Votes of Roma People in Pre-Election Marathon
Natia Bilikhodze, Kutaisi
The address is: Avangard – Roma Settlement. Although the settlement is located on Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani Street in Kutaisi, you will immediately notice that houses do not have numbers, complicating the search for specific people.
This strange settlement is a mix of families of various ethnicities, including Georgians. However, in Kutaisi the settlement is known as “Gypsy District”. The “district” is located on a rubbish dump.
“I did not have shelter anywhere. Here I found a vacant place and settled there,” Tsiala Chkhartishvili, an ethnic Georgian resident of the Roma Settlement, said. She settled in the former rubbish dump in 1959. Only Roma people lived there and since then Ms. Tsiala is the only person in Kutaisi who struggles for the protection of Roma rights and their integration into society. Moreover, she knows the Roma language fluently and is the only mediator between Roma people and the government.
The exact date of Roma people’s arrival in Kutaisi is difficult to estimate. There is no data about it. According to local ethnographers, no census of Roma people has taken place in Kutaisi. The Roma themselves cannot speak on any exact date of their arrival due to low levels of education.
“I was born when the River flooded,” is a common way for elderly Roma people to start their biographies with. Naturally, this measuring of time does not have a legal equivalent. Combined with the lack of registering births, knowledge of birth dates becomes a problem. Moreover, Roma women often gave birth to their children in the confines of their home. Nowadays, this problem has been somewhat mitigated and Roma people go to maternity houses. However, there is another problem – Roma couples seldom have their marriages registered, creating additional problems for the registration of a newborn child.
“Sometimes, they take children from maternity houses using their relatives’ documents,” Tsiala Chkhartishvili said.
Roma people from Avangard settlement also suffer from a lack of access to education, even though it is not school administrations that create problems for them. Instead, the main barriers are constituted by a lack of documentation and the negative views held by the general public. Ms. Tsiala said that “some stereotypes are still very strong in society. People avoid sending their children to schools where Roma children are taught.”
Roma people themselves say that the main reason for their low access to education is poverty. “How can our children go to school when we cannot buy enough food and clothes for them? Who needs them uneducated?!” Mamachi Ibragimovich said, pointing to his naked grandchild.
Mamachi speaks Georgian well. He said his father was an ethnic Georgian man – Makharadze - but since his Roma grandmother brought him up, he took her surname. Moreover, he is real Roma – with a large Roma family. Mamachi has five children and 15 grandchildren. There are four small rooms in their house, two beds are inside and one is in the yard but without mattresses on them. Several tattered blankets are scattered around the house. Mamachi’s wife said they put blankets on the floor and sleep on them at night. The main source of income for their family, like their Roma neighbors, is the selling of scrap iron. Several Roma people also earn their living by trading in the market.
Roma men are not recruited to the army. Tsiala Chkhartishvili recalled the only time it happened, during Soviet times, when she sent a Roma man to the army under false pretenses. “There was one Roma man who was completely illiterate. I told him if he went to the army, they would have given him a machine gun. It was enough motivation for him to gather his things. Everyone was talking about the Roma man who went to the army. I was glad that I had managed it.”
Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), primarily the Kutaisi office of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) have assisted Roma people in obtaining ID cards. With the support of GYLA, ten Roma children have already gotten documents which guarantee them the opportunity to go to school.
“This district is more-or-less integrated. There are two more settlements of ethnic minorities in Kutaisi with extremely poor conditions. In fact they do not have shelters; some of the inhabitants live in damaged buildings and others in tents,” Lawyer Nino Tvaltvadze from GYLA said. Their recommendations to the government are the following: to repair the road to the Roma settlement; repair of the water and sewage system; as well as supply electricity to the settlement and a system for garbage collection. The organization also requested the consideration of relevant expenses in the 2012 local budget but the authorities disregarded the request.
Nodar Jikia, head of GYLA’s Kutaisi office, said with regard to the issue of ethnic minorities living in Georgia: “First of all the state should adopt an action plan and concept. They should implement the responsibilities taken on by the Parliament of Georgia in 1999 upon joining the Council of Europe (CoE) – this includes the signing and ratification of the Charter on National Minorities, which would significantly change life for the better for these people.”
Political engagement among Roma people is also interesting with regard to the upcoming parliamentary elections. Roma people say they are not very interested in politics. Their main request from the government is for employment and social aid. However, votes of apolitical Roma people living in Georgia are still very significant for any election process. So, it is also interesting to see how many Roma will enjoy the government’s assistance in resolving registration problems to enable them to vote for the favorite political party or candidate.
“They do not have any problems participating in the elections. Registered Roma people with ID cards participate in the elections from all three settlements,” Merab Meshveliani, member of Kutaisi City Council, said. Tsiala Chkhartishvili also confirmed electoral activities of residents of Avangard Roma Settlement and said she personally supervises the process. Some of them are illiterate so Ms. Tsiala interprets for them. The two other settlements, however, do not have any “interpreters.”
Although residents of Avangard Roma Settlement are not very familiar with dates, they still remember the first secretary of the Kutaisi Committee of the Communist Party, Suliko Khabeishvili who first shook hands with Roma people, met them and inquired about their problems in person. It is hard to know whether any river was flooded at that time but it is fact that it happened several decades ago in the last century.
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