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The Roma in Romanian History

Viorel Achim

Chapter VII. The current situation of the gypsies (roma) in Romania

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  • 1 Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, coord. Elena Zamfir and Cătă lin Zamfir, [Bucharest], 1993, (...)
  • 2 Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, pp. 52–63 (chapter: “Estimarea populaţiei de romi”).

1In recent years the social situation of the Gypsies (Roma) has formed the subject of several studies. The most wide-ranging and rigorous of these was the study undertaken in 1992 by a team of researchers from the University of Bucharest and the Research Institute for Quality of Life. The results of the study were published in the volume Ţiganii între ignorare şi îngrijorare (The Gypsies between Ignorance and Concern).1 The study included a range of subjects that the authors considered representative of the Roma population in Romania. The work does not exclude those “modernised” Gypsies (Roma) who had changed their way of life in the sense that they had become modernised and who tended to no longer identify themselves as Roma. Nevertheless, it deals especially with the population whose members identify themselves as Gypsies or Roma—either in all contexts (both in informal and official contexts) or only informally—and who were identified as Gypsies by the majority population. Such people, together with limited categories representing Roma activists and the new Roma businessmen who have affirmed their membership of the Roma community, make up the actual ethnic Roma population in Romania, which the authors of the study estimate at between 819,446 and 1,000,000 (in other words, between 3.6 and 4.3 per cent of the entire population of the country).2 The figures generated by the study are therefore significant for virtually the entire Roma population. There is, thus, a complex picture of the social situation of the Roma population in Romania at the beginning of the 1990s. It highlights the specificity of this population, the place it occupies in Romanian contemporary society, as well as the problems that it presents to political forces and to society as a whole.

  • 3 Ibid., pp. 101–107.

2The study shows that the situation of the Roma with regard to their professional status is alarming.3 The vast majority of the Roma—79.4 per cent—have no profession (50.8 per cent of men, 88.8 per cent of women); only 16.1 per cent are qualified in a modern profession, while 3.9 per cent are qualified in traditional professions. Among Roma employees, the level of qualifications is extremely low, with the vast majority occupying unqualified positions (59.4 per cent). Skilled workers account for 38.8 per cent. Only 1.8 per cent of them have medium and higher qualifications. However, significant differences can be found between the different categories of Roma with regard to their professional status. Thus, 56 per cent of “Romanian” Roma have modern-type professions; among vătraşi, the rate is 42 per cent, while for those who declare themselves to be “Roma”, the rate is 35.9 per cent; 25.7 per cent of Roma who identify themselves with a particular clan and 25.4 per cent of “Hungarian” Roma practise modern professions. The practice of traditional professions is most widespread among Roma who identify with a clan (12.4 per cent of them), followed by “Roma” (7.6 per cent) etc. The group with the largest proportion of members without any profession is the “Hungarian” Roma (71.8 per cent), followed by those with a clan identity (61.9 per cent) etc. Similarly, it has been observed that those who practise a modern profession, unlike those who practise traditional professions, live according to a more scattered pattern within the mass of the community. Those without any profession occupy an intermediate position in this respect. These figures demonstrate that when it comes to professional status, the Roma have a distinct position in the population as a whole, where the vast majority of people have a qualification.

  • 4 Ibid., pp. 107–114.

3The occupational situation of the Roma population also presents a distinct situation.4 Among the population over the age of sixteen, only 22.1 per cent were employees (on the level of the entire country, employees accounted for 58.6 per cent of the total active population in 1992), 0.8 per cent were managers, 16.9 per cent were self-employed, while 51.2 per cent were unemployed (of these, 2.8 per cent were receiving unemployment benefit,

45.1 per cent were pensioners, 0.8 per cent were outside of the country, 1.2 per cent were in prison, 0.7 per cent were in the army, 0.4 per cent were pupils or students). As these figures show, levels of unemployment are extremely high among the Roma. Among male heads of families, 20.1 per cent are unemployed, not even having the right to unemployment benefit, while 4.3 per cent are unemployed and receiving benefits. This means that in total, a quarter of male heads of families are unemployed. In the case of women, the percentage of those without work reaches 70 per cent. On average, a Roma family has 0.7 employed persons, compared to 1.7 employed persons for the entire population. However, in more than half of families there is not one employed person.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 115ff.
  • 6 Ibid., pp. 115–130.

