Sat, 12 Aug 2000

Gypsies seeking equal rights with their fellow citizens

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): "At the moment Gypsies are taking on the scapegoat role of Jews in World War II," said Thomas Acton of Greenwich University, the first professor of Romany studies in Britain, two years ago.

"There is a relentless racism, to the point where some experts think we have a pre-genocidal situation in Europe. Poor Gypsies are seen as an underclass, while rich ones are assumed to have made their money through crookedness."

Hitler murdered about half a million Gypsies in the death camps, but there has been little compensation for the survivors. Sweden was still forcibly sterilizing gypsies until 1976. Since 1989, at least 40 Gypsies have been killed in the Czech Republic in racially motivated attacks.

But the Gypsies survived, and have now taken the place of the Jews as Europe's largest "dispersed ethnic minority". They don't amount to even 10 percent of the population anywhere except in Rumania and Slovakia, but they are present in every European country. As birth rates collapse in Europe generally, moreover, their share of the population is growing everywhere.

The most startling example is Hungary, a country of 10 million people where only 6 percent of the existing population is Gypsy. Thanks to the reluctance of Hungarian couples to have even one child and the Gypsy preference for half a dozen or so, one in three children entering Hungarian schools this autumn will be a Gypsy.

The future of many eastern European countries, therefore, depends on integrating their soaring Gypsy populations into the social and economic mainstream.

In Hungary today, two-fifths of adult Gypsies cannot even read and write, but by 2040 at least a third of the adult Hungarian population will be of Gypsy descent. "The government has a simple choice," says Aladar Horvath, head of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation: "to build schools or prisons."

There are now over 12 million Gypsies in Europe -- more than the entire population of Bulgaria, Belgium or Sweden -- and they are starting to demand their rights.

As they do, they run into the same choice that confronted Europe's oppressed Jews in the latter 19th century: whether to campaign for equal rights with their fellow-citizens, or to seek a national state of their own.

For 19th-century Jews, there were two clear, dramatic options: Zionism, the quest to create a Jewish nation-state all their own, or Marxism, the dream of creating a post-national universal state where things like ethnicity no longer mattered.

Today's Gypsies are similarly called on to choose between a post-national European Union that doesn't really exist yet, and a "non-territorial" Gypsy state that also does not exist.

Pro-state Gypsies had it all their own way at the fifth world congress of the International Romani Union in Prague late last month. They pushed through a resolution declaring a "non- territorial" nation to which all 12 million European Gypsies would owe allegiance, whether their passports were Irish or Greek.

This virtual country would have its own "floating" parliament, a network of embassies, and even a court to put racists on trial and put pressure on governments that abused Gypsy rights. It would pay for it all with a poll tax on all Gypsies.

"The Roma (Gypsies) are a modern nation like all the rest, so we are seeking recognition ... enabling us to play a political role at the national and international level," explained Sean Nazerali, one of the conference organizers.

The Prague resolution, however, leaves a hundred questions unanswered, like how this Gypsy state would collect its taxes, enforce its decisions, or even get other governments to recognize it. The Zionist solution was to grab some territory and create a conventional nation-state with a great big army that could force people to recognize it, but this solution does not seem available to the Gypsies.

Despite their soaring numbers, Gypsies remain a poor and scattered people with little influence on the governments they live under -- and no more diverse and divided nation exists. Even the 110,000 Gypsies of the British Isles (only half of whom are nomadic) are further divided into the Romanichals of England, the Kale of Wales, the Nachin of Scotland and the Minceir of Ireland. There are a 100 different Gypsy dialects, many of them mutually unintelligible.

Gypsies are descended from migrants who left northern India about 1,000 years ago, setting up as traders in Iran and eastern Turkey. Their language, Romany, has links with modern Punjabi, and the word "Romany" comes from the ancient Sanskrit for "the people". They moved westward until by 1,500 they had reached England -- but everywhere they went in Europe, as a dark-skinned, non-Christian people, they faced hatred and persecution. (Henry VIII made it a capital offense to be a Gypsy in England, and many were hanged.)

Today, however, most of Europe's Gypsies are at least superficially Christian, and are about the same range of colors as other Europeans. Fewer than half of them speak Romany, while the rest speak some 40 different national languages that they share with the various peoples amongst whom they live. And it is probably there that their hopes of a better future must lie.

A virtual Gypsy nation with its own flag and anthem is a grand gesture, but only in terms of getting Europe's attention. It will not actually fly. The real job, which will take decades at best, is integrating a huge and rapidly growing Gypsy underclass into the societies and economies that have so long ignored and excluded them. The ones that fail will pay a high price.