Macedonia: 'No Greater Macedonian Than I'

by Eben Friedman

 

The comparatively good social standing of Macedonian Roma has deep historical and newer political roots.

 

"We Roma have been loyal, are loyal, and will be loyal to the state in which we live."

--a member of the Suto Orizari municipal council

 

Scholars believe that Roma came to what is now the Republic of Macedonia sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries. Since their arrival in the Balkans, Roma have generally coexisted peacefully with the surrounding non-Romani populations, with the persecution of Roma common in other parts of Europe the exception rather than the rule. Most of Macedonia's Romani population survived the Second World War, demonstrating continuity with an established pattern.

 

According to the population census of 2002, there were 53,879 Romani citizens resident in Macedonia, accounting for 2.66 percent of the total population. Informed estimates from local Romani organizations throughout the country, however, suggest that the actual size of the Romani population is approximately twice the official figure. Assuming the accuracy of these estimates, Roma are Macedoniaís second-largest minority, after ethnic Albanians.

 

ONE AMONG EQUALS

 

Macedonia's Romani population is predominantly urban. About half of all Roma in Macedonia live in the capital, Skopje, with the municipality of Suto Orizari on the outskirts of the city home to the largest concentration of Roma in the world. Approximately 80 percent of Macedonian Roma speak Romani as a first language. There are sizeable concentrations of Macedonian- and Albanian-speaking Roma in western Macedonia, as well as smaller enclaves of Turkish speakers scattered throughout the country.

 

Working against the tendency of post-communist regimes to distinguish between national minorities on the one hand and ethnic minorities on the other, and to place Roma in the latter category, the preamble of the 1991 constitution of Macedonia makes explicit reference to Roma as a national minority, like the Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, and "other nationalities" resident in the country. The explicit inclusion of Roma in the Macedonian constitution can be attributed in large part to the efforts and position of the Romani elder statesman Faik Abdi, who played a role in drafting the document. In similar fashion, Macedonia's 2001 constitution--revised following the armed conflict that year between Macedonian government forces and the ethnic-Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army--places Roma on the same level as the country's Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, Serbian, and Bosniak "communities."

 

LOYAL TO THE FATHERLAND

 

As members of a relatively small minority in a country often sharply divided along ethnic lines, many Roma in Macedonia have emphasized their loyalty to the state and to its titular nation, the ethnic Macedonians. I witnessed the bequeathing of this line of thinking from one generation to the next at a seminar in a Suto Orizari primary school, where the (Romani) principal, Saip Iseni, explained to a classroom full of Romani pupils the need for Roma to be "even more loyal" to the Republic of Macedonia for lack of an ethnic homeland state. Also telling is that the Suto Orizari municipal council--made up overwhelmingly of Roma--conducts its meetings in Macedonian, despite legal provisions allowing official business to be conducted in the language of a given ethnic community in municipalities in which at least 20 percent of the population belongs to that community.

 

In other ways as well Romani citizens make clear their loyalty to the Macedonian state. Consider, for instance, privately owned Romani media outlets. One, the Roma Times newspaper, devotes 30 percent of its news space to articles in Macedonian, and the Romani television station BTR Nacional broadcasts the same evening news program twice: once in Romani (with a Romani anchorwoman) and a second time in Macedonian (with an ethnic-Macedonian anchorman).

 

Romani political figures in Macedonia share a consistently expressed interest in cooperating with their ethnic-Macedonian counterparts. The 1999 program of the Party for Complete Emancipation of the Roma of Macedonia (PSERM), for instance, presents Macedonia as "our only common community" and the party as "committed to complete sovereignty of the Macedonian state, fatherland of the Macedonian people, that is, the Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Roma, Vlachs, Muslims, Serbs, and other nationalities that live on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia." One party member told me, "There is no greater Macedonian than I."

 

Although over 90 percent of Roma in Macedonia are Muslim, PSERM's program also contains a promise to act on the international level to ensure recognition of the autocephalous Macedonian Orthodox Church.

 

Like the PSERM, the United Party of the Roma in Macedonia (PPRM) presents itself as committed to Macedonian sovereignty and views favorable interethnic and interconfessional relations as a condition for the stability of the state. The PPRM's leader and presently the sole Romani representative in parliament, Nezdet Mustafa, has on numerous occasions both before and since the 2001 violence voiced concerns that the activities of ethnic-Albanian political leaders toward the reconstitution of Macedonia as a bi-national state of Macedonians and Albanians will hurt not only the Romani population, but also the republic as such. Expressions of loyalty from Mustafa's erstwhile political rival, the former parliamentarian Amdi Bajram of the Union of the Roma in Macedonia, on the other hand, came in the form of more categorical statements that he would always vote with the majority in parliament.