5As regards the question of living standards,5 there is a large difference between the Roma and the majority population. With regard to earnings, generally speaking, Roma families have mixed sources of income, some with a regular character, and others of sporadic nature.6 The 1992 study established on the basis of the declarations of those making up the sample that the average monthly income for a Roma family was 26,920 lei (5113 lei per person). Roma families living in urban areas had a total average monthly income of 28,422 lei (5364 lei per person), while those living in rural areas the figure was 18,635 lei (3579 per person). If we compare the figures for the average monthly income of a Roma family with figures from the National Commission for Statistics regarding the incomes of employed persons, we find that the figures are quite similar. (In the first half of 1992, nominal money incomes amounted to 33,735 lei per month for a family of employed persons and 32,063 lei per month for families of workers, with the earnings from salaries according to a monthly average of 27,690 lei.) However, if we take into account the fact that a Roma family is on average made up of 6.6 people, in other words, more than double the average figure for the country (which is 3.1 persons per family), it emerges that there is a significant gap between the Roma and the rest of the population with regard to incomes. According to the figures advanced by the authors of the 1992 study, 80.9 per cent of the Roma population was living below the minimum level considered necessary for a decent living, compared to 42.0 per cent for the population as whole, while 62.9 per cent were living below subsistence level (compared to 16.0 per cent for the population as a whole).

  • 7 Ibid., pp. 138–144.

6The majority of the Roma live well below the standards of civilisation common to the rural or urban locality in which they reside. Their dwellings, the amount of durable consumer’s goods in their homes, their clothing, food etc. indicate living standards that are in most cases low or very low. With regard to dwellings,7 even if the dimensions are not significantly different from that of the majority population, due to the large size of Roma families, they have an average of 6.6 persons per dwelling and 3.03 persons per room, a figure more than double the country-wide average (which stands at 3.05 persons per dwelling and 1.29 persons per room). Generally speaking, Roma dwellings are sparsely furnished, poorly equipped with goods supplying comfort and are poorly maintained. Only between approximately one tenth and one third of Roma dwellings match up to the standards of the majority population. The state of dwellings can be explained not only by their lower incomes, but also by the lesser importance traditionally attached to living conditions. Roma living on a more scattered basis among the majority population generally have a higher standard of living that Roma who live in homogeneous communities. Similarly, Roma who live in large towns have a better standard of living, generally speaking, due to greater earning possibilities, unlike in villages and small towns.

  • 8 Ibid., pp. 92–100.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 120.
  • 10 Ibid.

7The same characteristics can be found in other aspects of the situation of the Roma population. The level of schooling among the population is extremely weak:8 22 per cent of Roma has no schooling whatever, 5.3 per cent have failed to complete primary school, giving a level of illiteracy of 27.3 per cent. Only 3.9 per cent have completed secondary school and only 0.7 per cent have studied at the level of higher or further education. Around half of adult Roma (56 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women) according to their own declaration know how to read well. The other half either do not know how to read at all or can read only with difficulty, which in fact means that they are illiterate. The level of school attendance on the part of the Roma is very low in comparison with the majority population. After 1989, the situation worsened, with the incipient new generation characterised by a much lower level of education than that of its parents. Almost half of children aged eight have not been to school at all or have interrupted their studies. The limited interest in school is largely due to a lack of understanding of the purpose of school on the part of the Roma. This is understandable in the conditions of Romania in the post-Communist transition, as well as the final decade of the Communist regime, as there is no significant connection between the level of education, one’s profession and one’s income. The authors of 1992 a study point out that “a căldărar without any education earns more than a lathe operator; the same is true for the driver of a cart compared to a chemical engineer, or a huckster (bişniţar) in comparison with an engineer”.9 The low level of education is a handicap when it comes to finding employment, even unskilled employment. At the same time, level of education is an important factor affecting the standard of living.10

  • 11 Ibid., pp. 151–154.

8As regards health, the Roma face problems of truly catastrophic nature. The Roma have the lowest average life expectancy and the highest percent-age of infant mortality (63.1 per cent) etc.11

9There is no doubt that the level of criminality among the Roma population is much higher than among the level for the country as a whole. The 1992 study noted that 1.2 per cent of mature Roma individuals were in prison, more than double the proportion for the population as a whole (0.5 per cent).

  • 12 Ibid., pp. 66–91.
  • 13 Ibid., pp. 79–80.

10The organisation of the family is very distinctive among the Roma.12 Characteristic of Roma families is the extended type family, in which several generations live together. The average number of persons in a family is 6.6, in other words more than double the size of the average family on a national level (3.1). The Roma marry extremely early, especially in the case of girls (the average age for a Roma woman’s first marriage is 17, compared to 22.25 in the case of the population of Romania as a whole), but also in the case of boys. The tradition of non-legalised marriages continues to a large extent, which tends to play an important role in reducing the cohesion and durability of the family, as well as responsibility for children resulting from the union. The number of children born into Roma families is at least double the number born into families belonging to the majority population. The aforementioned study found that the average number of children born to women over the age of thirty is 4.98, while for the reference generation the average number of children per woman is 4.35, compared to 1.79 children per woman for the entire population, according to the 1992 census.13 This means that the proportion of children under the age of sixteen within the Roma population as a whole is 43.5 per cent. The more traditional the Roma family is, the greater the number of children born into it. The large number of children aggravates the material conditions of the family. Cases of abandonment of children in maternity wards or in children’s hospitals, or their internment in orphanages are relatively frequent among the Roma. The high birth rate is one of the most acute problems faced by the Roma population.

  • 14 Ibid., p. 71.

