By Matthew Ponsford
SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Sunday's election in Macedonia draws close, Amet Yashar jokes that politicians' newfound concern for his home, one of Europe's largest Roma communities, might not be wholly sincere.
Suto Orizari district, a ramshackle settlement of more than 20,000 people, in the capital Skopje is among a handful of Roma-majority municipalities in the world and one of the few places where Romanes is an official language.
But Yashar said the community, known as Shutka locally, remains largely ignored by the majority of Macedonians until political leaders venture there ahead of elections to promise jobs and material change to Suto Orizari's residents.
The settlement has existed since 1963, but many residents still lack adequate housing and connections to power, water and sewage systems, according to research by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an international advocacy organization.
"Before the election is the only time we're Macedonians," said the 35-year-old in his office at Iriz, an organization that offers legal aid. "The rest of the time we're just Roma."
Suto Orizari is tucked away from the city centre behind a fortress. Its dusty streets are lined by a multicoloured mix of tin-roofed bungalows, half-built brick apartments and intricately ornamented villas.
Arriving by car from the national assembly in the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic, the pristine roads turned potholed and the occasional horse-drawn cart swerved between cars.
Despite having two elected Roma members of parliament and a Roma mayor in Suto Orizari, the Roma – as in most cities across Europe - have little real political power, rights groups say.
EUROPE'S LARGEST MINORITY
The Macedonian constitution is unique in recognising Roma by name and enshrines equality of political opportunity for Roma, along with the country's Albanian and Turkish minorities.
But Fadil Djemail, Yashar's boss and project coordinator at Iriz, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the people of Shutka are being "held hostage" by political leaders.
"For us, it does not matter who will win," said Yashar. "No matter who we vote for in this election, for the usual Roma citizens who live in Shutka, it will be the same."
Europe's 10 million Roma are the continent's largest ethnic minority.
In Macedonia, they make up almost 10 percent of the two million population, according to statistics from the Council of Europe. But there, as across the Balkans, they continue to lack basic rights to housing and public services, says the ERRC.
A 2015 survey of Roma communities across Macedonia classed half of all neighbourhoods, including Suto Orizari where 75 percent of residents are Roma, as "informal settlements", where residents lack legal land ownership or property titles.
In every Roma settlement surveyed by the ERRC, residents were either unable to connect to safe drinking water or lived in fear of being disconnected due to unaffordable costs.
Yet Suto Orizari - born after the 1963 earthquake destroyed Roma homes in the centre - defies outsiders' tag as a "slum".
Across the community in northern Skopje, Byzantine-styled mansions jut out above ornamented brick homes and yards with livestock and geese. Commerce thrives around the central market, surrounded by butchers, hairdressers, shops and offices, including the home of Romani news website 24Vakti.
Outsiders think nothing changes in Shutka, said Sali Memed, editor of 24Vakti. But there is constant development, including a high school that opened last year offering lessons in Romanes.
Since 2010, a nationwide project to privatise government land and legalise housing has let more than 1,500 households in Suto Orizari register for property titles and access loans to extend and upgrade, according to Habitat for Humanity Macedonia.
SANCTUARY VS GHETTO
Yashar, who helps residents access schools, welfare and government programmes, said Roma residents support each other and - unlike the rest of the city, where racism is widespread - in Shutka people live free from discrimination.
But increasingly Shutka also feels like a "ghetto", he added, saying residents are left to fend for themselves.
Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organization, estimates that 90 percent of Shutka's residents rely on state welfare payments of 30 euros ($32.28) a month. Many top this up with informal labour or by begging, it said.
This year again, said Memed, jobs are a key election issue.
Aidan McGarry, politics lecturer at the University of Brighton and author of "Who Speaks for Roma?", a book on Roma political representation, said a minuscule tax base leaves the area dependent on outside investment in services like housing.
McGarry said the municipality cannot achieve growth on its own so relies on parliamentarians to fight for investment from central government.
"At the same time as they are autonomous, there is no 'voice' there," he said. "Usually, there's power in numbers but that doesn't translate in Suto Orizari."
WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ROMA?
Macedonia's veteran nationalist leader Nikola Gruevski looks set for a comeback in Sunday's election after stepping down in January as part of an EU-brokered deal to end a crisis that began in early 2015 and following almost a decade in power.
In Suto Orizari, most people see political leaders as ineffectual and have yet to see a candidate who will fight for funding for Roma communities, Memet said.
A "closed list" system for electing parliamentarians means voters cannot directly show dissatisfaction with unpopular candidates, said Saban Saliu, a Roma former member of parliament (MP) and now director of Macedonia's disaster response agency.
Voters do not vote for an individual candidate but pick one of a handful of 'candidate lists' drawn up by the heads of the leading parties.
This system encourages candidates to take a low profile, ask little from central government and not criticise party leaders, even when they deprive Roma communities of funds, Saliu said.
"But poverty is this underlying issue that needs to be resolved, first and foremost," said McGarry.
Yashar said residents complain that when municipal boundaries were drawn in 2001, areas of heavy industry on Suto Orizari's borders were assigned to neighbouring boroughs - depriving them of much-needed tax revenues.
McGarry said such deliberate segregation of Roma from the majority exacerbates their lack of economic and political power.
But this problem is not new, said McGarry. It can be traced back to Suto Orizari's birth in the early 1960s when Roma were moved from a traditional base near the city's commercial centre.
"Just the fact that Suto Orizari exists where it does is an absolute expression of the power of the state to marginalise and exclude, and then reinforce these decisions by deciding to not invest," said McGarry.
(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, traficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)