Roma politics in Central Europe

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Estimates of the size of the Roma population in Europe range from seven to nine million, almost the total population of many smaller European states. Approximately 70% of the Romas in Europe live in the new (and the potential) EU member countries. The author, Pál Tamás
, analyses the situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. His question is: could the EU influence effectively the Roma policy of the member states, especially the new ones? The article was published in 
The Analyst
, a new quarterly focussed on the key political, economic and social developments in Central Eastern Europe.

Historically European states’ policies toward the Roma have either aimed to further exclude them from majority societies – through expulsion, forced ghettoization, and denial of services – or to fully assimilate the Roma into the majority society, often through coercive measures. Policies of exclusion and forced assimilation, though different in many ways, share one important goal: both seek to reduce the visibility of Roma lifestyles, or even communities –the former by forcing them to the margins of society, and the latter by forcing them to assimilate. 

The strategies that European governments have followed in modern times fall into four broad groups: policies of exclusion, assimilation, integration, and minority rights. These approaches reflect different responses to two basic questions about Roma policy: whether the Roma should be treated as a distinct group or as individual members of a broader society, and whether Roma policy should be pursued through coercive measures or with respect for Roma rights. 

Estimates of the size of the Roma population in Europe range from 7 to 9 million, similar to the total population of several smaller European states. Approximately 70 per cent of the Roma in Europe live in the new (or prospective) member countries. At the same time it is difficult to give a precise answer to the question: how large is the Roma population in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia? 

In Central and East Europe ethnic identities are often mixed and ambiguous. For this reason, it is impossible to draw a clear boundary between ethnic groups in an “objective” manner. Another reason is that during censuses in Central Europe, because of their fears, Roma minority members have been reluctant to disclose their Roma identity for censuses in Central Europe. 

The last census (2001) carried out in the Slovak Republic reported 89,920 residents of Roma ethnic identity, which implies 1.7% of the total population. However, other sources – as for example the London based Minority Rights Group NGO – estimate the Roma population to be close to 500,000 individuals, i.e. 9–10% of the total Slovak population. 

The latest official data from the Czech Republic is based on the 2001 census and indicates that there are 11,718 Roma in the country, whereas the actual number is estimated by alternative sources to be between 160,000 and 300,000. The Minority Rights Group estimated the number to be 275,000, i.e. 2.5% of the total Czech population (UNDP 2002). 

The size of the Hungarian Roma community is aproximately 600–640,000. Less than one third of them were registered at the census as Roma. 

The oldest reference to the Roma living in the region dates back to 1322, mentioning nomadic groups with travel permits issued by the Holy Roman emperor and the pope. The Roma who settled here worked as castle musicians and metalworkers or served in the Hungarian royal armies. Anti-Roma policies began to emerge in the fifteenth century in Europe and intensified in the Hungarian Kingdom in the sixteenth century, after the Turkish occupation of central Hungary. 

Restrictive policies continued in the eighteenth century. Leopold I declared the Roma to be out-laws. Policies changed under Empress Maria Theresa and Joseph II. Both sought to assimilate the Roma as citizens within the empire. Draconian measures were introduced to force the Roma to settle, pay taxes and provide compulsory service to local landowners. Other edicts included mandatory school and church attendance. 

These two types of coercive policy against the Roma continued in the twentieth century as well. The Czechoslovak Republic (1918-38) passed a legislation that limited the mobility and civil rights of the Roma, particularly of nomadic and homeless groups. Laws mandated identification cards and fingerprinting. But during the Second World War the expulsion from society was equal to the physical extermination. Throughout the region, the Roma were the targets of various sorts of discriminatory legislation and fell victim to the Holocaust. During the Holocaust Roma experience differed in a number of ways in the Czech and Slovak Republics and Hungary. The majority of the Czech Roma were killed in concentration camps. Fewer Roma from Slovakia were deported to death camps, although many were sent to forced labour camps. In 1941 several labour camps were established in Slovakia specifically for the Roma. Hungarian anti-Roma measures were culminated in 1944, when a large number of Romas were deported to extermination camps. 