11Thus appears, in broad lines, the social tableau of the Roma population in Romania in the 1990s. The Roma give, in many respects, different data to the rest of the population of the country. They form a population with a strong specificity. Of course, this specificity comes from their past, but it is also to a considerable extent the result of the overall social regression suffered by Romania in the 1980s. The 1992 study captures the fact that during those years not only were the positive changes that had begun in the 1960s and 1970s on the road to the modernisation of the Roma way of life halted but also an actual regression towards a traditional way of life took place. Since 1989, this process has become even more accentuated. The study shows that in this way, due to the current economic difficulties, young people tend to remain within their communities, together with their family, more so than in the past, while the number of non-legalised marriages is larger among the young than it is among older people.14 The marginality and inferior economic and social situation of the Roma was perpetuated under the Communist regime and in recent years, in the conditions of the transition to a market economy, the situation has worsened substantially. The trend for the immediate future, noted by the 1992 study as well as by other studies, is that of a worsening of the situation of the Roma population at a more rapid pace than that of the country’s population as a whole.

12In recent years, new phenomena have appeared with regard to the Roma population. The liberalisation of the economy after 1989 has made it possible for many Roma to enter business. The Roma were among the first entrepreneurs to appear after the Revolution. In general, we are dealing with small-scale commercial operations, many carried out at the limits of legality or even beyond. The infamous “huckstering” (bişniţă) practised by the Roma before the Revolution has become a legal occupation. Sometimes, however, we are dealing with large-scale business operations. A by no means small portion of the Roma population adapted quickly to the new economic conditions. Generally speaking, the Roma have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and economic flexibility, with many of them managing to “get by” in the new climate. It would appear that they have very rapidly learnt the rules of “social self-protection”. The Roma benefited from their experience as merchants and from the dense family networks that enabled them to find business opportunities. At the same time, they had no hang-ups with regard to an activity that in general the Romanian population viewed with circumspection. In this way, some Roma obtained advantage from the liberalisation of the regime. In recent years, a category of rich Roma has appeared that has made its fortune through business of varying degrees of legality. The phenomenon of the enrichment of certain groups of the Roma has occurred particularly among those who were active on the black market in the final years of Communism. However, we do not believe that it is possible to speak of a phenomenon of the enrichment of the ethnic group as a whole. The success of a number of Roma in both legal and illicit business and the fabulous wealth accumulated by certain of them stand in contrast with the poverty of the vast majority of the Roma population, a fact attested to by field research. The appearance, in the context of the transition to a market economy, of a rich social class is, of course, valuable also to the rest of the population of the country, including in respect of the not always totally legal means of enrichment. However, more so than in the case of the nouvelle riches originating from the majority population, the wealth of some Roma stands out due to the way in which it is used. As a general characteristic, rich Roma show off their wealth in ostentatious fashion and spend it on luxury goods (also into this category falls, for example, the phenomenon of “Gypsy palaces”). Consequently, these persons have always found themselves to be the attention of the press. There is no doubt that the gap between rich and poor and the social polarisation are much stronger within the Roma population than in the case of the rest of the population of the country. There is a very large contrast between the rich Roma and the vast majority of this population. Recent years have seen an aggravation of the economic situation of the majority of the Roma. This phenomenon is set against the general crisis in Romania and the way in which economic reform is taking place there, which have led to the pauperisation of the vast majority of the population. It is certain that the Roma have lost out following the collapse of the Communist regime. The absence of job security, the reduction of state social allowances, the effective disappearance of state support for large and poor families etc. have all seriously affected this population.

13The fragility of the social integration of the Roma has become accentuated during the economic crisis. In industry, the Roma were among the first to be made redundant due to their poor qualifications. As has been shown, unemployment has reached incredible levels among the Roma. Together with the dissolution of the agricultural co-operatives, many Roma living in villages have been left without any means of earning a living. As a result of the manner in which the land reform law (no. 112/1991) was applied, the majority of them were excluded from allocation of land, as they had never owned any land prior to collectivisation. Some of these Roma have been forced to leave the villages in order to find other means of making a living, either in the cities or even abroad.

14As has been demonstrated by social studies, the Roma population has experienced an unquestionable social and economic regression. Romania has witnessed an aggravation of social problems as a result of the evolutions in the country as a whole, of the transition to a market economy, as well as the modifications to the state welfare programme. It is to be expected that the situation of this population will worsen in the future, in any case to a greater extent than the rest of the population. It is certain that the sporadic means of making a living, of varying degrees of legality, that are currently ensuring the survival of a large number of Roma will be restricted as the level of organisation of the new social and economic system increases. The Roma, lacking the qualifications, education and capital required by the market, will be more and more marginalised, becoming the most vulnerable section of the population in the forthcoming years. The exaggerated demographic growth of this population is also contributing to the worsening of the situation. In the conditions of the elimination or reduction of all state social allowances, the demographic situation is already proving to be an immense burden.

