The Roma: Between a Myth and the Future

27 May 2004

Dimitrina Petrova

Who are the Roma? An Identity in the Making

UNTIL the early 1990s, few people knew the meaning of the term "Roma," but almost everybody had opinions about the "Gypsies." In the last years, however, the term "Roma," which is the ethnocultural self-appellation of many of those perceived by outsiders as "Gypsies," has come to dominate the official political discourse, at least in Europe, and has acquired the legitimacy of "political correctness." Not all so-called Gypsies in the world today recognize themselves as Roma, and it is difficult to predict whether a broader identity will be constituted in the future to encompass the non-Roma "Gypsies." But at present, the political construction of the Roma identity has reached a stage at which the outsider identifications, such as Gypsy and Tsigane, terms still preferred in much of the historical, anthropological, and ethnographic literature, are considered undesirable due to the huge baggage of prejudice they carry.

Groups externally identified as "Gypsies" but not necessarily considering themselves as ethnic Roma include the Jevgjit in Albania; the Ashkaelia and Egyptians in Kosovo and Macedonia; the Travelers in Britain and Ireland; and the Rudari and Beash in Hungary, Romania, and other countries. The Sinti, who live in many European countries, particularly Germany, are sometimes subsumed under the Roma category (e.g., by Hancock, 2002: 34), and sometimes set apart from Roma (e.g., Marushiakova and Popov, 2003). Speaking the Romani language is not a necessary identity characteristic either: some communities that consider themselves Roma have actually cease speaking the Romani language (the majority of today's Roma in Hungary, for example).

In the Romani language, the word "Roma" means "people" in the plural masculine gender, with a connotation of "us" as opposed to "them". Outsiders are referred to by the general term gadje (also a masculine noun in the plural). It is my impression that calling all "others" by one name, "gadje", is a strikingly frequent conversational practice when Roma speak with Roma. This frequent reference to a generalized "other" is generally not found in any other insider ethnic discourse. This certainly reflects a high degree of "us/them" opposition that has been historically reinforced by centuries of internalized oppression and isolation.

At first glance, it is quite amazing and even exceptional that over centuries of exclusion, marginalization, discrimination, and in some regions slavery and forced assimilation, the Gypsy groups have preserved strong elements of a common ethnocultural self-consciousness, which serves as one of the bases for the continuing construction of the Romani identity. In the course of one millennium, many ethnic identities in Europe have vanished without a trace. But in the Gypsy case, several factors have created a synergy to preserve the sense of belonging together. These include late arrival in a continent already populated by settled communities, the high degree of difference from European culture and society, and the ensuing structural social and political weakness of the Roma in European history. Attitudes and practices that reproduce the pariah status of the Gypsies are deeply entrenched anti-Gypsyism and the systematic abuse of their human rights in the last few centuries, including widespread persecution and racial discrimination. These same factors can be described as the root causes of both anti-Gypsyism and the survival of the Roma as one single - but not yet internally homogeneous - cultural identity.

It is also important to emphasize that, following the end of communism in Central and Eastern European societies (where the largest numbers of Roma are concentrated), new political dynamics are at work. In post-communist countries we have witnessed the rise of racially based discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization of the Roma at the same time that the opposite forces of an advancing Roma rights movement are taking shape. These parallel tendencies undoubtedly fuel the construction and consolidation of a Romani ethnic identity and, more recently, of a "nonterritorial Roma nation" (See Goodwin, in this issue of Roma Rights at p. 54).

While the Romani ethnic identity is the basis of present-day emancipatory mobilization, it is difficult to say to what extent a shared consciousness of belonging together can be ascribed to the larger group of communities labeled by the external world as Gypsies. For example, in Albania, while the historic relatedness of the Jevgjit to the Roma is a subject of scholarly debate, the members of these two groups, seen indiscriminately as "Gypsies" by the surrounding majority, in fact consider themselves separate peoples and reveal negative attitudes toward one another. Similarly, in Kosovo, the Ashkaelia reject an association with the Roma; but because they are perceived as "Gypsies" by the nationalizing Albanian majority, they were subjected to the same ethnic cleansing as the Roma in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavia and the mass return of the Kosovo Albanian refugees to their homeland. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, certain groups are perceived as "Gypsies" ("Tsygane" in Russian) although they are not Roma. Apart from the more established Ruska Roma and the other Romani groups who have been in the Russian empire lands for several centuries, there are also small groups of Sinti who moved eastward from Germany through Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century; Armenian-speaking Gypsies called Bosha who identify as Lomavtic; Asian Gypsies known as Karachi from the Caucasus (mainly Azerbaijan); Central Asian Gypsies called Lyuli (who also use the appellation Mugat) found in Tajikistan but who have intensely migrated to the large Russian cities in the last decade. In the complex history and geography of Gypsy identities, still in flux on the territory of the former Soviet Union, the Ruska Roma make up only one part - albeit the largest - of the Gypsy groups, connected by a common historical and cultural legacy (for detailed description, see Marushiakova and Popov, 2003; Demeter et al., 2000: 87-114).

Leaving aside the non-Romani Gypsies, the Roma themselves do not (yet) make up a homogeneous ethnic group. Rather, the Roma today are a continuum of more or less related subgroups with complex, flexible, and multilevel identities, with sometimes strangely overlapping and confusing subgroup names. But in the last decade, as was noted, we have been witnessing a process of historic and political consolidation of a unifying Romani identity so that the name "Roma" has now become preferred by most international and national organizations dealing with various aspects of the "Roma problem."2

The Abracadabra of Romani Statistics

It is widely accepted that reliable demographic and social statistics on the Roma are nonexistent. This is evident also in the European Roma Rights Center compilation on absolute numbers of Roma in European countries (see Table 1). Adding numbers regarding the Americas, the Middle East, and the rest of the world would render an even more complicated picture. The reason for this can be traced to the Roma and government authorities, both of whom have found it undesirable to collect Roma-related statistics. Roma have little reason to trust gadje with notebooks and questionnaires visiting their ghettos. Authorities and the mainstream media have been ambivalent at best: they have been willing to publicize police data about the allegedly high proportion of Roma crime, but not about the high proportion of child mor tality, illiteracy, or unemployment. At present, Roma-related statistics are trapped in a set of legal and policy problems, including data protection laws, constitutional rights to choose freely one's ethnic identity, and the needs of ethnically coded disaggregated data for anti-discrimination agendas (for comprehensive country reports regarding race statistics, see Krizsan, 2001).

