The Romani movement: what shape, what direction?
On December 7, 2000, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, the ERRC, in conjunction with the Human Rights Students Initiative of the Central European University in Budapest, held a panel discussion entitled "The Romani Movement: What Shape, What Direction?" The premise of the discussion was that a Romani movement is gathering strength in Europe and the Americas, and Roma are increasingly a matter of public debate in a way that they have never previously been during their difficult history. To date, however, the shape and direction of this movement remains relatively undefined. In July 2000, the International Romani Union, an international non-governmental organisation founded in the 1970s, proclaimed that Roma are a non-territorial nation and called for securing a special international status. Observers noted that the organisation appeared to chart for itself a new course, moving from a non-governmental body to an institution with the ambition to act as a representative body for Roma. At the same time, Roma are being elected to positions in local government at an increasing rate: For example, Slovakia now has six Romani mayors and 86 local counsellors, according to a recent Slovak government report. Many have wondered what is coming: An open and inclusive civil rights movement? An exclusive European nationalism and a "nation building process"? If so, what does that entail? How will this "Romani nation building process" look? Will there be territorial claims? Where is this all leading? On the basis of the transcripts of the December 2000 discussion, the ERRC presents below a version of the discussion close to one year on; panelists taking part in the original discussion have been provided with their transcripts and have rendered versions based on the earlier, informal debate. Some of the original persons involved have chosen not to appear in the published version. Some other voices have joined the debate below. The panelists taking part in this on-going discussion are all, directly or tangentially, involved in the Romani movement. Some of them are Romani and others are friends working on behalf of Roma Rights. Their thoughts on where we are going follow:
I take the fact that we, the non-Roma, are asked to speak at this event, as a sign that we are being treated as guests. It would be good if the non-Roma are treated as guests also in the Romani movement, which is owned and developed by the Roma. I want to stress here the uniqueness of the Romani movement: Nothing in European history can serve as a precedent to it. There are of course other movements that offer lessons, as well as perspectives helping us to grasp what is going on in the Romani movement. I don't see clear precedents to the Romani movement in other parts of the world either.
I see the Romani movement as consisting of at least three different components, which have relative strengths and weaknesses in the different countries. The first is the human rights component of the Romani movement, or what has come to be more and more frequently referred to as the Roma Rights movement. For example, in my organisation, we say internally sometimes, "Such and such a development was a success for Roma Rights" - thus indicating that there exists an area of activities, concerns, aspects, whatever, that can be called Roma Rights. The second component of the Romani movement is related to identity building. This is a complex set of issues such as: Who can speak on behalf of the Roma? What ought the Romani movement focus on? Who are the "real Roma", and who else belongs with them politically, even though they don't identify as Roma? Are the Travellers also associated with the Roma? What about the Sinti, or the Ashkalija in Kosovo? How is Romani self-identification related to the Gypsy identity as the latter is perceived by the outside world? Controversy around this issue of identity is, I think, a natural phase in a liberation and emancipatory movement such as the one of the Roma.
I would define the third component of the Romani movement as recognising and articulating the critical interests of the Roma - the problems that surround Romani political participation. A number of country-specific questions arise here: Should the Roma be represented by one party or be enlisted as candidates on other party ballots? How should Roma make most of the domestic political systems? What would be the best ways for the Roma to be represented at the European and the global level?
Comparing these three components of the movement, I believe the human rights component is the least controversial. I am not aware of any faction of the Romani movement that would be opposed to working on questions like police brutality against Roma or skinhead violence. I am not aware of segments of the Romani movement that would be opposed to promoting equality and fighting discrimination. It would seem that the human rights agenda is a unifying factor in the movement. When saying this, I am aware of my possible bias here, because my point of view may be influenced by my job. Since I work in human rights, I am probably inclined to see the consensus of Roma on human rights issues and am less sensitive to opposing views, at least when it comes to the most narrowly defined basic human rights issues. As for identity, I realise that this is a very controversial area, filled with conflicts between various representatives of the movement. Representation is fundamentally an issue of power. Whoever represents the Roma, exerts power inside the Romani community and therefore also in the outside world, and vice versa. Whoever controls the relationships between Romani communities and majority institutions will be in a position to influence developments inside the movement. From where I stand, I see much struggle and much infighting going on about representation (read: power). As to the third component, it is comparatively new, and here the one thing that strikes me is the extreme diversity of domestic contexts. It is very difficult, I think, to build one political strategy for Roma that can be "exported" to different countries, because what Roma want to do in order to be politically present and fully participating in their own country depends immensely on the political landscape in each country, and that is unique in each country where Roma live. Thus, what is a good strategy in Bulgaria is not necessarily a good strategy in Hungary, and may even be harmful if promoted in the Czech Republic. So unlike in basic human rights, where I would stress universality, a country-specific approach should be stressed in analysing political participation.