15As we have seen, Romania’s Roma population is facing serious social problems. Of course, this process affects not all Roma, but the segment of the population that finds itself in this situation is increasing, to the extent that we can speak of the aggravation of the social and economic situation of this population as a whole. Due to the worsening social and economic problems, the obstruction of the process of modernisation of the Roma population, and among many of them even a return to traditional living strategies, is occurring. New phenomena of marginalisation are appearing. The Roma population is tending to isolate itself even more, making its social integration all the more problematic.

16At the same time, the segment of the Roma population that finds itself in a desperate economic situation is generating all manner of problems for society. More and more Roma are choosing the path of anomie and social deviancy. All manner of crimes and other offences committed by members of the Roma population are becoming more and more numerous. Even if there are no official figures in this respect, it is clear that the rate of criminality among this population is high and is tending to worsen, especially among homogeneous communities of Roma. There are worrying signs of an increase in violence among the Roma population. There has been media coverage of the existance of organised crime networks made up of people belonging to this Roma ethnic group (the so-called “Gypsy Mafia”) and the danger of rich Roma making use of their poorer fellow Roma in illegal activities. In general, the social behaviour of the Roma population creates problems within Romanian society at large. A lack of respect for the law as well as the unwritten rules of civilised social behaviour have been widely observed in society.

  • 15 D. Abraham, I. Bădescu, “Conlocuirea etnică în România. Rezultate ale cerceta řilor de teren”, Soc (...)
  • 16 For example, Destroying Ethnic Identity, p. 36ff.

17The rise in criminality and violence among the Roma, their social behaviour and the ostentatious attitude of rich Roma—against the backdrop of all kinds of social problems, which can easily be transformed into ethnic problems—all contribute to a deterioration in relations between the Roma and the rest of the population. It is clear that tensions are growing between the Roma and the majority population, especially in rural communities where the number of Roma is relatively high. An attitude of rejection with regard to the Roma is almost universal in Romanian society and in recent years this feeling has accentuated. A survey into ethnic relations in Romania reached the conclusion that 40 per cent of the population has very negative feelings with regard to the Roma, 34 per cent has unfavourable feelings, while only 19 per cent have favourable feelings and 2 per cent very favourable feelings. Rejection is due to the lifestyle of the Roma.15 It cannot be denied that among Romanians, including educated circles, there is a duplicitous attitude towards the Roma and even a diffuse racism, as illustrated by, for example, allusions in the press to the (supposed) Gypsy origin of certain political figures. It is evident that Romania is witnessing a rising intolerance of the Roma and of racist attitudes on the part of the majority population. In recent years, there have been acts of violence perpetrated against groups of Roma in certain localities, in conditions of accumulated tensions between the Roma community and the rest of the population. The majority population has reacted to a murder or other serious offences committed by a member of the Roma community with collective reprisals against the entire Roma community or part of the community, including the burning down of houses, the expulsion of the Roma from the locality and other actions. The violent reaction against the Roma was the consequence of the discontent of the population with regard to certain individuals or families of Roma who were terrorising the locality. While it is not appropriate to describe events of this nature that took place in localities such as Mihail Kogălniceanu (Constant,a county), Bolintin (Giurgiu county) and Hădăreni (Mures, county), to name the most famous cases, as pogroms, as was reported in the foreign press and some reports of international organisations,16 the experience of recent years demonstrates that there is a real danger that the tensions existing on a local level between the Roma and the majority population could degenerate into inter-ethnic conflicts.

  • 17 For this matter, see Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, pp. 155–174.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 170.
  • 19 The demographic prognosis for the years 1992–2025, constructed on the continuation of the current (...)

18The Roma, through the poverty and marginality that characterises the majority of them as well as the size of their population, constitute one of the most serious social problems in Romania today. Researchers and analysts are sounding the alarm with regard to the gravity of the situation and argue the need for a rapid and determined intervention.17 Intervention is all the more necessary as the problems become more acute with passing time. Already, large concentrations of Roma are causing problems. The process of migration to the towns experienced by the Roma population in the last two decades and their high birth rate have led to the expansion of existing Roma communities in urban areas or the creation of new communities. There is a risk that in a short period of time “pockets” of poverty could appear in Romania’s cities, pockets of an increasingly ethnically homogeneous character, characterised by high levels of unemployment, a lack of housing and chronic delinquency.18 The problem is all the more alarming as the proportion of Roma within the population is set to rise substantially.19

19It is in the interest of Romanian society that the problems of the Roma are solved now. The Roma are one of the component parts of Romanian society, and the solution of their problems would contribute to the overall improvement of the Romanian society. Similarly, the current situation of the Roma has a negative influence on the general perceptions on Romania from outside the country. A social and educational policy for the Roma, which will contribute to their modernisation and integration and that will be implemented with the participation of this population, is a necessity. There is a need for economic, social, cultural and educational measures, both at the macrosocial and microsocial level, for social action programmes that will support the modernisation of local communities of Roma and of the Roma community in general. This means that it is necessary to see the emergence of an increasingly large class of Roma who lead a modern life-style, as well as the eradication of those components of the way of life of the Roma that are responsible for the disadvantageous situation in which they find themselves today. Romanian society, however, has a tradition of a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the Roma, leaving their problems to resolve themselves. As long as it was a question of small communities living at the edges of settlements, this attitude was normal. However, the serious problems facing this population today and especially the larger number of Roma make it necessary for the State and society as a whole to become involved in this issue. In examining social policy with regard to the Roma, it is necessary to take into account the particularities of the different clans and communities of Roma, while at the same time the ethnic component of the social problem of the Roma should not be neglected.