 Table 1 (Continuation)
Number of Roma, by country

Country Total Population Official Number Estimate
Albania  3,549,841  1,261  90,000-100,000


 8,150,835  95  20,000-25,000
Belarus  10,350,194  11,283  10,000-15,000
Belgium  10,258,762  N/A  10,000-15,000
Bosnia- Herzegovina  3,922,205  9,092  40,000-50,000
Bulgaria  7,928,901  370,908*  700,000-800,000
Croatia  4,334,142  6,695**  30,000-40,000
Cyprus  762,887  N/A  500-1,000
Czech Republic  10,264,212  11,716*  250,000-300,000
Denmark  5,352,815  N/A  1,500-2,000
Estonia  1,423,316  N/A  1,000-1,500
Finland  5,194,901  10,000  7,000-10,000
France  59,551,227  N/A  280,000-340,000
Germany  83,029,536  50,000-70,000  10,000-130,000
Greece  10,623,835  150,000-300,000  160,000-200,000
Hungary  10,174,853  190,046  550,000-600,000
Ireland  3,840,838  10,891  22,000-28,000
Italy  57,679,825  130,000  90,000-110,000
Latvia  2,385,231  7,955  2,000-3,500
Lithuania  3,610,535  N/A  3,000-4,000
Luxembourg  442,972  N/A  100-150
Macedonia  2,946,209  43,900  220,000-260,000
Moldavia  4,431,570  11,600  20,000-25,000
Netherlands  16,171,520  20,000  35,000-40,000
Norway  4,525,000  356  500-1,000
Poland  38,633,912  25,000-30,000  50,000-60,000
Portugal  10,084,245  44,600  45,000-50,000
Romania  21,698,181  535,250  1,800,000- 2,500,000
Russia  145,470,197  152,939  400,000
Serbia and Montenegro  10,677,290  143,519**  400,000-450,000
Slovakia  5,379.455  89,920  480,000-520,000
Slovenia  1,930,132  2,293  8,000-10,000
Spain  40,037,995  325,000-450,000  700,000-800,000
Sweden  8,875,053  20,000  15,000-20,000
Switzerland  7,283,274  N/A  30,000-500,000
Turkey  66,493,970  N/A  300,000-500,000
Ukraine  48,760,474  47,914  50,000-60,000
United Kingdom  59,778,002  90,000  90,000-120,000
Total  795,101,136  2,281,577-2,581,577  6,105,600-8,625,150  

Sources: The national statistical bureaus of the countries included that were consulted are: CIA World Factbook (Washington, D.C.); the European Union "Regular Reports of the Candidate Countries for Membership in the European Union"; government reports provided to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; government reports provided to the Council of Europe's Committee on the Framework Convention; "N/A" indicates official data is not available. Some countries have provided official estimates (see for example Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). The source of the column "Unofficial number" are NGO estimates provided in Liegeois and Gheorghe (1995).
* Census 2001
** Census 1991

It should be noted that Roma in some countries are reluctant to reveal their identity. Of the countries with large Romani populations, Bulgaria is an example of a country in which the gap between census data and estimates is relatively small: estimates are only about double the census data. The Romani community was placed at about 371,000 people (4.7 percent of the general population) by the 2001 census, while most scholars believe that the real number is about twice that figure.3 In contrast, the Czech Roma present a real statistical puzzle. While both government and independent sources estimate that approximately a quarter of a million Roma live in the country, the most recent (2001) census gave the number as 11,716, several times lower than the figure produced by the official census 10 years earlier.

Clues from History: The Gypsy "Invasion" in Europe

When the Roma migrated out of India is not well established. Some authors zero in on the eleventh century, while others emphasize that we are dealing with a long and complex historic process of multiple migrations by different Indian groups leaving their homeland for different reasons at different times between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Different hypotheses have also been offered about the social status or caste in which the migrants belonged before their exodus. According to German historian Heinrich Grellmann, one of the founders of Gypsy/Romani studies in eighteenth century, the ancestors of the contemporary Roma were part of the Shudra, the lowest caste. But others oppose the low-caste ancestors theory and find it more convincing that the Roma were related to the Rajputs, tribes that conducted a long warfare against Islam and among whose present-day descendents are the Banjara in northwest India. The Banjara themselves recognize a connection to the Roma in Europe and have developed links with Romani activists in recent years (Hancock, 2002: 13).

In earlier literature it had been accepted that the first mention in Byzantium of Gypsies, under the name atsinganoi is from 1054, in which they are described as sorcerers and evildoers who visited the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (Soulis, 1961: 145), poisoning the wild animals that were entering the emperor's gardens by using magic. The emperor then invited them to do the same with his favorite dog, but a Christian saint intervened and their magic did not work. They were chased from the royal palace and left in disgrace. Not all authors today, agree that the reference here is actually to Roma: according to some, a heretic sect with the name atsinganoi existed between the eighth and eleventh centuries and its name passed erroneously to the Roma, who arrived in Byzantine lands most probably in the thirteenth century (Demeter et al., 2000: 16; Hancock, 2002: 1). Others date the arrival of the Roma in Byzantine domains several centuries earlier, accepting that atsinganoi had always designated the Gypsy immigrants in Byzantium (Speck, 1997: 37-51; Marushiakova and Popov, 2000: 14--15). From the Greek atsinganoi, the Bulgarian "Tsigani", the French "Tsigane", the German "Zigeuner", the Hungarian "Cigányok", the Italian "Zingari", the Russian "Tsygane", and the Turkish "C¸ingene" have stuck as the external appellation of the Romani people.

