Prague, 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Finland began (July 7) to require all visitors from Slovakia to have visas.
Helsinki announced the four-month suspension of visa free-travel just hours before it took effect. The move came in response to a growing wave of Slovak Roma (Gypsy) asylum seekers who have been pouring into Finland since March, particularly in the past several weeks. They now number over 1100.
Slovakias newly elected president, Rudolf Schuster, has welcomed the Finnish move. Schuster was in the Czech capital Prague on Wednesday on his first visit since taking office. He told a gathering of Czech government leaders, entrepreneurs, foreign diplomats and reporters that he has proposed to Czech President Vaclav Havel what he terms "a common conceptual proposal for resolving the Roma question in the Czech and Slovak republics".
Schuster says a common policy might improve Slovakias chances of acceptance by the EU after five years of authoritarian rule by former prime minister Vladimir Meciar. But Schuster said very little in public about what the policy would entail.
"The only solution is to concentrate on the young people, on [Roma] children when they go to school, but also on boarding school education. There is no other way of dealing with this problem."
Schuster denies the sudden exodus of Slovak Roma to Finland was spontaneous.
"It cannot have been by chance that all of sudden they organized themselves to go to one state in such large numbers."
Schuster says that despite a visit by Slovak Foreign Ministry state secretary Jan Figel to Helsinki on Monday in a bid to stave off the imposition of visa restrictions on Slovakia, the Finns "did not wait for days but rather just hours" before deciding to impose visas. He says Helsinki made the right decision, adding that "time will confirm how these Roma were organized, in what manner and why they were chosen."
Figel said after returning to Bratislava that the Finnish move is temporary and that other signatory states of the Schengen Agreement are not considering similar moves to require Slovak citizens to have visas. He says the exodus was in his words, "organized and had a speculative background".
Similarly, the deputy speaker of the Slovak parliament and head of the ethnic Hungarians in the ruling coalition, Bela Bugar, says he suspects "anti-state activities" are behind the whole operation in a bid to harm Slovakias chances of being belatedly invited to open membership talks with the EU. Moreover, he says the exodus is "an example of the total failure" of the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS).
The deputy chairwoman of Meciars HZDS, Olga Keltosova, says SIS failed because it was too busy "constructing accusations against representatives of the previous government". She says she fully expects the government to allege in her words, that "dark forces of the former coalition and the former secret police leadership are behind the Roma exodus".
The Slovak governments designated official for resolving the problems of the Roma minority, Vincent Danihel, visited Slovak Roma asylum seekers in Finland early this week. He says their uniform explanations for why they left bore striking similarities to comments by two MPs from Meciars opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia during a parliamentary debate on the Roma exodus on Tuesday. In Danihels words, "it is not possible that this occurred by chance".
The independent Bratislava daily Sme, quotes the head of passport control at Helsinki airport, Olli Kunnala, as saying many of the recent arrivals had previously unused passports issued six months ago with very similar identification numbers. He says the last batch of Slovak Roma to arrive was a group of 63 asylum seekers who flew in from Budapest Tuesday, seven hours before the visa requirement took effect.
Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities, Pal Csaky also suspects a plot. He notes that the cabinet on Wednesday discussed materials provided by the Interior Ministry concerning specific individuals and two Kosice travel agencies which participated in the departure of the Roma. He denies an economic motive for the Romas decision to go to Finland.
After Thursdays first meeting in Bratislava of the Coordination Committee for Resolving the Departure of Roma Abroad, Csaky announced that a group of Slovak civil servants will travel to Finland to meet with the asylum seekers. The Deputy Prime Minister says the Slovak government would be willing to provide them with new passports and charter flights home.
Csaky says the interior ministry is investigating the "Roma Intelligentsia for Common Identity" which appears to be behind the exodus and has defended it publicly. He accuses the groups chairman, Alexander Patkolo, of deceiving the news media and the public.
Patkolo told reporters on Wednesday Roma are leaving Slovakia due to what he alleged is the poor economic and political situation, which he says does not offer equal opportunity for all. He accused the government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda of failing to resolve the build-up of problems involving the Roma community. Patkolo demanded Csaky and Danihel be fired.
