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East European Perspectives: June 11, 2003


11 June 2003, Volume 5, Number 12

POVERTY, ETHNICITY, AND IDENTITY IN ROMANIA: REFLECTIONS ON THE STATUS OF THE ROMA

By Alexandra Nacu

"In a country where...ever since Romania used to be an authentic totalitarian state, beggars stretch their hands out to thieves and thieves steal from beggars in full circle, it is difficult to believe that democracy will bring the light of justice as long as democracy itself continues to use thieves and beggars." ("Dilema," 22-29 October 2002). The following considerations on poverty and the Roma in postcommunist Romania might help one understand this reflection by a Romanian journalist. The thief and the beggar, the two traditional stereotypes of the Gypsy in Romania, are here presented as the emblematic characters of Romania's corrupt postcommunist democracy, whose negative image is, in addition, rooted in history. This symbiosis between collective humiliation and crime on a national scale is perceived as being based on corruption -- the latter understood in the economic but also in the physical and moral senses.

Since 1989, a significant portion of the Romanian population has confronted a process of more or less acute impoverishment. If poverty lines and thresholds are always questionable, there is a tangible sense that poverty has become a major reality for a significant segment of the population, and a potential danger for another segment (Tesliuc et al., 2001, pp. 21-30).

In the process of newly forming social inequalities -- of status redefinition -- the Roma appear to be the "loser" of "transition," massively affected by this process of impoverishment. Statistics and observations confirm this impression: Already in a disadvantaged position under the communist regime, a significant portion of the Romany population is now in poverty -- although this does not mean that all Roma in Romania experience the same kind of poverty or exclusion. Their plight is manifest in various patterns: In examining the issue more closely, one should distinguish between Roma living inside exclusively Romany settlements or outside of them; between settlements where social cohesion has been maintained and where it has not; and between those who are somewhat integrated into the local town or village and those that are completely isolated. Nevertheless, despite this great diversity, Roma are unified by their functional role -- as indeed they are in most East-European countries -- a factor that allows us to speak of a community of destiny.

Apart from being a social reality, poverty has become a public issue requiring the identification of responsibilities and programs for solutions, often blotting out complex intricacies and the great variety of situations and giving way to ordinary racism. The "Romany question" occupies an important part in these debates, in which it appears at the crossroads of issues of ethnicity and poverty. If during the communist period both "poverty" and "Gypsy" were words banned from the public discourse, they have reappeared since 1989 in close connection with each other.

We should add that the poverty issue does not merely contribute to creating divisions inside the country, but it also shapes the country's identity: Having regained a long suppressed freedom of expression, Romania had to redefine itself in the community of states, and the obvious conclusion was that it was "a poor country." (We shall return to this theme later.)

The question of Roma and poverty is complex, first of all because there are notorious definitional problems. Neither the Roma nor poverty is easy to define. We just have to consider the polysemy of the word "tigan" (Gypsy) in Romanian, which can be used as a census category representing ethnicity but also as an everyday element of identification of "the other" -- in a reference to status or otherwise pejoratively. These forms of classification do not coincide, and the question of "Who is a Gypsy?" does not lend itself to an unequivocal answer. But aside from these doubts concerning definition, the question is also difficult because there is a gap between "objective" features and perceptions. We shall try to consider some of these problems.

1. The Roma In Romanian Poverty And Within The Welfare Scheme: A Paradigm For Poverty?
All yardsticks of poverty indicate that the proportion of poor Roma is several times higher than that of non-Roma. Roma also represent a significant segment of the severely or extremely poor. According to a household survey directed by Ivan Szelenyi, the proportion of the poor (based on 50 percent of countrywide consumption figures) is as follows: Roma 39.5 percent; non-Roma 10.9 percent; or, if per capita income is taken into consideration, Roma make up 43.1 percent and non-Roma 11.1 percent of the poor. Using a figure of $2.15 of Purchase Parity Power (PPP) per capita per day, the percentages are 37.6 percent for Roma and 7.3 percent for non-Roma (World Bank, 2002, pp. 11-18).

Such quantitative estimations aside, Romany poverty taken as a whole presents some features that distinguish it from poverty among other categories in the population: first, the absence of formal employment (i.e., proportionally few Roma are either employed or registered for unemployment aid) and qualification for welfare (World Bank, 2002, pp. 18-21), mostly child benefits (one cannot speak of real dependence on welfare because the actual payment of benefits represents a different issue). It is important, however, to underline that Roma are of course by no means the only group in this situation.

