A Social Catastrophe: How Politics and Business Contrived to Expel Roma from Their Homes
31 March 2006
The undemocratic political developments in modern Russia have made hate speech a winning political strategy during elections. In some parts of Northwest Russia local politicians use anti- Romani sentiments to catalyse public support in their election campaign. Plans for "cleaning" their cities of the "gypsies" featured among the most serious promises to be fulfilled after winning the elections. In their propaganda, presented by the mass media, politicians blamed the local Romani communities for earning a living on the drug trade. The problem of the growing numbers of drug addicts among the young Russians is persistently used as a justification to scapegoat Roma. However, in order to evict Roma officially, some other arguments were presented in the courts. The reactions in the mass media, most notably on internet fora, show extreme hatred and racism among the population and their support for the politicians in question.
In both cases described below – in the Northern city of Arkhangelsk and in Kaliningrad – the most Western part of Russia, Romani houses were declared illegal in court. However, as analysis shows, it was the claim of Romani criminality that had a decisive impact on public opinion and not the court decisions about the unlawful construction of the houses. Furthermore, the question whether the houses were built illegally is also dubious and difficult to prove. Nevertheless, the administration insisted on getting rid of the houses, apparently also because the land on which the Roma houses were located – on the edges of big cities – became very expensive and attractive for local businessmen.
The cruellest action of which we are aware was undertaken recently by the Kaliningrad authorities against a few hundred Roma living in the Dorozhny village in the Kaliningrad region. Among the elderly people of this community are ones who were forced to settle in this village in accordance with the 1956 decree "On engaging vagrant Roma in labour activities". It was the first place for many of them to acquire official homes and registration. The Kaliningrad administration created the Dorozhny village especially for Roma, and since 1956, only Roma have lived there, some already for three generations. The social-economic structure of the village has been the worst in the region ever since – there has never been a good road, waste disposal is unavailable, the nearest school is five kilometres away, there has never been public transport, and for the last seven years the electricity in the whole village was shut off because of bad technical conditions. Since Russian law allows that individuals privatise housing previously owned by the state, in 2000-2001 many Roma applied to court to have their houses recognised as private property and they received positive decisions. The administration of the Guryevsky district of the Kaliningrad region offered the Romani community of Dorozhny to develop a general (re)construction plan for their village, which would include social facilities such as a waste disposal, electricity supply, etc. In March 2001, Roma presented this plan, which was paid for by them, to the administration. It was discussed on a special meeting and received general approval. It was decided to continue developing the plan.
Soon thereafter however, followed an order by the general prosecutor of the Kaliningrad region to stop the registration of Roma houses in Dorozhny motivated by what the prosecutor called the "criminogenic situation" in the village. As a result, all social development stopped and the majority of Roma did not receive a property ownership document for the houses, although most of them have completed the privatisation procedure in court as well as obtained official technical certificates for their houses. Moreover, in their passports, the Roma have stamps showing that they have residence registration in the Dorozhny village. Nevertheless, at the end of 2005, the governor of the Kaliningrad region, Georgi Boos, and the local branch of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (Gosnarkokontrol), moved to expel the Roma from the village of Dorozhny. Dozens of publications in the media described Dorozhny as a centre of drug dealing and it was proposed to destroy a number of houses in the village.
The local authorities undertook a series of quick court cases proving that the houses of Roma were illegal, which allowed them to obtain permission to demolish the houses. Most of the decisions were made in the absence of the defendants, and none of the court cases were postponed, despite the fact that some of the Roma had not received any summons for the court hearings and learned about the pending demolition of their houses only when the bulldozers arrived in the village.
The following are some examples of Roma who lost their houses:
Mr. Michail Andreevich Arlauskas was not in the village when his brother called him on 21 February 2006 and told him that his house was being demolished. When Mr. Arlauskas arrived, he found a ruin on the place where his home had been. Mr. Arlauskas was the owner of the house and was officially registered in it. It had been the second attempt to destroy his house. During an earlier attempt in December 2005, Mr. Arlauskas had been at home and could prove his ownership rights with official papers. On February 21, however, he was not at home. Mr. Arlauskas commented: "There is only a well left on the place of my house. Am I registered in a well now?" Mr. Arlauskas as well as other Roma insisted on their innocence and stated they had nothing to do with any drug trade and therefore no prosecutor could make a criminal case against them. There are more houses that are to be demolished soon.
Ms. Tatyana Arlauskenia, who is taking care of seven grandchildren, some of them orphans, was in hospital on January 15, when she received the news that her house had been destroyed. Her neighbour Sophia Arlauskenia went to court to ask to postpone the destruction of her house until June 2006 so that she could survive the winter. She was refused and as of March 2006 is expecting the destruction of her house any day.
Roma in Dorozhny are also losing their residence registration in the village. Children are not registered with their parents and people who changed their old passports for new ones, did not get stamps proving their registration. That means that hundreds of people suddenly became officially homeless. No legal arguments were presented for the decision to cease the registration of the Roma in the village except the prosecutor's claim that the situation was "criminogenic".
The campaign for the destruction of the Romani houses in Dorozhny coincided with the local elections campaign in the Kaliningrad region and there are reasons to believe that the Kaliningrad authorities sought to gain electoral support by their anti-Romani actions. Roma from Dorozhny are also sure that the land of their village is attractive for investors as the city of Kaliningrad is expanding and the Dorozhny village can be turned into an elite suburb.
