Out of ignorance and despair?
Sabotage as a citizenship enactment at the fringes
in The Fringes of Citizenship

The penultimate chapter looks at how states address Roma as (active) citizens and how Roma reconstruct citizenship at its fringes as activist citizens. It exposes how fringes are created by states, by international organisations and through the everyday practices of majority populations. However, the main body of the chapter explores another meaning of the fringe: marginalised minorities on the fringe also subvert and reconstruct the core understanding of citizenship from this fringe. These acts are not necessarily only activism but also include everyday mundane practices that carry the potential of political action. I call this form of enactment as citizenship sabotage.


In 2013, Nazif Mujić, a Bosnian citizen of Romani background, received a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. He won the award for his leading role in a low-budget film, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, directed by the acclaimed director Danis Tanović. The film showed the daily struggles stateless Roma face: in a role of a husband, playing out his life, Mujić destroys his car and sells it as scrap metal so that he can pay for his wife's urgent medical treatment. She has no health insurance because of to a lack of personal documents. After his success in Berlin, Mujić returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) as a praised actor. Yet a year later he went back to Germany, this time as an asylum seeker. Fame and success in the film industry did not improve Mujić's socio-economic position, his legal status or the ethnic discrimination he faced in being identified as belonging to a Romani minority. His family remained on the margins both in BIH as citizens and as asylum seekers in Germany. His asylum application was rejected as Germany regarded BIH as a safe third country and recognised his asylum claim as based on socio-economic grievances rather than persecution. After Germany rejected his asylum application, he went back to BIH, where he sold his Silver Bear trophy for €4000 in an act of despair but also as a protest because the fame had not brought his family out of poverty. He died in February 2018 at the age of forty-seven; the headlines reporting his death read: ‘Film Star's Death Highlights Plight of Bosnia's Roma’ (Lekić, 2018).

The selling of the Silver Bear trophy and Mujić's untimely death seemed just like another episode from his film. Nevertheless, this chapter begins with the case of Mujić because it illustrates two broader issues connected to citizenship. First, it demonstrates the value of citizenship for minorities at the fringes. Building upon previous chapters in this book, this chapter claims that citizenship for marginalised minorities is often devalued or even value-less in view of its different dimensions, status and rights (Joppke, 2007). Citizenship status does not necessarily give rights, and having rights does not necessarily lead to life improvements for marginalised minorities. Second, unlike previous chapters, this chapter seeks to understand how Romani individuals at the fringes of citizenship respond to their citizenship being devalued, precarious (Lori, 2017) and/or irregularised (Sardelić, 2017b; Nyers, 2019). Following some previous research (see Vermeersch, 2006; McGarry, 2010; Sigona, 2015), this chapter confirms that Romani individuals are not merely passive observers of their predicament, but act in response to it. At the same time as the civil rights movement in the US, a similar movement developed in Europe as the struggle for the Romani rights continued (Vermeersch, 2006; Donert, 2017; Chang and Rucker-Chang, 2020; see also Chapter 1), and it continued to flourish after the pivotal transformations in Europe: from the fall of the Berlin Wall through to the present-day concluded and ongoing EU negotiations. However, this chapter also highlights a different kind of enactment of citizenship (Isin, 2017), which is more latent as it is not the activists who perform it. This type of enactment of citizenship is usually less visible as it is mundane or ordinary, and it seems at first glance to emerge only from an individual's desperation or ignorance. I argue that such acts are political as they carry the potential to create ruptures within citizenship (Isin, 2009). I name these acts ‘citizenship sabotage’.

The case of Mujić is indicative, as Germany has assumed that the predicament of Roma is no longer connected to the Bosnian war but rather to the economic downfall of the postsocialist transition in the country. Yet as the ECtHR Sejdić and Finci v. BIH case (henceforth the Sejdić and Finci case) demonstrated, this is not the whole story. In 1995 the Dayton Peace Agreement legally cemented the position of minorities in BIH, including Roma, as second-class citizens (Cirković, 2014). According to the Bosnian Constitution based on the Dayton Agreement, only the Bosnian constitutive nations can fully be a part of BIH's political structure. As defined in the 2001 Election Law, the BIH presidency consisted of three members who had to identify as Croat, Bosniak and Serbian (Cirković, 2014: 456–7). Jakob Finci and Dervo Sejdić, two Bosnian citizens of Jewish and Romani background who could not stand as candidates for the BIH presidency, challenged this structure on the basis of minority discrimination and won the case against Bosnia in 2009 at the ECtHR. This electoral policy, which was designed outside BIH to promote peace, later represented an obstacle for BIH in its EU negotiations. In 2013 the EU suspended Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) funds for Bosnia because of its failure to reform its citizenship policies (European Commission, 2013). Yet six years later, in 2019, the Dayton ethnic hierarchies and citizenship ambiguities it created remained intact. Because of the lack of progress in creating new anti-discrimination provisions in the Bosnian electoral system, on 22 December 2019, exactly ten years after the ECtHR judgement in Sejdić and Finci, a CoE press release marked this as a ‘disturbing anniversary’ (CoE, 2019).

