Toward a Roma Cosmopolitanism

Last August 8, the great Romanian sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe passed away. He was only 66. I first met him in 1990, when he was just embarking on his project of elevating Roma issues to the highest level of European politics. Because he spoke English and had an academic background, he was often the lone Roma representative in European human rights meetings or on TV panel discussions. He worked on Roma issues at the Council of Europe, at the EU, at the UN, and for many years at the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.

I saw him again, and for the last time, in Budapest last May. He was very sick, in the late stages of colon cancer, and he moved with great difficulty. And yet he had pushed himself to travel from Italy to Hungary to be part of a seminar and book launch with his comrade-in-arms Andras Biro at the Central European University. The book, From Victimhood to Citizenship, is a dialogue among several people in or knowledgeable about the Roma community, and it provides an opportunity for Gheorghe to reflect on his own work and the contrasting views of others. He used his trip to Budapest to speak with a wide variety of people, including Roma students at Central European University. I managed to interview him in the lobby of his hotel on the morning before he was to return to Italy where he was staying with his sister. His day was scheduled with back-to-back meetings, and even his trip out to the airport was an opportunity for a conversation. He seemed to know that he did not have much time left, and he was determined to squeeze as many interactions as possible into his day -- with old friends, new faces, and even just passing acquaintances like me.

Having absorbed the credo of cosmopolitanism from his early days in Communist circles in Romania, Gheorghe was leery of anything that smacked of nationalism. "His widest ambition for the Roma, who had no land of their own, was that they should be a 'transnational' people, a grand pan-European federation of men and women, who, while proper citizens of their own countries, also represented a society broader, freer and more enterprising than that of nation states," reported The Economist in its obituary.

In the 1990s, Gheorghe saw the opportunity to realize this vision at the pan-European level. "At that time, I shifted my work from the community level to drafting documents and being oriented toward the EU: how to promote change at the commission level, which unlike the Council of Europe or the OSCE didn't at that time have a discourse on Roma issues," he told me last May. "I became absorbed perhaps too much in international institutions, working with the Council of Europe and EU around all these bureaucratic details. As I told you, I provided both a good and a bad role model. I was among the many people who were working and promoting change at the community level as we started in the 1990s, and then shifted toward institutions because that was the agenda. The Open Society Foundation also came in to push us to promote strategic change and institutional reform. That was my big concern. Now I criticize myself because I somehow deserted the community work to focus at the international level. I thought that operating at a higher level, at the European level, we could accomplish more in the longer term.

He acknowledged the virtues of this approach -- European institutions are engaged on Roma issues in ways unimaginable 20 years ago -- but he also recognized that a cosmopolitan discourse at this level met with relatively little opposition, at least rhetorically. The real challenge was to work at the local level where living conditions for Roma have not substantially improved over the last two decades and where the vestiges of earlier cosmopolitanism - from the Ottoman era or even the Communist period -- have largely disappeared.

"If I were younger and had another 20 years ahead of me, I would return to community work but in a different framework," he concluded. "We did what we could in the 1990s. But it's a question of political generation. It was much easier at that time to penetrate into the OSCE than it is now. Now again we have a new generation of Roma politicians and activists putting the Roma issue on the agenda, and they have a new energy and vision that is all theirs. I hope that some of the Roma students that I met here in Budapest will be led by conviction to work at the community level because they believe they must make changes at that level."

The Interview

Let's start by talking about how your viewpoints have changed since we last talked 23 years ago.

We all expected that with the end of Communism, something that existed before and was repressed -- namely, democracy -- would unfold as soon as the oppressing factor disappeared. We expected that people would immediately react positively to the freedom of democratic institutions and economic enterprises. But instead we discovered how much Communism had changed people.

In my work, too, I discovered how deeply Communism changed people's minds and their relationships. For instance, with our income-generating activities, I sincerely believed that Roma, being unemployed and excluded from the main labor market, would be successful once they were given some opportunities to organize and start something by themselves. I thought they would become entrepreneurs. I was wrong.

One of the most obvious examples of this failure with income-generating programs was the ten years of work I did in Romania and Andras Biro did with Autonomia in Hungary. We were working together. In Romania, I received half a million Deutschemarks from German churches. Biro raised another half a million dollars from the World Bank for a training program in four countries for young Roma. It was a nine-month program: three months in Budapest, three months in the United Kingdom to learn English, a couple weeks in Copenhagen at a center for developmental studies. The idea was that they would learn, they would return to their communities, and they would mobilize in the communities around income-generating activities. The income-generating activities included farming, metalwork, printing. Andras started in Hungary with pigs and potatoes and very small things. These were subsistence projects.

We wanted to be more ambitious in Romania. We tried to promote production projects. The participants would accumulate profit, reinvest some of it in the business, and distribute some of it among the participants in the program. It was supposed to function something like a cooperative. Both projects apparently failed. After the trainings, instead of going back to the community level and doing organizing, the participants were absorbed by government bureaucracies. There was a market for people with their skills, who were educated English speakers. They became bureaucrats -- the pay was more attractive. Yesterday, I talked with Andras about how we would restart this project given what we have learned from this experience.

