Comfort in Times of Change - Interview with Dimitrina Petrova for Roma Rights

17 May 2007

ERRC: Dimitrina, you are the founding Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, which you are leaving now after having stayed in the top job for 11 years. Was ERRC a success?

Dimitrina Petrova: Probably. The ERRC was the architect of the Roma rights culture, including through publishing this periodical resource journal, Roma Rights. It put Roma on the map. In the early 1990s there was no awareness of the plight of Roma and no interest. Now Roma are an issue in European politics as well as on the domestic scene in many countries. It is not my place to praise the ERRC, as so much praise has been heard from others; especially around the tenth anniversary, which we celebrated this year.

ERRC: This is true. But are you personally confident that the ERRC is a successful page in the history of the Roma movement and also of the human rights movement?

D.P.: Churchill said, "History will absolve me, for I intend to write it." Since I do not intend to write the history of the ERRC, I am not sure how my work will be judged after another 10 years, and beyond. Whoever controls the present controls the past. But I trust that I have managed to do something useful, not alone of course, but together with others; useful and worthy from the point of view of certain values.

ERRC: Which values?

D.P.: Human rights. Dignity. Equality of rights. Equal opportunity for all.

ERRC: In the last five or six years you led the organisation more and more into issues of non-discrimination and equality. You have now launched a new international organisation, The Equal Rights Trust. Is equality one of your most important values?

D.P.: It is indeed, but values are not a light subject I could discuss without certain restraints. Equality is a good thing but only on the basis of liberty. In the last couple of years I have had a difficult time arguing with my younger daughter, who is a student of economics and politics. She thinks equality is the biggest issue in the world today, whereas freedom is not such a big deal. Poverty is a denial of dignity and renders civil liberties meaningless, says she. But being born in 1986, she does not remember communism and knows about it more from tales and books and myths. For me, it is a different story. The best thing that ever happened to me was the end of communism. My lived experience in a totalitarian society has committed me to civil liberties. One of my fears is that the young generation, especially in the developed democracies, may be taking freedom for granted. And then, speaking of values, my dissertation was about utopia and a critique of value rationality. As a philosopher, I am not unconditionally attached to any particular value at all, but regard value rationality as a form of exercising power. I define a value as a false common locus of conflicting interests.

ERRC: Please explain.

D.P.: This would make for a boring technical reading. I will only say something about my resistance to fragmentation. I always suspected that divisions, dichotomies and binary oppositions between values are deceptive. A belief in a particular value when driven too far is dangerous. People impose false mental borders and then as a species forget their own authorship, as it were. They give a name to a mental creation and after a certain processing in the messy factory known as human society we get a candidate for fundamentalist worshipping. In high school I rebelled against the division of knowledge. I went one day to a workshop in town and ordered a huge notebook of 500 large format pages specially bound for me in hard cover. I put away all my notebooks for math, grammar, geography, history, etc. and started going to school with that big notebook, which was one of my first discoveries in empirical philosophy. To horrified teachers I insisted that as all knowledge is interrelated and interdependent, the sheer number of notebooks we were forced to carry every day for the different subjects in school was part of a lie. Our life after school would not consist of those subjects and the most important stuff is not covered in school anyway. The school authorities fought with me for a while but then left me alone as I was a bright student otherwise. This part of my identity must have persisted as I now also prefer a holistic perspective and a historic approach.

ERRC: You studied philosophy, but have also been in politics and an academic, and you have stated to ERRC recently that your current preoccupation, which is an extension of human rights work, is with the strategies of social reform. You are a pretty normal boss to have, but there are rumours of some eccentric interests and hobbies you maintain. Who are you, Dimitrina?

D.P.: We all have multiple identities. If an identity is challenged by a hostile society, it can harden and encapsulate you. For example, you are Romani but you should resist being seen as nothing other than Romani. As a free grown up person, I do not feel a need to fit in one identity and am most comfortable in times of change and in times of greater challenge. There is a narrow path winding between security and risk. This is where I feel at home.

ERRC: And in physical space, where is the place you call home?

D.P.: I am too young to know this. Maybe Burgas on the Black Sea, in Bulgaria. This is where I was born and grew up; on the rainy and breezy coast, with the sound of the sea and the sea gulls, and where my parents have always lived. I sometimes think that I will go back there when I retire, but who knows. Right now I am heading in the opposite direction.

