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August 14, 2022



Interview with Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Foundations

18.5.2015 13:53
Zeljko Jovanović, director, Roma Initiatives Office
Zeljko Jovanović, director, Roma Initiatives Office

Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Roma Initiatives Office (RIO), which aims to strengthen the voices and leadership of Roma with respect to improving public policies and services in Europe. Since the fall of the socialist regimes in Europe, Zeljko says he has witnessed "new claims for justice" being made in the context of the emerging democracies that followed. He has published several articles in a variety of media such as The Guardian, La Repubblica, Foreign Policy Blogs, and on the RIO blog, and is the co-author of the book From Victimhood to Citizenship: The path of Roma integration (2013, CEU Press). He can be followed on Twitter at .

Q:  You were born in 1979, in Valjevo, western Serbia. Your childhood took place during the last decade of the Yugoslav Federation. Incidentally, the first year of your life was the last one of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Can you tell me more about the place where you grew up?

A:  It was a city where the former Yugoslavia placed one of the major complexes of its military industry. A big part of the local economy was based on a weapons factory. This was in the early 1980s, when I would say that we enjoyed a short period of social peace after Tito’s death. But then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember aggressive nationalism and civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the sanctions that were imposed by the international community, the embargo, affected the economy of Serbia very deeply. During the NATO bombing, Valjevo was one of the key targets because of the weapons factory.

Q:  How was the economic situation of your family by that time?

A:  My family went through an extraordinary transformation. My mother was educated in communist times, as well as my father. My mother was a brilliant student in conditions of severe poverty; she graduated in economics and immediately got a job in the municipal administration as a tax inspector. My father was an entrepreneur; he started as a taxi driver, then he developed a small grocery store, and from the grocery store he developed a small real estate business where he was renting offices for shops. So practically my family moved from living in extreme poverty to being part of the Serbian middle class. I remember times when I was hungry, waiting for the food that my grandmother used to bring home after a whole day working as a fortune-teller in the nearby villages, and then the change to the times when I was happily waiting for my father to see the new Mercedes he bought. My family was not a unique case; many other Romani families also moved from living in poverty to being part of the national middle class.

Q:  In the context of the Milosevic regime, you started to get involve in political activism in your home city. What brought you to that decision?

A:  I went through a good secondary school, one of the best in Serbia, I would say, so already at school we were having political talks both against and for Milosevic. Also, at home I witnessed the two sides of the political spectrum:  My mother, working for the state administration, was pro-Milosevic, and my father, being an entrepreneur who knew how liberal democracy was functioning in Austria (because his mother had been living there since the 1960s) was very vocal publicly against Milosevic’s regime. Indeed, my father was an opposition activist:  In 1991, during the first democratic election after state-socialism, by casting an open vote against him and by participating in protests, my father made a public declaration against Milosevic and his political machinery.

Q:  What kind of activities against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic were you involved in?

A:  My father and my school politicized me against the Milosevic regime. They organized protest walks through the city, street-level distribution of leaflets and public talks. I felt like part of that movement. Then, in 1997, I was involved as a volunteer in a Roma political party that was part of a broad coalition against Milosevic. At that time, I was also a kind of junior journalist in charge of preparing an independent radio program on Roma issues.

Q:  After high school, you moved to Belgrade, in order to study at the Belgrade University Law School. Why law? Did you consider any other discipline?

A:  My father always wanted me to be a medical doctor, because he thought that was the most respected profession, but I did not want to study medicine. I was considering political science, but in the end I decided to study law. Still, in the early post-communist times, the Serbian university system did not promote critical thinking. Therefore, I took on the challenge of building my own path through a process of "learning by doing" in parallel to my studies. At the moment I graduated, I got my Bachelor's degree in law and completed eight years of professional experience in international organizations.

Q:  In 1999, after the NATO bombing of Serbia, you started to work for an American NGO, Catholic Relief Services. How was that experience?

A:  At the beginning that was a weird experience. The first day I came to the office we started discussing about "justice" and "democracy". I got completely lost, I wondered:  Why is an organization focused on "humanitarian aid" training its workers through discussions about "democracy" and "justice"? But after the fall of Milosevic in 2000 I was able to answer some of those previous questions, and, indeed, I learned a lot within that organization about the role of active citizenship in shaping democracy.

Q:  In 2010 you went through the Harvard Program for Leaders of NGOs. How did this program challenge your previous knowledge/experience?

