Roma and Local Politics

Posted September 2, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured

“All politics is local,” said legendary politician Tip O’Neill. But if O’Neill hadn’t risen to the nationally prominent position of speaker of the House of Representatives, no one would remember this quotation, which comes from the time when he lost his only election – to the Cambridge City Council in the 1930s. All politics might ultimately be local, but it also seems that only politics at a national level truly counts.

Local elections in East-Central Europe, for instance, get very little notice outside the region. They don’t attract a great deal of attention inside the region either. In Romania, for instance, turnout for local elections generally falls considerably below 50 percent – and that’s the case for most of the countries in the region. Except for some hotly contested mayoral seats, local elections don’t generate a huge amount of interest.

And yet, these elections are the lifeblood of the democracy. They engage residents in issues that directly affect their lives. They serve as a training ground for politicians. And, in multiethnic countries, they both indicate the status of minorities and represent an opportunity to amplify previously.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been providing training and resources for local Roma politicians in Romania. In May 2013, I travelled to the outskirts of Bucharest to meet with Alice Pop Ratyis, who took a break from a training to talk with me.

There are somewhere between one and two million Roma in Romania. Ratys estimates that there are around 300 Roma in elected office at a local level. But it’s difficult to calculate how underrepresented Roma are at the local level.

“They are much more dispersed than the Hungarians,” Ratyis explains. “The Hungarians mostly live in Transylvania, and the Roma live all over the country. There are communities that are 80% Roma, there are communities where they are 50% or 20% or just 10%. Previously, they did not necessarily see the importance of having local representatives in the local council. There was always someone from the Roma party, because they were always competing, but they didn’t see the importance of having one more or two more or 10 more in the local council. Now I see that everybody’s oriented toward trying to maintain the local political representation of the Roma. We’ve been doing this now for almost 10 years.”

The number of Roma on local councils is not the only indicator of success. And how long the local councilors have served may also not correlate with efficacy. Ratyis told me about one local Roma councilor who “was so great in discussing and negotiating that she’s done more in her eight months of being a local councilor than others have accomplished in 20 years.”

The main problem with local politics in Romania is not that it’s local, but that’s it’s politics. “Many people are sick and tired of politics,” Ratyis told me. “And it doesn’t matter if you are running on a Roma Party ticket, a Roma organization ticket, or a mainstream ticket. They just say that if you are a politician, you become one of ‘them’ and they just don’t trust you anymore.”

Even the Roma elected officials themselves sometimes discount the efficacy of politics. “Yesterday we had a discussion with the group here,” Ratyis continues, “and I asked them, ‘Okay, what did you accomplish as local officers in your first mandate?’

‘Oh, we’ve done nothing…’

‘I don’t believe that you’ve done nothing.’ Then it turned out that they’ve really done many things like assessing the community and repairing the roads. And I said, ‘You see, you initiated it and it happened. So don’t tell me that you didn’t do anything in your first mandate.’”

We talked about her early years growing up in Transylvania, the challenges and satisfactions of working for an NGO in Romania, and what advice she has for outside organizations that want to make a difference in the country.


The Interview


You went to journalism school, and you briefly worked in radio, but you said that you didn’t really see journalism as a viable profession for you.


It was a viable profession. It was just a different option. And personal changes also intervened. I saw a different way of living, and I had other priorities than when I was 18. When you are 18, you don’t always know what exactly you want to be when you will be 40. I had my options, and I made a choice.


At that time what did you think of the kind of journalism here in Romania?


I started my university degree in 1994. The university had just opened journalism as a special faculty. The university where I studied in Timisoara had departments in journalism and political science. So it was the perfect combination. I was 18 when I graduated and had my exams in English. You had to pick an essay topic from among ten subjects. It was like a lottery. I got the first one, which was The Wizard of Oz and “What do you want to become when you grow up?” I wanted that one, not because of the Wizard of Oz, but because of the second question. I answered that I want to be a politician. And they asked me, why? And I said because I talk a lot. And this is why I wanted to go to political science university.

Timisoara was my second choice, but probably it was for the best because my sister was also studying in Timisoara. I learned all the basic things from the university of journalism, like verifying your information from two different sources. But I was more involved in civil society activity, being elected president of the Hungarian Students Organization. So actually I wasn’t really into becoming a journalist from the very beginning of my studies. I graduated there because I didn’t want to change to another university and leave my colleagues. I don’t regret not going into journalism, I learned a lot of things, and I’m still quoting some of my former teachers. It was just not the thing that I wanted to become when I grew up.


