Gypsy leader demands EU help

Justin Huggler

30 July 2000

They are the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. How many people remember that half a million Gypsies died in Hitler's gas chambers and ovens, and that for them too, there was supposed to be a Final Solution?

Emil Scuka means to make the world remember, and take notice of the Gypsies, or Roma. This week, the Slovak-born Gypsy lawyer was elected the president of the International Romany Union (IRU), and led the world's 15 million Gypsies in declaring themselves a nation and founding their own parliament.

"The Gypsy nation was the second nation that was meant to be deleted from the world," says Mr Scuka, snatching a few moments away from the IRU's first major conference in 10 years. "After the Second World War, the Jewish nation was given the chance to start a new life, given its own country. The Gypsies didn't get that chance."

More than eight million of the Gypsies live in Europe, most of them scattered across Central and Eastern Europe, in countries where they are second-class citizens. Their children are sent to schools for the mentally disabled. Local communities build walls to keep them out.

"The world does not behave towards the Gypsy nation at all," says Mr Scuka. "The world only behaves towards Gypsy minorities. We have all the attributes of a nation: our own language, our own culture and traditions. We had to declare ourselves a nation because we are convinced no one else will do it for us."

But Mr Scuka says the Gypsies are not interested in their own state. "In 1945, we didn't want to move," he says. "We wanted the chance to live freely here, in Central and Eastern Europe, where the genocide took place. But the countries that won the war started drawing the Iron Curtain, and so the Gypsies were denied what they wanted. They felt they were sold, from the dictatorship of fascism, to the dictatorship of communism."

After the Iron Curtain fell, the vast majority of Gypsies were forced to live under the repressive regimes of the old Eastern Europe. But Mr Scuka, one of 10 children in a poor Gypsy family in Slovakia, benefited from positive discrimination which was quietly practised by the Czechoslovak communist authorities towards Gypsies. He went to university and won a degree. By his own estimate, fewer than 1 per cent of Gypsies in Czechoslovakia got degrees.

Mr Scuka moved to the wealthier Czech half of the old federation, and became a state prosecutor under the communists. But he is quick to point out he was never a member of the Communist Party. In fact, he founded a Gypsy party which worked with the Civic Forum of Vaclav Havel to overthrow the old regime.

Still, the Gypsies have suffered as the welfare provisions of the communists evaporated in the free market economies of the new east, says Mr Scuka. There are no Gypsies among the new rich of the east. That, says Mr Scuka, is because the Gypsies had suffered years of discrimination in education, and in seeking jobs.

But it is not enough for the rich countries of the European Union to demand that Eastern European governments treat their Gypsies better, insists the IRU president. "The EU protects itself well from Roma immigration. They should stop warning Eastern European countries, and start helping them finance projects to help us instead – most governments here can't afford to support us."

The IRU wants the EU and other Western institutions to make future financial aid to Eastern Europe conditional on specific funds being channelled to helping the Gypsies: into education schemes, loans to help Gypsies set up businesses, and so on.

Mr Scuka knows it will be an uphill battle overturning the image of them as carefree, thieving nomads in caravans – let alone persuading the world to take them seriously as a nation. It is poignant that delegates at the IRU congress were comparing the Gypsies with the Palestinians in the very week that the Middle East peace talks broke down.

But Mr Scuka is optimistic. "We've left it late," he says, "but this week, we made a start."

Original article