The roots of the complex causes of Romany poverty are to be searched for well before 1989: Indeed, for a comprehensive study, one would need to examine the historic impact of (first) enslavement and (later) state indifference and persecution on contemporary racism and on its different configurations of spatial and social isolation. In addition, the legacy of communism and of its failed and reluctant emancipation of the Roma is also to be kept in mind: Under communism, Romanian Gypsies were given access to primary-school education and factory jobs, but the proletarianization of the Roma did not put an end either to poverty or segregation; what is more, it precipitated the Roma's decline into poverty after 1989. In postcommunist Romania, the Roma have become more vulnerable to the different factors causing poverty. For example, they were among the first to lose their jobs after 1989. The Roma were excluded en masse from the redistribution process of privatization, and most importantly, many Romany agricultural workers failed to get their share from the redistribution of land in rural zones.

In considering poverty today, one should also bear in mind the consequences of Nicolae Ceausescu's disastrous birth policy, which led to a doubling of births in 1967 but failed to otherwise provide for the children born as an outcome of these pro-nativist policies (Kligman, 2000, pp. 83-100). While the ban on abortions affected all Romanian citizens, its medical, social, and economic consequences were most dramatic for the poorest families -- those of peasants or workers with many children, many of whom were Roma (Pop-Eleches, 2002). One should bear in mind that it is precisely these generations, born under the abortion ban, that are facing unemployment today.

The fact that a significant segment of the Romany poor is cut off from the formal work sector has wide implications, which are, in turn, nourished by popular stereotypes. Although it is generally acknowledged that employment in the formal sector is generally scarce in Romania and that, moreover, many social benefits do not actually reach those entitled to them, the image of the "scrounger" is generally stigmatized. It is interesting to note that the definition of "work" at institutional and social-policy level remains rigid, whereas according to different estimates the informal sector amounts to some 40 percent of the country's economy. Fierce disputes about what should be called "labor" take place with regard to "child labor" and its definition as well. As social researcher Sorin Cace observed when writing on "child labor" in Bucharest's fifth municipal district:

"[Local public authorities] argued that [the children] do not work because they do not have where, or that they do not work because this kind of behavior is not specific to the Roma. As our study progressed and it became clear what was generally intended by work, the interviewees mentioned a great part of the children's activities. It was concluded that the inconsistencies between the different interviewees were due to a very strict definition of 'work.' The latter involved, according to the authorities, only formal activities...well delimited from other activities and necessarily involving monetary retribution" (United Nations, Bucharest, 2001).

We can thus conclude that Gypsy poverty presents a few features that make it more susceptible to stigmatization, despite the fact that these features exist to no lesser extent among the non-Romany poor. Indeed, in postcommunist Romania, one need not search long to find (either among urban or rural populations) groups of young people with children, persistently excluded from labor and social benefits, and who would not necessarily be defined as Roma. But specific features of Romany poverty contribute to the shaping of the debates on poverty and welfare, where open or disguised racism plays a great part. Frequently, a line is drawn between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" poor, between " aid-deserving" and "undeserving" poor. The Roma generally belong to the latter category, perceived as people who avoid work, have uncontrolled reproduction rates, are irresponsible and child-like, are strangers to modernity, and live on social benefits -- even when it is acknowledged that those benefits are insufficient to cover living costs. They are generally blamed for their own poverty; they belong to what in an early essay David Matza called "the disreputably poor" (Matza, 1966).

2. The Roma In The Romanian Welfare Debate
The welfare system reflects the work-centered vision mentioned above. The Romanian social-assistance system has traditionally been work-based, and was only recently enlarged to include stipulations such as a guaranteed minimum income, whose implementation in practice leaves much to be desired. A disastrous decentralization process beginning in 1996 caused a dramatic drop in the distribution of social aid, especially in the poorest areas, and left such payments much more dependent on the arbitrariness of local councils. Most tellingly, the most disadvantaged among the Roma -- those who do not have identity documents -- are excluded from public welfare.

The idea of welfare policies targeting the Roma was slow to emerge, both due to the Romanian political elites' lack of interest or even hostility toward the "Gypsy problem" (and toward welfare issues in general) and due to divisions among Romany elites on this matter. Even now, many Romanian officials often express views on welfare that in a Western country would appear extremely conservative -- arguably surprising demeanor in a political elite that is largely the heir of the communist regime. But this paradox is only superficial when one examines it more closely: Despite all that can be said of the all-prevailing role of the state during communism, the scope of its social policy was limited. Problems that in other countries would have provided an impetus to social-policy measures were ignored for as long as possible and "treated" through radical measures such as the notorious institutionalization of abandoned children.