Do you remember much from 1989? You were in Timisoara?


No, I was in Satu Mare. I was born in Satu Mare, and I went to Timisoara to study at the university. So I wasn’t in Timisoara in 1989. But now after 23 years and sharing stories with other friends and so on, somehow everything has melted together. It’s hard to remember whether something happened before 1989 or after 1989. I remember playing table tennis at the time, and we were not allowed to go to play table tennis for weeks or months prior to December 1989. I remember that many parents did not let their kids walk on the street by themselves. And there was a kind of phenomenon called the “black angel.” We were even told not to pick up especially pens and pencils from the road, because of what I don’t know. And I remember that we were looking at the television when it happened. In 1989, my father arranged the satellite dish so that we could better reach the Hungarian TV station, because it was much more interesting what the Romanian station was broadcasting. You could see movies and all these things that we would not necessarily see on the Romanian TV. In the southern part of the country, they were watching Bulgarian TV.


You got the better deal.


Yes, we got the better deal. I am native Hungarian, but many friends, who are Romanian, learned Hungarian that way. If you were not Hungarian, then you learned it by that age. My parents were just so nervous. “Why can’t we see what’s happening when they were broadcasting live what is going on in Timisoara and Bucharest?” they wanted to know. So, my father went up to the roof and tried to get it fixed somehow so that we could get a better signal.

I also remember how I was dressed when we were allowed to go out and see what was going on in the city center. Already the big movement had happened. I don’t really remember exactly what happened. I just know that a friend of mine whose sister was still in Timisoara said that she would bring one rose to every student in Timisoara. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, that costs a lot!” So I didn’t necessarily understand what was going on, but I had a sense that something important happened. And, of course, Hungarians were coming from all over Hungary to Satu Mare, which was nine kilometers from the border. So the streets were full with people talking, celebrating, burning books with Ceausescu’s image on them, and so on. I also remember, unfortunately, a young girl who died after being shot in Bucharest in an apartment on the seventh floor, and she was a good friend of a friend of mine who was my age. That was shocking. I don’t even have to shut my eyes and I see that picture of the little girl who got shot. So bits and pieces come back to me, but I don’t have a big collective memory.


And what were the “black angels?” Were these terrorists?


A group of people, probably dressed in black, I don’t know. I have no idea. When I was talking to people about these “black angels,” it was only Satu Mare. It might have been only my group of friends. I was only 13 at the time.


That was a great age for the revolution to come and change things, to have more freedom.


Living in Satu Mare, we had what we called mikrotrafik. If you were living in a place near the border, you had a kind of a backdoor to Hungary. You could go there every now and then, and people from Hungary could come and bring soaps and shampoos and bubble gum, all the “wow” things for people in Romania. We were in Hungary two times before 1989. I remember seeing King Kong in the movie in theater in Budapest in 1989. Or maybe that was after 1990. I don’t know: you see what I mean by the information melting together? Anyway, we had more opportunities near the border than those who were living in the south. I could sense the problems because we had to queue for days for meat and for milk, and we had tickets for our portion of daily bread and monthly oil and flour. But I still don’t know if it was necessarily that big a freedom that came for me in 1989.


When you got to Timisoara, was there still this kind of revolutionary spirit among the students? I understand the people are very proud of the role they played in the revolution.


Yes, among the Timisoara people it’s still there somehow. I know that the student movement in Timisoara was pretty big. But after that — in other city centers like Bucharest and Iasi — this movement spread, and they started to connect and work together. But there is still the pride. I don’t know if there’s still the force. It’s not necessarily because the people are different. The world we are living in is different, so the priorities change.


And when you were rising in the student movement in Timisoara, what were the priorities? Was it mostly Hungarian language courses and Hungarian language?


No, we did not necessarily advocate for that. We were the Hungarian students of Timisoara, and we were formed just like many of other student organizations immediately after 1989. We wanted to have classes in Hungarian. But we also wanted to broaden the network of relationships we had with other organizations. We represented the students from Timisoara in discussions with the Romanian Ministry of Education and in negotiations with political parties on different issues. So, it was not necessarily only on Hungarian issues. We also focused on students’ issues: housing, better food in the canteen. These activities kept the students busy and close to the organization. This is how you can measure your power as an organization: by how many people are coming to your events like a political circle or a movie discussion. We also sent students on different scholarships, in particular Hungarian students going to Hungarian universities in Hungary. We were fighting to get more places for the students from Timisoara.


What has been the most exciting thing that you’ve been involved in in the last eight years with NDI?


