Roma in Eastern Europe

Alternative names: Gypsies, Tsigani
Location: throughout Eastern Europe
Population: 3-3.5 million(est.)
% of population: 2-2.5%
Religion: Christian, Muslim
Language: Romanes, various languages

Roma originated from North India. From the fifth century onwards, Roma filtered into the Persian and later Arab empires of the Middle East, early groups of them reaching Byzantium in the tenth century. Their attachment to established religions, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, appears to have been a matter of convenience rather than conviction. In the Balkans where Ottoman rule lasted longest in Europe, especially Bulgaria, the majority are Muslim while in areas which historically have been under Christian control they are Christian by persuasion.

Traditionally independent and the product of migration and adaption, the Roma have in all countries remained predominantly outside the various systems in operation, be they feudal, capitalist or socialist, by becoming horse-dealers, smiths, musicians and more recently scavengers. The Roma have historically been persecuted and/or discriminated against in all countries of Eastern Europe and have suffered from racism. During the Second World War when Eastern Europe fell under the domination of the Nazis, genocide was used against the Roma and some half a million are believed to have died.

Based on available census figures and previous estimates (taking into account the high birth rate among Roma) and including associated sedentary and nomadic groups, the following figures give the number of Roma and their percentage of the population by country in 1986: Yugoslavia — 850,000 (3.7%); Romania — 760,000 (3.35%); Hungary— 560,000 (5.21%); Bulgaria — 475,000 (5.3%); Czechoslovakia — 410,000 (2.66%); Greece — 140,000 (1.4%); Albania — 80,000 (2.75%); Poland — 70,000 (0.19%) and East Germany — 2,500 (0.01%).

The socialist countries of Eastern Europe have applied pressure to stop travelling Roma, and settled Roma are encouraged to assimilate. However the move after 1981 of the headquarters of the International Romani Union (IRU) from Switzerland to Yugoslavia and the emergence in Yugoslavia of a full emancipation movement with outlets to television, radio and press has brought the position of Roma in Eastern Europe more to the fore. While Bulgaria and also Czechoslovakia continue heavy-handed assimilation policies, such policies have been defeated recently in Hungary and are on the defensive elsewhere. Only Yugoslavia (and the USSR) have recognized Roma as a nationality.


Poland was the first post-war socialist state to try and integrate nomadic Roma voluntarily, but later adopted coercive methods. According to official figures 25% gave up the road during the early phase responding to offers of housing and employment. A negative attitude to Roma remains among the population at large and there have been several serious attacks on Roma since 1981. Additionally many hundreds of Roma have been expelled from Poland and not allowed to re-enter. However Roma in Tarnowie have formed a Romani Cultural Society and were permitted to send representatives to the 3rd World Romani Congress.


Although in 1979 the Communist Party decided that Roma did not warrant national minority status, they were allowed to organize on a national basis and Orszagos Ciganytanacs was founded which superseded the consultative Ciganyszovetseg set up in 1974 which in turn had superseded a similar body functioning between 1958 and 1960. The new National Romani Council has however broader representation and influence than its predecessors. A second organization, the Rom Cultural Association was set up in May 1986 which links some 200 local clubs and 40 dance ensembles.

The Hungarian authorities are among the few in Europe who admit the true number of Roma. Fewer than 15% have skilled jobs and less than 5% of those are employed in the professions. Life expectancy for Roma remains 15 years lower than the average. Many Roma live in the east of the country, especially in Nograd region. Some 70,000 live in Budapest, many in self-made squatter settlements on the outskirts. Although half the 2,100 Rom settlements are situated near larger Hungarian villages, a proportion of the children are not attending school. Discrimination plays some part in this as the birth-rate among Roma has increased by 13% while the general population has a zero growth rate and many elementary schools are reluctant to allow the large intake. Two schools have experimented with the use of Romanes but its introduction has not yet been generally accepted.


Although one of the largest national minorities in Romania, Roma are also the most deprived. Many are still travelling (official figures say 10% are on the road at any one time) and while there are no special laws against nomadism, such as those passed in Bulgaria, travelling Roma meet much intolerance. Horse-trading has been prohibited but many Roma follow other traditional trades such as spoon and sieve making, and coppersmithing. A number of Roma own small fairground shows.

In 1985 the first Rom organization Phralipe (Brotherhood) for almost 50 years was established with official permission. It held a cultural festival at Bistritza Monastery on the occasion of the annual Rom pilgrimage to this Eastern Orthodox shrine and it is planned to repeat the festival every year. A number of small scale cultural gatherings have also been planned. However Romania is a highly centralized state and the government is pursuing a policy of attempted homogenization of the population to create a “socialist Romanian nation”. There have also been reports of Roma expelled from Romania into Hungary.


While Bulgaria has made a determined effort to raise the living standards and educational opportunities of the large Romani minority, the authorities have been equally firm in denying Roma the right to preserve their own identity and culture through the formation of socio-political organizations with only a few local music ensembles allowed at present. In the period 1953-4 there was an operation to settle the nomadic Roma, often in the northern plain below the Danube, and in the case of the majority Muslim Roma to change their names. At least 20,000 families have received plots of land and low-interest loans to build their own houses and numerous settlements have been created on collective farms. However an overall policy of assimilation of the country’s minorities has resulted in a further name-changing campaign in the late 1970s, and restrictions on the practice of Islamic religious ceremonies which accompanied the crackdown against the country’s Turkish minority in 1984-5 have also adversely affected Muslim Roma.