  • 20 See V. Burtea, “Neamurile de romi şi modul lor de viaţă”, Sociologie Romanească, N. S., V (1994), (...)
  • 21 Ibid., p. 258.

20When we speak about the Roma, we are not in fact dealing with a homogeneous population. The generic name of “Gypsies” or “Roma” covers a diverse number of groups, with major differences between each other. In Romania, these groups, which run well into double figures, are known as neamuri (“clans”) (căldărari, rudari, ursari, gabori, ţigani de mătase, cocalari, etc). Each group has its own socio-professional, linguistic, cultural and lifestyle specificities.20 Until quite recently, the Gypsy clans were entities whose characteristics were more or less rigidly demarcated, and which were easy to observe and identify. Each clan had a specific occupation that was different from other clans. Virtually every clan had certain particularities in its way of life. Similarly, there are differences regarding language and religion. By language, there are Roma who speak Romanes —which includes several dialects—and those who speak Romanian, Hungarian, Turkish etc. By religion, there are Roma who are Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, Neo-protestant and Muslim. Even if the clans lost much of their specificity in the last century and a half that has passed since emancipation, and especially in the post-war period, consciousness of belonging to a clan is still powerful. A large part of the Roma population still identifies itself today with a particular clan. However, the current trend is for clan identity to be left behind. Approximately one third of Roma can no longer indicate the clan to which they belong; they no longer have any consciousness of belonging to any particular clan, declaring themselves simply to be “Gypsies” or “Roma”.21 For a part of the Roma population, the clans no longer constitute a living part of their identity.

21The study carried out in 1992 deals with the existing distinctions within the Roma population by applying the criteria of ethnic self-identification and hetero-identification (in other words, the way in which people identify themselves, whether as Roma or otherwise, as well as the way in which others identify them, once again, as Roma or otherwise). Thus, there are a number of ethnic layers within the Roma population:

  1. Roma who display all the traditional ethnic characteristics and who identify themselves as Roma in all contexts;
  2. Roma who display all the traditional ethnic characteristics, and whom others identify as Roma, but who identify themselves as such only in an informal context, not in official–administrative contexts;
  3. “Modernised” Roma, who thus no longer display the visible indicators of the traditional way of life, but who identify themselves as Roma, both in formal and informal contexts;
  4. “Modernised” Roma, who tend no longer to identify themselves as Roma, or who do so on an intermittent basis, and whom others may or may not identify as Roma;
  5. “Former Roma” who are completely integrated into the majority population and who no longer identify themselves as Roma.22
  • 23 Ibid., pp. 52–63.

22The authors of the study reached the conclusion that the real number of those who identify themselves as Roma ought to be 536,000 instead of 401,000, which was the number of Roma recorded by the 1992 population census. If we also include the Roma population identified as such by others according to way of life, the minimum figure would be 819,446, equivalent to 3.6 per cent of the population of the country. If we take into account the Roma who live scattered throughout the country, who are less visible and who did not identify themselves as Roma in the census, then the number of Roma in Romania would be around one million, equivalent to 4.3 per cent of the entire population.23

23As it can be seen, the social reality is exceedingly complex. In Romania the notion of “Gypsy” does not have a rigorous definition and is used in different meanings. On the level of collective consciousness, “Gypsies” are not only those who identify themselves in this manner, either in all contexts or only informally. In fact, all those who are identified as such by others are included within the category of “Gypsies”. However, many of these people do not identify themselves as Gypsies. They consider themselves to be Romanians (in certain parts of the country Hungarians or Turks), but, for one motive or another, they are not recognised as such by others. They are in fact “obligatory Gypsies”. “Gypsy” identification is not always a desired identity; it can be one that is imposed by others. In everyday language, the term tends to carry a social value. Gypsies who have completely detached themselves from the traditional way of life no longer consider themselves to be Gypsies and are no longer considered to be so by others. This multiplicity of terms obliges those studying the Gypsy (Roma) population in Romania to establish the necessary ethnic demarcations. Research carried out in recent years has studied, as a rule, the entire segment of the population that others set apart as “Gypsies”.

  • 24 M. Merfea, Despre integrarea socială a romilor, p. 292.

