I read today an interview with the Advisor to the Prime Minister of Romania on Roma issues, Mr. Damian Draghici, which intrigued me. I know Mr. Draghici for more than five years and we had some interesting discussions on Roma. In this summer he was appointed in this new position and I could see that our ideas diverge in many respects. In his first interview in a Romania newspaper he denied the existence of discrimination against Roma in Romania and preferred the denomination “Tigan” over “Roma” in reference to his own ethnic group. That being his first public appearance I abstained from any comments. the text of the interview, in Romanian is here .
After reading the interview he gave to Czech Radio I am questioning if my lack of reaction not sanctioning his speech was a wise attitude. In this interview, Mr. Draghici makes two statements that I find controversial:
“If you give someone a chance, then you’ll see it work, but you must have great patience and expend a lot of effort. That has been confirmed by the case of an organization that has started working in the worst ghetto in Bucharest. At the same time, it must also be said that there is a problem as far as Romani people’s mentality is concerned. We must change the way they think,” said Romanian official Damian Draghici.
“In Romania we have an old saying: Anyone can do something to consecrate a place no matter where he lives, but only if he wants to. It is solely up to you whether you will become a responsible person or a victim. Naturally, Romani people have many problems, but no one gets anything for free – except God. You must earn everything through work,” says Mr Draghici.
These statements are just partially true and also dangerous. The first one implies that the Government has to change the way Roma are thinking. The second implies that Roma do not want to work and that poverty is a matter of choice. Let’s see what are the consequences of this type of discourse on policies towards Roma. Mr Draghici is the coordinator of the national Roma strategy and is the contact point in relation to EU. Recently he became a politician, running for a Senate seat on behalf of the governing coalition in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Definitely he is a central figure in policy making towards Roma in Romania.
It will be difficult for anybody to argue that Roma do not have to change their way of thinking. I argued in support of this change in a book chapter I published recently. I made the statement as a Roma individual and as a scholar on Roma issues. Mr Draghici statements, on the other hand, were made on behalf of the Government and as a top official responsible for policies towards Roma. It seems that Mr. Draghici did not learned anything from history. Attempts to change the way Roma think were made by others as well. Maria Teresa and Joseph II in the XVIII century adopted strong assimilationist policies towards Roma in their quest to change the way Roma think and live. Most recently, the Communist parties have adopted policies towards Roma that intended to transform their way of thinking and their way of life into a proletarian identity. In spite of the efforts and coercion used both attempts failed. Will the Romanian Government advised by Mr. Draghici succeed in changing the way Roma are thinking? I have serious doubts…
Besides historical arguments, I base my opinion on the fact that any successful integration of Roma requires changes not only on their side but also on the side of the majority and on the side of the government. Thus, the solution is not to make Roma think like the majority. It is rather a negotiation process that leads to a situation when everybody wins, a positive-sum game. If any part is dissatisfied and does not agree with the result, the changes will not be sustainable. In fact, the concept of integration is wrong to describe the required changes. I prefer instead the concept of accommodation to describe the societal changes needed to create an inclusive society.
The implications from the second statement above – that Roma do not want to work and the poverty is a matter of choice – reproduce the strong negative societal prejudices towards Roma. While one might agree that SOME Roma do not want to work hard to improve their situation, the same could be said about Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs etc. Mr Draghici made that statement without verifying whether the Government did offer possibilities for Roma to work and to earn a decent living. Had he done that, Mr Draghici would have found out that in fact Governments policies on job creation, especially for low skilled work force (very few in place), stimulates social assistance instead of stimulating employment. Moreover, poverty among Roma and other vulnerable groups has multiple causes and it is not a matter of the individual choice. In the case of the Roma, past history of discrimination and oppression played a significant role in the current difficult situation the majority of Roma find themselves. The irony of this statement is that Mr Draghici position is more compatible with that of conservatives, though he is running for a social-liberal coalition representing the leftist group!