Roma in Political Life: Macedonia—Pride and Prejudice

There are 53,000 of us in Macedonia out of 2.3 million. And the political leaders divide the vote, misusing their own people by selling votes to other parties.
Latifa Šikovska, community health mediator

Since Macedonia’s emergence as an independent state in 1991, the country’s Roma have not suffered spates of skinhead violence or racist scapegoating. Macedonian political leaders have refrained from attempting to build popularity among their constituents by making inflammatory statements scapegoating the Roma. There has been no significant popular outcry in Macedonia against providing the Roma with state social assistance, though it is minimal. Nor have governments at the national or local levels passed laws and ordinances that discriminate improperly against the Roma.

In its Preamble, Macedonia’s Constitution places the country’s Roma on an equal par with the minority Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Serbs, and Bosniaks. Macedonia’s government included the Roma language in its 1994 census, which encouraged many Roma to have themselves tallied as Roma. Beginning in 1996, four primary schools in Macedonia began offering instruction in the Roma language as an optional subject. The official gazette of Šuto Orizari (pronounced SHOO-toh oh-ree-ZAH-ree), the Roma-majority municipality on the edge of Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, became the first official publication of its kind anywhere to use the Roma language. Roma, although in minimal numbers, have been members of Macedonia’s parliament since 1990.

Much of the reason for the “inclusion” of the Roma in public life in Macedonia, however, has nothing to do with warm regard for the Roma or respect for their rights. Prejudice against the Roma does exist in Macedonia, and manipulation of the Roma is evident in government policymaking. Policy decisions beneficial to the Roma have had more to do with a calculated effort by leaders of Macedonia’s majority to offset the will of leaders of the country’s ethnic-Albanian minority who have threatened the secession of areas of Macedonia with significant ethnic-Albanian populations. To this end, Macedonian political leaders have managed to co-opt much of the country’s Roma population and a significant array of Roma leaders. As a result, Macedonia’s Roma political parties have consistently stressed the loyalty of the Roma people to the Republic of Macedonia and its territorial integrity. They have also remained mostly quiet about the fact that the transformation of Macedonia’s political and economic systems since independence has not significantly closed the yawning social and economic gaps between Roma and the rest of the country’s population.

By 2013, however, a growing number of Roma—especially, perhaps, educated young people—were faulting established Roma political leaders for doing too little to improve the harsh living conditions many Roma suffer and to press Macedonia’s government for greater inclusion of the Roma in the country’s political, social, and economic life. Many Roma, young and old, say they mistrust the established Roma political leaders and dismiss them as corrupt opportunists who have placed themselves at the service of the ruling party du jour in order to pursue their personal interests at the expense of the community’s and who, in many instances, neglect even to do the paperwork necessary to pursue funding grants from abroad that might have a significant positive impact on impoverished Roma people.

“We need a national unification as Roma,” said Latifa Šikovska, a community health mediator who has worked with thousands of Šuto Orizari’s residents and now ponders running for mayor there. “There are 53,000 of us in Macedonia out of 2.3 million. And the political leaders divide the vote, misusing their own people by selling votes to other parties.”

“Roma problems do not find a place on the agenda,” said Samet Skenderi, head of the Initiative for Social Change, a nongovernmental organization. “Everything that has been accomplished has been the result of pressure from abroad,” he added, alluding to pressure by the European Union on Macedonia’s leaders to comply with minority rights requirements that must be met before Macedonia can become a European Union member state.

At the core of many Roma complaints lies an inequitable distribution of public sector jobs. Macedonia’s Constitution was adopted on the basis of a so-called Framework Agreement, which was concluded in 2001, with international assistance, in an effort to forestall a potentially catastrophic armed conflict between Macedonia’s Slavs and ethnic Albanians.

