The Roma are Europe's largest transnational ethnic minority. Their political influence, however, is relatively marginal, even in Central and Southeast Europe. Can this be changed?
Whether in Serbia or Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania or Hungary, Europe's Roma minority is, for the most part, quite politically marginalized. Even in countries where the Roma have formed a large part of the population for centuries, they play a subordinate and negligible role in political and social life. Dismissed as "gypsies," often persecuted and at best merely tolerated, they are rarely accepted as equal citizens.
It's hardly a surprise then that the Roma are less politically engaged, said Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Roma Initiatives Office of the Open Society Foundations in Budapest. "We're talking about a minority that is marginalized in every country, excluded from social, political and economic organizations," said Jovanovic, who is himself Roma.
In addition, he said, Roma belong to the poorest segment of society in which they live. "According to UN figures, 40 percent of Roma live on the edge of poverty, and if people are hungry, they're not thinking about politics," he told DW.
The threat of nationalism
The first World Romani Congress took place in London in 1971. There representatives from nine European countries chose the denomination "Roma" as the common term for members of the minority. They also chose a common language, Romani, and an international Roma flag.
That same year, the International Romani Union (IRU) was founded, an umbrella organization of regional and national interest groups. However, as Jovanovic points out, "40 years is a relatively short time" for the development of political awareness and the necessary political structures.
Another obstacle to Roma political organization is widespread ethnocentrism and nationalism among the social majority in Central and Southeast Europe, explained Osman Balic of the Serbian non-governmental organization, YUROM Centar. "This ethnocentrism supports a desire for ethnically pure nation states, in which there is no room for the Roma organizations," he said.
After being excluded and persecuted time and time again, the Roma have learned to "recognize nationalism as a danger and have behaved accordingly," said Balic. Their fears are real, as shown by the many anti-Roma riots and attacks in recent years. In Hungary, right-wing extremists killed six Roma in 2008 and 2009, including a four-year-old boy.
"The democratic rules of the game have yet to be developed" in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, said Balic - and it's here that the Roma "aren't welcome" as serious political players. While some Central and Eastern European parliaments have set aside a number of seats for minority representatives, including the Roma, these seats are generally seen as a "pseudo-democracy," which "serve only as political decoration" and no real chance to influence policy, said Balic.
Nevertheless, this limited political representation is a big step forward. At the local level, Roma delegates in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania are often very dedicated and advocate for more educational opportunities for children and better living conditions for Roma families, said Balic.
Macedonia: a model of integration
Those seeking a positive example of Roma participation in political life need only look to Macedonia. Roma are the third-largest ethnic group in the country, representing about 8 percent of the population. Two political parties represent the Roma, and their delegates have had seats in the Macedonian parliament for the last 20 years. In the government, Roma are represented by a minister without portfolio. And the mayor of Suto Orizari, which at 20,000 inhabitants makes it one of Europe's largest Roma communities, is himself Romani.
Macedonia's language policy is seen as being particularly liberal, with Romani included as one of the country's official languages. "At school, Roma children are able to take classes in their native language," said Marija Risteska of the Skopje-based Center for Research and Policy Making. "Macedonia is the only country in the world where the Romani language is standardized to the extent that it can be studied at university," she told DW. In addition, when compared with other countries in the region, Macedonia has a large number of Roma youth who attend secondary schools.
To achieve such a status in other countries will require some effort on the part of the Roma, emphasized Zeljko Jovanovic. "Roma need to find new ways to organize themselves, both politically and socially," he said. To date, he said, more or less random individuals have been appointed as Roma representatives, often selected for their ability to easily fit into the political system, interfering and achieving as little as possible.
Jovanovic believes the Roma need to organize themselves in a way that would allow many people to participate. What they need, he said, is to become aware of how important it is to engage, both socially and politically, not only during elections but also in everyday life.