After this short historical review a couple of special issues will be discussed which have had a major influence on the fate of Romas in the various countries of Central Europe. We must point out that mainly due to the EU accession the situation of the Roma has recently become a permanent issue. This is the reason why certain measures for improving the Roma situation have been accepted in these countries. No substantive changes have happened however. Social exclusion and discrimination severely affect the Roma’s access to employment opportunities, education, and public services. Discrimination, both explicit and implicit, permeates many aspects of life, including education, employment, and housing. Prejudice against the Roma continue to be widespread throughout Central and East Europe. 

The majority of the Roma living in the Czech Republic today are originally from Slovakia. After the Second World War, large numbers of the Roma migrated from Slovakia to Czech lands in search of better living conditions and employment. In many cases, migration was driven by state policies, which forced the Roma out of certain areas. 

The Slovak Roma, who migrated to Czech lands after the Second World War, usually came from very poor backgrounds with little or no education at all. Basic literacy courses were organized for illiterate grown-ups primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, and special schools or classes were set up for Roma children int he hope that placing Roma children in kindergartens prior to their enrolment in school would increase their future educational chances. In some areas, children from Roma families were given priority to have a place in a kindergarten. With similar purposes preparatory classes were organized for Roma children. Some significant achievements were made. The number of illiterate Romas in the post-war generation decreased significantly. Still, the overall situation was not at all good. 

There was a dramatic increase in the number of the Roma children in schools for the mentally handicapped children in the course of the late 1970s and the 1980s. This problem still exists despite a new assignment procedure that was introduced after 1989. 

The citizenship of the Roma was a special question. Under the Constitution Act of 1969 there were two types of legal identity: first as citizens of Czechoslovakia, and second as citizens of either of the two federal states according to the place of birth. Until 1993 the significance of federal citizenship was largely regarded as symbolic. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, some of its residents automatically acquired Slovak citizenship, even though they had been born in the Czech Republic, had been living there for a long time, and had their places of permanent residence there (a condition accorded importance by the law). Those who were Slovak citizens in 1969 had to apply for the new Czech citizenship in 1994 – notwithstanding their permanent residence on Czech soil. The Czech procedures were far more difficult for the Roma. For example, the Czech law declared a special housing condition: within one household every family member had to have at least four square meters of housing space. This was called the “gipsy clause” targeted indirectly against the Roma with big families and small apartments. Acquiring a Slovak citizenship was much more easy: anyone who had had a permanent residence in that part of the federal country before the dissolution of the joint state became a Slovak citizen. It is estimated that up to 150,000 Roma had to apply for citizenship in their own country. 

Since 1992, before the dissolution of the federal state Czech society has been increasingly apprehensive about mass migration of the Roma from Slovakia to the Czech Republic. This fear exists despite the fact that there were no concentrated Slovak Roma migrations to the Czech Republic. This fear inspired the proposal of an extraordinary anti-immigration bill in the Czech Parliament, which was not passed, but had been discussed; this fact in itself is a clear manifestation of negative attitudes toward the Roma. 

Then in 1997, the Roma “exodus” started from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, indicating their renunciation of Czech nationality, or at any rate their hopes of ever being treated as equal members of the Czech nation. In October 1999, the Czech Republic gained additional unwanted international attention when a northern Bohemian municipality went forward with its plans to build a reinforced concrete wall separating the Roma inhabitants of a housing complex from their non-Roma neighbours. Although plans for the wall were submitted to the central government a year prior to its construction, it took the exhortation of the European Commission in its 1999 Regular Report to force the government to act on the issue. 

The fate of Roma living in the Slovak part of the country was similar for decades: there were stringent and aggressive assimilation policies in the areas of housing, employment and school attendance. In 1959, the government embarked upon a violent campaign against nomadism and drew up plans for a “dispersal and transfer” scheme, which aimed to resettle the Roma from areas in eastern Slovakia to the Czech lands. Efforts to improve school attendance were similarly aggressive. Regulations were issued to implement compulsory schooling. It true that school attendance did increase. In 1971, only 17 per cent of the Roma finished compulsory education; by 1980 26 per cent. 

