Horizontal Rule

Being a "Gypsy": The Worst Social Stigma in Romania

10 May 2003

Valeriu Nicolae and Hannah Slavik1

In August 29, 2002, Madalin Voicu, one of the most well known Romani politicians in Romania and one of two Romani representatives in the Romanian parliament, made the following statement:

Our gypsies are stupid. They could at least be crafty but they aren't. They are just primitives and they manage to irritate the entire society which is already watching them closely [...] They run through the country and Europe barefoot, slimy and dirty, wearing clothes which are more likely to disgust you than make you feel sorry for them [...] Begging, soliciting and being disorganized will never bring them any advantages.

Romanian media received his declaration almost ecstatically: it was quoted in most mainstream Romanian newspapers and was considered the political declaration of the week. In Romanian politics, Mr Voicu usually advocates the rights of Romania's Romani minority. Why would a member and representative of the Romani community make such a degrading public statement?

Romanian society harbours one of the worst cases of social stigma in Europe. The direct result is the reluctance and, in most cases, refusal of important public personalities of Romani origin to declare their membership or links to Romania's Romani minority. Important Romani members of the Romanian government, writers, professors, doctors, sports celebrities and singers refuse or avoid discussions targeting their origins, afraid of the likely consequences: exclusion from social life, scapegoating or the decline or end of their careers. Even the few Romani politicians elected to represent Romani communities often criticise or insult those communities, in an effort to distance themselves from ordinary Roma and to show the majority that they belong to "high society."

The situation can be illustrated by looking at a typical Romani family from the village of Budrea in Buzau county, Moldavia, Romania; the family of Maria and Constantin Ignat. Before 1947, only one Romanian family lived in this village, the family of the boyar (a feudal landowner). The rest of the village consisted of Romani families working for the boyar. Maria and Constantin spoke Romani at home with their nine children. Of the nine children, only four married Roma and only one speaks Romani at home. None of the 23 grandchildren know how to speak Romani and none know their family history (for example, not one of them could tell the authors the name of their great-grandfather or great-grandmother). None married a Romani person and only one told her children about their Romani heritage. Of the more than 40 offspring of Maria and Constantin, five have now graduated from university and one works for the Romanian government. None of them identify themselves as Romani or show any interest in their Romani background. In fact, most of them share the typical Romanian stereotypes about Roma.

The social stigma is long-lasting and far reaching: In Victoria, Canada, we met a Romanian Romani family, which after 15 years in Canada still hides their Romani background from other Romanian immigrants, afraid that their children will be bullied by the Romanian children and called names.

Why do successful and well-integrated Roma try to hide their identity? First of all, it is the result of a number of centuries of conditioning in a society in which the value of a Romani man was often considered less than that of a cow. The days of official slavery and subjection are over but, today, equally strong forces are at work to maintain feelings of shame and inferiority, and contribute to the reluctance of successful Roma to declare or discuss their ethnic origins. Racism and hate speech are on the rise in the current Romanian democracy.

When one man commits an act against the law it is considered a crime; when an entire society participates in these acts we call it a lifestyle. Over the last 12 years discrimination, hate speech in the mass media, and acceptance of violent attacks against the Roma have become the lifestyle of the majority in Romania. The response and attitudes of the government and mass media reinforce and perpetuate a strong and harmful social stigma, giving an already racist and xenophobic society the clear message that segregation and continued discrimination is in the interest of the Romanian state.

The New Regime

The new Romanian political class holds primary responsibility for perpetuating the social stigma in post-communist Romanian society, through their use of the Romani community as a scapegoat in their efforts to divert public attention from rampant corruption, nepotism and fraud. The government has placed the blame for economic decline and almost every setback in Romania's efforts to join the EU and NATO on Romania's Roma.

This trend began immediately after the fall of communism. Within the first half-year of democracy, both the regime and the opposition repeatedly accused "Gypsies" of opposing them. Thus, the start of Romania's new democracy was marked by incessant discrimination, hate speech, accusations and even violent physical attacks against Roma.

Immediately after the December 27, 1989 revolution, Romania's leading coalition, the National Salvation Front (FSN), proclaimed: "Romania's minorities will have equal rights and freedoms to that of the Romanian majority."2 Just one month later, on January 28, 1990, during a violent pro-government demonstration, demonstrators insulted the opposition protestors, calling them "provocateurs" and "Gypsies", implying that only Gypsies could be against the new regime.3

Three weeks later, on February 19, 1990, in a statement broadcast by the Romanian national television station TVR 1, the FSN justified the first brutal miners' invasion of Bucharest by saying that the miners were called to stop the opposition, made up of "hooligans and unemployed Gypsies", from overthrowing the new regime. A few days later the Romanian press published the news that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu (the leaders of one of the cruellest dictatorships of the 20th century) were supposedly of Gypsy origin. The connection was disproved. However, most Romanians were happy to blame one of the worst communist regimes on the Gypsies.

On May 18 of the same year, when the president of the National Peasants' Party (the main opposition party in Romania at the time) was attacked by a band of rock-throwing pro-government demonstrators, he referred to them as "Gypsies", using the same propaganda the government regime had previously used.

