The article looks at the Slovak government’s economic policy approach in the light of the recent protests by the country’s Roma population against social benefit cuts.
Good news from Bratislava: the South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai has just announced that it will establish its first European car factory in Zilina, North of the country, next to the Czech and Polish borders. The news comes as a relief for the Slovak government as it seems to confirm its policy of imposing a much-contested “flat tax” of 19 per cent for companies and individuals alike. Hyundai is the third international carmaker that gives Slovakia precedence over other locations in Central and Eastern Europe. The French carmaker Peugeot is about to finish a factory in Trnava, Western Slovakia and the German Volkswagen has already a plant in Bratislava.
On the other side of the coin, the picture is not as bright: since several weeks, and just a few weeks before its entry into the European Union, Slovakia is in the international press, not because of its economic performance, but because of the social unrest in its eastern parts, where a desperate population of mainly Roma is protesting against cuts of the social welfare benefits of nearly fifty per cent.
Putting the two cases side by side, it would be tempting to conclude that the Slovak government is taking it from the poor to give to the rich in a kind of reversal of Robin Hood’s philosophy. A policy of streamlining state budgets obviously entails that there is less money available for redistribution. The Slovak government is pursuing an economic policy approach which aims to boost the supply by granting international investors most favourable conditions, engaging in a frenzy run with other states in the region to attract foreign capital. But the increasing straits faced by the Roma communities in Slovakia are not just a collateral damage in the application of neo-liberal recipes as a remedy to economic crisis: they are structural as well, rooted in a deep-seated racism in Slovakia whose main victims are the Roma.
Companies are going West, the Roma communities, – Slovakia’s Roma population is estimated at about 400 000 people – mainly live in the east of the country, an impoverished area, where unemployment is twice the national average ranging at around thirty per cent. Among Roma, unemployment is much higher. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the Roma have no proper employment. In some communities hardly anyone has a job. A whole generation is currently growing up in Slovakia which has never seen a chance to secure its livelihood through work.
Of course this fits well with common prejudices: Roma avoid working and try as much as possible to live of other people’s work. This seems to be the kind of reasoning behind the policy of the Slovak government. Its Prime Minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, defended the recent cuts of the social welfare allowances as a courageous step which was overdue for thirty years and should show that it is more profitable to work than to rely on social welfare. While this as well as the whole idea of distinguishing between “objective” and “subjective” hardship as criteria to decide on a person’s entitlement to social welfare, still appears much in line with neo-liberal thinking, the neoliberal ideology hardly provides an answer to the question, why the allocation modus of social welfare, whose purpose is to alleviate poverty, has been shifted from an allocation on a per capita basis to a modus, where there is a limit set on the amount a family may receive and where families with more than four children are excluded from social welfare. Unless, of course, one assumes that the government simply aims to exclude certain categories of the population, the Roma, to name them as the European Roma Right Centre did, from access to social welfare.
Slovakia, as the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been under intense pressure to improve the situation of its minorities and of the Roma in particular. Luc kily for Slovakia, the European Commission seems to have diverted its attention from the safeguard of human and minority rights to the implementation of reforms in other sectors, mainly in the field of economy and public administration. And even though the current overall atmosphere in which enlargement will take place is far from friendly, there is barely any chance that Brussels will call “Stop!” at the last minute and require Slovakia and its neighbours to show more determination in integrating their Roma communities.
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 mutually corroborative conclusions, according to which Roma continue to face grave discrimination in many domains of social life, highlighting in particular education and employment. In view of the discriminatory treatment of Roma from the side of employers, ECRI concluded, that “most Roma are unable to integrate the employment market.”
The US State Department gave extensive coverage to anti-Roma prejudices in the Slovak society citing polls where 50 per cent of the interviewed said that they would not want to have Roma as neighbours and with 70.9 per cent believing that relations with Roma are potentially conflictive. There is also another disturbing figure given in the US report which says that the life span of Roma in Slovakia is 17 years below average and child mortality three times higher. Sticking to the racist assumption, according to which Roma would not want to work and prefer to live on social welfare, one would still have to concede that even at the previous level, social benefits did not provide much relief to their hardship and it was well-known in advance that the recent reforms would only aggravate their plight.
It is difficult to find soft tones to qualify the attitude of the Slovak government. As the representative of the Slovak people it can hardly claim the benefit of ignorance. Moreover, Romani leaders warned the government that the reforms might trigger social unrest. Unless we take ignorance as ignorance vis-à-vis its citizens. Indeed, it is otherwise hard to understand why the Slovak government could not find any other resort in the current crisis than to use police and military force and seems to stubbornly persist in its hard stance against an insurgent population.
Even the few changes the cabinet adopted at the peak of the crisis speak the language of ignorance and cynicism vis-à-vis the hopelessness of the Roma. As part of these changes the so-called work activation allowance has been raised by fifty per cent, but the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Ludovit Kaník, himself acknowledged that many communes refuse to offer volunteer posts which allow people to qualify for it.
The Slovak government might try to suppress the crisis by the use of force – there are still several thousands of police forces 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 … from hope. Slovakia will enter into the European Union on a crutch. Maybe it will find itself in good company there as many other states likewise fail to make progress when it comes to integrating the most disadvantaged sectors of society. But it can be said for sure that this crutch, made of exclusion paired with coercion, will break away one day and then the stumbling man will fall. It’s high time for Slovakia and Europe to learn to walk on both feet.
See theEuropean Roma Information Officewebsite for further positions.