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 regime.
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. 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 possibilities.
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 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”. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. (I here use the difference between 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 minority.
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.
 Hirschman, Albert O.: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Copyright (c) 2000 Pavel Barša
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