Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 7 News List

New EU members fail to take hold of minorities issue

AFP , VIENNA

As eight central European countries strive to get their houses in order before joining the EU next year, they find themselves having to meet higher standards on minorities than the current members of the bloc and falling short.

The wars and border changes of the last century created a Russian minority in the Baltic states and dispersed Germans throughout Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

It left Hungarians scattered across the country's neighboring states while millions of Roma, or gypsies, live in marginalized communities throughout central Europe and the Balkans and suffer discrimination.

In Latvia and Estonia, two Baltic states that declared independence from the Soviet union in 1991, Russians complain that it is too hard to acquire citizenship and that Russian is disappearing as a language of instruction.

Though naturalization laws have been softened, Estonia still has some 170,000 stateless people who will not become EU citizens when the country joins the union in May next year, and Latvia's stateless make up 22 percent of its population of 2.4 million.

The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that minorities who were oppressed by communist regimes were suddenly recognized by the region's new governments.

But in many central European countries official estimates of their numbers are believed to be way too low as their members remain reluctant to declare their origins.

A Polish census last year showed that there were only 170,000 Germans, 48,700 Belarussians and 31,000 Ukrainians in the country, while minority leaders say it is home to 600,000 Germans, 400,000 Belarussians and as many Ukranians.

"There were a lot of irregularities and misinformation during the census count," Henryk Kroll, a member of the Polish parliament and the country's German minority, said.

"The legacy of the past mean that a lot of people are still too scared to reveal their nationality if it is anything other than Polish."

Gypsies throughout the region have been loathe to identify themselves as such in census counts.

As a result official figures claim that there are only 90,000 Roma in Slovakia while the truth is believed to be somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000, or about 10 percent of the population.

Surviving in slums without electricity or running water and seemingly incapable of uniting themselves politically, the gypsies live on the sidelines of society and bring little pressure to bear on governments.

"The less a politician bothers with the gypsies, the more popular he is bound to be," a European diplomat in Bratislava lamented.

A high-ranking Organization for Security and Cooperation official said: "The time has come for western Europe to tackle the problem of integrating its `new minorities' like the Turks in Germany and the Molluquois in the Netherlands."

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