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Real and imagined problems of the Roma community in Slovakia

An Interview with Alexander Mušinka, co-author of “Strategy of the Slovak Republic for Integration of Roma up to 2020″. Interviewer: Daniel Wańczyk.

July 12, 2016 - Daniel Wańczyk - Interviews

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Image by Daniel Wańczyk

DANIEL WAŃCZYK: The discussion about Romani people in Slovakia is in a large part driven by myths and stereotypes; looking for facts and disproving the fiction. Let us start with the most basic information. Officially the Romani minority in Slovakia has 150,000 members, which constitutes about two per cent of the population, while unofficial statistics talk about 500,000 people, which is ten per cent of the population. In addition, there are prognoses according to which the birth rate among the Romani population is so high that in 50 years they will no longer be a minority in Slovakia, but a majority. How do you see the situation?

PROF. ALEXANDER MUŠINKA: As you can see, all too often words such as “unofficially”, “probably”, or “possibly” accompany such reports. A serious discussion will not begin if one cannot grasp the essence of the issue. What we call “official data” is the data issued by the Statistical Department on the basis of a census which clearly showed that there are 100,000 inhabitants in Slovakia who define their national identity as Romani. At the same time the “unofficial” data is based on different sources of information, other research, other methodology and to be specific, they tell us how many people the Slovak majority sees as belonging to the Romani minority. And here indeed the data differs fundamentally, as around 400,000 people, which is around seven and a half per cent of the population, is seen as belonging to the Romani population, even though those people identify themselves as Slovaks. Therefore, calling one set of data “official” and the other “unofficial” is unfortunate, as they both have empirical character, but they are based on different methodologies.

Let us be more precise, does this “unofficial” 300,000 Roma live in ghetto-like communities beyond state control, with no documents, no registration and only 100,000 have been registered by the state?

Of course not. All Romani people living in Slovakia have identity cards, passports, insurance etc., the difference is in the numbers of citizens who consider themselves as Romani and the number of people who see them as having Romani nationality.

And what about demography?

Here the data is more straightforward and clearly indicates a higher birth rate among Romani than Slovaks, however, this higher rate is partially balanced by a high death rate and therefore this weakens the relevance of this statistic. The number of children in Roma families is significantly decreasing – research on Roma demography over the past hundred years suggest that its dynamics does not differ from Slovaks’ demography and that it is only moved in time by about 20 years. Simply put, birth rates do not depend on nationality, but on the socio-political conditions in which a certain community lives. The higher the degree of the development of civilisation in which a group lives, the lower the birth rate. If we look at birth rate statistics of Slovaks, let’s say around 1980, we will see that they are very similar to those we currently see among the Roma. At the same time if we look at Romani families who live in fully integrated communities and not in closed ghettoes, and there are plenty of them, we will see that the birth rate is the same as in the case of the Slovak middle class. Therefore, scaring people that Slovakia with will be “flooded” by Roma is pure populism – their population is likely to grow for some time, but will then stabilise.

If you allow me, I would like to divert from the topic and for a moment change the perspective, to take a closer look at the sources of the issue we are discussing. How did it happen that such a large Romani minority came to and settled in Slovakia?

The first references to Roma people in the territory of today’s Slovakia come from the 14th century, but the majority of them settled here in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the expansion of Turks from the south forced Hungarians to move up north. And with Hungarians came Roma people, mainly as a free labour force for hire.

It should be highlighted that already in the 17th century the majority of Roma led a settled lifestyle – only a handful of the population led truly nomadic lives and through their prism the rest of  Roma people were perceived. Nomadism was banned in 1953 on the basis of a specially prepared law, but at the time the number of Roma nomads did not exceed five per cent of the entire Romani population.

Generally speaking, while discussing the history of Roma we have to remember that in fact it is a huge terra incognita. While the history of western European states is so well-known that in order to find a new problem one would need precise tools, we could dig in the Roma history with a pitchfork and everything we will find will be something new and undiscovered. In Slovakia we have a problem even with establishing the date when certain villages and settlements were set up and when we try to receive more information from their inhabitants we usually find out that they have been always living there.

We keep on using the word “Roma” as if it was a closed and homogenic monolith. Is that the case?

The Roma are as diverse as other nations. In Slovakia 97 per cent belong to the “Rumungri” (Hungarian Roma) group, also referred to as Slovakian Roma or settled Roma, and the remaining three per cent constitute “Olach Roma”, meaning the immigrant population. The differences between them are visible at first glance, as the Olach Roma often have blond hair and light eyes. Apart from that they speak different dialects, so their mutual linguistic understanding is not as obvious and requires willingness, which is rare as they do not love each other to say the least. The Olach Roma, although they constitute a small group, are very specific and a lot of stereotypes about Roma people were shaped on the basis of the observation of this ethnic group. In addition, they inhabit different parts of Slovakia: the Rumungri live in the east and the Olachs in south-west. Therefore, in the development of various programmes and Roma support policies it is important to include the highest possible number of bottom-up initiatives which take into account different specificities of these communities, as the top-down schemes are often ineffective and in a large part a waste of funds.

