International Abandonment of the Roma (Gypsies) in Former Yugoslavia

Dr. Karin Waringo - 12/14/2005

Do not even bother to ignore this. This typically Austrian expression, meaning that an issue should be given the lowest possible attention, could very well summarise the 'international community's' attitude towards the fate and destiny of the Kosovo Roma. Provided the so-called standards are fulfilled, discussions over the final status of the UN-administrated province may well begin by the mid of this year. These standards refer to a set of conditions encompassing almost any area of social life such as the freedom of media or the implementation of free market reforms. They also involve the fulfilment of the rights of the minorities including the right to return in safety which is generally seen as the litmus test for the degree of preparation of the Kosovo society or better, of the Albanian-speaking majority, to take in hand the future of the province.

But today, more than five years after the end of the war, there seems to be an ever greater latitude in the way how this condition is set out. This is particularly true as regards to the non-Serb minorities and in particular the Roma and other groups decried as "gypsies" and persecuted as such. Eventually, one may talk about a simple omission. The reality however is that this is the result of a crude Realpolitik which does not count those who do not have a voice to speak for themselves.

Kosovo was once regarded as an example of successful integration of Roma. Kosovo Roma had achieved a notable degree of welfare. Educational achievements were comparatively high. With this went their social recognition as fully-fledged members of the society. Of this, which, if related, sometimes appears as the vision of a Roma paradise, nothing is left today. Most symbolic is the destruction of the Roma Mahala in Southern Mitrovica which once hosted one of the biggest Roma communities in the region.

Since there is no exact information about the number of the Roma, who once lived in the Kosovo - the 1991 census registered 44,307 people who declared themselves as being of Romani origin with NGO estimates varying between 60,000 and 200,000 people - it is very difficult to quantify the human misery which has emerged from reversed ethnic cleansing. On the spot, exact figures are not needed, as the reality speaks for itself: Kosovo Roma are today the last inhabitants of the refugee camps in the Former Yugoslavia. Several tens of thousands live in illegal settlements, with often no or only limited access to water, electricity and waste removal. Their livelihood is made out of donations, occasional jobs in the informal economy, from begging and from selling of findings from the garbage.

Kosovo Roma today are reproducing the stereotypes of what people commonly consider as 'gypsies', a Roma activist pointed out to me. It is indeed hard to ignore the reverse process which has taken place, pushing once integrated and economically independent people to the fringes of the society, a society which has itself reached the bottom of what can be reached by European standards. Last Summer, I visited refugee camps or collective centres as they are euphemistically called in Montenegro and spoke to their inhabitants. I spoke to those who are rummaging through garbage cans and who are begging in the streets. The most enduring impression I was left with from my visits is the ability of these people to preserve their human dignity in the face of their hardships.

They were quite outspoken about the fact that they do not have any illusion about ever returning to Kosovo. Their dream is to go to Western Europe to have a better life. If the camps have emptied throughout the years it is probably in first place because of those hundreds or thousands who have somehow managed to make their way to Western Europe. In Summer 1999, a boat sunk while crossing the Adriatic leaving more than hundred dead. "I have lost a daughter-in-law and a grandchild," a man told me in the Northern Montenegrin town of Berane.

The camps and settlements are also the place where those end up, for whom the dream of a more bearable life has ended in failure and who have been repatriated from Western Europe. Again there are no precise numbers of the Roma who have been repatriated from Western Europe to Serbia and Montenegro and West European states such as Germany insist that they do not repatriate Kosovo Roma to other regions of Serbia and Montenegro. However, there are recurring rumours that Roma from Kosovo are being sent back to Serbia and Montenegro. I met two Kosovo Roma families, who had been repatriated from Germany and Switzerland, in the Podgorica suburb camp of Konik in Montenegro. One returnee from Germany explained to me that he had actually hoped to return to Kosovo. This was in 1999, before the bombing.

