BELGRADE ROMA CONGRESS

 

Valdemar Kalinin (London) addresses Congress

 

Jovan Damjanovic - President of Word Roma Organization,

Veerendra Rishi, Indian Institute of Romani Studies (left)
and Dr Shyam Singh Shashi.

 

 

BELGRADE ROMA CONGRESS
HITS AT RACISM IN EUROPE

 
By Grattan Puxon
 
23/04/2012 - FOR SEVENTY YEARS Roma of
former Yugoslavia have wanted
to see a world congress held in
Belgrade. At the weekend that
wish was fulfilled in the prestigious
setting of the Serbian Parliament
building.
 
    While the event, staged by the
World Roma Organization, had all
the trappings that could be desired,
it was unable to bring under one
roof all representatives of what is an
expanding and far-flung national civil
rights movement.
 
    Nevertheless, its initial statement
it echoed what everyone of us feels:
"Behind the facade of an image in Europe
and the world [there] is still apartheid."
   The organizers went on to compare
the present liberation struggle of the
Romani people with that of Black Africans
in the second half of the 20th century.
    We are not short on common purpose.
That was demonstrated two weeks ago
when Roma Nation Day was celebrated
around the globe. There is a growing
"8 April" movement, vociferous on the
internet and spilling increasingly onto
the street.
 
    Yet the grass-roots, to be met with
not far from the WRO Congree location
at the Belvil shanty-camp, have been left
largely disconnected from the leadership.
Scared and confused, families at Belvil
count on NGOs to protest their condition.
    In the run-up to Roma Nation Day
commentators reminded us that much
is owed to the lst World Romani Congress
back in 1971. That congress has become
a legend and a myth. Its programme
included local protest action over the
death of three children in a caravan fire.
    Moreover what this congress lacked
was the mantle of a clear mandate. The
last world congress, admittedly an
unsatisfactory affair, was held four years
ago down the road in Zagreb, capital of
Croatia. The two leading cities of former
Yugoslavia are joined by a Tito-era highway
once named the Road of Brotherhood and
Unity.
 
    A handicap for the Belgrade event was
that such a spirit is wanting. The IRU
did not officially back this congress. Leading
members stayed away, some members joined
in. One can argue that the IRU, due to hold
its 8th Congress this year, left a political
vacuum which the WRO stepped in to fill.
    It may be noted in the context of
Serbian politics that Slobodan Berberski,
the first congress president and himself a
legend with  a street named cafter him,
was of a different hue from WRO president
Jovan Damjanovic, a deputy in the present
Serbian Parliament.
 
    Berberski was an anti-fascist and member
of the Yugoslav League of Communists. He
fought for an upgrading of Roma from that
of an ethnic-group to a nationality (narodnost).
This was not achieved in his time. It was
enhanced, though not entirely accepted by
the broader movement, at the mile-stone
5th Congress in Prague when the definition
"nation without territory" was adopted.
 
    Whether the WRO reference to Blacks in
America (another nation without territory?)
means that Damjanovic supports this concept
is yet to be seen. The clear reality, in terms of
daily life, is that since the end of the Cold War
Roma in their millions are more dispersed and
down-trodden than ever.
 
     Two essentials are required to get us
out of the present hole: more protest action
and more democracy. Both depend on building
at the grass-roots. A nascent "8 April" movement
is appealing for co-ordination of mass protests.
Voter-registration would bring empowerment
at state and local level, as well as providing a
voter-base for the movement itself. This has
been exemplified in Serbia with the registration
of 60,000 voters for the election of the
state-sponsored Roma National Council.
    Meanwhile, across Europe rank-and-file
activists face a choice of four overlapping
international organizations, namely the IRU,
the ERTF, the ERU and now the WRO.
 
Whether this plurality must continue or not,
mass mobilization and protest is as necessary
to effective leadership as oxygen to the human
body. The voice in the street will magnify
our voice in Brussels and Strasbourg, and even
in that forum for family-squabbles the UN.