Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Department of Economic Conflict Disguised as Ethnic Strife

Roma Protests in Slovakia: The First Installment

A report by the Czech News Agency (CTK), dated Feb. 20 and datelined Kosice, appeared in the daily Lidove noviny under the headline "Lower Benefits Drive Roma to Loot":

After the government's decision to pay lower welfare benefits beginning next month, instances of looting occurred in eastern Slovakia. Dozens of Roma today raided shops in the border town of Cierna nad Tisou. The first case of looting was recorded a week ago in Levoca.

According to the spokeswoman of the regional police headquarters in Kosice, Jana Demjanovicova, a group of about 40 to 50 Roma, including children, broke into a Jednota a Rokoko grocery store today before noon, and stole items worth approximately 50,000 Slovak crowns [about $1,560]. In the process, the crowd injured two saleswomen who had tried to prevent the looting.

According to the police spokeswoman, the Roma population is affected the most by the lowering of welfare benefits. In some Roma communities in eastern Slovakia, 100 percent unemployment is not unusual, so the only source of income for people here is support from the state.

While in the past they received 4,000 crowns a month and up, from March of this year the state, under a new law, will pay only a little more than 2,000; they can earn another 1,000 crowns by performing public works for the town or municipality.

Ministry: Usurers Behind Looting

Workers in the offices of labor and social affairs in eastern Slovakia, however, are already experiencing tough times now. Often they too are targets for attacks. Curses and insults are not all they face; in Kosice an angry man hurled an ashtray at an official and one was struck in the face.

"Most of the people dependent on welfare will not feel the impact of the new law until a month from now. The fear on the part of the office employees is understandable. We will probably not be able to get by without the assistance of the police," Eva Surova, spokeswoman for the head of the Social Affairs Division of the Office of Labor and Social Affairs in Kosice, was quoted as saying in today's edition of the regional newspaper Korzar. Jana Demjanovicova confirmed that in the past few days the police had sent out guards to offices and post offices where benefits are issued, and they will probably do the same a month from now as well.

But the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs denies that the incidents are an expression of people's desperation. Martin Danko, the ministry's spokesman, described the looting of shops as a deliberately organized action. According to him, the main people behind these incidents are usurers, who "are losing a source of ill-gotten income as a result of the reduction in benefits," and as a result are now trying to stir up hysteria among the Roma population.


Another CTK dispatch, this one from the Slovak capital, Bratislava, and dated Feb. 24, was titled "Slovakia Deploys Against Looting Army":

The Slovak government tonight approved the deployment of 1,000 troops to aid police in overseeing Roma in the country's eastern and central regions who are revolting against a planned cutback in welfare benefits, Interior Minister Vladimir Palko and Defense Minister Juraj Liska told journalists after a cabinet meeting.

"This is a joint patrol operation. The soldiers will not be carrying out any other assignments," Palko said at the press conference. According to the minister, the police will be backed by 1,000 troops, both professionals and soldiers serving their mandatory military service, but he did not say which regiments the soldiers would be from or whether he was considering deploying special army units as well.

"We all know that the Romani problem has taken on a new shape," Palko said. "We intend to meet this problem head-on. We have the resources, and we will deploy as many resources as necessary for us to get this problem under control and for the police force to be able to perform their normal duties," he added.

Not Social but Romani Disturbances

Asked whether he considered the situation now, unlike Monday, to be a case of social disturbances, he stated that it was a matter of "Romani disturbances." Prior to Monday's and today's violent confrontations of hundreds of Roma with police in Trebisov, Palko had refused to speak of social disturbances.

One of the reasons the cabinet opted to deploy the military was that it is expecting Romani demonstrations in some places on Wednesday, despite that the original organizers from the Romani Parliament called off the nationwide protests against the reduction of welfare benefits they had announced for today.

"In some places they are announced, and in other places we have reliable information that even though they were not announced, they are going to take place," Palko said of the planned protests. "As long as they proceed without any criminal acts committed, it will be absolutely fine. No one will intervene," he said.

Army Just as Supplemental Guard

The ministers emphasized that the deployed troops would be acting only as a supplemental guard force and would be under the command of the regional police. "The main part of their activity will consist of detached units of the police force that I have sent to the Kosice, Presov, and parts of the Banska Bystrica regions," said Palko.

Among the 1,000 members of the army will be soldiers performing their mandatory service, as well as professionals. Liska assured that they would not be armed with any special weapons but are only going to assist in patrols. He did not reveal, however, which regiments he had chosen.

The aid of the army in the police's patrol service is provided for by the Slovak law on the police force not only under exceptional circumstances but also in common situations such as elections or defending the borders; cabinet consent is all that is required. The army has served a similar function in the past 15 years only a few times, for instance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Largest Police Operation Since 1989

"I have decided to shift a significant number of police to the territory of the Presov, Kosice, and parts of the Banska Bystrica regions. All policemen have been called back from vacation. This is the largest police mobilization since 1989. As you have noticed, it was also the first time since 1989 that a water cannon has been used," said the minister. A total of roughly 1,200 policemen will be relocated to the territory of the regions where looting is taking place.

The looting continues in central and eastern Slovakia, and Roma say it is because they are going hungry due to the reduction in welfare benefits. But many politicians and experts in Romani issues believe that usurers are behind it, in the fear that, come March, the new method of paying benefits will lower their profits.