Romani subaltern in the context of transforming post-Yugoslav citizenship regimes

Julija Sardelić
Romani flag

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally  published in the CITSEE working paper series and is available for download here.

The predicament faced by most Romani individuals as citizens of different European states is still a daunting challenge both for scholars as well as policy makers. Many different reports have shown that individuals identified as belonging to different Romani minorities (besides Roma also to Sinti, Boyash, Egyptians, Ashkali, etc.), especially after the end of socialism, have limited access to certain fundamental rights as citizens of their own countries, although these rights are usually de iure granted to them. To paraphrase Étienne Balibar, in the context of EU states, Romani minorities are rather positioned into the European apartheid than fully included into the prospects of EU citizenry.

What remains to a certain extent under-addressed, is how Romani minorities are placed on the EU margins and repositioned in the context of state disintegration as well as further transformations of new citizenship regimes of states established on the territory of the former socialist Yugoslavia. This study argues that it is not sufficient to only ask how Romani minorities are included into the body of citizenry. Many individuals identified as belonging to Romani minorities in post-Yugoslav space did not only have difficulties in accessing rights as citizens, but, because of the re-definition of post-Yugoslav bodies of citizenry, also faced obstacles in access to citizenship itself at their place of residence, which was specific to their position. 

Although post-Yugoslav states went on their own separate paths in defining new citizenries after the disintegration of the socialist Yugoslavia, we can still establish that there are certain trends as far as the positioning of Romani minorities is concerned throughout the post-Yugoslav space due to common historical background as well as due to some parallel and overlapping contemporary developments. Romani minorities cannot be considered as an ultimate Other in the Yugoslav nor in the post-Yugoslav contexts. Following the post-colonial terminology and the most recent developments in Romani studies, it can be derived that Romani minorities were caught in-between the majority populations and more dominant minorities, who were both making stronger demands about the redefinition of new post-Yugoslav citizenries. As other CITSEE studies have shown, Romani minorities were usually invisible, or, it can be said, that they were left voiceless and their socio-economic plight was not heard in the forefront. Therefore in the context of post-Yugoslav transforming citizenship regimes Romani minorities can be understood as the Subaltern[i] who was not able to speak or its voice was silenced due to uneven power relations.

Positioning of the Romani minorities as the Subaltern in the post-Yugoslav space was not completely invented ad novum, but it also partly stems from their position before the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia. As different scholars have argued, socialist Yugoslavia took a different approach to the integration of Roma minorities into their system than other socialist states at the time. For example, socialist Hungary and Czechoslovakia considered Romani minorities as a social group that needed to be assimilated into the working class and did not initially emphasise their recognition as a cultural or an ethnic group. Therefore, these socialist states constructed very efficient policies on inclusion of Romani minorities especially as manual factory workers. Socialist Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was more leaning towards recognising their Romani citizens as an ethnic group. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), directly supported the development of the international Romani movement. Slobodan Berberski, who was elected as the first president of the Romani congress in 1971 near London, was a Yugoslav citizen, but also a member of the LCY Central Committee. While supporting the construction of the Romani political and intellectual elite, socialist Yugoslav system, based on the solidary ideology of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ also made special effort to include Romani minorities, for example, into the Yugoslav People’s Army, where they were treated as equals.

However, in their everyday lives, many Romani individuals, who were not a part of the Romani political elite, were amongst the most disadvantaged Yugoslav citizens with the worst housing conditions (such as living in informal settlements) and lowest life expectations including lower educational level and higher illiteracy rates. Although there was a certain awareness of this situation, Yugoslav authorities never introduced a unified plan; how to address the position of their Romani citizens throughout the Yugoslav space was not considered as a top priority. Therefore, Romani minorities were left somewhere in-between. In most Yugoslav republics, there was an unwritten consensus that Romani minorities were considered as an ethnic group, but they were not constitutionally recognised as one of the Yugoslav constitutive nations and not as nationalities (narodnosti). Some Romani activists claimed, due to the fact that Romani minorities were not recognised as a nationality, they were usually constitutionally granted a narrower scope of rights. These concerns of the Romani political elite were left under-addressed, while average Romani individuals were usually voiceless. The scope of rights given to Romani minorities as an ethnic group also differed according to different republican contexts.  For example, while in the socialist Republic of Macedonia, the Romani language was included into the multicultural mainstream school curriculum, in the socialist republics of Slovenia and Croatia it was perceived as a disadvantage for Romani children according to which they were in many instances placed into segregated classes and also special schools for children with mental disabilities.

