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Defending the Underdogs

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It looked and sounded like something out of the Deep South during the civil rights era in the United States. Angry protesters, men and women, were shouting racist slogans and trying to prevent a group of 50 young schoolchildren from entering an integrated preschool.

Except that this wasn't happening a half-century ago. It was happening this last fall, in Croatia's Medjimurje County.

There are approximately 15,000 Roma living in Croatia, the majority in Medjimurje County. In 2010, the European Court on Human Rights had its Brown vs. Board of Education moment when it ruled that separating Roma and non-Roma students in the Croatian school system was tantamount to discrimination based on ethnicity. The integration of Croatian schools has proceeded fitfully since then. Preschools are now open year round, with longer hours. The state provides transportation and two meals. An after-school program to help with homework is also now available, though the funding is limited.

But there's a lot of catching up to do. "Of 1,589 Romani pupils attending the county's primary schools, which run from first to eighth grades, only 92 are enrolled in the eighth grade," writes Barbara Matejcic. "Just 123 Roma are attending high school, according to the county's department for education, culture, and sports. About 20 Roma graduate from high school annually."

Tin Gazivoda has been involved in the integration struggle in Medjimurje from the beginning. "When we faced the situation of open segregation of Roma pupils in Medjimurje county, we were actually receiving pleas from parents of Roma children to help them," he told me in Zagreb last October. "When we went to Medjimurje, we were mobbed by these pleading people, because we were from the Helsinki Committee, and it had a certain reputation and a certain influence by then."

There's a prevailing myth of Roma parents are not interested in the education system. What they're not interested in is a second-class education system.

Gazivoda led the effort to bring the case to the European Court. "I myself said to the county prefect at that time: 'You may win this in the Croatian courts, but eventually in the European Court you will lose,'" he continued. "Of course, two years later the politicians would no longer be in those positions, maybe not involved very much in politics afterwards, so what do they care? I'm being perhaps a bit cynical. But we won the case in the European Court in March 2010: barely, it was a very close call."

But he also learned from this work that winning a court case is only the beginning. "For a real transformation," he concluded, "you need to work on the majority population, at the level of changes in the political culture and the educational system. You need to have a much more comprehensive, integrated, long-term approach, which is much more complex and sustained work."

For Tin Gazivoda, the work on integration in Medjimure is only the latest in a series of initiatives defending the underdogs. It all started with an internship at the Bosnian mission to the United Nations in 1993, which led to his work at Stanford University with Students Against Genocide. He continued his human rights advocacy with the Croatian Helsinki Committee and now works for the Open Society Foundation out of Zagreb. We talked about his academic research on civil society, the "ethnification of politics" in Croatia, and the intolerance of the younger generation.

The Interview

In your own personal and political odyssey, have you substantially rethought any of your positions from the the 1990s about civil society, about political activism, about Croatian history?

Yes, several things. When I was initially involved in civil-society organizations, I thought that this was standard practice, that this was the way to approach civil-society engagement, advocacy, and so on. In recent years, I have seen that this might have functioned in the context of the late 1990s and a few years onwards, but it has changed today. For the challenges that are important today, including those related to economic and social issues, restricting the concept of civil society to NGOs--I didn't do that before, but implicitly I was coming from that perspective--is limiting, and, in a way, wrong. Many informal and ad hoc initiatives can respond better in a more flexible way to current challenges. The potential that exists in social initiatives, like the one we had in relation to Cvjetni trg here in Zagreb [an anti-gentrification struggle to prevent the construction of a retail/commercial center in the heart of Zagreb] is something very positive. It can be equally valuable as the contribution of some more institutionalized, and well-established, and well-experienced organizations that base their work on solid data, evidence-based approaches, and so on.

The second thing I've learned--and I've learned this through the Roma situation--is that a really radical human rights perspective can sometimes work, but not always. When we faced the situation of open segregation of Roma pupils in Medjimurje county, we were actually receiving pleas from parents of Roma children to help them. When we went to Medjimurje, we were mobbed by these pleading people, because we were from the Helsinki Committee, and it had a certain reputation and a certain influence by then. Their children were going to segregated classes. In one school Roma children were eating lunch on one side of the room and non-Roma kids on the other side. We saw this. The facts were not hidden. The authorities considered this normal at the time.

We said: "If that's the position you take, that they're simply dirty, uneducated, and so on, then we have to sue you. And we'll go to the European Court if that's what it takes." Actually, this is what I myself said to the county prefect at that time: "You may win this in the Croatian courts, but eventually in the European Court you will lose." Of course, two years later the politicians would no longer be in those positions, maybe not involved very much in politics afterwards, so what do they care? I'm being perhaps a bit cynical. But we won the case in the European Court in March 2010: barely, it was a very close call.

The point is that I have recently been to Medjimurje. I've been going there more intensely this year, including to the Roma settlements, and I've realized that our approach might've been a necessary starting point, but if you leave it at that, you're not doing very much. You're creating the type of confrontation that can lead to transformation, but you're not really supporting the transformation until it becomes something sustainable. For a real transformation you need to work on the majority population, at the level of changes in the political culture and the educational system. You need to have a much more comprehensive, integrated, long-term approach, which is much more complex and sustained work.

Are there resources available to do that?

Hopefully. It won't depend just on our little office here in Zagreb, or even the Open Society Foundations as a whole. A number of actors need to support the process, from the local authorities to the Ministry of Education and, of course, the Roma themselves. And in the meantime, there's been a change: whereas 10 years ago the local politicians were more or less openly racist, or at least prejudiced toward Roma, today people from the Medjimurje county are trying to make progress. Eventually, the goal of this intervention should be to make this change systemic at the level of the educational policy of the county and the government.

And that would involve as well changes in the textbooks that everybody is reading.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.