Roma as Game Changers

In Bulgaria, the political system has been roughly balanced between the Left and the Right for the last two decades. As a result, the party that represents ethnic Turkish interests – the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF) – can provide its constituency base, which is only about 10 percent of the population, with the benefits of the party’s kingmaker position.

Similarly, the Roma are a significant minority of the population in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Depending on the political balance of power in the country, Roma could achieve the same kind of success as the MRF if they consolidated their voting strength behind one party. Then the politicians in other parties would ignore Roma issues at their own political peril.

“Serbia has a system that allows minorities to participate with lower thresholds than others,” Roma activist and Open Society Foundation staffer Zeljko Jovanovic told me in an interview in Budapest last May. We’d met the day before at an OSF roundtable on Roma policy. “Roma can have three or four MPs. Nowadays, when the Left and Right are so close to each other in terms of votes, Roma can be the game changers in Serbia.”

Jovanovic, who is originally from Serbia, is not focused on party politics as the primary strategy for the advancement of Roma rights. The strategies depend on the political and social context in each country, and Serbian electoral rules favor minorities. More critical is organizing a constituency.

“Organizing a base in the constituencies is the first task,” he explained. “The second is how you define tactics around elections and after elections. For me, after the elections is even more important than before the elections. Of course, elections decide who’s in power, who’s the winner and loser, who’s in opposition. But most organizations at this moment think they do not need a constituency base; what they need is good management to access funding from donors. That’s why they’re weak politically. They’ve reached the glass ceiling in making a real impact on public resources and the way they are used.”

Ultimately, Jovanovic is focused on identifying the game-changing strategy for Roma. The game, after all, is not going well for Roma at the moment, so this question of strategy is of utmost urgency.

“I usually compare the Roma issue with a person who is badly beaten all over the body and goes to the doctor,” he said. “Whatever part of the body you treat, that is helpful and needed. However, if you are bleeding, the first thing they need to do is stop the bleeding. Otherwise the person is going to die if you treat bruises first.”

Among Roma activists, the debate is over priorities and strategy – what should be done immediately to save the patient. “For some people the first issue is education,” he continued. “For others it is employment — so that people can afford to go to school. But how we get there and what is the first thing we do — that’s how people start to think differently. In my view, the times are such that after many years, we have succeeded in establishing a different policy context. Now we have to make sure that these policies are being implemented. But the implementation of policies requires money and different levels of participation, and this is a question of power.”

We talked about the different strategies of Roma empowerment – of how to become game changers – through social movements, political parties, the legal system, and so on. We discussed the plusses and minuses of comparing the Roma experience to the African American civil rights movement. And, finally, we touched on how his vision of Roma empowerment has changed over the years.

 

The Interview  

 

You grew up in Serbia. I’d love to hear how you got involved as an activist. Was there a certain moment when you became involved or was it more of a process?

 

Many of us who belong to communities who face injustice come to activism as a consequence of revolt and some sort of frustration. I grew up in Serbia. My adolescent experience overlapped with the breakup of Yugoslavia, with the embargo, inflation, and civil war. My father at that time was building up a small business. He started as a taxi driver. Then he bought a small grocery shop. He was selling basic goods — fruits, vegetables – but he was also trading oil, which was black market in those days, as well as cigarettes. He was making good money. He somehow had a good sense of inflation trends.

I need to underline here that my family came from extreme poverty. My mother graduated in economics, my father finished vocational training. Over time, after being a taxi driver, he started a small business. He understood that if you are doing well but your neighbor is not doing well, they might attack you or steal from your house, that there would be a sense of insecurity.

 

Where in Serbia was this?

 

In Valjevo, in western Serbia. Part of my father’s understanding came from his experience in Vienna. My grandmother went to Vienna in the 1950s. As a child, he had a chance to see what Western capitalism looked like and what a better life looked like. He understood that our family was not going to progress if we progressed and no one else did — if the gap remained too large.