The attitude of the postcommunist Romanian state toward Roma-related welfare issues has been ambiguous. The role of international organizations was crucial in the public emergence of the issue, since the Romanian political elites feared that "the Gypsy problem" might delay Romania's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Unfortunately, this modality of dealing with social issues in response to outward pressures and rewards is not conducive to any coherent social policy. Thus, in 2000, a law was passed against "all forms of discrimination," and, in 2001 (after years of hesitation and conflict), a National Strategy for the Amelioration of the Situation of Roma, drafted under Western pressure, was approved by the government. It was a step forward, but the strategy's ambitious objectives had no chance of implementation within budgetary constraints, and still do not have such a chance.

The issue of what specific policies should be aimed at improving the situation of the Roma, moreover, emerged against a general backdrop of new types of rivalries among impoverished categories, each trying to influence social policy to its own benefit. Indeed, a large part of the Romanian population perceives itself as poor and is ready to engage in what Vladimir Tismaneanu called "competitive victimization" (Tismaneanu, 1998, pp. 88-111). Conflicts over access to welfare take place at the local level -- the decentralization of aid giving way to more irregularities in the matter -- but also at the central level, involving group interests such as trade unions or pensioners. The Roma are generally disadvantaged in such a context, especially as the divided Romany elites often choose not to base their claims to legitimacy on a successful struggle with the authorities over poverty issues.

Thus the image of the Roma as both living in miserable poverty and as taking undue advantage of the welfare system and of Western-NGO-aid programs, creates a type of frustration and community rivalry that is widespread in Romania. It remains to be seen whether, in the more distant future, the new social policies directed toward the Roma bear fruit or whether they would remain declared intentions -- in other words, what Romanian intellectuals using an expression coined by literary critic and politician Titu Maiorescu last century call "forms without essence" (Maiorescu, 1967).

3. 'The Gypsy Question'
Although one can trace the origins of contemporary anti-Romany racism in history, there has been a major change in the discourse on Roma since 1989: Indeed, during Ceausescu's reign, the very existence of the Romany minority group was denied by the state. The word "tigan" was banned from public utterance. This denial of reality, which adhered to the rule of communist separation between the private and the public spheres, contrasted with the presence of the Gypsies in everyday life. As Romanian sociologist Liviu Matei puts it: "No one ever spoke about the Gypsies, but everyone knew that they existed" (Matei, 1993).

Thirteen years after the change of regime, the Roma have been made into a "public issue." Romany party leaders appear on television, and politicians express concern about the situation of the minority. In the national-election campaigns of 2000, even ultranationalist and Greater Romania Party (PRM) leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor produced his own "strategy for the integration of the Roma." But often, public concern mingles with ordinary racism. Although current political leaders have, through a process of trial and error, learned that explicit racism would not further their Western interests, one can often see it at work at the local level. There is a considerable gap between the official "political correctness" (which is by no means always respected, and somewhat resembles the communist "wooden tongue") and the general "doxology" on the matter. Romanian officials play on the whole spectrum between the two (see Agentia de Monitorizare a Presei, 2001) Although the situation is far from stable, one can say that there has been a specialization in the Romanian political spectrum: Overt racism and anti-Gypsy topics have now mostly been taken up by Tudor's PRM. In the case of this party, the emphasis on anti-Gypsy discourse has replaced the nationalist anti-Magyar and anti-Semitic stances that were prevalent at the beginning of the 1990s. Ambiguity is always present when Roma are mentioned: It is unclear whether the "problem" is the predicament of the Gypsies or the existence of the Gypsies themselves, in striking continuity with former practices. Thus, anthropologist Michael Stewart and other observers have remarked that the Nazis and the communists had similar goals in mind regarding the Gypsies: making them disappear, albeit in different ways (Stewart, 1997, p. 5). "Treating the Romany question" and "solving the Gypsy problem" play upon this ambiguity (reminiscent of "the Jewish question," with which it has a number of common points). For some Romanian officials, this often amounts to "cleaning up" -- i.e., the disappearance or isolation of -- the Romany minority, as illustrated by the endeavors of some mayors to create special "Gypsy districts" in their towns. This was the situation in the notorious but not isolated case of the mayor of Piatra Neamt in 2001.

It is clear that "the Gypsy question" has much potential for developing into an official racism, especially in a context of elections and/or economic crisis. The rejection of explicit verbal racism by a significant number of Romanian officials is an important development, but it is strongly conditioned by the requirements of Euro-Atlantic integration. Should the prospects for integration disappear, these efforts would prove to be short-lived.

