Interview – Aleksandar Tolnauer: Roma community stands a chance

  • HrvatskiHrvatski
  • You have been holding the office of President of the Council for National Minorities of the Government of the Republic of Croatia since it was first established in 2002. How would you describe the work and the role of this institution in a few sentences? Are you satisfied with the results and is there a segment of the Council’s scope of activities which you think should be more active?

    The Council for National Minorities of the Republic of Croatia was established in 2002, pursuant to the Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities. It was set up as the umbrella body of all national minorities in the Republic of Croatia. At the time, the issue was discussed under a certain influence from the international community, that is, suggestions were brought forward by the European Commission as at that time Croatia was a candidate country for EU accession. There are twenty-two national minorities living in Croatia and in such circumstances it is very difficult to articulate and harmonize all the interests. This was to be achieved through the Council for National Minorities. Many people were suspicious of it and thought that this institution would be just another body founded perfunctorily in order to content the international community. But I have to say, at the risk of sounding self-promoting, that the Council has proved them wrong. It is a fact easily verifiable in all the documents that have been produced in the last 15 years of the Council’s work.

    The Council for National Minorities consists of 8 Members of Parliament representatives of national minorities who enter the Council ex officio, of 7 elected members from the National Minorities Councils in regional and local self-government units and 5 citizens who are members of national minorities and are known and recognized for their work and merits in their respective communities. So the Council encompasses 3 segments – citizens, local and regional self-government and the legislative power through the Members of Parliament. The Council includes members belonging to other minorities than those represented by the eight Members of Parliament and in this way they also have a direct impact. Thus the idea to formulate minority policies in one place where all the minorities are represented – in the Council for National Minorities as an umbrella body – was translated into reality.

    Although the Council – as the name itself suggests – is an advisory body, it still has great powers under Articles 35 and 36 of the Constitutional Act on National Minorities, regulating its activities and authorities. Thus, the Council can, in accordance with the procedure, contact and ask questions to everybody in this country: to all ministries, the government presidency, and others. This implies that the Constitutional Act has set things up on a subsidiary basis, meaning that decision-making on common issues has been transferred to a lower level of social organization. The Council is thus the first body through which solutions are sought, and the higher instance of authority has only the role of complementing political decision-making. To make it even clearer I will use a metaphor: if you have some remarks or problems you want to solve, the first instance to turn to is the Municipal and not the Supreme Court. So, this is the main role of the Council.

    When talking about what the Council has done so far, I must first say that we are unhappy with the fact that a part of the majority considers us as an “ATM” for national minorities because the Council, in accordance with the Constitutional Act, allocates funds for the needs of national minorities’ cultural autonomy. I must emphasize, however, that that is just one of its many roles. The Council played an extremely important part in the implementation of the Constitutional Act on National Minorities in other pieces of Croatian legislation. Also, we played an important role in national minorities’ employment and in addressing the problems of national minorities in areas where they were virtually ignored by local and regional authorities. To summarize, the Council puts important questions on the agenda, since this power is vested to it by the Constitutional Act. Furthermore, the Council, through its President, participates in the Government’s work related to minority issues. This right was difficult to obtain. Although the Council cannot adopt decisions because it has no executive power, it can make proposals and suggestions.

    Over the past 15 years, the Council for National Minorities has succeeded in achieving its goal, which is to assert the status of national minorities, i.e. to introduce national minorities into the public, political and cultural life, which in the years before 2000 happened only in controversial situations in cases when minorities where denied the requests to exercise their rights.

    In your opinion, which problems are still confronting national minorities, especially the Roma national minority, regarding their inclusion into Croatian society? Is there anything that members of the Roma national minority could do to improve the situation?

    The Roma national minority, unfortunately, counts among the national minorities that still face the biggest number of problems in the Republic of Croatia. There are several reasons for this, both objective and subjective. I think that in the Council for National Minorities we have identified the problems burdening the Roma national minority, which is specific because of several reasons. First, the Roma have no home state. Second, the Roma differ by their history and lifestyle, which, regardless of all the changes, remains traditional, at least in part. Here I have to say that the Republic of Croatia directly involved the Roma in solving these problems. For instance, the Roma have had their representative in the Croatian Parliament for three terms in a row, and that is very important. Those Members of Parliament, and especially MP Veljko Kajtazi, have raised the issues that are of crucial importance to everyone, and especially to the Roma. These issues concern life and self-affirmation in society, and the most important thing for a person to be able to assert his place in some society is his education. The Roma are struggling with issues of education, housing, healthcare and citizenship. All these issues and problems are on the agenda and, regardless of all the difficulties involved, great progress has been made. By means of joint efforts, in which I participate, we resolve these issues, perhaps not at the speed that everyone would find satisfactory, but we persevere and we carry on.

    I think the Roma community stands a chance. I see that people, especially the young, finally accept the prevailing standards in the society. Also, an atmosphere is being created that will eliminate the fear and discomfort by reason of which the Roma, when they finish higher education, stop declaring themselves as Roma. The Roma community is working on this.