24As a result of this situation, establishing the number of Roma in Romania is difficult. We have already seen the number of Roma recorded by the 1992 census (401,087), as well as the figures used by the authors of the 1992 study (around one million). One author who has written about the Roma established on a sociological basis that the figure of Roma living in Romania stood at over 1,180,000. Bearing in mind the margin of error, he subsequently estimated that the number of Roma living in Romania was no larger than 1,500,000, possibly less.24 Figures that are even larger have been cited, but these figures have nothing to do with reality. Some Roma leaders have stated that the population is made of 2 or even 3 million, while international Roma organisations currently use the figure of 2.5 million Roma for Romania. Even if all the descendants of the Gypsies from the inter-war period were accepted, such figures would never be reached. The substantial difference between the birth rates of Gypsies and Romanians has existed for only two generations. At the same time, the social and ethnic evolutions that have taken place during this time have meant that numerous individuals of Gypsy ethnic origin have abandoned their original community and integrated completely into the majority population.

25Regardless of the controversy surrounding their numbers, we are dealing with a distinctive population that has numerous specificities, which makes the hetero-identification discussed earlier possible.

  • 25 Recensămantul populaţiei şi locuinţelor din 7 ianuarie 1992. Structura etnică şi confesională a po (...)

26It is not, however, easy to determine what ensures the “Gypsy” identity of this population, to identify the criteria that make others identify a particular individual as being a “Gypsy”. It is certain that the unifying element is not language. In the 1992 census, only 163,897 people declared Romanes to be their mother tongue, equivalent to 40.9 per cent of those who declared themselves to be Roma (Gypsies). The rest declared their mother tongue to be Romanian (54.3 per cent), Hungarian (4.7 per cent) and so on.25 If we accept one million as the real number of Roma in Romania, it means that approximately just 16 per cent of them use Romanes as their mother tongue. However, it is probably that the percentage is somewhat higher, since the census does not record instances of bilingualism. From the point of view of language, it is clear that the Roma population is in an advanced stage of assimilation. Similarly, it cannot be said that the Roma have their own ethnic cultural tradition, since they have no cultivated language or written culture of their own. Consciousness of ethnic identify manifests itself strongly among some categories of Roma, but is very flexible or even absent in others. There is, however, a clear sense of group belonging at the level of natural communities. Group solidarity exists at the level of Roma clans, but not for the Roma population as a whole. Relations between the different categories of Roma are characterised by co-operation in some cases, by rivalry in others, but very often there is a clear separation between the different clans. What unites Roma and confers their identity upon them is in fact their way of life, which is different from that of the other ethnic communities, and here particularly the traditional life strategy, which even in modernised forms, persists today. We are dealing with a life strategy specific to a community that suffers discrimination and marginalisation, and that lives by the exploitation of marginal resources. As we have seen, this is completely valid only for the traditional communities. It is, however, perceived as being the defining characteristic of the Roma population as a whole. In this respect, it is possible to agree with those who consider the Roma to be a marginal social category rather than an ethnic group.

27After 1989, we have witnessed the emergence of a new phenomenon within the Roma population in Romania. In the conditions of the democratisation of the political regime, the Roma have begun to make their presence felt in public life, affirming their specific interests and their right to a decent life, as well as respect from the other citizens of the country. They have formulated specific social and ethnic demands. A series of leaders have emerged, some are of a traditional type, others are modern leaders, represented by Roma intellectuals, who speak on behalf of this population. The Roma have formed civic and political organisations, including a few political parties. Clearly, we are witnessing a movement of ethnic affirmation on the part of the Roma. We are facing a population that is manifesting itself as a distinct ethnic group. Apart from their social distinctiveness compared to the rest of the population, the Roma are beginning to manifest solidarity that is ethnic in nature. The existence of ethnic consciousness is making its presence felt among the Roma population. Today, Roma are affirming their ethnic identity in larger numbers than in the past. The manifestations of recent years lead to the conclusion that there is a tendency towards the crystallisation of a collective consciousness and the formation of solidarity at the level of the entire Roma population, over and above the existing divisions between groups and the older “clan” solidarity. It is clear that we are witnessing a process of ethnic redefinition.

  • 26 N. Gheorghe, “Roma–Gypsy Ethnicity in Eastern Europe”, Social Research, 58 (1991), no. 4, pp. 829– (...)

28This is not only happening in Romania. In the 1990s, the Roma were tending to express themselves publicly as an ethnic group in the other countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe with substantial Roma populations and where for five decades they have had a similar experience to that in Romania. Meanwhile, a Roma movement of political and cultural emancipation has been underway in Western countries for the last two to three decades. The process of redefinition experienced by this population cannot be understood if we limit ourselves strictly to the realities of the Roma population in a single country. This population, highly differentiated from many points of view, is seeking to construct a collective identity for itself that transcends state boundaries. Since the beginning of the 1970s, Roma organisations, whether at a national or international level, have been campaigning for national authorities and European bodies to adopt a social policy with regard to the Roma population and to accord them political and cultural rights. There have been manifestations of Roma “nationalism”. The most important achievements of the Roma movement have been the imposition of the name “Roma”, which is increasingly used in international documents in place of “Gypsy”, the association of the Roma with the notion of Holocaust as victims of the Nazis, the inclusion of the problems of the Roma in international documents, the monitoring of the situation of the Roma in certain countries (i.e., former Communist countries) by international organisations and others. Some analysts speak of the construction of a new ethnic identity of a modern character, or of a process of Roma ethnogenesis.26

29The current circumstances in the countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe facilitate the process of Roma ethnogenesis. The fall of Communism has meant the abandonment of assimilationist policies with regard to the Roma and their recognition as a national minority. Today the Roma have civic and political rights identical to those of the other citizens. To this is added international support for the Roma in these countries.