The Roma remained in Byzantium for several centuries (two and a half at a minimum) before some moved on in the direction of Western Europe. It is inside the Byzantine cultural environment that the Romani identity and language were perhaps initially constituted. Many Greek words and grammatical forms were added to the Sanskrit base, and today the Greek influence is still prominent in the language. Having spent considerable amount of historic time in Byzantine lands, some Roma moved from the Balkans further on to Central and Western Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, roughly the same time as the conquering Ottoman Turks. During Ottoman rule, much of the population of Albania and Bosnia, along with other peoples in other parts of the Balkans, including Roma, converted to Islam. Research has established that the Ottoman policy toward the Roma was in general more tolerant than Western European treatment during the same time (that is, the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) (see Marushia-kova and Popov, 2000: 56).

By 1417, Roma had already reached parts of Western Europe. The possible reasons for this movement westward include the general societal crisis of the Byzantine Empire under the pressure of the Ottoman Turks, and the demographic rise of the Romani communities; because they were nomadic or semi-nomadic service communities occupying a certain niche in the settled economy, they began to interfere with each other's area of functioning and thus needed new territories in order to maintain their sources of income.

The history of the Roma arriving and spreading in Central and Western Europe after 1417 is well documented, despite some remaining mysteries.4 However, according to Demeter et al. (2000: 18), Western scholars have built their interpretation of Romani history chiefly on the basis of the westward expansion of the Roma in the fifteenth century. The simplest version of this narrative is that Roma were initially welcome in Western Europe, met as noble pilgrims and provided with privileges and gifts. When the European cities began, one after another, to fall victim to Gypsy crime, anti-Gypsy laws were gradually introduced throughout Western Europe, which led to four centuries of official persecution.

It would seem that this period has long been thoroughly researched, but it is precisely its wrong interpretation that caused all further errors. It is striking that no one asked the main question: What type of Gypsies left for Western Europe in the early fifteenth century? If this most important question had been at least articulated, current tsiganology would look different. Moreover, it has been taken for granted that these were ordinary tabors. The core of our theory is the view that the tabors that rode off in the so-called "great march" were untypical - a conglomerate of persons with a propensity for adventure (Demeter et al., 2000: 18).

It is well established that the Roma in Byzantium during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were laborers - artisans, craftsmen, metal workers, artists. European documents from the first decades of the Roma arrival, however, contain no evidence of productive occupations and present Romani livelihood as based only on begging, robbery, deceit, and fortune-telling and do not mention such typical Romani professions as animal drill or blacksmithing. The extensively documented criminal activity of the Roma in Central and Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries thus must have been the catalyst of the lasting image of the Roma as parasitic nomads, fraudulent fortune-tellers, incapable of productive work, abusing the hospitality of those who provide them with shelter and food, unreliable, and, of course, and most significantly, remorseless thieves.

It is also well documented that, riding throughout the European West, the Roma spread a bizarre story to account for their appearance. They usually presented themselves as pilgrims from "Little Egypt", sentenced by the pope to seven years of wandering as punishment for betraying the Christian faith following an alleged Muslim conquest. The pope had allegedly also ordered all bishops and abbots to pay a certain amount of money to them and provide shelter and other necessities (Clébert, 1961: 55-57). It seems that fifteenth-century Roma were trying to make use of the geographic ignorance and religious zeal of Catholic Europe, thus ensuring safe passage for their tabors. For a number of decades and despite the growing incidence of complaints against them, they were, overall, successful in spreading the myth of religious expiation.

A presence of nomadic groups from the enigmatic "Little Egypt" is noted in dozens of medieval history sources: in the southern Czech lands in 1411, Basel and Hessen in 1414, Zurich in 1418, Rome in 1422, Augsburg in 1424, Paris in 1427, Barcelona in 1447. In Rome the group led by one Andreas obtained or forged a papal safe-conduct - much more useful than safe conducts issued to the Roma by mundane princes that were valid only in the lands under their jurisdiction. Ironically, "Little Egypt" outlived its usefulness and gave the Roma their condemned misnomer: from the "Egyptians", the word "Gypsy" and its derivatives, including Gitanes, Jitanos, Ijito, Gjupci, and Yiftos, entered European languages. According to one hypothesis, the strangers were in fact referring to a really existing area, in Peloponnesus or elsewhere, called "Little Egypt", and since geography and cartography in medieval Europe were in a nascent state, this place of origin was identified with Egypt.

In any case, it is a historical fact that initially, the strange-looking pilgrims were met almost everywhere without hostility. The story of what exactly had caused their wanderings had many versions. It was even believed that they had been punished for their failure to help the Holy Family in the flight from Palestine to Egypt. Many rulers in medieval Europe issued safe conducts to various "Egyptian" chiefs and their company. Nobles and city authorities in France offered warm and sometimes generous receptions on religious grounds at first. For example, the king of France granted a safe conduct to Thomas, "count of Little Egypt of Bohemia". In this bizarre hybrid, the medieval confusion is most typical, an association with Egypt, while at the same time "Bohemian" was also gaining ground as a word designating the medieval Roma (Fraser, 1995: 92). In most places the arrival of the new tribes was soon followed by complaints of thefts, misbehavior, and fraud related to fortune telling. In the RhĂ´ne region, the practice of paying the "Bohemians" to leave the vicinity and go elsewhere became established in the second half of the fifteenth century (Fraser, 1995: 93). Finally, after many attempts to chase away the newcomers and their repeated return to obtain alms from the faithful, Francis I in 1539 introduced severe measures throughout his kingdom against "certain unknown persons who call themselves Bohemians" wandering everywhere "under the guise of a simulated religion or of a certain penitence which they claim to be making through the world". He decreed that "henceforth none of the said companies and assemblies of the abovementioned Bohemians may enter, pass or stay in our kingdom nor in the countries which are subject to us" (Fraser, 1995: 94).

