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Europe’s spectral nation
May 10th 2001 | PRAGUE, MARCHEVO, KOSICE AND BUDAPEST
From The Economist print edition



Europe’s attitudes to Gypsies are both ignorant and prejudiced. Time to do better

AT LEAST 6m Gypsies, or Roma, live in Europe, most of them in former communist countries or scattered around the Mediterranean. They are at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare-dependent, the most imprisoned, and yes, the most segregated. In one indicator, they lead: they have the most children. In sum, they are a spectral third-world nation in Europe.

In a swathe of land running from the Polish side of the Tatra mountains to the Aegean sea, Gypsies account for between 5% and 12% of the population. Accurate statistics are difficult to come by because most countries refuse to gather ethnic data, at least for public consumption. The treatment of these Gypsies is perhaps the most important civil-rights issue in Europe, and one that will have a direct bearing on European Union accession talks and on regional development.

In Hungary and the Czech Republic, where they make up around 3% of the population, Gypsies have been among the biggest losers in the past ten years. Unemployment rates for Gypsies run at 70% and above. A study in Ostrava, an industrial city in the Czech Republic, found that a Gypsy child was 23 times more likely to be placed in a school for the mentally retarded than a white Czech child, even when of normal intelligence. The best such a child can hope for is a career as a cleaner. In Hungary Gypsy children are banned, in some schools, from the “whites only” cafeteria and gym. Across Central Europe, Gypsies are the prime target of neo-Nazi thugs.

The Czech and Hungarian governments, and many citizens too, are committed to improving matters. In merely recognising the problem, they are already doing better than EU countries such as Spain, Italy and especially Greece. But they have not yet gone far towards solving it. “We’ll see the first results in a decade,” says Jan Kavan, the Czech foreign minister.

In Slovakia, Gypsies make up over 10% of the population. Their birth rate is so high, and that of other Slovaks so low, that they might even become a majority in the country by 2060. Welfare payments to Gypsies will bankrupt the country long before then, perhaps as early as 2020. Romania’s 2m Gypsies—the largest national population in the world—are in a precarious position. The Gypsy slums of Bucharest are already wretched. If the Romanian economy continues to fall apart, as looks likely, Gypsies will remain impoverished and will become racial scapegoats.

The EU is the Gypsies’ best ally. On a visit to Slovakia in February, Günther Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, made a point of sticking his head inside a Gypsy shack and promising $10m for specific Gypsy development projects in the country this year. “We cannot expect”, he said, “that a solution to this problem, which arose hundreds of years ago, will be found within a few years.” Careful words. But then Mr Verheugen is in an awkward position. He is adamant that the “Gypsy question”, as it is queasily termed, will not hold up enlargement, but he also knows it must begin to be tackled at source before there can be any agreement on the free movement of labour. An exodus of Gypsies into the EU, everyone agrees, would be a political disaster for an expanding union.

The history of a tribe

Gypsies can be hard to define. Europe now contains “travellers” who are not Gypsies, while many Gypsies are settled in towns and cut off from their traditions. There is a problem of attitudes, too. No one can deny that Gypsies are badly treated; but a culture of petty criminality in some Gypsy groups means that the prejudice often seems justified. It is not just right-wing thugs who say this; ask any farmer in Kent, in south-east England, what he thinks of the “pikeys” who come calling.

Surprisingly, there is no clear definition of what Gypsies are. Dark-skinned Romany-speaking nomads of Hindu origin, says the dictionary. But not all Gypsies are dark-skinned and only about 4m, at most, speak some kind of Romany. Certainly they are not Egyptians, from which the word, in English, is derived. Nor, nowadays, are they the colourful nomads of yore, drawing decorated caravans down dusty roads. Some traditional roaming Gypsy culture remains, but not much. The Nazis, who murdered perhaps 500,000 Gypsies, saw to that. So too did the communists, whose well-intentioned but damaging paternalism held that Gypsies should settle down like good comrades, often in industrial towns.

According to Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas, the latest research indicates that the original Gypsies were a mix of Indian ethnic groups assembled in the early 11th century as a military force to resist Islamic incursions. Romany developed in India as a military lingua franca with heavy Persian influences, as did Urdu; the Romany word for a non-Gypsy, gadje, is derived from the Hindi word gajjha, meaning civilian. The first record of Gypsies in the west is in Constantinople in 1054; their first appearance in Europe proper came as military attachments to Ottoman armies. “The fact they were mistaken for Muslims”, Mr Hancock ruefully notes, “set the stage for anti-Gypsyism.”