After the change of the political regime in 1991, the government of the Slovak Republic adopted “The Principles of Government Policy Regarding the Roma”, but government activity related to Roma issues accelerated only in the late 1990s. One of the most significant developments was the establishment of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities after the 1998 elections. The office falls under the jurisdiction of the deputy prime minister for human rights, minorities, and regional development and has been headed by a Roma since 1999. 

The situation of the Slovakian Roma is characterized by the following figures. The Roma population is significantly younger and has been growing more rapidly than other ethnic groups. The national birthrate for Slovakia declined steadily during the transition period from 15.2 live births per 1,000 people in 1990 to 10.7 in 1998. In contrast, birthrates among the Roma have been increasing, especially in the most isolated, segregated settlements. But Roma life expectancy is considerably lower than the national average, although recent data are not available. Estimates derived from the 1970 and 1980 censuses put life expectancy for the Roma at 55 years for men and 59 years for women, in comparison with 67 for men in the total population and 74 for women in he total population. 

A survey completed by district officials estimated that there were 591 Roma settlements in Slovakia in 1998, in comparison with 278 in 1988. The total number of people living in settlements has also grown dramatically. In 1988 there were approximately 15,000 people living in settlements, and by 1997 this figure had grown to more than 120,000. 

With the exception of Roma in completely integrated areas and in separated settlements in better-off regions, high unemployment and dependence on social assistance are common in Roma settlements. While the national unemployment rate was 18 per cent in 2000, in the qualitative sample for the Roma it was approximately 85 per cent. This was due to the inclusion in the sample of segregated settlements where unemployment often reaches almost 100 per cent. 

A problem particular to Slovakia was the terrible housing conditions of many Roma who lived in the so-called “osady”, exclusively Romany communities which resemble slums. In the mid-1950s there were still 1,305 “osady” which had 14,935 houses harbouring 95,000 Roma. Eighty per cent of these houses were utterly inadequate for living. 

The refusal to implement government policies in support of the Roma is now causing friction between the Slovak national government and local administrations. In Slovakia, nearly all rights (schooling, housing, social welfare, health care, etc.) depend on local residency. Local mayors often refuse to even consider improving the situation of the Roma, arguing that there are no Roma living in their districts. This claim is based on census information that cites “Slovak” as the nationality of everyone. In 2004 the so-called hunger revolts in eastern Slovakia were a perfect demonstration of the disastrous circumstances of most Roma people. In reality their situation has deteriorated, prejudices against them have become stronger in majority society. 

The political representation of the Roma communities in the region was developed under the influence of the political culture of the majority and the dominant political system. 

The early days of the post-Communist period were among the most hopeful for the Roma in Central and East Europe, but quickly led to dashed expectations. A few examples from the region. 

Between 1990 and 1994, perhaps a dozen Slovak Roma parties and political coalitions and groups formed, divided, dissolved and mostly vanished. Slovakia currently has no Roma Members of Parliament. Two Roma political parties, the Roma Civic Initiative and the Political Movement of the Roma, together attracted less than 15,000 votes in the 2002 elections. 

In Romania’s 2000 parliamentary elections, the Roma Party maintained its monopoly on Roma representation, it has two Members of Parliament. In Bulgaria Roma parties have recently attempted to wage campaigns with little success. In the June 2001 election, eight Roma parties formed the Free Bulgaria coalition, which failed to reach the required four per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The coalition received less than one per cent of the overall vote in an election where Roma voter turnout was reportedly around 70 per cent (which – using the UNDP population estimate – corresponds to roughly 8 to 10 per cent of Bulgaria’s total voting population). Bulgaria has two Roma MPs, only one of whom is a member of a Romany political party. In Hungary there are fewer then half a dozen Roma in Parliament, either in the government parties or in the opposition, and there are Roma deputies of the European Parliament. 

