160. The Roma of Eastern Europe Since 1989: Communities In Crisis

By
David M. Crowe

The Roma, or Gypsies, have lived in Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, since the Middle Ages. Originally a warrior class in India, they were driven out as victims of war by the invading Muslims. Modern Gypsies prefer to be called Roma, which is a Romani (the language of the Roma) word meaning husband or man. "Gypsy" comes from "Egyptian," which medieval Eastern Europeans mistakenly called the Roma. Gypsy, cigány, and other European derivatives of Byzantine terms, such as Atsínganoi (meaning itinerant musician or soothsayer) and Adsincani are laden with prejudicial stereotypes and meanings.

During the early centuries of their existence in Eastern Europe, the Roma were highly prized as craftsmen. Few armies could function in the region without their arms manufacturing or equine skills. Over time, however, these talents came to haunt the Roma, as the boyars of Romania's historic provinces (Wallachia and Moldavia) enslaved the Roma to insure that these skills would remain an integral part of the Romanian economy. Elsewhere, East Europeans linked the Roma incorrectly to the Ottoman Turks and subjected them to abuse and settlement restrictions. Traditionally, the Roma had moved from village to village where they provided Balkan peasants and noblemen with essential metalworking and horse handling. In the 15th and 16th centuries, forced Romani nomadism became institutionalized in laws throughout the region that severely restricted Romani movement and settlement patterns. A complex body of prejudices became integral to obstructing Romani settlement and movement throughout Eastern Europe, and these biases continue to plague the Roma to this day.

During the Enlightenment, Habsburg rulers attempted to address Romani nomadism by initiating restrictions designed to end their nomadism and essentially destroy the extended Roma family. The goal of these policies was forced assimilation of the Roma and destruction of the traditional Romani values, culture, and lifestyle. Such policies were reminiscent of similar efforts by governments throughout Eastern Europe after World War II. Given the long history of Romani prejudice and mistreatment in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, it should come as no surprise that the Germans and their collaborators murdered between 250,000-500,000 Roma during the Holocaust.

Within a decade of this tragedy, the new communist governments throughout Eastern Europe began to discover that the continued low status of the Roma contradicted celebrated socialist efforts of equality and achievement. What communist regimes found were large, diverse Romani communities crippled by low unemployment and educational standards. Moreover, centuries-old prejudices seriously compromised government efforts to help the Roma overcome these problems. Forced resettlement and housing programs as well as new efforts to educate Roma youth were usually unimaginative and unsympathetic to Romani cultural traditions and values. By the early 1980s, many non-Roma came to resent government money invested in these programs. More and more, the Roma came to be viewed as a privileged, pampered group, set apart from the rest of East European society. The reality, of course, was quite different, and the Roma remained deeply impoverished and illiterate.

Given the hatred of the Roma in Eastern Europe and the escalating resentment towards them in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not surprising that a more virulent strain of anti-Roma prejudice exploded throughout the region after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s. The new policies of openness and democratization produced a climate of intensified hatred and abuse of the Roma. This group now became the scapegoat for all that had gone awry in the region. The Roma were subjected to growing harassment and indiscriminate violence unparalleled in European history since the Holocaust.

This spirit of democratization and openness also brought new opportunities for the Roma, who discovered strength in numbers. Though estimates vary widely, Romani populations range from as high as 2.5 million in Romania to 700,000-800,000 in both Bulgaria and Hungary. Fueled by this newfound sense of social and political strength, the Roma began to develop several political, cultural, and other organizations to promote their ethnic, cultural, and social interests.

These developments, however, could not counter the ongoing socio-economic problems of the Roma. The Roma became further marginalized as unemployment figures for them rose to 50-75 percent in parts of Romania and the Czech Republic. Further legislation, adopted in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, was designed to rob the Roma of citizenship rights and the ability to organize politically along ethnic lines.

The greatest problem facing the Roma in Eastern Europe has been prejudice. Roaming bands of skinheads and other groups have mounted campaigns of indiscriminate violence that resulted in a number of Romani deaths. Romanian miners ravaged the Romani quarter in Bucharest in 1990. New reports indicate a crescendo of anti-Roma violence, often at the hands of police anti-Roma squads. Such prejudice, particularly when coupled with ineffective and uninspired government efforts to address the deeper social, educational, and economic problems of the Roma, have kept them on the lowest rungs of Eastern Europe's socio-economic ladders. Until Romani problems are addressed in a more significant and mature manner, these issues will remain a brake on the full realization of the fruits of democracy for all of the countries of this region.

Dr. Crowe spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on May 20, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant