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The Culture of Giving and Roma Charity

29 July 2004

Leonid Raihman1

When discussing the complex problem of how to improve Romani life, we often think that Romani leaders themselves are not in the habit of helping financially other members of the Romani community, in particular, poor Romani people, nor do they work for the promotion of Roma rights by funding various related activities. This is not the case, for example, of Jewish communities where we can find traditions established long ago for prosperous businessmen to help Jewish pensioners, disabled people, etc., and to support celebrations of Jewish religious holidays.

The perception that Roma are not involved in char-ity must be challenged at least in the case of Russia. In June 2003, I have met in Moscow Alexander Bariev, a member of the International Roma Union Parliament. At that time it turned out that, among other activities, he was also vice-president of the Moscow-based Cul-tural and Educational Society Romano Kher, first vice-president of Amaro Drom – the recently established International Union of Roma of the Baltic States and CIS countries, and a member of the editorial board of the Moscow-based journal Shumen Romale among other functions. In December 2003,Alexander Bariev was elected president of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Roma in Russia.

The matter was that until 1996, Alexander had developed his business (sports equipment and then a network of restaurants and food stores). He had been helping Romani people a lot with his own money. But he had not tried to establish a foundation, being just a person who undertakes charitable actions. By a proposal of Professor Georgiy Demeter, president of the Romano Kher, Alexander Bariev, in cooperation with his brother Ivan, for the first time officially funded the music festival "Gypsies Under the Sky of Russia" (Tsigani pod nebom Rossii). Then he organised charity canteens for homeless and poor people, predominantly Roma. Alexander is one of the founders of the Foundation for disabled sportsmen; and his next idea was to provide disabled Roma with wheelchairs. From time to time, Alexander simply paid from his own pocket to lawyers, asking them for legal assistance for Roma in cases of police abuse. Through these charity activities, he acquired much respect from senior Roma who usually are in leader-ship positions in Romani communities. They started to invite Mr Bariev to participate in finding solutions for difficult situations within their communities. Then Alexander accepted that he was on demand for representative functions and stood for elections for the positions mentioned above. He realised that as vice-president of one of the leading Romani NGOs in Russia it is much easier to various authorities, than it is to undertake activities without formal position.

When speaking with the author, Alexander especially emphasised that he makes no difference be-tween Roma and non-Roma in his charitable activities, and if non-Roma ask him for support he gives it on the same principle as for Roma. Meanwhile, he admitted that Roma prevail among the staff of his businesses, because he employs many relatives. Apparently, he supports Roma also by giving them job opportunities.

During our discussion, I was trying to persuade him that it was time to expand his already existing forms of charity with others, for example, to set up a foundation based in Russia uniting prosperous Roma in the country for charity purposes. In addition to Mr Bariev, I have met and heard about other wealthy Romani businessmen who make donations to Romani organisations on an ad hoc basis, for example, to pay for lawyers in Roma rights cases or to cover the operational costs of Romani organisations. The idea of a Romani foundation was quite unique and seemed strange at first glance to Mr Bariev. Indeed, for Rus-sia where media, police officers and others are disposed so negatively towards Roma, and where frequently "Gypsy" is synonimous with "drug-dealers", information about establishing a Romani foundation with the explicit goal of supporting Roma, may be shocking for many people. Mr Bariev's and others' charitable activities for Roma in Russia are not advertised and are not widely known to the public. The way these people offer their help is very different from the culture of giving typical in the West, where each small action is carefully registered and well-documented by the foundations' staff, and the information distributed by public relations officers. This machinery has its own rules designed for, inter alia, taxation purposes. Both approaches have ad-vantages and disadvantages. I really hope those Romani leaders, not only in big cities, but throughout rural Russia as well, after some time will find the adequate forms to officialise their charity activities, overcoming the numerous current obstacles on the way of the Roma movement in that country.

Endnotes:

  1. Leonid Raihman is a consultant to the Open Society Institute on Roma projects in Russia.

 

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