Romani Politics as a Profession
29 July 2004
Recently, I have often heard Romani activists and leaders criticising the so-called "professional Roma". The negative implication of this phrase is probably conveyed by the two assumptions: First, that the professional – that is, a person who gets money for the work she/he does, in whatever sphere – joins the Romani movement not necessarily because of the cause of this movement but rather for the financial gain. My question to those critics is: Even if we had lots of professionals in the Romani Movement who joined it because they were attracted by the salaries, is it not more important for the Movement to have qualified people who could contribute with their expertise, eventually to the cause of the Romani Movement, rather than having morally committed persons with limited professional capabilities?
The other assumption behind the criticism of "professional Roma" is that some members of the Romani minority – it is alleged – have chosen to become activists in the Movement because they are incapable of finding another field. I could think of politicians in my country who happily explain to the public that they can always find another job, outside politics, because they have solid professions. I do not subscribe to this point of view. In my opinion Romani politics, and politics in general, is not an activity that can be carried out among other things. If you want to be a strong politician and an effective one, you have to take politics seriously, as a primary occupation. That is, to be a professional politician.
The Romani Movement has started as an amateur undertaking but its gradual professionalisation is inevitable and needed.
In 1992, I was twenty-four years old and at a crossroad. I had just graduated from the most prestigious economic university in Bulgaria. Like my non-Romani colleagues, I had ambitions to start working for a financial firm or a bank. At the same time, the Romani Movement in Bulgaria was gaining ground – the first Romani organisations and the first Romani leaders had just emerged. My father, Serguei Russinov, was among the Romani leaders at the time. In these early years there were no donors, there was no websites of non-governmental organisations, and in practice there was no professional work in the Romani organisations. There were no offices, emails, travel costs, etc. On our old Russian-made car, my father and his friends travelled around the country and met people. My father made several attempts to persuade me to join him and his friends, explaining to me that the Romani Movement needs young, educated Roma. My thoughts, however, were on my professional advancement as an economist. On the other hand, the first public appearances of some of the Romani leaders at the time were not very impressive, making me think that my place was not among them. However, one day (sometime in July 1992), my father managed to persuade me to attend a conference in Varna. The purpose of the conference was to unite several Romani organsiations oriented at the time towards the two major political parties in the country – on the left and on the right side of the political spectrum. This conference was far from our idea of a Romani conference nowadays – there was no agenda, no speakers. There was no reimbursement of travel and accommodation costs, etc. The rudimentary logistics, however, were offset by huge enthusiasm for the meeting of Romani activists from all over the country. I did not have big expectations of the results and was unfortunately right – unity was not accomplished. The people were overwhelmed by their emotions, and rational views were stifled by everyone's desire to speak in public. For myself, however, this conference was a turning point. I started asking myself questions and looking for answers.
After this conference, I became much more involved in Romani politics – I started reading the literature on Roma available then, and attended most of the public events related to Roma at the time. A year later, I began my career in the Sofia-based Human Rights Project – one of the first Roma rights advocacy groups in the region. That is, I began professional activist work. I have been going along this path for the past 12 years.
I could hardly describe everything that happened during these years and this is not the purpose of my article. Rather, I would like to address those young and educated Roma who are now in my position of twelve years ago. This writing is addressed to the young Roma who are now faced with the dilemma of whether to join the Romani Movement or to continue their professional carriers as economists, doctors, lawyers, etc. Eventually, everyone will make their own choice, and the lines below are simply one point of view on the issue.
At this point, the Romani Movement is still in a transitional phase – from the amateur years to professional politics. The need for Romani professionals is enormous. We still don't have as many highly qualified Roma as I wish we had. Can we afford to "disperse" our potential? I think now, more than ever, it is necessary to mobilise our potential. The past decade ended with a victory for those who fought to give prominence to Roma rights concerns at international and domestic level. The work in the years to come will build on this increased awareness of Roma rights problems. Many programs on Roma have already been developed and many more are underway. Roma specialists and professionals are needed to develop and implement these programs if they are to achieve better results than the policies implemented so far.
One day, I believe, when this transitional period for the Romani Movement is over, when the Romani Movement has taken steadily its course in the right direction, most of us, the Roma with education, may be able to afford the luxury to be professionals in many spheres, not necessarily related to Roma. Then, I hope, the number of Romani professionals will be much higher too.
Now, twelve years after my first steps in the Romani Movement, if I had to choose again whether to be an economist or a Romani activist, I would again choose the latter.
- Rumyan Russinov is Director of the Budapest-based Roma Participation Program of the Open Society Institute. He is also member of the ERRC Board.