In the Holy Roman Empire, during the reign of Emperor Maximilian I, the Imperial Diet issued three edicts (in 1497, 1498, and 1500) in which Gypsies were accused of espionage and singled out for expulsion (Fraser, 1995: 86). The accusation of espionage is among the typical charges against the newcomers, though not so routine as those of robbery. The 1500 decree ordered the Gypsies to leave German lands by Easter, after which time it was to be no crime to take violent action against them. These decrees set the tone for further ordinances promulgated by princes, dukes, and other rulers, especially throughout the German lands, which were preoccupied with alleged espionage of the Gypsies and ordering their banishment from a growing number of principalities. Overall, these measures seem to have had little practical effect in the following decades, since new safe-conduct papers continued to appear in the hands of Romani leaders. For example, in 1512 one such safe conduct was granted by the Polish Duke Bogislav X, ruling over parts of Pomerania, to Ludwig von Rothenburg, count of "Little Egypt", to help him on his way to Gdansk together with his "zyganisch" company. The Diet issued new expulsion acts in 1544 and 1548, and in 1551 it declared any pass carried by a Gypsy to be void, and banned all such documents in the future (Fraser, 1995: 88).

Events followed similar patterns in the Swiss regions of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1471 the Tagsatzung (Diet) in Lucerne ruled that Gypsies were not to be housed or sheltered within the Swiss Confederation; in 1477 the city-state of Geneva (outside the confederation) expelled a number of "Saracens". In 1510, again at Lucerne, after complaints that they stole and were dangerous, "Zegynen" were banished from the confederation and faced the penalty of hanging if they returned. Despite this, complaints against them continued; at a Diet at Berne in 1516, instructions were given to take special care in keeping them out at the frontiers. About the same time, Geneva had also banned all "Saracens". These measures did not have much effect, for in 1525 a new banishment act had to be issued, which was then reissued two years later. Yet at a Diet in Baden in 1530, it was noted that Gypsies were wandering about everywhere. They were once again outlawed, but then in 1532 the question was back on the agenda, with the same rulings reinstated (Fraser, 1995: 89-90).

Persecution of the Gypsies in Spain and Portugal developed according to similar patterns. In 1499, seven years after the expulsion of the Jews, a royal decree stated that the "Egyptians" could either become sedentary and find masters within 60 days or face expulsion (Fraser, 1995: 97). Similar measures were enacted in the Low Countries and Italy. In Hungary, the Gypsies were treated with a greater degree of tolerance than was usual for the time, although a form of bondage was imposed on some of them, especially in Transylvania, where serfdom was not abolished until 1848 (Fraser, 1995: 106). Apart from their metal- working skills, the Gypsies had also begun to acquire a reputation as musicians in Hungary.

Despite examples of initial welcoming policies in England, anti-Gypsy legislation began to appear toward the end of the reign of Henry VIII. The measures extended well beyond the Gypsies to vagrancy generally, which in Tudor England was a pressing problem. "Vagabondage" had been growing for years as a result of enclosure and the break up of the old system of farming, which put thousands of agricultural workers out on the roads. Vagrants were persecuted as a matter of national priority, for, at a time when the able-bodied poor were supposed to have masters, this large and growing unemployed and landless population appeared to the dominant classes to be a major threat. The most draconian Tudor statute against vagrants was that of 1547, in the first year of Edward VI, when the prospect of a lengthy period of rule before maturity by the boyking brought with it the possibility of factional feuds and made any increase in the size of the vagrant classes appear highly dangerous (Fraser, 1995: 114). According to a 1554 law, Gypsy nomad males had to be killed, and Elizabeth I introduced the death penalty also for anyone who befriended "Egyptians". In 1577, eight English were hanged under this law. In 1541 in Scotland an Order in Council revoked all letters of protection, safe conduct, and other privileges and banished Gypsies from the kingdom within 30 days, on pain of death.

In Scandinavia, the Roma were first thought to be Tartars. "Tattare" remained the most widespread designation for the Roma in Sweden until the seventeenth century, when "zigenare", under the influence of German, also came into use (Fraser, 1995: 120). Anti-Gypsy laws in Sweden (1637) provided for the hanging of males. Danish tolerance also came to an end a little more than 30 years after the first appearance of the Roma. In 1536, and again in 1554, Christian III of Denmark and Norway ordered all Gypsies to leave his kingdom within three months; as the enforcement failed, his son Frederick II renewed the ban and stiffened the penalties in 1561.

Approximately 148 anti-Gypsy laws were passed in German lands between fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Mainz in 1714 passed a law mandating death for all Romani males and beating and branding of females and children (Kenrick and Grattan, 1972: 42-45).

Most authors agree that the anti-Gypsy laws were not enforced expeditiously and that it took quite a long time for repression to become the rule in the European treatment of the nomadic Gypsies. The same decrees had to be reissued many times in the course of decades before they began to be eventually implemented. In France, for example, anti-Gypsy laws banishing the "bohemians" and providing penalties if they were caught inside the kingdom were promulgated in 1504, 1510, 1522, 1534, 1539, 1561, 1606, 1647, 1660, and 1666. This delay may be the combination of a general negligence toward the Gypsies as a nonimportant and nonurgent issue, a nuisance rather than a threat to society, which resulted in a low-intensity terror that allowed the Roma to survive in Western Europe (Demeter et al., 2000: 27). Apart from the lack of high alert when it came to the Gypsies, slow and weak implementation of repressive measures in the fifteenth century was perhaps also the result of the feudal fragmentation of Europe, making law enforcement dependent exclusively on local lords.