 

KOSOVO'S UNHEALED WOUNDS

 

Roma have successfully put across their sense of loyalty to the ethnic-Macedonian population throughout the history of independent Macedonia, as evidenced by the celebrations in April 1993 on the UN's recognition of Macedonian independence, when Roma were bused into Skopje for the occasion but ethnic Albanians were not. A 1997 publication of the Macedonian Foreign Ministry entitled "The Situation of Roma in the Republic of Macedonia" conveys a similarly benign view of the Romani population, stating that this minority "is characterized by a high degree of integrity and a clearly expressed feeling of belonging to the Republic of Macedonia."

 

Following the 1999 NATO air campaign in Serbia, when a large portion of Kosovoís Romani population fled to neighboring countries, many made their way into Macedonia. Although the conditions in the refugee camps were arguably better than what Roma can expect to this day in Kosovo, the 2,000 or so Roma from Kosovo who have remained in Macedonia have not generally managed to successfully integrate into the resident Romani population, and some Macedonian Roma cast aspersions at their co-ethnics from Kosovo, calling them violent and untrustworthy. While the Kosovo crisis seems not to have affected Romani-Macedonian relations, relations between Roma and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia worsened, with ethnic-Albanian views of Roma as pro-Serb reinforced in Macedonia by rumors that Romani parliamentarian Amdi Bajram had threatened to send a contingent of Romani troops from Macedonia to help the Milosevic regime's crackdown on Albanians in Kosovo. Additionally, although Roma apparently fought on both sides of the 2001 armed conflict in Macedonia, there are no signs that relations between Roma and ethnic Albanians have improved or that relations between Roma and ethnic Macedonians have deteriorated.

 

The unusually favorable relations between Roma and ethnic Macedonians in the current atmosphere of Macedonian-Albanian tensions seem to owe much to a longstanding concern with preventing Roma from identifying with other Muslims in general and with the ethnic-Albanian population in particular. Beginning with the replacement of the equivalent of "Gypsy" with "Rom" in the federal census of 1971, and continuing through the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, first Yugoslav and later Macedonian authorities undertook various measures to encourage the preservation and cultivation of Romani culture, perhaps most notably through Romani-language broadcast time and primary-school instruction.

 

In extending cultural rights to Roma, Yugoslav authorities devoted particular attention to largely Albanian-inhabited areas in Macedonia and Kosovo. Thus, as late as the mid-1990s, Romani programming in Kosovo far exceeded the number of hours broadcast in Serbia proper and in Vojvodina combined, despite the fact that the latter two regions were home to over twice as many Roma as was Kosovo. The effective removal of Kosovo from Serbian control seems to have brought a change in this tacit policy, as suggested by the elimination of Romani broadcasts at Radio Nis (whose signal can be captured in Kosovo) in 2002. In this manner, ethnopolitical competition goes far toward explaining not only Macedonian, but also Serbian policy toward the Roma under communist and post-communist governments alike.

 

LESS DISLIKED THAN MOST

 

While stereotypes of Roma as dirty and untrustworthy are alive and well among non-Roma in Macedonia in general, the 59 percent of ethnic-Macedonian respondents to a 1996 survey expressing an aversion to Roma was lower than the same population's responses concerning aversion to Jews, Turks, Bulgarians, and, leading the pack, Albanians, who were disliked by 87 percent of respondents. In fact, the only groups inspiring more confidence than Roma among ethnic Macedonians were Serbs and Vlachs, each evoking negative responses in 44 percent of respondents.

 

Negative stereotypes of Roma may be commonplace, but fears about disintegration of the state and population growth commonly expressed by ethnic Macedonians in reference to the Albanian minority are not generally applied to Roma. This was brought home to me by a number of ethnic-Macedonian taxi drivers throughout the country, who upon finding out that I had come to Macedonia to conduct research on the Roma, usually reacted with friendly amusement, telling me Roma were a peaceful people. Similar attributes of gentleness and mildness are sometimes applied to themselves by ethnic Macedonians, suggesting that they view themselves as having at least one important and positive characteristic in common with Roma. The same drivers by no means displayed a Pollyannaish view of interethnic relations, judging from their frequent complaints about the Albanian minority.

 

Shortly after I arrived in Skopje to conduct field research in early 2000, I had occasion to meet the 14-year-old son of the ethnic-Macedonian woman who owned the bakery just outside the front door of the apartment building where I was staying. The boy had been attending a private language school to learn English, and his mother wanted to know if she was getting her money's worth, so I agreed to give her my opinion on the matter. Once the baker's son and I had exchanged the usual introductory pleasantries, he began to ask me about what I was doing in Macedonia. I explained, intentionally using the term "Gypsies" so as--I thought--not to overwhelm him with unfamiliar vocabulary. Then I asked if he had understood what I had said.

 

"Yes," he replied, "but here we call them Romi."

 

Eben Friedman is Senior Research Associate at the European Center for Minority Issues in Flensburg, Germany.