So he started to support the opposition in 1991. There were elections at the moment when Slobodan Milosevic was growing in power. My father held up the ballot at the polling station and openly circled the opposition leader. He wanted to show everyone that he did not support Milosevic because he was leading us toward disaster. People remembered that. We started feeling pressure — not only because we are Roma but because of his political choices and affiliations. Of course everyone was dealing with the black or gray markets; the whole economy was based on gray market. But he was the one who faced financial inspection most of the time — much more frequently then others around him. The authorities were trying to pressure us in many different ways. And he continued to actively protest in the peaceful marches that the opposition organized for many years in Serbia.

I joined him. I was at that time 14 or 15 years old. I was in secondary school, a kind of an elite school, the second best secondary school in Serbia. Among the leading intellectuals in this small town of about 170,000 people, about half of them were against Milosevic. These more progressive professors in this school had more influence over us. They would miss classes as school to attend protests. That shaped my civic and political awareness in secondary school.

Then, when I was 18, one of the most prominent leaders among Roma at that time established the Roma Congress Party, a sort of equivalent of the Indian Congress Party given the connection between Roma and India. He came to Valjevo and established a branch there in 1997. Several people pointed to my father as a very visible and vocal small businessman. So, they established a branch at my house. They had meetings at my house at night. Even now I remember people sitting around the table while I was sitting on the side on the couch watchfully following the conversation: how they commented on the situation, planned what to do, got information from the Belgrade headquarters, prepared for protests, and thought through the consequences. That had a profound impact on me.

In 1998, I graduated from secondary level and went to Belgrade to study law. My father wanted me to be close to that leader, to be in the environment connected to the party. So I started volunteering. This guy was a journalist employed by Radio Belgrade. At the same time he had a project developing a small radio magazine. We produced a weekly magazine on Roma. Because he only spoke a little English I was in charge of finding out what was going on with Roma abroad. I remember very well that I could find one eventually two general articles every week about Roma. Today, 15 years later, there’s an enormous amount of information. So, at that point, I was working as a junior journalist.

Then the NATO bombing of Serbia started. I went back to Valjevo for a couple months and then back to Belgrade. Then this leader told me that an international organization distributing humanitarian aid needed someone to work there who could speak some English and that I should go there and try to get a job. I went there holding my CV very proudly in my hand. I rang the bell. That was the first time I’d encountered a telecom.

The secretary asked, “Who are you?”

I said, “My name is Zeljko Jovanovic, and I’m studying law and I came here to apply for a job.”

She looked over my CV and then looked at me strangely. She said, “Thank you very much.”

I went over to a chair and sat down. I sat there 15 minutes. She said, “Do you also need to meet someone?”

“No,” I said.

And she said, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

I said, “No, I just want to know if I have a job or not.” I expected an immediate decision!

She smiled and said, “We’ll look over this and call you.”

So, I left and forgot about it. But then they called me and told me I had the job. And I had an interview with two American guys and I was really sweating! They asked me something in English that I couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t find the words to answer. But I got the job.

For one year I monitored the distribution of humanitarian aid. I visited more than 100 refugee centers and Roma settlements. Then they shifted the organizational focus to work on democracy, development, civil society and so on. Many people were dismissed because they didn’t need as many people to develop this kind of project as they did for distributing humanitarian aid. They kept me on. They engaged one of the best researchers to work with me for three months as a mentor to develop my analytical skills and writing. In the Communist and post-Communist system, you learn to memorize not to think. So, she developed that in me. I stayed with the organization and worked on projects on civil society.

Then I proposed to do something on Roma. They started investing in a program that I was doing with a colleague that involved the training of Roma activists, and this is how I started. I never started from a Roma organization but rather, from politics and then through an international organization.

Eventually I went back to Valjevo where I developed a local Roma organization an, a Roma radio. I returned to Belgrade to become part of the permanent OSCE staff there, worked for a year, and then got an offer here from OSF and came here to Budapest.

 

What was that initial American organization?

 

Catholic Relief Services. It’s a great organization.

 

Absolutely. I want to jump to yesterday and the discussion that took place yesterday. It was fascinating, and so is the book. I found the set up very interesting — two older people on one side and the two younger people on the other. Do you think the difference in approach that emerged in the discussion and the book is largely generational? Or is it conceptual, political, a question of strategy or what?

