By Daniel Jianu
Not that long ago, the president of Romania, Traian Basescu, as he was surviving a referendum to keep his job, managed to create a ruckus when he seized a mobile telephone being used by a reporter to record an interview with him. After the phone was returned to the reporter's television station, the recording revealed that Mr. Basescu had called the journalist a "stinking Gypsy".
The last census, in 2002, showed that Romania had a stable 'Gypsy" population of 535,140, though most scholars widely believe that this figure is inaccurate and most likely underestimates the actual numbers; unofficial estimates place the Roma population in Romania somewhere between 1.8-2.5 million, representing between 8 and 10 percent of the general population. If these numbers are accurate, Roma constitute the largest minority in Romania and Romania has the most Roma of any country in Europe.
In this light, Basescu comments can be interpreted as either politically naïve for ignoring the potential voting power of the sizable Roma minority or very shrewd and populist as catering to the jingoistic and discriminatory instincts of the general population. Either way, his comments were a sad display of the enduring power of stereotypes and myths affecting the life of Roma in Romania.
At a first glance this life can seem a miserable one for the perceived shiftless, jobless, largely illiterate men, and even worse for the women, generally married in their teens to other teens, who will bully, tyrannize, and most likely beat them. As for their children, they stay up so late watching television and hanging out on the street that they are usually too sleepy to go to school.
Of course some of these circumstances can be explained by their nomadism, now legally discouraged by most European governments including Romania, but which over the centuries can be attributed to their lack of educational traditions. Moreover, the nomadism of Roma restricted them to a mostly agrarian culture designed for seasonal pickers, small artisans, blacksmiths, basket-weavers, market sellers, and horse breeders, occupations that nowadays are not sufficient for their economic survival. It behooves us to understand that this mobility was the result of external pressures exercised by most countries that left Roma no real choice other than oppression or even death, and which forced their families into a way of life and livelihood suited to a pack and go existence.
All these long-endured sufferings do not seem to be enough. These days, their life in Romania is rife with new problems and difficulties in integrating into the main society. They constantly have to face issues such as abuse and even lack of political rights in Romania, child homelessness and institutionalisation, discrimination in housing, medical care, employment, and access to goods and services, exclusion of Roma children from schools and racial segregation of Roma children in schools.
History of Roma Slavery in Romania vs. Black Slavery in America
These issues are especially pertinent to the history of Roma in Romania.
Almost every country where Roma live today have Roma communities originating from Romanian territories. In some countries such groups make up 20% of the local Roma population.
At the same time, anti-Roma prejudice and discrimination has been a reliable and faithful constant in an otherwise tumultuous Romanian history. Since their first recorded presence on Romanian soil, Roma have been subjected to policies of oppression and have been violently discriminated against and humiliated by the majority population. Centuries of enslavement of the Roma on the territory of today's Romania were followed by persecution and deportations by the pro-Nazi Romanian government of Ion Antonescu during World War II, and still later by forced settlement and the confiscation of the possessions of Roma during communist rule. In the aftermath of the events of 1989, Romania has experienced a rise of intense anti-Roma sentiment and the explosion of brutal actions of collective violence, a racial hatred that bursted out in a wave of mob violence and police abuse against Roma.
Linguistic evidence shows that Roma originated in India and has endured centuries of disapproval and persecution throughout Europe, including decimation in the Holocaust and 500 years of slavery in the Romanian territories until abolition in 1856. Although Roma have experienced some form of slavery, especially as subjects of slave trading in England, Spain, Portugal and Russia, only Romania has the honor of being the only territory of Europe to have enslaved its Roma population to such extent and for such a long period of time.
Roma population left India probably around the 10th century. However, experts on their history cannot establish precisely when they settled down on Romanian territory. Although the evidence is scant, it seems that the first Roma arrived in Walachia as free people. At the beginning, they had loose and mutually beneficial working relationships with the feudal landlords and were able to find an economic niche based upon their skills in metal-forging, carpentry and entertaining. During those times, the economy of Wallachia was technologically backward and agriculturally centered, but as this economy started changing, it came to be dependent on the work of Roma. As the landlords felt the need to prevent the losing of their skills, Roma had started became associated with particular estates and by the early1300s were being included in parcels of property given by one owner to another and to the monasteries.
