Winning votes, ignoring poverty

Gipsy, magjup, Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian, RAE (pronounced “Arr-ay-eee” or “rye”)– the proliferation of names alone suggests the confusion about these communities in Kosovo. Some have Romani as their home language, and some speak Serbian at home, but most have Albanian as their mother tongue. Some are Muslim, some are Orthodox Christian. None live in gaily-painted caravans, and very few have a traveller lifestyle, confusing the idea of gypsies that many foreigners bring to Kosovo.

They may look alike to the outsider, but one Egyptian (a name that is said to relate to the route taken on the migration to Europe via Egypt some 500 years ago) told me that the only thing these three communities have in common is their poverty and exclusion.

The statistics certainly make sober reading: a 2009 study by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) found that 16 percent of the members of these communities do not have identity documents, 20 percent of them have a monthly family income of less than 50 dollars, and 93 percent said that their income was not enough for food. Ninety-six percent had not completed compulsory schooling.

I’ve worked with these communities for years, through my NGO, The Ideas Partnership. I wondered, are the members of these communities looking to this Sunday’s elections to change their situation?

I spoke to Roma, to Ashkali and to Egyptians from Fushe Kosove (the municipality with the largest Ashkali community in Kosovo), Skenderaj and Prizren. Although there was interest in the elections, there seemed to be few expectations that they could change anything. Like a parody of the worst of the mainstream parties’ electioneering, campaigns among the two Roma, two Ashkali and two Egyptian parties I discussed with voters were focused mainly on both literal and metaphorical drum beating.

“We hope we’ll wake up from our sleep because they’ve gone too far,” one candidate told me.

But who “they” were and why the community had been “asleep for so long” was never explained. Meanwhile the KNRP Facebook page puts the “party” back in “political subject” with its photographs of a vibrant street party with pipes and tambourines, and the head of the party dancing a traditional round dance. The picture does nothing to challenge traditional ‘beggars or musicians’ stereotypes of the Roma.

Candidate Idriz Murtezi of the PLE Egyptian Liberal Party spoke about the importance of education, but the majority of discussions I had with voters and candidates focused on the existential crisis of the three letters that make up the acronym ‘RAE’ often used to refer to the communities.

The acronym is universally hated by members of the three communities, and in Fushe Kosove you can see it spray-painted out when used on boards put up by well-meaning, efficient donor bodies wanting to save space. Perhaps we would all feel as strongly if our ethnicity was reduced to a single letter, lumped together with two others with whom we felt little commonality.

Despite the revulsion for the acronym, in this election, a hot topic of debate is whether those letters should be regrouped. The 2011 census of Kosovo (excluding the three Serb-majority municipalities in north Kosovo) registered over 15,000 Ashkali, over 11,000 Egyptians and nearly 9,000 Roma. Some in the communities suspect the true numbers are much higher, and that if Ashkali and the Egyptian were viewed as a single group, they would be the second largest minority in Kosovo, after Serbs. The issue is important to those in the communities who say that they have been divided only for political reasons after the war, and that the distinctions only emerge at election time.

Such classifications suit both the majority community (divide and rule) and the politicians of the minority communities (for whom a total of four seats are reserved in the Assembly – one for a Roma party, one for an Ashkali party, one for a Egyptian party, and one for whichever of the three gets the most votes). But ordinary members of the communities feel it has brought no benefits. A 16 year-old Egyptian girl I spoke to reflected sadly, “The constitution divides us.”

The Roma are seen as separated from the A and the E by their language (although Romani is not a universal first language for Roma it is almost never spoken as mother tongue by Ashkali and Egyptians) and religion (almost all Ashkali and Egyptians are Muslim, while far fewer Roma are). Fikret Berisha, an Ashkali, said he thinks the Ashkali and the Egyptians should be together. “They are one people but there are vested interests … everyone wants to steal more than the others,” he said.

Muharrem Asllani, an Egyptian civil society activist, said the Ashkali and Egyptian communities need to unite “as we’ve been for centuries” to get better representation in parliament.

A young man from Skenderaj agreed, saying, “It’s only politics that have divided us.”

“It’s written down that I’m Ashkali, but if we were united it wouldn’t matter, just as long as we made progress. I would vote to become united. [The politicians] shouldn’t focus on politics but on ridding our people of poverty, and then they’d deserve my vote,” he said.

07 June 2014 - 09:24

Elizabeth Gowing

07/06/2014 - 09:24

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.