Roma in Political Life in Europe: Introduction

If the Roma are ever to assert themselves effectively, without fear or manipulation, in an open, democratic society, then it is necessary to ensure that Roma of voting age possess political power.

Why have so many Roma communities in Europe failed to elect Roma representatives to voting positions on government bodies where they would be positioned to press for better housing, health care, schools, jobs for Roma people, and respect for their civil and human rights? We explore aspects of this question in a series of articles about Roma political participation in France, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic.

For generations, the factious, culturally variegated Roma have separated humanity into two groups. On the one side, they place themselves, “the people,” a literal translation of the word Roma. On the other side, they place everyone else, the “outsiders,” whom the Roma call gadje in the plural and gadjo in the singular.

Over the centuries, many efforts have been undertaken to help reduce the isolation and poverty of the Roma people. These were mostly individual efforts undertaken by gadje, some of whom recognized inequities and injustices and sought to correct them by intervening personally or by wielding their influence with other gadje who controlled political and religious institutions.

Moving Toward the Mainstream: The Postwar Era

After the horrors of World War II, communists, practically all of them gadje, seized power in Eastern Europe. Gadje law backed by gadje-controlled police forced many Roma to begin leading sedentary lives and to take jobs in factories and other enterprises. Significant numbers found their way into the mainstream of society, still proudly Roma, but also proudly employed, proudly residing in their own apartments, and proudly sending their children to school.

But in these dictatorships, the Roma remained as disenfranchised as anyone else who was not a Communist Party member. Popular prejudice continued to lurk in the shadows. As a result, most Roma people continued to live in squalor. Many continued to work the most menial and least paying jobs society had to offer. Many did not attend school, and many of those who did attend found themselves in segregated classes receiving substandard instruction.

In the democratic, free-market countries of the West, practically everyone benefited from economic boom times. New housing, new factories, new hospitals, and new schools rose from the wreckage left by the two world wars. Roma in Western countries began enjoying a quality of life significantly superior to that of their parents but significantly inferior to that of almost all gadje around them.

The Persistence of Inequality

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the development of the political, judicial, and economic superstructure of the European Union, organizations and individuals have undertaken unprecedented efforts to alleviate the wretched conditions that so many Roma have suffered in the areas of housing, health, education, human and civil rights, and employment.

Roma-run nongovernmental organizations have managed some of these efforts at the local level, but gadje-controlled organizations—some of them government institutions, others nongovernmental organizations—have financed them all and guided most. Practically all of these institutions have stressed that their higher goal is to help the Roma win respect for their human rights and assume their deserved place in the mainstream of European society.

The primary focus on housing, health, education, and employment, however, has in some areas yielded results that are uncomfortably reminiscent of the results of efforts the colonial powers once undertook to improve the quality of life of dissatisfied and disenfranchised aboriginal people in lands whose resources and markets the powers wanted to continue to exploit without ceding significant political power.

Some progress has been registered, perhaps especially in the personal development of unprecedented numbers of educated young Roma people, who are more confident and less deferential than their parents and grandparents. But structural segregation, a dependency culture enabled by nongovernmental and international organizations, and pervasive racism and racist violence continue to distance many Roma families and groups from the greater society.

Too many Roma sell the future short and invest most of their time and energy in meeting immediate basic needs—a struggle to survive made all the more difficult by discrimination and violations of human rights, including police brutality and a lack of police protection, as well as insufficient recourse to the judicial system. Too many Roma have fallen into debt to Roma loan sharks, a condition that reduces them to a level of destitution and dependency resembling indentured servitude. Too many suffer the effects of illiteracy spanning generations and inadequate proficiency in the languages of the majority peoples in whose midst they reside. Too many still lack sufficient knowledge or understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls the modern world presents.

So glaring are these deficiencies that Roma all over Eastern Europe are willing to sell their votes for a sack of flour or surrender them in the face of intimidation by the loan sharks to whom they are indebted.

