Paper by Nando Sigona [draft]

June 2008


The development of an inclusive and welcoming society is a key prerequisite to the successful integration of RAE minorities.

The strategy of RAE integration will offer a comphensive policy instrument to address many of the key issues of concern for these minorities. However, in order to achieve the goals listed in the strategy, and primarly RAE social inclusion in Kosovo, it is essential to move beyond the strategy itself, to target the relationship between majority and minority and addressing the central issues of trust and reconciliation as discussed in the concept paper 1.

We should bear in mind, in fact, that RAE have a century-long history in Kosovo and their current circumstances must be understood in the context of the overall history of Yugoslavia and its dissolution and, importantly, as the result of the history of the region and not an exception.


The context

During the 1999 war, Kosovo came to the fore as a conflict-ridden and divided society where two parallel societies had been living over the centuries. The war and the growing ethnic tension of the 1990s provided the interpretative framework through which the past of the region was recollected and narrated. This led many commentators to consider the separation between Serbs and Albanians as inevitable. Kosovo, to put it in Mertus’ terms (1999: 4), “exemplifies a society in which the identities of two competing groups have long been tied to Truths about the other”.

On the contrary, Duijzings and other scholars (2000) show how “although the war in Kosovo may cause us to think in terms of irreconcilable differences, one should not forget that boundaries – the territorial as well as the cognitive ones – have often faded in more quiet periods (2000:1). Yet, he points out, “Kosovo has also a history of coexistence with considerable movements across its ethnic and religious frontiers […] Many cultural traits were and still are shared across group boundaries, and throughout its history  the ethnic and religious barriers have been anything but watertight” (ibidem).

It is estimated that currently around 35.000 to 40.000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians live in Kosovo – Gjakove/Djakovica, Prizren, Ferizaj/Urosevac, Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje, Obiliq/Obilic, Mitrovica/Mitrovice, Peja/Pec and Gracanica host the largest communities – while about100.000 live abroad[1].

RAE emigration from Kosovo started in the late 1970s, with the decline of Yugoslav economic and social system, however the mass exodus of RAE occurred in the aftermath of the conflict in 1999, when hundreds of people were killed or went missing; houses were burnt down or illegally occupied and entire neighbourhoods were swept away. Displaced RAE are settled mainly in the Balkan region, with Serbia being the main country of asylum, and Western Europe, where the largest RAE population is settled in Germany.

All available social and economic indicators underline the disadvantaged position of RAE in Kosovo society. The UNDP Human Development Report (2004) reveals that RAE per capita income amounts to about one third of that of the rest of the population, with 36% of RAE living in condition of extreme poverty (1USD a day) and almost 60% unemployed. Moreover, if employed, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians occupy primarily lower level positions. Of particular concern is the situation of RAE in the education sector (UNDP, 2005), with the percentage of illiterate persons well above the rest of the population (16%) and a situation which has been deteriorating in the last 10 years.

These issues, in particular the lack of job opportunities and poor education achievements, resonate in the interviews carried out with RAE activists and organisations and key informants in Kosovo and abroad. In several occasions, respondents directly relate the need to address these issues to the more general goal to achieve trust, reconciliation and security as prerequisite for successful integration.

Policy aimed to promote the integration of minorities, in particular in a society which experienced in its recent history war, conflict and violence, should include the issue of community relations, social cohesion and reconciliation into its scope.


Continuity and discontinuity

In the context of Kosovo interethnic relations, RAE minorities have been under pressure both from the Serb and Albanian sides to show loyalty and assimilate to the dominant culture. According to Galjus, Roma identity was systematically denied, hidden, forcedly removed and then recalled whenever required by the political opportunity of dominant groups. However, it must be pointed out that this process did not start with the war: it was rooted in public policy and practice which were embedded within the framework of Kosovo interethnic relations. For Marushiakova and Popov (2001: 469), “tendencies towards religious and ethnic assimilation of the Gypsies by the predominant communities have always existed on the Balkans”.

However, we must be aware that discourses around identity are never easy or clear cut and categories are dialectically defined, subject to continuous negotiation and far from being hermetically sealed.  For Duijzings (2000:5), “because of these historical experiences of conversion and ‘mimicry’, and the consciousness of mixed and composite origins, there is often a high awareness among Balkan inhabitants that most identities should not be taken for granted”. Nonetheless the experience of violence and war has contributed to the polarisation of the conflict/relationship between the two main ethnic groups leaving the RAE caught in the middle.

In order to promote and facilitate a cohesive and peaceful society for all, where minorities feel secure and can interact freely with the other groups in society, while developing their culture and tradition to address the needs of a fast changing society, it is important to think any policy for RAE inclusion as not exclusively targeted at RAE people but as measures addressing the wellbeing and development of society at large.

