Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbian Roma Battle Silent Prejudice

The barriers may be less overt than in some countries but this desperately poor community still faces enormous discrimination.
By IWPR

Nebojsa Radosavljevic fears he will have to spend another winter as a tenant in Belgrade with his five-member family, waiting to see if the courts bring charges against the people who stopped him from buying land in the Belgrade suburb of Sremcica just because he is a Roma.


Last September, Radosavljevic paid a deposit for the plot where he wanted to build a family home and offices for his company, manufacturing spices.


As a Roma who has always lived in Belgrade, he says he has grown accustomed to "silent discrimination" - but he never suspected what was about to happen to him when it came to buying land.


When some women in the neighbourhood discovered Radosavljevic's intentions, they protested against the plot "being sold to the Gypsies", he says. "It might be bought by Turks or anyone else, but not Gypsies," one of them said to him.


The woman contacted Mladen Sakic, one of the persons named in the charges, who threatened Radosavljevic openly. "We won't let you buy the plot, and if you buy it, your house will be blown up," Sakic told him. When Radosavljevic asked if he was a racist, he says Sakic admitted he was.


Radosavljevic gave up trying to purchase the plot and lost the money he paid as a deposit. "I didn't want the trouble. I have three children. I gave up the idea of buying that plot so I wouldn't have to think about all the bad things that might happen to us," he told IWPR.


But with the help of several human rights groups including the Humanitarian Law Fund, the Centre for Minority Rights and the European Centre for the Rights of the Roma, Radosavljevic went ahead with bringing criminal charges against his potential neighbours.


He accused them of inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred, threatening his personal safety, and violating his freedom of movement.


The criminal charges filed in the Belgrade District Prosecutor's Office were dismissed in relation to inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred on the grounds that with no witnesses to the row between the plaintiff and the defendants, there could be no act of incitement.


The case has been transferred to the Second Municipal Prosecutor's Office, which is expected to bring charges for the remaining criminal acts listed in the original charges.


Radosavljevic's story is far from unusual and sheds light on a little reported aspect of Serbia's relations with its ethnic minorities, namely the growing intolerance towards Roma.


While hostility between Serbs and Croats, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims is well known and documented, films, newspapers and other media tended to foster an impression that the Roma are less at odds with Serbs than the others.


The exact number of Roma in Serbia is unknown, as the majority have no registered place of residence. In the 2002 census, 109,000 persons declared themselves as Roma. In reality, the figure is bound to be higher.


Dejan Markovic, representative of Serbia for the Roma National Congress, the international Roma organisation, says 600,000 to 800,000 Roma inhabit the territory of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.


Professor Bozidar Jaksic, sociologist at the Belgrade Institute for Social Sciences, gives a lower figure. "There are about 350,000 to 400,000 Roma in Serbia," this acknowledged expert on the issue maintains.


About 150,000 Roma lived in Kosovo before the 1999 conflict but only 20,000 to 25,000 remain. Large numbers also left Serbia over the past decade for western and central Europe, the United States and Australia.


Whatever the exact figure, it is indisputable is that the remaining Roma population in Serbia exists at the bottom of the social hierarchy, struggling by and large to survive.


Most live in quarters known as "mahala" on the outskirts of Serbian cities and towns. In Belgrade alone there are over 110 such settlements. There, they often live in decrepit tenements made of cardboard and wooden planks, with no regular address, no electricity, running water or sewerage.


As a rule, Roma can get only the poorest regular jobs in public utilities and garbage dumps. Most supplement their wages by collecting cardboard and empty bottles.


The dire economic situation in Serbia has aggravated their position. Many beg in the streets to survive and cannot look after their children. The numbers of Roma children who end up living on the streets is rising.


The discrimination they are exposed to prevents them from breaking out of a vicious circle of poverty and illiteracy. Up to 80 per cent of Roma children complete only elementary education. Only about 10 per cent complete secondary school.


"Many Roma children of pre-school age speak only the Roma language, which is why it is difficult for them to pass school admission tests," said Dejan Markovic. “Educationalists and psychologists often consider them mentally retarded and send them to schools for children with disabilities. Almost 80 per cent of the pupils in such schools are Roma."


