When VanderStoel touches the 'Untouchables' of the Balkans

Mariana Lenkova

FRI, 19 MAY 2000

Athens, May 19, 2000 - Almost any conversation about Roma leads to a repetition of stereotypes we, non-Roma, learn from young age. Roma are "dirty, lazy, asocial." Rarely, do we ask ourselves whether these people choose to be "dirty, lazy, asocial," or they are simply 'stuffed' into that narrow 'box' by society. By doing this, we perpetuate the misunderstanding between us and them, while they live a marginalized life of misery.

A thorough analysis of this difficult situation is given in the recently published Study on Roma and Sinti by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel (The Hague, 10 March 2000). To date, this is one of the best reports on the issue. It presents the historical context both of the Roma and Sinti communities and of the international legal instruments on minority protection. The study then goes into a detailed analysis of the situation in a number of OSCE countries, selected mostly due to the substantial size of their Roma communities. The study covers Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the United Kingdom, but we will constrain ourselves to an analysis only of the Balkan countries, which give a synopsis of the situation in Europe as a whole.

Discrimination and Racial Violence

Prejudice and intolerance are the common problems facing Roma in the Balkans. This attitude is determined very much by the media, which are used to 'recycling' negative stereotypes. Apart from that, political leaders in the Balkans also make racist statements. On 16 August 1998, Corneliu Tudor, leader of the Great Romania Party and Senator in Romania's Parliament, reportedly announced a ten-point "program to run the country" which included "isolat[ing] the Roma criminals in special colonies" in order to "stop the transformation of Romania in[to] a Gypsy camp."

Unfortunately, such statements are not limited only to extremists. An official in Romania's Ministry of Interior stated, when asked about authorities' responses to pogroms against Roma in the early 1990s, that "these conflicts [were] a reaction of the majority to the behavior of the Roma minority." In Bulgaria, too, many public officials freely express racist attitudes toward Roma in non-public settings while conducting official business. In a recent meeting with representatives of Bulgaria's Ministry of Justice, one official stated that Roma are inferior to the rest of the people in Bulgaria and that due to the specific characteristics of the Roma, they are intolerable to others.

The negative attitude is easily transformed into the sphere of employment where Roma frequently find that, when they apply in person for a job that has been advertised, they are told that the position has been filled even though they had been told otherwise when they made telephone inquiries. Notably, this is done despite the fact that Bulgaria recently amended its Penal Code to prohibit as a criminal offense racially motivated discrimination in employment.

Also in Bulgaria, there have been frequent instances of abuse of Roma at the hands of police. As with crimes of private violence, alleged instances of police abuse frequently go unpunished. Because of this, in 1998 the European Court of Human Rights found the Government of Bulgaria in breach of the European Convention. Only in the period 1992-1998, fourteen Roma men in Bulgaria reportedly died in police custody.

Arguably, the most disturbing are the numerous examples of racially motivated private violence. On 15 June 1999, a 33-year-old Roma woman, Nadezda Dimitrova, was beaten to death by a group of teenage boys in Sofia, Bulgaria. On 29 April 1999, three men reportedly assaulted Semsa Secic, a 36-year-old Roma man, in Zagreb, Croatia, while he and two non-Roma men, were collecting scrap metal at a rubbish dump at the invitation of inhabitants of the neighboring buildings. In another incident in Croatia, a group of four or five non-Roma reportedly beat on a public street a 49-year-old Roma man, Jakob Beita, in Rijeka on 19 May 1999.

A lot has been said about the lack of personal security for most non-Albanians in Kosovo. This applies even more so to Kosovo's Roma in the aftermath of war. Entire Roma communities have recently been made to bear the blame for those presumed to have collaborated in or supported crimes committed by or attributed to ethnic Serbs.

In neighboring Macedonia, the situation is not any better. On 23 April 1999, Amet Asanov, a 16-year-old Roma man, was beaten by a group of non-Roma youth in the eastern Macedonian town of Vinica. After receiving a report on the incident, local police are said to have refused to deal with the case, because it was not in their jurisdiction, as it took place in the schoolyard and the assailants were minors.

Romania is a notable example of the trend for Roma victims to be deprived of the opportunity to secure legal redress for serious incidents, when Roma were killed while the homes of many others were burned, in the period between 1990 and 1996. One case in which there have been convictions is the well-known Hadareni case of 23 September 1993 when three Roma men were killed by a mob of ethnic Romanians and Hungarians in the village in Mures County and 175 Roma, whose families had lived in Hadareni for some seventy years, were chased out of the village. An appeals court reduced the sentences of two of those convicted from seven to six years.

Despite all these grim developments, it is notable to point out the few positive changes in the Balkans. On 7 April 1999 the Bulgarian Human Rights Project and the governmental National Council for Ethnic and Demographic Issues (NCEDI) co-sponsored a Roundtable Discussion, at which representatives of the government and of the Roma community signed an agreement concerning a Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society.

