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Pavel Barša


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									                                               Pavel Barša

    Romanies at the crossroads. The dilemma of contemporary Romany politics

        One of the least reflected on consequences of the collapse of the Soviet bloc
was the opening of the Romany question. Over the 1990s the countries of central
and eastern Europe have undergone an economic and political transformation. On
the one hand this has had a negative impact on the overwhelming majority of
Romanies but, on the other hand, has offered them the opportunity to give active
answers, an opportunity previously not available for them under the totalitarian
        The main negative impact was the loss of the relative social security assured
them by the socialist states at the cost of the loss of freedom and state control of their
life. Above all, Romanies, who are generally less qualified and have a different style
of life, are afflicted substantially more by unemployment than are members of the
majority ethnic groups. For a certain, but much smaller, number of Romanies the new
situation has offered new opportunities. New economic conditions enabled some
groups, especially Olassi Romanies, to develop their traditional dealing activities with
new types of goods, no longer with horses but rather with mercedes cars, and the
income of these groups exceeds the national average by several times. However, for
the majority of central and east European Romanies the transition to a market
economy has meant greater poverty and insecurity. In addition to these there have
been the traps of political liberalisation – gambling, drugs and prostitution. Last but
not least Romanies have begun to face far more open expressions of xenophobic
behaviour from members of the majorities of the countries in which they live.
        The political transformation that has enabled these expressions has also
offered Romanies the chance of both individual and collective replies which they did
not previously have. Along with American political scientist Albert Hirschman we can
systematically designate these replies as exit and voice.1 Hirschman says people and
groups of people who find themselves in an unpleasant situation can resolve it in two
basic ways. They can either mobilize themselves into a movement for changing the
given state of affairs, metaphorically speaking ”raise their voice” or they can pack
their bags and set out to seek for fortune elsewhere, ”exit”. Hirschman regards the
first reaction as typically ”political” and the second as typically ”market” – if one
supplier of a certain good does not satisfy us we flee to a competitor. The communist
regime made it fundamentally impossible for Romanies to use either the first or the
second, whereas the successor regimes have – at least in principle – opened up both
        The 1990s became a decade of unprecedented Romany civic and political
mobilisation, and not only on the level of the states in which Romanies live, but also
on the transnational level. However, it was also a decade of migration. In the first half
of the decade the main Romany migrants were Romanies from the Balkans who set
out for the West, with the largest number heading for Germany. (There were also
several hundred Romanies from Romania who applied for political asylum in the
Czech Republic.) In the second half of the 1990s these Romanies were joined by
Romanies from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
        Hirschman points out that the two reactions can supplement one another in
acting on the unfavourable situation that originally provoked them. It is enough to
1Hirschman, Albert O.: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970.
recall what preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall – the whole process started with the
massive exodus of east Germans to west Germany – ”exit”, and that departure
gradually provoked mass demonstrations for a change of regime – that is ”voice”.2
Some Czech and Slovak Romany representatives are enlivening a similar dynamic
now. The emigration of Romanies is used by them as an argument supporting their
demands. Thus ”exit” and ”voice” mutually complement one another, especially in a
situation of international pressure, which gives a minority the chance to blackmail a
majority that is attempting to get its country accepted into European structures. (In
the case of central European countries this means the primary aim of admission to
the EU.)
        Both these reactions to the new deficiencies and new opportunities of the
1990s have started to change the identity of Romanies. A significantly ethno-
culturally various population has started to be represented by its elite as an ethnic or
national collective ”subject”, which raises a claim for representation both on the
national and the international political scene. Migration also contributes, at least
potentially, to the unification and homogenization of Romany identity.
        A good example of the consequences of migration for the reformulation of
group identity is given by events in Germany in the 1990s. In the course of the 1970s
a self governing organisation, both recognised and materially supported by the state,
was formed. Up until the arrival of Romanies in Germany this was based on the
position that Sinti and Romanies living in Germany represent ethnic groups which
belong to the German national state.3 Following the Jewish model this organisation
called itself Zentralrat deutscher Sinti und Roma. The name itself by using the word
‘German’ emphasises the appurtenance to the German nation. This becomes clear in
comparison with the name Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, which
unambiguously speaks of Jews living in Germany rather than of German Jews. The
specific inclusion of two ethnic groups – Sinti and Romani – also gives an expression
of distance towards the unifying, Pan-Romani, and Pan-European nation forming
project, represented by the International Romani Union.
        More nationalist streams at that time did not have great weight in the case of
German Romani and Sinti. However, this changed with the arrival of Balkan Romani
in the first half of the 1990s. A section of Romani activists led by Rudko Kawczynski
started to organise a movement of solidarity with them. This group declared itself
against the aims of the German government to refuse the Balkan Romani their right
to exile and return them to their countries of origin, and asked the German
government to grant them special status. Immigration thus poured new energy into
disputes within the German Romani community over whether Romani and Sinti are
simply one German ”Volksgruppe”, that is a German ethnic minority, or whether they
should join together with other Romanies in a Pan-European national movement and
attempt to achieve the recognition of all Romanies as a subject of international law.
At least in Germany this dispute remains unresolved.
        The German example can serve as a paradigm of the processes which have
been going on over the last 10 years elsewhere – from Ukraine, to the Balkans,
Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The fundamental dilemma faced by the Romany
population of central, east, south-east Europe, but also by the governments of this