    Another problem is the division existing in the Roma community. We in the Council are very much aware of this. I must underline that if one wants to reach the goal of solving the above mentioned problems, one should realize that the common goal should always be given priority over personal and particular interests. Regrettably, at some point these interests prevail and lead to unnecessary confrontations and conflicts because of vanity and personal ambitions, which is characteristic in the Roma community.

    Do you consider that Croatian society is tolerant towards national minorities? Has there been any progress in the past period?

    First of all I have to say that I do not like the word “tolerant”, because it originally meant “able to bear and endure”. Tolerance is the capacity to endure hardship and pain. Therefore I am more inclined to speak in terms of “coexistence”. Is Croatian society ready for coexistence? The specificity of Croatian society is first of all that after 1000 years the Republic of Croatia gained independence in a gory war, and this entails consequences. Especially since one national minority was involved in the war.

    Croatian society has gone through several stages, whether or not we wish to admit. First, in the war, it was difficult to expect a high degree of, as you say, tolerance. At that time and in those circumstances, understandably, there was a rising tide of intolerance towards the Other and different. However, over time, huge progress has been achieved and this is indisputable. In these 25 years, enormous progress has been made in establishing the rights of national minorities, and here I am referring to the Constitutional Act and the overall legislation. We are not entirely satisfied with today’s situation, but we need to remember what things used to be like before. For example, our today’s meeting and interview for your newspaper would have been unthinkable. Certainly we have come to an enviable level of minorities’ active participation in political and public life.

    We must not forget that minorities played a vital role in Croatia’s accession to the European Union. For instance, Chapter 23, addressing the judiciary and minorities, was the last chapter in our accession negotiations and Members of Parliament representing national minorities, associations of national minorities and other civil society organizations played a very positive role in closing this Chapter. However, after the country’s EU accession, certain political groups started questioning these facts. Thus we have recently heard one political group putting forward a bizarre suggestion that “minorities should be relieved of the decision-making burden”. This translates to mean that they need to be excluded from the decision-making process. This will certainly not happen, especially in the present circumstances. Not only because of the (now overused and therefore empty) motto “minorities are our wealth”, but because we must not forget the fact that minorities have played their part in many fields even after Croatia joined the European Union. For example, minorities have been contributing to the affirmation of Croatian tourism in their home countries. Similarly, minorities are raising questions about many areas of everyday political life, which others do not even think of addressing. And at times when Croatia found itself in unenviable political circumstances, minorities, as a coalition partner, supported the political stability in the Republic of Croatia, but not to the detriment of the majority, as some are trying to falsely portray, but quite the contrary, with the purpose of establishing and maintaining stability in this country.

    What is your assessment of the degree of coverage and presence of national minorities in the Croatian media?

    The media are the cancer we have been warning about. At some points, it becomes irritating. The media, and I am primarily referring to the public services of the Croatian Radio Television (HRT), completely fail to fulfil their commitments under the national law and the contracts they signed with the Government of the Republic of Croatia. When we point to this fact, they often slap us down by saying that we are not media experts, which indeed we are not, but it is so blatantly obvious from the HRT’s own annual report on produced and coproduced TV and radio programmes, which the HRT submits to us every year in line with the Constitutional Act.

    The first problem which I will underline, and of which I also spoke a few days ago in Opatija, at the seminar entitled “Media and National Minorities in the Republic of Croatia” organized by the Government Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities, is evident from the official reports received from the media. 7.67% of Croatian citizens are members of national minorities. The percentage of their representation on the four channels of Croatian Television in one year was 0.37%. These data are not presented by minority representatives, the president of the Council or anyone else, but by the official report that was delivered properly and timely.

    Equally problematic is the way in which minorities are represented. Generally, national minorities can be found on prime time television only on occasions when they are involved in some sort of scandal, or in any other story in which they are not shown in a positive light. TV shows on national minorities are not bad, but it is noticeable that they are not developing in comparison to other information programmes. They remain in the same format, ghettoized, so to speak, in two shows – Prism and Minority Mosaic. It is not the fault of the people who work on these shows; it is rather the consequence of perceiving minority shows on TV as an unwelcome imposition, like “a third wheel”, so to say. As for the obligation to air programmes in the languages of national minorities, under the Agreement on the Acceptance of Regional Languages signed by the Republic of Croatia in 1997, it has not been met for years. Also, journalists working on the programme, except for a few who are already well-known, do not have sufficient knowledge of minority issues.