Based on the Framework Agreement, provisions in the Constitution aim at ensuring that the ethnic structure of the workforce in Macedonia’s public administration reflects the ethnic composition of the overall population. As a result, from 2000 to 2010, there was a significant increase in the percentage of public administration positions filled by Roma, from about 0.1 percent to about 0.6 percent. The Roma, however, officially account for 2.66 percent of Macedonia’s population, which means that, despite the increase, they are still grossly underrepresented. The actual discrepancy is probably greater given the fact that the official census understates the real number of Roma in Macedonia’s population, because, among other factors, many Roma declare themselves to be Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, or members of some other ethnic group.

“For years, the paucity of Roma in public sector positions—except the dirtiest jobs done by, for example, sanitation departments—was rationalized by saying that there were too few educated and qualified Roma,” said Samet Skenderi. “So we fought to have five places for Roma in the university. Now there are more than five hundred Roma students.”

Elvis Shakiri, a 24-year-old post-diploma student of criminal law, was one of dozens of Roma young people who demanded equitable distribution of public sector jobs during a demonstration on the streets of Skopje in August 21, 2012. “There are now fifty or sixty young people with college educations, and still they say there is no work for us,” he said.

“We have had to work twice as hard for our degrees, because of the discrimination and corruption in education,” said Sara Sejfula, a 23-year-old graduate with a master’s degree in social work. “Now, we have to fight to get what we deserve.” Presently, obtaining a public service position requires a kickback to a political party of two months of salary as well as a pledge to bring 15 voters to the polls, she added. “We want Roma people to be hired on the basis of their qualifications and ability.”

Case in Point: Šuto Orizari

Macedonia’s raucous, sprawling Roma enclave, Šuto Orizari, is a unique example of how a government ghettoization scheme undertaken by Macedonian officials with little complaint by Roma leaders—combined with unqualified leaders, a lack of economic opportunity and civil society organization, low levels of education, high levels of corruption, and other factors—left a Roma-led local government feckless and unresponsive to the community’s needs.

The world’s largest concentration of Roma, Šuto Orizari, emerged after an earthquake ravaged most of Skopje’s medieval Roma quarter in 1963. To provide shelter to displaced Roma, the government chose an empty pasture for the construction of a cluster of barracks. Over the years, Šuto Orizari grew into a warren of brick and stucco houses: some of them the proud homes of Roma who migrated abroad, found jobs, and saved their money, others the humble dwellings of Roma who barely make ends meet. Today, the enclave’s residential neighborhoods surround a few government buildings, shops and restaurants, a mosque, a football field, a sprawling dump, a health clinic lacking a gynecologist, and a bustling market, the largest in all of Macedonia, where tax-dodging merchants sell designer brand knockoffs.

Šuto Orizari’s official population is about 22,000, but officials in the municipal administration say the actual number is about 30,000 and many of them, including Roma refugees from Kosovo, have no registration papers. Unemployment is rampant. About 90 percent of the residents are receiving a 30-euro monthly welfare payment, which they supplement by selling goods at the market; collecting and selling scrap glass, metal, and paper; begging; selling drugs; or engaging in prostitution.

Šuto Orizari is a paradox for Roma. On the one hand, it is a source of pride, and rightfully so. Since a redistricting that took place in 1996, Šuto Orizari has been the world’s only Roma-majority municipality and the only jurisdiction on earth where Roma is an official language. Thanks to several films, including Emir Kusturica’s Cannes-winning Dom za vešanje (Time of the Gypsies), Šuto Orizari is also the most famous of Skopje’s 10 municipalities, a place where many Roma prefer to reside among other Roma and where practically everyone calls it, with typical wry humor, Šutka (SHOOT-kah), a Slavic word meaning “joke.” Since Šuto Orizari’s incorporation, its voters have elected Roma mayors to run the local administration and Roma to fill most of the seats in the municipal council. All of which qualifies Šuto Orizari as a kind of living, shouting, rumbling, horse-drawn manifestation of inclusion.

On the other hand, however, Šuto Orizari is a quintessential ghetto. Its delineation in 1996 was not undertaken to include the Roma or satisfy their needs as a community. It was, instead, part of an effort by Macedonia’s leaders to gerrymander municipalities with significant numbers of ethnic Albanians in order to dilute the Albanians’ political power and ensure the Macedonian majority’s continued political control.