Furthermore, since Romani minorities were not primarily treated as a social group in Yugoslavia, but as an ethnic group, there was no unified policy about how to include the majority of them into the labour market (usually the factory). As they were not fully recognised as a disadvantaged social group, they were again left somewhere in-between, i.e. only hierarchically included into the working processes and into the society as whole. Many of them were rather employed in alternative economic niches (such are grinding, trough making, informal trading, etc.), which were mostly tolerated since they were perceived as ‘traditional Romani crafts’. These alternative economic niches often required seasonal migrations. The result of these internal Yugoslav migrations was that many Romani individuals settled in informal settlements in one socialist republic, while possessing the citizenship of another republic. However, after the disintegration of the Yugoslav socialist system and its replacement with a capitalist one, Romani alternative economic niches were to a large extent destroyed. Moreover, former Yugoslav citizens recognised as being of Romani origin did not know what bearing their republican citizenship would have in their repositioning in the newly established post-Yugoslav bodies of citizenry.

In addition to more or less peaceful internal migration of Romani individuals within Socialist Yugoslavia, many had to flee from their homes during the last Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1999 since they frequently found themselves caught in-between the conflict of the newly defined constitutive majority and the dominant minority (e.g. between the Croatian majority and Serbian minority in Croatia, Macedonian majority and Albanian minority in Macedonia, Albanian majority and Serbian minority in Kosovo, etc.). Due to forced migrations, they often became refugees and internally displaced persons without any prospects of returning to their place of origin. However, the post-Yugoslav war conflicts were not the only defining ground for the re-positioning of Romani minorities. They were were also caught in-between the processes of drafting new citizenship legislations, which defined who would be included and excluded in the new bodies of citizenries. As they were not perceived as a destabilizing minority or the ultimate Other in the new polities, the drafting of the citizenship legislation did not target them directly, but they can be in many instances perceived as collateral damage. To paraphrase Saskia Sassen, due to socially produced migrations, many of the Romani individuals did not posses a republican citizenship of republic where they resided or were not able to prove they were habitual residents in the case of Kosovo. Therefore, they were not able to acquire citizenship of the newly established post-Yugoslav states automatically on the basis of legal continuity, but they had to access citizenship at their place of residence through the naturalisation processes. On account of certain specific features of the Romani minorities’ position in the post-Yugoslav space, such access to citizenship was often obstructed.

For example, in order to be naturalised as a resident, most post-Yugoslav citizenship acts require a legal proof of permanent residence. Although such a clause is not particular for the post-Yugoslav space, it shows how the position of Romani minorities in post-Yugoslav space was not initially taken into account. Proving their legal residence has namely been an obstacle for many Romani individuals, who lived in informal settlements both due to previous Yugoslav internal migrations as well as forced migrations during the post-Yugoslav wars. The poor living conditions of many Romani individuals therefore turned out to be one of the obstacle in the naturalisation process.[ii] Secondly, in some cases, individuals identified as belonging to Romani minorities were not able to fulfil the ‘culture and language’ requirement, although they were not the main minority targeted by it. For example, according to Article 8 of the Croatian Citizenship Act one must be ‘proficient in the Croatian language and Latin script, and […] familiar with Croatian culture and social arrangements’ in order to acquire Croatian citizenship through naturalisation. Although the main target group in this case was the Serbian minority, perceived as a potential destabilizing threat for Croatian statehood, many Romani individuals found themselves as collateral damage. Due to previous hierarchical inclusion into the education system, many Romani individuals were illiterate and therefore unable to prove their proficiency in the Latin script. According to the European Roma Rights Centre, this also happened to a Romani woman, who had lived in Croatia for several decades, but originally possessed the republican citizenship of the socialist republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, many Romani individuals in the post-Yugoslav context could not acquire citizenship due to the lack of guaranteed funds, which was a requirement in several post-Yugoslav citizenship acts. Again, this clause is not specific for post-Yugoslav citizenship acts, albeit in the case of state disintegration, it has proven an obstacle to access for the most vulnerable former Yugoslav citizens.

