BY MICHAEL BIRD AND STEFAN CANDEA
BUCHAREST - Snow, wind and sub-zero temperatures descended on Romania in February, gridlocking the roads, isolating villages, killing pensioners and causing panic across the country.
Social Democratic Party (PSD) MP for Bucharest Dan Tudorache, a member of the Parliament's foreign relations commission, chose this moment to post a public message on Facebook.
"It is minus 14 in Bucharest! Very cold!!!" he wrote. "So cold that I actually saw a gypsy with his hands in his pockets."
For those unfamiliar with racist humour against Romania's Roma minority, Tudorache was referring to the myth that 'gypsies' always have their hands exposed in the street so they can steal wallets and phones from passers-by.
However, he implied, even the 'gypsies' were unable to stand the cold snap, so had to sacrifice their urge to pickpocket.
Ciprian Necula, a 38-year-old Roma activist, took a stand against the MP, making public his prejudice in the newspaper Adevarul.
As a result of public outrage, Tudorache erased the Facebook post.
But the MP was greeted with waves of support from readers. Many attacked Necula in the comments section of the newspaper.
"Smile at a good joke," said 'Radu', while 'Valentin' told Necula: "I understand you are upset, but let's look at some statistics and see the percentage of gypsies in prison for stealing, compared to Romanians."
Damian Draghici, a candidate for the European Parliament in the Union of Social Democrats (USD) – and a Roma himself – also does not believe Tudorache's comments were racist.
He told EUobserver that these public representatives do not understand discrimination because they have never had such opinions put under scrutiny.
"When you are five years old and you put your hand on the oven, you know it burns," he says, making a comparison, "but if you have never put your hand on the oven until you're 30 years old – you will get burned at 30."
Draghici argues that his colleague in the ruling coalition did not have "bad intentions".
What is necessary, he argues, is to educate such people about what discrimination means.
This is at the heart of the political debate about Roma today – whether prejudice voiced at the highest level is due to naiveté or a calculated attempt by politicians to woo anti-Roma sentiment rife in the population.
Among minorities, Roma are the biggest target of political jibes and suffer the most prejudice in the country. The National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) says that when Romanians are asked to describe Roma in their own words, 20 percent choose two words – 'thieves' and 'criminals'.
Prejudice is recycled from generation to generation and ingrained in Romanian children at an early age. In Romanian playgrounds it is common to hear elders tell their children they should behave or "the gypsies will come and kidnap you" and, if they have paint or mud on their face or hands, that the infant is "dirty like a gypsy".
De facto segregation of the Roma is common in schooling, housing and work.
This sentiment cascades from the top. Anti-Roma rhetoric emerges from politicians across all three major political parties – the left, the right and the Liberals.
Last year a Liberal leader from Alba County in central Romania promoted the idea of sterilising Roma women.
Rares Buglea, the leader of National Liberal Party (PNL) Youth Organization in Alba County and a local council member, posted on Facebook a comment on the difficulties of changing Roma mentality.
He said it would be better for a Roma woman to be sterilised after her first child if social workers found that the mother does not have "the intention to raise the child in humane conditions".
Accused of embracing Nazi-style eugenics, Buglea resigned from the Youth Organisation, but not from the Liberal party or from his position as a local council member. The CNCD slapped him with a paltry €2,000 fine.
Meanwhile left-of-centre Prime Minister Victor Ponta has made an outright distinction between Romanians and Roma. In a BBC TV interview in 2013, he stated that the issue of Romanians who travel to the UK and Germany to take advantage of social benefits was a "specific situation of the Roma community".
Right-of-centre President Traian Basescu, who has led Romania since 2004, has received two convictions from the CNCD for racist statements.
In 2007, he was accosted in a cash-and-carry store by a female TV reporter who was attempting to interview him. He was then caught on dictaphone calling her a "stinky gypsy".
In 2010, on a trip to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, he said that nomadic gypsies traditionally "live only on what they steal".
But when politicians such as Basescu make such statements, all they face is a fine. Their popularity is not affected, nor do they come under party or public pressure to quit politics.