The delineation also left Šuto Orizari bereft of significant sources of employment and tax revenue. “No one will talk about what we inherited there in terms of a tax base,” said a former member of Šuto Orizari’s municipal administration who asked to remain anonymous. “The municipality is almost entirely residential. There is no open space left for any significant economic development. All those areas went to contiguous municipalities. So do the tax revenues produced by institutions that have been functioning on the territory that now belongs to Šuto Orizari since before it became a municipality.

“So basically, the deal the Roma received was: ‘I’ll give you a municipality, but one without a tax base to help pay for communal services.’ Other municipalities in Skopje inherited adequate infrastructure, while Šuto Orizari got very little. The capacity of the existing sewer system is not sufficient for the size of the population, for example, and some areas do not have water service. About sixty percent of the home owners pay taxes on their houses. But the government cannot be very robust in its collection of back taxes, because many residents simply cannot pay.”

The costs of the fire department, the mayor’s official car, street lighting, maintenance of the roads and public football field, and constructing and maintaining sewers and water lines are all supposed to be funded from the municipal budget. The city of Skopje pays 40 people each day to collect trash and transport it to a central location where city trucks pick it up and haul it away. The state budget covers the costs of the police department and schools, including construction of a new high school.

“Everything is corrupt, and the way things work has not taught the Roma to work for themselves, but has instead taught them to be satisfied with very little,” the former member of the administration continued. “There is actually no Roma administration in the municipality of Šuto Orizari. Of the eighteen people in the municipal administration, only the mayor, an archivist, and a secretary are Roma. Twelve are Macedonians, and the rest are Albanian or Serb. There are also too few competent people in the administration, six or seven; and they are not enough to do the work. So no one takes the time to draw up proposals for external funding. There should be four to five people from the Roma community to work exclusively on project proposals.

“Discrimination begins with the majority and ends with the Roma elite. All in all, I don’t see Roma politicians with the ability to accomplish anything. These political leaders are worn out. They are afraid of young Roma who actually know how to do something, and who really worked in school and didn’t buy their diplomas. It is important for these kids to be among the people working in all functions of local government. But many young Roma don’t want to come.”

Elvis Bajram, son of one of Macedonia’s strongest Roma political leaders, Amdi Bajram, is Šuto Orizari’s present mayor. He entered office without having completed secondary school.

“An illiterate person in politics cannot do anything for his people,” said a Roma activist who asked to remain unnamed. “An illiterate person in politics is there to do one thing: steal. Do you believe in a person who has been in political life for sixteen years and who has done nothing? You’re going to vote for him again?

“So for the political campaign, you need thugs who go and intimidate people. Next you need persons who will make promises and promises and more promises. If you have a population whose members cannot read and who depend upon social welfare and the local market, you can manipulate them easily with empty promises.

“This conforms with what the Macedonian government and the opposition want. It’s okay by them.”