Oh, I don’t know. Everything is so exciting. Because we are living in a changing environment and working on Roma issues, it’s very challenging because of various reasons. The big milestone was joining the European Union. But everybody agrees it was a political decision. Romania was not necessarily prepared, nor was Bulgaria. But it was a necessary step from the point of view of the big picture. I don’t know if it was good or wise. Even if Romania were a working democracy, I would think about the transition period. Of course, Romania is a much more democratic place than many other countries in this world. But there is still a need for structural and organizational development, particularly for NGOs. The time of working ad hoc has long passed. Some of the organizations understood, and they changed their management style and complied with what is on the market.

But many organizations — and I think this is a problem worldwide as well as a problem for donors — are not necessarily focusing on the needs of the people they represent or the needs of the target groups. They’re thinking of funding opportunities. They’re thinking, “Oh, there’s a funding opportunity for providing IT skills for people aged 18-25. Okay, let’s have a program on that, even if my target group is not people between age 18-25.” And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing. Because I think for long-term sustainability and for working in an environment that you want to live in, you have to see first what they want. If that’s your expertise, then work on that. If it’s not your expertise, then let the others do their job.

I’m also really grateful working for such a big organization and having the leverage that they have. If I leave NDI, I will have skills that will be appreciated by other organizations.


I want to go back to what you said about the needs of the community, because that’s something I hear from a lot of people: that organizations don’t do needs assessment. Organizations do what they think is a good thing, and it could be a good thing, but no one asks the recipients whether they, in fact, need broomsticks or trainings or whatever. So I’m curious whether needs assessment is done out of your office or with a partnering organization?


We do needs assessments. We don’t plan our next year’s program without consulting our partners and without asking them to consult their local branches. This is how we always come up with the work plan. When we start a training program, we always send our training needs assessment questionnaire to find out the issues that the people want to learn about and what they want to share with us and their colleagues. And of course there are some specific questions also about their skills. But basically they have to score the different subjects that they would like to hear about, and based on that, and based on consulting with the central offices, we design our program. We try to have a mixture of desires from the headquarters and the participants and also what we, working for many years with the organization, also see as a need. We come up with a training agenda that compiles all these three levels. Sometimes it’s hard to keep all of those elements. So, we have to be flexible.


If Washington calls and says, “We are not only doubling but we’re increasing your funding 10 times, what would you do with that money? What are the priorities that need a dramatic increase of resources?


First would be to maybe broaden the target group. In this program, we focus more on Roma organizations and individuals and a little bit with the political parties. So, I would work more with political parties and also with youth branches and women’s organizations. They are more open and willing to adapt and accept changes. I’d work maybe with different groups from the local communities.


Athletic associations?


Well, not necessarily: groups that want to advocate for their cause in the local government. Then we work with the local government as well so that they don’t go there and find closed doors. But sometimes if you want to ask for something you have to give something. It’s always a trade.


Do you have a “train the trainers” component, in which people you train end up training other people?


Ye, we did in 2010 and 2011. But we don’t have it necessarily for the government team because our main objective now is to work with the elected councils from our region. This is a system of Roma organizations we work with.


Did you think it went well? Were you able to have that ripple effect?


That last activity we had was not just for NDI but also for young people from political parties. The theme of that training of trainers was Roma political participation: how to train your party colleagues to learn about the Roma, to know about the Roma community from their constituencies. It went well in many ways. They were doing training in their party branches, which was great. So we didn’t have to pay for a consultant or a trainer to come. We now have many pro bono trainers, and some of them are our alumni from the trainers program. Of course, some of them leave the organization or the party or even the country. But these are the risks. There is always some kind of loss.


In Bulgaria there was a big difference between Roma politics in places where Roma were a huge majority and places where Roma were not a majority in that particular municipality. It made a big difference in terms of what was politically possible. In other words, in some of the places where Roma were the vast majority, they could get political power but didn’t necessarily have power more generally. They didn’t have power to get resources from the larger city municipality. Is there a difference here in Romania as well?


That depends on the places you go. This dynamic of “what you can do/what you can’t do” depends on language, depends on the Roma individuals, and depends on the majority individuals. We had examples in our work where there was only one local councilor, and she was so great in discussing and negotiating that she’s done more in her eight months of being a local councilor than others have accomplished in 20 years.


And where was this?


It was in Diosig, Bihor. But it happened in many other places. Yesterday we had a discussion with the group here and I asked them, “Okay, what did you accomplish as local officers in your first mandate?”