BIH's political structure and its socio-economic downfall were the hierarchies in which Nazif Mujić, as a Bosnian citizen of Romani background, was embedded in his country. However, his acts of citizenship (Isin, 2009) showed that the hierarchies went beyond the borders of his country of citizenship. As a rejected asylum seeker in Germany, he found himself within the hierarchies of citizenship constellations (Bauböck, 2010) between BIH and Germany (Sardelić, 2018) when he was categorised as an ‘illegitimate’ asylum seeker. The decision to seek asylum in Germany as a response to the discrimination he faced in BIH showed that citizenship constellations materialise not by means of mere arrangements, but when someone enacts them (Isin, 2009) and when states use their acts of sovereignty (Nyers, 2006) to respond.

Mujić was a Bosnian citizen, and the post-conflict reality of this country did represent one of the determinants of his position. Besides the ambiguities of the unequal ethnic political power sharing, Romani children are almost three times as likely as their peers to live in poverty (UNICEF, 2017). Additionally, state disintegration contributed to minority statelessness. This was the case in both the former socialist Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (Sardelić, 2015, see also Chapter 4). However, whilst this political structure is specific to BIH, socio-economic disadvantage, ethnic discrimination and the civic marginalisation of Romani minorities exist throughout Europe and are reproduced beyond national borders. A broader look at the data from the FRA indicates that Roma face a similar socio-economic predicament in most EU Member States, where 80 per cent of Roma live below their country's specific poverty line (FRA, 2016). Roma do not face statelessness only in post-conflict and postsocialist societies, but also in the older EU Member States, such as Italy (Sigona, 2015). Romani minorities in various European locales have faced both severe socio-economic disadvantage and ethnic discrimination (FRA, 2016) and are also positioned at the fringes of citizenship, where discrimination is not embedded directly in law as it is in BIH. Whilst Roma have been a visible minority within the EU (Vermeersch, 2012) because of ethnic discrimination and socio-economic disadvantage, there is an aspect of their position as citizens that is being ignored: numerous struggles that Romani individuals, such as Mujić, face daily indicate not simply the predicament of a marginalised minority but the invisible edges within citizenship itself. The ways in which individuals who are (at least initially) not a part of the Romani movement and do not regard themselves as activists respond politically to unequal citizenship statuses remain under-addressed in citizenship studies.

This chapter explores how Romani individuals understand and respond to the devaluation of citizenship, that is, when citizenship is emptied of its substance and its rights (Isin, 2009). First, it addresses the value of acquiring citizenship for stateless Romani individuals following the Arendtian assumption that citizenship status corresponds to access to rights related to status (Arendt, 1968). Second, it discusses how some Romani individuals who have been granted or have citizenship but not corresponding rights reflect and act in accordance with such situations. Third, it shows the value of citizenship for Romani individuals who have both citizenship status and rights but no influence and how this manifests itself in terms of voting rights. Fourth, it presents excerpts from life history interviews undertaken with individuals who do not in any way fit the stereotypical image of Roma. Nevertheless, these interviews show how these individuals encountered the invisible edges of citizenship even when they managed to escape poverty and Roma self-identification. I argue that even though these strategies that Romani individuals employ in different situations cannot be considered to be activist or protest in the strict sense of the terms, they are still performative (Isin, 2017) and consequently political. They represent citizenship sabotage.

Defining sabotage as an enactment of citizenship

In 2009 Engin Isin argued for a pivotal turn in citizenship studies: he suggested that instead of studying ‘who is a citizen’ the studies of citizenship should move towards to the question ‘what makes a citizen’ (Isin, 2009: 383). In proposing this turn, he revealed citizenship's dynamic nature. Citizenship cannot be fully comprehended by studying the rules of who is entitled to have citizenship. According to Isin, we should look at the struggles around citizenship and the actors in these struggles who make claims to citizenship (rights or status) even though they do not possess it at the time (meaning that they are non-citizens). He distinguished between ‘active’ and ‘activist’ citizens. The first group follows the pre-written citizenship scenario: they are active in that they go to elections, participate in political parties and also stand in elections. Yet activist citizens do not follow the path that has previously been constructed for them. They create a ‘rupture’ in citizenship by claiming rights they currently do not have (Isin, 2009: 379). They claim these rights at various sites by protesting on the streets but also by taking their claims to the courts. Such acts of citizenship can, according to Isin, bring a transformation to citizenship by expanding rights to individuals and groups who previously have not possessed them.