In terms of income-generating activities in Romania, most of the money was wasted. Honestly, in some cases it was pure corruption. In other cases, they didn't know how to use the money. They thought that if they put enough money into machines, that was enough. I realized again that it was because I'd been too much influenced by the Communist model of economic development and its focus on production. I was not very clear about markets, how to market the products. We imagined that there would be a market for bricks, for metal. There were. But we didn't really know anything about that segment of the market. We were very much obsessed with production.

The second failure was that we didn't support individual entrepreneurship, but group entrepreneurship through associations. We wanted to tap into the solidarity of cooperatives. And the whole project was called Pakiv -- and this is on the cover of the book - which means trust, confidence, and respect in Romany. To be honest and to compromise myself completely, the idea came from Max Weber and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and other readings in the sociology of religion. The root of the Protestant ethic is to be spiritually motivated to produce, to accumulate, and to reinvest -- which is the essence of capitalism. I thought I found this ethic in the Roma community when they talk about pakiv, which is part of the whole group of concepts called Romanipen, which is a philosophical outlook toward life stressing solidarity, the sharing of resources, and being self-reliant economically. I thought that if we could connect in the Roma communities I worked with to some of these realities -- imagined realities, as it turned out -, we could work like a bank.

In one village, we provided 100,000 Deutschemarks, directly, without interest. It was based on a project proposal and a contract. The idea was that they would use the money to produce, to make enough to survive, and to make enough additional to reinvest. They would create a rotating fund so that we could help others with a similar amount of money. Of course we took into account the changes in exchange rate and other technical issues. But the idea was that this solidarity between one group of Roma and another group of Roma would create a sort of market among the Roma connected to the mainstream market.

There was no enforcing mechanism. It was just moral. You just gave your word that you would give the money back, and we respected your word, because this is the Roma wisdom.

I never received one penny back. I was completely naive, coming from sociology. I knew something about some Roma communities. But I didn't know the realities of other Roma communities. I ignored completely the context. We expected Roma to be like Protestants in a milieu rife with corruption. The model at that time was to take a lot of money from the bank and not pay it back. There were guys who bankrupted companies and made enormous amounts of money.

In Romania in general?

Yes. There was also this dismantlement of everything that was Communist-created including cooperative farms and big industries. Everything that evoked Communism, like working together in a cooperative, was rejected because they wanted to affirm individual enterprise. Sharing the revenue was redistributing according to socialist values, and they didn't want to share. The model of success was the guy who managed to accumulate as much money for himself or herself as possible and acquire status with an expensive car, an expensive house, and so on. We went counter to the wind.

Or trust.

Or trust. But it wasn't like that everywhere. For instance, I went to the Szekely region where there was a church-based program. We also received money from the German churches, so somehow we started communicating. In that area were farmers who followed the practice we'd tried to implement. They took money, organized their farms, and repaid their loans. It was a completely different reality. The idea that we spoke about apparently took root there, and people followed it. But it was a different culture with a different economic history. They were farmers with a patrimony of two centuries or more. Most of the Roma working in our project had no such patrimony. They'd been selling their labor. And they didn't know what to do with money. They had no entrepreneurial skills. They imagined -- and I imagined too -- that if we gave them money entrepreneurial skills would just appear. And that was not the case. They wasted the money. We ended up generating personality problems: It was much more than they could mentally cope with.

Communism operated very deeply, making Roma more proletarian than they used to be. This was a people without a sense of private property. They'd even been against private property. So they were suited in that sense to the new ideology of communism. When Communism failed, liberal ideology supposedly replaced it, but there had been hundreds of years of property relations and discussions and debates behind that liberalism. And that liberalism arrived here with a shock, with "shock therapy." It came like a recipe, and people just followed it without really being aware of its contents.

It was not a failure of liberalism. I lived in Poland for a number of years. Poland is a different model than Romania or Hungary. Apparently it's a success in some respects. What kind of entrepreneurship did they create in order to have this success? There they had much more of a sense of solidarity, of improving society through entrepreneurship, of creating more in terms of public goods. They were also much more committed to the Catholic Church than we have been to the Orthodox Church. We approached the Orthodox Church in a very ritualistic way. The economic attitudes of Catholics are also very different from those of the Orthodox. The impact of the Catholic Church on Polish society was much deeper, for better or worse, than the impact of religion in Romania. I discovered in Poland the importance of these cultural codes and values, of morality and ethics. But in many ways I was prepared for that because of my background in sociology. I was biased from the beginning.

Slowly we realized how to be normal people. We didn't want to be either martyrs or heroes. The martyrs of the Communist period were the dissidents, and they were also the heroes of the transition. We looked to charismatic individuals to lead us, in Romania especially. We don't have much respect for bureaucrats, the politicians in political parties or serving in government. We like charismatic people. In Romania, the hope probably is to have another dictator like Ceausescu, with a strong hand. Instead we discovered, and I'm glad for this, that we could have a normal life, be part of the middle class. We could be mediocre and enjoy it. We could have a job, an income, go on holiday, remain anonymous -- without being either martyrs or heroes.

In your essay in the book, you write about this challenge of creating an elite versus creating a group of people who return to the community to work there. In the book, you say that you created a group of people who went to work in international institutions. That's been my experience after 23 years. I've met an incredible array of Roma at every level of organizations, but not much as changed at the community level. If anything, there's a sharper divide. How can this be changed?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.