* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Roma do not have special needs, nor do they claim any special status. All they want is a fair chance and equal opportunities for them and their families.
Zeljko Jovanovic is Director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office
Last month, the European Union decided to block Albania and North Macedonia from entering accession negotiations. This disheartening message will shake politics throughout the region. But the most serious effects will be felt by ordinary citizens, especially the Roma, who had seen EU accession as a way of holding these governments to their promises to end discrimination.
The situation of Roma is dire in the Western Balkans. They are twice as likely to be unemployed as the majority population. Ten per cent of the Roma population in Macedonia and half that of Albania live with no indoor plumbing. And in a third of Roma households across the Western Balkans at least person will go to bed hungry.
Though accession talks would have been a useful source of pressure on governments to improve Roma situation, it is no panacea.
Joining the EU didn’t seem to be an incentive for Hungary to look after its own Roma citizens. The country’s right-wing party, Jobbik, promised to solve the ‘Gypsy question’, by way of “radical exclusion”. Similar rhetoric was replicated by the former Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who called Roma people “arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious-like humans”, and by Czech President Miloš Zeman, who claimed in that 90% of what he called the country's “inadaptable” citizens were Roma.
Politicians in North Macedonia and Albania can, instead, commit to improve the lives of their citizens, including Roma. They should see Roma as important economic assets. They are the fastest growing ethnic group across the Western Balkans. They are often fluent in the language of the majority population as well as in their own language, Romanes. And if they live in areas populated with another minority - for example Albanians in North Macedonia or Hungarians in Serbia - they can often speak a third language. Some who were forcefully returned from Western European countries speak the languages of these countries too.
Across the region, the Roma population is young. In Albania, the young-age dependency ratio which shows the number of young people in relation to the number of people of working age (i.e – those aged between 15 and 64) is 59% compared to 25% for non-Roma. In North Macedonia, it’s 56%, compared to 44% for non-Roma. In a region where the working population is shrinking, Roma could be a major hope for the future of labor markets and pension systems, if they are given equal opportunities.
Roma in the Western Balkans have been entrepreneurial over generations. For instance, in Albania over 69% of Roma men and 47% of Roma women are self-employed in the informal economy, considerably higher than the rest of the population.
In the Western Balkans, Roma women and men have created businesses in sectors ranging from the textile to furniture industry, transport to trade. Still, however, they often cannot get access to finance because many live in informal, semi-legalized settlements, which Roma cannot use as a guarantee for loans.
Finally, Roma have also shown themselves to be active, progressive, democrats. North Macedonia, for instance, has a Roma minister, two Roma MPs and 28 Roma municipal councillors. In Slovakia, the young, liberal and unapologetically pro-EU Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova explicitly thanked Roma voters the night she was elected.
Roma do not have special needs, nor do they claim any special status. All they want is a fair chance and equal opportunities for them and their families. Political leaders assured many times that their commitment to reforms was not just motivated by the prospect of EU accession. Now is the moment to prove it.