Next point: I note in the last five years an enlargement in the geographical scope of the Romani movement. What I see as particularly interesting is the co-operation between Eastern European Roma and Western European Roma and the closer links between networks which are based in Western and Eastern Europe - this is just a very general impression. And what I see as an exciting and potentially very significant process is the entry into the game of the Roma (or Gypsies) from the former Soviet space. I think that they, not just by their numbers, but by their very different place in society as compared to the Roma of Eastern Europe, will influence the movement in a way that is difficult to predict at this time. Roma in Russia, for example, occupy a place in society which defies parallels to Hungary or the Czech Republic; once Roma from Russia or Ukraine join, they will change the internal balance of the movement.
Finally, I just want to note two most interesting issues, which I see as central the future of the Romani movement. The first is the issue of migration. There seems to be a forming of a consensus amongst the largest Romani networks, the Roma National Congress, the International Romani Union and the biggest domestic Romani organisations about their attitude towards the migration issue, the migration of Roma from the East and the asylum-seeking issue. I see here a very clear confrontation line on the battlefield, with the Romani movement as such not fragmented, but united on one side of the front line, while the governments and the international organisations camp on the opposite side. And the second issue that is of interest, but is probably more a matter of the future, is the recently raised claim for recognition of a non-territorial Roma nation. I suppose you are familiar with the developments last summer in Prague at the Congress of the International Romani Union, as well as with developments at Strasbourg last October at the European Conference Against Racism. I see the issue of a Roma nation as an issue which has the potential for empowerment if handled properly. I would very much like to come back to this discussion later.
It is difficult to give some recipe to the issue of Romani political participation. I can suggest some solutions from my own experience at the Human Rights Project, which is a front-runner of the Romani movement in Bulgaria. First, I think that the Romani movement has had some distinct achievements in the past 10 years in the field of human rights advocacy. Most of the Romani organisations actually worked as human rights advocacy organisations. I think that the next decade will be the decade of political participation of Roma. Part of the Romani movement has already taken a different course from the human rights advocacy movement, and this is the course of the political representation movement. Throughout Europe, Roma are underrepresented in public affairs, and if I can give some definition of the Romani problem, I can say that it is a problem of lack of participation in the decision-making and policy-making process, lack of participation on an equal basis. In the past decade Roma were overwhelmingly effected by decisions and choices that were made without their participation.
I will mention here some practical steps that were taken to prepare future Romani politicians. Myself, Angela Kocze and Monika Horakova proposed and started to develop Romani political leadership programmes in three countries, in order to begin to address the issue of the participation of Roma in political life. We want to expand this programme to other countries. What I see as a very important goal of these and similar programmes is to create a Romani elite in the countries of the region. Of course, we have some prominent people in different spheres. But unfortunately, I don't believe that we have a strong elite, which can be the engine of the community. This is why, practically, we think that we have to begin the process of creating a Romani elite. I know that in various countries there are actions aimed at increasing the number of well-educated Roma, but these are isolated cases, this is still not a process. I appreciate very much the initiative of the European Roma Rights Center to support Romani students of law, but these efforts need to be expanded in various academic fields. I am sure that, when we have a whole process of promoting Romani education at various levels - from primary school to university, we will have strong Romani leaders in each country, who will be the engine of the community. I see the project for desegregation of the Romani school system in Bulgaria, recently supported by the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program, as a significant contribution to this end. The segregation of Romani children in the school system is one of the most serious problems faced by Roma. There are specific aspects of the problems related to Romani education in the countries of the region, but Roma are denied equal educational opportunities everywhere. Unless we change this situation, it is unrealistic to expect that Roma will participate adequately in public life.
Thank you for the invitation to be here. I would like, as quickly as I can, to offer three separate visions or possible futures for the Roma Rights movement.
