In just a few weeks, Slovakia will join the European Union. But already, with rioting in the impoverished Roma communities of eastern Slovakia, the country is reeling from the effects of ‘restructuring’.
Good news for the Slovak government. South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai has announced that it will build its first European factory in Zilina, north Slovakia. It will be the third international carmaker to give Slovakia precedence over other locations in central and eastern Europe. Peugeot is about to finish a factory in Trnava, western Slovakia, and Volkswagen already has a plant in Bratislava. All this seems to confirm the merits of the government’s economic policies which are designed to attract foreign capital.
But, whereas the jobs created by foreign investment are in the west of Slovakia, the Roma communities – Slovakia’s Roma population is estimated at about 400,000 people – mainly live in the impoverished east of the country. Unemployment there is twice the national average, at around 30 per cent. Among the Roma the rate is much higher, with 80 per cent estimated to have no proper employment. In some communities, hardly anyone has a job. A whole generation is currently growing up that has never had a chance to secure its livelihood through work.
Of course this fits well with the common prejudice that Roma avoid work and try to live off the work of others. This seems to be the reasoning behind the policies of the Slovak government. Its prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, defended the recent 50 per cent cuts of social welfare allowances as a courageous step that was overdue for thirty years. Behind the cuts lies the idea of a distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ hardship, as a criterion on which to decide entitlement. In addition, allocation has shifted from a per capita basis to a limit on the amount that any one family can receive. Thus, families with more than four children – disproportionately Roma families – are excluded. ‘Cuts in benefits are needed to end a culture of dependence among Roma’, said Ludovit Kanik, Social Minister.
The result was that social unrest erupted in eastern Slovakia where a desperate population mainly of Roma people are protesting against the cuts. This is not just the collateral damage of neoliberal policies: it is structural as well, rooted in a deep-seated racism in Slovakia against the Roma.
Slovakia and other countries of central and eastern Europe have been under pressure from Brussels to improve the situation of their minorities – and of the Roma in particular. Luckily for Slovakia, the European Commission seems to have diverted its attention from human rights to focus instead on the implementation of ‘reforms’ in other sectors, particularly the economy and public administration. And, even though the current atmosphere of EU enlargement is far from friendly, there is barely a chance that Brussels will stop at the last minute and require Slovakia and its neighbours to show more determination to tackle the issue of Roma human rights.
Yet, the charges against Slovakia are overwhelming. Two recent reports, one by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the other by the US State Department, came to the same conclusion: that Roma continue to face grave discrimination in many areas of life, particularly education and employment. In view of the discriminatory treatment of Roma by employers, ECRI concluded that most Roma are unable to enter the employment market.
The US State Department gave extensive coverage to anti-Roma prejudices in Slovak society, citing polls in which 50 per cent of those interviewed said that they would not want to have Roma neighbours and 71 per cent said that they believe that relations with Roma are potentially conflictive. A disturbing figure in the US report is that the life span of Roma in Slovakia is 17 years below the national average and child mortality three times higher. Hence, even at the previous level, social benefits did not provide much relief to the hardship of Roma and it was well-known in advance that the recent reforms would only aggravate their plight.
Moreover, Romani leaders warned the government that the reforms might trigger social unrest. The government is trying to use police and military force to suppress the crisis and seems to stubbornly persist in its hard stance against an insurgent population: there are still several thousand police officers and troops deployed in eastern Slovakia. But it will not heal the social rift in Slovakia, where a significant proportion of citizens are excluded from the most basic public utilities such as clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity, public transport – and hope.
Slovakia will enter the European Union as a state built on exclusion and coercion. It will find itself in good company, with many other states similarly failing the disadvantaged sectors of their societies.