4. The Roma And The 'Culture of Poverty'
In view of the growing impoverishment of the Romany minority since 1989, can one justifiably speak of a "racialization of poverty" in Romania, as many researchers have (Emigh et al., 2001)? Is the poverty of the Gypsies "situational" or "cultural" (Waxman, 1983)? Some Romanian sociologists have refused to address this issue with any serious concern, while others extend it to the practice of the state, speaking of "the governmental culture of poverty" (Preda, 2001, pp. 157-164).

What is certain is that the Roma and poverty are closely associated by Romanians themselves. Of course this is not new, since, historically speaking, economic status and ethnicity have always been linked in Romania. The linkage does not apply only in the case of the Romany minority, which has known enslavement in the Romanian principalities, but also to that of ethnic Romanians, Magyars, and Germans in pre-1918 Transylvania. For an interviewer in doubt, a poor person stands a greater chance of being labeled a "Roma" (Szelenyi, 2002, pp. 81-82).

The association between Roma and poverty is often essentialist: The Roma are seen as the products of a CULTURE OF POVERTY, a theme that has been taken up by some Romany elites, although it is rejected by many others in the same circles. A vocal advocate of a "culture of poverty" vision is Madalin Voicu, the leader of Partida Romilor, the only Romany organization with parliamentary representation -- witness the notorious episode of Voicu's "laws" inspired from the Ten Commandments, in which he advised Roma "not to steal, not to lie, to wash themselves," etc. in order to be accepted by the majority population ("Cotidianul," 3 October 2001).

That Gypsies developed cultural responses to their situation is a fact, but it is often precisely the "traditional" features of the Roma that allow for greater adaptability in the postcommunist economy, and for certain forms of success in postcommunist society (Courthiade, 1993). The most extreme poverty is to be found precisely in those Romany groups that have been forced to abandon their traditional way of life, for example by moving to cities, especially Bucharest.

Thus, the sin of the "Gypsy culture of poverty" theories lies in defining the content of this culture in line with popular stereotypes. Culturalism can also appear as a more acceptable form of racism, since it no longer alludes to the "genetic" traits of Gypsies but to their "culture" that allegedly encourages them, according to the popular stereotype, to avoid work, have too many children, and engage in criminal activities. But while a racialization of poverty is to be found in the general "doxology" and in the practice of many institutions, the scholar would be well advised to avoid the trap of common perceptions and infer a causal link between the Romany ethnicity and poverty.

Moreover, the above-mentioned difficulty of defining the Gypsy minority is in itself of importance when addressing poverty issues. The fact that there is a prevalent anti-Gypsy racism in Romania need not lead one to conclude that the Roma form a separate, well-delimited entity, with specific values and problems, fully separated from the majority group. Fredrik Barth has taught us that a high degree of interpenetration of ethnic groups can coincide with a high consciousness of boundaries (Barth, 1969, p. 21).

Indeed, Szelenyi's study points out that in Romania -- in contrast with Bulgaria -- the Roma form the least well-defined group in terms of coincidence between hetero-identification by the interviewer and self-identification, as well as in terms of agreement in identity-ascription. In the random sample studied by the author, 61 percent of respondents whom interviewers identified as Roma did not agree with this label (Szelenyi 2002, pp. 85-86). These identification issues were at stake during the last general census in 2002, when the Roma were courted by Romanian, Hungarian, and Romany organizations, each urging them to declare themselves as belonging to their own respective ethnic group. (The fact that the census did not allow for double ethnicity is relevant to the prevalent concept of identity).

Consequently, and without denying the genuine isolation and stigmatization of many Romany settlements or Romany poverty, the minority's relationship with the Romanian state cannot be understood separately from the situation of the population as a whole. In other words, one cannot (or, rather, should not) ignore the "larger picture" of poverty as a mass phenomenon. We shall now attempt to explore this link.

5. 'A Country Of Beggars And Thieves'
As Fredrik Barth pointed out, differentiation from other groups can be essential in the self-identification of a group (Barth, 1969, pp. 15-16). Much has been written about the Gypsy as representing the "other." In Romanian nationalism -- and racism -- the image of the Gypsy is of structural importance, as was previously that of the Jew, with which it has some common features. Instead of dwelling on this antagonism, which has been widely studied, I would like to examine a correlative feature of contemporary Romanian identity, which is the fear of being identified as "Gypsy."

