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  • Orphans of Transition: Gypsies in Eastern Europe
  • Zoltan Barany (bio)

For the approximately six million Roma (Gypsies) who live in Eastern Europe, the transition from communism has been an altogether deplorable experience. 1 Though entire sections of society (unskilled laborers, pensioners, and so on) have been hurt by the marketization processes that began nearly a decade ago, none has been more adversely affected than the Roma.

A wide variety of long-marginalized groups whose exclusion had been based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other grounds had greeted the fall of the ancien régime enthusiastically, expecting an end to state-sanctioned discrimination and societal prejudices. On the whole, marginal groups—and especially ethnic minorities—have been more successful in acquiring rights and stopping discriminatory practices in countries where democratization has advanced rapidly than in countries where the process has been sluggish. 2 One feature common to all East European states, however, is the desperate situation of the Gypsies.

Reliable estimates put the world’s Gypsy population at about 10 million. As Table 1 shows, Europe is home to about 8 million Roma, almost three-fourths of whom reside in Eastern Europe. Another million live in the United States. In a number of Western democracies, the Roma continue to suffer discrimination—some of it de jure, but most of it de facto. 3 Even though the Roma of Western Europe tend to be at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale in the countries where they live, their standards of living are far superior to those of their East European brethren. [End Page 142]

Table 1.
The Gypsy Population of Europe
Eastern Europe Western Europe
Country No. of persons Country No. of persons
Albania 95,000 Austria 22,500
Belarus 2,500 Belgium 12,500
Bosnia-Herzegovina 45,000 Cyprus 750
Bulgaria 750,000 Denmark 1,750
Croatia 35,000 Finland 8,000
Czech Republic 275,000 France 310,000
Estonia 1,250 Germany 120,000
Hungary 575,000 Greece 180,000
Latvia 2,750 Ireland 25,000
Lithuania 3,500 Italy 100,000
Macedonia 240,000 Luxembourg 125
Moldova 22,500 Netherlands 37,500
Poland 45,000 Norway 750
Romania 2,150,000 Portugal 45,000
Russia 310,000 Spain 725,000
Serbia-Montenegro 725,000 Sweden 17,500
Slovakia 500,000 Switzerland 32,500
Slovenia 9,000 Turkey 400,000
Ukraine 55,000 U.K. 105,000
Total 5,851,500 Total 2,143,875

Note: I arrived at these numbers by taking the mean of the “minimum” and “maximum” numbers from Jean-Pierre Li'egeois, Roma, Gypsies, Travelers (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Press, 1994), 34. Although I disagree with some of Li'egeois's figures—in my view the numbers for Macedonia and Romania are overstated; they are closer to 75,000 and 1 million, respectively—I elected to use them here for the sake of consistency.

In Eastern Europe, a relatively prosperous region by global standards, the vast majority of Gypsies live in misery and want. Prejudice against them is wide and deep, and, on several occasions since 1989, has led to vigilante-style violence and pogroms. The Roma’s progress in attaining political representation in proportion to the size of their communities has been halting at best; their political power remains minimal. Perhaps most troubling of all, the key markers of their predicament are nearly identical in all of Eastern Europe. Their situation poses a threat to the democratic society that political and civic elites aspire to consolidate.

A good handle for understanding the Romani predicament is provided by the concept of marginality (which, put simply, denotes the domination of one group of people by another). Marginality is a multidimensional notion with separable political, social, and economic aspects. A group such as the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia or people of Indian ancestry in Trinidad and Tobago may be economically influential but politically marginalized. Moreover, marginal status itself may change: a group or an entire nation that was once politically excluded may, in time, find itself in the dominant position (as did Estonians with the demise of the Soviet Union).

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