Roma in Belarus

11. 11. 2005

"The most negative one is when the equal sign is put between the words Roma and lawbreaker. It's a pity, but the official mass media and representatives of power bodies treat us this way," says Nicolas Kalinin, chairman of Belarus Roma organization Ekhipe (Unity).

In what respect do the Roma that live in Belarus differ from those living in other countries?
In Belarus there are three main groups of Roma. There are Russian Roma, who call themselves Ruska Roma. Most of them live in the territory of the Vitebsk region, in Polatsk and Vitebsk. There are about three thousand of them there. They came to Belarus from northern Russia. I am a representative of this group. My relatives live in Pskov and St. Petersburg. This migration took place after World War II. Polish and Baltic Gypsies constitute the second group. They live in Minsk and call themselves Haladytka Roma. They have relatives in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Czech Republic. The third ethnic group consists of Ukrainian and Moldovan Roma: Servi. They live in the territory of Homel and Mahiliow regions. It's worth mentioning that these ethnic groups are so different that there are not even marriages between them. They have completely different cultural backgrounds. The mentality of Ruska Roma is similar to that of the Russians. Russian Gypsies are rough-tempered, more bellicose, so to say. The Roma that live in Minsk have come from Poland. They are quite rich. In Minsk there are the richest Roma who can be compared only to the Moscow Roma in the level of material welfare. What concerns Servi - they are amateurs of music and singing, like the entire Moldavian-Ukrainian group. There are no large differences in the language these groups speak.

Are there any internal rules within these groups?
These ethnic groups are closed, especially for the majority. This closeness can be called extreme. It is expedient. Otherwise, Roma would have disappeared as nation. Assimilation into society would do no good to Gypsies but we want to be integrated in social life. There are marriages with other nationalities, but that has never been welcomed. In Roma society there immediately appears the question to which nationality the child will belong to and which way of life the man who married non-Roma will chose. In this respect the very fact of inter-ethnic marriage is not accepted. However there are cases of such marriages and the families are quite strong. There’s a very interesting point: one can't be half-Roma. One can be half-Ukranian, half-Russian, but not half-Chechen or half-Roma. Some Roma even leave the community and live among Belarusians but continue being Roma

There are too many stereotypes about Roma; for instance Roma - nomads. Is it true that representatives of this nationality don't live long in one place?
Now there remains only a small group of the nomadic Roma who move from one place to another. They live in Zakarpattya region of the Ukraine, on the bordering territories of Poland, Hungary and Romania. These Gypsies really don't have a stable place of habitation and, what is the most interesting, feel excellent.
There are no nomads among the Roma who have settled in Belarus. The was a period of active immigration of Roma from Tajik Gypsy Diaspora. They call themselves Luli and speak Persian. The have lost their own language. Belarus wasn't their final destination. As far as I know, they have settled in Western Europe, probably in Scandinavia.

How do Roma differ from other nation minorities?
Roma are more like Moslem peoples. The main characteristic is their respect to elderly people. You'll never find a Roma in a retirement home; besides, we have quite specific family and marriage relations. They are virtually identical to those that the Koran defines for Moslems. It is a special status of men in the family relations. The marriage and family Code that exists in the Republic of Belarus is completely unacceptable for Roma. We have a completely different tradition. For instance, registration of marriage or signature doesn't mean anything to us.

Which public organization do you represent?
Our organization deals with the rights of national minorities. Volunteers work in our branch. There's no financing for our activity. The representatives of our nationality, who face law violations and national discrimination, apply to us. We try to help. In most cases they need juridical support. Our organization unites ethnic Romas and Non-Roma, who have juridical education. Unfortunately, there are few of them, but we have managed to unite our forces. The work is going on. We have regional representatives. We work most actively in Vitebsk region.

Is there any international organization of Roma that unites representatives of your people from different countries?
There is the International Union of Roma (IRU) it is headed by a citizen of Poland. Surprisingly enough, the European Commission and Council of Europe are working a lot on Roma issues.

Which issues are the most acute ones for representatives of your nationality?
Discrimination against Roma exists everywhere; Belarus is not an exception. In many countries Roma can't find a job. For instance in Finland, Roma public organizations file about 100 suits of discrimination per year. In Belarus the situation is similar. It is enough to compile only one figure: 93% of Roma in Belarus don't have job, last year this figure was compiled by the Roma NGO. It means that a whole nation is unemployed. For instance, in Germany this figure is only 15%. There is a state program of liquidation of illiteracy and unemployment among Romas. There is strong discrimination in everyday life. Belarusians are not very tolerant. In this respect Romas feel here very expendable. However, even having education and letters of recommendations, it is almost impossible to get a job. I am a lawyer and I receive refusals only because of my nationality. It is difficult for Romas to enter higher educational establishments.

How many people are there in the Roma community In Belarus?
It is difficult to say now, because the numbers vary greatly. Some уears ago this figure was about 65 thousand.

What perspectives and aims could you call for your organization and the whole national group?
There is little knowledge about Roma and this information is mostly negative. It lives in the conscience of ordinary people. We must work to break these stereotypes. The most negative one is when the equal sign is put between the words Roma and lawbreaker. It's a pity, but the official mass media and representatives of power bodies treat us this way. There are plans to establish a Roma school or Roma classes, not as an alternative to basic education, but as a complement to it. In June 2004 the Ministry of Education applied with this proposal. We need it for the possibility to teach and learn our national language. Our government didn’t want to open Roma classes or Roma schools. We have big problems with democracy relations altogether.

Do people apply to you with such problems?

At present we work within the project of defense of the rights of Roma. We plan to hold monitoring. We also give juridical support for free to the Roma in Belarus who face human rights violations. At present we can cover a big number of people.

Do people apply to you with such problems?
Yes. We have even gained certain popularity. There are many applicants from Vitsebsk region, for instance, from Polatsk. People report groundless refusals of employment. This problem is very important. The second is the self-will of the police towards Roma. Investigative measures are held with gross violations of all rights. For instance, if there's the permission to search only one house, they search almost half of the street, only the houses where Roma are living. We also face so called court mistakes made by Roma. There is only one principle: If you are Roma, you are guilty of something. This is opinion of Belarussian policeman. People are defenseless, they are looking for support. Government advocates didn’t want to write complaints to investigators or to police and to spoil relations with them by the Roma causes. However, we have a lot of victories. We work, but it is very difficult to find support. I think that International Organizations must do more for Roma in Belarus and for Belarusian citizens. We are not guilty because we are living in Belarus. We are not guilty that we were born in this country. We are people like everyone else.

(Dzeno Association/Ekhipe)