The Sejdić and Finci case may be regarded as a paradigmatic example of what is means to be an activist citizen. When the constitutional order of their country prevented two citizens who did not identify with the ‘constitutive nations’ from standing as candidates in the presidential elections, they took their claim to the ECtHR. Similar to the Kurdish minority in Turkey who lack EU citizenship (Rumelili and Keyman, 2013), through the ECtHR, Sejdić and Finci enacted European citizenship to highlight the electoral discrimination of minorities in their non-EU country that was standing as a potential EU Member State. Whilst the Bosnian Constitution did not change, the Sejdić and Finci case created a rupture in a discriminatory citizenship policy: transforming this policy became one of the conditions for Bosnia's entry into the EU. Courts are one of the sites where struggles with citizenship take place (Isin, 2009: 368). The ECtHR had a number of cases, mostly represented by the ERRC, that through strategic litigation highlighted inequal treatment of Roma as citizens of their own countries, despite their having anti-discrimination legislation in place (see Chapter 3).

The Romani movement (Vermeersch, 2006) has, from the very start, been happening on multiple sites and beyond national borders and can be characterised in terms of activist citizenship. For example, from the early 1970s, the Romani movement created citizenship ruptures beyond European national as well as EU borders: from the activists advocating against the pejorative term ‘Gypsy’ in favour of the more inclusive term ‘Roma’ during the World Romani Congresses, to constructing an idea of Roma being a trans-border non-territorial nation with a flag and anthem as well as the first representative body, the International Romani Union (Klímová-Alexander, 2005; Rövid, 2011b). In a similar vein to the Indigenous movements, the Romani movement came to the international arena as a ‘critique of the current political system based on nation-states and dominated by majority nations, calling for a revolution in international relations towards a non-territorial rule’ (Klímová-Alexander, 2005: 146). This was followed by the later manifestations such as Roma Pride, which was formally based on LGBT Pride (McGarry, 2017: 171). Whilst some might argue that the Romani movement was simply the movement for Romani rights, it in fact created ruptures in citizenship and revealed minority inequalities that had previously been unseen (see Chapter 1). Similar insights occurred through the actions of the Romani women's movement, where Romani women activists were not simply addressing the intersection of male oppression with ethnic discrimination, but were highlighting broader issues of power relations in their own countries and beyond (Kóczé et al., 2018). Arts and culture have also been sites of activist citizenship culminating in the establishment of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin, which actively promotes Romani artists who fashion ruptures in citizenship in their artistic actions. Both the Romani women's movement and ERIAC emphasised the importance of Romani self-representation. Roma have been represented by non-Roma in all spheres of society, and this has developed an exoticised stereotype image: now, by highlighting the voice of Romani feminist activists as well as promoting Romani art and culture, the stereotyped image can be redrawn to create a new space for self-representation that also demonstrates the contribution of Romani culture to wider Europe (Connolly, 2017).

But what about actions that are less public, more individual, more mundane? What do they reveal about the fringes of citizenship and sites of citizenship struggle? Bhambra (2016) has questioned whether the non-citizens who do not make public claims could be considered apolitical. Catherine Neveu (2015: 151) has argued that ordinary citizens in their everyday situations are not necessarily non-political: ‘approaching citizenship processes “from the ordinary” is a fruitful perspective from which the political dimensions of usually unseen and unheard practices and sites can be grasped, and unruly practices be treated not as inadequate or mismatched ones. Indeed, what is centrally at stake is the issue of visibility, or more exactly rendering visible (people, practices, processes) that often go unseen or unheard.’

Isin has highlighted the dichotomy between outstanding and invisible acts of citizenship as one of the puzzles that remains to be addressed within the theory of performative citizenship (Isin, 2017: 519–20). Do Roma who are not a part of the Romani movement contest discrimination they face in their everyday lives so that they create ruptures in citizenship? In 2016 the FRA published the Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, which found that almost a third of Romani respondents who were EU citizens indicated that they were not aware of anti-discrimination laws in their countries, only 12 per cent reported discrimination, and 82 per cent responded they did not know of any organisations that could support them if they were discriminated against; yet one in two Roma felt they were discriminated against on the basis of their ethnic origin (FRA, 2016: 11).

