Roma activists in Macedonia engaged in the protest campaign Rromano Avazi! (Roma Voice!) to demand equal representation in public life explain the challenges they face and affirm their determination to continue the fight for democracy and equal opportunities. For many it’s been a profound experience, as one 27-year-old volunteer from Skopje explained:
“It’s the best of times and the worst of times for Roma in Macedonia today. This campaign marked my initiation into civic engagement and public life. I graduated from university four years ago, but have been unable to find a job because of my ethnicity. It’s the best of times because the likes of this campaign never happened before, and I am really proud to be part of making history.
It’s the worst of times because the political system continues to resist change when it comes to the Roma, institutional arrangements are beset by bad policies and personal corruption. This is the most serious danger facing democracy in Macedonia today. Despite the authorities’ attempts to use fear against us, we are still determined to fight to strengthen democracy for all in our country.”
It is very telling and indicative of the political climate in Macedonia that all the activists quoted wished to preserve their anonymity for fear of further recrimination. In May this year, hundreds of young Roma activists launched a campaign to challenge the underrepresentation of Roma in public life. The campaign took its cue from the key principle in the Ochrid Framework Agreement that the multi-ethnic character of Macedonian society be preserved and reflected in public life, and that “this principle will be applied with respect to employment in public administration.”
Hundreds of volunteers organized dozens of events across the country, culminating in a thousand-strong march in Skopje, on August 22, to deliver their petition to the government. In a short time they had gathered 5500 signatures in support of their demands, support drawn from all the ethnic groups that make up Macedonian society.
There was one simple demand: that the government honour this principle and provide educated and qualified Roma with 200 jobs in public administration. Another volunteer, a 26-year-old woman from Skopje explained:
“When it comes to Roma, there is no real democracy in our country. We are treated as third class citizens. When it comes to proportionate minority representation in public administration—what we have today is a partyocracy that doesn’t care about the rule of law, or formal commitments and responsibilities for minority participation. Aside from the Ochrid agreement, constitutional guarantees about the right to work and equal treatment mean little in the case of Roma. The challenge qualified Roma face in finding a job in the administration is that what counts is not merit, but politics. It’s common knowledge that political actors abuse their power and anyone interested in working in the administration must join the party.
Before I got involved in this campaign I thought that my only options were to join them and accept the political reality, or run away and just leave the country. Now, after this experience I feel determined to assert my democratic rights and struggle for a better future, for myself and for hundreds of qualified and capable Roma like me. I am aware that by taking a stand we are all taking risks, not just now but for our future career opportunities. But we are also aware that if we run away now, we will never succeed.”
For another activist the threat to his career remains very real. The 28-year-old lawyer was warned several times by his boss to quit the campaign or lose his job: “Of course, I stayed with the campaign because I strongly believe in it. I am ready to lose my job and ready to challenge the political reality in which we live.” Working inside the system, he saw that the Ochrid agreement made some progress when it came to other minorities, but not for Roma:
“According to Ombudsman’s report, in 737 public institutions there is not a single Roma employed. For the past 11 years only 170 Roma worked as a public officials, which indicates the lowest possible representation of minorities. Based on government sources there are 1304 Roma working for the public administration—but this includes 1000 people on the public payroll such as street cleaners. They cannot be counted as public officials.”
The activists remain determined, for the stakes are high. As one put it:
“We must continue to make our voices heard, because if things continue like this, I’m not sure we will have a citizenry capable of preserving the precious legacy of the liberties we gained in the last two decades. If current negative trends continue, many young Roma could grow up without an understanding of the benefits, privileges, and duties of citizens in a free society; and without the opportunity to acquire the habits needed to live their lives as active and responsible citizens.”