It is difficult to deal with identity issues on a national level. But it is clear that the issues of "confusion" with the Gypsies, and the concern of avoiding confusion, of distancing oneself, are important in contemporary Romanian self-identification. Symptomatic of this attitude is the conflict about the orthography of the word "rom" (Roma) -- or "rrom," as it is now officially spelled in the Romanian language, where fear of confusion between "rom" and "Romanian" led the authorities to impose the doubling of the "r." Romanian nationalism has always represented the Romanian nation as "pure" of any form of racial mixture (except for the original mythical "encounter" of Dacians and Romans) -- a stance contradicted by the multiplicity of influences on Romanian culture.

The Gypsies are the absolute "other," but an "other" that can prove to be dangerously close to oneself. Indeed, the word "Gypsy" is now increasingly used to describe social reality. In newspapers, on television, on the street, one might well hear that "Romania has become a country of Gypsies" -- a "tiganie," where everyone, from the ordinary citizen to the government, scorns laws, "steals" ("fura," a term which in Romanian refers to all sorts of illicit activities), and in short has been contaminated by general physical and moral corruption. Thus racism and the stigmatization of the poor can coexist at different levels that are not only compatible, but even reinforce each other.

The feeling of collective humiliation due to the degrading impoverishment of the population through "theft" (meaning "corruption," another fashionable topic) is important in understanding the success of contemporary populists such as Corneliu Vadim Tudor. The fact that Romanian political leaders are regularly "accused" of being "Gypsies" (hand in hand with the myth of Ceausescu's alleged Gypsy origins) is also telling in this respect. "In an official communique...Madalin Voicu states that [President] Ion Iliescu, [Premier] Adrian Nastase and [former Foreign Minister] Andrei Plesu are not Gypsies. It is Roma that give certificates of Romanian-ness... These politicians have been...'washed' and redeemed of the previous accusations that they allegedly belonged to the most numerous minority in Romania" ("Evenimentul zilei," 11 September 1999). Note the ambiguous tone of the journalist, both potentially critical and complacent.

In a 2002 movie, "Filantropica," by Romanian director Nae Caramfil, the main character, who runs a network of beggars, says: "You don't need to be in rags in order to beg. Look at our government, this is precisely what they haven't understood, and they've been begging in the West for 10 years." This idea of Romanians as "the new beggars of Europe," made even more sensitive by recurrent images of Gypsy (though not only Gypsy) beggars on the streets of Western cities, forges an even more acute need to distance oneself from the "Gypsy." (For an illustration of the prevalent Romanian attitude to this issue, witness the title of journalist Bogdan Ficeac's article in the daily "Adevarul," 11 April 2002, "Tiganii -- o problema a Europei" [The Gypsies - a Problem of Europe]). One could thus conclude that general postcommunist impoverishment has given way to a more explicit type of racism that combines the stigmatization of the "other" with self-stigmatization.

Indeed, postcommunist living restrictions have forced a large portion of the population to apply different forms of "modern scavenging," resembling the traditional activity of the Gypsies. The re-use of old cars, clothes, apartments, and the reconditioning of old goods are often the only solution for many Romanians who cannot afford buying new ones. This situation is in line with neither the official communist economic model based on production nor capitalist consumption. Facing the impossibility of buying new goods, multiplying formal and informal strategies, and joblessness, the lives of many Romanians -- Roma or not -- have come to resemble what Michael Stewart defines as "Gypsy work." This describes work that is the opposite of production, and consists of making something out of nothing. One should add that this type of relation to production and consumption is not new, since penury-economy during communism also encouraged these kinds of coping strategies. As Stewart points out, "the communist state encouraged everyone to have a Gypsy-like relation to economy" (Stewart, 1997, p. 241).

But the novelty rests in the fact that ever since 1989, the consumption model promoted most actively by television has been changing, and increasingly resembles its Western counterpart. This cannot but create a sense of deep frustration for many Romanians, who resent their economic relationship with the new social environment and consider it to be "abnormal" ("Nothing is normal in Romania" is a statement one often hears), since normality is often equated with Western standards of living.

What we previously stated regarding the culture of poverty can thus be extended from a single ethnic group to a whole country or region. Perhaps the drama of the Balkans rests in their perception -- and in their self-perception -- in relation to a model to which the Balkan nations were always supposed to look up. In this relationship, it was hardly avoidable that they would -- to use Maria Todorova's words -- appear "semideveloped, semicolonial, semicivilized, semioriental" (Todorova, 1997, p. 16).

Racism and the stigmatization of the poor can thus exist at different levels, including that of self-stigmatization as a backward and poor country. One would be well advised to keep this in mind; not only in order to avoid hasty race/class labels, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in order to avoid transposing into academic research the popular stereotypes about "Gypsy poverty."

Alexandra Nacu is a Ph.D. student at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris

SOURCES

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