Outrage tends to come only from non-governmental organisations and foreign politicians. Nevertheless, this is progress since anti-Roma hate speech reached a peak in the 1990s.
"The fact that we have a civil society, which represents the Roma and puts pressure on politicians, means a change," says Cristian Ghinea, director at Bucharest-based think tank the Romanian Centre for European Policies (CRPE).
"Politicians who make such discriminatory statements are admonished in public and they apologise," he adds.
Half of the population admits to prejudice towards Roma. Fifty-eight percent of Romanians would not accept a Roma person to be a member of their family while 48 percent would oppose having them as a work colleague, according to the CNCD.
"Racism is caused by ignorance as 70 percent of the population is rural in mentality and has little or no access to information or education," says activist Necula.
"Civic education is not the responsibility of educational institutions, but of families, which often choose to use 'gypsies' as a monster to make their children behave 'correctly'. Romanians are growing up with the idea of a gypsy being dangerous and inferior," he says.
During election time, the public unashamedly condone such racist opinions. Three quarters of Romanians would not vote for an MEP who is a Roma, according to a CNCD survey in December 2013.
But the situation may be more complex.
Not so black and white
Damian Draghici, as Romania's only openly Roma candidate running for a European Parliament seat in next month's EU vote, is dismissive of such studies.
"Life is not only studies," he says. "I don't think voters will not vote for a candidate because they are Roma."
He argues that the public may be prejudiced, but who they vote for depends on the individual standing and what that person has achieved in his life – and proudly cites himself as an example.
Draghici left Romania in 1989, crossing the border illegally into Yugoslavia, settling in Greece and then moving to the US, where he studied music and launched an international touring and recording career.
"This guy has done it," he says of himself. "He left Romania, went to the States, was successful, helped his community and he did it [and the people will say] 'I believe in him and he is going to do it again'."
Nevertheless many politicians and public figures are less vocal about their Roma background than Draghici.
"They have a problem with themselves," says the would-be MEP. "They haven't solved personal issues. I think it is better to have all the cards on the table and say: 'I am Roma – you can like me or not'."
As an elected senator, he says he has never faced prejudice in the corridors of power.
Unlike many countries in the region, Romania does not have a powerful far-right party campaigning for the European elections against the rights of ethnic or sexual minorities.
The only mainstream group which historically made anti-minority statements is the Greater Romania Party (PRM), which won three seats (out of 34 seats in total) in the 2009 European elections. But polls predict the PRM is set to fail in the May vote.
The Roma is also a growing minority. They represent a large block of voters, potentially in the millions, including more and more young people.
Many Roma are poor – and those at the lowest income level in Romania are often targets for vote-buying. At election time, they are wooed by those of all political shades and parties often pay them – from €8 upwards – to vote for a specific candidate.
The PSD’s move to employ Draghici is viewed by some analysts as a potentially smart move, as it could tap into a swelling constituency.
But the fear is that parties will adopt a Roma as a poster-boy to show their multicultural credentials, without seriously dealing with the Roma problems of poverty, poor education and lack of social mobility.
Draghici claims to have been approached by many political parties in the past.
"Before as a musician, it would have been an easy way for a politician to have me next to him, he says, "just because I was very popular."
He says he settled on the current coalition and on Victor Ponta's leadership because he felt they were honest about implementing targeted pro-Roma programmes.
But Roma activist Necula argues that Draghici is a lone voice and that the coalition he represents has achieved little so far in this area.
Part of the problem, says Necula, is that Draghici is trapped in the status of being a Roma showpiece for parties with an archaic attitude towards certain ethnicities.
"He is a VIP token candidate for a coalition with a lot of anti-Roma discourse and a government who did mostly nothing for solving Roma problems," he says.
Many analysts argue that it is within the interests of politicians to keep the Roma as a poor, divided and uneducated community, who are easy to manipulate at local and national elections.
"The distinction between social class and ethnicity is not clear for Romanian politicians," adds Necula. "The Roma are seen, by a huge number of Romanian politicians, as lumpen-proletariat, the bottom of the social hierarchy."