The first is a nightmare, which is that the situation continues as it is without substantial improvement. The efforts of organisations like the European Roma Rights Center, the Roma Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary, the Human Rights Project in Bulgaria and other organisations persist for several years like dying patients on a lifeline, from George Soros and others. A few cases are won for a few people. A few Roma who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do so, attend university and get employment, and more people talk and talk and talk about the Roma problem. The money for Roma Rights will dry up and this fledgling movement, unable to sustain itself in a fundamentally hostile environment, will have no significant impact on the situation of Roma in Europe. After several years absent anything more than window dressing for the Roma, the European Union will admit the candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe. The admissions will be conditioned upon improvements which will be monitored about as effectively as its sister organisation, the Council of Europe, which itself has monitored developments in these countries throughout the decade, which is to say, with lots of bark but with very little bite. So in 2010, Roma remain the poorest, most disempowered and most hated people in a 28-member European Union, the victims still of systematic discrimination and routine violence.
The second possible future is a fantasy of sorts. In recent months, as Dimitrina has mentioned, there has been talk of a Roma nation, a nation without a territory. Some have called for Roma to be accorded national status at the level of intergovernmental bodies, to be given a seat at the European Parliament or the United Nations, just as a government would be. And during the past week, as a possible prelude to such a nation-building effort under the auspices of the OSCE, Roma leaders have formed a Europe-wide network to formalise their discussions and to solidify their increasingly strong cross-boundary links. But why stop there? The European Parliament in Strasbourg is in a lovely building, but is one seat there really enough? Surely Roma, who number anywhere from 8 to 12 million, enjoy at least as much entitlement to a full fledged State as the Palestinians do. In this fantasy future - or perhaps this too is a nightmare to some - Roma don't just get a seat at the table, they get a whole country. Is this too much to ask? Since 1990, numerous people - Macedonians, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenes - have demanded and secured by violence, by fiat or by other means their own states. Why not the Roma? Not enough land? What about those States so often overlooked in official tallies, like Andorra or Monaco? Or what about Corsica, which the French government seems to be having difficulty in handling as of late? Kings without a country? No longer. In this fantasy of the future, Roma finally claim their own homeland!
Finally, a third vision of the future, which is a sort of cautionary tale. Notwithstanding the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of the EU enlargement process, notwithstanding the self- interest of many West European governments who want to keep out most Roma and other migrants, notwithstanding the resistance to change in Central and Eastern Europe, let us assume that the promise of European integration succeeds. And assume that under the pressure for change from Brussels and Strasbourg, European Union candidate countries enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, which clearly prohibits racial discrimination in all walks of life; assume they adopt all the institutional changes which are necessary to implement the new norms. Assume, in short, that Europe establishes racial and ethnic justice as a sine qua non of a new legal order. Equality of opportunity for the Roma people at long last secured. At this point, should victory be proclaimed?
I would like to look briefly at another country, which has also achieved legal equality for a long oppressed and once enslaved minority. In the United States, it is now 75 years since African Americans began their sustained struggle for legal equality, and it is almost half a century after the government and the courts began to act in earnest, and yet racism is far from gone and its debilitating effects linger on. The view of one leading African American scholar and activist is dire: "The very visible social and economic progress, made by some African Americans and other people of colour in the United States, cannot obscure the increasingly dismal demographics reflecting the status of most of those whose forebears were slaves. The basic measurements of poverty, unemployment and income suggest that the slow racial advances of the '60s and '70s have ended, and retrogression is well underway. The election of many Blacks to public office, many to positions never before held by Black persons, has been worthwhile, but it has not had much effect on the problems of unemployment and poverty. Incidents of random and organised racial violence are on the rise. "Moreover, hostility to Black progress - the widely noted "white backlash" - is growing and "constitutes a clear and present threat to the gains" which have been made.4 This scholar concludes that, in view of the extremely limited results of these anti-discrimination laws, "It is time to discuss seriously whether African-Americans [...] will ever gain real racial equality through the workings of traditional civil rights laws and judicial decisions."5
In a country which has done so much to fight racism, what has gone wrong? A number of observers have located the problem precisely in the widely held belief that racism is, in the words of Gunnar Myrdal's famous study of mid-century, "An American Dilemma".6 According to this view, racism is an "anomaly" in an American society which is fundamentally committed to equality. In general, this theory suggests, America is committed to equal justice for all - the problem is in the implementation. The distressing persistence of racial discrimination in the wake of years of legislation and litigation has led some to reconsider this myth of racism as an anomaly. And upon re-examination, a number of people have suggested "that racism is not simply [a black spot] on a fundamentally healthy liberal democratic body, but is [itself] part of what shapes and energises" liberal democracy - at least as it is known in the United States.7 Racism provides stability, it is said, by offering a steam valve into which whites who don't get their fair share of the pie may channel their social disaffection. Time and time again, masses of whites in the United States have supported anti-reform programmes that were contrary to their economic interests, so long as those policies treated African Americans even worse. And so, although anti-discrimination legislation has been adopted, racism in the United States has not abated, because race consciousness - the enormous personal stake which many whites have in their own whiteness - has remained ever present.
