Across a New Europe, a People Deemed Unfit for ToleranceNo Room For Gypsies
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Apl 02, 2000
PAVLOVCE NAD UHOM, Slovakia -- On the night of Feb. 7, Tibor Tancos and Vlasta Tancosova were walking along the edge of the street with their 12-year-old son, Tomas, when a drunk in a blue-green Honda ran them down with his car. Tomas survived, but his parents died.
Stereotypes of Roma, or Gypsies, hark back to prewar impressions.The police in this northeast corner of Slovakia aren't so efficient in the best of times, but in post-Communist Slovakia, open discrimination against the Roma, or Gypsies, is the norm. Rather than arresting the suspect, a well-known Slovak business-mafia type, the police have instead threatened family members and have beaten some of them, the family says. The grandfather in the household, also named Tibor Tancos, has complained but expects no justice. "Nothing will come of it," he said. "We have no rights here, we Roma."
The Roma are Europe's stateless people, at least eight million of them scattered and mostly reviled throughout central and eastern Europe. While half a million Roma died in the Holocaust, which the Roma call "the devouring," they remain the one people in the modern, democratic, post-Communist Europe whom it is largely acceptable to persecute.
Europe talks much of common aspirations and a continental identity. But the 1990's made clear that Europe's most virulent problem remains prejudice toward minorities and their exclusion from a full range of democratic rights.
The Yugoslav civil wars focused attention on the dangers of a militant nationalism, but in a misleading way. When most of Europe goes to war with a small corner of the continent to defend the rights of an oppressed people in Kosovo, it can seem as if Europeans have learned the lesson of tolerance and are simply disciplining an outmoded recalcitrant, Slobodan Milosevic.
But the worsening plight of the Roma and the increasing intolerance in central and eastern Europe after 1989 are bracing antidotes to smugness about the post-Communist spread of shared values.
The Roma have been despised for centuries as alien, thieving subhumans (or as singing-and-dancing cartoons out of "Carmen") with no allegiance to their countries or the law. Their culture and habits combine with discrimination to produce a cycle of poverty, poor schooling, bad health care and unemployment that are a function of prejudice but also feed it, contributing to crime rates, isolation and suspicion of outsiders.
But the new Europe -- west or east -- shows little interest in breaking the cycle of isolation and prejudice. There is no offer of inclusion in society, or even, as here in Slovakia, much protection from racial discrimination and violence, whether from neo-fascist skinheads or the police.
The treatment of the Roma -- including a denial of asylum in countries like Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden -- raises serious questions about the basic principles of postwar Europe that the European Union says it holds dear. Even in NATO-occupied Kosovo, some 100,000 of the 125,000 Roma have fled or been forced to flee by the victorious ethnic Albanians, who say the Roma collaborated with the Serbs.
The Czech president, Vaclav Havel, once noted, "The Gypsies are a litmus test, not of democracy but of civil society." If so, the post-Communist world is failing the test.
Today, nearly 10 percent of Slovakia's five million people are Roma, yet they are largely excluded from the mainstream of normal life. According to a newspaper poll, 60 percent of Slovaks favor their segregation.
Behavior associated with poverty often reinforces prejudices against the Roma.Slovakia and Romania are particularly vile to this minority, which represents about 8 percent of Romania's population. But Hungary and the Czech Republic discriminate widely too, especially in education and employment. According to another newspaper poll published last year, some 39 percent of Czechs still say that "only force is effective" in dealing with the Gypsies, while 15 percent say that the skinheads do a good job keeping them in line.
Roma say almost unanimously that their lives and circumstances are much worse now than under Communism, when discrimination was at least limited by ideology. The end of the Communist pledge of full employment -- no matter how artificial the work in a world where it was illegal to be jobless -- has meant widespread and sometimes total unemployment throughout central and eastern Europe for Roma, who are the first to be fired in post-Communist "restructurings" and who are rarely hired again for anything.
"Life is much worse for Roma than it was in 1989," said Claude Cahn of the European Roma Rights Center, an independent foundation based in Budapest. He cites official Slovak statistics showing that 80 percent of Roma children attended kindergarten in 1989-90, while only 15 percent do today.
Over half of Roma children in Slovakia are in "special schools" intended for the mentally handicapped. In the Czech Republic, a Roma child is 15 times more likely to be labeled retarded than a non-Roma child.
Vincent Danihel, the Slovak government's representative for the Roma, said estimates for Roma unemployment today are "between 90 and 100 percent," which he admits stems as much from "intolerance, ignorance and xenophobia" as from any lack of skill or education.
Communism had its horrors for Roma, too: In preaching assimilation, it repressed Roma language and culture, paid women to be sterilized as a method of birth control and often took Roma children from their parents to raise them in orphanages, said Miroslav Lacko, a Roma activist in Slovakia. Even today, in Romania's wretched orphanages, nearly 75 percent of the children are Roma.
Today, the economic hopelessness and a widespread tolerance for skinhead and police violence against the Roma have prompted a large exodus, at first to Canada, that began about 1997.
Ondrej Gina, head of the Roma Cultural Union in the Czech Republic, said about 20 percent of the Czech Roma have left, and many thousands have left or tried to leave Slovakia, Romania and Hungary.
But the numbers have overwhelmed international goodwill, and Western countries have responded with new visa requirements, deportations and the tightening of immigration and asylum regulations. In a report about to be released, Amnesty International says British officials are making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach Britain, are making conditions for Roma unpleasant while they await judgment there and are "almost automatically" rejecting their appeals as driven only by poverty rather than persecution.
"The Roma have no reason to stay where they live," Mr. Cahn said. "They are excluded from employment. Their housing is appalling. They are hated. Their schooling will get them nowhere. They are not components of the societies in which they exist. But Western Europe deports them back. They are what the Nazis called luftmenschen, people of the air, and it's hard to know on what they live."
All European societies regard the darker-skinned Roma as alien and not a component of the majority population, which tends to be monoethnic, Mr. Cahn said. Still, the desire of countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland to join the European Union has brought new pressure to improve the lives and treatment of Roma at home -- so they will stay there. But in general, Roma-directed programs are vague and badly financed.
The tone of Slovakia's new government is far better than that of its nationalist predecessor, whose prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, called Roma "mental retards." But after 18 months, Mr. Denihel still speaks of plans and studies and strategies and approaches. "It's all talk and nothing happens," say the parents of the dead couple, Tibor and Vlasta Tancos.
Tibor's father said his whole family used to work, but now no one has a job. Skinheads force the Roma to stay in their houses at night; restaurants and bars often do not let them enter. When he complained to the police again, he said: "One officer said: 'It wasn't a government minister who was killed.' So what does that mean, that a dog or a cat was killed? Aren't we human?"
Vlasta's father, Anton Demeter, said: "You can't get justice here. Everybody complained about the Communists. But under the Communists, the murderer wouldn't be sitting at home right now, while my daughter is in her grave. And now we have democracy, and it's all supposed to be better. And they're surprised that Roma go abroad? And the Slovaks want to go to Europe like this? This isn't democracy."