Last week we witnessed a series of significant events in Macedonia, all centered around the theme of Romani integration. These events included the Western Balkans Ministerial Conference on Roma-Related Policies, a consultation meeting between the Council of Europe (CoE) and Roma civil society organizations, and the official launch of Phase 3 of the Roma Integration project. Additionally, the old and new leadership of the European Roma Foundation embarked on a field visit. These gatherings offered a glimpse into the state of Roma affairs in Macedonia and the broader European context.
In assessing the outcomes of these events, we find ourselves at a crossroads between optimism, pessimism, and realism. Each scenario paints a unique picture of the challenges and opportunities facing Romani integration.
The optimistic scenario sees a harmonious continuation of domestic and international stakeholders' efforts to advance Romani integration. It envisions concrete progress, meaningful dialogue, and the genuine inclusion of Roma voices in policymaking. However, this rosy outlook often clashes with the harsh realities on the ground.
On the other hand, the pessimistic scenario envisages institutional promises that remain trapped within the confines of meeting rooms. This scenario perpetuates the status quo, where the Romani community continues to face systemic discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization.
Somewhere in between lies the realistic scenario. Here, we confront the ignorance and misguided attitudes of those in charge of Romani affairs, top-down-designed projects funded by the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), and the recycling of old ideas and plans by the European Roma Foundation. This scenario highlights the gap between rhetoric and action, the disconnect between those in power and those they purport to serve, and the persistence of systemic issues.
It is disheartening to note that state institutions in Macedonia, much like in many other countries, remain impotent when it comes to addressing Romani issues effectively. The European Commission (EC) and the CoE, while well-intentioned, often find themselves writing diagnoses and therapies for the wrong patients. Meanwhile, the European Roma Foundation, tasked with advocating for a marginalized community, sometimes appears to seek power among the powerless.
The events of last week offered several telling impressions. Firstly, the minister of labor and social policies in Macedonia appeared to lack a fundamental understanding of basic notions and key players in Romani policies. This lack of distinction between the EC, CoE, and the Roma Foundation raises concerns about the competency of those entrusted with shaping policies that directly affect the Romani community.
Secondly, Romani non-governmental organizations (NGOs) still seem focused on the project and activity level. The confusion between programs, projects, and policies at the national, local, and international levels is a recurring issue. This confusion hampers the effectiveness of Romani civil society organizations in advocating for meaningful change.
At the end, a symbolic photo appeared of the management of the Roma Foundation and young Avaya activists, all dressed in olive-green T-shirts. While symbolic gestures can carry weight, they must be accompanied by substantive actions and policies to have a lasting impact. Avaja in Romany means We are coming. It is not clear where they are coming from or when they will come, and it is even more unclear what will happen when they arrive. Someone criticizes them for coming slowly, someone else for having strayed or will yet wander through the labyrinths of activism, be it political or civil. Let me just remind you that civil activism spent 20 years to employ Roma in state institutions. Now we have a trend of leaving institutions and employment in international organizations. It turned out that we were naive that the entry of Roma into state bodies would change the state's culture and attitude towards us. Unfortunately, it was not that simple.
In conclusion, last week's events in Macedonia brought with them a cacophony of noise and improvisations, all seemingly motivated by the same underlying current—the allure of financial resources. To truly advance Romani integration, we must move beyond superficial gestures and short-term projects. It is imperative that we address the root causes of systemic discrimination and work toward policies that empower the Romani community and ensure their full participation in society. Only then can we truly replace the "smell of money" with the scent of progress and equality.
The author is the Executive Director of the Initiative for Social Change and also part of the Network for Systemic and Permanent Solutions, and the National Roma Platform