Roma and Politics: Where is the Real Power of the Romani Movement?

07 May 2002

In Roma Rights 4/2001, the ERRC published a roundtable discussion on the future of the Romani movement. The discussion provoked a number of reactions from the public. The ERRC is printing below the written response of Mr Ivan Veselý, a Czech Romani activist. The original discussion is available on the Internet at: The Romani movement: what shape, what direction? .

The Romani movement received massive impetus in 1989, the year of change. Numerous Roma appeared on the political scene from the states of the former Soviet empire, and the number of Roma who gained a chance to participate in political life multiplied. Hope and expectations were great, as was the enthusiasm and efforts of the first activists. Today, 12 years later, the equation "democracy = the emancipation of Roma" is not as automatic or assumed as was once thought. On the contrary, the situation of Roma in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has worsened in many respects. Social insecurity, racially-motivated violence, segregation and hopelessness are on the rise. The exodus of Roma from the region is one sign of this deterioration.

The reactions of politicians, and much of the public, foster the conclusion that the standard mechanisms of democratic politics have failed in solving these problems. This has been shown clearly by the results of efforts for larger Romani participation in political life, within individual states and on the international level. As a summary of these efforts demonstrates (see Roma Rights 4/2001), the attempt to support Roma through political parties and representation in the legal organs of individual states has brought very few results.

The problem lies within the political system itself, rather than in an incorrectly chosen strategy or tactic of political representation. The founding of new parties or co-operation with others has not led to many positive outcomes. Nor can they be expected in the future. Why is this?

Without changes in the legislative structure, the emancipation of Roma is not possible. The idea that Romani representation would increase the consciousness of the entire Romani community, and thus would have a positive effect regardless of its particular results, has been voiced repeatedly in discussions. This idea, however, is erroneous, and it does not correspond to the common experience of Roma. On the contrary, an unfavourable effect is taking place – those Roma who are engaged in such institutions crash into barriers of prejudice erected by their majority colleagues. They quickly lose their reputation and at the end of the day – rightfully or not – the majority of Roma, disappointed by waiting for positive outcomes, consider activists to be renegades seeking their own benefit. This was demonstrated by the fate of a number of Czechoslovak Romani parliamentary representatives during the heady period of 1990-1992, as well as by the fate of the Romani party, Romani Civic Initiative, itself. One key precondition for positive and radical change is a strong and active movement, capable of mobilising the masses. The Romani movement had this character in the former Czechoslovakia, but it was lost after the break-up of the federation.

We can hope that necessary legislative changes will be reached through intervention from the outside; the close ties of a number of post-communist states with the European Union provide an opportunity for us. Perhaps over the years we will reach a time when the practice of publicly voicing xenophobic or racist viewpoints will be considered unacceptable, and Roma will work as activists, politicians, officers or policemen. But will this radically change the situation of the majority of Roma? Will it not become an opportunity solely for the elite, leaving lasting poverty and unemployment for others, keeping them in a marginal and ostracised position? In a discussion in Roma Rights 4/2001, Mr James Goldston uses the U.S. as an example: Despite official rhetoric, hidden racism is a welcomed release valve for the frustration of unsuccessful "whites" and appears necessary to retain political stability. We find that such a release valve is also a political tool in the repertoire of many politicians in post-communist countries.

Other groups also find themselves in the ranks of the marginalised these days – entire social groups, irrespective of race or ethnicity. The role of the "scapegoat" also threatens these communities. In light of the way in which politics has been reduced to a power struggle between so-called "leaders," we should ask ourselves, what justifies the existence of the Romani movement itself? Would it not be wiser to join other similarly endangered groups and fight together for our civil, political and social rights – and against the misuses of nationalism? Are the specific values of Roma worth saving, despite the grave complications created by the effort at their preservation?