With time, however, repression strengthened and anti-Gypsy laws began to be implemented more strictly and uniformly across the territory of sovereigns, in line with the process of nation building in modern Europe. Some of the Roma, specifically those in Germany, were forced back eastward to escape further victimization, crossing Poland and making inroads in Russia during the seventeenth century.

The root causes for the negative turn in European hospitality and the growth of repression against the Roma are not so much the harm caused by Romani crime (although this perhaps played a role) as the general change in the European cultural climate, driven by the rise of Protestantism. Anti-Gypsy laws and other persecution of the Roma are best understood in the context of the fight against vagrancy and other forms of idleness that surged in sixteenth-century Europe. Ethnicity played a lesser role. Antiva-grancy moods were directed against the huge variety of traveling groups in medieval Europe that were protected by religious and mundane powers: crowds of pilgrims that had to be hosted as a matter of religious duty, minstrels, troubadours, knights, actors, and traveling indigent monks (such as the Franciscans) living off alms. The Roma became victims of this new historic tide of Protestant work ethics that denounced clerical ceremonial luxury and greed but together with it purged patience for beggars and the like, condemning all forms of life that seemed nonproductive. The process of enclosures in England also added to the anti-vagrancy sentiment. Even in the countries that remained Catholic, the influence of the Protestant worldview could be felt.

The Roma were swept along by this wave, since it was particularly difficult for them to adapt to the new cultural norms. Due to their distinct physical appearance, and the survival strategies consolidating their difference at the community level, it was much more difficult for them to find regular work and blend into the surrounding population. Internal kinship patterns and a distinct tradition also played a role. Additionally, integration was impeded by certain inertia in the non-productive way of life in the first 100 years of their presence in Western Europe and especially by the real or perceived propensity for petty stealing from individual owners, which, in Europe, had long been treated as both sinful and criminal. Ultimately, the main difference that set the Roma apart was that they were the only ethnically distinct nomadic communities in a civilization that had been non-nomadic for centuries.

While Western Europe was trying with growing hostility to drive the Roma out, the Byzantine and later the Ottoman civilizations surrounded them with detached resentment but never tried to expel them. The negative stereotype similar to that in the West was in place. But the Roma were not subjected to official persecution and some categories (depending on religion, occupation, and geographic region) were even somewhat privileged in terms of taxation. Some were apparently regarded as useful service providers, especially blacksmiths and other types of metal workers. Gypsy craftsmen, for example, had privileges in Peloponnesus already in 1378 and Crete in 1386, as well as in the following centuries throughout the Ottoman Empire (Marushiakova and Popov, 2000).

Enslavement of the Roma in the vassal principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia during Ottoman rule of the Balkans lasted for almost five centuries and had a devastating effect on the prospects for societal integration. Specific forms of slavelike dependency (domestic serfs, serfs belonging to churches and monasteries, and nomadic serfs with fixed occupations) began to emerge in the fourteenth century as a result of the increasingly strict measures taken by the landlords, the aristocracy, and the monasteries to prevent their skilled and precious Romani labor force from leaving their domains (Hancock, 2002: 18). Slavery, which had affected between 200,000 and 600,000 Roma, was officially abolished by the Moldavian and Wallachian parliaments in 1855 and 1856, respectively, but complete legal freedom was established only in 1864, two years after the creation of Romania as an independent unitary state. Mihail Kogalni-ceanu, the leader of the new nation, introduced a land reform redistributing the land to the former serfs as free peasants.5 During the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, large groups of Vlach Roma migrated from Romanian lands to many parts of the world, including Russia, Ukraine, and the Americas.

For the Roma who live today in countries that were once part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the forced assimilation policies of Maria Theresa, the empress of Austria, have left a lasting legacy. In late eighteenth century, speaking the Romani language and use of Romani names were criminalized and many Romani children were taken away from their parents to be socialized in non-Romani families. Because of the assimilation pressure, most Roma in Hungary today have lost their traditions and language. They have been affected in less tangible ways, too, by over two centuries of corrupting co-optation of their leaders and the inculcation of cultural attitudes that value cooperation and discourage protest.

In Russia, around the time of the 1917 October Revolution, the Roma living in the central and northern parts of the country were mainly horse-trading nomads or seminomads, renting village homes in winter but traveling during the warmer season. A relatively smaller number was settled and among them the musicians were the aristocracy. At the same time, in Ukraine and south Russia, the Roma were craftsmen (particularly blacksmiths) and many Romani women were fortune-tellers. The older Russian stereotype of Roma is dominated by the perception of Roma as dealers in horses and horse thieves; during the Soviet era this stereotype transformed, with the Roma seen as dealers in cars and car thieves.

It is not possible to fully explain the European majority stereotypes about the Roma on the basis of history alone. However, the cursory glance into the history of the Roma offered earlier suggests that the formative historical event that forged the core of the anti-Gypsy stereotype is the fifteenth-century encounter of the nomadic Roma with Western European civilization. It was in fif teenth-century Western Europe that the poisonous tincture of anti-Gypsism was concocted. Later developments, both in Western Europe and in other regions where Roma were seen, served to spread the primal image and to vary it with local specificities related to their predominant occupation. When the Roma completed their journey from East to West, an opposite journey began, that of the fictional Gypsies from the West to everywhere.

Celebration of the return to Italy of the Sulejmanovic´ family, expelled from Italy on March 3, 2000 to Bosnia. According to the family members, at about 2 AM they were woken up by police officers and forced to leave their caravans. Once their identities had been established, they were taken to an airport, placed on a specially chartered aircraft and flown to Sarajevo. Altogether fifty-six Roma from the Casilino 700 and Tor de? Cenci camps in Rome were deported. The ERRC in collaboration with a local lawyer, Mr Nicolo Paoletti, brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the Italian government on behalf of the Bosnian Romani families. Pursuant to the settlement, Italy agreed to revoke the expulsion decrees, return the plaintiff families to Italy, grant them humanitarian residence permits, and pay financial damages. Photo: Stefano Montesi

Anti-Gypsyism: Understanding Is Not Excusing

Understanding anti-Gypsy prejudice is deceptively easy. But, even though much has been said in the literature as well as by the anti-racism movements, a strong sense of dissatisfaction remains. What is it that makes the Roma such an eternal target for the racists? Why are Roma so universally despised? Why is the negative sentiment so entrenched? Why do the Roma remain Europe's most persecuted minority, even after so much energy has been poured into eradicating anti-Gypsyism? Will the Roma ever become equal members of society? Everyone who has watched Roma-related developments over the years has experienced moments of confusion and despair at the magnitude of these questions.