The return process to Kosovo has proceeded sluggishly. By the end of 2003, the UNHCR had registered merely 10,000 so-called minority returns. The process has considerably slowed down after the March pogroms in 2004 which led to 4,100 new IDPs with the number of returns in 2004 being significantly inferior to that of the two years before.
On the top of it, several hundreds of people have reportedly left Kosovo for Serbia and Montenegro or other destinations in the immediate aftermath the unrests and in the months to follow.

Listening to the recent statements made by such influential voices as the International Crisis Group (ICG), the independence of Kosovo is merely a question of time. While the first reactions to the March pogroms seemed to be that the protection of the rights of the minorities also as a prerequisite for any discussions surrounding the status would be given greater attention, the foot seems to be today in the other shoe. It has indeed argued that the local authorities cannot be hold accountable for the security situation of the minorities as long as their political responsibilities are curtailed. Moreover, the ICG and others have warned that the frustrations of the Kosovo Albanian population over the current stalemate could trigger new violence.
Independence now or barbarity, this is how the equation is now put. At the same time the advocators of independence, be it conditional, strongly rebuke any proposal by the Serbian government for a partition of Kosovo according to which Kosovo's Northern parts where the majority of the Kosovo Serbs live according to the government which has been contested by the ICG as well as by the European Stability Initiative would enjoy a substantial autonomy. Interestingly they use the same arguments to refute the Serbian governments proposal, i.e., the wish not to support an ethnic division of the province, which are put forward to legitimate an independent status of Kosovo. If it is certainly true that it cannot be expected that the Kosovo Albanians return under the authority of Belgrade, it is also true that nobody can "honestly imagine the non-Albanians integrating into an independent Kosovo any time soon" as Transitions Online (TOL) put in a rhetoric question.

The question that emerges here is what will happen with the Kosovo minorities. This has been raised with regard to the Kosovo Serbs and everybody agrees that their rights need to be protected, but the proponents of independence fail to consider the situation of the other ethnic minorities and in particular of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians. One is even tempted to believe that the Serb minority would not receive the attention it receives, if the Serbian government would not use it to underline its legitimate interests in Kosovo. As a matter of fact the Serbian government has also included the Roma and other non-Serb minorities it its proposal for a partition, but this is probably rather a tactical move. What the Roma miss is somebody who would advocate their rights for their own sake.

In a situation where their only chance would indeed be to speak with one voice, the Roma appear divided. In addition to the distinction in Roma, Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptian which some consider as legitimate and based on real differences such as language, origin and culture, but others as a mere betrayal of the common Romani origin, there are also differences of interests, which make it impossible for anyone to speak in the name of the whole community. A situation where four quarters or more of the concerned live in Diaspora is certainly not very conducive for a clarification and eventual settlement of the differences.

Under these circumstances and given the fact that the situation is already complicated enough, it is certainly very tempting to simply pass over the Roma and eventually, at a later stage, call in those who will just nod their heads in acquiescence. The result will however be an ever greater alienation of the Roma which already in past has provided the basis for instrumentalisations of all kinds. More important, a discussion over the final status of Kosovo on these premises and under the preliminaries set out above risks to entrench forever the status quo.

Looking at post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina could be highly instructive and indeed act as a warning: Almost ten years after the end of the war only a small number of Roma have been able to return to their place of origin, others remaining displaced within the country where they live under destitute conditions or staying abroad. Roma are not represented at the political institutions. The fact that they have not been recognised as a constituent people bans them from having access to the highest political offices including the Presidency. Only in 2003 have the Roma been returned the status of a national minority, which they had had in the Former Yugoslavia, and, on this basis, been granted some protection of their rights.

If the 'international community' does not want to repeat these mistakes and endorse the results of reverse ethnic cleansing it needs to include the Roma in its talks, not just as people to be protected, but indeed as legitimate and equal partners.

Dr. Karin Waringo holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. She is a freelance journalist and researcher specialising in Southeast Europe and minority issues. In the past, she served as an adviser of the European Roma Information Office in Brussels.