Mr Hubert Gordon Schauer asked a similarly provocative question at the time of the formation of the new Czech nation. To date, the question has served as a memento of doubt over the sense of the existence of a nation that would not be able to create, protect or develop real, original values. The parallel with national revival, and Czech revival in particular, is more effective than the analogy with Zionism elaborated upon by Mr Claude Cahn in the same discussion. At the end of the 18th, century, there was no united Czech language, only a number of regional dialects that were spoken by the poor. Access to education required knowledge of German. Literature written in Czech was virtually non-existent. Only with the efforts of a few intellectuals was a proper language artificially created. There were practically no traditions or customs. During the previous hundreds of years of foreign dominance, these had slowly degraded to the level of mere folklore. The elite was deliberately decimated after the battle of Bila Hora (1620), and memories of a greater past were suppressed and replaced by an artificial identity. There was no political representation; its implementation was preceded by decades of effort and struggle. There was thus a need for the detailed work of national revivalists, which formed the mutual culture and the consciousness of mutual belonging that arose from it.

If Ms Angéla Kóczé, in the same discussion, refers to Mr Ernest Renan in denying the idea of a Romani nation, she forgets that the spiritual principles she finds lacking in Romani culture were, as in most modern nations (e.g. German, Italian, etc.), also artificially created in the Czechs. The enthusiasm for a heritage of memories, as well as the wish to live together and the will to continue in the meaning of history, did not appear by itself; it was artificially and deliberately cultivated. Certain personalities in the past supported and developed such efforts. Especially in small nations with turbulent and disconnected trajectories of development, as was the case with the Czechs, the material of historical memory was not at the disposition of the population, despite its culture or consciousness of mutual belonging. This consciousness was, by the way, greater among Czechs during the Czech national revival in the 19th century than it is among many Roma today. If activists deny the idea of a Roma nation, then the independent Romani movement loses its justification for existence. The current needs of Roma may be effectively advanced on principles that are not ethnic but rather civic, class-based, etc. Today's activists should instead look for their place in human rights, educational activities and cultural programs, or in the struggle for social security or charity work.

The Romani movement cannot draw strength from sources other than the processes of national consciousness. All new nations have undergone a similar process in the past 200-300 years. Roma stand somewhere at the beginning. The question is whether this is repeatable under current conditions? If we proceed from the assumption that it is not necessarily true that the highest form of national existence is one's own state, then we may be able to avoid the otherwise common tragic elements – hundreds of dead, ethnic cleansing and other ghastly matters – that have accompanied the formation of other nations.

If we accept the analogy with the Czech national revival, new tasks stand before the Romani movement. Considering where we are now, the current phase of this process demands the awakening of a sense of mutual belonging through the educational and cultural revival of the nation. Only after matters such as self-confidence and trust become common among Roma will they have sufficient strength for political emancipation. The existence of political parties is premature. For such parties to be relevant today, we need to overcome the games over power, influence and money that divide Roma. We must concentrate on things that bring them together and strengthen the feeling of belonging. Even though this may not answer everyone's personal preferences, we should realise that, for this historic moment, ideology based on unity, solidarity and knowledge is more important than ideology based on individualism and fierce "who's who" competition.

In the discussion in Roma Rights, Mr Ian Hancock, an American professor of linguistics, comes closest to representing my views on the subject. He maintains the necessary distance and dispassionate point-of-view missing from the contributions of other members of the discussion.

Today's challenge is to build a representation not from above, as is now taking place, but rather from below. We do not need elites selected randomly, but rather natural authorities from the community level – persons with the trust of those around them, defending the rights of the people who chose them. Community self-governance does not have to wait for official approval; it can exist without warm offices or state salaries. Other so-called representatives can merely offer their services to the powerful and become instruments of their will. Only when we have a competent leadership with real mandates, supported by their environment, will we stand a real chance to advance ourselves.

In the Dženo Association , we try to develop and actualise the ideas I have expressed briefly here. I could express in detail my opinion on other matters voiced in the discussion and concerning the Romani movement, but that will have to wait for another article.

Ivan Veselý
Chair, Dženo Association
Commissioner for Media
International Romani Union


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