Bridging Social Distance in Slovakia

The social distance between Roma and non-Roma communities in Europe is quite large. In other words, there is not a great deal of mixing between the two communities. Applying the scale developed by Emory Bogardus in 1925 - which asks people questions about willingness to intermarry at one end to eagerness to deport at the other -- we see that the majority population generally wants to keep its distance. True, some Roma are not interested in marrying non-Roma or living in non-Roma neighborhoods - as this study of Roma attitudes in southern Serbia suggests. But the attempts to bridge social distance generally come from one side. Roma are often expected -- and sometimes encouraged -- to reach across the social gulf and become integrated into the majority culture. Many do so.

Very few non-Roma, meanwhile, try to go the other way. Tomas Hrustic is one of the few non-Roma to have closed the social distance. As a social anthropologist, he has learned the Roma language and lived in a Roma community in eastern Slovakia. He focused his research on religion among Roma. And today he works on Roma issues with the National Democratic Institute out of Bratislava.

In his fieldwork, Hrustic looked specifically at the issue of religious conversion in the Roma community. "In Eastern Slovakia, their identity as Roma or Gypsies is very stigmatized," he told me in an interview in Bratislava last February. "Part of the reason for the conversions was really that among evangelicals or among Jehovah's Witnesses, they were not confronted with their Gypsieness in the same way as within the Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic Church. I listened to all these stories of Roma trying to attend Roman Catholic Church services and experiencing discrimination. They were not allowed to attend. But when they were approached by evangelicals, there was no discrimination. They were welcomed as brothers and sisters."

But conversion was not really a way to escape racism. "People are converting because their brother or their sister-in-law converted, and that's how they were able to learn more about the church and the services," Hrustic explained. "So the main reason for conversion was not to avoid racism: 'Now I will be a Jehovah's Witness and people will not treat me as a Roma.' Rather, being a Jehovah's Witness was a more natural way of spirituality or of seeking something more in life."

Today, Hrustic works on Roma empowerment projects. He is careful to avoid the paternalism that clings to outreach to the Roma community and does nothing but preserve social distance. "This is about working with Roma as partners," he said. "If there is a village in eastern Slovakia where 50 percent of the inhabitants are Roma, I don't see a reason why 50 percent of the local council shouldn't be Roma who then discuss their priorities with non-Roma. Where there is a discussion about policies that can help Roma, Roma must be an integral part of the decision-making."

There are few Roma active at the national level (there is only one Roma politician in parliament). But there has been more success at the local level. "In Slovakia more than 330 local Roma councilors have been elected," he told me. "That's a very very small number compared to non-Roma councilors. But in many municipalities Roma are elected to office and are able to negotiate with their non-Roma colleagues and find good solutions for their people. There are more than 29 Roma mayors in Slovakia, and many of these mayors have been re-elected. Many people, not only Roma voters, are very satisfied with their work."

Despite these successes, anti-Roma sentiment still runs high in Slovakia. The neo-Nazi politician Marion Kotleba recently won 55 percent of the vote on his way to becoming regional governor of Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia. And the social distance between Roma and non-Roma remains nearly as wide as ever before.

"There was some recent polling about how the mainstream population views Roma: many of them actually do not want to have Roma as neighbors or have their kids in the same class as Roma kids," Hrustic pointed out. "Everywhere anti-Roma sentiments are increasing, not only in Slovakia but also in Central Europe. In part, these sentiments increased because of the economic crisis of two or three years ago. It has a lot to do with the fact that it's more difficult for Slovaks in rural areas to find a job and make a living."

The Interview

And when did you become kind of politically active? Was there a moment in your life when you decided to become an activist in some sense?

There was no single moment like that. It was more a process of realizing different things in my life. Basically I was more of an academic person. I was studying social anthropology and comparative religion at the university. Then I decided to study further. I applied for a Ph.D. program in Bratislava at Comenius University.

At the same time, I started to work with different organizations that related to Roma. In the beginning, these organizations were focused on collecting data from various settlements, so it was a natural process for me. At university I actually had a small job as an interviewer in different research projects organized by different local and international organizations. So that was the first time I got more information about Roma. I also visited Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia. That was an important moment for me, when I first went to Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia and interviewed families and households there. It was not just learning about the very poor living conditions. I also visited Roma families that were working and were integrated and were doing very well. At that moment I was really surprised by the fact that it's not just about poverty: it's about different conditions for different people. I was thrilled to learn more about Roma and how they actually fight their way from their difficult starting positions. And I actually became more involved.

I'd chosen a PhD dissertation topic that focused a lot on the Roma. I was doing comparative studies of religion and ethnology, and I focused on the religious conversions of Roma. For long-term research, I decided to live in a Roma settlement in 2004. I went to eastern Slovakia and spent one year in a Roma settlement near the Hungarian border. There I actually learned the Roma language. I was living with a family in very poor conditions, so again it really opened my eyes. I learned a lot, not only about Roma culture, but also about life in a segregated settlement. It's not just about ethnicity. It's about extreme poverty, generational poverty. That was a unique experience for me not only from an academic perspective but from a human perspective.

When I finished this research, I looked for a job where I could be more involved in helping Roma. I started working for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at that time. They had a strong program on Roma political participation. It was based in Bratislava, but we traveled a lot working with young Roma all around Slovakia. We conducted different trainings for the political participation and civic engagement of Roma -- in Slovakia and also in other Eastern European countries. I'm still trying to find a balance between academia and activism. There are certain periods of my life when I am more into academia and times when I am more into political engagement.

The topic of your dissertation was religious conversion. The family you were living with, or the community you were studying, they were converting to evangelical Protestantism?

It's more complicated actually. The family that I was living with didn't convert. They were religiously indifferent. They were formally Roman Catholics, as most of the people there are. But there were Roma from different religions around. There were a lot who became evangelicals or Pentecostals, and also Jehovah's Witnesses. There was also a movement within the eastern Catholic Church. There was a Roma priest trying to make Roma more enthusiastic about their own beliefs. A lot of different churches focused their missions on the Roma.

For me, the locality was very interesting because many Roma converted more than once. They'd start in the Roman Catholic Church and convert to Jehovah's Witnesses and then they started to be engaged with evangelicals and Pentecostals. Others stopped being very active religiously. Since I focused in my dissertation on these religious conversions, it was natural that I had to look at everyday life in the settlement, which involved basic ethnography but also family life, the social situation, economic behavior, and so on. I tried at first to get a complex picture of how the settlement works and how Roma function. Later on I began interviewing converts, priests, and religious leaders, as well as non-converted Roma. I was able to put together a picture of how these conversions actually function, and how they affect the families and the social situation.

Did you have a hypothesis as part of the research?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.