2 Hirschman, Albert: ”Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic,” in: A Propensity to Self-
Subversion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995: 9 - 44.
3 The following description of the German situation draws on Matras, Yaron: ”The Development of the Romani

Civil Rights Movement in Germany 1945 – 1996”, in: Tebbutt, Susan: Sinti and Roma. Gypsies in German-
Speaking Society and Literature, Berghahn Books, New York, Oxford, 1998: 49 – 63.
region consists in the question of whether to approach Romanies as one nation
dispersed around various nation states or whether the various Romani populations
should be understood as ethnic groups belonging to individual nations and their
territorial states. The communicational and political interconnection of contemporary
Europe enables the Romany transnational elite to develop a nation building project.
However, viewed from below this can seem very artificial, if we consider the ethnic
variety of the Romany population. Let us take Hungary as one example to stand for
all. The roughly half a million Hungarian Romani are comprised of three ethno-
culturally clearly distinguishable groups. 70% are Romungri whose mother tongue is
Hungarian , around 20% are Olassi speaking Romani and 10 % Beash Gypsies
speaking a dialect of Romanian (not Romany) and not calling themselves Romani.4
Just as in the Czech Republic, also in Hungary, on the one hand, the elite of the
Romungri majority group wish to represent all Romani. On the other hand, a part of
this elite itself spreads a negative – and at times even racist-tinged – picture of
minority groups of Romani, in the Czech Republic Olassi and in Hungary the Beash.
        The creation of one Romani nation on the level of national states and of
Europe would force the political resolution of the co-existence of Romani and majority
national groups into forms analogical to that taken on by the co-existence of typical
central European national minorities and majorities, for instance Hungarian minorities
in Slovakia or in Romania. In these cases the minority are mostly concerned about
attaining cultural autonomy (that is control of education and the development of high
culture). However, if the minority is geograpically concentrated enough, a degree of
political and regional autonomy, and in extreme cases even secession, can also be
on its agenda. The basic inclination of minority politics is centrifugal – the minority
tries to create and defend its own culture, its public and political space, and to
participate in the wider whole primarily and mainly as a national collective which has
the right to political self-determination.
        Against this nationalist, segregationist option stands the multicultural and
integration option.5 This understands a minority as a partial group within a
multicultural whole or as an ethnic group belonging to one greater national whole –
this is indicated by expressions such as ”German Sinti”, ”Czech Romanies” or
”Hungarian Romungri”. Activist groups and positive minority policies attempt to
ensure equal rights and opportunities for the individual members of the group and
give space to ethno-cultural specificity within the framework of a common culture. For
example, schooling and education is multi-cultural (it includes material about the
culture and histories of various ethnic groups and, in the case of interest and a dense
concentration, even language courses). However, its is integrated. It does not create
specially divided schools, such as those for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
        The crossroad at which central and east European Romanies and the
governments of the countries in which they live stand, and the dilemma which they
must resolve, is therefore the following. Either they open the door to the building of a
fully-qualified and acknowledged nation, which would stand as an independent entity
alongside other European nations, or they harness forces for the multicultural
integration of Romani as an ethnic group.6 (I here use the difference between
4 For a description and evaluation of the attempts at the creation of the unified collective identity out of this

heterogeneous population see Shuzhay, Péter: ”Constructing a Gypsy National Culture”, Budapest Review of
Books 5/3, 1995: 111 – 120.
5 See Barša, Pavel: ”Národnostní konflikt a plurální identita” in: Barša, Pavel and Strmiska, Maxmilián: Národní

stát a etnický konflikt. Politologická perspektiva, Brno, CDK, 1999: 11 – 172, pp. 158 – 160.
6 I have attempted to defend and specify the multicultural option for the case of Czech Romanies in Barša, Pavel:

Politická teorie multikulturalismu, Brno, CDK, 1999, p. 279 – 294.
national and ethnic minorities in the political and not in the legal sense of these terms
– from the legal point of view it is obviously legitimate to consider Romani as a
national minority.) The contrast is obviously a ideal-typical one and the situation and
perception of Romani oscillates between these two concepts. It is, however, useful
since it has a practical political impact on the type of claims raised by a minority and
the way of its co-existence with the majority. A national minority tends towards the
creation of its own separate cultural, public, and political space. An ethnic minority
asks for respect towards its own characteristics but its chief concern is to overcome
the exclusion of its members from full and equal participation in the economic,
cultural, and political life of the wider society. An ethnic minority, which is not
excluded, should not in a liberal state have to raise any further claims for recognition
apart from cultural support. Jews in Great Britain can serve as an example of such a
        A comparison with similar situations of other groups can help us come to an
understanding of the dilemmas of the current historical crossroads at which central
and east European Romani have found themselves. Three historical parallels offer
themselves most obviously – central and east European nationalism of the 19th
century, Zionism, and the post-war mobilisation of the black population in the U.S.A..
All these movements arose from the efforts of disadvantaged, marginalised, and
excluded groups to achieve emancipation. There exists a range of similarities
between them. They overlap in a number of ways, but each of them embodies one
separate important feature which has a paradigmatic value for an understanding of
the tendencies and alternaties of contemporary Romani politics.
        The nationalism of the 19th century can serve as an example of the key role of
intellectuals and ethnic entrepreneurs in the creation of one homogenized nation
from ethno-culturally heterogeneous populations. Such ethnic entrepreneurs are
often already partly assimilated to the culture of the dominant groups and do not
belong to the traditional leaders of their group. Similarly at the head of the Pan-
Romani national movement is a group of intellectuals, who point to the unity of the
Romani nation, where we can find a quantity of various traditions, dialects, and ways
of life. In fact their rhetoric is ”performative” – it creates what it appeals to as an
already existing fact – a homogenous Romani nation.
        Zionism arose from the situation of a dispersed group, which like Romanies
were for centuries forced onto the edge of European societies, owned no land, and
made a living from offering special services. Zionism developed against the will of the
traditional leaders of societies (rabbis) and against the inclination of ordinary Jews
either to continue in their special mode of existence or to assimilate. Zionism was a
”normalisation” of Jewishness – from a ”chosen” group Jews were to become a
nation just like all others. A fundamental element of its occurrence was the anti-
Semitism of the end of the 19th century and the migration of east European Jews to
central Europe. The principles of modern nationalism are similarly foreign and
external for the traditional Romani style of life. Beginning with the idea of India as a
mythical homeland, which European Romanticist ethnographers and linguists
inculcated into Romanies and ending with the creation of a standardised language
and high culture, all these are even more artificial in the case of Romanies than in the
case of Jews, since they were marked as the ”nation of the Book”, while Romani did
not need a written language in their way of life. The parallel between the flight from
the Russian pogroms at the end of the 19th century and the flight from the pogroms of
skinheads at the end of the 20th is quite clear.
        The Black Movement in the U.S.A. began in 1950s as a movement for civil
rights and was against segregation – for integration. Emancipation meant the
attainment of equal status, rights and opportunities for blacks as members of the
American, and not an African, nation. In its first phase the integrationist and
universalist stream dominated. Later, however, this was supplemented and directly
attacked by black nationalism and particularism, the aim of which was not the
emancipation of individuals to the status of equal citizens, but the social and political
autonomy of the group – the black nation. In the case of Romani a polarity between
two analogous wings is gradually beginning to take shape. One wing wishes to build
the nation alongside (separated from) other nations and the other wing sees the
problem as the overcoming of exclusion and the achievement of integration into wider
society. While the first has a typically nationalist tendency to establish a unitary
identity by a limiting ”either or” alternative – either you are a Czech (Hungarian,
Slovak) or a Romany – the second maintain the idea of dual identity, expressed by
the expression ”Czech (Hungarian, Slovak) Romany”.
        Which direction Romani eventually take – whether the way of nationalist
segregation, or multicultural integration – will to a large extent depend on whether
and how quickly central and east European nation states start to effectively deal with
the discrimination against and exclusion of Romanies.

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