In order to analyse whether certain actions of Romani individuals in their everyday lives can be understood not merely as coping strategies but also as political acts, I suggest a new term for a type of citizenship enactment: citizenship sabotage. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘sabotage’ means to ‘deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct (something), especially for political or military advantage’. 1 The concept of sabotage has been utilised particularly in relation to the workplace (Mars, 2001). For the anthropologist Gerald Mars, sabotage was not an easy phenomenon to investigate. It is often kept secret by employees or saboteurs as well as by employers: the first might face legal prosecution if identified, and the latter has a motivation to hide potential problems in the workplace. This is why there is a lack of quantifiable data on sabotage (Mars, 2001: xii). Mars states that sabotage is ‘latent in any organization and its threat is always potent, if unspoken, factor in the balance of work place power. Its use, or at least the possibility of use, has a long history, and it is still the ultimate weapon of the formally powerless’ (Mars, 2001: xi). Employers often interpret sabotage as irrational behaviour, but Mars suggests that it should be studied for its alternative rationalities that are about power relations: ‘acts of sabotage – which may or may not be against the law – are always a reflection of a power struggle. They are about control and are therefore political acts at microlevel that are invariably linked with political implications on a macro level’ (Mars, 2001: xiii).

In light of Mars's understanding of workplace sabotage, I define citizenship sabotage as an act of citizenship that creates a rupture latently: it damages or obstructs the conventional script of citizenship, but this is noticeable only after the invisible act has already taken place. It is a deliberate act at the micro-level and has political implications for citizenship regimes, but it is not always clear in advance what these will be. The act itself might not appear as a rupture, yet it is an unconventional intervention into citizenship. Citizenship sabotage is not considered an extraordinary or heroic act as other enactments of citizenship frequently are. It is a seemingly mundane and often hidden act by an individual at the citizenship fringes, and it is repeatedly described as only an act of despair rather than a political act. However, like other citizenship enactments, even such acts of despair can have broader political implications and substantively redefine what it means to be a citizen. Most importantly, like other citizenship acts, citizenship sabotage is about (re)claiming rights. 2

Citizenship sabotage and the Romani minorities at the fringes

The story of Nazif Mujić and his family can be understood as a different kind of enactment of citizenship. So too can that of Sejdić and Finci as they enacted their citizenship in the court. However, most struggles that individual Romani face do not reach the highest courts, nor do they receive particular attention even from the national authorities. The film about Mujić's life was entitled An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker to demonstrate the ordinariness and repetitiveness of the struggles many Romani individuals face when their citizenship is devalued: because Mujić could not access the formal labour market, collecting scrap metal was his main source of income to support his family. However, the film also shows how fringe citizens act when faced with an extraordinary situation. As Mujić's wife was without personal documents and consequently did not have health insurance, the couple initially accessed health facilities by borrowing a health insurance card from another woman. The legal NGO Our Rights 3 observed this as a widespread practice in BIH, and the 2011 UNHCR Report on Statelessness in South Eastern Europe registered it as present throughout the region, especially among stateless women who wanted to give birth in hospital:

The fear of being charged a hospital fee for giving birth without health insurance is an incentive for some women to give birth at home. Some women without documents borrow the health booklet of a friend or relative to avoid fees for giving birth in a hospital. This happens throughout the region. The child is consequently legally registered with a different family and it is very difficult to correct the erroneous registration later on

(UNHCR, 2011: 28–9)

Such an act contributes to the intergenerational reproduction of legal invisibility and statelessness (Sardelić, 2015; see also Chapter 4). The UNHCR report presented this simply as an act of fear and despair to address an individual situation that a minority woman at the fringes of citizenship finds herself in. However, it also demonstrates something much more significant: that is, how individuals at the fringes claim rights when they lack citizenship status. Stateless Roma, despite being on the fringes and lacking citizenship, do not necessarily embody Arendt's notion of lacking rights here, and stateless people search for ways to claim the rights that the states deny as well (Sigona, 2015). With a mundane act, such as borrowing health insurance cards, stateless Romani women at the fringes claim citizenship status and ensure access to rights that create a rupture in citizenship. Borrowing health cards is not a prescribed way to be an ‘active citizen’ but it is one of the few possible acts that legally invisible persons have left in order to claim rights. Perhaps it is an act of despair, but it is also a political act which is noticed by the state authorities. It questions the legitimacy of healthcare access provided only to people (be they citizens, stateless people or people with a different immigrant status) who can prove their identity. It was citizenship sabotage, an incognito act of lending and borrowing health insurance cards, that revealed this problem.

Through the efforts of legal NGOs and advocacy groups, statelessness came to the agenda of international organisations such as the UNHCR. As part of the #IBelong campaign, the UNHCR published a short video on the predicament of Romani individuals who face statelessness in the former Yugoslavian country of North Macedonia. The initial caption of the video read: ‘The Roma are the largest stateless minority in the country. Most have not had their births registered making it difficult for them to access Macedonian citizenship and basic rights’ (UNHCR, 2017b). The video then featured the story of Mitar Rustemov, whose six children were still unregistered. In the video, Rustemov comments: ‘Without documents, you are like a dead man.’ Yet when asked why he wants his children to be registered, his initial response is the following: ‘The boy wants to go to Belgrade and Germany to play football. How can the club take him without a birth certificate, ID card or passport?’ (UNHCR, 2017b). It is only in the second instance that Rustemov mentions that having identity documents gives one the right to work and the right to education. His first response is that by acquiring citizenship, his children could enact citizenship sabotage, that is, move to another country.