In account of the fact that many Romani individuals had difficulties in accessing citizenship at their place of residence, they found themselves in forced in-betweeness. This was characterised by the fact that they were often not considered to be legal aliens with permanent residence, on one hand. On the other hand, they did de iure possess citizenship of another post-Yugoslav state, which was ineffective. Therefore, while in the post-Yugoslav contexts the phenomenon of en masse de iure statelessness was avoided (due to legal continuity between the former Yugoslav republican citizenship and the citizenship of post-Yugoslav independents states), a large proportion of Romani individuals found themselves de facto stateless. As they had citizenship, albeit it was ineffective, they were also not protected by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

In the case of post-Yugoslav Romani minorities de facto statelessness became an inter-generational issue and it developed into a vicious circle in which a large number of Romani population fell into the group of legally invisible persons. This occurred due to a failure of registering these individuals at birth. The lack of birth certificates is the primary reason why many individuals identified as Romani cannot access citizenship in the first instance. According to UNHCR data and from different legal NGOs in the region, there are different reasons why Romani individuals often lack birth certificates. For example, due to the fact that Romani women have limited access to the health care system, many Romani children are born at home and their births are not reported or registered in the required period. Furthermore, in some instances these children are even born to mothers who lack personal identification documents themselves and are therefore unable to register their children. In other instances, many Romani women did not possess the healthcare insurance and give birth in a hospital under a different women’s name. All of these cases then require subsequent registration that is connected to the payment of certain fees and taxes. This required funds that most of the legally invisible persons did not possess and were therefore not able to gain birth certificates themselves, which is also a primary requirement for accessing citizenship.

All of the above described cases show how Romani minorities in the post-Yugoslav space had uneven access to citizenship, which was specific to their socio-economic and also culturally stigmatised condition as the Subaltern, who was not able to voice its plight or it was ignored. Romani individuals who were positioned as non-citizens at their place of residence were in the most unfavourable position. However, even those minority individuals, who were able to access citizenship at their place of residence, found themselves in uneven position in comparison to other citizens. All post-Yugoslav states, also due to the dialogue with international organisations and EU integration processes, introduced legislation for minority protection, which included also Romani minorities. However, in most cases (excluding Slovenia), Romani minorities were included into the generic legal acts on minority protection, which did not recognise the fact that they are culturally stigmatised as well as have a different socioeconomic position than most other minorities. On the other hand, Slovenia introduced the Romani community act, which gave lesser rights than given to the Hungarian and Italian minorities, which increased the marginalisation of Slovenian citizens identified as belonging to the Romani minorities. Furthermore, as shown by some previous CITSEE papers, the uneven and in-between position of Romani citizens in some post-Yugoslav states can be also portrayed by the politicised juggling in the debate on visa liberalisation. In order to preserve the freedom of movement all citizens, some of the post-Yugoslav states had to restrict the movement of some citizens to prevent them from becoming ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. Most of these ‘bogus’ asylum seekers were identified as belonging to Romani minorities. Here the positioning of Romani minorities was finally put at the forefront of the debate since it was seen as means to a goal that would benefit all other citizens.

Considering both the access dimension of citizenship as well as the rights dimension of citizenship in context of the transforming post-Yugoslav citizenship regimes, we can conclude that Romani minorities were not targeted as the ultimate Other, but their uneven position was a side effect of this targeting. Due to the hierarchical and systemic uneven inclusion as citizens and non-citizens at their place of residence, Romani minorities are unable to voice their predicament and remain unheard as the post-Yugoslav Subaltern.

[i] The post-colonial concept of the Subaltern was firstly introduced in Romani studies by Nidhi Trehan and Angela Kóczé. My conceptualisation of the Romani Subaltern is slightly different since I focus more on the Romani subject, which is not present in the Romani activist movement.

[ii] Eventually, this obstacle was to certain extent surpassed in Serbia and Montenegro by allowing indiviudals without the proof of address to register at social work centres or Romani minority councils.