Does the Roma Rights movement have anything to learn from this sad story across the Atlantic? I fear that it may. In the United States "race consciousness makes it difficult [for many whites] to imagine the world differently."8 One might ask whether, at different times and in different places, national or ethnic consciousness has not played an analogous, limiting role in Europe. Repeatedly, throughout this century, politically manipulated appeals to national, ethnic or racial solidarity in Europe, have led one people after another to self-destructive courses of action, premised in part on the subordination of an inferior or different minority groups. Indeed, since the end of Communism, national, ethnic and regional allegiances have been cynically exploited, both in the East and in the West, as a means of diverting popular discontent with difficult economic and social adjustments. The raising of immigration walls in the West and the surge of anti-Roma violence in post-Communist countries are both troubling reflections of this phenomenon. So Europe is not immune to the exploitation of race and ethnicity for political ends. And national and ethnic consciousness in some European countries has such deep roots that it may well take more than simply legislation to get rid of it. What does this tell us? Even as we strive to expand the law's reach on behalf of the Roma, we must of course acknowledge that law alone is not sufficient. Legal action in the courts was an essential element of the Montgomery Bus boycott, that famous mass refusal of African Americans in Alabama in the 1950s to ride public buses that were segregated along racial lines. But the entire boycott would not have happened had not one woman, Rosa Parks, refused to stand up when asked to make way for a white man. Litigation without more does not a movement make. Anti-discrimination legislation is crucial, but if and when it comes, Roma Rights activists are likely to be sorely disappointed by its reach if they do not simultaneously forge a cross-national political movement capable of speaking articulately, forcefully and consistently on behalf Europe's largest minority. Thank you.
This is a hard question! On a larger level, the Romani movement does not exist. To the extent that the movement does exist on the European level, it is full of outside influences. To be honest, in reality, to me it looks more as if non-Romani people are presently making the Romani movement, with the participation of some Roma. So the Romani movement, in my opinion, has an artificial (unnatural) appearance. Definitely we are "guests" on this planet and as guests, everything we have or receive is a gift for us. I think we need to change this situation.
I think it is time not to be just appreciative for the natural things we receive as a nation (or to be appreciative only to God). It is time to start to build the Romani movement from the bottom up, with our own initiatives and resources. We need a lot of small-scale initiatives and all of them together will give us a signal as to the direction or directions in which we have to go. Of course we need to work together. But one more time I have to say the initiatives must be led by Roma, because only that way are we going to have a real shape and see our power and weaknesses. We will see what is reality.
Right now I don't know what the Romani movement is, or to be more precise: I don't see a Romani movement. The situation seems confused! It could be that I don't understand. I believe that in 20 or 30 years we will have a Romani movement built mainly by Romani people, if at that time any nation will be important or exist at all.
Five minutes on where we're coming from and where we're going to. Over a decade after the transitions across Eastern and Central Europe, the major political disgrace in the region is the plight of the Roma. It is obvious that Roma are deemed by vast numbers of the majority cultures to be beyond the pale, somehow undeserving of the privileges afforded by right to other citizens. For many Roma, their experience is rooted not just in a sense of illegitimacy, but in being illegitimate, in literally being outside the law. In such circumstances, the rights to which one might appeal are effectively erased. The repercussions of this racist misrecognition range from social segregation and exclusion to a widespread tolerance of racially motivated acts of violence against Roma.
In very practical terms, for Roma, such misrecognition affects their life chances: their access to education, housing, health provision, opportunities for employment - the list could go on. In the real world, virtually every struggle against in justice implies both demands for redistribution and recognition. In so much as access to these rights and resources is a matter of distributive justice, the politics of recognition that asserts that assimilation is no longer the price of equal respect must precede, or at least proceed in tandem with, policies of effective redistribution. Let there be no illusions, however, concerning the huge gap between what is and what ought to be.