“We were not nomads by choice,” says Emil Scuka, president of the International Romany Union (IRU), which seeks to represent Gypsies worldwide (though unconvincingly so; it relies on gadje money to stay afloat). Banned from entering towns, Gypsies found employment on the margins of society as metal workers, entertainers and thieves. They were enslaved in Romania until 1864. Pogroms came and went across Europe until the Holocaust, which Gypsies call Porramous, the devouring. Most Gypsies never even made it to the death camps. Local police units, happy to spare the Nazis the work, shot up caravans in meadows and copses. Travelling families, with no written records and with hidden traditions, simply vanished. Tellingly, Gypsies were not mentioned at Nuremberg.

No matter that mainstream society sees Gypsies as a whole; Gypsies see themselves indistinctly, if at all. Gypsy culture is one of patriarchal families, sometimes clans, but never a nation. Even where disparate Gypsy groups gather together, as in Italian camps for nomads, mutual antagonisms quickly drive them apart. Identity gets complicated. Several groups singled out for murder by Albanians in Kosovo for being Gypsies reject the appellation.

Even the terminology is tricky. “Roma” is the preferred term, but not all Gypsies are Roma. “Gypsy” is much more elastic—all Roma are Gypsies. But it is also a loaded term since, across Europe, Gypsy is another word for thief.

Not without reason. The Gypsy rate of criminality is high (though ill-treatment of Gypsies in judicial systems is high also). According to Helsinki Watch, a human-rights group, 60% of male inmates in Hungarian prisons are Gypsies, 12 times the national average. In Spain, where Gypsies account for 1.5% of the population, Gypsy women make up more than a quarter of the female inmates.

Nor do Gypsies, on the whole, have much time for gadje. Traditional Gypsies, such as those who can be found begging with child on hip in the London Underground, are mostly from Romania, the descendants of freed slaves. Always landless, they have developed a service culture. To them, gadje are all potential customers (or targets, in the case of pickpockets). Gypsy-gadje relations are made even trickier where traditional groups still observe laws shaped by a sense of imminent defilement, the idea (more understandable when framed within an Indian caste system) that contact with gadje, particularly sexual contact, is a kind of pollution punishable by banishment.

Settled deprivation

The Gypsy ghetto of Marchevo in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains, a few miles from the Greek—and therefore EU—border, is pretty representative of how poor Gypsies live nowadays. Nothing romantic or carefree here, just a forlorn settlement on a hill above the whitewashed village of Marchevo proper. Two families settled on the hilltop in 1960. They were basket-weavers by trade, and their family had roamed the Balkans selling baskets for as long as anyone could remember. Communism and the advent of plastic bags stripped them of their livelihood. So they stayed.

They have prospered in nothing, save children. The ghetto has grown to 400 people, half of them under the age of 15. All those of working age are unemployed. Families survive on small welfare payments and on what they can forage. They have neither electricity nor gas. The only source of water is a pipe jutting from the mud from which everyone drinks and washes, not least the ghetto’s much-loved dogs and horses. There is no sanitation; rubbish and waste are everywhere. The living quarters are a few fetid blankets and pieces of torn plastic arranged over green branches hacked from a nearby forest. Daylight does not penetrate inside, though rainwater sluices in. A grandmother points out her 14-year-old daughter, sick with a blood disorder. She lies feverish in a filthy bed, a new-born child at her side.

The only book in the ghetto is a bible, left by an itinerant Bulgarian evangelist. Few can read it, though its arrival caused the ghetto to declare itself Baptist. “I can read a form, sign my name, that’s about it,” says a grandfather. The most educated person in the ghetto, he adds, left school at 15.

The Bulgarian government, in distant Sofia, claims to be sympathetic. Petar Stoyanov, the country’s president, has promised more assistance and a new water supply for Marchevo. But he knows there are 300 or so such settlements in Bulgaria, and several thousand more littered across the rest of Europe. In Slovakia, about 25% of Gypsies live in such segregated communities, and there is little money or political will to make them less miserable.

In the ghettos, health standards have collapsed. Birth defects have risen, as has infant mortality. Tuberculosis has returned. The rise in the number of children given up to orphanages also reflects worsening conditions: 75% of children in Romanian orphanages are given up by Gypsy mothers. “It makes me sad,” says one Gypsy leader, “but you cannot raise children for the 21st century in conditions of the 13th century.”

Young Gypsy men in the ghettos have little concept of what a job is. But then they stand almost no chance of getting one anyway. Racial discrimination does not even come into it; there are no jobs nowadays for unskilled and illiterate workers. In communist times the huge steelworks in Kosice, a city in eastern Slovakia, used to employ Gypsies to sweep the mill floors. Now they use machines.

Job mobility is very low, but Gypsies follow success models. When one Slovak Gypsy made it to London and sent back a videotape showing how good life was there, his entire village sought asylum in Britain. Another village devoted itself to robbing passengers on the Prague-Kosice night train after one family showed it to be a good earner. Completing school could be a good earner, too; but it takes longer.

