On why I want nothing to do with Roma movement and the dangers of identity politics

7 May

I used to be a Roma activist. In 2003, I decided to give up a decade long and rather promising career in management and IT and to do professionally what I had been doing voluntarily for many years: helping poor children and advocating for Roma rights. Despite a relative success (I fast became one of the most visible Roma activists) I never felt good making my living this way. As a result, I donated most, and sometimes all of my salaries for those ten years to helping poor Roma children. My life was still more than comfortable, due to good investments plus IT and communications consultancies.

In 2011, I decided to give it up. I didn’t like the caricature I had become: self-involved, egotistical, and a perpetual victim. I quit working on Roma issues and tried hard to prove to myself that I could be successful doing something else. I really enjoyed the next five years. I worked in some of the most difficult countries in the world and have been involved in the relief efforts targeting Syrian refugees. I kept volunteering in one of the worst Roma ghettoes in Bucharest, and unexpectedly, in 2013 I received, at the proposal of the Austrian leader of the European Socialists, a European Parliament prize for what I was doing. At the end of 2015 I gave up the job I liked the most in order to join Dacian Cioloș, the leader of Renew Europe, as a councilor and then as a secretary of state in the Romanian technocratic government.

Close to the end of my secretary of state mandate I was asked to run first on the list for the Romanian Senate on behalf of a new and promising party, the Save Romania Union. A few months before I had applied for and been offered a high-level job at the European level related to Roma issues. My previous job – the one I really enjoyed – was also still available for me to return to.

I thought that my professional experience could help, especially when it came to negotiations for EU funds for Roma. So I accepted the European-level job offer and became the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. All the money I made during that time was used to finance what is now ‘Casa Buna’ (the ‘Good House’), a place where we work with over 120 children and their families from the ghetto.

The choice I made to work for the Council of Europe proved to be a major mistake. I significantly underestimated the envy that it would generate. The position was a pompous joke, as was the interest in Roma of the then Secretary General. Some if not most of my superiors were weak and often vicious. The Roma movement was chaotic and egotistic (as I used to be), and plagued by eccentrics and a few madmen. Delusional and radical ethnic discourses sometimes significantly worst than similar speeches of idiots like Nigel Farage were not rare. Most of the smart and dedicated people in the movement lived in a bubble where they saw themselves as misunderstood heroes. Mediocrity and opportunism were rewarded as brilliance, and at times everything felt like a circus.

In my job, I was pushed into supporting an initiative that I thought was bombastic, stupid, and wasteful. The European Roma Institute for Art and Culture (ERIAC) in my view was, and still is, a great excuse for the member states of the EU to do little for Roma, while loudly broadcasting their support for whatever they think is ‘good Roma culture’. I thought it was both ironic and worrisome considering that most of its leaders are coming from integrated or mixed families that have or had very little if any connections to traditional Roma culture.

Culture is an important social aspect but I believed we needed a lot more than an excuse of an institution for changing the existing catastrophic situation of a large number of Roma. Roma communities need investment in reducing the horrendous poverty and educational gaps they face, rather than fancy meetings with dances and empty delusional speeches about brotherhood and sisterhood, coming from people that more often than not, actually hate each other. A Roma-focused European Agency with a serious budget or something similar would have been possible and a much better solution than ERIAC, an institution with close to zero political or financial leverage dependent on Soros money.

The Romanian diplomats at the Council of Europe were not at all supportive of new ideas, and opposed any changes meant to disturb the status quo. Ineptitude and racism were also serious issues. They were not the exception: most of the diplomats there suffered of similar problems. I returned home to Bucharest every weekend to volunteer in the ghetto. I also joined the huge anti-government protests. Probably, I did it to feel useful.

The situation in my country was getting worse, and I decided that I should do more to help. I published a series of sarcastic editorials attacking the government. In one of them, I was caustic about one of the ‘excuses’ the government repeatedly used during the protests: according to the corrupt party in power, George Soros was behind the protests in Romania. In one article, I wrote that I had just met George Soros and he looked like a frail old man that badly struggles dealing with the important role he was supposed to play. I argued sarcastically that he could barely take care of himself, let alone spearhead a plot to send assassins to kill the corrupt but popular de-facto leader of Romania, Liviu Dragnea, as the government claimed.

Some of the most powerful Romanian Roma activists at the time were strong supporters of Liviu Dragnea and hoped to become members of the government or maintain their influential positions. An out-of-context translation of my article was sent around to some other Roma activists. Some of them signed a protest letter against me and sent to the Secretary General, ridiculously accusing me of anti-Semitism. It included the signature of the second most visible European Roma activist, one of the people in the Roma movement that I had helped the most. He never asked me the context of the article and why I had written it. He doesn’t speak Romanian, so only saw the translated version. He was the main advocate for George Soros’ idea of ERIAC.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper that published my article was the president of the Romanian Open Society Institute (an institution initiated and supported by Soros). It was all too stupid. I had had enough, and I decided to resign.

I now continue to remain completely outside of the Roma movement. I avoid any contact with its leadership, despite numerous requests especially from the adversaries of those who signed the out-of-context translation. I still work voluntarily in the ghetto on a daily basis, directly with kids and families. Nowadays, Liviu Dragnea is in prison.

Recently I saw a video about the future of Roma movement produced by the Open Society Institute (OSI). It presents what I believe is not only a seriously warped view of reality, but also a dangerous one. Nicolae Gheorghe, an extraordinary and sophisticated intellectual who had very few convictions and many, many doubts, inspired the movement that I joined and that I believed in. He was often very critical of Soros ideas and I am quite sure he would have been very vocal against this video. He argued for a Romani human rights movement, not an ethnic, identity-based movement.

Nowadays, the OSI-backed Roma leadership seems to be all about identity politics with a significant emphasis on political power. Together with the usual sycophancy, mediocrity, and a disappointing interpretation of George Soros’ ideas, this is a recipe for disaster.

In the recent years the EU has, at best, taken the back seat with Roma issues, leaving priority-setting and leadership to a tiny elite dependent on George Soros funding. This position is a risky one. OSI leadership and rhetoric dominates the limited pool of ideas when it comes to Roma, and that is not at all healthy. Roma are citizens of their own countries and the largest European minority. They can be a great asset or a great threat and playing with identity politics is not only risky but borders irresponsibility. Overwhelmingly the budgets targeting the social inclusion of Roma communities come from the budget of European Union an institution that is/should be strongly against identity politics.

The EU should step back into a leadership role and ensure that employment, education, anti-discrimination, and the sharing of citizenship-based rights and responsibilities become the priority for the social inclusion of Roma in Europe. The OSI could continue to play an important but marginal role in promoting Roma culture.

9 Responses to “On why I want nothing to do with Roma movement and the dangers of identity politics”

  1. Martin Kovats May 7, 2020 at 2:16 pm #

    Valeriu – you focus on key issues. I share many of your concerns. Can we talk?

  2. Michael Ciuraru May 7, 2020 at 2:36 pm #

    As a Romanian Roma born and raised in New York, I thank you for writing this very needed piece. Very insightful.These issues are what’s keeping the “Roma movement” from going anywhere.

  3. Dana May 8, 2020 at 2:47 pm #

    There are very few people that I really admire without knowing them personally, and you are one of them. I have struggled for years with the issues you raise, and this piece is mind-blowing by its efficiency: you succeed to pinpoint in just a few paragraphs the essential flaws of the Roma movement and of most of the people involved in it, without sounding supercilious or smug. At the same time, I hope you agree that there are also many good-intentioned members of this movement that continue to be involved with it only because (now) it is their only option. You say it yourself, you could turn down jobs or positions only because your life was not drastically affected economically by this decision. Unfortunately, it is not the case for many young people, and not necessarily for a fault of themselves, but because they were/are guided down this path. I 100% agree with you: making a “profession” out of your ethnic identity is wrong,visionless, superficial, self-victimizing, counter-productive, and down right dangerous. What should we do for the young people who are attracted by this professionalization of identity because they are led to believe it is the only way to “have a voice”?

    • valeriucnicolae May 13, 2020 at 7:09 am #

      Thanks Dana. Have no idea what young people should do. I am not a leader nor a guru and I have no talent for either. Love what I do nowadays, hated what I did before – no intent whatsoever to be ever involved in Roma movement.

  4. michaelstewartlondon May 12, 2020 at 9:00 pm #

    Great piece Valeriu – maybe the next step is to take these acute observations (I am thinking especially of the CorE farago) and turn them into a sustained and documented critique… – and an even more analytical one- ie what is it about that institution that has allowed all this nonsense to flower in its environs.. the awful behaviour you evoke is partly also cultivated by this base and vapid institution….; and more broadly – as Nicolae was keen to do – to ask about the conditions of possibility of all that you describe… It’s not good or fun all this but your honesty makes me think that you might do everyone a favour; as Dana says there are loads of well-intentioned people and they are surely seeking not to waste their time….

    • valeriucnicolae May 13, 2020 at 7:06 am #

      Thanks Michael. There are enough people that are in academia that can write what you suggest. No interest here to do it. I am not Nicolae and have no plans whatsoever to play ever any role in Roma movement.

  5. Adi May 14, 2020 at 2:14 pm #

    I am not a Roma, so I write this comment without the legitimacy of knowing the problems from the inside. However, the way I see it, the main problem that I see with any identity-based movement is that it can only exist while the problem that it addresses exists. If you feed yourself emotionally and financially out of being a victim, you need to keep on being one. The purpose of the Roma movement should be the exact opposite, to aim at making Roma people equal members of the society, of ending discrimination, ridiculous prejudice and extreme poverty in these communities. Any movement that feeds on the misery of its members will actually, even without knowing it, tend to perpetuate it.

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