“Oh, we’ve done nothing…”

“I don’t believe that you’ve done nothing.” Then it turned out that they’ve really done many things like assessing the community and repairing the roads. And I said, “You see, you initiated it and it happened. So don’t tell me that you didn’t do anything in your first mandate.”

Romania is a huge country, so it’s very hard to get all the information from all the communities where the Roma are the majority or not. Usually it depends on how they position themselves and negotiate with the others. If they can explain to other politicians that solving the problems of the community is for the greater good and gives them much more chance to win again the elections — because this is what the mayor and everyone else thinking about their next term are interested about — if you can put this on their agenda, then you should be set.

The challenge is the budget because there is no money. It’s pretty hard to involve the local council or the mayor’s office in a European project because it comes with bureaucracy and financial reporting. The municipality also has to make its own contribution, which they feel that they don’t have the capacity to make.


How many local Roma representatives are there?


Officially, about 300. But given Romania’s size, that’s not much. The Roma party has the most: around 200. And then the other two Roma political organizations that are brand new to politics have 28 and eight.


And you said officially?


Officially because we think they are Roma because they were on a Roma organization ticket. We met a person who is not Roma and won a local council mandate as a Romanian from the Roma party. We were working with him, but he didn’t win in the 2012 elections. Also there are probably many Roma who just don’t state that they are Roma when they’re running on the ticket of a mainstream party.


What motivated the ethnic Romanian to run with the Roma party?


I’m not sure. I didn’t ask him. I thought that it’s great that the party was open to allowing him to run. Probably he had some leverage in the community. He was working on the kindergarten, so he was very active in the community.

Also, there are Hungarians running with the mainstream parties. But you can say that they are Hungarians because they have a Hungarian name. The Roma have Romanian names or Hungarian names in the Hungarian majority localities. And you cannot just look at a person and say they are a Roma. How do you know that? Because the person’s skin’s a little bit darker? But I also have dark skin and brown eyes, and I’m not Roma.


The Roma population in Romania is 10-12%?


Officially, though we don’t have the official data from the census, there are about 600,000. Unofficially, international organizations working on Roma issues and even the Romanian government estimate the population as somewhere between one and two million. If it’s one million, it’s 5%. If it’s two million, it’s 10%.


And if it’s 10%, what should their local representation be according to the percentage of the population?


I don’t know because they’re dispersed. They are much more dispersed than the Hungarians. The Hungarians mostly live in Transylvania, and the Roma live all over the country. There are communities that are 80% Roma, there are communities where they are 50% or 20% or just 10%. Previously, they did not necessarily see the importance of having local representatives in the local council. There was always someone from the Roma party, because they were always competing, but they didn’t see the importance of having one more or two more or 10 more in the local council. Now I see that everybody’s oriented toward trying to maintain the local political representation of the Roma. We’ve been doing this now for almost 10 years.


When you say “everybody,” you mean outside actors?


Outside actors, donors, big organizations: I’ve heard from many stakeholders – although we don’t like this word “stakeholders” since it’s too technical — from the region saying that we have to enforce and increase Roma political participation at the local level. It’s good that they’ve come to the same conclusion we came to in 2004-2005. We are very proud that we were the first ones.

About figures for Roma representation: it very much depends on the will and on the environment. Many people are sick and tired of politics. And it doesn’t matter if you are running on a Roma Party ticket, a Roma organization ticket, or a mainstream ticket. They just say that if you are a politician, you become one of “them” and they just don’t trust you anymore. This Roma organization was facing a similar problem. Where they were working as an NGO on various projects in their communities, in only one place did they get a local councilor elected. In the other places where they were brand new, they got elected. So, it’s mostly about how sick and tired people are and whether they turn out to vote. It’s also about valid votes. This is also a problem in the Roma communities: many of the votes got invalidated because people voted for more than one party or person.


The invalid votes were because of the voters’ mistakes?


We don’t know. We were not there. But most of the feedback we got from our partners was that it was a lack of civic and voter education. The double vote, or the two stamps on the same ballot, came from the idea that, “Okay, I will vote for them because they are my Roma, but I will also work with this other party because I promised them in the campaign.” And they did not know that having two stamps on one ballot invalidates the ballot. Another problem was when they supported the mayor’s candidate, who was from one political party, they thought that they had to vote for the same party for the local council. We have a saying: “The number of the votes is not what counts, it’s the people who come to vote.”


Are there organizations that monitor the elections at a local level?


