What Europe’s Roma Know About Defeating the Politics of Supremacy

Let's take a moment to look more deeply and carefully at the role of cultural identities and self-determination.

by Zeljko Jovanovic, January 16, 2019
Europe, cultural identity vs. identity politics

On April 8, 1971, Roma advocates gathered near London to proclaim the self-determination of the Roma and the national symbols of a people who did not and do not govern a nation-state. They were too advanced, in both their courage and their ethics, for their time and for ours. They made a bold step forward with far fewer resources than we have now, and in a time of less-open societies.

We, the Roma advocates of today, still struggle to articulate anything nearly as ambitious as they did. In the grander scheme of things, they set an advanced ethical standard that other Europeans still struggle to catch up with. Their proclamation was an expression of the Roma people’s wisdom and peaceful resilience in the face of confrontation and hate, which is in stark contrast to the conflict and bloodshed that has marked European political history to the present day.

On April 8, coincidentally or not, Hungary will hold national elections. This convergence of International Roma Day and Hungarian election day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the wider argument about identity politics. Just a few days ago, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times [paywall] analyzed politics in Hungary, among other countries, and argued that identity politics is fundamentally illiberal and dangerous, regardless of whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum. Rachman’s argument, shared by other observers, is that it should be up to individuals to shape their own identities and that the best way to protect the rights of Jews and Muslims is to treat them as individual citizens with the right to equal protection under the law.

Not only does such an approach place people’s identities at odds with their citizenship, but it also neglects the responsibility of the state to protect all of the people’s rights, including the right to cultural identity, which is particularly important in the case of citizens belonging to minority cultures. There is, however, a bigger problem with this argument. It covers Hungary’s state-sponsored hatred and the Roma movement against hatred with the same blanket description of “identity-based politics.” Rachman’s argument confuses the means with the ends, and thereby overshadows a major difference:

Identity politics can be used to achieve equality but also to maintain supremacy, and both strategies have nothing in common.  

Politics is a means to achieve certain ends, and in recent years Hungary’s political leaders have aimed to promote the supremacy of Hungarian and Christian identities against those of Roma and Muslims (“migrants”). The confrontational, state-funded campaigns that increase hatred toward Roma, Muslims, the European Union, and, with undertones of anti-Semitism, George Soros, have been the main manifestations of this kind of politics.

In relation to Roma, this is not only wrong but retrograde. Two decades ago, Hungary was promoted as a progressive state, especially regarding its education policy for Roma. Today, Hungary’s record is among the worst in Europe; and its substandard education practices for Roma children, alongside those of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are under the EU’s investigation for breaches of EU laws on racial discrimination. This is part of a wider politics of supremacy across the European continent.


On the other side, since the first International Roma Congress in 1971, a date that could be considered a milestone in politics promoting Roma cultural identity and self-determination, Roma politics has aimed to achieve economic, political, and cultural equality—nothing less and nothing more than what others have already. Our “identity politics,” led by Roma and supported by our non-Roma friends and allies, has been part of a global struggle for human rights, equality, and inclusion.

With great sacrifice, and despite doubt and cynicism, our politics has shown that we can win against confrontation and supremacy. Since the last International Roma Day, we have seen important victories. In the Czech Republic, after many years of campaigning and negotiation, we have seen the historic liberation of the site of a former Nazi concentration camp in Lety, where a future memorial will serve as a reminder of what the extreme form of the politics of supremacy can do.

In Hungary, we have seen an impressive campaign that succeeded to place a memorial to Bela Puczi, a Roma who stood up to defend Hungarians against the Romanian politics of supremacy in Transylvania in the 1990s—and who was left to die homeless on the streets of Budapest in 2009, forgotten and unrecognized by the Hungarian state.

In the European Parliament, we have seen a new resolution committing its members to fight anti-Gypsyism, a specific form of racist supremacy against the Roma. In Bulgaria, we have seen a hopeful advance by the parliament toward finding policy solutions to prevent the forced eviction of more than 200,000 Roma. In central Slovakia, we have seen the far-right party of Marian Kotleba removed from power with great contributions from Roma voters and political leaders. In Albania, we have seen Roma recognized as a national minority for the first time in the country’s history.

In Germany, we have seen the launch of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, which aims to increase the self-respect and self-esteem of Roma. All of these victories, and numerous others, demonstrate that Roma politics has succeeded to place self-determination and equality in harmony.

The politics of supremacy has intoxicated Hungary as well as Italy, Austria, Poland, and other European countries. However, Hungarians and other Europeans have previously demonstrated that they can also detoxify. Hungarians did it when they won against the supremacy of the Russians in 1989, and Europeans did it when they won against the supremacy of the Nazis.

April 8—both Hungary’s election day and International Roma Day—is therefore a moment to look more deeply and carefully at the role of cultural identities in the politics of supremacy and equality. This is important intellectually, but perhaps even more important for the morale of Europeans disoriented by fear, doubts, and cynicism. This day can be a reminder of possibility—if Roma, who face the worst form of supremacy, can fight it, then others living in better conditions can do even more.

About the author: Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Roma Initiatives Office.

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.