Wednesday 8 December 2010
A bill to replace the Roma name with a pejorative term risks opening a Pandora's box of prejudice and frustration
Silviu Prigoana, a Romanian MP, has introduced a bill that would ban Romanian institutions from using the word "Roma" to describe the Gypsy minority. He suggests the word be replaced by the pejorative "Tzigane", a word that comes from the Greek term for "untouchable". The Romanian government has sent the bill to parliament and the initiative has the support of President Basescu, who recently said on public radio that the introduction of the word Roma into official terminology, in 1995, was "a mistake".
Why is this such a highly politicised issue? The answer is that it goes to the heart of Romanians' sense of national identity. Prigoana claims that people all over the world assume that Romania is "the land of the Roma" and he wants to clarify the issue. The MP's proposal has the support of the Romanian Academy but the ministries of foreign affairs and culture have spoken out against it. The Roma NGOs are gearing up for a major row, They staged a demonstration outside the government building and submitted a letter of protest to the recent OSCE summit in Kazakhstan.
Romanians are proud of their history and their curious geographical status as "a Latin island in a sea of Slavs". Every Romanian pupil is taught that they are descended from the settlers who stayed behind afterRome's legions withdrew from Dacia, the last great conquest of the Roman empire. The word Romania was invented in the 19th century when the Balkan nation won its independence. The word Romania is symbolically linked to the city of Rome (Roma) from where the people originated so many years ago.
The Roma minority also have a long and remarkable history. Originating in India, the Roma tribes came west about 1,000 years ago, settling in Persia, Egypt (from where the name "Gypsy" came), the Balkans and western Europe. There are more than 10 million Roma in Europe today and more than 1 million in the US. The term they use to describe themselves is usually "Roma". In their own language (Romanes) it means "man". Over the past 20 years the term Roma has come to be accepted among international organisations and this would not change if Romania decided to stop using it.
Although the 1.5 million strong Roma minority in Romania are marginalised – in other words they generally don't benefit from public services – there has been some progress in terms of recognising their rights. Central to this progress is the right to self-identification and the use of the word "Roma". If the Romanian state were to do away with this term it might strike a chord with nationalists but it would insult the Roma population and send an international signal that Romanians are prejudiced – not the kind of message that is needed when delicate negotiations about Romania's entry into the EU's visa-free Schengen area are underway.
Romania has been remarkably immune to the rise of populism and anti-immigration policies around Europe. Although nationalism was strong in the 1990s, Romania's extremist parties were split, ridiculed and turfed out of parliament at the last election in 2008. Compared to Hungary, a neighbouring country where the Jobbik party recently won 47 seats in parliament, on the basis of anti-Roma rhetoric, Romania can seem rather moderate. But this name-changing proposal could open a Pandora's box of prejudice and frustration which lies dormant under the relative calm of Romanian society – especially so soon after Sarkozy expelled thousands of Roma from illegal campsites in France.
Romania could turn this situation round if they took a different approach: if its citizens celebrated the fact that Romania is a multi-ethnic country with large minorities (including a large Hungarian minority) and that there is strength in diversity. And the unique – and very interesting – histories of these minorities could be weaved into their brand building efforts.
If the Roma could be seen as a national asset – not least in terms of a future labour force in a country with a declining population – perhaps the Romanian state would realise that it would be in everyone's interest to invest in the Roma rather than ignore them. And by explaining clearly the difference between the word Roma and Romania – rather than reverting to a derogatory epithet – this semantic row could be defused.