The total number of Roma elected to national legislatures on mainstream party tickets has remained very low throughout most of the decade and in some cases there has even been a visible negative trend. There is no strong indication that a Roma will necessarily vote for Romany candidates, independently of the ideological position of the list on which they stand. A number of NGOs in various countries have observed that Roma electors vote for a variety of parties. In some cases Romany voters are attracted to parties that have a clear anti-minority stance. 

Virtually no major Roma political organizations in any of the three countries are guided by an identifiable set of significant political or philosophical principles or values, beside the anti-discrimination agenda. 

In all three countries, the Roma tend to be more politically active at the local level than at the national level. Traditional Roma political leaders – with a few exceptions – are unskilled, inexperienced, and divided. This is also true for the Hungarian Roma elites as well. 

Since 1989, more policy and project activity related to the Roma has taken place in Hungary than in any other country in Central and East Europe. Nevertheless, the Roma remain among the most marginalized groups in Hungary and their socio-economic conditions remain well below the national average. 

Hungary developed an institutional framework for the protection of minorities. However, a unified law against discrimination is lacking. Current anti-discriminatory provisions are fragmented and are included in laws regulating different fields, such as employment and education. 

As far as the institutional framework is concerned, the National and Ethnic Minorities Office (NEKH) was established in 1990to develop and oversee minority policy. 

Since the mid-1990s, NEKH has taken a leading role in developing and overseeing the implementation of the government’s Medium-term Package for the Roma. Following the 2002 elections, the government established a new Roma Office under the Office of the Prime Minister, to coordinate Roma policy across the government. Many of NEKH’s responsibilities related to the social integration of the Roma and coordination on sectoral policies have been transferred to the new Roma Office. Responsibility for Roma culture and minority rights remains with NEKH. 

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Ethnic and National Minorities (Minorities Ombudsman) is an independent institution established to monitor the implementation of minority rights, to investigate complaints, and pursue remediation for the infringements of the rights of national and ethnic minorities. According to the ombudsman’s office, the vast majority of complaints have been lodged by the Roma. Their concerns are mostly related to acts of discrimination. Approximately 48 per cent of complaints submitted by the Roma in 2000 were filed against local governments. 

The Minorities Act of 1993 expanded minority rights in Hungary and established Hungary’s unique MSG system, which allows minorities to form their own elected bodies to work in partnership with both local and national governments. The National Minority Self-Government system for the Roma and other minorities was established in 1995. 

Since 1994, there has been no major difference among the majority parties in policies toward the Roma. Neither has there been any breakthrough in improving the situation of the Roma. However, there has been a widespread recognition that the problems of the Romany community cannot be separated from those of the majority population. 

One of the main problems with the Hungarian system of self-government is the fact that anyone can vote for representatives to minority councils. It has been estimated that fewer than ten per cent of those who voted for Roma councils were Roma themselves. This is due to the fact that ballots including candidates for minority councils are distributed to all voters, since it is against the law to keep records of nationality or ethnicity. Thus, anyone who so wishes can claim to belong to a minority nationality, even if only for the purpose of influencing an election. A new situation emerged with the modification of the law in June 2005. The registration of the Roma voters was accepted. In the future only those can initiate elections and vote who identify themselves as Roma. The Roma organizations got the right to control the registrations of the voters. The decision caused heavy debate. There are Roma politicians who sharply attack the modification. They argue that because of their fears only one third of the Roma were willing to be openly identified as Roma, and even fewer of them will register for elections. 

In Czechoslovakia it was the Prague Spring in 1968 that brought the first post-war representation of Romany. In November 1968, the Home Office approved the charter of the nation-wide Union of Gypsies–Romany. Its activity concentrated on accepting Romany as a national minority. But Roma emancipation was forcibly ended in the years to come. 