The Path to the Future

Today—almost a quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of unprecedented efforts to include Europe’s Roma in European society—the Roma, depending on the country where they reside, have either failed to secure perhaps the most crucial of all inalienable rights or failed to exercise this right in a manner that best serves their interests as individuals and as a people.

This inalienable right is the right to participate in public and political affairs, a sine qua non for any group of individual citizens who join together because they face the same existential challenges or share the same legitimate interests and seek to assert themselves in an open society. The need to secure and exercise this right has arguably received too little effective attention from organizations, institutions, and individuals focusing on the Roma. Instead, entire structures continue to entrench a mutual dependency between Roma and these same organizations.

It is now clear that no solutions to the critical problems Roma face in the areas of housing, health care, education, and employment will be lasting without the equal participation of the Roma in political life.

For example, in northeastern Hungary, the Roma “minority” in some towns accounts for up to 50 percent of the population, yet the Roma have no voting representatives on elected local councils. How is it possible to ignore the issue of political power in such an environment, especially when racist extremists commit serial murders and form black-shirted vigilante groups like the fascist militias that, within living memory, sent thousands of Roma to death camps? And isn’t it clear that a lack of political power contributes to employment discrimination and the lack of economic opportunities in Romania are helping to drive the migration of Roma people to France and other Western countries?

If the Roma are ever to assert themselves effectively, without fear or manipulation, in an open, democratic society, then it is necessary to ensure that Roma of voting age possess political power whose degree and breadth is in proportion to their numbers and will give them leverage to strike mutually beneficial agreements with the dominant peoples and other minorities in the countries and local areas they inhabit.

Acquiring political power will require the Roma to move beyond the largesse of the gadje and tap their own political and economic potential. This means self-organization, rooting out structural obstacles entrenching dependency among new generations of Roma, overcoming the oppression of loan sharks and vote brokers, enhancing efforts to obtain accurate counts of Roma in censuses, and improving voter education, registration, and turnout programs.

It requires demanding change from the institutions that write, adopt, and implement laws and regulations. It requires efforts to press the greater society—through their governments and courts—to honor the guarantees of civil and political rights already enshrined in their constitutions and to enforce laws on electoral corruption, electoral violence, and hate speech. It requires developing personal confidence among the Roma, and enough trust to make them willing to back worthy Roma candidates and provide their campaigns financial support. It will require nominating a new generation of Roma candidates for government positions, organizing election-day turnouts, and demanding proportional numbers of Roma in the civil service and judiciary.

The change in question is not just about or for Roma. It concerns every group underrepresented in or excluded from meaningful participation in public and political life and the quality and nature of democracy in Europe. The empowerment and inclusion of these groups in public and political life must be a priority for the European Union and its member states.

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To take issue with the detail in the truncated and bifurcated history of the Roma and the gadje from centuries past to modern times would be to miss the most important point of this introduction to the crisis facing Roma populations across Europe. This provocative series of articles is a timely and welcome wake-up call to move beyond victimization towards a politics of emancipation.

Political power needs to be grasped, it will not be ceded by incremental acts of generosity by venal and self-interested governing elites. Neither will political and civic empowerment of Roma communities be the incidental by-product of National Roma Integration Strategies.

Until Roma exercise political power proportionate to their numbers, they will continue to be viewed with a mixture of ambivalence and disdain by ethnic majority populations, scapegoated for the wider failings of states and societies, and remain vulnerable ‘soft targets’ for extremists pedalling hatred.

The language of integration and inclusion, and the attendant jargon with its mainstreaming and synergising, together with the parades of good, better, and best practice projects, are all unavoidable baggage as a policy process such as the EU Framework stumbles forth.

I know because I often find myself immersed in it. It can be draining for all concerned, as technocrats come to the fore; inclusion and integration become reduced to ‘complex’ processes to be managed and monitored; and flying in the face of reality, annual reports assure us that cohesion is within our collective grasp.