At first glance, it might seem that Romani individuals such as Rustemov are unaware of what rights they can access in their own country with having legal identity and documents. However, if Rustemov's story is connected to Mujić's, another perspective is possible: it is not due to ‘ignorance’ that Romani individuals decide upon citizenship sabotage instead of being ‘active citizens’. After Mujić's death, Deutsche Welle television interviewed his widow. She commented that after her husband became a famous actor, various authorities promised that the family's life would improve: ‘Everything was beautiful at the recording [of the film], but we were hoping this will bring better opportunities for our children, for better life, that we will be able to send our children to school. They promised us they will give us some apartment, that we will have a better standard of life. But nothing was ever better’ (Deutsche Welle, 2018).

During the visa liberalisation processes in Serbia and North Macedonia, one of the benchmarks for visa-free travel into the Schengen zone was providing access to identity documents for minorities (Kacarska, 2015; see also Chapter 2). In this period, legal aid NGOs (such as WeBLAN), 4 with the assistance of the UNHCR, consciously started the registration processes of legally invisible people, of whom most were displaced Romani individuals (Praxis, 2016). Through the work of mobile teams and acts by determined individuals who worked in Romani communities, many legally invisible individuals were reached even in the most remote areas and their status was regularised. However, whilst the main objective of such registrations was to increase minority protection through general citizenship and, in particular, minority rights, some Romani individuals commented directly to the NGO representatives that their main motive in acquiring citizenship was to gain the ability to travel beyond the country of citizenship. This stems not simply from ignorance of the rights one gains with citizenship, but from the awareness that such rights remain unattainable. The Sejdić and Finci case demonstrates the rights that are unattainable legally. However, numerous Romani individuals, as testified by Mujić's widow, are aware that simply having a status and legally guaranteed rights does not necessarily translate into having rights in practice. As Chapter 3 showed, despite the fact that discrimination is prohibited legally, it continues to be an everyday reality for Romani children in accessing equal, non-segregated education, as well as for adults who want to access the labour market.

The value of acquiring identity documents, especially passports, became connected to new migration possibilities, and with them possibilities of accessing rights elsewhere. As research shows (Kummrow, 2015), in the years following visa liberalisation, the number of asylum seekers from North Macedonia and Serbia increased from 6,390 in 2009 (before the visa-free regime was been established) to 41,140 in 2014. Most of these asylum seekers made their applications in Germany, and a large majority claimed that they were persecuted because they belonged to Romani communities. Only a few asylum requests were granted. The rise was noticed by the EU Parliament, which, in the years following visa liberalisation, voted in favour of visa-free suspension mechanisms for the Western Balkan countries in question, should the number of asylum seekers continue to increase (Sardelić, 2018). The response of the EU Member States was not new or unique in this case: similar examples had appeared before the 2004 enlargement (Clark and Campbell, 2000). Before the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, a special immigration regime operated by the UK prevented potential asylum seekers from boarding planes: the UK's House of Lords determined that this was based on racial profiling of Roma, who were disproportionally prevented from entering the UK (Regina v. Immigration Officer at Prague Airport and Another, ex parte European Roma Rights Centre and Others, 2004). In the case of the Western Balkans, however, the EU Parliament threatened all citizens of the respective countries with removal of the rights to visa-free travel if the number of asylum requests was not contained (Sardelić, 2018). The response of the North Macedonian and Serbian governments was similar to that of the UK previously: they did not allow individuals who were deemed as potential asylum seekers to leave their own country. The Serbian authorities put up posters at Belgrade airport in the Romani, Albanian and Serbian languages to discourage their minority citizens from travelling to the EU in order to seek asylum (see Chapter 2).

The explanations of why Romani individuals, as citizens of Western Balkan non-EU countries, sought asylum in the EU were usually limited to their devastating socio-economic position and ethnic discrimination. However, no study could confirm that those who sought asylum were the ‘poorest of the poor’. Some studies on the migration of Romani individuals in general disputed that poverty was the main factor (Pantea, 2013; Sardelić, 2019c). Migration and asylum seeking could also be interpreted not just as an act of desperation, but also as an act of claiming rights that were inaccessible in the country of citizenship. This was also a protest against inaccessible rights. The outcome – that is, the endangering of mobility rights for all citizens – indicated that there was an instance of citizenship sabotage in the place. It created a rupture in the discriminatory citizenship regime, which also affected all citizens in broader citizenship constellations.