The single most important concept that helps explain anti-Gypsy prejudice is weakness. To put it simply, Roma would not have been ignored, resented, insulted, humiliated, and repressed if they had power. Looking at the historic experience of the Roma, and comparing the Roma with other ethnic groups, suggests that the uniqueness of the Roma consists in an extraordinary historically rooted structural weakness. Because of their late arrival in Europe and strong cultural difference, the Roma have failed to use the quintessential empowerment strategy available to other groups: building a nation-state. Inhabitants of the margins and alien to political passions, the Roma have not used the sanctioning potential of the vote, either.

The fatal combination of a strong "otherness" and a historically very late arrival in a settled (non-nomadic) Europe impeded not only state building, but also integration, assimilation, and even extermination of the Roma. Otherness was physical as well as cultural: very dark skin (it is believed that the Roma were darker when they first reached European lands), distinct non-European features (again, it is alleged that their appearance was less European seven centuries ago than it is today); "odd" clothes and language; unintelligible and inaccessible customs that seemed even more alien because the Roma preferred to keep apart from the gadje. The visible cultural difference, especially the nomadic way of life, created a bias against the moral values of the Roma. The fact that the tabor is here today and gone tomorrow does not contribute to a reputation for responsibility. The departed are ideal suspects for all kinds of crime in the settled community. At times, in northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, Roma were also seen as a threat to Christendom and often confused with Turks or Tartars. Their religious life, too, has never been treated by the outside world without suspicion. Their alleged involvement with magic made their religious practices, whether Christian Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, or Muslim, appear to be a hypocritical cover up for an esoteric spirituality or an irreligious cynicism.

History contains clues but they do not explain the longevity and the profoundness of anti-Gypsyism. What cannot be grasped through historical interpretation can perhaps be elucidated from the point of view of the place of the Roma in the structure of twentieth-century European societies. The Roma continue to occupy a pariah place in twentieth-century and present-day European societies and remain a target for hate accumulation, as well as a perfect scapegoat.

If the key to understanding anti-Gypsiysm in a historic perspective is in the Weberian link between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism, the perceived Roma non-involvement (or very weak involvement) with modern industrial and postindustrial capitalism in Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth cen turies is key to understanding the longevity of the prejudice. The Nazi extermination of the Roma during World War II was undoubtedly the greatest catastrophe in the history of this people. Nazi racist pseudoscience defined the Gypsies of mixed, impure origin as an inferior race (despite ascribing "Aryan" ancestors to those Roma who had remained uncontaminated by racial mixing). The Nazis killed between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma, according to different authors who are contributing to the growing body of literature on the Porajmos (the somewhat controversial Romani word that is becoming established as the Romani analogue of the Shoah; see Hancock, 2002: 34-51; Lewy, 2000; Kenrick and Puxton, 1972). Space constraints preclude even beginning a discussion of this most horrible chapter in the history of the Roma. But we should emphasize that, following World War II, anti-Gypsyism, very much like anti-Semitism, did not disappear from European societies. Yet the attention the Roma Porajmos received in Western society and literature in the last few decades is not commensurate with the attention given the destruction of the European Jewry. This fact itself is symptomatic: it is one of the most revealing signs of the continuing political weakness of the Roma. At the level of racist prejudice, the core of the anti-Gypsyist stereotype remained more or less the same: Roma continue to be seen, even after the Nazi genocide, as parasitic elements, alien to the principle of productivity and its underlying values.

But if the destiny of the Roma in the capitalist world after World War II can be seen as a continuation of their profound incompatibility with capitalist rationalization, what was the destiny of the much larger Romani communities that lived under communism? If the Gypsies were not fit for capitalism, did they not fit into a radically different social and political system?

The Soviet government created Gypsy production cooperatives, which enabled some of the Roma, notably Kalderara, to settle in big cities. In rural areas, Gypsy cooperative farms (kolkhozy) were also established. Both forms of collectivization, however, existed for a short time and disappeared toward the end of the 1930s. Only around 3 percent of the Gypsies were involved in the experiment. In the difficult postwar period, many Roma in the Soviet Union who had been already settled reverted to a nomadic lifestyle and stayed in large groups (tabors) in the suburbs of big cities. In 1956, a decree issued by the Soviet government outlawed vagrancy and ordered coercive sedentarization of the Gypsies. Measures enforcing mandatory settling of the Gypsies duly followed throughout the communist countries of Eastern Europe and were based on similar decrees. As Marushiakova and Popov explain (2003: 8), these have to date been evaluated in ideological terms. From a communist point of view, they have been described as integration into the "socialist way of life", while the West has seen them as violations of Roma human rights. In fact, the antinomadism measures mandating the inclusion of the Gypsies in the socialist labor force are better understood, at least in the Soviet Union, as recognition of the failure of preceding state policy regarding this minority. The Soviet 1956 decree made the Roma obey laws and norms that had been mandatory for everyone else in the Soviet society since the 1920s.