30Returning to the Roma living in Romania, after 1989 they were recognised by law as a national minority and the State treats them as such. Bearing in mind the manifestations that have taken place in recent years, it must be accepted that the Roma have also begun to express themselves de facto as a modern national minority. Even if the Roma are not a homogeneous population as some of their leaders present them, and are in an incipient stage in their political awakening, we believe that it is already possible to speak of the existence of a Roma nationality in Romania today. We are witnessing a process of ethnic transformation of this population, in which the Roma are throwing off their position as a marginal community, in which they are stigmatised as “Gypsies”, and acquiring certain modern ethnic characteristics. The Roma from Romania are tending to become transformed into a modern national minority.

  • 27 See the interview with Nicolae Gheorghe in the magazine 22, no. 15, 12–18 April 1995, pp. 8–9.

31It remains to be seen what the foundation for the construction of a (modern) national Roma consciousness will be. It would appear that nothing unites the Roma apart from their isolation in the view of public opinion. They do not possess the unifying elements through which the modern nations of Europe were forged in previous centuries (i.e., community of language, culture, historical tradition, economic interests, territory). In the case of the Roma, we are dealing with an ethnogenesis of a different kind. Hence, it has been stated that the concept of national minority is not suitable for the Roma. The Roma would be rather a “transnational minority”, or—in case of those living in Europe—a “European minority”, in the sense that national minorities have formed through their relations with the structures of the national state, so the Roma could constitute themselves as a minority through their relation to the emerging international structures such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Union. The Roma would thus constitute a transnational, non-territorial, European minority.27

32Very important in this evolution is the political dimension. Of course, we are not speaking here of the State. It is not expected that the State will support the development of a Roma nationality. Any national State—and the Romanian State also defines itself as such—has assimilationist tendencies. After 1989, the State has recognised the Roma as a national minority and guarantees them equality in rights alongside the other citizens of the country. Via the Constitution, the Roma are represented by a deputy in parliament. Problems specific to the Roma are dealt with by the Department for the Protection of National Minorities within the Romanian government, and in particular by the Office for the Roma. The evolution of ethnic consciousness and cohesion of the Roma and the general process of the construction of a modern Roma ethnicity depends almost exclusively on figures within the Roma community, namely the leaders of the Roma community. Roma leaders will have a determining role in the construction of a new Roma ethnicity. As demonstrated by the experience of the European nations, national identity does not affirm itself of its own accord, being to a large extent a construct. The modern nations are, to a large extent, the work of intellectuals. Roma intellectuals in Romania are already manifesting themselves in this manner. Their project regarding the modernisation of the Roma population—a project that is not of a single voice, but which is present in materials published by Roma intellectuals engaged in this movement of renewal, in their action and public declarations, in the programmes of the different Roma parties and organisations, in articles in the press etc.—is not limited only to the social aspects of the problems of the Roma. The project does not only aim to promote the socio-economic modernisation of the Roma population through professional training, education, modernisation of way of life etc. We also find in equal measure objectives of ethnic nature: the promotion without any complexes of a sense of ethnic consciousness; promotion of Romanes and its transformation into a written language; the establishment of Romanes-language education; the valorisation of the folkloric traditions of the Roma and the promotion of cultural activity that will modernise these traditions; the establishment of a research programme covering multiple aspects of the Roma population and others. Some more “nationalist” leaders go so far as to propose the reactivation of certain elements of the traditional organisation of the Gypsies. These efforts are designed to transform the Roma into a cohesive national community and a modern national minority.

33There is a social condition to the process of ethnic redefinition of the Roma population. Ethnic modernisation is not possible without the Roma ridding themselves of the social legacy of the past, without their overcoming of the social backwardness and their sense of marginality, and without their social integration. Until now, modernisation for the Roma has largely meant leaving the ethnic community and assimilating into the majority population. Now for the first time, a new horizon is opening up, namely the modernisation of the ethnic group itself from a social, cultural etc. perspective without the loss of its ethnic identity.