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The serial of articles is highly relevant starting point to discuss the pros and cons of current political constellations at national and European level. It was missing puzzle of the mosaic despite the fact that we observed many democratic faults in the elections around the continent. For some it may sound too ambitious, for some even is an illusion, but if you think deeply, Roma contributed to the ongoing politics in every possible scenario. Yes, mostly in the last two decades the Roma vote was submissive and manipulated, sold and bought, stolen and forced as the democracy and its instruments are working only for those who are organized. For two decades we tried self-organizing in soft forms, in small NGO groups or communities and in doing that we had to learn and understand the gadje and their rationale, the inevitable competition at social, cultural, economic and political front. Democracy is unfinished and never-ending process. We are, like it or not, part of it, so the rational thinking says that will be better to shape it than just wait and see how the current democracies shape our and next generation life’s. Democracy is very new process in my country, seeking its suitable formula for keeping peace, stability, sovereignty and economic prosperity. Sometimes, some elements work better than the others sometimes do not work at all. Roma and mainstream citizens had to survive many economic shocks, political turbulences and conflict in the country and Balkan region. The only difference in this that the forms and intensity of “surviving” all those shocks and turbulences are huge. Roma were not protected by the institutions and legislation, biased administration and politicians served their constituents, relatives and friends, while Roma were left to hope on good will and mercy of individual leaders/authorities. I will add that Roma votes are limited but also strongest resource. Limited as more and more Roma, old and young left Macedonia. Those who are there do not trust and believe the politicians, institutions and the whole system of promises of democracy. If reasonable organized and with shared vision it will be strong tool for the people and democratic culture of the country. Everything in our life is politics – education, laws, economy, culture, policy-making, voting, etc. My country for nine years has policies on Roma but as they do not produce what they promise it is right time to see beyond the policies – into the politics. This can be done only through active and effective participation in all segments of society. But the main challenge remains as big obstacle as for doing politics you need economic power. The simple rule for engaging into politics requires knowledge, informed voters and money. In my opinion, at this point we are missing the last two. But the absence of the two should not discourage this and next generations of intellectuals to take more responsibility and concrete steps in that direction.

It might be obvious that the number of cases Roma being discriminated in Macedonia is significantly lower than in many EU countries. It is evidenced by numbers that Roma participate in the political life in Macedonia as high as maybe like in no other country. There is an emerging wave of young intellectuals in all spheres of public life like never before. Doctors, journalists, politicians, lawyers, public celebrities, army officers, economists and many other profiles are astonishingly rising as they were somewhere behind the corner all the time.
In my opinion, it would be wrong to undersign this success under the names of the Roma politicians. Hence one should observe the developments after the “Ohrid Framework Agreement” when major political parties and international community agreed to secure equal participation of all ethnic minorities both on paper and in a transition in the public administration. Obviously the agreement benefited the Albanian community at most, but Turkish and Roma minority could be found in almost every appendix of the procedures. It took a while, but some Roma political leaders, although not completely accepted by their constituencies, took smooth and prudent decisions in the negotiations with the governing party. This led to constantly increasing in the number of chairs for Roma in many ministries and public companies. It is true that there is not many decision making positions held by Roma, but it is momentous that the change is happening, Roma are more involved in the political life than ever. Whether this made significant shift in ordinary Roma everyday life, that’s really to be questioned.
Scholarships provided by the OSF in the last 12 years and different capacity building programs provided by different entities contributed to the emergence of new and vividly more educated generation of young Roma.
In my view, unfortunately, ordinary Roma can still not feel the benefits of these changes. Unfortunately, Roma are still the most vulnerable group in the country, the least employed, the least educated, have limited approach to health services, faces lack of proper housing, are discriminated against and segregated whenever and wherever possible.
If one would draw a horizontal line as when we calculate advantages and disadvantages, I believe that three important issues will be identified. Perhaps If these issues are properly addressed in the upcoming period, I believe that sustainable changes would happen in a more efficient manner.
- Roma political parties should create their own strategies and/or platforms. If such platform is built in cooperation with the youth and party constituency representatives it will weight in expertise and credibility. At the moment it is difficult to identify if any of the Roma political parties have such strategies, what is the expertise in it and how much the constituency took part in the development.
- Roma youth should be respected, adequately valued and promoted as leading interface of the changes. There is much to be learned from the youth branches of the leading organizations and political parties in the country and abroad.
- The intergenerational gap should be slowly closed. I believe that Roma culture can be still respected and same time youth can lead the change. Knowing that the respect towards the elders is a very valuable page in the book of Roma tradition I would like to finally agree that the globalization and developments around are many times imposing soft adjustments to the societies we live in. If youth are given more responsible roles in the political developments this will for sure end the era of prejudices towards the Roma politicians by the majority and derogatory perceptions for lack of knowledge. These changes would not jeopardize the current respect among Roma youth and elder political leaders, but rather enormously strengthen the integration with adding values of knowledge, dignity, competitiveness and constituency based leadership.