The third act of citizenship sabotage involved the efforts to make Romani minorities become active citizens. Roma have been largely invisible as citizens of their own countries (see Chapter 1), even when having both status and rights. This is especially the case in electoral processes, both for people voting and for those standing as candidates (McGarry, 2010). In its research on the 2019 European Parliament Elections, the European Roma Information Office concluded that only three candidates who identified as Roma were elected as MEPs: however, given that there are 6 million Roma who are citizens of the EU, it determined that there should be at least fifteen Romani MEPs in the European Parliament (European Roma Information Office, 2019). The significant obstacles Roma face in formal political participation (especially electoral processes) remain intact not only in EU Member States (McGarry, 2010) and candidate countries, but also across the broader OSCE Area. International organisations, among them especially OSCE, have been highlighting the need for Roma to become active citizens since the early 2000s. In 2003 OSCE published an Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma within the OSCE Area. One of the main focuses in this plan was to move beyond the classic scopes of addressing discrimination in education, housing, healthcare and the labour market to focus on ‘enhancing participation in public and political life’ (OSCE, 2003: 12). Whilst other international initiatives focused more on the first of these areas of action, OSCE became particularly interested in mobilising the political participation of Roma. One of the earliest projects based on the action plan was ‘Roma Use Your Ballot Wisely’, a project designed to ‘empower Roma to become protagonists in the decisions involving and affecting themselves’ (Krause, 2007: 1). One of the main factors listed as obstacles for the effective electoral participation of Roma was the ‘vulnerability of Roma voters with regard to election-related practices of corruption and other irregularities (vote buying, pressure on voters, group and proxy voting)’ (Krause, 2007: 3). Vote buying and other electoral malpractices are not limited to Romani communities. However, as some of the authors and policymakers have argued (OSCE, 2018), it is particularly because of political illiteracy and weak socio-economic status that Romani minorities are especially vulnerable to electoral malpractice. Vote-buying practice by parties was not present in the non-EU states, but was found in Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria (Centre for Policy Studies, 2018). Despite the long-standing efforts of organisations such as OSCE to enable Roma become ‘empowered’ voters and candidates, there has been little change. The question that needs to be asked is whether the international organisations should not approach the electoral challenges without presupposing that ignorance and political illiteracy are the main reason for Romani individuals to sell votes, but rather investigate the broader context of these. Some of the context does depend on the negative socio-economic conditions (Jovanović, 2014). However, as Aidan McGarry and Timofey Agarin (2014) have shown, the question of political participation and representation is multi-layered: Roma can be present in political structures but this does not guarantee either a possibility of voicing concerns or influence in the matters that concern Romani minorities. Because the OSCE and other organisations have focused on making an informed decision whilst casting the vote, some Romani NGOs have commented: ‘Romani people, too, have the right to cast their vote “badly”’ (Romea.cz, 2018). Even though such actions have been represented as self-sabotage, it should also be investigated why some Roma decide to sell their own votes. It can be understood as an act of despair to address devastating economic situations. But it could also be reinterpreted in a different manner: if being an active citizen does not improve your position, selling votes could be understood also as citizenship sabotage as a protest against devalued rights.

All the cases described above concern Romani individuals who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and this condition is entwined with ethnic discrimination. A number of Romani-related policy papers have concluded that if Roma are educated and (formally) employed they will not face ethnic discrimination and civic marginalisation. As Vermeersch (2006: 230) notes, if this is really the case, there is a danger that ‘if ethnically framed programs do not lead to any palpable changes, they run the risk of reinforcing the idea that there is something wrong in the ethnicity of the target group from being successful’. As has been pointed out throughout this book, a wide variety of politicians (such as Salvini, Fico and Božinović) claim that Roma are a special case among citizens and seek to justify why their position remains the same. One of such politicians was the third Czech President, Miloš Zeman, who in late 2017 proclaimed that 90 per cent of unadaptable citizens in the Czech Republic were Roma (see Donert, 2018). These are citizens who are understood as socially problematic because they do not want to work and are uneducated. (There was no basis for Zeman's claims, and his statement was not historically contextualised within the Romani holocaust or the negative policies that targeted Roma in the Czech Republic after World War II (Donert, 2017; see also Chapters 3 and 4.) However, what was interesting was the response of ‘ordinary’ Romani citizens of the Czech Republic, who started posting photos on social media of themselves working in a wide variety of jobs: from nurses to bakers, from construction workers to kindergarten teachers (Gotev, 2018). Such protest was extraordinary since it was the Roma, the invisible ‘ordinary citizens’, who sabotaged the Czech president's unsubstantiated claim.

But do Roma fit the definition of ‘ordinary citizens’ – that is, do they manage to obtain education and secure formal and decent employment? Can they escape socio-economic disadvantage, ethnic discrimination and also civic marginalisation? How do Roma who would be described as ordinary citizens contemplate their own position? Among the numerous Romani individuals whom I interviewed for my previous research, 5 were some whose present positions would be considered ‘success stories’.

