I have long wrestled with whether and how I should
write about problems in the Romani civil-rights movement, about the emptiness
of the International Romani Union and the failure of the once-promising
Hungarian minority policy. It was clear to me that if I were to ruthlessly
describe reality and name names (as I have done), I would shatter some
illusions. Especially those of the gadje (non-Roma) who look at
our concerns with feelings that may be romantic, but are at least heartfelt.
On the other hand, I'm of the firm opinion that the time has come for an
honest discussion. I claim nothing that hasn't already been tacitly acknowledged;
I disclose nothing that hasn't long been known in Romani circles.
It is time to stop suppressing the truth about the democratic developments
inside the Romani movement simply to keep the pressure off of the political
"Gypsy industry," which could use a little scrutiny.
I am convinced that only this new, strong civil-rights movement, which
follows the tradition of civil disobedience while keeping to the tenets
of human rights and pluralistic democracy, has a future. Romani activists
in the new Central and Eastern European democracies must understand that
a strong civil-rights movement is the guarantee of a strong democracy,
not the enemy of democratic process. That only a strong, Roma-elected representative
body can contribute to improvement of the situation of Roma. That democracy
and human rights are not goals to be reached just once, but rather require
daily work, daily respect for people, and, of course, a daily struggle
against totalitarianism, racism, and ignorance.
We Roma have in the last few years become the measure
for the newly created democracies in Europe: so long as those countries
are not ready to let go of their anti-Roma policies, they are as far from
democratic development as they ever were under their communist regimes.
So long as in those countries human-rights violations against Roma are
a normal occurrence, the resistance to their policies will remain a duty.
Without respect for Roma, there can be no democracy in those countries
and certainly no open society.
Integration, Not Assimilation
Ever since our arrival in Europe, we Roma have
been victims of society's animosity. Banishment and pogroms, as well as
mistreatment and discrimination, have always been part of everyday life
for the "Gypsies." Any means to get rid of us has been defended-in
tune, of course, with the spirit and opportunities of the times. Attempts
at solving the "Gypsy problem" have ranged from mere banishment
- when that was politically feasible - to attempts at physical annihilation.
Tolerance of violence against Roma has been so blatant that I need not
belabor the point.
It was during the Habsburg reign that the state first tried a particularly
insidious way of getting rid of us: assimilation. Trying to employ a "humane"
way of solving the "Gypsy problem," Empress Maria Teresa prohibited
intermarriage among Roma. Gadjes were actually offered money to marry a
"Gypsy." Romani children were wrested from their parents in an attempt
to forcefully re-educate them, Roma's horses and carriages - if they had
any - were confiscated, and the Romani language was banned. From that time
forth, decreed Maria Teresa, Roma were to live as happy peasants. Of course,
the attempt to "cure" the Roma of their Roma-ness - effectively, to make
them disappear - through forceful assimilation was a failure. Still, the
effects of the empress's "Gypsy policy" are noticeable even today,
particularly in Hungary, where more than 70 percent of Roma no longer speak
their own language and have even adopted the derogatory name "Gypsy"
to describe themselves.
Again and again, provisions for forceful assimilation
have been packaged as a policy of integration. But assimilation in this
context is nothing less than the systematic annihilation and suppression
of group identity, language, and cultural advancement, of individual independence
On the one hand, assimilation policies are enforced; on the other hand,
everything possible is done to prevent Roma from actually integrating,
as a legitimate minority, into the mainstream. Thus, when the "Gypsy
policy" breaks down, it is the "Gypsies" themselves who are blamed;
they are accused of refusing to integrate. Trapped in that vicious circle
of frustration and blame, many have given up and tried to find the cause
of failure among themselves. Refusal of their Romani identity is seen as
the only way out.
What is shocking is that a number of Romani intellectuals are included
in that group. Saying that the Roma are to be blamed for the situation,
those intellectuals legitimize their own capitulation by attempting to
project it upon the entire Romani population. I have always been fascinated
by the ease with which they are able to ignore the historical and psychosocial
context and to mark Romani demands for self-determination, mother tongue,
liberty, democracy, cultural independence, and sovereignty as immoral and
harmful while at the same time conceding those same demands to the majority.
What kind of psychological contortions are required to produce such a rejection
The complex historical and political reality is being reduced to the
mere assertion that Roma don't want to assimilate. As a matter of fact,
that is the most frequent argument the gadjes trot out in response to legitimate
Romani demands. It has become an integral part of any discussion of how
to "improve" the situation of the Roma. It is therefore unsurprising that
so many programs have attempted to solve the "Gypsy problem" through
"integration" as understood by the majority.