34Of course, the process of ethnic modernisation of the Roma population is a difficult one. The outlook in the short term is not very promising. Paradoxically, today in Romania we are witnessing a phenomenon of the reactivation of the traditional organisation of the Roma. The phenomenon is probably linked to the social regression that has been experienced by the Roma population in recent years. Certainly, this does not augur well for the goal of modernisation. The traditional leaders of the Roma (the bulibas,i) seem to have a greater authority than that of the modern leaders. There is a tendency for traditional forms of organisational structure, both on a regional and a national level, something that has in fact never existed in the past. In this way, it has been possible for a “king” and an “emperor” of the Roma to emerge. In some places, the practice of traditional courts (the so-called kris), which pass judgement on the transgressions of those who break the moral code of the Roma, has been revived. It is necessary to ask whether the Roma population is moving towards modern life or moving back towards tradition.

35The process of cohesion of a new Roma identity is barely at the beginning. It will take a long time and the course that it will take depends on a multitude of factors. To what extent the new Roma identity will include the groups of people who declare themselves (or who are seen by the rest of population) as “Roma” or “Gypsies” is a question that will only be answered in the future. The new Roma identity that is in the process of formation is not obliged to include all segments of the Roma population that exists today. It is supposed that these segments will evolve in different ways. Probably, only some of the present day Roma will become modernised “Roma” from a social and ethnic perspective. It is hard to believe that Roma who are virtually Romanianised (or Magyarised) at the present time will return to their language and partly to the traditions that they have forgotten. The process of ethnic assimilation is a natural one. It is probable that in the future the term “Roma” will also be a convention. The future of this population remains open, including with regard to its place in Romanian society.


1 Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, coord. Elena Zamfir and Cătă lin Zamfir, [Bucharest], 1993, p. 254. For the social situation of the Roma in Romania, see also M. Merfea, Integrarea socială a romilor, Braşov, 1991; idem, “Despre integrarea socială a romilor. Participare şi nu asimilare”, Sociologie Romanească, N. S., V (1994), nos. 2–3, pp. 291–299; Em. Pons, op. cit., p. 55ff.

2 Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, pp. 52–63 (chapter: “Estimarea populaţiei de romi”).

3 Ibid., pp. 101–107.

4 Ibid., pp. 107–114.

5 Ibid., p. 115ff.

6 Ibid., pp. 115–130.

7 Ibid., pp. 138–144.

8 Ibid., pp. 92–100.

9 Ibid., p. 120.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., pp. 151–154.

12 Ibid., pp. 66–91.

13 Ibid., pp. 79–80.

14 Ibid., p. 71.

15 D. Abraham, I. Bădescu, “Conlocuirea etnică în România. Rezultate ale cerceta řilor de teren”, Sociologie Romanească , N. S., V (1994), nos. 2–3, pp. 185–187.

16 For example, Destroying Ethnic Identity, p. 36ff.

17 For this matter, see Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, pp. 155–174.

18 Ibid., p. 170.

19 The demographic prognosis for the years 1992–2025, constructed on the continuation of the current general characteristics of mortality and fertility, shows that during this period the population of Romania will decrease by 10 per cent. This overallglobal decrease will conceal the different demographic evolutions of different nationalities. The number of Romanians is expected to decrease by 13 percent, the number of Hungarians will decrease by 23 per cent and “other nationalities” by 24 per cent, while the Roma population will increase by 57 per cent. The prognosis operates on the basis of two variants for the current size of the Roma population. The Roma will go from 1 million (4.4 per cent of the population) in 1992 to 1,564,000 (7.7 per cent) in 2025, or respectively from 1.5 million (6.6 per cent) in 1992 to 2,346,000 (11.4 per cent) in 2025. Consequently, the proportion of the Roma will grow substantially, eventually overtaking the Hungarians in terms of numbers. (V. Gheţău, “O proiectare condiţională a populaţiei României pe principalele naţionalităţi (1992–2025)”, Revista de Cercetări Sociale, 3 (1996), no. 1, pp. 75–105, especially p. 103.)

20 See V. Burtea, “Neamurile de romi şi modul lor de viaţă”, Sociologie Romanească, N. S., V (1994), nos. 2–3, pp. 257–273.

21 Ibid., p. 258.

22 Ţiganii intre ignorare şi ingrijorare, pp. 56–58.

23 Ibid., pp. 52–63.

24 M. Merfea, Despre integrarea socială a romilor, p. 292.

25 Recensămantul populaţiei şi locuinţelor din 7 ianuarie 1992. Structura etnică şi confesională a populaţiei, Bucharest, 1995, pp. 38–39.

26 N. Gheorghe, “Roma–Gypsy Ethnicity in Eastern Europe”, Social Research, 58 (1991), no. 4, pp. 829–844; idem, “L’Ethnicité des Tsiganes Roma et le processus de transition en Europe de l’Est”, Etudes Tsiganes, no. 2/1991, pp. 36–41; S. Kapralski, “Identity Building and the Holocaust: Roma Political Nationalism”, Nationalities Papers, 25 (1997), no. 2, pp. 269–283.

27 See the interview with Nicolae Gheorghe in the magazine 22, no. 15, 12–18 April 1995, pp. 8–9.

© Central European University Press, 1998

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