The Brezhnev era of economic stagnation is remembered today by the Roma in the former Soviet countries as an affluent, prosperous time. In the shortage economy of that period, people had money but there were permanent deficits of basic goods that shifted from item to item and from region to region, and deficit commodities appearing irrationally at some place immediately produced queues and speculation. This status quo was a result of the (inefficient) central planning system. It provided the highly mobile and flexible Roma with better opportunities to fill the niches of mediators and distributors in a parallel, unofficial economy of redistribution through what had been illegal commercial activities. The Roma bought in one place and sold many hundreds of miles away a variety of goods, from chewing gum to electronics smuggled from abroad. At the same time, in the non-Soviet communist camp, the Roma, though faithfully married to a pariah image, were well on their way to occupying the lowest strata of the working class.

A paradoxical situation thus emerged during the Cold War. In Western Europe, many Roma, whose numbers were considerably lower than in the east, preserved a nomadic way of life. Roma remained more distinct in cultural terms while almost invisible politically, and had no place, at the level of public imagination, in the productive classes contributing to the community. At the same time, under communism, they were too "capitalist", often punished for "speculation" and illegal trading. Crime associated with the Roma also displaced them from the world of socialist productive labor. The Gypsies did not fit on either side of the Iron Curtain. On both sides, they were despised as parasites, but for opposite reasons regarding what constitutes a valuable contribution to society. In both worlds, they occupied social spaces not captured by the dominant discipline, whether that of capitalist enterprise or socialist labor.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to underscore the deep difference between the social and political background of Roma in Eastern as opposed to Western Europe and North America. This is why it is important here, especially when trying to understand the ubiquitous nature of the anti-Romani bias, to grasp the essential element of anti-Gypsyism that Western and Eastern European public opinions have in common: the perception of the Roma's parasitic existence and, hence, the deep-seated attitude that the Gypsies are subhuman.

It can be argued (as I do elsewhere: see Petrova, 2000) that the denial of racism is gradually becoming the most typical expression of racist attitudes. "Denial of racism" is meant in the sense that a) the suffering of victims of racism, b) the existence of attitudes in oneself or society that makes this suffering possible, and c) the existence of practices and institutions of racism, are denied.

The denial of racism is a reaction to the post-World War II sanction of racism. In my view, racism's presence is denied more vehemently in those cultures, which, following the Second World War, have done more to limit racism and related intolerance. Denial is a manifestation of a certain level of accomplishment in implementing a human rights and antiracism agenda in a society. In Western democratic societies, for example, most people who share racist opinions and act accordingly, would deny that they are racist, since racism is officially and culturally condemned, while tolerance, racial equality, and human rights are dominant ideological values. Thus, at present racism is rarely a self-description; increasingly, and under the influence of Western democracies and the international antiracism movement, it is becoming a label applied to groups or individuals as perceived by others. Although explicitly racist groups and parties exist, the larger part of today's racists, who hold people of certain ethnic background in contempt or hostility, at the same time oppose being described as racists. Austria's Freedom Party experienced a dramatic rise in popularity following a change of leadership in the mid-1980s, which brought the demagogic, charismatic Jörg Haider to its head and with him a newly invigorated populist, antiforeigner language, together with a renewed belittling of Austria's complicity in the racist crimes of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, most of the party members and supporters deny its racist character.

Anti-Gypsism, a powerful form of present-day racism, is also frequently manifested in the rhetoric of denial. Examples of the rhetoric of denial include:

  • Arguing that race/ethnicity problems are social and economic problems: Government officials from Eastern Europe have said, in effect, that "We are not racist, and do not discriminate. We have no problem with the race or ethnicity of the Roma, but this group is economically and socially weak. The fact that its members are of the same, namely Romani ethnicity, is unimportant (irrelevant, accidental, etc.)". In this case, the government has an excuse for not dealing with race discrimination as an urgent issue;
  • Posing the "equality before the law" argument: This argument lays stress on existing allegedly equal protection by the law. The claim is that "Roma are equal before the law, and therefore do not suffer discrimination in my country; anything that would favor them over others is unfair".
  • Raising the "equal opportunity" (meritocratic) argument: "The members of the Roma ethnic group enjoy equal opportunities with everyone else in our society. How they use these opportunities is up to them. The fact that they do not make good use of their opportunities is not our fault. People ultimately get what they deserve".
  • Blaming the victims: "The Roma must have done something wrong, if not the current generation then previous; otherwise they would not have ended up in such misery/in prison/on the street".
  • Recasting race difference as mental disability: "Romani children are not ready for general public schools."
  • Recasting race difference as a behavioral disorder.
  • Emphasizing duties as a precondition for the enjoyment of rights: "If the Roma do not fulfill their duty X, they cannot claim their right Y".
  • Engaging in denial with the "positive example" argument: "Look at those Roma who made it to the top of society, the company, etc.".
  • Engaging in denial by disclaimer: "Some of my best friends are Roma"; or "I am not racist, because in my building there lived a Romani family, and I had a very good relationship with them".
  • Employing the romanticizing stereotype: The romantic stereotype of Roma includes elements such as musical and dancing talent, capability of passionate love and other strong emotions, spontaneity, free and spiritual character, magical relatedness to nature, ability to enjoy themselves.

Almost none of these rhetorical forms of racist denial, taken in isolation, would be sufficient to describe a racist attitude. Racist statements are contextual. It is also noteworthy that most forms of denial are characterized by easy availability, comments on the causes of racially based disadvantage that, at the level of nonreflective everyday discourse, are never in short supply (for example, "Roma drop out of school because they are poor"). Yet, the person making this statement will say a moment later, "They are poor because they don't study well." Being "logical" is not among the qualities of "ideological" thoughts. Only upon reflection is it revealed that racist rationalizations are not rational and often form a vicious circle.

Even leaders of human rights NGOs tend to deny that Roma are victims of systematic, racially motivated violence. Despite dozens of cases of racially motivated violent crimes committed by law enforcement officials and nonstate actors, documented and broadly publicized by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) (see ERRC, July 1998), Human Rights Watch, and others, the chair of the premier human rights NGO in Macedonia could still write in 2002 on the treatment of the Roma: "The lack of an open discriminatory approach, violent behavior or attempts for forced assimilation is characteristic for Macedonia. There have been no cases of violence that had been caused by ethnic motivations or which would have elements of organized intolerance towards the Roma as a distinct ethnic group" (Najcevska, 2002: 84).