The first documented evidence of Roma slavery in Romania dates back to 1374, when Dan the 1st offered the Vodita monastery 40 Roma as slaves. Later in 1445, Prince Vlad of Walachia is believed to have kidnapped 12,000 Roma from Bulgaria and put them to slave labor. In 1471 17,000 Roma were transported into Moldavia for slave labor by Stephan the Great. The Code of Basil the Wolf of Moldavia, dated 1654, contained references to the treatment of slaves, including the death penalty in the case of the rape of a white woman by a Roma. By 1800 the laws become more stringent, and the Walachia Criminal code had new laws such as: "Gypsies are born slaves," "Anyone born of a mother who is a slave, is also a slave," "Any owner has the right to sell or give away his slaves," and "Any Gypsy without an owner is the property of the Prince."
Roma slaves offered the Romanian land owners cheap and skillful labor. As in America during the slavery of African Americans, the slaves came in different flavors. They were broadly divided into field slaves and house slaves. The house slaves, unlike in the States, were further divided into slaves of the Crown, mainly those of the noblemen, the court and the householders and into slaves of the Church. The field slaves were likewise divided into two groups, those of the boyars or land-barons, and those of the small landowners.
The slaves of the Crown had three principal occupations: gold washer, bear-trainer and spoon-maker. In addition, there were slaves known as laiesi who were allowed to move about the estates doing a variety of jobs, including those of musician, farrier, whitewasher, sieve-maker, blacksmith and copper-smith. Slaves of the Church were grooms, cooks and coachmen; among the house slaves were scopiti, males castrated so as not to present a threat to the noblewoman whom they served.
Field slaves lived in mud huts on the outskirts of the estates, seldom visited by their owners. They were not allowed to have musical instruments for their own amusement, and they were bought and sold in lots. Groups of slaves remained under the supervision of an overseer, who was sometimes brutally cruel; and although it was forbidden by law to kill a slave, this was not an infrequent occurrence. Slave owners employed all kinds of corporal punishments against Roma. They were beaten, flagged, whipped, their lips cut off, and often burned. They were also often traded as dowries between various noble estates and families.
House slaves were forbidden to speak Romani, and their descendants today have a variety of Romanian rather than Romani, as their mother tongue. Female house slaves were also provided to visitors for sexual entertainment; the half-white children of such unions automatically became slaves.
Just like the African American slaves, Roma slaves came in different colors and features, from the darkest skin to the lightest blond hair and blue eyes. Also like in America, sex was and still is a powerful sub context of the relationship between Roma and the Romanian people. There are numerous manifestations in the popular cultures of both Romania and US of the desire and attraction of white Romanian men toward Roma women and respectively of white Americans toward Black women. There is a common fantasy it seems about one's perceived racial inferior possessing an intense, otherworldly sensuality.
By the 19the Century, there was increasing pressure on the institution of slavery when calls for abolition of slavery from different quarters in the Romanian territories began to be heard. As much as we would like to imagine that the moral and humane arguments against slavery should have prevailed, economic reasons had probably a more lasting impact on the dismissal of slavery.
Economic and social changes were beginning to affect the principalities economies. The mechanization introduced as a result the Industrial Revolution, both in America and in south-eastern Europe, was making the ownership, care and feeding of slaves a liability rather than an asset. Movements calling for Abolition in the West were introduced into Romania by students returning from abroad. Moldavia and Wallachia were keen to be regarded as a part of the new Europe, and took France as its model; slavery was increasingly being seen as a barbaric and inhumane anachronism.
