(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)
Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.
Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.
“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.
I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.
Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.
Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)
Tensions percolated with the post-1989 upheaval and shuttering of decrepit industry: Roma were the first fired, the last hired. That triggered an ugly spiral for the region’s 10-15 million Roma, exacerbated by policies that pushed them to the margins in housing, healthcare, employment and education.
Popular attitudes gradually hardened. When the Central Europeans were jockeying to join the EU, they were on their best behavior (more or less), hoping Brussels would invite them to the dance. Once in, they exhaled. A nastier environment emerged, in both politics and the media.
Since then, the rhetoric has gone ever farther, two activists told me over lunch last week. “Things people wouldn’t say openly in the past, they now openly express – with no fear of punishment,” says Stanislav Daniel, a Slovak Roma working for the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.
Slovakia’s recent actions have certainly drawn attention. Even a week before Fico’s announcement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay singled out Slovakia (and the Czech Republic) in her annual human-rights report, describing the Roma position as “noticeably deteriorating.”
What – if anything – can the EU do about it? Little more than furrow brows and wring hands. Once in the club, you’re in. And these countries know that well.
External pressure, though, wouldn’t help Slovak society itself, says Laco Oravec, of the Milan Simecka Foundation, a human-rights group in Bratislava. “I don’t want us to do things because Brussels wants us to do it,” says Oravec, “but because there’s consensus here that we ourselves need to do it.”