Commentary by Karel Holomek: The embarrassing end to the Czech presidency of the Decade
At the end of June, the Czech Republic handed over the presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion to Macedonia. For those who are not completely in the picture: The Decade is a 10-year program during which governments solemnly pledged to achieve success in coexistence between Romani people and their majority-society citizens and to implement so-called Action Programs based on various programs for integrating Romani people into society. In other words: To raise up Romani people to a level comparable to that of other citizens in society while preserving their identity at the same time. We hasten to say that this is a task that is just as binding for Romani people themselves as it is for other citizens, aware as we are of the kinds of objections that are raised during discussions of this issue, which usually lack a basis in reality.
This year the Decade entered the sixth year of its activity and is somehow just marching in place, to put it very cautiously and soberly. The actual state of affairs demands a stricter evaluation, but we all know what a difficult process this is and we will, therefore, be tolerant.
This year's two-day meeting in June had a star-studded cast. Both Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas and Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, were personally present for the opening. Their presence did testify to the fact that they are not indifferent to the Roma integration program, which they made very clear by attending. This represents a slight step forward compared to last year, when no government actors were present during the handover of the presidency from Slovakia to the Czech Republic, save for the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner, who at that time was still Michael Kocáb.
Of course, it is another matter entirely whether these government actors are capable of creating the conditions for implementing these programs in their countries and governments, particularly in the broader political and societal context. That is the actual, determinative framework within which any minimally acceptable, real change in the situation of Romani people in European societies will occur.
One other important personality turned up at this conference, the American financier of Hungarian origin, George Soros, who has long been a generous supporter of programs for raising up Romani people, among other things. In his speech, he left no doubt about how things are in reality. I am not the only one forced to take a critical stance toward the Decade and its inability, for the time being, to change anything for the better in relations between Romani people and the rest of society. This newspaper [aktualne.cz] published in its pages on 29 and 29 June a rather detailed description of critical opinions regarding the Decade and its toothlessness, even from someone in the highest of competencies who has been personally involved and invested more than USD 8 billion into it.
The main criticism was of the enormous segregation of Romani pupils in the Czech schools. I don't have to emphasize that this segregation then transfers to society as a whole and is in and of itself the main cause of the high unemployment of Romani people. Prejudices and unwillingness to employ Romani people have their primary cause in this segregation. High unemployment is the main cause of Romani people's social decline and their continuing difficulties of various kinds. What is worse: This problem is not at all diagnosed in places of government or officialdom, nor has it been perceived by society as alarming.
A few more interesting remarks to complete the picture: The entire Decade meeting essentially was concerned with the administrative agenda, comprised of reports on progress in the various Decade countries. Of course, these expressed more or less high-minded wishes that the Action Plan programs would be fulfilled without mentioning a word about the real situation of Romani people in their countries and the serious problems related to them. It was even possible to quote the rapporteurs doing their best to embellish the situation so they could stand up to comparison with the other countries. The rapporteurs were all government bureaucrats with certain loyalty to their countries and governments. The Romani people who regularly turn up at these meetings have become accustomed to this. What is characteristic is that the reports, which are extensive and exceed 100 pages, are written in English - so who is able to read them aside from the narrow circle of those concerned (to say nothing of Romani people in the field)?
The presentation of the Czech Republic, made by a staff member from the Office of the Government, was no exception. Despite all of my objections, I must praise this rapporteur. His formulations captivated me, they were made with a sort of informality and occasionally with a kind of shame that from time to time he had to say something that conflicted with his loyalty as a high state official. For example, he said that most of society has been overtaken by populism, that NAPIV (the National Action Plan for Inclusive Education) could be better, and that one-third of Romani children are not completing elementary education. He labeled Romani people as lower middle class, raising them to a status which might actually have flattered them if it could have been taken at face value.
However, in all fairness I must say that after six years of the Decade, a group of people has been created at an international forum who know one another, who are able to informally exchange both bad and good experiences, and to a certain extent are even able to generate international pressure on various countries to show at least some effort to meet the obligations their representatives solemnly signed and therefore can't just throw away. This is neither meaningless nor in vain! This is progress, albeit restricted within the borders of each country by the incompetence of their politicians and the level of the society concerned.
Therefore I was not surprised when the participants, prior to the end of the meeting, received a proposal pleading for an extension of the Decade to 2020 (by five years) in order to fully achieve the Decade aims on integration strategies, as the highly technical phrasing for the fulfillment of these aims has it. Of course, I cannot help but express skepticism after all of these experiences and meetings - and what came of them! If the framework for implementing the aims of the Decade, which is set by the politicians and politics at the level of the larger society, doesn't change, then little will change, and we will not be recording significant progress by 2020 either.
Written for blog.aktualne.cz
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