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Eastern Europe: Study Suggests Ways To Improve Political Involvement By Roma

By Sterling Wright

Roma often face discrimination in Eastern and Central Europe. A new study says that increased political involvement is as important to Romany community development as more traditional economic and social initiatives.

Washington, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A new study of Romany communities in Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia says more political participation is needed to improve their social and economic status.

The report was conducted by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit group based in Washington, and funded by the Open Society Institute, a nongovernmental organization.

Vicki Robinson and James Denton presented the report at a briefing in Washington this week. Robinson has worked extensively with Romany civic groups and elected Romany officials. Denton is an international consultant specializing in strengthening relations between former Eastern bloc governments, NGOs, and businesses with counterparts in the United States.

Robinson said a history of poverty and social exclusion has left Roma ill-equipped to engage in the political arena. "The isolation of the Roma community and the marginalization of the Roma community has not lent itself to the building of any kind of cohesive political movement," she said.

Denton agreed, saying Romany political parties lack a unifying philosophy or theme of collective identity and representation. He said Romany political allegiance is rooted in family and clan concerns and immediate financial rewards, rather than the representation of broader community issues. As a result, national representation is virtually nonexistent. "Overall, the Roma political organizations lack a developed infrastructure beyond a handful of party leaders and activists who have limited influence in the larger Roma community," he said.

Denton said that, among the Roma, there is an extreme sense of cynicism, betrayal, and alienation, and they consider their political leadership to be "deceiving, dishonest, and manipulative."

Roma are also suffering what he called an ethnic "identity crisis" and are inclined to deny their ethnic ties in an attempt to avoid being stigmatized. As a result, census reports do not accurately reflect Roma population figures.

Although governments in all three countries have recognized the need to integrate Roma into mainstream politics, Robinson and Denton said the political elites are reluctant to associate themselves with the stigmatized groups and that few new initiatives have been implemented.

Both researchers said programs are needed that focus on training political leaders, encouraging self-empowerment, and motivating Roma to become politically involved.

Denton suggested that an international donors forum be established for each country to strengthen the efforts of nongovernmental organizations, which he said have been the most effective sector in the region.

He pointed out that national and local elections are scheduled throughout the region and will provide opportunities to test strategies for raising Romany political participation.

Denton and Robinson said discrimination against minorities in Romania and Bulgaria will impede their acceptance into the European Union. Slovakia has already been invited to join the EU in 2004. The three countries acknowledge their Romany populations must be more closely integrated into the mainstream.

"There are some people [in the surveyed countries] who are saying that the Roma are keeping us out of the EU and that the Roma are a threat to our democracy and our stability," Denton said. "You know, I think the way to challenge that is to simply remind everyone that these are national issues, national problems, and that should be reinforced throughout the work of any of the Roma participation initiatives."