05/02/2014 08:51 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Roma as Game Changers

In Bulgaria, the political system has been roughly balanced between the Left and the Right for the last two decades. As a result, the party that represents ethnic Turkish interests -- the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF) -- can provide its constituency base, which is only about 10 percent of the population, with the benefits of the party's kingmaker position.

Similarly, the Roma are a significant minority of the population in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Depending on the political balance of power in the country, Roma could achieve the same kind of success as the MRF if they consolidated their voting strength behind one party. Then the politicians in other parties would ignore Roma issues at their own political peril.

"Serbia has a system that allows minorities to participate with lower thresholds than others," Roma activist and Open Society Foundation staffer Zeljko Jovanovic told me in an interview in Budapest last May. We'd met the day before at an OSF roundtable on Roma policy. "Roma can have three or four MPs. Nowadays, when the Left and Right are so close to each other in terms of votes, Roma can be the game changers in Serbia."

Jovanovic, who is originally from Serbia, is not focused on party politics as the primary strategy for the advancement of Roma rights. The strategies depend on the political and social context in each country, and Serbian electoral rules favor minorities. More critical is organizing a constituency.

"Organizing a base in the constituencies is the first task," he explained. "The second is how you define tactics around elections and after elections. For me, after the elections is even more important than before the elections. Of course, elections decide who's in power, who's the winner and loser, who's in opposition. But most organizations at this moment think they do not need a constituency base; what they need is good management to access funding from donors. That's why they're weak politically. They've reached the glass ceiling in making a real impact on public resources and the way they are used."

Ultimately, Jovanovic is focused on identifying the game-changing strategy for Roma. The game, after all, is not going well for Roma at the moment, so this question of strategy is of utmost urgency.

"I usually compare the Roma issue with a person who is badly beaten all over the body and goes to the doctor," he said. "Whatever part of the body you treat, that is helpful and needed. However, if you are bleeding, the first thing they need to do is stop the bleeding. Otherwise the person is going to die if you treat bruises first."

Among Roma activists, the debate is over priorities and strategy -- what should be done immediately to save the patient. "For some people the first issue is education," he continued. "For others it is employment -- so that people can afford to go to school. But how we get there and what is the first thing we do -- that's how people start to think differently. In my view, the times are such that after many years, we have succeeded in establishing a different policy context. Now we have to make sure that these policies are being implemented. But the implementation of policies requires money and different levels of participation, and this is a question of power."

We talked about the different strategies of Roma empowerment -- of how to become game changers -- through social movements, political parties, the legal system, and so on. We discussed the plusses and minuses of comparing the Roma experience to the African American civil rights movement. And, finally, we touched on how his vision of Roma empowerment has changed over the years.

The Interview

I asked the Roma I interviewed in Bulgaria to choose whether they'd put the priority on education, on employment, or on politics. And politics usually came in third. But when you talk about politics, there are different possibilities -- a political party, public policy, street pressure. Would you recommend doing all three simultaneously, or do you have a preference?

I judge these propositions according to the resources. Less than one percent of the Roma community consists of highly educated people. How we deploy these limited human resources? Politics is usually not something affordable for people who are starving, who are illiterate, who are under pressure from discrimination every day. But if our leaders can establish pressure from the street, that would create a political potential to be deployed once the political structure is ready to enter elections. Then, once you are in government, you can start to engage in policy and make a bigger impact. That's the sequence I have in mind.

But it depends on local contexts. In Bulgaria, I can understand why they don't make the choice of politics. In general, politics in Bulgaria is very corrupt. It's a failing democracy by all the criteria -- of Freedom House, for example. The institutions and political parties and politicians and media are all corrupt. That's why generally there is a lack of belief in politics. There's a Roma party in parliament - the EuroRoma party -- run by a guy who is not Roma but was raised by Roma. He's heavily involved in criminal activities, people who know him say.

Ah, yes, I interviewed him. He says he's Roma.

Yes, of course! But even if he is Roma, it doesn't really matter what ethnic origin he has. I'm talking about why people are skeptical about politics. Second, there were several leaders who tried politics and were badly beaten. Years ago, the Bulgarian government ran a campaign against NGOs, involving them in police investigations. So, people are expected to make a choice in the context in which they can't make a choice. They can't really choose politics. But if you go to Macedonia, they will tell you that that's been their choice for the last 20 years. They have four MPs, they have a minister without portfolio. They have their own municipality and their own mayor. In many places they have their own counselors.

In Bulgaria, if you remember, three months ago, there was a failed assassination of the ethnic Turkish leader -

Ahmed Dogan.

Exactly. So, it's not really a choice if you are afraid of violence, state repression, corruption etc. When I say politics, I mean decision-making in the broadest terms of processes of public decisions. In theory, we have many chances to engage in policymaking. Roma have a voice but so far their voice is not adequate to make a difference. Because of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and the EU, Roma NGOs have access to EU programs. They can apply for money, and if they get money, they also get coopted. Or if they get a job in public administration - as a teacher assistant, health mediator, and so on -- they also get coopted. In too many cases, they can no longer represent the interests of Roma toward authorities but the other way around. As a result, we have a huge brain drain. Most of the best and brightest Roma activists from 10 years ago and those younger ones are today semi-civil servants or project bureaucrats. That's what the conclusion of the book is about. The situation we face is not only the mirror of poverty and discrimination. It's also a mirror of weak leadership and inadequately organized voting strength. There's almost no leadership in the community that people trust regardless of their projects, and no organizational structure that can cultivate leadership and grow in strength over time.

And this is where the connection is with the U.S. civil rights movement. People see the civil rights movement history from the 1960s. But they have 250 years of advocacy. Lincoln came into office in 1860 and Frederick Douglas was already there. We have to really look at the civil rights movement for what it was in the longer time perspective to understand how unrealistic the expectations are of those who lament that the Roma are not as strong as the civil rights movement.

People talk about the "decade" of Roma inclusion. What can you do in 10 years?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.