The diasporic experience of the Roma, the historic resilience of their distinct sense of cultural identity and the growing sophistication of demands at local, national and transnational levels for formalised recognition of this distinctiveness, both across borders and within the polities where the Roma reside, all reveal fundamental lacunae in our inherited political traditions. The continued ostracism, the racist exclusion of Europe's most significant ethnic minority from meaningful and effective participation in political processes registers as perhaps one of the most critical of democratic deficits. Despite the pious cosmopolitan platitudes we hear from political leaders, the maltreatment of the Romani people provides a stark reminder of just how much our democracies, liberal and illiberal, both new and old alike, remain stained by residues of the ideologies of dark times.
As to the future, I remain convinced that, rather than think in terms of one civil rights movement, or one international body in which all hopes and resources would be invested, we should envisage something different. Indeed, we are now seeing something different: a plurality of struggles waged, and strategies adopted, by ever more sophisticated civic and political actors, capable of co-operating at local, national and international levels to advance the cause of Romani emancipation. On the issue of the Romani nation as raised by others, I have just a couple of brief points. If we are to understand the "national idea" in terms of territorial ambitions of secession or sovereignty, then there might be cause for some of the slightly alarmist questions of the sort that have been raised. There is of course no Romanestan. There is, in the immediate future, no realistic prospect of territorial claims that would provoke the sort of conflicts conventionally linked to nation-building processes. Quite aside from the difficulties of any one body claiming to represent all Roma everywhere, I consider that there need be no necessary tension between the idea and the rhetoric of Romani nationhood and an open and inclusive struggle for civil rights. Strategically, such rhetoric is very important in countering perceptions of Roma as scattered, dispersed, spectre-like beings who inhabit the margins of society. It is very important to counter the prejudicial denigration of a people, their language and culture. The building of a collective sense of worth, of demanding respect for, and strengthening, the sense of, Romani identity is vitally important - the strengthening of what Ian Hancock called jekhipe, oneness - while at the same time cherishing the rich diversity within Romani culture and among Romani peoples. This remains an integral part of the struggle for dignity and recognition.
I have taken the panel discussion's title for my commentary because it addresses the two overriding aspects of any Romani movement: its shape or structure and its goals. Those of our people who in the past have approached governments with (mainly unheeded) requests that sought to benefit large numbers of Romanies, such as Steve Kaslov in the United States in 1908 or Mathias Kwiek in Poland in the early 1930s, can hardly be counted as "movements" in themselves. Since being established in the 1970s and 1980s, organisations such as the International Romani Union or the Roma National Congress, on the other hand, have attempted to represent positions drawn from a broad representation of Romani thought, and to bring specific issues to the larger table: the recent request at the Durban conference against racism that our people be recognised as a non-territorial nation among nations, for example. Still, the question remains as to whether there is indeed a concerted "Romani movement", or whether there are a number of localised and differently-aimed efforts having little or no superstructure uniting them.
Romani nationalism remains at the present time an emotion, though a poorly-defined one. If anything can be said to unite those who think about such things, then it is this. I say "poorly-defined" because for very few does it encompass all populations of Romani descent, and beyond a general feeling of frustration and righteous indignation, together with a good amount of anger and ethnic pride, substantial notions of what should or could be done to benefit every one of us are lacking. In order to get those thoughts in order, a number of basic issues must be understood and examined.
First of all, when we speak of a "movement", who, in fact, is doing the moving? If we speak of the Romani movement, who are the Romanies referred to? Would (for instance) a group of vocal Bulgarian Romanies demanding better housing for themselves and better schooling for their children be speaking for (say) Finnish Roma too? And if so, how would Finnish Romanies, or the Finnish government, know that? When a group at one of our world congresses some years ago declared themselves as "traditional", i.e. conservative and minimally (in their eyes) gadzikanime, and therefore more legitimately representative of our true people, they were setting themselves apart from those Romanies who are actually in a better position to bridge the links with the non-Romani world. When a representative of a Serbian Romani delegation at a different meeting stated before all of us that the Spanish Cale and the French Manouche weren't "real" Romanies, he made it clear that a "Romani movement" wouldn't include those populations, who number about one million. Romanies in North and South America, who altogether number more than twice that, are well aware that they are usually not consulted, or even much thought about, by Romani leaders in Europe.
The question of who we are, if we are to constitute a "movement" as a people, comes first. Are we in fact one people? Are we, as a diaspora population, global or only European? We have to understand and accept our identity or identities, and be in charge of them ourselves - and the non-Roma must accept that, if a dialogue is to succeed. This is a mighty task, because it involves educational programs and the money and expertise to make them happen. And we have distressingly little of either.
