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Eastern Europe: Helsinki Commission Hears Of Attempts By Eastern Governments To Redress Roma Rights

By Eliska Pohorska

The problems faced by Roma in Eastern Europe are not new, and -- according to witnesses before a meeting of the U.S. Helsinki Commission yesterday -- they will not be solved soon. But the witnesses said governments in the region are beginning to address the problem responsibly. RFE/RL correspondent Eliska Pohorska reports from Washington.

Washington, 10 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Advocates for the rights of Roma in Eastern Europe told the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington that better education and increased political participation are the most important ways that Roma can improve their lives in Eastern Europe.

The witnesses gave their testimony yesterday before the U.S. Congress' Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission.

In opening the hearing, the co-chairman of the commission, U.S. Representative Christopher Smith -- a Republican congressman from the eastern state of New Jersey -- said Roma in Eastern Europe face serious problems, most of them related to poverty. He said it is time for governments in the region to address these problems.

One of the witnesses at the hearing was Elena Poptodorova, Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States. She testified that Sofia has established a special commission dedicated to studying violations of the human rights of Roma in Bulgaria and to recommending remedies.

According to Poptodorova, the commission has concluded that education and political enfranchisement are the keys to integrating Roma in Bulgarian society, and throughout Eastern Europe. Focusing on political involvement, Poptodorova said Roma in her country want to take part in the political process but are not certain how to go about it.

"We should recognize also one other thing: Of course, the political will is there, and I will say a few words on that. On the other hand, however, we need more expertise," Poptodorova said.

Poptodorova said Bulgaria is now doing all it can to integrate Roma politically. But she stressed that the U.S. government should send consultants to help her country learn the best ways to reach out to Roma. The ambassador did not specify how these experts could help.

Commission member Joseph R. Pitts -- a Republican U.S. congressman from the eastern state of Pennsylvania -- acknowledged that some countries in the region are confronting the issue more effectively than others.

"Education is the key to bringing positive change to individuals' lives, and I commend the work of the people in Bulgaria for their efforts to bring change," Pitts said.

Another witness was Nicolae Gheorghe, himself a Roma who is now in charge of Roma issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Like Poptodorova, he said political integration is essential for Roma to improve their economic and social status.

"I think that one of the long-term, promising activities, which takes a lot of time, is to educate Roma as being voters in their countries, as being participants in the electoral system, as trying to take [on] the role of the electoral and political participation and responsibility," Gheorghe said.

Gheorghe said it is the responsibility of governments to enfranchise Roma into politics. But he said it is equally the responsibility of Roma to engage themselves in the politics of the countries they inhabit.

According to Gheorghe, the economic, social, and political problems that Roma face in Eastern European countries cannot be solved quickly. But he said these countries, including Bulgaria, have taken an important first step to a solution by acknowledging that these problems exist.