The Roma have been the subject of discrimination for centuries. Although laws exist in practically all European countries to protect minorities, the most effective way for a minority group to ensure its rights is to be represented in the political process. This week the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Czech Foreign Ministry hosted a two-day workshop in Prague on how to increase Roma political participation throughout Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten attended the opening day.
Prague, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The workshop, held today and yesterday, is the first of its kind to be organized by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Some 100 Roma activists and politicians from across Europe attended.
Gerard Stoudmann is the head of the OSCE office. He says political participation is important for safeguarding rights:
"In a democratic system, the only way to defend one's rights and in particular minority rights -- and this is the case for the Roma -- is through political participation."
But even in many established democracies, the Roma are barely represented in local and national politics. Stoudmann said that in the entire OSCE area, which encompasses hundreds of millions of people in 55 countries, there are now a total of 5 Roma legislators, 20 mayors and 400 municipal councilors.
That is more than a few years ago, but as Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous remarked:
"It is clear that the Roma are insufficiently represented in politics -- whether the reasons are historical, political or economic."
Part of the problem to gaining greater political representation is simple mathematics: the Roma number less than five percent of the population in most European countries. In many parliaments, five percent is the minimum threshold for a party to gain entry as a political party.
Emil Scuka, president of the International Romani Union, notes that even if all Roma in the Czech Republic, for example, voted for the country's one Roma political party, it would still not make it into the legislature. There are an estimated 200,000 Roma in the Czech Republic -- just two percent of the population.
Several European countries have devised rules to help the Roma and other minorities overcome this obstacle. In Poland, minority groups are allowed a lower threshold to get their candidates into parliament. Other states reserve a certain number of seats for minorities. In Norway, the indigenous Sami people, who inhabit the far north of the country, choose delegates to a type of regional parliament that acts as an advisory body to the national legislature. In Macedonia, redrawing electoral districts allowed local Roma to amass enough support to elect their own candidate to the legislature. All of these examples served as fodder for discussion at the workshop. But participants also debated the merit of having special electoral provisions covering minorities.
The Czech Republic -- site of the workshop -- has no special law guaranteeing minorities representation in parliament. And Monika Horakova, the country's only ethnic Roma elected to parliament, said she believes that's how things should be.
The 27-year-old Horakova captured much media attention when she became the youngest member of the Czech legislature in 1998 and its only Roma. Horakova ran on the slate of the newly founded right-of-center Freedom Union (US) and she told workshop participants that in her opinion, Roma who want to get into politics should aim to become part of the mainstream instead of banking only on their ethnic identity.
"I think the only way to enter political life is through integration -- on the one hand, to preserve one's identity and to remain a Roma -- but on the other hand, if a person wants to be active in politics, they have to offer something not only to the Roma but to all citizens, to all of the voters who support them. I think that is the best way forward."
Horakova acknowledged that she herself probably belongs to a minority within the Roma community with this opinion. She stressed that joining the political mainstream does not mean rejecting one's roots and culture, but she said she wanted the Roma to be seen as an integral part of Czech society and life.
No formal communiqu or blueprint for future action is expected from the Prague workshop, but organizers say that the fact that such issues are finally being discussed bodes well for the future.