I used the word dialogue deliberately here, because as a people without an economic, territorial or other structure, we perforce depend upon the non-Romani world in almost every area of our existence. Therefore, a movement of any kind will have to involve ongoing dialogue with gadzikanija, which has a great deal of influence over what we can do and cannot do. Is the emphasis on European Roma - to the practical exclusion of Roma in Australia or Canada or elsewhere - the direct result of non-Romani European influence on Romani affairs? Is it what we want for ourselves?
A movement can be many things, but it is always a concerted effort to bring about change. In terms of priority, issues of health, safety, housing, employment and education are high on the list, but the emphasis for these are not everywhere the same. Housing is not a problem in the United States, but health is; anti-Gypsyism is less rampant in South America but education remains a serious issue. Roma everywhere share the concern that the children will not know enough of the language and culture; reasserting these aspects of Romani identity could easily constitute a "movement". But how is it to be achieved in practice, and how much weight is given to it when those same children are going to bed hungry each night?
I don't propose any answers here, but I can venture some observations. First of all, we must know more about ourselves before we will be able to work together properly. We must accept our differences as well as those things that we share as Romani people. For the most part, the differences which notionally divide us were not acquired by choice but by circumstance.
Secondly, we should work from the ground up, and not from the top down. If we can work together concertedly at the community level, and produce representatives who can meet with other representatives from other groups, and if we can cultivate reliable means of communication and the sharing of information and ideas, only then will we have a basis to build on.
Thirdly, we must all push for more independence and self-sufficiency, and that means urging our young people to stay in school and become teachers and lawyers, engineers and medical workers, so that we don't have to rely solely on help from outside.
For me, this is the Romani Movement that I would like to see and the direction we should be pursuing.
I am a historian by training, so my deformation is to look for the answers to the future in the past. I think many of the persons working on Roma Rights do this as well, whether they realise it or not. Few people with whom I work are fully immune from questions such as: Is the Romani issue like U.S. Civil Rights? If so, are we now in a situation like the United States in the 1960s? 1950s? 1920s? Or is the Romani movement like anti-apartheid? Or like the struggle of the Canadian First People's for the rights of indigenous peoples? Who is the Romani Ghandi or Martin Luther King? I have heard numerous people at various times and in various places casually compare this Romani activist or that one to Malcolm X.
Frequently among our colleagues, the choice of historical model is, I think, guided - sometimes consciously, sometimes not - by the vision of the given activist. For example, if one's vision of the Romani future is about maximum autonomy and special recognised privileges based on a particular historical experience, then the exemptions and self-government sought, and to a great extent, won by the Canadian First Peoples is a good model. On the other hand, if one seeks heroic examples of the struggle for equal treatment, the U.S. civil rights movement is a useful place from which to draw inspiration. I think a number of us at the ERRC get a lot of mileage out of anti-apartheid, in part because of the deep imprint that movement made on international law, but also because of what it revealed about the potential uses of international action, as well as the fact that it is, for me at least, within living memory.
A wise person told me once that the historical approach to contemporary movements is a dead end - that any movement, including the Romani movement, needs to be built upon the foundations of the real strengths of the community at issue, and not by applying a preconceived design based on previously used models. I basically agree. However, if one doesn't get too carried away with the historical approach - that is, if one doesn't attempt to oppress the facts at issue - historical comparison can be useful for trying to illuminate both what we do and where we are going.
I would briefly argue here that the most relevant movement for our purposes is in fact one of the least discussed: Zionism. Here are a few reasons why:
- In the first place, Zionism was first and foremost an Eastern European movement. Its heartland was the western borderlands of Russia as it existed prior to the end of World War I, that is to say, areas now located in countries such as Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Eastern European Jews comprised the bulk of its membership, most of its leadership, and were the driving force and inspiration for the movement. The cultural circumstances - the forces that Roma face opposing the growth of Romani power - are, if not identical, extremely similar to those facing the Zionists during the main years of the movement in the first half of the 20th century. The fact that the Romani movement is being built in the same place as Zionism matters, since many institutions of the wider society are identical: Think, for example, of the unique role played by schooling in society in Central and Eastern Europe. Everywhere in the world, schooling has become the sine qua non for advancement. However, preoccupations with titles, obsessive deference to expertise and an authoritarian culture imposed through schooling - these are Central and Eastern European particularities. And they are used directly in the service of oppressing Roma. More importantly perhaps, both movements have had to contend directly with - and also have taken many cues from - European nationalisms. (By nationalism, I don't mean the right wing activist fringe, but rather the cultural middle - the very filter through which Europeans view the world and their role in it).