The smaller landowners, however, were not able to afford mechanization, and still relied on their slaves; they continued to strongly oppose abolition. In 1837, however, Governor Alexandru Ghica freed the slaves on the estates under his jurisdiction, and allowed them to speak Romani and practice their customs. This stimulated similar actions on the part of others: Mihai Sturdza freed his slaves in Moldavia in 1842, and in 1847 the Wallachian church did likewise. Complete legal freedom came in 1864, however, when Prince Ioan Couza, ruler of the now-united principalities, restored the Roma to the estates they had worked on, not as slaves but as free people. It is estimated that the number of slaves was about 600,000 at this time.
However, following abolition nothing was done to educate or reorient the freed slaves and bring them into society; instead, it was their former owners who were paid by the government for their loss.
Effects of slavery on the contemporary society
History of Roma slavery in Romania had a demoralizing and dehumanizing effect on the present day condition of Roma. Slavery was justified for a very long time in terms of racial superiority. In the US, Blacks were seen as an inferior and primitive race whose subjugation was an civilizational imperative. In Romania, the arguments tended to be even more corrosive and detrimental as they claimed that the Roma came as slaves from a pariah, inferior caste in southern India.
It is understandable, though not particularly admirable, that there should be deliberate lack of acknowledgment of this shameful period in the Romanian history. Prejudice against the Roma population exists today at all levels partly because of this lack of self-awareness and critical evaluation of the past. Without reconciliation with the past deeds and acceptance of this history, there is a very little chance for a successful integration of Roma into the mainstream Romanian society.
Although Romania has undertaken lately a number of steps in that direction, most notably by adopting an anti-discrimination ordinance and a government programme addressing Roma issues, at present the situation of Roma in Romania remains dire. Burdens on Roma and non-Roma alike, arising from centuries of slavery and unequal treatment of Roma, punctuated by episodes of violent persecution, have led to a situation difficult to resolve, in which society itself is corrupted by racism.
Romania presently as a Member State of the European Union requires strict adherence to the highest human rights standards, including but not limited to rights set down in the European Convention on Human Rights. Romania must protect, in law and in practice, the rights set down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and must use all appropriate means to achieve progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights without discrimination of any kind, taking particular care to ensure that no person suffers the anathema phenomenon of racial discrimination.
At the same time, the lack of integration is also partly explained by the legitimate tendency of the Roma community to seriously question the Romanian government's sincerity about alleviating the problems of the Roma. Integration means assimilation and a loss of their traditional language, culture and more importantly, identity. Issues such as dress, marriage at a young age, territorial jurisdiction are hotly debated and remain quite controversial.
Such fierce adherence to the ethnic identity seems to annoy parts of Romanian general population and to be blamed for the current circumstances of Roma life in Romania. The flip side of this ethnic identity coin is the potential ability of Roma people to get together politically and organize themselves so that they speak from a position of strength and gain tangible benefits that, when and if acquired, would lift them from their inferior positions in the Romanian society.
The same tendency to reject integration by African Americans in the States has taken the form of black nationalism in the late 60's. Similarities do not end here. Although Roma's drive for ethnic unity might have not coalesced yet into a viable intellectual or political movement, the germs of 'gypsy nationalism' or 'gypsy consciousness' are clearly starting to make themselves present in the national debate.
'Gypsy consciousness,' just like 'black nationalism' regarding Blacks in the States, refers to a set of ideas and social behaviors that can affirm the beauty of Roma and that can dispel the negative images of Roma that the long history of slavery and oppression have generated in the mainstream Romanian society. Moreover, 'gypsy nationalism' can be seen as a determination on the part of the Roma population to develop their own political, economic, and social institutions not to necessarily to separate from the Romanian society, but simply to move toward some form of independence from the discriminatory and racist overtones of the dominant Romanian population.
Problems which exist today are the result of a continuum of circumstances going back for centuries. Because of segregation and discrimination, many Roma are largely uneducated; they subsist on totally inadequate income when they are allowed to hold jobs, they are denied the privileges and rights of full political citizenship. They have also experienced all kind of forms of harassment, intimidation and racial motivated violence. Their entire existence can be perceived in terms of constant struggle to survive. Because of all these factors, the drive to make their voices heard and to challenge discriminatory laws and widespread negative media stereotyping through ethnic unity is an uttermost practical solution.