The first Roma political party was a candidate for the Parliament of the CSFR during the first free elections in 1990 and eleven Roma were elected as deputies into the federal Parliament for various political parties. This success appears to be very exceptional and can partly be ascribed to general euphoria, in which the Roma were treated as victims of Communist autocracy and partners in anti-Communist revolt. But after the next election in 1992, the Roma were represented by only one deputy in Parliament. Among the Czech Roma political initiatives two groups are important: one of them is the Roma Civic Initiative founded shortly after November 1989 – with approximately 12,000 members in 1998 -, the other one is the Roma Democratic Alliance. 

Involving Romany activists in solving integration processes in society had a rather random character until 1997. An important turning point was the creation of the Inter-departmental commission. The commission was transformed in 2001 and became a Governmental Council for Romany community affairs. 

In Slovakia in March 1990, representatives of the Roma intelligentsia registered the Roma Civic Initiative (ROI) with the Ministry of Interior, a Roma political party with a nationwide basis. In June 1990, the ROI ran in the parliamentary elections in coalition with the Civic Forum in Slovakia with the Public Against Violence in Slovakia, respective political movements that played a crucial role in bringing down the Communist regime. The ROI obtained four seats in Czechoslovakia’s federal parliament, and one mandate in Slovakia’s national parliament. 

In the course of 1990, the political activity of the Roma in Czechoslovakia culminated; new Roma associations, cultural organizations and political parties were established. But partly as a result of this process, the Roma movement started to split more and more, dissipating its political weight. The ROI decided to run in the 1992 parliamentary elections as an independent political party. However, it received only 0.53 per cent of votes. Nevertheless, the Roma Civic Initiative remained the most important and influential Romany political entity in the country. At the end of 1996 and the beginning of 1997, tensions between the Roma and members of the skinhead movement escalated in the region surrounding the upper reaches of the Nitra River in west-central Slovakia. The increasing number of conflicts between the Roma and members of the majority population led indirectly to the establishment of a new Roma political entity called Roma Intelligentsia for Coexistence in the Slovak Republic (RIS). 

Since the middle of January 1998, Roma politicians have tried to unite Roma political parties in Slovakia, but there were only unsuccessful negotiations. The municipal elections of December 1998 were more successful. The Roma were featured mostly on candidates’ lists of the ROI and the RIS, and ran as independent candidates, but they also appeared on candidates’ lists of other parties. 254 Roma candidates ran for deputies’ posts and seven candidates ran for mayoral positions. In the end, a total of 56 Roma were elected as deputies and six Roma candidates became mayors. Merging attempts have continued without major results. They failed to agree on a common strategy for the elections in 2002. 

From the 90s the situation of the Roma has become an international, European-wide issue. For the majority elite of the accession countries it was very important to be characterized as democratic. Accession criteria was declared to be connected with the situation of the Roma. The European Commission monitored the progress made toward the accession by each candidate country from 1998. Today the Council of Europe and OSCE have special bodies to follow the position of the Roma in their Member States. 

The EU resolution in May 1989 that called for European schools to include provisions for Gypsies and the multi-cultural teaching of Romany history, culture and language was an important step. In February 1993 the EU Parliament adopted Resolution 1203 “On the situation of the Roma in Europe”. This resolution stressed the urgency with which Member States needed to implement previous proposals. In May 1994 the first Roma Congress of the EU was held in Seville. In 1994 the Standing Committee on Cooperation and Co-ordination of the Romany Organizations in Europe was formed. Among its aims was establishing an institutional base for permanent action, creating a Roma run office and establishing a Romany Rights charter to define the legal position of the Roma within Europe. In March 1995 the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE together with other European bodies set up a Contact Point for Roma Issues. Its purpose is to circulate information about the Roma, encourage Roma organizational capacity and address issues of discrimination and violence against the Roma. 

During the accession process the Phare Programme was the main channel of EU support for Roma populations in the candidate countries. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia had devoted part of their budgets from Phare national programmes to financing large projects for Roma communities. The total amount for the financing of projects in favour of the Roma has increased substantially from 11.7 million euros in 1999 to 13.65 million in 2000 and 31.35 million in 2001. 