The situation with Roma in Macedonia analyzed in terms of political participation compared with other countries in the region, even with a large number of western European countries, members of EU and NATO is gone far ahead. Fundamental human rights are more respected, tolerance and cohesion with other citizens I would say is in unprecedented level when it comes to the region and Europe who declare themselves as old democracies.

Roma leaders in Macedonia in the past 20 years I’m not sure that they didn’t do as best as they could but having in mind their capacity and available resources this should make as satisfy.

Since 2001 in the state happened big changes and of course they reflected and the Roma community. Despite constitutional changes that have taken place, territorial division and many other changes, the Roma in Macedonia began to educate themselves, to employ and a small part of them to be organized in NGOs and political parties.

The Young Roma population in 10 years succeeded to be visible in all secondary schools and all public and private universities. The number of people participating in elections is increasing in every election cycle that speaks about growing awareness among the Roma population on the importance of political participation and being politically active.

Macedonia should be considered ahead of all others because it treats the Roma minority as legitimate many years before the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 - 2015 year. Mentioning the Roma in the state constitution is a very important point because it makes clear that there is no longer room for assimilation, expulsion or killing that I will reiterate is not the case in many advanced democracies than the Macedonian is.

In the past few months a series of serious incidents against Roma happened in Europe. In France crash wild violent settlement, this previously happened in Italy. Romanian mayor of a city built wall in order Roma people to be isolated. Many similar cases and incidents were registered in Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary.

This has not happened in Macedonia exactly just because of the good political organization and participation of Roma, otherwise if it was not so I'm sure it was gone happen in this region as is happening in our neighbourhood too.

What is currently lacking is enough space for the young Roma population to get through this process and slowly begin to learn and practice political participation. Very soon the time will come when today's leaders will not be able to cope with all political challenges. This it will open a space for young highly educated Roma. That's why now is the time when young people need to be politically active in order to learn the politics and the way how it works, otherwise, we'll still have young well educated but politically inexperienced leaders who cannot do anything more than the previous did.

And yes, it’s time the youth who were supported by scholarships and other types of support from Soros to return to their countries and to help the process of full integration.

It’s easy to work and earn in Europe, it's hard to stay and work for your people in your country.

If this new generation is not doing it, than whom should we expect to?!

…“We have had to work twice as hard for our degrees, because of the discrimination and corruption in education,” said Sara Sejfula, a 23-year-old graduate with a master’s degree in social work. “Now, we have to fight to get what we deserve.” Presently, obtaining a public service position requires a kickback to a political party of two months of salary as well as a pledge to bring 15 voters to the polls, she added. “We want Roma people to be hired on the basis of their qualifications and ability.”…

Roma who leave the country to get education, to build career, to earn for their life and seek for a better place to live have to be offered space that will attract them, invite them and engage them. This is not happening in Macedonia, on the contrary the cases of discrimination and racist behavior of public authorities towards Roma is increasing. Perhaps the cases in SEE and CE EU member states are far more alarming than the ones in Macedonia, but the level of political participation of Roma is unequal among these two regions also.

The reality that will mean space to contribute, reality that invites and reality that engages should be and can be only created by the current Roma who hold decision making positions in the Macedonian government as well as all Roma involved in the political life on local and national level.

I agree that the political power of the Roma in Macedonia to influence and change policies could be far more robust with the involvement of youngsters who benefited OSF/REF scholarships and different individual grants in the last 10 years. It is time to see the fruits of the seeds.

Yet, the current circumstances stimulate the brain drain in large scale among all Macedonians. Following that ethnic Roma are far more unemployed than the general population, least educated, most discriminated, live in most difficult conditions, have no equal access to public services… it is expected the ratio of Roma leaving the country to be higher.