I would suggest interpreting anti-Gypsyism as a set of misconceptions and myths, both expressing and reproducing the sociopolitical weakness of the Romani community. Misconceptions are false ideas about the Roma as they are today, even though misconceptions may have started in the past from some elements of truth. Myths, on the other hand, are not untruths: they are practical truths one can take as assumptions and reach pragmatic results, when acting upon these assumptions. But myths are not truths either: they would cease to be truths as soon as people cease to believe them.

Misconceptions about the Roma

The Misconception of Nomadism
Only some Roma in a few Western European countries (France, Ireland, Netherlands, the United Kingdom) are still nomadic, with large caravans having long ago replaced horse carts. The overwhelming majority of the Roma throughout the world have been settled for decades - some for centuries. But the association of Roma with nomadism nevertheless remains strong (on the manipulative misconception of official Italian policy, for example, see ERRC, October 2000: 8-12). As Fraser wrote, "Settled people, on the whole, do not trust nomads; and in a European society where the majority were pressed into a life of piety, serfdom and drudgery, Gypsies represented a blatant negation of all the essential values and premises on which the dominant morality was based" (Fraser, 1995: 126). On the other hand, in the European mind the nomad is wrapped in a cloud of romantic fantasy - a perception of freedom understood as carelessness.6 An intrinsic element of this fantasy is the unrepressed Gypsy woman - "Carmen" or "Esmeralda" dancing in harmony with nature. In this context one can also see the economic element of the stereotype, encompassing the Gypsy attitude to money and accumulation of wealth. Roma are still believed to be uninterested in long-term security and to regard wealth as a means to show their status in the community. Their consumption patterns have also been explained as hand-to-mouth attitudes bordering on irresponsibility. The lack of saving strategies, which is caused by elementary poverty and discriminatory rejection by the official credit institutions, is misunderstood as a conscious choice.

The Misconception of Romani Crime
Historic sources do support the view that some of the Roma - those moving into Western Europe - resorted to stealing as a means of subsistence. Fortune telling and other forms of mystification, such as forging safe conducts, or the legend of the religious pilgrimage used by the Roma in Western Europe to ensure safety and extort privileges, money, and other benefits, helped congeal their reputation as a people with low sense of morals. But the construction of this reputation took place five or six centuries ago. Yet today, the Gypsies remain married to crime in the public mind. Crime is a form of social control. Different societies have different ideas of what constitutes a higher danger to their existence. Those actions and practices that are seen as dangerous are arranged in a hierarchy of crimes. Crime statistics in some countries have revealed a pattern of overrepresentation of Roma in several types of crime, notably petty stealing. But it should be remembered that crime statistics necessarily contain distortions. They are based on reported crime, and do not necessarily reflect the entire picture of committed offences. Robbery is a crime that has a high degree of reporting, while many other crimes, including corruption, fraudulent financial schemes such as pyramids, or domestic violence, go unreported. An act of petty robbery typically leaves behind one victim, while an act of financial fraud can destroy hundreds. Thus the visibility of robbery and of its individual perpetrators is much higher, while other, not less dangerous forms of crime lie below the surface of society. Roma are overrepresented in crime statistics especially when figures are not broken down by type of offence. Also, because of the kinds of crime reported to the police, the crimes in which Roma are suspects are investigated more vigorously. Of all pretrial investigations, those in which Roma are suspects are more likely to reach the court room; and of all court trials, those in which Roma are defendants are more likely to result in convictions. The convicted Roma are more likely to receive longer prison terms, with the result that they are significantly overrepresented in the prison population. Thus, it is misleading to claim the Roma have a "criminal propensity" based on crime statistics and the number of Roma in prison.

Still, one cannot deny the existence of Roma crime, as righteous proponents of the "Romani cause" sometimes do. It is more important to understand its nature and to realize that Roma are also victims, not only of ordinary crime but of crimes with racial animus as well.

The Romani crime stereotype includes other elements of prejudice, especially the bizarre and thoroughly unfounded "stealing of children" legend that has metamorphosed into the current public misperception that Roma are exploiting their own children by making them engage in begging; it is a fast growing belief that Roma are involved in trafficking in children and women. In the last few years, and especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Roma migration has slipped into the realm of crime in public discourse.

The Misconception of the Roma's Unwillingness to Integrate
Scores of politicians, experts, and lawmakers have reiterated the widespread belief that the Romani minority's problems stem from their unwillingness to integrate into mainstream society. Is there anything true in this view? Undeniably, the Romani culture has historically been relatively closed and inaccessible to outsiders (Hancock, 2002: 67-68), which would be expected from a community constantly at risk. The period of persecution based on anti-Gypsy law in Western and Central Europe (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) had immense consequences for later Romani history. It served to conserve a nomadic way of life for large groups of Roma in Western Europe and consolidated the Romani ethnic community on the basis of a victim mentality. While in Eastern Europe Roma were in the twentieth century well on their way to losing their traditions and becoming almost entirely sedentary, Western European Roma still remain more inward looking and protective of their tradition. This is most typical of the Sinti groups, which still express a strong preference to remain separate. However, the closed character of the Romani culture is no more. Research has consistently demonstrated that, given the choice, Roma prefer to integrate, rather than live in a segregated, parallel society. Roma today are struggling for equal and just participation in mainstream society, while wishing to preserve their unique culture.

The Misconception of the Romani Attitude to Education
As recently as 2002, scholarly articles continued to repeat - together with governmental officials and various educators - that "Roma parents frequently do not regard education as necessary and do not encourage their children to stay in school" (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2002: 19). This is, perhaps, the most dangerous myth, since it


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