A review of the different programmes and budget-lines of the European Commission shows that a number of EU initiatives (covering primarily areas of anti-discrimination and social inclusion, education, employment, external relations and regional assistance) are or have the potential to be of relevance for improving the situation of the Roma. However, these initiatives mostly function in isolation from one another and much could be gained both in terms of efficiency and impact if there was better coordination and sharing of strategies and practice between the various services. The EU structural funds, and particularly the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund have the potential to deal with the complex issues relating to social inclusion. There are signs indicating that units responsible for the funds at EU level are starting to work more proactively with national authorities to direct funding of projects targeted at the Roma, in the new Member States in particular. 

These changes and processes have helped the formation of an international Roma elite. It is possibly connected with the Resolution 1203 of the Council of Europe which declared the Roma to be a “true European minority”, and stating that the Roma do not fit the definition of a national minority and thus need to be granted special status as a non-territorial minority. This way it supports those who are claiming special status for the Roma. 

Conceptualization of the Romany issue at the transnational level as a matter of policy-formation process and the consequent updating of national policies towards the Roma caused development in transnational Roma issue building. While some transnational Romany actors have limited themselves to lobbying for improvement of Roma Rights, such as the Hamburg based Roma National Congress, some, such as the Prague based International Roma Union have professed the concept of “nation”, advancing their political interests at transnational level, calling the attempt “an emancipation process of the Roma”. The Roma people, the Roma nation in diaspora, Roma transnationality, Roma non-territorial European minority, or even Roma non-territorial state were all ideas of Roma leaders attempting the unification of the Roma. However, the Roma elite are divided as regards the prime Roma interests, or how to define them. Competing visions have been presented by the International Roma Union (IRU) and the Roma National Congress (RNC), two leading transnational Romany NGOs. The RNC in its Report on the Condition of the Roma in the OSCE Region recalls the principle of self-determination. The IRU speaks of nation without state and refrains from referring to this principle. 

To what extent does the existence of new kinds of “postnational citizenship” facilitate the integration of a perennially marginalized group like the Roma? 

The forming Roma transnational elite used the medium of advocacy of human and minority rights and lobbied the Roma rights were high on the agendas of transnational organizations, such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe as early as the early 1990s. Through this strategy they gained power to shape the multilateral international agendas and ipso facto the agendas of national governments. Consequently, inter-governmental and domestic agendas went from the general topic of democratization to detailed attempts to identify social, housing, employment, educational and health discrimination of the Roma as the cause for action. This change is connected with the different phases of Central European Roma-politics in the 1990s.The first phase was the beginning of the transitional period, when the outlining and implementation of human rights were the main issue. But the constitutional framework in itself has proved not to be effective enough against discrimination. Therefore the second phase came, where the main target was to decrease social and economic discrimination. Especially taking into consideration that the Roma were socially most severely hit during the transition (many of them lost their jobs). Most of the Roma population of these three countries (1.2-1.5 million people!) have the day by day experience of economic and social discrimination and prejudices. The institutions defending human rights can only partly fulfill their job. As a consequence of these reealizations and of international pressure the third phase of Roma politics started, a kind of ethnical awakening and ethnomobilization. 

The most remarkable development in Roma policy around 1998 was the shift in norms, which opened up space for new voices by altering contexts and making new types of action possible. 

Firstly, the Roma have been increasingly seen as a national minority. In some states this new definition was received with apprehension. People did not want to see the Roma as a national minority – arguing that as there were no distinctive factors, the Roma did not qualify as a national minority. 

Secondly, the policy makers drafting the Roma policy have increasingly emphasized the need to fostering non-discrimination in the treatment of the Roma. However, this development has taken place only after pressure from the European Union and its demand for real compliance with the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession states. 

The real question is whether the EU could effectively influence the Roma policy of the Member States, especially the new ones after the accession. 

The author, Pál Tamás, is the Director of the Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

The article was published in The Analyst
, a new quarterly focussed on the key political, economic and social developments in Central Eastern Europe.

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