Vicious Cycle

5 June 06

Fellow blogger's post about racism made me think of an interesting phenomenon: whenever an American asks about racial dynamics in Serbia, a Serb will almost never fail to point out that Serbs are not racists. It is partially true: Serbia did not have institutionalized racism in its modern history and that's one thing we are better at than the almighty Americans. But…

Some ten years ago I was travelling to the seaside from Belgrade. As the train was still in the station, being fashionably late on departure, I stood in a tight train corridor, engaged in a passionate discussion. All of a sudden, a Romani (Gypsy) boy climbed into the wagon and approached us, begging for money.

I didn't make much out of it, but just moved a bit and lift the hand above my shoulder, gesticulating at him to pass. At the same moment, the boy, without changing his facial expression one bit, turned around and raised his shoulder in protection. He thought I would hit him. When I told him to pass, he relaxed, went around me and never looked back.

I was trembling with horror and noticed my friends were deeply shaken as well, just thinking about what went through that boy's mind. He couldn't have been much older than 8, but how many times has he been punched in the face by an adult that he interprets, without showing fear, my hand gesture as an attempt to hit him?

We are all not born equal. According to this study, almost a half of Roma in Serbia and Montenegro have no more than three grades of elementary school. 80.9% were not formally employed in 2001, and 42.6% earn their income by collecting and selling recyclable goods, like paper, bottles or metal. I suspect it's not much better in the rest of Europe.

Parliament members into shanty towns, Roma into the Parliament!

Parliament members into shanty towns,
Roma into the Parliament! (ASI)

Education and integration seem like the only viable plan to put an end to this. All the kids in Serbia, before they enroll in elementary school, take a sort of an intelligence test. I did relatively good at this, but I knew how to read and write and could count and do basic addition and subtraction before I took the test.

On the other hand, Romani kids often don't even speak Serbian that well, let alone know how to deal with a test in that language, which is usually misinterpreted as a lack of intelligence. The result is that 80% of "special schools" pupils are Roma.

The segregation of Roma and non-Roma is deeply rooted in the Serbian society and even the best of governmental policy will not make it easy to solve. Although the government does not have a Slovakian record, I wouldn't really say they are doing much of anything, except for an occasional attempt to create a ghetto.


  1. bganon
    Jun 6, 09:51 AM #

    The 'Roma experience' in Serbia is an interesting subject on many levels.

    All I can say is that personally I find it utterly disgraceful that people are forced to live in pitiful conditions whilst the rest of us, whilst not exactly living it up, can makes ends meet.

    But its true that Serbia is largely a poor state. The thing then that upsets me most of all is the way the EU is forcing many Roma to live in poverty in Serbia by deporting them en masse.

    Serbia already has the highest refugee and displaced persons percentage in Europe and many Roma who live under the poverty level. What exactly do 'civilised' Europeans think they are doing when they send the Roma to Serbia. They obviously dont give a damn.
  2. Rod Amis
    Jun 10, 08:38 AM #


    Just discovered you via Global Voices Online Roundup and I'm glad I followed the link. I have friends in Belgrade and Zajecar and have always lamented not getting more "on the ground" perspective since visiting there in 2001.

    I've added you to "my" and shall certainly return.


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