All the while towns and villages in the across Central Europe become stomping grounds for neo-Nazi mobs and uniformed paramilitaries; local authorities build walls to further isolate and segregate Roma communities; and forced evictions mean that more and more Roma are removed from public view and ‘dumped’ onto toxic sites or remote patches of land devoid of basic amenities.

There is a danger that immersion in the business of integration causes many to lose sight of the emancipatory promise of politics. There is a real danger that the pragmatic pursuit of reasonable objectives through the available channels will deliver nought in the face of recalcitrant and often bigoted public authorities. There is a danger that all the well-intended civil society initiatives and projects will never deliver the systemic change needed to take us beyond the undeclared apartheid that prevails in Europe. For without the political bark and bite that comes with the transformation of disparate communities into organized and active constituencies, all that is solid melts into air come the end of this or that particular project cycle.

The article is right, but why is the Roma Political Party so low ...The reason is the they are controlled from the biggest political party; they can give them some place at the administration, some job for their member and normally some financial support.

This is exactly right worldrroma. We hoped that these articles unveil what many Roma people, activists and leaders know but these are still ideas that haven't broken through to a broader audience. The control mechanisms you mention are not peculiar to Roma. Many political parties deploy them for anybody they can. However, for Roma they have bigger consequences. Some of the your assertions are particularly relevant for the article on Macedonia. What do you think about it?

I would urge a broader interpretation of what we mean by 'politics': it is not solely about elections and political parties. Representative democracy has many flaws and sharing an ethnicity with an elected representative will not solve the multiple and inter-related problems facing Roma across Europe. But I do agree on the importance of Roma engagement in elections whichever candidate Roma vote for. Participation in elections must be met with grassroots participation so that individuals feel that politics matters to them- social change can only be effected through these dual processes. The key is for Roma to have a presence in public life and influence over decisions which impact on Romani communities.

Dear Aidan, your urge is right. Voting is the minimum of participation in political life. We can also consider participation in various forms and venues of policy making beyond elections. However, Roma civil society has experienced participation and it’s limits as long as it is not underpinned by voting. In many places Roma voting potential which is largely underutilized due to many of the factors these articles talk about. I would be grateful for your views and insight, in particular to the Romanian article.

Great articles! These should be translated to local languages too. I think Roma NGOs and leaders still not understand that conscious and planned participation is a must in the elections. Number is invisible power, organized Roma is real power!

However, I still think that we do not have strong networks, organizations and parties organizing Roma in national and EU elections, but I do believe that we have locallities, even micro-regions, where Roma are in majority, or at least visible.

I also wrote an article, in Hungarian, about our situation in Hungary, analyzing political and economic elite, media, Roma NGOs, intellectuals and experts, with enough honesty and self-criticism. The elite has all power, what we do have is number of people, citizens without representation.
I also came to the point that we have to use or citizen rights, (election) so we can change the status quo at local level. But on the other hand, we need to build a new Roma movement, with new people, and educatation of our people on democratic mechanism and values is a must, otherwise we just give the power to Roma, who are abusing with their position.
I think we need to share this experience and recognition to others, as well.
This is the time for change!

Thank you Bela. We are working on the translation due to interest expressed by many people already. On your point about a new Roma movement, I would appreciate learning from you about what a new movement would look like, what would be different from what we have at the moment and how would a new movement counter the issues these articles talk about.

The same question keeps coming to mind as I read the articles in this series: if people in the European "mainstream" are apathetic and feeling marginalized, how can you convince the marginalized that their political participation could make a difference?