Despite this assimilation policy, the large settled communities such as the 45,000 Roma in Sliven, and the quarters in Sofia, Varna and Plovdiv remain strongholds of Romani social life and the assimilation policies appear to have had little impact. Small-scale discrimination against Roma continues in everyday life.


The situation of Roma in Czechoslovakia has declined in recent years. The two Romani unions, in the Czech-lands and in Slovakia, were disbanded in 1973 after just three years of existence when they had mobilized over 20,000 members. At the same time the authorities decided that Roma were to be denied nationality status and plans for the introduction of Romanes into schools were dropped. In the past 20 years villages and urban quarters have been forcibly dispersed and the inhabitants moved to other parts of the country in an attempt to reduce concentrations of Roma which had reached 20% in some locations. At the same time Roma have migrated from backward Slovakia into the more developed Czech-lands and there are probably some 150,000 Roma living in Bohemia and Moravia today. Everywhere unemployment remains high and only one child in six completes the upper grades of elementary school in Slovakia.

A controversial policy of inducing Roma women who have had two children to undergo sterilization as an act of “socialist humanity” has been in operation since the late 1970s and some, including the IRU representative at the United Nations in Geneva, Dr Jan Cibula, himself a founder member of the Slovak Romani Union, now resident in Switzerland, have alleged that this is a policy of compulsory sterilization which is both unwarranted and unconstitutional.


Yugoslavia has the largest Rom population in Europe which also has important links with emigrant Rom groups in France, Germany, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Since 1981, the 850,000 Roma in Yugoslavia have “nationality status” on equal footing with other national minorities like the Albanians, Turks or Hungarians. Since 1983 Romanes has been used in state schools. At least 10 primary schools are using the Romani language as the teaching medium for the first four grades, and the number will rapidly rise once more Rom teachers can be trained. The breakthrough occurred in the Albanian populated region of Kosovo, where Muslim Roma have had a hard time making their voice heard in the past. Pristina television station in Kosovo now has a weekly programme in Romanes and Belgrade radio is broadcasting regularly in the language as are the smaller stations of Nis and Tetovo. Publications are still rare but there are several full length books which have been issued as well as a new grammar and dictionary.

The bigger communities in Belgrade, Nis, Suto Orizari (Skopje) and other towns have had their own cultural and social associations for many years. The Belgrade Drustva Rom was founded in 1930 and Skopje’s Phralipe (Brotherhood) in 1948. Today there are some 60 such local associations, linked in Serbia by the Romani Union, presided over by Sait Balic who is also president of the IRU. An annual festival has been held for the past 15 years, and several national and international events have also been held. In 1986 the IRU co-sponsored the International Symposium on the Romani Language and History in Sarajevo. Perhaps the most significant feature is the Romani town of Suto Orizari outside Skopje, comprising some 35,000 inhabitants, with its own elected council and M.P. This town enjoys a higher standard of living than many Macedonian villages.

Despite these advances, the majority of Roma continue to live well below the economic average and there is discrimination in the work place and in the streets. Only a few hundred Roma have benefitted from university education and entered the professions. Half the wage earners are industrial workers and 20% are farmers — many owning their land. The rest are self-employed artisans and small traders. Nomadism has dwindled although it is still present.

The granting of nationality status in 1981 resulted in a significant increase in the number of Roma declaring themselves as such although there was resistance to their recognition as a nationality. For example, Macedonia had designated Roma as an “ethnic group” (lower in the hierarchy of recognized peoples), which appeared to violate the federal constitution with the intention of depriving them of nationality rights.


The lack of statistics available for ethnic minorities and the official Greek position of classifying as Greeks all those who use Greek in everyday language — even if it is not their mother-tongue — especially if they are of Orthodox faith again makes assessing the numbers of Roma and other minorities very hard. Estimates from official Greek sources give the figure for Roma as far lower than outside observers who estimate the number at 140,000 of whom 45,000 are nomadic Muslims. Many Muslim Roma live in Macedonia and Western Thrace where there is a community of them, numbering 1,500-2,000, in Komotini alone. Although Greece is a member of the Council of Europe, its 1969 recommendations on Roma have yet to be implemented. The Panhellenic Romani Association has held coun cil elections in Thessaloniki and Athens since at least 1980 and about 50 houses have been built for Roma in Serrai.

Muslim Roma have in practice only been accepted as Greek citizens after baptism and admission to the Orthodox Church, and the Bishop of Fiorina in Aegean Macedonia has continued to lead a church mission to convert Muslim Roma to Orthodoxy. This controversial activity has drawn attention to the critical situation of Muslim Roma who lack citizenship and thus basic civil rights. A law passed in 1979 designed to enable them to obtain identity cards has had little apparent effect due to most lacking birth-certificates. The Ministry of Education is looking at the educational needs of the Muslim Roma population but travelling Roma are still faced with the 1976 law making camping illegal outside of organized sites — virtually all of which are for tourists and banned to Roma. Roma, as is so common elsewhere, are at the bottom of the social order.

(See also Roma in Western Europe in Western Europe and Scandinavia; Roma in the USSR in USSR; in Middle East and North Africa)