When Ivan Hriczko strode casually into the Twelve Apostles, a fashionable restaurant in this steel city, diners idled their forks and turned their heads.
"They either recognize me from television or recognize that I am a Roma," Hriczko said. "Of course, if I was just the latter, I wouldn't be let in here."
Hriczko, a prominent television journalist, is a member of Europe's largest minority, the Roma, an impoverished and outcast population also known as Gypsies. For decades, Roma were passive in the face of hostility. But in Slovakia, times are changing. The country's recent entry into the European Union, adoption of higher human rights standards and economic progress have ignited among Roma a revolution of rising expectations.
"For the first time, we are standing up and asking questions. Why do Roma live as they do? We must find the answer. The time for diplomatic silence is over," said Hriczko, 24, who quickly made a name for himself as Slovakia's first Roma television news personality.
Pressure from the European Union, which Slovakia joined in May, to resolve ethnic inequalities has provided a new context for Roma demands. Slovakia passed anti-discrimination laws that month as part of its alignment with E.U. human rights standards, though the government is still debating whether anti-discrimination is compatible with affirmative action. Roma leaders are pushing for "positive discrimination," as it is called here, to reverse a legacy of exclusion. Opponents contend such favoritism is unconstitutional.
In February, Roma rioted when government budget cutbacks reduced welfare benefits. Mobs looted stores and police clashed with demonstrators. At the same time, Roma with access to education and jobs began to work against the notion that state spending alone could solve Roma poverty. A broader assault against the discrimination that condemned all Roma to second-class status was needed, they argued.
Roma are estimated to number between 350,000 to 600,000 of Slovakia's 5.4 million people, the largest percentage of any European country. Across Europe, Roma number about 10 million, with large concentrations in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Spain. A series of migrations brought them to Europe from northern India in the 15th century, and their presence in the West has been characterized by persecution. In the last century, the Nazis killed as many as a half-million Roma across Europe in what Roma remember as "the devouring."
Separate From Society
Roma have long been identified with crime and squalor, and encampments of wattle-and-scrap-metal shacks. Recent studies estimate that life expectancy among Roma in Eastern Europe is 12 or 13 years less than non-Roma. A survey indicated that less than 1 percent of Roma in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania have college educations. Roma attend high school at a much lower rate than the population at large.
Among the most cruel forms of discrimination against Roma has been the placement of their children in schools for the disabled. In some towns, where Roma are a small minority, their children make up 90 percent of the enrollment in what are called special schools. In the special school in Vranov, a town east of Kosice, half of the 130 students are Roma. Roma make up 20 percent of the town's population.
During a recent school day, Stefan Kalias, a Roma teacher, showed a visitor a 9-year-old girl he said had been unfairly assigned to the school. Asked to read a story, the girl recited haltingly but clearly from her textbook, finishing with a triumphant smile. "You see," Kalias murmured. "She shouldn't be here. She's slow but should be in a regular school."
The school principal, Renata Kopcekova, defended the placement of the children. "They are here because they have particular learning problems or behavior problems. A child that does not belong is not sent here," she said in an interview. "I don't have an explanation for the high percentage. It is not possible to generalize."
Kalias answered: "This is a way that Roma are being kept separate from society. . . . Once children get into this school, it is hard to get out."
Kalias lives in a small, neat white masonry house in a Roma suburb, a cluttered appendage on the outskirts of Vranov. A few sturdy houses like his are mixed with mud-and-brick huts as well as faceless apartment buildings constructed during communist rule. While some men trudged home from jobs in Vranov, many others sat idly on doorsteps. Barefoot children waded in mud puddles.
The white houses belonged to families with steady incomes, especially those who have earned money abroad. The apartment blocks contained mostly families living on welfare. Water had been cut off to them for failure to pay bills. Instead, the residents pulled water from a single well. Beyond these apartments, mud-and-wattle shacks stood chockablock on dirt lanes. They took electric power from a house whose owner was linked to the municipal grid. They paid him for the service.
In Slovakia, Roma unemployment varies from region to region. In the more prosperous west, near the capital, Bratislava, it is as low as 15 percent in some places. In the east, it is higher than 40 percent in some areas, according to a World Bank study.
"We are not going to be silent. We cannot be shoveled aside. Slovakia is going forward, and we are going backward, and we cannot accept that," Kalias said. "We are only now realizing that times have changed forever. There will be no more guaranteed jobs like in communist times. We will have to make it on our own. We also have to take advantage of the chance to speak out."
Kalias, a father of two, added: "You might ask why don't I leave, since I could sell my house and move somewhere else. The truth is, I feel more comfortable here than among the whites. And it's not so bad. I can show you much worse."
He took a visitor to a neighborhood nearby that had no paved streets. The houses -- all shacks -- had just been flooded by a nearby stream. None had running water. Residents relied on wood for heat and cooking.
They said they survived by collecting welfare payments, selling scrap metal, harvesting mushrooms or stealing apples from a nearby orchard and selling the fruit on the street.
They complained mostly about the lack of utilities. "So we don't have jobs, but do we have to live like animals?" said Josef Tancos, who lives with his wife, his four children and his mother. "Government officials come here at election time, and then we never hear from them. Unless some Roma is caught stealing. Then everybody shouts."
Not all Roma neighborhoods lack government attention. There are numerous municipal programs in Slovakia to create infrastructure in Roma slums. Many of them are funded by the E.U. In 1999, the government also outlined plans to improve Roma settlements, education and health problems. By all accounts, the programs are underfunded.
In the town of Huncovce, northwest of Vranov, Mayor Jusef Majercak initiated a project to pave streets and install sewer and water lines in a small satellite Roma neighborhood that lies, literally, on the other side of the tracks.
He spoke to a reporter in the presence of a Roma assistant in charge of an "activation program," a government- and E.U.-funded project to provide Roma with part-time jobs to clean streets and parks and clear gutters. "When we started this program, some of the Roma didn't know how to handle a broom," the mayor said. "For centuries, Roma have been working the land with their hands, not machines. We're in the machine age now."
His assistant, Julius Karol, agreed: "It is true. Romas would rather throw garbage out the window than pick it up and throw it away."
Some Roma sympathize with the majority view that Roma are unqualified for most jobs but say that should not be an excuse for denying opportunities to all Roma.
Hriczko, the TV journalist, attended a program for aspiring journalists when he was in high school. He was the only graduate to get a job. A private station put him on as "the voice of the Roma," he said. He left to start a Roma news service and then was hired by state television. This time, he insisted on doing non-Roma as well as Roma news stories.
"I grew up with non-Roma society," he said. "I have white teeth and a job. I dress up, so I am accepted.
"You see, educated Roma are the invisible minority within the minority," he said. "Everyone talks about the poor in the settlements, and this is a problem. But solving that problem will not solve all our problems. We must end discrimination for everyone."
Hriczko expresses impatience with Roma ethnic politics and rejects formation of a purely Roma party on the grounds that the community's vote, even if united, would not be large enough to win representation in parliament. Instead, he lobbies the government on discrimination and presses parties to include Roma among candidates for parliament.
"Mostly we have to shatter stereotypes. We need Roma in offices, in factories, in politics, on TV," he said. "It is not only the Roma who need this. All Slovakia needs this."