In addition, apart from the ethnic divisions, the Roma are highly diverse when it comes to the level of development of individual villages and communities. The differences can be enormous – some of them need above all basic sanitary support while others require a more thought-out education system and support in entering the labour market.

The last issue you mentioned somehow diverted us from the ethnic to the social level. What is the internal structure of Roma communities?

It is quite a complicated and delicate issue. Many researchers claim that in Roma communities we can see elements  of the Indian caste system, although there is a lack of hard evidence for this and I am rather sceptical towards such a claim. According to this theory, ritual purity plays a huge role in these communities, which means that the members of one caste should not maintain too close relations with the representatives of the other castes. This is why there are still Roma communities which are seen by others as “unclean” or “dog eaters”, also referred to as degeša. Degeša is the most derogatory term one can imagine. At the same time, on the other side of the social axis there are Žužo – the “clean” Roma, the hosts constituting the Roma elite. Clearly, a member of a group seen as degeša cannot enter a family from a higher caste, but they also cannot share a meal with them, or use the same dishes or cutlery. Nevertheless, this caste system does not have an absolute character and usually finishes within one group, which means that someone who is seen as Žužo in one community does not enjoy the same status in the eyes of the members of another group. Besides, conducting field research one can easily find out that although mixed marriages are not theoretically allowed, in practice there are many examples of such families.

You just mentioned the term “dog-eater”, what is the case with eating dogs – is this another myth or not?

This is true. Roma people ate and still eat dogs, although today it is mainly the case among the lowest social classes and they are ashamed of this. If I ask directly whether they eat dogs, they would most probably deny, at the same time pointing at a neighbouring community as those who constantly do it. We can still buy a dog balm without any problems from Roma people, which according to their folk medicine is a universal panacea for a number of afflictions.

What about religion and religiosity of Roma people? What do statistics tell us and what does it really looks like?

First, it has to be unequivocally stated that Roma people are very religious. The confession itself is, in my opinion, a secondary issue, as Roma usually get baptised according to a ritual dominant in a given area. This is why in Slovakia there are Catholic, Orthodox, Greek Catholic, but also Pentecostal Romani, a group which recently has grown in numbers. Generally speaking, Roma are attracted by active, visible and expressive initiatives which give the opportunity to become an active part of a community. It is worth highlighting that well-organised missions of any confession have very good influence on the development of villages in which they operate, contribute to the elimination of pathological factors and the increase in social activity. I do not mean here, of course, some sophisticated theological considerations, but rather a way to organise time, show a different perspective, and to give specific tasks. That is why some time ago there were big hopes attached to the role of churches in the process of Roma integration – the opportunity was great, but unfortunately it has been largely wasted. Here, again, we can see how accurate the old Roma saying is: “”A gadjo (a non-Romani) has a gypsy he deserves” – it is a very flexible community and a lot depends on the conditions and opportunities we create for them.

You explained the ethnic, social and cultural differences among the Roma. Let us now look at the roles Roma people assign to both genders, especially as it is a highly controversial issue. Let’s start with education, is it true that Roma do not allow women to go to school?

Nowadays – it is definitely not true. This was indeed the case during the interwar period, but since the 1950s and 1960s we have a new and different generation, which has a largely equal attitude to men and women. Again, I shall repeat that one can find impoverished, conservative communities, which still favour boys, but these are rare. We should not look at the Roma people as a completely separate, isolated world – in a number of European countries, despite the increasing female emancipation, we can still notice significant differentiation between, for instance, the cities and the countryside. The same emancipation process we can observe among the Roma people, and similarly, its effectiveness varies in different parts of the country, in different settlements and among different social strata. Moreover, in Romani communities the importance of women has always increased with age and mature women often were (and still are) highly respected and cared for. For all that, the Roma generally respect older people and women in particular.

Older women are respected, but the young ones, 13-14 years old are married off without being asked for consent…

Indeed, it does happen, especially among the Olachs, but increasingly rarely. What is common is a tendency to protect young girls from premature marriage and maternity. There are many young, 17 to18 year old mothers, but almost none are 14 to15 years old. At the same time it has to be noted that Roma, contrary to the popular opinions, have a more conservative attitude to social issues than the majority of the society. For the moment they have more children, but usually in legalised relationships and with one partner. Moreover, family and marital fidelity are important to them.

But prostitution is not unknown to Roma women?