But integration is only possible if the majority is willing to accept,
to take in, the minority. However hard the minority may try to "become
integrated," its attempts will be futile unless the majority is willing
to accept all members of the minority and to recognize them as equals.
That means integration is a process of the majority, not of the minority.
The majority must be convinced of the necessity of integrating the minority.
Integration programs ought to be aimed at changing the attitudes of the
majority rather than at changing the behavior of the minority.
Assimilation, on the other hand, with its goal of making the minority
adaptable to the majority, is something quite different. Assimilation may
be a completely legitimate strategy for an individual, but it is by no
means a sufficient general program. Assimilation programs will always require
the adoption of forceful measures, since their objective is the destruction
of a group's identity, of its values, culture, and standards.
And while integration is being talked about, it is assimilation that
is being attempted. Its near-victory has been one of the most dreadful
accomplishments of the modern "Gypsy policy." We have become what
the gadjes have made us: a nation of beggars and outcasts, trapped within
our ascribed role of musical clowns on the trash heaps of affluent society.
Those of us who can pass as white intellectuals are always afraid of being
"outed." Assimilation offers no protection against persecution; the Nazis
proved that. The German Sinti who regarded themselves as assimilated and
accepted were murdered in the German concentration camps, just like the
fully assimilated German Jews. My own parents survived the Holocaust only
because they managed to escape in time from their gadje friends, with whom
they had lived in such a neighborly way for many years. I am firmly convinced
that the approach of capitulation and denial of one's origins is wrong
and that it serves neither the minority nor the majority.
The Myth of Worldwide Representation
Romani organizations are never united! So begins
almost every pronouncement of "Roma experts" concerning our civil-rights
movement. Actually those "experts" are not far wrong. But I do not draw
the same conclusions as they do.
In the Romani civil-rights movement, virtually all the major posts are
filled by those so-called Roma experts. In endless seminars and workshops
they discuss our problems; they build their careers upon our sufferings.
They compile reams of statistics and produce reports by the kilo; they
have monopolized the discussion of us. The results of their research and
experience are always the same: they need more money to carry out further
research so they can examine us even more carefully. Those experts are
part of the problem and in no way part of the solution.
As far as I know there is hardly any international
panel acting on behalf of the Roma that is not dominated by those "Gypsy
experts" who themselves are not Roma. I don't need to stress that that
is not an accident.
The bodies representing Romani interests can be roughly divided into
several basic currents. The most obvious is "traditional" Romani representation:
kings, barons, chieftains, and in the modern form, presidents of international
organizations. Such representation is accepted by the gadjes. While they
belittle it, they also recognize it. Without posing any threat to the anti-Roma
policy of the states, those representatives interfere with true Romani
representation by monopolizing the discussion. Supported by the "Gypsy
experts" and by governments, they are not strongly backed by Roma. Then
there is the Romani movement within political parties. As a rule, activists
of that movement are closely linked to the leading political parties and
canvass votes for them. That form of organization is often to be found
in the former communist countries.
The broad-based, classic civil-rights movement stands outside the parliament,
in opposition to the state, and represents Roma on the social, legal, and
personal level. With its clear democratic structures, it is most often
found in Western Europe, but recently a growing number of initiatives in
the East have begun to follow the example.
Particularly damaging is the "Gypsy industry,"
a medley of various experts and interest groups with one common attribute:
the nonacceptance of Roma as a subject of international law with the right
to represent their own interests. That group generally consists of "experts,"
gadjes, whose qualifications are not sufficient to build a career in a
different field. Because they are accepted by other gadjes, they unduly
affect the Romani policies of countries and international associations.
One of the most firmly established representatives of that kind is J. P.
Liegeois. A "Roma expert" for various European bodies (Council
of Europe, European
Parliament) for more than two decades, he must share in the blame
for the current situation of Roma and Sinti in Western Europe. Millions
of ecu have passed through the bank accounts of his organizations
over the many years of his work "for the Roma." The question of who has
profited most from his work, the Roma or Liegeois himself, may be answered
by ascertaining how many Roma even know who Liegeois is. After 20 years,
with the exception of a few experts and linguists, none!
One of the best-known Romani groups is the International Romani Union
(IRU), founded in the early 1970s by a small group of Romani intellectuals.