A:  In 2001, two years after I got the job at Catholic Relief Services, this organization completely shifted its work from "humanitarian aid" to "democracy development". I was part of that transformation. Since that shift, the organization started a program aiming to develop Roma civil society. Then I got a work training young activists on Roma rights advocacy at the local government level. In 2003 I met Nicolae Gheorghe and I started to learn how to use electoral cycles for Roma rights advocacy. A few months later, I started to work for the OSCE, again working on Roma advocacy in the context of elections. Then in 2006 I came to Budapest and started to work for the Roma Participation Program and later the Roma Initiatives Office – Open Society Foundations under the leadership of Bernard Rorke. When I started I was in charge of RIO’s work in Serbia. In 2008 I got a promotion and my competence expanded to the entire Balkans. In late 2010, I was appointed Director of RIO in charge of the whole European area.

In 2010 I went through the training at Harvard. In that training I learned about new models of leadership and possibilities of fostering strategic transformations through non-profit organizations. This training had a profound influence on me, especially because I did it during the time when we in the RIO were discussing the need to shift the strategy from providing basic services to local communities toward achieving systemic changes through political participation. I think my work reflects that direction.

Q:  What does your current work entail?

A:  Since my directorship of RIO started in 2010, I have continued and boosted RIO’s work in creating opportunities for Roma individuals and Roma organizations in order to search for new models of leadership and political participation, envisioning an impact at the decision-making level of cultural and social transformation.

Q:  In several public intervention, you have declared that Roma exclusion needs to be addressed at the level of political participation in terms of self-determination. What do you mean by "self-determination"?

A:  For me, "self-determination" means a call for us to define who we are, what we want, and how we negotiate with other political actors. We are living in historical times, a critical juncture where Europe itself is facing a crisis of identity, questioning its moral foundations of solidarityand tolerance. It is a moral imperative to engage in this political struggle, and we Roma especially should not stay on the margins of the political chessboard. I firmly believe that if we change the way we position ourselves in the EU democracy, we can change the situation that we Roma are suffering from:  Ghettoized living spaces, segregated education, forced evictions, pogroms, labor market exclusion, hate speech and hate crimes.

Certainly Roma political participation has been discussed during the last 20 years, and I honestly think there is no one who disagrees that the Roma should participate in politics, but the terms of participation are very important. Being part of an ad hoc created committee in a government, or being part of a working group within the EU institutions represent critical achievements, but still we Roma are positioned in a role of providing recommendations without challenging the established distribution of power and public resources. We must be able to move from giving advice to enforcing decisions.

In this line of critique, my discourse and my work are concerned with issues of "power". People like to talk about "empowerment" but avoid talking about "power". I differentiate between several aspects of "power":  Challenging power, taking power, using power and sharing power. While the universality of human rights represents an unquestionable point of consent in democratic contexts, it has shown its limits towards the protection of minority groups. For the last 20 years, Roma organizations have been using human rights language in order to denounce deviant uses of power, but I think that these are the times in which to open a dialogue about a democratic distribution of power and public resources.

Q:  On March 26th, George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, and Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, published a co-authored article announcing the opening of a European Roma Institute. You have been one of the main voices advocating for this project. What kind of activities is such an institution supposed to develop?

A:  The European Roma Institute (ERI) is still an ambition. This project has been established with the aim of combating a legacy of the antigypsyism that is historically rooted in Europe. ERI will be a place where Roma and non-Roma intellectuals will shape a new image of the Roma in Europe. Aiming at this purpose, the ERI will bring together linguists, historians, movie makers, journalists and artists in order to challenge widespread misperceptions about Roma.

We Roma have been culturally oppressed by an historical stigmatization that has shaped an image of us as less competent, less smart, less beautiful, less capable and less worthy than others. This systematic oppression has aimed at undermining the individual and the collective pride in being Roma. Over time we have internalized a repertoire of negative images fostering a particular sort of subjugation, which has been conceptualized by Ian Hancock as the "Pariah Syndrome". Therefore, antigypsyism is not only in the non-Roma mindset, but in the Roma mindset too; that‘s why many Roma hide their own Romani identity. This phenomenon of denigration of collective self-esteem does not apply only to the Roma case, but to any people that has been culturally oppressed.

I am convinced that our intellectual and cultural power has a huge potential, but it is scattered at the moment. So the European Roma Institute will be not only a place where debates on cultural production will be hosted, but it will be a place for us to rediscover the unknown identity of the Roma as a resilient and creative community. Also, the Institute will work on breaking down the European amnesia towards Romani history. I hope that the Institute will work in collaboration with national ministries of education, public service broadcasters, museums, theaters, major cinema festivals, art galleries… with all the channels through which people experience art and culture. ERI will be a house committed to raising awareness about the richness of the Roma cultural heritage, which has been severely damaged by centuries of institutional disrespect.

Ismael Cortés – PhD researcher, UNESCO Institute of Philosophy for Peace
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