Many of these interviewees moved across borders not because they were nomads, as the popular representation of Roma dictates, but because of employment opportunities in other counties (Sardelić, 2019a). One of the interviewees, Teša, was a Romani woman in her early forties who had migrated from one postsocialist EU Member State to another. Whilst she managed to secure formal employment later in life, as a schoolchild she was allocated to a Roma-only class. Teša described her memory of her schooling:

I remember the time when we moved from the old school to the new one. There Roma had a separate entrance and there were even separate bathrooms for showering in the gym locker room. They did not see me as others and they told me I could use the gym locker room of non-Roma. But I've decided to be with our Roma because it would be humiliating for them.

(Quoted in Sardelić, 2012b: 340)

Teša decided not to be in a mixed class despite given the option. She ‘sabotaged’ this option since she did not want it only for herself, but for all of her Romani peers. Roni, a man in his forties, went to school in a different country and did not manage to obtain an education because the school placement assessors decided he should be in a special school:

When my parents took me to those examinations before school, I remember I had to take some tests and then I went into a normal school. My sister was put in a special school right away as she peed herself out of fear of taking those tests. I went to a normal school for less than a year. But then that changed. The family was problematic, there was poverty, we did not have electricity or water and I was doing to school dirty. I think they saw this and decided that I am not capable for this school and they put me into special school … And what does anyone care if I can now speak several languages, I still have a stamp that I was in that special school.

(Quoted in Sardelić, 2012b: 340)

Whilst his wife was employed, Roni was unable to secure formal employment, officially because of his low-level ‘special’ education. As he explained in the interview, he later worked as a migrant smuggler and was sentenced to prison for this. But because of the ‘stamp’ of the special school, he had no choice but to engage in citizenship sabotage.

Another interviewee, Sini, a PhD student, remembered her school years in the following way:

This happened just before I was registered with my primary school. I had one of those pre-school examinations which are completely normal before children go to school. During this examination the doctor recommended that I should attend the school with a special programme. My relatives of course did not agree with this. And when I visited that doctor later on we told her that I went to a mainstream school as all other children and we all agreed that it was good that my relatives did not follow this opinion because this would mean a great damage.

(Interview, 2018)

Sini's relatives intervened and sabotaged the decision of the state representative to place her in a school for children with special needs. This interview also shows that it is problematic to assume that none of the guardians of Romani children were able or willing to give legal consent (or dispute it) regarding school admissions (see Chapter 3). However, Sini commented that she saw that a number of her peers who did obtain education still had difficulties in getting employment:

Even when Roma get education, they are not invited to job interviews because of their last names, which are considered typical Romani. And those who changed their last names to get to the interview were not offered employment when the potential employee found out they were Roma. The main problem remains how to get employment.

(Interview, 2018)

Mary, a Romani woman in her early thirties, commented that she moved from a postsocialist EU Member State to another state within the EU to avoid precarious employment in her country of citizenship:

When I was working in [country of citizenship], I was at first working on a project, and then the project was over, I got a job on another project … But there were some complications there, I did not get regular payment. And then I was unemployed for some time … But I am now so old that I did not want to be dependent on my parents. I decided to go to [another EU Member State].

(Interview, 2017, see also Sardelić, 2019a)

Another interviewee, Tania, a woman in her early thirties with a university degree, also decided to sabotage her citizenship by leaving her country when she could not get regular employment, but only employment on projects for Romani integration:

In my opinion, there are not many jobs available. But this is not the main reason. I think it is still true that no matter if you have education they would rather take someone else, not Roma. The only exception is if the job requires knowledge of the Romani language or is in any way connected to Roma. I still remember when I was at the Employment Office, the employment advisor there was shocked that I wanted to write in my employment profile that I can speak Romani. She told me between the lines that she was afraid this would be a reason why I would not get a job.

(Interview, 2017; see also Chapter 1 and Sardelić, 2019a)

Tania decided to sabotage her citizenship because she could only be recognised as belonging to the Romani minority and hence given precarious project employment on Romani integration action even though she had a higher level of education than the average population. It was the multicultural policies for the special employment of Roma that prevented her from securing a permanent employment position: she was not perceived as an ordinary citizen even though she did not want to be a Romani activist any more.

Ina, a woman in her late twenties with a postgraduate degree, decided to become a Romani activist when as a child she was not protected by the state in a situation of domestic violence as other children would be:

My main inspiration for what I wanted to be in the future was the past I had with the domestic violence in my family … Because for the longer period of time my mum was trying to address authorities to make the police react and to protect us, but every time, she was going to the local police station reporting, police officers were making just the police statement they never came to check what is happening … So later I understood the main reason why this was happening was that actually the police in that period and even nowadays have strong stereotypes about Romani families. [The police said] the domestic violence in Romani families is a normal thing, this is how conflicts are settled and many times women have to prove they were not wrong in a situation.

