Roma in Russia

10 May 2003

Nadezhda Demeter1

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Council of Europe for its attention to European minorities and, in particular, to the Romani people. Besides, learning from international experience in human rights protection is of utmost importance for us Roma.

In 2001, I participated in a meeting held in Strasbourg which was devoted to the issue of fight against racial discrimination against Roma in Europe and the role of the Ombudsman institution in this process. Mr A. Lando, Ombudsman of the city of Saratov area in Russia was among the participants. In my speech I outlined the dire situation of Roma in Russia, with particular emphasis on the enormous number of cases in which Roma are indicted for drug-trafficking in the absence of evidence and apparently on the presumption that belonging to the Romani ethnicity is enough proof of guilt. I also drew the attention of the audience to the fact that Russia seems to be the only European country with no television and radio programmes in Romani, no schools, no state agencies for social and legal protection of the Romani population. The official explanation for this is that Roma are only one of the small minorities among Russia's one hundred and fifty ethnic minority groups. But this is no justification of the state's inattention to the rights and needs of the Russian Roma. Roma have suffered from discrimination throughout their history, and they deserve affirmative action policy.

We understand that the minority issue in general is not just a domestic issue and that there are international conventions and agreements by which the Russian Federation is supposed to abide. Our numerous attempts to draw public attention to the social, economic and legal situation of Roma in Russia have so far been largely futile. In October 2001, a roundtable meeting on Roma in Russia took place in Moscow. In 2002, another roundtable discussion was held in the North-West of Russia on the situation of Roma. But that was the end of any interest in us. In 2001, Mr Lando promised to bring our recommendations to the attention of the Human Rights Commissioner of the Russian Federation. However, this has not happened and there has been no progress in the human rights field.

Why does the government of the Russian Federation closes its eyes to discrimination against Roma by law enforcement bodies and does not take any effective measures in order to end prejudice in courts? It is well known that in many cases apprehension, indictment and conviction of Roma is carried out in violation of the Constitution and the laws of the Russian Federation. It is time to stop persecution campaigns against Roma. Let me illustrate this with one example. On August 3, 2001, two police officers, V. Kobelkov and D. Tikhonov of the town of Khimki in the suburbs of Moscow, killed Mr Jeryomenko, a Romani man. They detained him without any reason, took him to the police station and beat him. He died as a result of a ruptured spleen in the building of the police station. A year and a half has passed after the incident without any justice for the victim. The trial has been postponed nine times so far.

Probably the most outrageous expression of the abuse of Roma rights in Russia was a special police operation called "Operation Tabor"2 organised and carried out by the Moscow police with the purpose of "cracking down on illegal activities of members of the most 'vagrant' ethnic group." In the course of "Operation Tabor", Roma were listed, photographed and fingerprinted. People renting housing to Roma were also targeted for checks by the police. Article 19 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation says: "The state shall guarantee the equality of rights and liberties regardless of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, property or employment status, residence, attitude to religion, convictions, membership of public associations or any other circumstance; any restrictions of the rights of citizens on social, racial, national, linguistic or religious grounds shall be prohibited". Are Roma not Russian citizens? Are they not to be protected by the country's fundamental law? The authorities and journalists in Russia seem ignorant of the fact that Roma have been leading a sedentary life since the adoption of the notorious decree of 1956, according to which it was forbidden (for Roma) to migrate and anyone who has violated this law would face punishment of up to 5 years of imprisonment. Those who are thought of as nomads today are seasonal workers in Russia who need assistance and wise government policy and not persecution by police.

What is needed now is adoption of a special federal government programme for the protection of Roma and their human rights. Society, however, remains unprepared to accept a programme intended specifically for Roma. Following the Moscow police action "Operation Tabor", similar actions were carried out in Yaroslavl, Samara, Saint-Petersburg and other cities in Russia. The mass media was regularly referring to these actions as "Operation Tabor 1", "Operation Tabor 2" etc. The notion that Roma are just a bunch of criminals is persistently hammered into the heads of the Russian citizens. What is this if not racism?

Many Romani intellectuals - lawyers, teachers, artists and others - expressed their indignation at this "special action" claiming that this abuse of the fundamental rights of Roma exceeds the repressive measures of Stalin's times. It is alarming, however, that not a single newspaper, radio or television programme criticised "Operation Tabor". On the contrary, the media seemed to offer its full support to the police action. Numerous media reports stigmatise Roma as habitual criminals. Romani individuals are often accused of heinous crimes by the media, without any proof that they are the perpetrators. When Romani suspects are acquitted, however, no denial of inaccurate information is ever published.

For twelve years have we been trying, on both national and international levels, to fight the denigration of the Roma by the press. Twelve years of struggle against prejudice, undisguised lies and misinformation. It would be unfair to accuse us of inaction. But, unfortunately, we have to acknowledge having been defeated. The few and irregular issues of the Romani newspapers and journals cannot stand up to the avalanche of negative publications on the Roma.


  1. Nadezhda Demeter is a leading Roma rights activist in Russia. She is the director of the Moscow-based non-governmental organisation Romano Kher. Published here is an abridged version of her Rome presentation.
  2. For more information on the police action Operation Tabor see Roma Rights 2/2002.


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