The Romanian Government's Department for the Protection of National Minorities has elaborated the draft of a Law against All Forms of Discrimination, which it plans to submit to the Government and the Parliament, pending signature from the relevant Government ministries. With the assistance of the Project on Ethnic Relations and the U.S. Department of Justice Administration, University of Louisville, the Romanian General Inspectorate of Police developed a program to improve relations between Roma and police and to enhance the capacity of the police to respond effectively in situations of tension between Roma and non-Roma communities.


Exclusion of Roma extends to every sphere of social life, perhaps nowhere with more far-reaching and harmful effect than in schooling. In Bulgaria de facto segregation in schools persists to this day. Even when Roma children are legally entitled to attend mixed schools, some school directors reportedly discourage parents from enrolling their children, suggesting they go instead to the neighboring --predominantly Roma-- school that as a rule offer inferior education. Roma mothers from the Stolipinovo neighborhood in the town of Plovdiv claim that the headmaster of one mixed school accepts only four or five Romani children out of every hundred students.

Recognizing how important the learning of Bulgarian is to the young Roma children, two years ago the Roma Foundation, a civic organization based in Plovdiv, developed a summer preparatory class for six-year-old children to teach them the Bulgarian language. One notable feature of the Foundation's program is that its members continue to monitor children's progress once they begin school, while helping Roma families meet any financial costs. A different, yet very positive model is the American University in Bulgaria, sponsored by the Open Society Foundation, Sofia, which for several years funded approximately 30 Roma students to attend a one-year program at the university, where they studied English, computer skills, etc.

In Greece, teachers in predominantly-Roma schools face similar challenges. In one instance, a teacher wanted to re-order a useful primer on the Greek language that was written from a Roma perspective, but was informed that it had been out of print for a while. Now that teacher is working with others to create a new primer.

The Romanian town of Timisoara provides an interesting example of how Roma parents persuaded a Roma educator, Professor Letitia Mark, to establish an educational program in her home. With funding from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), the Gypsy Women's Association inaugurated this program in June 1997. The program's main activity is tutoring Roma children. The OSF also sponsored a kindergarten near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Bucharest. Since 1993, the Romanian government has set aside places for Roma students at public universities. In 1999, the program had expanded to potentially cover some 150-200 Roma students.

Living Conditions

Roma in the Balkans face profound challenges in virtually every sphere of social life. Recent research in Bulgaria, for example, revealed an increase in the spread of Hepatitis B and C infection amongst Roma intravenous drug users. In a Roma settlement in northeastern Croatia close to 200 individuals live in a state of poverty. In Romania many Roma are excluded from public health care by virtue of the fact that they lack birth certificates, identification cards, or other official proofs of registered residence.

Projects aimed at promoting women's understanding of and access to reproductive health care are being developed in a number of Balkan countries within the EC PHARE/LIEN program. A project in Macedonia aims to improve Roma living standards in terms of health, hygiene and family planning through developing employment opportunities. A Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) program in Romania provides Roma with "escorts" on their first visit to the health center, to provide reassurance and support in familiarizing themselves with the health care system, and in establishing an initial relationship with doctors and other health care workers.

The most widespread problem faced by Roma in Greece is related to the numerous evictions from their settlements. In the summer of 1998, the Mayor of Evosmos ordered the eviction of approximately 3,500 Roma from a location some had occupied for 30 years. On 16 February 1999, authorities in Aspropyrgos, 30 km southwest of Athens, set fire to the homes of several Roma families in the illegal settlement of Nea Zoi. Approximately 100 Roma families have lived in Nea Zoi for close to ten years.

Political Participation

Perhaps no principle is more essential to the success and legitimacy of initiatives to alleviate the concerns of Roma communities than that Roma themselves should be centrally involved in developing, implementing and evaluating policies and programs. This principle, however, is unattainable to Roma in Croatia and Macedonia, where they have faced numerous obstacles in obtaining citizenship. Neither Article 30 of the Law on Croatian Citizenship of 26 June 1991, nor its 8 May 1992 amendment have helped Roma in Croatia, whose requests for citizenship are usually processed under provisions applicable to "aliens." In Macedonia, several thousand Roma are stateless according to the 11 November 1992 Act on Citizenship of the Republic of Macedonia. Greek Roma face another set of obstacles, because the right to vote depends upon residency requirements that many Roma have trouble meeting.

The adoption of the overarching anti-discrimination provisions of the above mentioned Framework Program in Bulgaria has apparently stimulated the appointment of two Roma experts to government positions --Yosif Nunev in the NCEDI and Simeon Blagoev in the Ministry of Culture. In Macedonia, there are two Roma representatives on the Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations. In Romania Roma representatives now have a formal consultative role in the development of Roma policy in the Sub-Commission for Roma Issues of the Inter-Ministerial Commission on National Minorities.

Even though the feeling of despair at the impossible living conditions of the Balkan Roma is overwhelming, we should emphasize the optimistic trends hinted on in the OSCE study. By promoting the positive and denouncing the negative, we, the non-Roma, may finally reach the point of accepting the Roma in our countries as neighbors and not as 'untouchables.'

Original article