Yes, but there are fewer and fewer. Or, let’s say, they have less and less power. One of the big watchdogs for the elections is the Pro Democracy Association. They have local organizations and programs, but unfortunately there’s not much funding available for monitoring. These days if you want to monitor the elections, it requires people and money and time. It’s also necessary to find either people to volunteer or people whom you would pay. These days it isn’t hard to find volunteers who’ll say, “Oh, for the greater good, I’ll donate three days of my life for this thing.” So the problem basically was with the funding. Many NGOs are doing this monitoring, especially NGOs at the local level, because it’s in their interest to monitor the elections. We’ve also heard stories about NGOs connected to the political parties who were accredited to monitor the elections so that the political party could have more than one representative at the polling station. So, yes, we do have monitors.


Bringing Roma elected officials here is one opportunity for them to sit down at the same table, but is there any initiative to create an organization of Roma elected officials? Or do they only work within the parties that they’re representing?


They mostly work within the parties, within their own organizations. There are every now and again efforts to sit down together, but the problem is that they are busy with their own internal issues, and they cannot really focus on coalitions. The other two organizations were established to compete with the Roma Party, so given this competition I don’t know how much room for dialogue is left in terms of establishing an official or even an unofficial network. There should be. There’s the Roma Mayors Network and the European Roma network. I’ve heard about a European network of Roma MPs, which may happen. When we were discussing this opportunity, I said that if there is only one Roma in parliament, or even if there are three Roma in the parliament, their power of influence is not that much. What we should help them with is to increase their influence inside their political parties in order to open the political party to initiatives that help the Roma community or the community they represent.


How would you evaluate the level of discrimination against Roma here in Romania in the last two decades? Have you seen any palpable improvements?


There was a survey done funded by the National Agency for Roma, which said that over the last few years discrimination towards the Roma community has increased, particularly during the election cycle. So, it was much higher in 2012 and in 2008 than it was in 2010. So, this leads to a discussion about the role of the media. If there is a story about a criminal, the article will identify them as of Roma origin. But if there is a positive example, they are not really writing about it. And there are many, many good examples from the Roma communities. Romania is such a big country, so we have many good and bad examples.


Where should donors like Open Society be putting their money?


You cannot plan for a one-year program. You cannot expect that after one year of intervention or activity or strategizing – it doesn’t matter if it is Roma or not Roma – sustainable change will happen. Sustainability cannot come if the projects lasts only a year or 18 months. If it’s a five-year project, then you can start building something and helping them in the final two years to attract funds, to attract partners, to have a system put in place in order to go on with the different initiatives and projects. But with only a one or even a two-year program, it is not very strategic. Even knowing that we receive an annual grant – and always hoping to get another grant the following year — since 2010 we’ve built our program as if it will last until 2013 as we prepare the political activities of Roma individuals. Having the 2012 election cycle as the target, we began to prepare people with training on different political issues, political parties, ideologies, state institutions and how they function, and what it means to be a politically active citizen in the community. And we were lucky because we were always granted one more year and then another year to continue what we started.

In 2013 we have begun to focus on local elected officials who are in their first mandate. By the end of this program, we hope that they have a work plan for the 2016 elections as a milestone. Changes will always take place. They will get enthusiastic or just totally disappointed. We cannot control these things, but at least we can provide them with some preparation.

So this would be one of my suggestions — if I can make any suggestions — to any donor. It’s to think about the sustainability of the program in terms of its length and its content. I know that it’s hard, and it’s getting harder to raise money for these specific issues. But in one year can’t make a change. And if you stop the program, like what happened in 2007, you lose the trust you built up over 20 years in a second. Building structures, building confidence, and building democracy takes a very long time.

For instance, after six years of NDI programming in Slovakia, we have the first re-elected local Roma MP, Peter Pollack. It’s not that we worked for six years continuously with him. But after six years of NDI programming in Slovakia, we had one elected Roma MP in the Slovak parliament. The results are hard to get, especially if you are talking about broadening the perceptions of the people.

I was a beneficiary of NDI assistance when I was young and active in the Hungarian organization. And we learned a lot about responsibility. We learned that NDI is getting funds from the federal government because there are very few private donors in this region, especially in Romania. We learned very well to value every cent from the American taxpayer. I live by the same principle. I value all the information — the input and feedback and everything — that I’m getting from my colleagues, from my supervisors, from my partners: from everywhere.


When you look back to 1989 when you were 13 years old and everything that has changed in Romania from then until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and ten being most satisfied?


Let’s say 7.


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?




Looking into the near future and the prospects for Romania in the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to ten, with one being most pessimistic, ten being most optimistic?


7. I’m optimist.



Bucharest, May 24, 2013



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