Of course it is not, in the same way as it is not alien to any other ethnic group or nationality. In Czechoslovakia after 1989 we had a significant problem with prostitution in general, and one could have met a number of Romani girls at the infamous E 55 road, but it was a wider problem and narrowing it down to the Roma community would be a falsification of reality.

In relation to the falsification of reality, can you please explain the issue of sterilisation of Roma women in Slovakia?

Again, it is impossible to provide an unambiguous answer. It is true that in Czechoslovakia before 1989 sterilisation was almost legalised, there were a number of regulations which explicitly stated when it was allowed and when it was not. When it comes to Romani people, there was a programme within a framework of which Roma women were encouraged to go through sterilisation, and were sometimes offered financial rewards. There is a lack of evidence to claim that it was the state which forced women to go through sterilisation. I am personally very sceptical towards such accusations which resurface from time to time, and this is also because sterilisation is not a simple process, it is a complicated operation which cannot be conducted on a mass scale in silence, in field conditions.

A slightly different issue is the sterilisation of women in hospitals after they gave birth to a child through Caesarean, or in case of other operations. First, we cannot rule out an option that women were given a written sterilisation permission to sign without having been informed what exactly it is they were signing. Second, it is often difficult to prove that an operation was conducted in order to make a woman infertile and not because of other health issues or complications. Finally, it is highly possible that there were instances of women asking for such a surgery, as, for instance, they already had a couple of children. But they would never admit making such a decision. However, the last option I have described does not refer to Roma people exclusively, but can apply to women in many different communities. I have no doubt that during communist times there were a number of systemic pathologies, also in healthcare. No one spoke about patients’ rights at the time and no one dared to oppose the often cruel decisions of doctors. The state did not create mechanisms allowing for the efficient protection of patients from similar pathologies.

In fact, the whole sterilisation discussion in Slovakia was initiated by non-governmental organisations from Košice, which published an allegedly scientific report on this topic. I say “allegedly” because I did have a closer look at the methodology of the research and I can say that it cannot be treated as scientific. These were only actions aiming at proving an earlier assumedhypothesis, highly popular in the media. It did not bring any specific knowledge, no hard data, thanks to which we could say that some truth was revealed. This is, to put it shortly, an example of a harmful action on the part of NGOs.1 2

Nevertheless, in Slovakia today there are still a number of extreme right politicians calling for the introduction of forced sterilisation.

Unfortunately, this is true. Especially before elections many ideas like that come up, however, it is all political grandstanding and let’s hope that it will stay as such.

An assertion that Roma people claim huge funds from Slovakia’s budget is a very popular pre-election slogan, but on the other side we have opinions which say that Slovakia makes money on Romani population through the European funds. Who is right?

Of course we make money on Roma and in fact these sums are not low. If we stopped paying Roma people any money from the budget, we would save no more than point five per cent of our expenditure. So if we look at the issue from a purely statistical point of view, we will notice that seven point five per cent of citizens, as this is the amount of Romani people in Slovakia, claims point five per cent of expenses, including all the benefits, allowances, pensions, etc. Only in the case of social benefits we see that Roma indeed constitute twenty to twenty-five per cent of claimants, but at the same time social support is one of the least costly elements in the budget. If we look at the most burdensome parts of the expenditure, such as pensions, we see that here Roma people claim less than  point five per cent of our  expenses. Why? The answer is simple, Roma people live on average seven to fourteen years shorter than Slovaks. They often do not live long enough to start claiming pensions.

At the same time, Slovakia trying to secure EU funds, often claims in its plans that a given project will also benefit Romani people. This is why whenever we build roads, bridges, railways and schools we always write that it aims to improve the situation of Romani people. It proves effective, as for such investments a country receives additional points and additional resources. Of course this is a huge simplification, as we all know how complicated the process of claiming funds is, but it shows a certain tendency, or a specifically Slovakian practice to use the Roma people to ensure that the country receives more funds. However, this unfortunately does not translate into the improvement of the situation of Romani communities.

But there are also examples of positive state practices – I mean above all the “Strategy of the Slovak Republic for Integration of Roma up to 2020.”

We tried to elaborate a strategy in a way which would enable a real social integration. Romani people are the purpose of our work and if we manage to introduce the measures, it will be to the benefit of the whole country. For the moment we have a really hard task ahead of us and we will talk about the results in a few years.

I should wish you all the best, for a gadjo has a Gypsy he deserves.

Alexander Mušinka is a cultural anthropologist, professor at the University of Prešov. Co-author of “Strategy of the Slovak Republic for Integration of Roma up to 2020” and  “Atlas of the Roma community”. While conducting his research, he lived in Roma settlements for over five years.

Daniel Wańczyk is a PhD student at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków. In his research, he focuses on Russian identity.

*All images courtesy of Daniel Wańczyk.

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