On January 17, 2003, the UN Development Program/Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS (UNDP/RBEC) published a report on the situation of the gypsies of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The "Roma Regional Development Report" ("Roma" is the name the gypsies now prefer for themselves, however historically inaccurate it may be), was immediately picked up by the left-wing European media (see e.g. the Guardian’s "UN Report says one in six Roma is starving", 1/17).
As the UNDP report itself acknowledges, the problems with assessing the gypsies’ real, imagined or indeed self-inflicted problems start with the basic one of defining who is a gypsy and how many of them are. Gypsies themselves do not agree on this. They are divided along dialectal, tribal, and historic occupational lines. For instance, in Romania, the country with the largest gypsy population, the gypsies have historically been divided between caldarari (caldron makers), lingurari (wooden spoon makers), aurari (river gold miners), ursari (bear trainers) and, most prominent and influential, lautari (musicians). Similar divisions apply elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe. While such distinctions have lost their old meaning, they remain under different forms.
They are also highly opportunistic. Depending on circumstances, Gypsies may declare themselves gypsies in official censuses or declare themselves part of the dominant community in which they live—Hungarian in Hungary or Romanian Transylvania; Czechs in Slovakia; Slovaks in the Czech Republic—whatever is more advantageous. The same goes with religion. In Turkish-dominated areas of Bulgaria they identify themselves as Muslim, while elsewhere (e.g. Romanian Moldova and Wallachia) they are Orthodox. In Transylvania, depending on location, they could be Calvinists, Orthodox, or even Unitarian.
That means that general reports such as UNDP’s about the conditions of the gypsy minority are based on quicksand. Meaningful analysis of a "community" one cannot even define is difficult. As to its size, the Romanian 1992 census counted 409,723 gypsies, while most realistic estimates put that number at 1.5 million and gypsy militants claim some 2.5 million. Hungary counted 142,836 in its 1990 census and 190,046 in 2001; again, more realistic independent figures are closer to 500,000.
There can be no argument about the historic discrimination against gypsies in Eastern Europe. In the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldova, until the mid-nineteenth century they were serfs to be sold as village communities, families or indeed individuals. Hitler attempted to eliminate them entirely, beginning with the 1938 Zigeuneraufräumungswoche ("gypsy clean-up week") and culminating in the genocide at Auschwitz (what Gypsy collective memories call Porajmos). In fact, the percentage of the gypsy population murdered by the Nazis was probably as high or even higher than the percentage of the Jewish population killed.
As a people (or, more accurately, a collection of disparate groups) originating in India’s Gujarat, gypsies were the camp followers of Mongol invaders of Eastern Europe in the 13th century. Once within the Byzantine Empire, they adapted the Byzantine self-defining term of Romaioi ("Romans" in Greek), given Byzantium’s claim to be the direct successor of the (Eastern) Roman Empire. Hence today’s historically absurd self-definition as "Roma." Whatever name they choose for themselves (and "Roma" appears to be the most potentially lucrative and thus increasingly the most fashionable one), all gypsies, regardless of their centuries-old differences of dialect and history, define themselves less as an inclusive ethnic group and more as distinct from the gagea—the non-gypsies around them. To accept the values and rules of the gagea is to cease to be a gypsy—a policy that has had profound impact on the size of the gypsy community and its ability to carry its culture forward, since intermarriage with the gagea has always been common.
In addition of being the most linguistically adept people in the region, the gypsies have made extraordinary contributions to European music, influencing Hungarian, Romanian, Spanish, Russian, and Balkan music and dance. Spanish flamenco dances and the works of Spain’s preeminent poet of the twentieth century, Federico Garcia Lora, are basically gypsy inspired. And despite nationalist East European claims to the contrary, Romanian, Hungarian, and Eastern Slav (Slovak and Ukrainian) folk music and dances are ultimately heavily influenced by the gypsies.
But then there is the other side: the historic dysfunctional nature of the gypsy society, which continues to today. While any suggestion that gypsies are a dysfunctional, indeed criminally minded subgroup elicits strenuous denials and counter allegations of racism, it remains the case that in all countries where they are present in a significant number, they are disproportionately represented among the criminal elements. Prior to 1989 their activities didn’t go much beyond petty theft; now they have "graduated" into far more serious types of crimes: from robbery to murder and from theft to international drug and illegal migrant trafficking.
Nor can it be simple poverty accounting for this. Sibiu, a fairly large city in Romanian Transylvania, boasts the huge kitsch palaces of "Emperor Julian" and "King" Cioaba of the Romanian gypsies complete with gold-covered roofs. In Bucharest one sees gypsy gang leaders with huge 18-karat gold chains and enormous rings. But the EU has made them official "victims."
In 2004 the EU will vote on the admission of some of these countries with large gypsy populations and have to face the obvious: a dysfunctional, criminally oriented "community" that has well learned how to manipulate human rights claims. This community, which has been on the record for centuries as refusing to accept gagea rules such as the rule of law, obligatory schooling, and the civic responsibilities of voting, will be free to migrate around and benefit from that same gagea, all the way from Helsinki to Lisbon. It will be interesting to see whether authors of articles like "Shame of a Continent" (the Guardian, 1/08) on the gypsies’ plight hold to their views after their own countries begin to receive large numbers of gypsy immigrants.