The Open Society Institute, a pro-democracy body founded by the Hungarian-born U.S. philanthropist George Soros, has issued a report critical of minority rights in most EU-candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The report says that, even though progress is being made, minority groups remain in general vulnerable to prejudice.
Prague, 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Minority groups in Central and Eastern Europe remain vulnerable to "debilitating marginalization and prejudice," according to a report issued today by the Budapest-based Open Society Institute (OSI).
The 550-page report covers the situation of minorities in all 10 countries in the region that are candidates for membership in the European Union (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). The report says that much of the trouble stems from the candidate states' inability to develop "meaningful mechanisms" to combat discrimination and promote minority rights.
It praises the EU executive commission's policy of highlighting respect for minorities as part of the accession process. But it says that's not enough. The OSI calls on the EU to do more to clarify the standards it expects candidates to reach and to improve the performance of its own member states.
The OSI says that more than any other minority group, Roma face pressing problems of exclusion from the societies in which they live. It cites discrimination in access to education, jobs and health care; in addition Romany culture, history, and language are neglected or denigrated.
The director of the OSI program, Rachel Guglielmo, says the overall position of the Roma, or gypsies, is a difficult one: "The situation of Roma across the eight countries in which we examined Roma is quite serious, and much, much needs to be done in that area."
Worry is expressed also for Russian-speaking minorities in two of the Baltic states. Guglielmo says: "In Estonia and Latvia, the two states where we examined the situation of a minority other than the Roma, it is the situation with the Russian-speakers that occasioned the most concern. In that area too there is still a lot of room for improvement."
The report says that the main problem facing those minorities is what it describes as a "denial of their right to be different and to maintain a different identity." It points to restrictions on the use of their language which, when coupled with citizenship and job requirements, tend to exclude them from mainstream society.
The OSI report deals with each individual candidate country in turn, starting with:
The report says that Bulgarian minority groups are offered minimal protection of their cultural, religious, and linguistic identity. In addition, state recognition of the very existence of minority groups is uncertain. Legislation on minority rights is inadequate and not properly enforced, and there is widespread and persistent discrimination against Roma. It says the government's response to the problem has been "equivocal at best."
The Czech government has acknowledged the existence of discrimination against Roma, the report says, but official policy has yet to achieve any notable impact on those conditions -- which include fear of physical attack. In addition the presence of clear political will to bring about real change is "unproven." The OSI report commends the authorities for its antidiscrimination initiatives, including the placement of Romany advisers and assistants in the civil service and schools, making Roma more visible in public service. The trouble is, there are few indications that conditions on the ground are improving for the 200,000 or more Czech gypsies.
In recent years, says the report, the Estonian government has responded to constructive pressure from the EU and elsewhere by adopting measures to integrate the Russian-speaking minority. But despite the progress made, the report says that the "legacy of restricted access to citizenship" continues to limit the rights and opportunities of many Russian-speakers. It says that about half of the country's Russian-speakers remain without citizenship, and Estonia has restricted "numerous entitlements" and protective mechanisms to citizens only. Among other things, says the OSI, Estonia needs a legal framework for protection from racial discrimination.
Hungarian Roma are subject to what the report calls "persistent and debilitating" patterns of racial discrimination, including violence. The recent decision by the French government to grant asylum to a group of Hungarian Roma illustrates dramatically that existing protections remain far from adequate. Hungary's 1993 minorities act promises 13 recognized minorities a considerable degree of cultural autonomy, as well as wide-ranging rights. Yet research indicates that the Roma, the biggest minority, continue to suffer widespread discrimination.
The OSI notes that Latvia has one of the highest proportions of minorities in Europe, with ethnic non-Latvians making up more than 40 percent of the population. Most of those ethnic non-Latvians are Russians. A citizenship law was passed in 1998, but Latvia still has about 550,000 stateless "non-citizens." It says lack of citizenship for many ethnic non-Latvians has led to them being under-represented at municipal and parliamentary levels. The OSI recommends to the Latvian government to encourage faster naturalization, widen voting rights at the municipal level, and develop an improved integration program.
Lithuania took what the report calls a "laudable" step last year by launching a program to integrate members of the country's small Roma community. But the program suffers from two drawbacks, says the OSI. Firstly, it was developed without consultation with Roma, thus fails to reflect Romany priorities. Secondly, it does not adequately address the existence of discrimination. The report says allegations of widespread discrimination are hard to substantiate, because no official data is kept.
Violence against Roma has continued in Poland, says the OSI report, which adds that violence is only the worst aspect of the broad discrimination which Roma suffer in Poland. Despite this, the question of minority rights does not seem to have taken a high place in the EU's negotiations with Warsaw. The report describes public recognition of racial discrimination as inadequate, and calls on the Polish government to establish -- among other things -- a national consultative body for Roma.
Roma have been particularly vulnerable to the acute economic deprivation that has affected Romania over the last decade, says the OSI. That has been made worse by long-established discrimination. Some leading public figures have voiced prejudice rather than countering it, sometimes suggesting that Roma are to blame for the country's slow pace toward EU membership. The EU commission has repeatedly drawn attention to difficulties facing the large Roma community. The report notes that in spring, the government finally adopted a long-term strategy for improving the lot of the Roma. Implementing the strategy will need sustained political will.
The Slovak government has taken a number of important steps to demonstrate its commitment to the protection of minority rights as part of the EU accession process. The OSI notes that Slovakia is now party to all major international rights instruments, and since 1998, the Slovak government has established a framework for realizing the rights outlined in those documents. It has also adopted a strategy designed to help Roma overcome prejudice. However, the strategy has been criticized for failing to address the big issues, like violence, de facto segregation, and over-representation of Romany children in schools for the mentally retarded. In addition, oversight mechanisms need to be strengthened, as do government efforts to mobilize public support for minority rights.
Slovenia is seen as having a generally positive record on the protection of minorities. Rights are guaranteed for the Hungarian and Italian minorities, but not guaranteed for some 7,000 Roma and other minority groups. In practice there is discrimination against the Roma, the report says. Only about 13 percent of them are employed. The government has started programs to help Roma, but with limited success so far.