the late 1990s, when you kind of became involved in your academic studies and also started thinking about political action, have you changed your perspective or rethought your assumptions in any major way since then?

 

It’s a difficult question. I’m constantly rethinking my assumptions. I’m more dubious about people who have really strong beliefs or assumptions. I constantly want to rethink and change my assumptions. I’m also more skeptical that Roma will be integrated, that general society will accept them. I am more and more afraid that this is not the case. But it doesn’t mean that efforts should be stopped. For example, if you do a training for 10 local Roma councilors, and two or three of them are able to help their communities, afterwards I am really happy and consider it a good success.

Now I’m focused more on small practical steps than on global change. When I was starting out, I had in mind that at some point there would be real change and society would be more accepting and more tolerant. But now I’m more focused on specific examples, as in: “Here we have a small municipality, so what can we do here? How can we actually find specific solutions for these specific people?”

 

I have three last quantitative questions. When you look back to the 1990s, and everything that has changed or has not changed here in Slovak society from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “least satisfied” and 10 being “most satisfied”?

 

I would say 5. A lot of things have changed. People are more engaged. But still there is a lot left to do. A big part of the population is just passive and expecting some changes. They’re not very proactive.

 

Same scale, same time period: your personal life.

 

Maybe 6 or 7.

 

If you look into the near future, and you evaluate the prospects for Slovakia in the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the most pessimistic and 10 being the most optimistic?

 

3.5. In this case I am more pessimistic than optimistic.

 

Bratislava, February 12, 2103

 


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