 

I think it’s a difference in experience. I don’t think age is the dominant category that determines approach. Rather, there’s a different generation in ideas rather than a generation in years. The divide yesterday was not deep and wide. We look at the issues pretty much the same way but approach them from a different angle. Yesterday, Andras Biro and Nicolae Gheorghe approached the issues from a sociological and anthropological point of view, and I viewed the Roma issue through the lenses of power and politics. With Andras, I have a lot of overlap in looking at the Roma issue as political and an issue of power. Nicolae was also expressing his own frustrations. He is right in saying that we should discuss internal problems. I don’t have a problem with discussion, with discussing child trafficking, for instance. I have an issue with whom we are discussing and what aspect of the discussion. To me that discussion unveils a structural problem rather than some sense of guilt on the part of Roma collectively.

There are also some things that we mean in the same way but we don’t give them the same labels: for example, when we talk about the Roma community. Yesterday, in the room, we had lots of people from the Roma community though they occupy different positions. I consider that to be a community — of shared history and interests. This community needs to start working with one another wherever they are and whatever position they occupy. If we look at the Roma settlements only as the Roma community, that’s wrong and working together is not going to happen. Andras and Nicolae can afford to discuss terms, concepts, ideas. But the question is: who is listening and who is following and who is taking charge for change?

I usually compare the Roma issue with a person who is badly beaten all over the body and goes to the doctor. Whatever part of the body you treat, that is helpful and needed. However, if you are bleeding, the first thing they need to do is stop the bleeding. Otherwise the person is going to die if you treat bruises first. It’s a question of priorities and strategy. Yesterday, the question that I tried to put on the table was: what is our utmost priority now? Our visions are not different. For some people the first issue is education. For others it is employment — so that people can afford to go to school. But how we get there and what is the first thing we do — that’s how people start to think differently. In my view, the times are such that after many years, we have succeeded in establishing a different policy context. Now we have to make sure that these policies are being implemented. But the implementation of policies requires money and different levels of participation, and this is a question of power.

 

I asked the Roma I interviewed in Bulgaria to choose whether they’d put the priority on education, on employment, or on politics. And politics usually came in third. But when you talk about politics, there are different possibilities — a political party, public policy, street pressure. Would you recommend doing all three simultaneously, or do you have a preference?

 

I judge these propositions according to the resources. Less than one percent of the Roma community consists of highly educated people. How we deploy these limited human resources? Politics is usually not something affordable for people who are starving, who are illiterate, who are under pressure from discrimination every day. But if our leaders can establish pressure from the street, that would create a political potential to be deployed once the political structure is ready to enter elections. Then, once you are in government, you can start to engage in policy and make a bigger impact. That’s the sequence I have in mind.

But it depends on local contexts. In Bulgaria, I can understand why they don’t make the choice of politics. In general, politics in Bulgaria is very corrupt. It’s a failing democracy by all the criteria — of Freedom House, for example. The institutions and political parties and politicians and media are all corrupt. That’s why generally there is a lack of belief in politics. There’s a Roma party in parliament – the EuroRoma party — run by a guy who is not Roma but was raised by Roma. He’s heavily involved in criminal activities, people who know him say.

 

Ah, yes, I interviewed him. He says he’s Roma.

 

Yes, of course! But even if he is Roma, it doesn’t really matter what ethnic origin he has. I’m talking about why people are skeptical about politics. Second, there were several leaders who tried politics and were badly beaten. Years ago, the Bulgarian government ran a campaign against NGOs, involving them in police investigations. So, people are expected to make a choice in the context in which they can’t make a choice. They can’t really choose politics. But if you go to Macedonia, they will tell you that that’s been their choice for the last 20 years. They have four MPs, they have a minister without portfolio. They have their own municipality and their own mayor. In many places they have their own counselors.

In Bulgaria, if you remember, three months ago, there was a failed assassination of the ethnic Turkish leader -

 

Ahmed Dogan.