Csaky denies Patkolos claims.
"I think that never has so much attention been devoted to the Roma question as in the last eight-month period. I approached Roma leaders, held round table meetings. We are implementing a pilot program in the Spis region, we have put into effect a project costing 1.8 million euros".
This is by no means the first outflow of Slovak Roma. Two years ago, over 1,000 Slovak and Czech Roma applied for asylum in Canada before Canada re-imposed visas. In the autumn of 1997, Slovak and Czech Roma began applying for asylum in Great Britain. Britain responded by imposing visas for Slovak citizens. In March of last year, members of the Czech Roma Civic Initiative from Ostrava requested collective asylum in the U.S. for all Czech Roma. The U.S. State Department turned down their request.
During the Second World War, Czech Protectorate police collected Roma in several concentration camps, where they either died of disease or were shipped off to Nazi-run concentration camps where the overwhelming majority died. Meanwhile, Hungarian occupation forces in Romania transported large numbers of Roma from northern Transylvania to eastern Slovakia, mainly around Hungarian-occupied Kosice.
When the war ended Czechoslovak authorities granted citizenship to Roma on its territory. Many settled in formally ethnic Carpatho-German villages from which Czechoslovakia had expelled the inhabitants. Others were resettled in the Czech lands, particularly in Ostrava, Prague and the former Sudetenland. They were given jobs and attempts were made to educate, employ and assimilate them.
In the late 1950s, the communist authorities issued a ban on the Roma from wandering, forcing them to take the wheels off their caravans. The authorities repeatedly bulldozed Roma shantytowns, particularly in eastern Slovakia, to force Roma into modern housing blocks or into run-down apartment houses. Many housing blocks set aside for Roma were soon destroyed through misusefor example by keeping farm animals in apartments; tearing out bathtubs and sinks and other fixtures for resale; or else through vandalism.
Roma attempts to organize themselves politically during the events of 1968 were as short-lived as the Prague Spring. However, the post Warsaw-Pact invasion normalization period not only destroyed any hope of the Roma organizing themselves, but resulted indirectly in the large-scale collapse of Roma values. In a bid to boost the lagging birthrate, Czechoslovakias communist rulers offered monthly benefits for every child in the country from birth until the age of 18.
The policy backfired, igniting a population explosion among the Roma. Alcoholism, poverty and ignorance resulted in increasing numbers of Roma children suffering from learning disabilities and/or falling into juvenile delinquency. In Kosice, the authorities in the final years of Communist rule responded by visiting Roma families and recommending or even requiring sterilization of mothers unable to adequately care for their children.
Slovak President Schuster was mayor of Kosice in the mid-1980s, then ran the East Slovak region as a member of the Slovak Communist Party Central Committee until 1989. He served as Kosices mayor again from 1994 until his election as president in May. He notes that the city built 500 apartments at the Lunik-9 development in Kosice in the 1980s, half for Roma families and half for non-Roma. He says all the non-Roma have left.
"We even had to move out the orderly Roma families and what remains is what the EU terms a ghetto. But what sort of ghetto is it if they all received the same flats, none of them paid their rents and they all destroyed their flats. This has nothing to do with democracy."
Schuster says he has discussed the issue with EU representatives on numerous occasions. But he says they could only start to understand the issue if they were to spend an extended amount of time in the area.
In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, an increasingly disproportionate share of Roma were evident in various categories of crime, including prostitution and petty theft. The absence of local historical roots among the overwhelming majority of Czech Roma and albeit to a lesser extent among Slovak Roma has created a dispossessed, alienated, increasingly urban population only partially assimilated into the mainstream of society. Until recently, those who have assimilated generally maintained no contact with ghetto and shantytown Roma, who in turn have no role models to emulate.
In the nearly ten years since the collapse of Communist rule, numerous Roma organizations at the local and national level have sprouted. But Roma have become the frequent targets of wanton acts of violence and even murder, largely by skinheads. Observers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia often argue that the general white public in both countries is racist in its attitude toward Roma, convinced that virtually all Roma are criminally inclined and mentally impaired.