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    Copyright: The following text is for personal information only. Any professional use or publication in written or electronic form is subject to an agreement with AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    SUN, 19 SEP 1999 23:07:46 GMT

    Romanies in Focus

    Thanks to scandals because of "resolving the Romany issue", in the past few days in Slovenia, interest for other ethnic groups living on its territory is growing.

    AIM Ljubljana, 12 September, 1999

    A special conference has just been completed in Trebnje municipality devoted to resolving the problems of the Romanies; the choice of the site for the gathering - the region of Dolenjska in the south of Slovenia at the border with Croatia - was quite appropriate since that is where the largest number of Romanies live. The problems are more than well known - majority of Romanies live in bad conditions, in cabins, without even the basic hygienic installations and in permanent conflict with their neighbours. Only Romanies who live in Prekmurje (along the border with Hungary) have somewhat better conditions of living and are in traditionally good relations with the local Slovenian population.

    Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that state institutions are not at all concerned about the difficulties the Romanies are faced with; only last year, 57 Romanies attended elementary school for adults in Trebnje. The state also supported foundation of the society of Romanies Mavrica (Rainbow) and it finances public works which are an opportunity for the Romanies to get jobs. However, this is just the tip of an iceberg, bercause the largest part of the problem remains almost unsolvable; example number one - as majority of the Romanies drive unregistered vehicles and do it without a driver's licence, the police often stops and fines them. There are forty perpetrators from Hudeja who have not paid fines and are now threatened with jail... This does not lessen the share of responsibility of the state for the bad position of the Romany community. It is true, for instance, that the municipality has given plots to the Romanies with public utility connections, but the clutch in it is that the whole procedure cannot be completed because denationalisation is proceeding very slowly. The municipal plots (those given to the Romanies) have their owners who this land was taken away from after the Second World War and who are nowadays living scattered around the world and who the municipality has to draw up and sign valid sales contracts with.

    Xenophobia of the local population is no lesser problem. Example number two - a Romany family bought a house in the outskirts of Mirna, but their wish for peaceful and normal life met with strong resistance of their not fated neighbours. Similar reactions of the natives (Slovenes) are nothing new, but especially not in Dolenjska; everything started there a few years ago with a conflict between the local community of the Romanies and the citizens of Grosuplje. Even commentators of national television station started comparing the incident with "racial unrest". This is not at all an exaggeration because there have been a few articles in the local newspapers with utterly racist vocabulary aimed against the Romanies.

    The situation was strained to the point of bursting when Grosuplje municiality decided to legalise and expand the illegal Romany settlement by moving them to a new location with an idyllic name - the Oasis. The Romanies who are now living next to the local rubbish dump should also move to the Oasis, because Slovene inhabitants of the surrounding villages threatened that they would block the dump if the municipality failed to evict the unwanted Romany neighbours. That is why Drnovsek's government authorised expansion of the settlement and gave about 70 thousand German marks to Grosuplje municipality for arranging the plots. Besides, the government prepared additional funds for construction of about 30 prefabricated houses, each of which would cost between 25 and 30 thousand German marks. The whole operation was brought into question when the news about moving in of the Romany families leaked among the local inhabitants. After the initial embittered protests, the inhabitants started concrete action: they blocked the road to the future settlement of the Romanies and organised real demonstrations. According to the messages on the placards, it could be made out that the natives "demand the same rights as the Gypsies", that the government in Ljubljana "readily takes away from them and gives to the Gypsies" and similar.

    The Romanies were thus caught in the middle: their old neighbours, Slovenes, were sending them away from their old abodes, and the new neighbours had no intention whatsoever to let them settle down near their homes. They were truly in a blind alley. They were abused and insulted. The natives threatened that they would take the law in their own hands and if necessary send the intruders (Romanies) away by setting their homes on fire. As a reason for their horror and refusal to have Romanies as their neighbours they stated that "Gypsies" were generally, idle and bullies, and that they drove wildly down village roads in cars without licence plates and polluted the environment with the stench of tyres set on fire...

    To accusations of lack of environmental awareness, the Romanies answered that it was their only possible source of living: to live off resale of secondary raw materials and similar jobs which are beneath the dignity of the Slovene majority. In the end, the natives had only one argument left to explain their anger: they found the reason in the fact that the government had approved of construction of the Oasis on top quality arable land. Despite the opposition of the mayor of Grosuplje who is still in favour of legalisation of Oasis settlement, the municipal council took into account the will of the citizens and refused to ratify the change in the town plan. The conflict was finally left to the responsible ministers of Drnovsek's government to solve.

    The essence of the controversy is, of course, in Slovenian legislature. Although the state is trying to minimise the impression of discrimination, the fact remains that only the Romanies - of all the "minorities" recognised by Slovenian constitution along with the Italians and the Hungarians - have no legal "foundation" of their rights and obligations. It is true that the Slovenian constitution defines the Romanies as an ethnic minority and says that their rights will be precisely "regulated by law". But this law, it is not hard to guess, has never been passed.

    And while the public is amused by bitter disputes of the conflicting parties, developments around the Slovenian approach to "resolving the Romany problem" makes an embarassing impression, if not on the domestic, it certainly does that on foreign observers. It turned out that the conflict between the Slovene and the Romany community escalated on several occasions during visits of high foreign officials to Ljubljana, when the media are usually in a delirium of self-praise concerning the level of protection of human rights in Slovenia. The analysts did not miss the fact that because of the Romanies, secretary general of the Council of Europe, after many cordial words addressed to his hosts, expressed hope that Slovenia would soon ratify the convention on protection of minorities. This convention imposes to the signatory states quite strict obligations which cannot be interpreted according to prejudices and criteria of citizens of every hamlet.

    Igor Mekina

    (AIM Ljubljana)