When I was running my campaign during the local elections in Bulgaria, 2011, I had meetings with representatives of OSI-Washington DC, NDI, OSI-Sofia... No one wanted to support me in my efforts to become a politician and to take a real step forward to contribute to the life of my Roma community. Into that 'Olympic' race called 'elections' I didn't have an equal start: a young person, without a private business behind his shoulders, a Roma who could be used by many mainstream political parties just for attracting the Roma votes, with no previous political affiliations... But I succeeded in my campaign because I was WELL PREPARED, ORGANIZED and because of MY PEOPLE who were standing behind me from the very beginning till the end. I really HOPE OSI-Budapest will stand behind many other young people who also like to be part of the political life of their countries because the best way of doing policies is not being a life-time NGO-opposition but being part of those who have the legal power to take decisions.

Thanks Atanas for sharing your hopeful story. What were your responses to those ‘control’ mechanisms that worldrroma raised

Those people need proper education that will work towards their liberation. Political education, economic contribution, and good governance education is required. Importantly, assertiveness has to be instilled in them so that they can act independently to improve their lives.

Article is good but I notice that the writer didn't mention Roma from Serbia. Why is that so? Do you think that in Serbia, it is a better situation for Roma people? Maybe it is but that is far away from good. There is an increase discrimination of Roma. I was witness so many times. For example, for jobs many firms don't want dark people or now they say colored like we are back in time in the south, and they say that in my presence because i am light. This kind of situation makes me so angry. We have now one Roma in parliament but he doesn't represent us. He is member of one party. I am not an activist. I wanted so many times to approach some NGO but here it is impossible if you are not friend of someone in a Roma organization, and everyone works just for the money. I know that you must live off something but our Roma politics take too much, together with no Roma money for education, place for living, etc. So this is my opinion. Sorry if i missed the topic. We in Serbia don't work enough for education and that is the only way for change.


Yes that is true but I think that is not only for Macedonia. The romani political parties need to support each other and to educate themselves. As i know they use everything that is offered to them from the big political parties in the countries. And they form coalitions with the party in the government just to survive. Look at Lidija, she is at the EU parliament. As one person she can do nothing, she is controlled by her political party. My opinion is this: if the Romani political parties united and know much better about sustainability and support the people that will be perfect. Not just what others say they do and not help for their own people just for themselves. Devlesa

The Romani political party needs to educate the roma people during elections to not sell their own voice. We know the socio-economic situation. The new look is to work on themselves and better communicate with the Romani people and for sure to be united. Only like this can we win and be strong politically.

The series of articles framed as Roma in political life provides a reasonable reflection to one new topic that indeed is neglected in the public sphere. The public domain so far, concerning the Roma, has fitted in the “typical stereotype” image of Roma in the society. In this regard, we are welcoming this action that attempts to impose a different approach where Roma have the opportunity to reflect upon higher hierarchical goal, pursuing power, legitimacy and becoming politically active.

We, the Romalitico team, and the first academic web portal in Macedonia analyzing Roma policies, would like to reflect upon the series of articles published in this page.

The concept of political participation of Roma should not be based on an experiencing view, but also theoretical basis of it. In this respect, the articles offer a generalized notion of the political participation of Roma with a sense of journalistic terminology (informative) without extensive analysis of the root of the issues, causes and proposals.

The theoretical framework urges us that the concept of political participation is a process that includes some requirements or variables (such as the social – economic status, the level of civic engagement, and institutional obstacles such as law and electoral system that significantly influences the essence of political participation). For example, if the socio – economic status in the society of one group is extremely low, one cannot believe that the political participation of that group will be extremely strong and proceed with a strong political party. It is comparable with the other variables that can be described as inputs that through the process of political participation control the output.

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However, on the other hand the ideology, the party structure, the governance within the party, the source of financing as well as the decision to stay in the coalition has an impact in the political processes. These factors affect the way the party affairs and its capacity to influence the public policies in the country.
Therefore, the political participation of Roma should be analyzed in this framework, and it should evolve with a comparative study analyzing the factors in different countries and then develop activities where we build capacity for participation in politics.

Nevertheless, the Romalitico team already wrote some articles (Macedonian available, soon we will provide an English version) about the political participation in Macedonia where you can read and write some comments.

For more please read our blog:

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