Roma: From Participation to Power

"When a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to enforce change."

Dr. Martin Luther King’s words on how the oppressed can realize deliverance are as resonant today as they were when he wrote them in 1967. This concept of finding empowerment is a guiding principle for the Open Society Foundations' work on ending the oppression, violence, discrimination, and segregation of the Roma.

A recent blog post by George Soros on France’s expulsion of Roma and the need for the European Union to redirect a portion of its funds to help address the plight of Europe’s largest ethnic minority generated a similar sentiment from readers:

"Without including the most important stakeholder in the future of the Roma, the Roma people themselves, you cannot build a lasting solution."

"Voice of simple Roma people needed, it's not there in most NGOs."

"My question in all of this is: Where are the Roma leaders themselves? Is there no one amongst them who can come forward and help steer the Roma people forward? I agree, without input from the Roma people, policies don't stand a chance."

Their words touch at the heart of our work. Over the last ten years the rhetoric, if not the substance, of Roma participation has become a mantra for national, international, governmental and intergovernmental institutions. There remains, however, a gap and our challenge is to move beyond simply paying lip service to the notion of Roma participation.

It is not enough for the Roma to have a degree of institutional participation or to be the beneficiaries of organizations like our own. The Roma must become a recognized political constituency of rights-bearing citizens. We must accumulate political and civic power proportional to our numbers. Only then, will our voice be heard, only then will governments listen to our demands, and only then can we realize deliverance.

One way is to ensure that Roma are active citizens in European democracies—creating a political constituency that is force to reckoned with. In Serbia, the Open Society Foundations supported a project aimed at voter registration. The campaign resulted in more than 45,000 Roma registering for the elections of representative body called Roma National Council. View a short video about the campaign.

In order to stimulate informed electoral choice by Roma constituencies, the Open Society Foundations also supported public hearings before elections to the council. The hearings brought together Roma candidates to discuss the key problems to be tackled by their political platforms.

In a recent EU Observer article I called on policymakers to follow this example:

It is the promise of democracy that every person will be represented in decision-making. Only then can a person feel bound to respect and comply with the common rules that bind a polity. And it is only when Roma are represented and fully recognized as citizens that decisions concerning their lives will acquire legitimacy and relevance. Otherwise, top-down policy interventions—most egregiously manifested in the brute power of bulldozers leveling Roma households—will continue to corrode the notion of Roma as citizens.

Ideally, political parties should represent their constituencies, including Roma citizens. However, this has not been the case. Mainstream political parties provide extremely limited space for candidates of Roma origin and poorly represent the needs of Roma communities. The EU cannot sit around and wait for political parties to change. It must take action itself.

The European Union should find a model for stimulating Roma representation. Regulations on gender quotas could be adapted as a midterm solution for increased Roma elected representatives in the European and national parliaments. In the long term, the commission needs to include the concept of active citizenship in its future EU Roma policy. Provisions must be made to ensure every citizen of Roma origin is registered to vote, has access to the polls, and can make informed decisions.

In today’s democracies, the vote of every individual citizen, literate and illiterate, rich and poor, Roma and non-Roma alike should carry equal weight. Our social and political circumstances today are incomparably better than that of African Americans under slavery or black South Africans under apartheid. We are many, and however poor, illiterate, or oppressed we may be, we can wield power proportionate to our numbers. Power to make the future better for our children.

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The Roma (political) participation is not a concern of the international organizations yet and must become one very soon. The obstacles cold be found among the majority of politicians who suffer from absolute political illiteracy, selfishness, imagination as well as prejudice against Roma. The OSI in the last years was successful in creating Roma civil society infrastructure but it is our responsibility as Roma to begin using it in efficient way. The Roma skillful leaders and voters are there, born, already adults and in huge numbers but before acting we need to define explicitly how the so called Roma politics will contribute to European, national and community level politics. Will the Roma politics be conservative, liberal or maybe Green???...We don’t know yet but I know it’s going to be like the story of Alisa in the wonderland and feel as a painful massage. The most important is that Roma will be able to relax their muscles afterwards and be fit as athletes.

I am happy Zeljko you raised the issue!

Is a very interesting idea about an important issue ....
Based on my experience and knowledge I think the problem is not only civic and political participation. I think that within many political parties, there are many Roma, even if not enough.
They are ordinary members or local elected, they can be simple activists or people with some influence, but they are not organized into an internal structure, and they not work as a group within the party. So their power is dispersed and reduced, sometimes they have just little local impact and they do not influence, therefore, public policyes at the national or european level.
In conclusion, I think two things are important:
1. stimulating participation
2. organizing of existing political resources.

I am afraid that this question is one of the most important in this decade. As Martin mentioned OSI was/is succesfull creating Roma NGOs; in other programs OSI has been/is giving scholarships to tousands of Roma youth in whole Europe.
BUT without strong and direct wilingness from the side of NGO leaders, Roma polititians and other important stakeholders it will never happen that we will see our well educated (as Zeljko wrote degree holder) and at the same time confident, "ready to do" Romas in our societies.

If we want to have motivated, powerfull, self-esteemed Roma who are more than voting-machines we have to work on our political emancipation as well.

I am really happy that someone raised this issue, because we can find solution only if we discuss it openly.

Hi Zeljko,
also want to tell you that I've just went through your article and i fully agree that we are in much better position comparing to the mention in the article afro-american and black south africans. Honestly speaking i was very much agains the quota but it is a fact that the mainstream parties are just playing with Roma and really don't take seriously our candidates and usualy the roma candidates are for color in the lists. So based on that qoutas can be a realy something that can be in favour when it comes for political participation of Roma. So you have my support go further and good luck

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