- However, one need not look this deeply for similarities, since even the immediate circumstances imposed on Jews in the era of the Zionist movement were similar to those imposed on Roma today: Crippling levels of unemployment and poverty, widespread hostility based on deeply ingrained prejudice and folk mythology, serious obstacles to communication imposed by bureaucratic obstacles to travel - these were true for mobilising Jews in the 1920s, and they are true for mobilising Roma in Central and Eastern Europe today. Also, Jews in the 1920s and Roma today are in similar demographic situations in those similar societies: Although there are millions of Roma Europe-wide - a total population five to ten times higher than that of some European states - demography weighs heavily against any realistic expectations that, outside a few regions, Roma will, in the near future, be able to command majorities or even become contending minorities in any country.
- Finally, as many have noted, anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism, deeply interwoven as they are with European folk wisdom and penetrated to the roots of European cultures to a pathological degree, mark these phenomena out as both similar to each other, as well as distinct from the various national rivalries of Europe. And it is against these phenomena that first the Zionist and now the Romani revolt has taken/is taking place.
There are obviously also differences between Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century and Roma in Central and Eastern Europe today. Although both are marginalised communities, the mode of their oppression is in fact different. Also, the cultural baggage of Roma at the beginning of the modern era was different from that of Jews, and so they were differently situated for the conditions that have prevailed throughout the modern era. Further, the strategies Roma have developed to survive times of real hardship have in many cases been different from those deployed by Jews. Finally, although similar, the first decade of the 21st century is not exactly the same as the early 20th century, and periodicity does matter to some extent. However, what Jews did to mobilise, in similar conditions to Roma today, warrants serious attention by Romani activists: There is much in the history of Zionism that could be of potential use.
Although comparisons with Jews abound - the Holocaust, etc. - I have only ever heard a Romani activist mention Zionism once - during the NATO bombing of Kosovo - and then only in the context of trying to encourage Roma to build voluntary brigades to rebuild Kosovo. This was before ethnic Albanians in Kosovo ethnically cleansed Roma from the province following the bombing. It was still possible to imagine that Kosovo could be a place for energetic and idealistic action by young Roma, once the bombing stopped. The idea that Kosovo might be the seed-ground for cultivating Romani idealism was one interesting use of Zionist history in providing a possible road map for the Romani movement. There are more. For example: Jews in the early part of the Zionist movement resolved - at least partially - the problem of the democratic legitimacy of their trans-national leadership, as well as problems of funding and inclusion, by the simple mechanism of "selling the shekel". You could not be a member of the Zionist movement unless you paid money. Your money bought membership and entitled you to one vote in periodic elections. It was clear who chose to join, and problems of constituency, as well as the issue of self-appointed leadership, were more-or-less regulated. But it is not only on this strictly organisational/mechanistic front that Zionism has ideas of potential use for a Romani movement - the core challenges of Zionism, such as breaking the primary allegiance of Jews to the national states of other peoples and building the Jewish patriot and the Jewish body politic, were nearly identical to challenges facing Romani activists today. How those Jewish activists went about this daunting task can be instructive and useful.
Zionism was a movement founded on pessimism. In the wake of the pogroms and blood libel episodes of the 1880s and 1890s, many Jews fundamentally despaired that they could ever surmount the barrier of European anti-Semitism and lead normal, dignified lives in Europe. The Zionist answer was ultimately to leave Europe and found a nation-state somewhere else. That the Zionist project was successful has, to a great extent, fundamentally altered the lives of Jews everywhere. However, the lingering problems related to Israeli statehood should lead us to at least pose the following question: Was the final thrust to Israeli statehood not possibly a misuse of a mobilised Jewish population in Eastern Europe? Would it be possible to imagine other outcomes? These questions strike me as crucial for anyone now working on building a Romani future.
The following questions come to my mind in response to the posed question: Do we have a Romani movement or just something we are shaping and forming for the future? Do the Roma have some kind of nation, or will this remain a metaphysical abstraction?
Exclusion and racial discrimination against Roma at a national and international level have generated the Romani movement in Central and Eastern Europe. The emergence of new political regimes and the market-oriented economy have created a deeper gap between the very fragmented Romani community and the mainstream society. Social distance is manifested in various forms, such as racial segregation in the education system or via the perpetuation of the underclass status of Roma, or through exclusion from political participation.