On June 13 of the same year, a large group of protestors attacked the National Television building, accusing the state television station of spreading propaganda for the ruling regime. Following the attack, TVR 1 broadcast the statement of Emmanuel Valeriu, the general director of TVR 1, who said that "the building has been attacked and looted by Gypsies."

In a well-functioning democratic state, among the many roles of public institutions is the protection and preservation of minority rights and the promotion of tolerance and multiculturalism. In Romania, many such institutions are led by extremist Romanians who make no effort to hide their dislike of Roma; as a result, the institutions perpetuate the social stigma attached to being Romani. For example, in January 1995, Romania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs decreed that Romanian Roma should be called "ĹŁigani" (considered derogatory by many Roma) rather than "Roma" as the latter name "was likely to be confused with the Romanians."4

In 1999, one of the authors of this article attended a reception given by the Romanian consulate in Strasbourg for Romanian interns at the Council of Europe and the European Court of Justice - the young Romanian political elite. At the reception one young diplomat made a joke: "What are 32 Gypsies good for? You can make 8X4 soap from them."5 Most of the people present laughed. That diplomat was not kicked out of the Romanian foreign service. In fact, a few months later he was made a cabinet director in the Romanian government.

Instances of anti-Romani speech from public figures, ranging from mild abuse to calls for extermination, abound. For example, on August 16, 1998, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, then a member of the Romanian Senate, reportedly stated that his platform for running the country included "isolating Gypsy criminals in special colonies" in order to "stop the transformation of Romania into a Gypsy camp."6 In 2001, Ion Bulucea, Mayor of Craiova, the largest city in south-east Romania, said "those stinking Gypsies should be exterminated."7 In 1999, Mircea Bot, at that time Bucharest Police Chief, said: "Those scum Gypsies are responsible for all the wrong-doing in Romania."8 In 2001, Army Corps General Mircea Chelaru, former Chief of General Staff, took part in the unveiling ceremony of a bust of Marshall Antonescu, responsible for deporting and killing tens of thousands of Roma and Jews during the Second World War.

In this climate it is unlikely that any politician wishing to be part of the new Romanian regime will admit to being Roma; they prefer to deny or avoid talking about their "shameful" roots, and in many cases to join with the majority in discriminatory talk and behaviour. Before the revolution, to be Romani was to be considered inferior and worthless. As if this was not bad enough, the new "democracy" transformed this "tainted" association into the worst social stigma in Romania: being a Gypsy.
 

Mass Media

The majority of Romanian media sources are openly hostile towards Roma and readily use any means available to manipulate public opinion against Roma. A good example is the 1999 case of Mihai Olariu, a Romanian man responsible for the rape and killing of at least three children. At the beginning of the investigation, the Romanian national newspaper Adevarul printed the following headline: "An 11-year-old boy has been raped and tortured to death. Those responsible are three Gypsies."9 Another important paper wrote "[...] the three Gypsies are still to be identified." The Suceava police actually released this statement: "The rapist is a Gypsy, 25-28 years old, stinking and alcoholic." A few days later it was announced that Mihai Olariu had been arrested and found guilty of the killings. The announcement did not mention the fact that Olariu was an ethnic Romanian, nor did the media apologise to the Romani community.

Each month, hundreds of racist articles are published in Romanian newspapers. The Romanian press monitoring institution Academia Catavencu states that the majority of articles published in Romania include racist comments and those dealing with the Roma present them in a negative way.10
 

Educational Influences

The youth in Romania should be an important force for bringing about a change. Unfortunately, the attitude of Romanian youth is another reason for concern. Although the apathy and indifference shown by university students towards political and social issues is considered shocking even by Romanian politicians, when it comes to the "Gypsy problem", the attitude of Romanian youth is openly hostile and racist.

The root of this problem may lie in the education system: learning frequently consists of memorising facts and formulas and students are expected to accept as absolute truth the opinion of their teachers. Under these circumstances it is little wonder that students are prone to adopt the same stereotypes and radical views held by their teachers, who often openly despise Roma.

Teachers are not the only role models for Romanian youth. Young Romanians are taught about one of the first Romanian national heroes, Vlad the Impaler, who attempted to repel the Turks and cleanse Romanian society of undesirable elements: Gypsies, infidels, lazy peasants, beggars and impure women. Vlad is famous for his elaborate executions - impaling people alive by pounding wooden stakes up through their torsos - which he enjoyed watching. Legend says he also skinned people alive, roasted them over red coals, and stuck stakes into mothers' breasts and thrust their babies onto them.11

Next we can look at Romanian literature: educated young Romanians are expected to read Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, and Nicolae Steinhardt. Cioran and Eliade, considered two of the best Romanian writers, played important roles in the fascist movement in Romania.12 Steinhardt is an Orthodox priest hugely popular among the new Romanian intelligentsia. A few quotes will illustrate how these writers feel about Roma. Cioran, for example, wrote to his brother:

It was depressing to visit places where sasii [Romanian-Germans] were prosperous and to see them now invaded by Hindus Gypsies. That's always how history works - liegozul [uncivilized barbaric pagan hordes which invaded Europe] triumph. Gobineau is maybe the best prophet of the last century [Gobineau is considered one of the founders of modern racism].13

Eliade published the following:

During Eminescu's times, like today, cowardice, ass-kissing, turpitude, hypocrisy and craftiness were the attack and defensive tools of those freed slaves. Slaves with dirty blood [...]" [The slaves he refers to were Roma].14

Steinhardt wrote:

[... we took the worst from Greeks, Turks, Jews, Hungarians and Gypsies. The Romanian people are one of those nations which can prove their superiority and qualities only when and where they are in a pure ethnic state.15

The Romanian Orthodox church that Steinhardt represented has contributed in other ways to building the social stigma: the church has not yet apologised for their responsibility for the centuries of enslavement of Roma.

History, government, media, church and educational influences in Romania have joined forces to attach and maintain an extremely strong and persistent social stigma on Roma in Romania. The situation shows no signs of improving: in 2002, The Economist ranked Romania first in Europe in the popularity of extreme far right movements,16 movements which espouse racism and ethnic purity. Marginalised by a society which regards them as criminal or sub-human, Roma have few choices: they can accept their status, try to hide their origins or attempt to leave Romania. Taking all these factors into consideration, it is no wonder that the social stigma exists - the wonder is that we can still find anyone willing to admit to being Romani in Romania.



Romani women in Gura Vaii, northern Romania.
Photo: ERRC

Toward a Solution

The solution to the problem of social stigma in Romania is the growth of a culture of human rights in Romania. Some assistance can be expected from the European Union when Romania eventually joins, but that is at least five years into the future. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of Romanian civil society to fight racism against Roma.

First, Roma themselves must take action against the social stigma attached to their ethnicity and its effects. Prominent Roma need to take advantage of their situation to promote their ethnicity rather than to hide it. If prominent Roma take part in public campaigns against racism and xenophobia, the general public might come to question their stereotypes of Roma and young Roma would have positive role models. Roma might come to see that they can be successful and proud of their ethnicity at the same time, rather than successful only if they hide their ethnicity. Roma cannot bring about these changes alone: the support of non-Romani public personalities is also needed in tolerance campaigns.

Another key is education: education for all young Romanians needs to include lessons on tolerance and multiculturalism. Romani non-governmental organisations (NGOs) need to work together to exert pressure on the government to implement educational programs targeting racist stereotypes and discrimination, and to include the history of Roma in Romania in the curriculum.

Romani NGOs need to join forces with Romanian and international human rights groups to address the problem of social stigma. Violations of human rights must be brought to court, especially in Romania, which has some of the best anti-discrimination laws in Eastern Europe. The problem of social stigma against Roma in Romania is not a problem limited to the estimated two million Roma in Romania. Roma must take responsibility for beginning the fight, but they should expect and accept the assistance of all organisations and individuals committed to tolerance and the creation of multi-cultural societies.

Endnotes:

  1. Valeriu Nicolae has been involved in Romani activism since 1992. He started an educational project for Romani children in Romania; worked with numerous Roma and human rights organisations and published over 50 articles in academic journals, newspapers and magazines on human rights and Roma rights. He holds degrees in engineering and diplomacy. Hannah Slavik is a former ERRC publications department volunteer. She is currently the Educational Programs Director for DiploFoundation, a non-profit organisation based in Malta, Geneva and Belgrade, dedicated to assisting countries with limited human and financial resources to participate equally in international affairs. She has initiated a program to assist Roma with participating in postgraduate courses offered by DiploFoundation.
  2. The FSN declaration was published by all major Romanian newspapers and broadcast by the Romanian national television station TVR 1.
  3. The demonstration was broadcast by the Romanian national television station TVR 1.
  4. Decree H(03)/169 and 5/390/NV, January 31, 1995.
  5. 8X4 is a German brand of soap.
  6. Corneliu Vadim Tudor ran for President in 2000 and received approximately 28% of the votes cast.
  7. See the Romanian biweekly magazine Oglinda, March 2001.
  8. See Romania Libera, December 4, 1999.
  9. See the Romanian national daily newspaper Adevarul, December 5, 1999.
  10. For more information see, http://www.mma.ro/database/romanews/Raport_2308_2309.zip.
  11. See Florescu, Radu and Raymond T. McNally. In Search of Dracula: A True History of Dracula and Vampire Legends. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1972.
  12. See Lavastine, Alexandra Laignel. Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco l'oubli du fascisme. France: Presses universtaires de France, April 2002. Of all the Balkan states, Romania alone developed an indigenous fascist movement - Garda de Fier (Iron Guard) - that briefly became a formidable national force prior to and during the Second World War.
  13. Emil Cioran, letter to his brother Aurel Cioran, dated January 5, 1976.
  14. Eliade, Mircea, writing in Buna Vestire, 1937, Octombrie 14, nr. 189, p. 2.
  15. Nicolae Steinhardt. 365 de Intrebari incomode. Bucharest: Editura Revistei Literatorul, 1992.
  16. The Economist, April 27-May 3, 2002, p. 48.

     

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