The Lunik IX slum in Košice, Slovakia. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
The eastern city of Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city, was thrust into the public consciousness earlier this year, having been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture of 2013. Sharing this title with France’s Marseille, Slovakia finally appeared to be getting some of the attention it deserved, as both its urban and rural areas boast some truly remarkable sights.
Despite some occasional rumblings in travel guides and the media, Slovakia is often shunned by press and tourists alike in favour of its rival and historical kingpin, the Czech Republic, and this award was set to bring to light some of Slovakia’s cultural gems. But the untimely and illegal construction of an anti-Roma wall in Košice in July this year caused a furore from Brussels, and shone a spotlight on a far more sinister face of Slovakia’s ‘capital of the east’.
Since 1985, numerous European cities have been awarded with the title of European Capital of Culture, but few have flouted the core tenets of what the award appears to represent so soon after receiving it. Existing to “provide living proof of the richness and diversity of European cultures”, the cities selected to receive the award are expected to display exceptional levels of mutual understanding and tolerance between different cultures. But in Slovakia, where the segregation and isolation of the sizeable Roma minority is not only tolerated but in many ways institutionalised, questions as to the prerequisites of a ‘cultural’ capital have to be asked.
The two Košices
In a country of approximately five and a half million people, Slovakia’s 7.45 percent of Roma make up nearly 400,000 of the country’s population. Of this 7.45 percent, 24 percent live in Košice, making the city the site of the largest concentration of the Roma community in Slovakia. Inhabiting a variety of settings, from urban outskirts and dilapidated ghettos, to rural settlements and segregated zones, the Roma live abandoned in Slovakia’s geographical and social margins.
For those looking for the most densely populated areas of Roma, they need to look no further than Košice’s dilapidated ghetto, known to most in Slovakia as Lunik IX. This has been home to thousands of Roma since the early 1980s, when the Roma’s former settlement was demolished and the community tossed into concrete blocks. Originally built for middle class families, the site was meant for up to 2,500 people, not the 6,000-8,000 Roma inhabitants the complex now attempts to cater for. Following years of continual neglect by authorities and inhabitants alike, Lunik IX has all the stock hallmarks of a slum.
With amenities such as gas, water and electricity cut off due to failures to meet payments and a defunct waste disposal system whose toxic levels are reportedly beginning to affect the town’s groundwater, it is broadly undisputed by Slovakia’s Roma and non-Roma alike that the Roma live in dire conditions. What is also pervasive in Slovakia, like many cultures whose not-so-well-loved minority receives social services, is the idea that the ethnically and geographically divorced Roma are undeserving of government subsidies due to their unwillingness to contribute to the ‘system’.
However, due to segregated schools, or no schools at all in many cases, the unemployment rate for Slovakia’s Roma is nearly at 100%, and yet again, the steadfast combination of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion has led to crime. However, this crime is both real and imagined, and while the Roma population in Slovakia are indeed responsible for a number of petty crimes in society, much of the scapegoating of the Roma is a result of an essentialised and homogeneous identity created by a biased media.
Asked if the newly constructed segregation wall in Košice was worthy of its criticism, one 22-year-old Slovak woman working in real estate noted that “it’s a good thing, of course. The Roma would not think twice before stealing your dog and eating it. That’s the kind of people they are”. Such rhetoric is not uncommon, unlike first-hand interaction between the Roma by ethnic Slovaks. Based on an informal street survey of non-Roma on the streets of Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, many people responded negatively regarding the Roma in Slovakia. Moreover, almost all admitted to having never interacted with the Roma themselves, alluding to the news and television as their source for Roma-related affairs.
Crimes perpetrated by the Roma are often showcased on screen, but the crimes acted against the minority themselves are notoriously kept under wraps. Most interviewees noted the Roma’s participation in crime as central to their dislike, yet only one acknowledged that crimes against the Roma themselves occur with frequency. Ranging from corrupt police practices to random racially-motivated attacks, the shocking treatment of the Roma in Slovakia is as undeniable as it is widespread.
In 2003 the Center for Reproductive Rights released a report which documented approximately 110 cases of the forced sterilisation of Roma women in hospitals in provinces across eastern Slovakia. In their report, many of the Roma women interviewed talked about humiliation, neglect and sometimes physical abuse acted against them by hospital staff, as well as segregated waiting rooms and toilets. Nevertheless, despite the periodic documentation of crimes by Roma-focused research groups or NGOs, it is the Roma-as-criminal personality which dominates common perception in Slovakia.
It is this personality which appears to frighten a pocket of Košice’s community the most. The anti-Roma wall erected in Košice was allegedly a reaction to crimes such as vandalism and theft perpetrated by the Roma of Lunik IX, and was built between the housing estates Lunik XIII and Lunik IX. Constructed without permission from the council, the wall was built at the demand of the borough’s non-Roma inhabitants, and across the wall was written ‘Prepáčte’ – sorry.
As ominous as the emergence of this wall is, the wall itself is not a new phenomenon in Slovakia. According to the Slovak server romovia.sme.sk, Košice’s anti-Roma wall is the eighth of its kind to materialise in eastern Slovakia since 2009, and the fourteenth in Slovakia overall. The long-standing feelings of hostility towards the Roma and their continual marginalisation in Slovakia is thus familiar to those who take an interest in Slovak affairs. So how did Košice, a site which arguably sees Slovakia’s cultural and racial intolerance at its most intense, gain an award which at its core claims to celebrate cultural integration and “highlight the richness and diversity of European culture”?
Capital of culture?
The most likely answer lies with the significance of the term culture in Europe today. It would be naïve to assume that those in charge of allocating the award were not aware of the numerous manifestations of cultural intolerance in Košice, and a thorough researcher can find various cases of injustice against the Roma featured in numerous national and regional media outlets. However, these injustices were overlooked by the award-givers, and Košice’s plethora of charming religious sights, museums and parks eclipsed an injustice tourist guides and walking tours successfully omit. It is a sad truth, then, to admit that even now, culture in Europe is still being framed within the parameters of imperialistic architecture and monarchic legacies.
As in most cities, tourists are often ushered to see an array of buildings and monuments which speak of the region’s history, plunged into a tourist mechanism which lets a compliant or cautious visitor see little else of the ‘local’ scene. It is thus quite commonplace that tourists can leave a destination with little or no awareness of the subcultures or inequalities of a place, and indeed, why should they? But while those seeking adventures or holidays are quite within their rights to pick and choose the extent of their emersion into a culture, the judges of European cultural value and excellence are not.
The award of ECOC given to Košice this year revealed the European Commission’s priority of criteria for the prize. Traditional architecture and a history of the changing crowns’ numerous residences play only a small part of culture and cultural excellence, and the awards’ privileging of intellectual development and architectural finesse attaches a one-dimensional significance to the term ‘culture’. What is important to grasp is that numerous gothic churches and baroque altarpieces only contribute to one facet of the cultural value of a place. Deep-seated prejudices and racial tensions lying just below – or in this case, just above - the surface of a society, though ugly and reprehensible, are equally if not more tightly interwoven into the fabric and development of a culture, and must be considered as part and parcel of a city’s cultural identity.