Prague, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, hundreds of police battled with Roma in towns and villages in Slovakia after protests against welfare cuts devolved into rioting and looting.
Up to 400,000 Roma are estimated to live in Slovakia. Many live in staggering poverty in slums and makeshift settlements. Like Roma communities elsewhere, they are plagued by high illiteracy rates and numerous cases of communicable diseases like tuberculosis.
"Roma, first and foremost, have been the most discriminated minority in the accession countries."
Seventy percent or more of work-age Roma in Slovakia are unemployed and have become dependent on welfare payments. But plans by the Slovak government to halve the payments to just $50 a month for a family of four triggered last month's protests.
Dimitrina Petrovna heads the European Center for Roma Rights, based in Budapest. She says the violence was triggered by fear, and says the situation is likely to decline unless improvements are made.
"We just see hungry people who are afraid that their children will die and there will be absolutely no money tomorrow, and it's somehow an overflowing of anger," Petrovna said.
The Slovakia violence has raised questions about the future of Roma communities in many of the countries set to join the European Union in May.
There are at least 6 million Roma in Europe, the majority of whom are centered in the former communist countries of Central Europe. Slovakia has the biggest Roma population of the 10 new entrants but Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic also are home to large communities.
Most Roma leaders -- such as the chairman of the Hungarian National Romany Self-Administration group, Orban Kolompar -- said the events in Slovakia demonstrate that on the eve of EU enlargement, the problems of Romas in Central and East Europe remain unsolved.
Surveys show that in many Roma settlements throughout Europe, the entire work-age population is unemployed, while health and education levels are the lowest of any sector of the European population. Roma birth rates, meanwhile, are the highest in Europe.
Ladislav Fizik, a Slovakian Roma leader, says the situation facing most Roma has deteriorated to the lowest point since World War II.
The Roma, whose ancestors were based in the Indian subcontinent, began arriving in Europe in the 13th century. But they have always been viewed as outsiders, a view that has been heightened by their strict cultural traditions and their own isolationism. Even today, some Roma groups frown on contact with non-Roma.
Roma often were forced to find employment on the margins of society -- as metal workers, manual laborers, or entertainers. In Romania, which has Europe's largest Roma population with around 2 million people, the Roma were officially enslaved until 1864.
Petrovna says many Roma hope that EU enlargement will ease their plight by improving tolerance and economic conditions.
"If we ask what the Roma want, I think that they will be overwhelmingly aware that EU enlargement is something good for them," Petrovna said.
West European governments have been troubled by large numbers of Roma among the countries' asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, the deputy secretary-general of the Council of Europe, says the Roma issue has received more attention as a result.
"The issue of the Roma touches upon the core values of the Council of Europe, since it is no secret that the Roma population has been subject to discriminatory practice for a long, long time. And that affects the Roma population in the whole of Europe as to their basic rights -- namely, their rights to housing, access to health care, employment. These are crucial issues for which the Council of Europe disposes of a number of tools which it has developed particularly targeting this situation of the Roma people," de Boer-Buquicchio said.
De Boer-Buquicchio says that since 1994, the Council of Europe has been working with the regional bodies like the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the World Bank to improve Roma access to education and health care.
Efforts have also been made to stimulate employment for Roma as well as guarantee freedom of movement, enhance the role of women, and generally secure human rights -- both in Western Europe and in the accession countries.
De Boer-Buquicchio says progress is being made slowly, but that she hopes to see concrete change within a decade. Roma rights leader Petrovna says she already sees positive signs.
"The human rights situation [has changed]. Roma, first and foremost, have been the most discriminated minority in the accession countries. The human rights standards actually imposed by the European Union are such that, if observed, they have to lead to a better human rights situation. What does this mean? For example, in cases when racist violence has occurred, the perpetrators will be punished and the victims compensated. There will be justice," Petrovna said.
She said the European Court of Human Rights made a historic decision this month when it ruled that racial prejudice prompted a Bulgarian policeman to fatally shoot two Roma criminal suspects instead of apprehending them by other means.
But European institutions and Roma organizations agree that, ultimately, the key to improving the condition and position in society of Roma lies with Roma themselves. The second part of this report deals with how to achieve that.