A praiseworthy idea. Yet from the very beginning, the IRU faced structural
problems. Lacking sufficient funding and well-thought-out goals, lacking
a proper organizational structure that would guarantee regular functioning,
lacking a strategy and orderly democratic procedures, the IRU has remained
a loose association of individuals. Representatives are often found by
chance, just because they happened to be there.
Unable to function properly as an organization, the IRU has had to rely
on the assistance of individuals and hence unfortunately has also been
prone to abuse by individuals. It would be unfair to question the motives
of some of the IRU activists, such as Ian Hancock. With admirable persistence,
Ian has successfully reminded the gadjes of the IRU's existence and has
managed to keep it alive. Unfortunately, even the most honest motives cannot
compensate for the lack of democratic structures. The IRU has never been
able to get beyond the status of a paper tiger. Undoubtedly to blame are,
among other things, the undemocratic and paternalistic structures that
some IRU functionaries brought from their communist past. The IRU has never
played any significant role in the Romani community. It is a gadje-oriented
organization, and its officials have always attached more value to it being
recognized by gadje institutions than by Roma. It is, therefore, not surprising
that it has never been taken seriously by Roma, let alone been considered
their true representative.
Some Success, Some Hope
Not all Romani organizations are as frustrating
as the IRU. In the last few years, almost unnoticed by the public, more
than 300 new Romani groups have appeared across Europe. Like blacks in
the United States, Romani activists have had to learn through bitter experience
that no "white man" is ready to solve the problem of Roma in Europe. Across
borders, young Romani activists have begun to take their future into their
own hands through countless grass-roots projects. While governments continue
trying to establish and support "their" Romani organizations and "their"
Romani chiefs, Romani activists have been building their own representation.
Just a few examples are the Roma and Sinti Union in Germany; the Foundation
for Hope and Understanding in the Czech Republic; the Rromani CRISS in
Romania; Phralipe and the Roma Parliament in Hungary; and the Roma
National Congress. Since the mid-1980s, those organizations have
protested against deportations, discrimination, and violence against Roma
through countless demonstrations, hunger strikes, and publicity stunts.
They have tirelessly introduced young Romani activists to civil-rights
work. Over the years, they have made sure that the legitimate demands of
Roma have found their way to the ears of international bodies.
One such demand, for a contact point for Roma and Sinti issues, was
answered by the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe. In 1995, that organization created a
group that records human-rights violations against Roma in the member states.
Also that year, a coordinating body was set up to facilitate communication
among the different streams of the Romani movement.
Other international structures also offer hope. The U.S.-based Project
on Ethnic Relations has set up a special Roma Advisory Board consisting
of many Romani intellectuals. And one of the biggest supporters of grass-roots,
democratic Romani work is the Soros
Foundation network. In almost all the countries the foundation
serves, independent programs for Roma have been implemented. The newest
is the Open Society Institute's
Regional Roma Participation Program, which has the support of the National
Roma Program and other Romani projects. The Soros network donates many
millions of dollars to Romani projects each year, from school programs
on economics to support for independent Romani media and Romani organizations
in the former communist countries.
Even education is being gradually drawn into the new Romani movement.
Until recently, dogma held that schools and their institutions were untouchable,
but now more and more Romani teachers and sympathizers are articulating
their opposition to schools as re-education institutes. The discriminatory
practice of many countries of putting Romani children into schools for
the mentally retarded is becoming a subject of criticism. Romani organizations
have begun to articulate their own ideas of what school should be.
In the realm of human rights, new Romani institutions
have become active. The European Roma Rights
Center (ERRC) has been working for a year on the creation of a
network that would aid the Roma in securing their rights. In many reports
on human-rights violations against Roma in Europe, ERRC lawyers have found
fault with governments' inadequate protection of Roma. Through the support
of the ERRC, ombudsman's offices have been created to oversee Romani rights
in many post-communist countries.
That is particularly important as many foundations and gadje organizations
have recognized that the question of discrimination against Roma in Europe
will become a core problem of European development in the foreseeable future.
International bodies like the Council of
Europe and the OSCE have
realized that Europeans' tolerance for violence and discrimination against
Roma will no longer be manageable. But out of prejudice and ignorance,
they court the same old tried-and-true Romani structures.
Governments today have less communication with,
let alone influence over, grass-roots groups than ever. In their arrogance
to gain control of the Roma problem through assimilation, tame representatives,
repression, and violence, they are missing the chance to build a true partnership.