 

Exactly. So, it’s not really a choice if you are afraid of violence, state repression, corruption etc. When I say politics, I mean decision-making in the broadest terms of processes of public decisions. In theory, we have many chances to engage in policymaking. Roma have a voice but so far their voice is not adequate to make a difference. Because of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and the EU, Roma NGOs have access to EU programs. They can apply for money, and if they get money, they also get coopted. Or if they get a job in public administration – as a teacher assistant, health mediator, and so on — they also get coopted. In too many cases, they can no longer represent the interests of Roma toward authorities but the other way around. As a result, we have a huge brain drain. Most of the best and brightest Roma activists from 10 years ago and those younger ones are today semi-civil servants or project bureaucrats. That’s what the conclusion of the book is about. The situation we face is not only the mirror of poverty and discrimination. It’s also a mirror of weak leadership and inadequately organized voting strength. There’s almost no leadership in the community that people trust regardless of their projects, and no organizational structure that can cultivate leadership and grow in strength over time.

And this is where the connection is with the U.S. civil rights movement. People see the civil rights movement history from the 1960s. But they have 250 years of advocacy. Lincoln came into office in 1860 and Frederick Douglas was already there. We have to really look at the civil rights movement for what it was in the longer time perspective to understand how unrealistic the expectations are of those who lament that the Roma are not as strong as the civil rights movement.

 

People talk about the “decade” of Roma inclusion. What can you do in 10 years?

 

Especially with such an issue.

 

The expectations are far too high. If you raise expectations, people are going to feel disappointed and disempowered. It should have been the century of Roma inclusion.

 

Let me tell you what is good about the comparison the civil rights movement. Many of us read about it, or went to the United States. It’s not because we want to adopt the model. But the model offers inspiration and emotional relief that change is possible. Activists and leaders can find hope that things can change. Of course when you look at it from the sociological perspective, you see many differences. But you need to look at it from the perspective of emotion. When I was in the United States several times, speaking with several people from the civil rights movement, I got all this new energy. It’s not like I’m going to learn how to do things but how to feel about them. The answers are here though. They’re not in America, Africa or India. But your stamina comes from your emotions and your beliefs, and that’s what we get from the civil rights movement.

 

The first civil rights activist delegation we brought over here to Hungary — with Michael Simmons and the American Friends Service Committee — was in 1995. And I definitely felt that energy in the room.

 

Let me ask about the diversity of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t as if people in the community sat down and agreed that diversity within the movement was healthy and made strategic sense. They disagreed with one another and in some cases hated each other. But that diversity proved useful, politically. So, it’s not a question of Roma activists sitting down and agreeing on the utility of diversity. It’s more a question of at one point does the differences of opinions within the Roma community become a strength rather than an obstacle?

 

This diversity as a strength is already a fact. For me, the fact that Roma in Macedonia are already politically aware and experienced is a fact vis a vis the Roma in France who found their own way to survive without being engaged in politics as electoral candidates. Look at the situation in Macedonia. Roma who clearly prioritized their NGO work and did not enter politics have done their best to maintain pressure while the political parties are still trying to figure out how to deal with policy issues. I disagree in many respects with the principles that drive the social provisions type of organization and projects. But I acknowledge that they do something that governments are not willing to do. And they produce some opportunities for some kids to go through and finish education and perhaps become the leaders and experts we miss at the moment for stronger pressure on the governments. So, that diversity of tactics within the movement is already a fact.

What I’ve witnessed among other movements is already apparent among us: as people get more educated, they have higher expectations and a higher drive to achieve them. The organizational structure in which we worked with these people is not adequate any more. This structure can absorb projects as a resource that comes outside of the community. But it cannot utilize the resource of political strength from within the community.

I go back to the African National Congress (ANC) experience in South Africa. They were practicing democracy within the organization for decades when they crushed the Apartheid system and replaced it with one person one voice. They could push forward an electoral system based on participation because they were prepared. Today you have corruption and so on in the ANC. But imagine if they had been an organization dealing with social needs with only two staff members, like a typical Roma organization. Could they rule the country? Of course not! Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X — they all came into a structure and grew through it. There was an institution that could nurture leaders and foster change. We must have that.

 

That’s an important point. The ANC created its own party — it was ready as an entity to enter politics. In the United States, because we have a different political structure, the civil rights movement didn’t have that option — it worked to change an existing party, the Democratic Party.

 

Or, in the 1860s, the Republican Party.