Moreover, the mainstreaming of RAE issues is essential in order to avoid the false impression that in current Kosovo RAE are privileged against others in accessing resources. The current circumstances of RAE minorities in Kosovo demonstrate cleary that this is not the case, however among some ethnic Albanians the idea of RAE being privileged is rooted and can become in the future cause of conflict and enimities. This issue was flagged up by some key informants during the fieldwork. It was pointed out how current practice sometimes rather then promoting solidariety between groups ends up by reinforcing boundaries between them. And the international community has some important responsabilities in this sense. In fact, while it is a risk to some extent embedded in ethnopolitics, the oversemplification of political debate and the polarisaton of grouping along ethnic lines with the marginalisation of other forms of political and social affiliations and belonging, international agencies should operate considering more carefully the long term impact of their policies on the very people they claim to advocate for. The risk of antagonising the majority should be assessed also in relation to its impact on local institutions and political debate in general. If RAE are an issue of ‘internationals’, local authorities,  Government and political parties can derogate to their responsibility towards them and rather use them as a scapegoat for majority “unhappiness”.

RAE activists pointed out also how for them is much easier and less risky to blame international agencies for the extreme living conditions of many RAE people, while at the same time they acknoledge how this strategy on the medium long term does not help to improve ethnic relations and solve tension between Kosovo citizens.

Building trust and solidarity between different groups in society is crucial for a successful integration process. Government, politicians, internalional agencies and the media and educational institutions all have a role to play in fostering understanding, reconciliation and solidarity between communities.

As we discussed in the concept paper I, integration should be understood as a process rather that an end-status in which it is possible to detect three different components:

a)    It is dynamic and two-way: it places demands both on the society and the individuals and/or the communities concerned.

b)    It is long term: rather than understanding it as an ending status, integration should be understood as a process which requires continuous commitment, action and adjustment from all parties.

c)    It is multi-dimensional: it relates both to the conditions for and actual participation in all aspects of the economic, social, cultural, civil and political life of the country as well as to individuals’ own sense of belonging and membership in the society as a whole.


Some concluding remarks

While overall the situation is bleak and sees Roma in the middle of two, sometimes, three or four fires: Serbs, Albanians, internationals and diasporas[2] – each of them attempting to promote its own ‘truth’ on RAE – fieldwork also showed that there are situations where positive measures are being undertaken and results become to be visible.

The acknowledgement of the circumstances which brought to the current situation of ethnic polarization is the starting point for post-conflict reconstruction of positive and peaceful social relations.

Kosovo was, and to a less extent still is, the home also of other ethnic groups. While foreign observers have often considered marginal or not relevant these residents, the other minorities played an important, often instrumental, role in Yugoslav politics and, in a divided and polarised environment such as Kosovo, struggled to find their way through changing power relations and cyclic request to display loyalty to the winners.

Municipalities have a crucial role to play in the implementation of the strategy and the creation of positive social relation in general. But, at moment, they seem to not do enough to engage with RAE and fail to develop local strategies to deal with RAE socio-economic disadvantage and social exclusion. The appointment of community officers from the RAE communities, while an important step forward, does not guarantee the improvement of the situation. Some informants lamented the fact that community officers are used as a token by municipal authorities, and are not given any real power.

However, the involvement of municipalities and local stakeholders (including Serbian parallel structures) is an essential resource for the successful implementation of the strategy. This should be supported and coordinated by a central office which could act as facilitator of exchange of good practices, as a monitor of their initiatives and policy and as body responsible for the overall implementation of the strategy.


Some proposals for the implementation of the RAE strategy

·         Including whenever possible RAE in mainstream strategies and policy

·         Avoid duplication of legislation

·         simplify the structure of agencies called to implement the strategy

·         clearly identifies duties and responsibilities of agencies

·         conducting a nation-wise survey of RAE situation and needs’ assessment which shall be used as baseline for setting realistic goals and targets for implementation

·         work in partnership with RAE organisations but be aware of limited resources available and the risk of overstretching their capacities

·         municipal authorities in lines with the general objectives of the Strategy and in close collaboration with the Government focal point for RAE strategy implementation develop local strategies tailored on local needs, political circumstances and RAE demography. Planning sustainable return is an essential part of local strategies.

·         identify pilot projects and potential best practice in each area of the Strategy

·         promote a positive image of RAE as part of Kosovo society in mainstream media

·         government plans should be spelt out especially as far as returnees and displaced RAE are concerned

·         clear monitoring and evaluation procedures and independent assessment conducted in cooperation with RAE organisations.

[1] Around 45.000 to 50.000 Kosovo Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians live in Serbia (23.000 as registered IDP), 35.000 are in Germany with temporary status (duldung) and around 10.000 live as refugees in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. An unaccounted number lives as refugees, illegal migrants or migrant workers all over Western Europe. As of October 2007, 6,899 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians returned to Kosovo since January 2000 according to UNHCR data.


[2] An important aspect to consider when discussing the role of diaspora in guiding the decision taken by RAE in Kosovo comes from the UNDP (2004). According to UNDP, among Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians remittances from relatives/friends constitute 20.86% of the total income which is the highest rata among all ethnic communities. Nevertheless, RAE refugees and diaspora and local RAE may have, at this stage, diverging interests and government policy should take them into account.