Numerically, the Romani commmunity is the largest minority group in Europe. Roma have always experienced a high level of imposed exclusion. This extreme marginalisation did not just happen by accident: It was manufactured by various policies and through conscious actions and purposeful institutional arrangements. These continue to today. Unfortunately, the lack of public recognition of segregation's role in oppressing Roma only perpetuates the inequality in society.
Racial discrimination against Roma is not selective. One could be anywhere in Central and Eastern Europe and experience it. The Romani victim could be anyone - educated or illiterate, young or old, man or woman. The negative experience of discrimination could be a common and fundamental element in building our movement and it could form one of the segments of our identity.
I would like to distinguish two dimensions in the Romani movement. One is external and the other is internal.
The internal dimension consists of several issues which should be dealt with in the movement, such as the identity-building process, various forms of internal oppression (sexism, ageism, etc.), traditionalism versus modernisation, tokenism, totalitarianism versus democratisation, Romani or non-Romani leadership.
I would like to discuss at present only one issue related to the internal dimension, namely identity. The identity-building process should be one of the most important components of our efforts to strengthen the Romani movement. We need to create our positive image and destroy the negative, subordinated, imposed identity. There is a link between the demand for political recognition and identity. Certainly, our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition by others. A person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society mirror back at them a confining or demanding or contemptible picture of themselves. Non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression. The majority society has for generations projected a demeaning image of Roma, and many Roma have internalised this demeaning image. Our own self-depreciation, on this view, becomes one of the most potent instruments of our oppression. Misrecognition also can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. In all kinds of working and political situations, non-Roma take advantage of the oppressed Romani identity. So the first task of the movement should be to purge ourselves of this imposed and destructive identity. One of the requirements of the Romani movement should be spiritual and mental liberation and rehabilitation.
When I speak of the external dimension of the movement, I mean those elements of Romani existence involving interactions with the mainstream society, such as all forms of discrimination and racism (including denied racism), habits of communication, or even some of the achievements of the movement, as well as all kinds of political relations with national or international bodies.
In Central and Eastern European societies, the Romani issue is becoming one of the most urgent topics. At present, the main engine driving this new attention is the EU accession framework. This means that the Romani issue is generally not understood on the ground as one of systemic human rights violations, and is rather only seen as an imposed condition for admission to the EU. I am concerned that this results in a situation in which our issues are addressed only out of fear of exclusion from the EU, and therefore that solutions devised may never be efficient and may never address the real roots of the problem. That is, EU pressure may possibly create a new obstacle in the struggle.
As I see it, concerning the external issues facing the Romani movement, with the passage of time, these become ever more sophisticated and more complex, with more stakeholders on the scene. The Romani movement should find ways and techniques to provide an adequate response to these new challenges.
With respect to the Roma nation idea, I think this is not applicable in the Romani case, unless we are talking on a purely metaphysical level. According to Ernest Renan, the nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common.
As is well known, one unified Romani community does not exist in Europe, although there are many different Romani groups, each with its own distinct culture and community history. There is only one common feature of Roma: The oppressed identity and the harmed soul and spirit. I do not think this can be the sole basis for nation building. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, the more we pluck the strings of the "Roma nation", the more we provide national governments with good arguments for avoiding addressing all kinds of unresolved issues regarding Roma.
- Dimitrina Petrova is Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Center.
- Rumyan Russinov is Executive Director of the Roma Participation Project of the Open Society Institute.
- James Goldston is Deputy Director of the Open Society Institute and Senior Legal Counsel for the European Roma Rights Center.
- Bell, D. "An Allegorical Critique of the United States Civil Rights Model," in B. Hepple and E. Szyszczak, eds., Discrimination: The Limits of Law (1992), p.8.
- Myrdal, G. An American Dilemma (1944).
- Bell, supra, quoting J. Hochschild, The New American Dilemma (1984), p.5.
- Bell, supra, p. 13, quoting, K. Crenshaw, "Race, reform and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law," 101 Harvard Law Review 1331, 1380-81 (1988).
- Dusan Ristic is founder of the on-line mobilisation initiative Romani Crisis Network, and a working Romani artist from Yugoslavia. He is presently Director of the Amala Summer School for Romani Dance, Music and Language in Valjevo, Yugoslavia. For more information, see http://www.galbeno.co.yu.
- Bernard Rorke is Program Manager of the Roma Participation Project of the Open Society Institute.
- Ian Hancock is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, the USA.
- Claude Cahn is Research and Publications Director of the European Roma Rights Center.
- Angela Kocze is Human Rights Education Director of the European Roma Rights Center.