(Interview, 2018)

In this case, as the interviewee reflects, the problem was that the police did not protect her family as ordinary citizens of her country, but rather decided not to intervene on the basis of their interpretation of what Romani culture entails. This was not based on facts but on their racist ‘multicultural vision’.

Dani, a university-educated Romani man in his late twenties, was born into a family with refugee status in Germany. His parents had come to Germany from different parts of the former Yugoslav republics because of the war:

What I remember in Germany is basically nice things mostly. We had a really good apartment and a car, my parents were both employed, I was raised in a household where we only spoke German. None of my siblings spoke to me in any other language nor did they speak with each other in any other language. And I think it was my parents’ plan to raise me as a German citizen, to feel more German, to integrate or assimilate, as I would say better into the society. We lived in very good conditions … I had no knowledge of the fact that I was Roma or [a citizen of a post-Yugoslav country]. So for me my whole life was that I am German. When we were moved from Germany to [a post-Yugoslav country], all this was new to me: why are the police taking us away? These are the things that I found out later. My family moved as refugees during the Yugoslav wars, which was dangerous for them as my Mum was a [citizen of a post-Yugoslav country] and my dad was a [citizen of another post-Yugoslav country]. So it was not very welcoming for them to stay in [a post-Yugoslav country]. … We got deported in 1997, I think, or 1998 because Germany claimed it was safe to go back to [a post-Yugoslav country]. … What I found out afterwards was that my Dad overstayed the visa on purpose knowing it was not allowed: he stayed and continued to work under the table. And when Germany found that out, we got deported. My father got deported to [another post-Yugoslav country] … and my mother and my siblings, we were all deported to [a post-Yugoslav country]. … But the first impression when we were deported with an aeroplane and got to [a post-Yugoslav country], I did not know where I was, I felt this was not my country.

(Interview, 2018)

In this paradoxical case, the interviewee's father sabotaged the family's citizenship by acting as an ordinary citizen rather than a person with a temporary protection status. The very act of performing as an ordinary citizen was political. But from the perspective of the German state, it created a rupture, and this was the reason why the family was deported.


This chapter has highlighted the varied ways individuals at the fringes perform citizenship. As the last case shows, in some instances being an ordinary citizen is performative as it goes against the preconceived script of how a citizen and a rejected asylum seeker should act. Many Roma are vulnerable and act out of despair. Yet that does not make them powerless or apolitical, even when they are not part of formal activist movement. The acts I have described in this chapter do not fit the usual understanding of performative citizenship (that is, claiming rights in protests and through strategic litigation), but this does not mean that Romani individuals at the fringes of citizenship do not claim their rights in alternative ways. These acts were quiet and mundane, but created a rupture within citizenship. I have called them citizenship sabotage. The chapter has also showed that citizenship fringes are not a site framed only by socio-economic disadvantage and ethnic discrimination. The citizenship fringes are based on assumptions that citizenship is as universally inclusive as it can be, but this endeavour to ‘cover all’ can work to exclude certain populations.


1 See https://www.lexico.com/definition/sabotage (accessed: 7 December 2020).
2 The term ‘citizenship sabotage’ can, to a certain extent, be connected to what Spivak (2012) called ‘affirmative sabotage’. However, the complex relationship between the two terms will have to be researched in more detail in the future.
3 I interviewed the representative of the NGO Our Rights in late 2012 as a part of a wider research project on statelessness in South-East Europe.
4 I interviewed all the representatives of WebLAN in late 2012. The initial network consisted of the NGO Praxis from Serbia, Our Rights from BIH, Civil Rights Programme from Kosovo, Macedonian Young Lawyers from North Macedonia and the Information Legal Centre from Croatia (Kostić, 2013). In 2017 most of the NGOs from WebLAN joined with ERRC, Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion and the European Network on Statelessness in a #RomaBelong Campaign mirroring the UNHCR's #IBelong Campaign.
5 Whilst I conducted fifty life-history interviews during my (post)doctoral research with individuals who identified as Roma, to comply with the GDPR Regulation and to fully protect the safety of the individuals interviewed, I have decided to present only a small number of anonymised excerpts from the interviews in this book (the pseudonyms I use do not have identification keys attached to them and cannot be traced back to personal data). Most of these interviews were conducted during my postdoctoral research, and two excerpts are from my doctoral research. The aim of this is not to represent ‘typical’ Romani experiences but rather to hint at the variety of experiences under this broad umbrella term. In addition, interviews took place in a variety of languages that both the interviewees and I were fluent in. In order to protect their identity, I give only English translations of the interviews.

The Fringes of Citizenship

Romani Minorities in Europe and Civic Marginalisation


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