    Thirdly, HRT’s neglect of minorities has worsen lately and prime time is given to people who attack minorities and tell many untruths about them, while minority representatives who are supposed to respond to these accusations are not given any television time at all, but are told to submit their denial in writing. That is something inadmissible. Even though we have been discussing this problem, it will certainly be debated again at the Council because it has grown out of all proportion. We consider this behaviour to be discriminatory against national minorities, and we can prove it. Those who have attempted to justify this kind of behaviour had no case. The goal should be, as defined in all the existing normative documents, to incorporate minority programme into all the programmes, because this is the only way for the majority to get familiar with minority issues. All the more so, since in Croatia, according to the available data, only 6% of the population, mainly because of the economic situation, buys printed media, so television is the main source of information. The image created by television shapes public opinion. Therefore portraying minorities as a burden on the society who are always soliciting for this, that and the other thing or showing them in contexts of political or some other kind of affair, and never asserting one single thing minorities are good at inevitably affects the perception of the majority population and shapes negative public opinion. The whole minority problem is sensitive as it is, and the media which is supposed to present a realistic picture fails to do so.

    Given your long-standing work with national minorities, could you cite some positive examples, especially those relating to the Roma national minority, which you can point out as guidelines for future work and cooperation?

    Of course! Every time I have the chance, not just now with you and your readers, but every time I meet people from the international community or, for example, ambassadors and others, I praise the huge progress made in the field of education concerning the Roma community. There is now a department of Romani language, literature and culture at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zagreb University, which many people do not know about. There is a plaque displayed at the Faculty with a bilingual inscription in Croatian and Romani. This is the only plaque of the kind in Europe, and I think, in the world. Through the Council we have raised many questions on how to create conditions for making cultural autonomy a reality. Much has been done. But rather than just talking about it, it is better to get people to see what things used to look like, what we have achieved, which decisions we have made, as everything is very transparent.

    I think the Roma community is on the right track. It is present in the community, and its representative, Mr Kajtazi, has raised a lot of questions, of which others had not spoken. There is a new generation of wonderful young people who have many opportunities that their parents did not have. I urge them to seize these opportunities primarily to their own benefit, and then it will be very easy for them to integrate into the society. On the other hand, it is up to all of us to create the right conditions and to prepare the society itself for minority integration. Because one part of our society, we have to openly admit, still has prejudices and perpetuates stereotypes about the Roma people. We should not dodge the issue, but rather strive to show people the richness of Roma culture.  For example, people do not know that the Roma invented the clarinet and the jazz guitar (Django Reinhardt). There are many examples of influences of Roma culture. Finally, the Roma national minority is our indigenous minority. They have lived here since the 13th century, unlike many others. All these facts give rise to optimism, but improving the future is always up to us. Likewise, the Roma need to resolve the problems I have mentioned. They should put a stop to antagonism and stop caring who is or who is not the president. They should look at the big picture not only to help that community, but to bring it by joint forces to the status it deserves and which it is capable to acquire.

    In what way do minorities enrich Croatian culture?

    The expression “minorities are our wealth” is losing its significance because everybody’s saying it, but no one presents any arguments. I invite everyone to look at Croatian history and to read the book called Our Bread by Predrag Matvejević. National minorities’ members account, by today’s criterion, for over 80% of Croatian history’s essence, or so to say its central cultural part.

    Even Antun Gustav Matoš wrote: “… National cultures are, in their birth and source, the fruit of foreign influence. What is best in a nation is the fruit of foreign grafts…. The strength of a nation’s culture lies not in its ability to reject and eliminate, but in its ability to receive and absorb as many foreign cultural elements as possible.”

    A short excerpt from a lecture at the Sorbonne, also by Predrag Matvejevic, which will be published in his new book The Shipwreck, also talks about it. It lists the names of over two hundred people who had a tremendous impact on what is considered Croatian culture. According to today’s criteria, all of them would be members of national minorities, so if that was not a problem at that time, it should not be a problem today. It should be our pride. These are the facts. This is the history of this part of the globe, and many forget its importance for everything that is happening or will yet happen. Unfortunately, our society is inclined to very negative reminiscence. We keep looking back to the wars that have long passed when discussing quite different issues. When you have no solution for a problem, then you are sort of trying to draw attention away from your failures by pointing out to something that does not solve the problem and is not topical at all, but only creates a bad atmosphere and divisions in the society. This is something we should avoid.

    National minorities are an integral part of this society and for a country with 4 million people, 7.67% is a serious percentage. Croatia can be pleased and proud to have 22 national minorities on such a small territory that are integrated into the Republic of Croatia, while clearly maintaining their identity.

    This should be fostered, we are working on it and I am optimistic in that part. I am also optimistic about what is happening right now, and I am saying this without any tendency to sweet-talk anyone. Regardless of all the difficulties, the current government, with which members of the minority are in a coalition relationship, should create and is creating conditions to keep and prevent from diminishing the reached level of national minorities’ rights. Many resort to hate speech and to, as you say, intolerance. Policies emerge which are trying to impute the cause of existing problems to the Other and different. But that is déjà vu. We have already seen in history, a hundred times, that when things get rough and when we have no solutions, guilt is imputed to the weaker, the Other and different. The fact is that life got tough for the majority of people, so it is difficult to expect them to be understanding of the problems of the Other and different. People often fail to understand that these problems confront the majority and minorities alike and that they are absolutely the same.


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