I believe that if current group of Roma involved in politics, both as sub-groups and individuals, lobby and advocate for systematic measures/opportunities for young Roma, the topic of Roma leaving Macedonia could be very relevant. In its current form, it can be perceived only as a matter of running out of the responsibility given by citizens.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now” – Martin Luther King Jr. In my opinion the genuine success comes only if given internal and external resources and knowledge is combined. We can observe that the opposite is happening for years in the political participation of Roma in Macedonia: power is not coordinated and combined, instead, inexplicable misunderstandings among main actors occur, many political opportunities are missed, excuses are packed in populist format and responsibility and accountability is avoided.

The Republic of Macedonia has been a prime example of Roma integration to many European countries, providing mildly unrestricted opportunities to self-develop and participate (or observe) the governmental decisions over the whole population. Interestingly enough the facts show that Roma have been present in the legislative and other bodies where decisions were made. Provided that the Roma population in Macedonia is around 53.879 people, it can be highlighted that Roma have been successfully striving for visibility and recognition by the others. It can be discussed whether this is due to the strong civil society and their commitment or the political engagement boosted by the actions were made for International recognition of Macedonia that the state is “Democratic” and respects its minorities or it is the frame that the mainstream Macedonian parties created to keep Roma silent and obedient. However, in both of the arguments, the rationale can be complied as people are ideologically convicted.

The political environment in Macedonia, where Roma political parties act upon, is focused on ten municipalities where most of the Roma population resides. The current electoral system is favoring the bigger (mainstream) political parties according to the success they have achieved in the elections. The votes of the minorities usually have a small impact and value on the process of building the government. The result of this attitude within the political competition devaluate the voice of Roma people who for geographical and political tailored constituencies have not equal and fair chance for quantitative integration of the Roma electorate vote.

Furthermore, Suto Orizari the biggest Roma municipality has a lot to say as well. The Roma youth (drastically more educated than ever before) started to self-organize in forms of youth clubs, political parties, student organization and NGOs. Vividly enough, Roma youth proven that Suto Orizari should no longer be a topic of miscellaneous jokes and stereotypes conceiving Roma as the “gypsy” menace. Roma youth proudly represent Suto Orizari as an example where Roma are able to govern and maintain the municipality safe and sound. Moreover, it should be noted that the economic and the infrastructure development is slow and there is a lack of services. The answers to these key issues are in the power of the central government. The financial support dedicated for Suto Orizari is significantly lower than the other Skopje municipalities while the economic potential and economic zones have never been part of the city agenda. We (Roma) believe that this is about to change, the more the rate of educated Roma increases, the certain the chances that the new generations will contribute for their community.

Roma political leaders have been present and NEVER CHANGED in the political arena since the independence of the country. Roma political leaders got used of the trade-off practice to build coalitions with mainstream Macedonian parties and secure their rank in the lists so they can be certainly elected. Still, we (Roma) tend to believe that Roma representatives are elected due to our political engagement and responsibility.

Macedonia currently can be pointed as the successful story of education among other countries, if there were times when we counted students with fingers of a hand, now we can proudly say that this number dramatically increased. The financial support provided through scholarships and grants was the proxy for Roma pupils to attend and finish higher education.

Furthermore, these words make Macedonia the paradise where a Roma could imagine living in. Roma in this country remember the bitter side of the story. There were a lot of incidents, discrimination issues and clashes. Recently remembered is the incident in Topaana, suburb in the capital city of the country, where Roma are mostly residing. Police brutality was performed on innocent Roma residents, and there was no response, nor explanation. The incident in Skopje City Mall, where Roma employees were sacked because of being ROMA, stereotypically considered as dirty and dark. The unity of Roma students raised this question and asked for accountability of the authorities and the employer for further explanation of the issue. Altogether, the list can be evaluated more and these issues can be debated who acquires the glory and who acquires the shame.

In comparison with the current Roma political leaders, it can be highlighted that the younger generations at least have more education than the current ones; this leads to the open challenge whether they are able to continue the Romani movement or destroy it. Roma youth has demonstrated many actions with many results that the current Roma political elite has never had the opportunity to deal with. What should make Roma political leaders proud is that successful Roma students upgrade their level of education in highly ranked institutions and go back to the place where they call “home” to give back to the community.

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