Radosavljevic agrees. He only finished elementary school. "Partly this was because I hung out with bad company, but discrimination contributed," he says.


"I was all-Yugoslavia maths champion but in my school I was given only B grades in maths. My parents were mostly concerned about survival and didn't even know I took part in maths competitions."


Radosavljevic was introduced early to the stereotype that "Roma" in many people's minds equals "thief". "When someone stole money from a girl in my class, the first thing our teacher did was to strip-search me," he recalled. "I've got to provide as good education as possible for my children, because this is the only way to ensure they have a decent life."


Roma were not granted the status of a national minority until 2002, when the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, adopted a law on the protection of national minorities.


When the Yugoslavia federation was transformed into the Serbia-Montenegro state union, no institution corresponding to the old Federal Constitutional Court was established to implement such laws.


The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was signed as far back as 1965 but Yugoslavia acknowledged the authority of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination only in July 2001.


Prior to submitting a complaint to the committee, all available legal remedies in the country have to be exhausted. But now that the Federal Constitutional Court no longer exists, the legal situation is confusing.


Serbia-Montenegro's ministry for human rights and minorities has no real powers, and no ministry at republic level deals solely with minority rights. Nor is a law against discrimination in place. A bill has been drafted but the political will is lacking for parliament to adopt it.


Dragan Lalosevic, of the Humanitarian Law Fund, has identified several levels of discrimination practised against Roma in Serbia.


"This discrimination can assume extreme forms, such as ethnically motivated violence. Skinheads are particularly conspicuous here, as they often beat up Roma people or cause fatal incidents," said Lalosevic.


"But there is also discrimination in education, welfare and access to public places, as well as hate speech.”


Roma settled in the Balkans in the 12th and 13th centuries, though some theories hold that they arrived earlier. They were nomads, only settling areas gradually. They held down various occupations, working in the Ottoman Empire as blacksmiths and trumpeters in the army. They were also skilful traders in horses.


Professor Jaksic admits discrimination against Roma exists in Serbian society, but argues that systematic discrimination is less harsh here than in some neighbouring states. "Roma in Serbia don't have separate seats in airplanes, as they do in the Czech Republic," he said.


Discrimination runs in tandem with a certain degree of artistic exploitation. Because the Roma lifestyle is perceived as romantic and exotic and because they are reluctant to abide by rules imposed by the authorities, they are a frequent subject of films, such as those made by Emir Kusturica.


In spite of their colourful cinematic portrayal, the Roma have never won acceptance from the majority population. In one recent survey conducted at Serbian universities, most students spoke with sympathy about Roma but 90 per cent said they would not marry one.


Markovic believes the Serbian Roma must organise themselves institutionally to improve their position. "The Roma must draft a joint strategy for solving their problems," he said.


So far, most Roma have voted for mainstream political parties, which were not interested in their specific problems. The new electoral law prescribes obligatory representation of minorities in parliament, so this may change.


The law on local self-government has also been amended to ensure better representation of national minorities in local councils in ethnically-mixed areas.


But according to Professor Jaksic, encouraging Roma to form ethnically-based parties may bring its own problems.


"I fear the option on the table here - for Roma to organise themselves politically along ethnic lines - would only result in the creation of a Roma elite," Jaksic said. "And this would be counterproductive in the long run for the Roma people."


In his view, the Roma have suffered more than most in the recent Balkan wars. They had no influence on the course or outcome of these conflicts, yet were always victims. Roma were horribly abused by both Serbs and Albanians, Jaksic added.


Meanwhile, the Radosavljevic family, in their rented flat, await the outcome of the court decision about their lost plot. In the meantime, they have received a letter sent to their oldest son, Zoran, ordering him to report for military service.


"Money is not that important to us. We want those people to be punished for what they've done so that it will never happen again," Zoran's mother, Julijana Radosavljevic says.


"I wrote to Rasim Ljajic, Serbia-Montenegro's minister for human and national minority rights," she adds. "I asked how the state could ask me to send my son to the army, when I cannot even buy this piece of land?"


Milos Steric is a journalist on the Belgrade daily Blic.