ERRC: You must have heard this question many times, but please answer it here. What brought you to the Roma cause?

D.P.: The assumption that human rights advocates, like doctors, ought to first take care of the most urgent and severe cases. The realisation back in the early 1990s that Gypsies (the word Roma was not used much at the time) were among the most deprived people in Eastern Europe. And certainly fortuity played its role, as usual. Aryeh Neier, the President of the Open Society Institute, defined the need to launch a centre focusing on the legal defence of Roma, provided the blueprint and took the risk to recommend funding, as well as to appoint me to build the organisation. Looking back, I must confirm that the ERRC was lucky also with its Board chairs and Board members who were the right people. We could always count on them.

ERRC: You are not Romani yourself. How has it felt to be the director of an institution working on Roma issues?

D.P.: I have always maintained that Roma rights should be of everybody's concern. There is nothing wrong with being of a different ethnicity and struggling for people whose identity is different from your own. It would be wrong to have people struggle for the rights of their kin only. I am most confident that genuine human rights values are defended adequately when I see this done by a diverse team. An ethnically homogenous team is less valuable as it drives further the fragmentation of humanity. But this is one side of the coin. On the other hand it is undoubtedly important for an oppressed minority such as Roma to have its own representatives in leading positions, especially where questions concerning that minority are decided.

ERRC: This is a principled answer and the one we would expect from you, but the question was how did it feel for you, at a personal level?

D.P.: My feelings do not matter. I have a bad emotional memory, especially for unpleasant events. Sure enough I have been sad sometimes when I have heard that behind my back some Romani individuals have commented that I am occupying someone else's place, a place that should belong to one of them. At other times I have been happy to be warmly accepted by Roma and amongst Roma and to be able to appreciate their rich culture. But in any case, I have tried to put my feelings to one side and be guided by my own rational judgement. If I have been good at what I was doing, it is because I believed in it. The position at the helm of the ERRC was an opportunity to participate in social reform and to contribute to the community in ways that matter to me politically. It was a position of significant power to frame issues, set priorities and plan the steps to desired outcomes. Power carries responsibility and this is itself a strong feeling that can blur and weaken my other feelings. At least this is how it is with me.

ERRC: In what role do you want to see ERRC in the next stage, after you have left? Do you want to see it carry on with its mission in the same or similar way as to date?

D.P.: No. I regard organisations as a means to an end. The ERRC has been a good instrument for a certain set of goals, such as raising the profile of Roma in Europe, developing strategies of defence of Roma rights and human rights more generally and, more recently, shaping certain policies of equal opportunity. At this stage, the ERRC is a multi-functional toolkit that can be put into a variety of usages. The environment in which ERRC works is changing and will keep changing, and this means that the organisation's purpose and strategy need to be refocused and repositioned. The Board is aware of this and so is the staff. I hope the funding community will appreciate that too.

ERRC: What do you think of the Romani women's movement so far?

D.P.: It is the component of the Romani movement that I find the most exciting, the most promising and the most authentic. It should be encouraged in every way possible. One of my few regrets is that I did not employ a women's rights officer and did not focus strongly on women's issues from the very start, or at least from year 2 or 3. Maybe the entire work of the ERRC would have been more efficient if I had done that, and maybe the relationship between the ERRC and Romani communities would have developed better than it did. Much of the tensions that we have had at times with Romani leaders have had to do with implicit power games amongst Romani men, whose extensions have implicated ERRC as one powerful centre of influence. Romani women activists at this stage are faced with the double challenge of racial discrimination and sexist control of their lives by males, both Romani and non-Romani. The future agenda of the ERRC, I think, should feature prominently issues such as domestic violence, forced marriages, girls' education and sexual rights.

ERRC: Do you think that our struggle will bring positive results for Romani women in the not too distant future?

D.P.: It will. But nothing should be taken for granted. There are conditions. The first and most important condition is intelligent strategy, along with those who have the courage to implement it. The second and the third conditions are time and pressure. Pressure in one direction applied for sufficiently long time would drill a tunnel in the hardest and the thickest of walls. And with walls that are mental and cultural, the same rules apply. Direction, time, and pressure.

ERRC: Thank you.


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