Gypsies yearn for former socialist order in Eastern Europe as bias surfaces


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- The millions of Gypsies of Eastern Europe have emerged as great losers from the overthrow of communism and the end of the rigid controls that it imposed on daily life.

Many of the economic and social protections that Gypsies enjoyed in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia collapsed, permitting a revival of the open prejudice and persecution that have marked the history of the Roma, as Gypsies prefer to call themselves, since they first reached Europe in the 11th century after a long migration from the Indian subcontinent.

The transition from state-run economies that provided full, even compulsory, employment has closed many of the unprofitable factories, mines and construction projects that provided work for most Gypsies, even if at the most menial jobs.

Nothing gained

"Nostalgia for the old regime is strongest among Gypsies," said Gabor Havas, a Hungarian sociologist and member of Parliament for the Free Democrats. "They lost almost everything they had and gained nothing."

Two social workers who work among the Roma hesitated when asked in Prague, the Czech capital, whether many Gypsies would vote for the neo-Communist Party. Finally one, Bozena Viragova, replied: "They would tend to vote for it because it represents a more secure social order."

Jan Kompus, a Gypsy in the eastern Slovak village of Medzev, said: "They would vote Communist because in Communist days they had jobs and apartments and didn't have to pay for schoolbooks. We lived in better social conditions."

Mr. Kompus, a former factory mechanic, said he has been unemployed since he was dismissed in 1990 for demanding equal pay and social conditions for Gypsies in a farm-implement factory. Despite a favorable court ruling, he said, he has not been reinstated.

Gypsies outside mainstream

Max van der Stoel, high commissioner on national minorities for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 53-nation organization, is forthright: "The vast majority of Roma face extraordinarily difficult circumstances in their everyday lives poverty, discrimination, and the lack of full participation in mainstream society."

Thus Mr. van der Stoel, a former Dutch foreign minister, depicts the grim reality encountered in four weeks of travel through Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where about 3 million Roma live. Only estimates are available, since Gypsies are suspicious of outside authority and reluctant to take part in censuses.

"Stigmatized minorities always become scapegoats," said Professor Milena Huebschmannova, a philologist at Charles University in Prague whose 40 years of study of the Romany language led her to involvement in Roma issues. She says that in the general disappointment that followed initial euphoria after the collapse of communism, Gypsies have become the targets of blame.

'Flooded by crime'

In many interviews with officials and others in Bucharest, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava, as well as with local authorities, the dominant note was accusatory. Complaints about the Gypsies' alleged laziness, uncleanliness, dishonesty and criminality were far more common than plans to relieve it.

Jan Vik, 24, the parliamentary deputy of the right-wing Republican Party in the Czech Republic, said he saw the problem as one of criminality.

"We can't wait for the country to be flooded by crime," he said. "At age 3, a Gypsy will see his drunk father, his prostitute mother, and all we try to do for him will prove in vain. His parents tell him the best way of life is stealing."

Such attitudes support the view of many Roma leaders that unless serious efforts are quickly undertaken to end such stereotypes, the current violence against Gypsies -- mainly small-scale village attacks and skinhead assaults -- might expand greatly.

At best, most officials acknowledged a serious social problem, but said that in the current economic crisis, no funds were available to relieve it.

But other suggestions were less charitable. Jozef Pacai, the mayor of Medzev, said selective killing of Gypsies was the only solution.

Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar of Slovakia, which has a Roma population of about 400,000 in a total population of 5 million, said in a speech on Sept. 3 that Gypsies constituted a "socially unadaptable population" with a high birth rate of "children who are poorly adaptable mentally, poorly adaptable socially, children with serious health disorders, children, simply, who are a great burden on this society."

In one interview, a senior counselor in Slovakia who insisted he not be named because "my words would be taken as racist," volunteered views that seem typical: "Under socialism, we said that two species were overprotected -- bears and Roma. They didn't have to work. They had many children and received a lot of welfare.

"Today, too, they get a lot. A family with two children that works hard gets as much as a Roma family with a lot of children without work. They spend it in a few days, then go back to stealing. The state tried to solve the problem by putting Gypsies in state housing. An apartment was assigned to a family of four or five, then 15 or 20 moved in. They ripped up the floorboards and made a fire in the middle of the room. There are exceptions who work, of course, but that is one out of 15."

Such opinions are not found only in official circles. Curierul National, a Bucharest daily, published last month, without comment, a survey of interviews with what it described as ordinary citizens. One typical comment came from Olivia D., identified as a worker, who said: "I'm sorry I don't have the power -- I would exterminate them all."

Such violent expressions directed against Gypsies, ethnic Hungarians and Jews are common in Romania, and President Ion Iliescu, with a closely divided Parliament, depends on extreme nationalist parties for his government's survival.

"The government is indifferent," said Nicolae Gheorghe, a sociologist and a spokesman for Romania's 2 million Roma. "It tolerates and justifies violence."

Smaranda Enache, one of the small band of human-rights campaigners in Romania, said Gypsies "are generally persecuted by the police, humiliated by local authorities and made to live on the margin."

"There is a large campaign to present Gypsies all the time as criminals, in the press and television, and this is perpetuated by teachers," she said. "This is a tragedy of our schools."

Education is a root problem. Roma children tend to get little encouragement from their families or from teachers to attend school.

In the nearby village of Raznany, Rudolf Duda, the only Gypsy on the village soccer team, said: "If a Roma child is not very good in his first year in school, he is immediately sent to the school for the mentally retarded. The school director tries to get rid of all the Roma children."

But Professor Jan Podolak, an anthropologist on the staff of President Michal Kovac of Slovakia dealing with minority problems, denied that accusation.

"They are not sent to special schools because they are retarded," he said of the Roma children. "They don't speak Slovak, and sending them to segregated schools would mean isolating them. The problem is the irresponsible attitude of parents. They feel no need for education."

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