“They’re very good at music”

There are brighter sides to this picture. Police forces across Central Europe now at least admit to racial discrimination. “Gypsies used to be beaten as a matter of routine,” says one human-rights lawyer. “Now it is only on special occasions.” Jörg Haider, ironically, might prove a help to Gypsies. The success of his xenophobic party in Austria last year pushed the EU to pass a directive, offering more legal protection to minorities, that all applicant countries must accept before they can join.

The non-wandering life

Special scholarships mean more Gypsy children are staying at school and entering university; the University of Cluj, in Romania, has 150 Gypsy students this year, a previously unheard-of number. Governments across the region have begun to change their education policies to give Gypsy children the best chance. There is some international pressure: on International Roma Day, April 8th, the United States announced that it was giving $585,000 to the Open Society Institute to provide college scholarships and grants for community projects especially for Gypsies. And it asked Hungary and the Czech Republic to change their laws.

In the past, the few Gypsies who succeeded often did so at the expense of their Gypsy roots. Now young Gypsies like Dragan Ristic, a theatre director, are beginning to assert their identity. Mr Ristic, who comes from Yugoslavia, has set up Gypsy theatre companies in Belgrade and Budapest. “To be a Gypsy”, he says, “is to be an unwelcome guest from nowhere.” Still, Mr Ristic is cautiously optimistic. He spends his spare time translating human-rights documents into Romany, a difficult task since the language was codified only ten years ago and still has a dictionary of only 5,000 words.

Rudolf Schuster, the president of Slovakia, thinks that Gypsy children from the ghettos should be sent to boarding school. “No child can learn in those conditions,” he says. Educated for what? “Well, music perhaps. They’re very good at music, you know.”

It would be easy to scoff if anyone had a better answer. So far, no one has. Well-meaning attempts to reduce Gypsy welfare dependency by slashing benefits have so far only forced the poorest families to Gypsy loan sharks, where loans are more readily repaid in teeth, fingers and sex. “Everything westerners suggest has already been tried 20 years ago,” says a frustrated official in Kosice, in eastern Slovakia. He wonders how his city, labouring under 25% unemployment, can keep subsidising Gypsy housing while evicting white Slovaks for not paying rent. Handouts to Gypsies translate directly into votes for extreme nationalist parties.

Wanted: leaders

The biggest problem is the lack of good Gypsy leaders. Leadership is strong at the family and clan level but weak, divided and often corrupt at the political level. Traditional Gypsies still swear fealty to self-declared “kings” who tend to hold court in sprawling, flamboyant residences, dispensing favours and receiving tribute. Each king represents a single clan, which is probably feuding with several others.

Politically, Gypsies are worse off even than ghetto blacks in America. Although drugs and violence are not endemic in their settlements, they have almost no middle-class to aspire to and no political consciousness. There is no Gypsy equivalent of the NAACP; there has never been, and probably never will be, a Gypsy equivalent of Martin Luther King.

Gypsies remain largely removed from political life. Few vote. When they do, they are as likely to be swayed by the cash handouts of populist parties as to support an ethnic-Gypsy party. There are signs, particularly in urban, less traditional communities, that this is changing. More Gypsies than ever before are winning elections for political office, and at a higher level: by one estimate, there are 20 Gypsy MPs and mayors in several countries, besides 400 local councillors. But the process is slow. Whenever the local press praises an elected Gypsy leader he is usually brought down, either for drink or general incompetence.

Besides, Gypsy political parties rarely agree among themselves. Attempts to make a coalition of Gypsy parties (Slovakia has 17) invariably break down in petty squabbles. It is the same with international Gypsy organisations. Mr Scuka’s IRU is meant to represent 10m Gypsies in more than 30 countries and has done much to promote a standard and written form of Romany. But Gypsies in the ghettos have never heard of it, and few of those who attend its congresses have been democratically elected themselves. Hungarian Gypsies did not bother to show up at the IRU’s last congress, some whispering in private that the organisation was just a front for the Czech secret service.

Josef Sana, the first Gypsy to be elected mayor of Lunik 9, a miserable housing estate on the edge of the Slovak city of Kosice, is a case in point. The communists built Lunik 9 as a model of urban planning and integration for 3,800 people; whites and Gypsies living together in harmony, or so the propaganda went. The whites fled as soon as they could, leaving a Gypsy ghetto—population 5,200, and rising.

Mr Sana provided a glimmer of hope to all, successfully organising a clean-up of the estate and founding a local Gypsy security force to discourage bad behaviour. A good-news story, then? Not quite. The day after The Economist saw him, Mr Sana was arrested by the police.

At national and supranational level, the story is the same. Governments are keen to involve Gypsies in solving their own problems, but are frustrated by the lack of leadership. Privately, EU officials say they do not trust Gypsy leaders enough, yet, to let them administer a single euro. Over the centuries, not much has changed.




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