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Roma Culture: Politics

“Whenever I’ve gone to settlements and spoken to women, I got more, better advice, a better view on the situation than from the men. Because they spoke about real things: about health, about education, about the children, they spoke about the reality of the situation. The men tend to think in terms of power.”

- Henry Scicluna, Council of Europe Coordinator for Activities Concerning Roma and Travellers, Pristina, Kosovo

“Roma here aren’t very educated when it comes to politics.”

- Hamit Šerifović, Roma Leader, Gracanica

The Roma National Flag

The Roma flag

This article is based upon my own experience working in Mahalas across Kosovo. It is not the opinion of any of the organizations I have either worked for or recieved funding from; nor is it the opinion of my colleagues.

Other than Luan Koka, no Roma leader- or even specific Mahala- is named.

Luan Koka claimed to be the leader of Kosovo's Roma when the Serbs controlled the province. His numerous public appearances, and his public and vocal alignment of Kosovo's Roma with Serbs, played a part in the fate of Kosovo's Roma when the province changed status after the 1999 NATO war. Koka fled to Belgrade, where he remains to this day. Those Roma he claimed to speak for were left to face the music.

No Roma voted for Luan Koka. He was a convenience for Milosevic-era Belgrade; he was a member of a traditionally mistrusted minority group; he didn't look Serb. Koka was paraded through the Rambouillet negotiations by Serb handlers, made to say a few words on Kosovo's wonderful status under Serbia, and was then moved out of the way.

Roma politicians and community leaders claim the same goals; full rights as a recognized nationality; guaranteed civil rights; schools with Romanes as the language of instruction; affirmative action policies and positive discrimination (in employment and education) as an equalizer; subsidized income generation activities for Roma communities; and broadcasts, in Romanes, on television and radio. Roma political fragmentation makes these goals impossible to achieve. 

Roma political and community leadership in Kosovo is a wasteland of personal ambition. The Roma of the former Yugoslavia learned about politics by rote; their instructors were dictators- Tito- and quasi-dictators like Slobodan Milošević. The lessons these rulers taught were not about policy; they were classes in the quashing of rivals, the enrichment of friends and family, the amassing of power and stocking of courts of rule with sycophants.

Most Roma leaders- with the exception of a few honest and hardworking individuals in Prilužje, Gracanica and other areas- view a leadership position as nothing more than a post of power and personal enrichment. Rival community leaders often emerge; a rival leader's extended family and a few allied families agitate for them and make things as difficult as possible for the target community leader. This results in the rival attempting to block any and all programs that intend to benefit the community, including NGO activity, educational programs and material aid distribution. This deadlock- one trying to make an impact, and the rival trying to make him worthless, will continue until, in some future vote, the rival has curried enough favor to win the position.

Every Roma community in Kosovo has a similar story to tell. One Roma Mahala was ruled until late 2001 by a community leader who personally assumed control of material aid distributions in order to deny aid to the families he didn't care for. When UNMIK launched its Social Assistance Scheme after 1999, that same leader made the Mahala families apply for the program through him- and every application from a family he disliked was destroyed. Upon that leader's death in 2001, his daughter assumed the position. Her ideas for the betterment of the Mahala- and she had many- were blocked by a cousin who then assumed control. 

In yet another Mahala, a 1999 Roma leader stole material aid and food donations destined for the entire Mahala. He was voted out at the next Roma meeting, but refused to relinquish the post; he continued to misrepresent himself as the Roma community leader to unsuspecting NGOs. When these NGOs broke off contact with him, he made things as difficult for them as possible, including trying to have them expelled from the community. He attempted to block educational programs for Roma children, even though his own children attended. A Belgian NGO established a community-managed fund for those in the Mahala who needed home repairs; the community was to prioritize need cases and allocate the money themselves. The disgraced leader demanded control of the funds; when this was rejected, he threatened that any Roma who accepted those funds would have their homes burned down. 

Yet another Mahala has produced a leader who claims to speak for all Kosovar Roma, though Roma outside his territory know nothing of him. He has been beneficial to his people. He has also been extremely beneficial to his children and friends, but this must be viewed in a Kosovo context. Nepotism and personal enrichment are exercised in the west to a much greater extent than in southeastern Europe, but in the region, and especially in Kosovo, the perks are limited, and the enrichment and nepotism are in the open. This leads westerners to condemn the region's politicians as corrupt. Of course local Roma leaders have established positions for their children. Any other leader does the same.

The view of Roma politicians is the view of medieval kings; the world is divided into supporters and pretenders to the throne. Political cohesion is an unknown concept in the Kosovar Roma political environment, and a pretender's claim to lead Kosovo's Roma remains a simple title, because no local Roma leader will acknowledge him and he will acknowledge no one. Such Leaders have little power because they themselves are controlled by the majority politicians they align themselves with for support and recognition of their claim. 

Too often some Roma community leaders care nothing for their community; they want to get rich. Benefits to the community are talked about passionately but do not materialize. Donations for winterization are solicited for the community, and then sold upon delivery. Roma leaders are not usually respected; Roma leaders pick fights with other potential leaders, or the leaders of other communities; their policies regard eating away at the power bases of rivals while strengthening their own.

Kosovo’s Roma suffer from severe divisions that are self-imposed. These divisions are seldom a matter of clan classification- Gurbeti, Arlija, Egyptian, Ashkalija and so on. They are family/ personality clashes. Economic levels play a part in the greater divisions, found across Kosovo, that have created the separate identities of Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptians. Claimed ethnic or linguistic differences are really differences in employment, education and earning power. Ashkalija and Egyptians were sedentary, for a century or longer, than Roma; they were generationally established within Albanian communities, spoke the language as a mother tongue, and needed to separate themselves from Roma, the weaker players, because of supposed political alignments the Roma had, as well as the idea that they had more to lose in the coming conflict.

Roma political parties are the parties of specific individuals and their supporters. And Roma interests and needs, while paid lip service to, are often disregarded. Because of these issues, an all-Roma movement, as opposed to a political party, will not come about in Kosovo for some time. Roma speak with many small voices; they would do well to pay attention to the structure of the LDK, which initially mobilized the Albanian majority into a coherent and malleable unit, united in purpose and goal, that drew attention to their plight under the Serbs from 1989 to 1999.

Roma political parties outside of Kosovo are larger examples of the same internal problems that affect Kosovar Roma. No Kosovar or Serbian Roma political party has yet existed that has any kind of effect on state policy, or even has the general respect of a Roma constituency.



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