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Macedonia: The Roma – Inside or Outside the Circle?

The Roma in the Republic of Macedonia (RM) have political representation, including a Member of Parliament, a Mayor, and a Government Minister. Their legal and ethnic rights are institutionally protected, and the media do not use ethnic slurs. However, most of the Roma suffer the oppression of poverty, compounded with the consequences of negative stereotyping based on skin color and perpetuation of traditional prejudices by their fellow-citizens.

Street scene from Šutka.

Various contrasts in Šuto Orizari, Roma suburb of Skopje. Photo by Kostas Kallergis, used with permission of the author.

Srki, a young Roma man from Skopje, wrote [mk] on his blog Moe i tvoe mislenje [Opinion – Mine and Yours]:

The Republic of Macedonia enjoys high reputation because it provides special treatment for the Roma, compared to other Central and Eastern European states. Many researchers and human rights activists who worked in Macedonia claim that the Roma do not suffer open racism and racist violence, open discrimination, etc., the way they do in the rest of Europe.

Macedonia is a multi-ethnic country, and home to a number of ethnic groups, including: Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Bosniaks, Roma and Vlachs. The Constitution of RM and the laws provide protection of the cultural, language and religious rights to all minority entities. The Constitution also recognizes the right to use native (mother) languages within the public education system.

According to the 2002 Census, there are 53,979 Roma in Macedonia, while some Roma NGOs claim there are around 132,000 members of this ethnic group, based on their surveys.* The Roma are the poorest of all minority groups in RM. They live in all cities, usually on the periphery. These suburb represent ghettos, inhabited by Roma only under very bad conditions of low-quality housing. Even though the Government and the current [Roma Decade] invested large efforts to redeem the situation, the Roma are still at the lowest social level, with the highest number of illiterate persons and the lowest percentage of employment. The majority of the Roma live in illegally constructed houses and substandard dwellings without the basic infrastructure: without legal connections to water supply and sewage, without access roads, etc. These bad environmental conditions affect the already bad economic situation, and, together with discrimination and marginalization, are the main reasons for limiting the access of the Roma to the educational process. For these reasons, the Roma also have low access to social and health services. In order to truly aid the Roma, leaders must envision long-term actions and priority measures based on improving these conditions.

Many people accept the view that the Roma enjoy a relatively better treatment in Macedonia, when compared to other Balkan and European states. However, the questions remain:
– What does a “relatively better treatment” mean?
– Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include terms such as “relatively recognized rights,” “relative protection of a certain right,” and the like?

In conversations with the non-Roma, with my acquaintances, colleagues, associates and intellectuals… I often hear: “You lack nothing, you've got everything here, you make music, dance, you are a joyful people, good for song and dance… Enjoy life and do not push to enter were you do not belong…”

In spite all the research results that show that the Roma live integrated in Macedonia, that they are included in social circles… I still suffocate, from the looks full of prejudice I encounter when I go out in the street, from the stereotypes exposed by public personas, political figures, and regular citizens, from their weird looks and behavior when I sit in a coffee house, in a restaurant or at a disco…

The “magic circles” of discrimination continue to exist…

Over the years, NGOs have reacted to cases of discrimination, such as denial of entry to Roma children in public pools, or police brutality toward the Roma, which usually remain without official closure. Ethnic Macedonian bloggers also tackle this issue from time to time. For instance, in 2009 Bi wrote [mk] about a “shameful” protest against building of a center for street children on the premises of a kindergarten in Bitola. In 2010, Global Voices covered the incident involving the use of overwhelming police force in a Roma-majority Skopje suburb of Šuto Orizari (aka Šutka).

An alley in Šuto Orizari.

An alley in the more affluent part of Šuto Orizari. Photo: Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY-NC.

* The discrepancy between census results and the “actual” estimated numbers may stem from the cases of people who adopt the identity of a larger, more powerful ethnic group, allegedly due to hope that it would provide them material or other benefits. This affects various ethnic groups, leading to controversies about the “true” identity of portions of the population in various combinations: Roma “turned” into Turks or Albanians, Muslim ethnic Macedonians or Albanians “turned” into Turks, Christian Macedonians “turned” into Bulgarians… On the other hand, representatives of the small ethnic Egyptian community vehemently deny any relation to the more numerous Roma. The state's response on such issues is that all citizens have the right to self-determination in regard to ethnic identity and nobody should influence their choices.

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