SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, Dec 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- A s Sunday's election in Macedonia draws close, Amet Yashar
jokes that politicians' newfound concern for his home, one of
Europe's largest Roma communities, might not be wholly sincere.
Suto Orizari district, a ramshackle settlement of more than
20,000 people, in the capital Skopje is among a handful of
Roma-majority municipalities in the world and one of the few
places where Romanes is an official language.
But Yashar said the community, known as Shutka locally,
remains largely ignored by the majority of Macedonians until
political leaders venture there ahead of elections to promise
jobs and material change to Suto Orizari's residents.
The settlement has existed since 1963, but many residents
still lack adequate housing and connections to power, water and
sewage systems, according to research by the European Roma
Rights Centre (ERRC), an international advocacy organisation.
"Before the election is the only time we're Macedonians,"
said the 35-year-old in his office at Iriz, an organisation that
offers legal aid. "The rest of the time we're just Roma."
Suto Orizari is tucked away from the city centre behind a
fortress. Its dusty streets are lined by a multicoloured mix of
tin-roofed bungalows, half-built brick apartments and
intricately ornamented villas.
Arriving by car from the national assembly in the tiny
ex-Yugoslav republic, the pristine roads turned potholed and the
occasional horse-drawn cart swerved between cars.
Despite having two elected Roma members of parliament and a
Roma mayor in Suto Orizari, the Roma - as in most cities across
Europe - have little real political power, rights groups say.
EUROPE'S LARGEST MINORITY
The Macedonian constitution is unique in recognising Roma by
name and enshrines equality of political opportunity for Roma,
along with the country's Albanian and Turkish minorities.
But Fadil Djemail, Yashar's boss and project coordinator at
Iriz, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the people of
Shutka are being "held hostage" by political leaders.
"For us, it does not matter who will win," said Yashar. "No
matter who we vote for in this election, for the usual Roma
citizens who live in Shutka, it will be the same."
Europe's 10 million Roma are the continent's largest ethnic
In Macedonia, they make up almost 10 percent of the two
million population, according to statistics from the Council of
Europe. But there, as across the Balkans, they continue to lack
basic rights to housing and public services, says the ERRC.
A 2015 survey of Roma communities across Macedonia classed
half of all neighbourhoods, including Suto Orizari where 75
percent of residents are Roma, as "informal settlements", where
residents lack legal land ownership or property titles.
In every Roma settlement surveyed by the ERRC, residents
were either unable to connect to safe drinking water or lived in
fear of being disconnected due to unaffordable costs.
Yet Suto Orizari - born after the 1963 earthquake destroyed
Roma homes in the centre - defies outsiders' tag as a "slum".
Across the community in northern Skopje, Byzantine-styled
mansions jut out above ornamented brick homes and yards with
livestock and geese. Commerce thrives around the central market,
surrounded by butchers, hairdressers, shops and offices,
including the home of Romani news website 24Vakti.
Outsiders think nothing changes in Shutka, said Sali Memed,
editor of 24Vakti. But there is constant development, including
a high school that opened last year offering lessons in Romanes.
Since 2010, a nationwide project to privatise government
land and legalise housing has let more than 1,500 households in
Suto Orizari register for property titles and access loans to
extend and upgrade, according to Habitat for Humanity Macedonia.
SANCTUARY VS GHETTO
Yashar, who helps residents access schools, welfare and
government programmes, said Roma residents support each other
and - unlike the rest of the city, where racism is widespread -
in Shutka people live free from discrimination.
But increasingly Shutka also feels like a "ghetto", he
added, saying residents are left to fend for themselves.
Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organisation,
estimates that 90 percent of Shutka's residents rely on state
welfare payments of 30 euros ($32.28) a month. Many top this up
with informal labour or by begging, it said.
This year again, said Memed, jobs are a key election issue.
Aidan McGarry, politics lecturer at the University of
Brighton and author of "Who Speaks for Roma?", a book on Roma
political representation, said a minuscule tax base leaves the
area dependent on outside investment in services like housing.
McGarry said the municipality cannot achieve growth on its
own so relies on parliamentarians to fight for investment from
"At the same time as they are autonomous, there is no
'voice' there," he said. "Usually, there's power in numbers but
that doesn't translate in Suto Orizari."
WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ROMA?
Macedonia's veteran nationalist leader Nikola Gruevski looks
set for a comeback in Sunday's election after stepping down in
January as part of an EU-brokered deal to end a crisis that
began in early 2015 and following almost a decade in power.
In Suto Orizari, most people see political leaders as
ineffectual and have yet to see a candidate who will fight for
funding for Roma communities, Memet said.
A "closed list" system for electing parliamentarians means
voters cannot directly show dissatisfaction with unpopular
candidates, said Saban Saliu, a Roma former member of parliament
(MP) and now director of Macedonia's disaster response agency.
Voters do not vote for an individual candidate but pick one
of a handful of 'candidate lists' drawn up by the heads of the
This system encourages candidates to take a low profile, ask
little from central government and not criticise party leaders,
even when they deprive Roma communities of funds, Saliu said.
"But poverty is this underlying issue that needs to be
resolved, first and foremost," said McGarry.
Yashar said residents complain that when municipal
boundaries were drawn in 2001, areas of heavy industry on Suto
Orizari's borders were assigned to neighbouring boroughs -
depriving them of much-needed tax revenues.
McGarry said such deliberate segregation of Roma from the
majority exacerbates their lack of economic and political power.
But this problem is not new, said McGarry. It can be traced
back to Suto Orizari's birth in the early 1960s when Roma were
moved from a traditional base near the city's commercial centre.
"Just the fact that Suto Orizari exists where it does is an
absolute expression of the power of the state to marginalise and
exclude, and then reinforce these decisions by deciding to not
invest," said McGarry.
($1 = 0.9293 euros)
(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo
Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
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