 

Exactly. So the question is, when you look at the situation here in Hungary, what’s the better path? What do you think will be the likely political party in 10 years — a Roma party like the ANC or taking over an existing party by, for instance, addressing the question of inequality?

 

It’s very contextual. It depends on the dispersion of the population and the vote. It depends on the political system and the history of political organizing. My prime concern is not the path. My concern is the vehicle, the organizing platform for a voter base, that can drive us to the destination, whatever happens on the pathway. Once you have a disciplined voting community, it doesn’t matter – you can negotiate with any mainstream party because the party obviously has an interest to work with you. For example, Livia Jaroka, who is in the European Parliament, doesn’t have a strong constituency as a voting base. For example, she has to make different kinds of compromise in comparison to what she could do had she had a constituency.

Or you can set up your own Roma party if the electoral system is such that you can win. When it comes to appealing to a constituency to keep those in power accountable, it doesn’t really make a difference who is the actor, Roma or non-Roma. That’s not the question. The question is the self-determined objectives, priorities, agenda, and delivery. When people make a mistake, there’s a consequence.

Organizing a base in the constituencies is the first task. The second is how you define tactics around elections and after elections. For me, after the elections is even more important than before the elections. Of course, elections decide who’s in power, who’s the winner and loser, who’s in opposition. But most organizations at this moment think they do not need a constituency base; what they need is good management to access funding from donors. That’s why they’re weak politically. They’ve reached the glass ceiling in making a real impact on public resources and the way they are used. There are many activists who are good in policy expertise, who have some experience with service provision, who can identify how the system doesn’t work well, and so on. But they cannot enforce that change. They don’t have a place to draw on the resources to mobilize their communities and be a legitimate interest to those in power.

Serbia has a system that allows minorities to participate with lower thresholds than others. Roma can have three or four MPs. Nowadays, when the Left and Right are so close to each other in terms of votes, Roma can be the game changers in Serbia. There are regions where Roma are higher in numbers. Here in Hungary, there are communities where Roma are 70 percent of the vote and Jobbik is in power! That’s a signal that the leadership in the community is in chaos, disoriented, misinformed. Someone has to take responsibility and develop a platform. So, for me, that’s the first step. Then, among those leaders and leadership structures, among all that diversity, we can have a discussion with those in the community who follow and shape their opinions. Otherwise the discussion we had yesterday might be interesting but ends once we leave the room.

 

When you think back to when you started working for OSF, have you had any second thoughts about your general worldview?

 

It changed dramatically in many respects. Let me give you an illustration. I come from former Yugoslavia where, historically, Roma leaders were also international Roma leaders – in organizations like the Roma Union. And that agenda was obviously connected to our recognition and emancipation as Roma. After the wars in former Yugoslavia, there was a lot of pressure for reconciliation and the recognition of minority rights, the establishing of a legal framework for minorities, and so on. I grew up in that environment.

Before coming to OSF, I only focused on strengthening the understanding of how Roma can organize themselves. Learning from OSF and George Soros, I started to broaden this view and understand how Roma and non-Roma can work together. I still keep my focus on Roma empowerment. But I don’t exclude Roma and non-Roma working together on the issue of social justice for their common interest, which goes far beyond the interests of the ethnic Roma community. In this way, I broadened my sense of social justice and inequality, and I built new arguments for why Roma empowerment is more important then ever.

 

Budapest, May 11, 2013

 


1 Comment

  1. A fascinating read. Thank you. I lead an NGO that provides child protection services in Bulgaria. Inevitably, the majority of our clientele is drawn from the Roma community. Through Childpact (A Black Sea alliance) I have had the privilege of becoming friends with Valeriu Nicolae, the Romanian Roma activist. A theme he returns to repeatedly is abject failure in representation / comprehension of Roma issues even within those organizations that ostensibly exist (partly or wholly) to deal with said issues. A shortage of articulate Roma advocates is one part of the problem (although they do exist). However, there is also a pervasive paternalistic attitude towards a people seen to be unable or too child-like to know what’s best for them.In this context, the emergence of an adroit political player from among the Roma has the potential to offer a profound reality check.

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