Activists of the Northwest Centre for Legal and Social Protection of Roma and the St. Petersburgbased organisation Memorial visited the Dorozhny 28 and interviewed a number of Roma. They also tried to meet officials, including the Governor Georgi Boos and the regional administration, the head of Guryevski district, Mr. Karabakin, the local Ombudsman, Ms. Vershinina, and the officers of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency, but none of them agreed to meet the human rights experts. In public statements, all officials denied that there was a problem in Dorozhny and insisted that no inhabited houses were destroyed yet.
If authorities in Kaliningrad region are allowed to continue with their actions, the Romani community of Dorozhny will soon become another group of homeless Roma, as is the case with the Romani community in Arkhangelsk. The Roma in Arkhangelsk have also become a target of political and economic interests and were subsequently coerced to leave the city of Arkhangelsk.
The group of Kelderash Romani families involved in the dispute arrived from Volgograd in 2004, following their leader, Khulupij Bakalaevich Gomon. It is a tradition for Kelderash Roma to change location over long periods of time. Having lived in Arkhangelsk for several decades before, the community decided to return there once more after selling their homes and possessions in Volgograd. Before all the families made the move, however, Mr. Gomon began arranging the necessary permits and arrangements for them to do so, and by September 2004, the families obtained legal permission to rent land in the Noviposyolok district. The permit was signed by the Arkhangelsk mayor at the time, Nilov, and other local authorities.
The dispute over "allowing" the Roma to remain in Arkhangelsk began when mayor Nilov's political opponent, the far-right candidate Danskoy, accused the mayor of corruption for permitting the Roma to settle, and accused the Roma themselves of illegally building homes on the land they had rented. The permit given to the families allowed them to settle on the land, but did not grant them permission to build houses, although the necessary legal provisions for them to do so were already underway at the time. Despite the fact that the Roma did not have permission to build, it was indispensable for them to begin constructing houses in order to provide shelter for their large families during the approaching winter months (within their time in Arkhangelsk alone a total of nine children were born, adding to this necessity). In November 2004, however, mayor Nilov, apparently disturbed by the corruption charges against him by his opponent, initiated a lawsuit challenging the right of the Roma to live on the lands which he had himself granted them.
In his campaign speeches, Danskoy charged that corruption in Nilov's administration made possible for the Gypsies to settle in Arkhangelsk. At the same time, he explicitly promised that he would do all that was necessary in order to rid Arkhangelsk of the Gypsies – not because of the legality of their homes, but because according to him, all Gypsies are "beggars, swindlers, and thieves [and] are incapable of doing anything else." When Danskoy was elected mayor later that year, he kept his promises and demanded that the court not only permit the demolition of the Romani houses, but also order the expulsion of the Roma from their lands altogether. Had the mayor's racist comments with regard to Roma been unclear before, he reiterated them during a round-table meeting on the issue, in which he openly stated in front of journalists that his "position has not changed," and that such "criminals" cannot be allowed to remain in Arkhangelsk because no citizen "would want Roma for neighbours." Thus, he made it clear that the suits which were brought against the Roma were not about the legality of housing but were a manifestation of racist politics which aimed to expel the Roma from the city. Regardless of the temporary nature of the houses built by the Roma, it is not disputed that they were illegally constructed. Nonetheless, the Russian legal system clearly stipulates that it is possible to legalise homes with a temporary status in order to protect their residents. The Northwest Centre for Social and Legal Protection of Roma has provided legal assistance to Romani families in the Novgorodskaya and Leningradskaya regions, whose homes were in a similar legal situation. Thus it is clear that there is a precedent for legalising the status of such homes.
In November 2004, attorneys Marina Nosova and Margarita Golenisheva, who represented the Roma, won the court case arguing that the con reason to evict the Romani families, especially when they had a legal right to use the land on which the houses were built. Having realised that the case would be lost on the grounds of illegal construction alone, the mayor's legal team then changed its strategy. They proceeded to declare that the contract which granted lands to the Roma in the first place was not valid because it did not properly adhere to the legal procedures necessary in such an action. Furthermore, they claimed that although the administration itself was to blame for this mistake, it was still necessary for the Roma to abandon their land, since it was not obtained by means of a proper contract.
In the beginning of 2006, the Roma applied to the court claiming that it was the administration's fault that the contract which granted them the properties was invalid and requested that the old contract be replaced by a new, valid legal agreement. As stated earlier, Russian law clearly allows for the legalisation of homes in such situations.
A court hearing however did not take place because mayor Danskoy promised to pay the Roma for their trip from Arkhangelsk to the South if they left the city voluntarily. Since the community was so exhausted after two years of legal fights and living in temporary housing in the severe weather conditions, they decided to give in and leave.
- Stephania Kulaeva is director of the St. Petersburg-based non-governmental organisation Northwest Centre for Social and Legal protection of Roma. The organisation provides social and legal aid to Roma, through supportive education programs for children, mediation between Romani communities and local authorities, support and training of local Romani organisations and activities aimed at improving access to health care of Roma. She has been collaborating with the ERRC in Roma rights monitoring and advocacy work since 2000. Since October 2005 she is monitoring anti-Romani hate speech in the Northwestern region of Russia as part of a larger project implemented by the ERRC, with the financial support of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The author can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.