17 February 2007

The Roma Programme

I've been translating the National Action Plan for Latvia’s Roma (for the Secretariat of the Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration, AKA the Integration Ministry). Made me glad that I resisted the temptation to translate for Brussels—sifting through reams of legislation (decrees, directives, recommendations, judgments, findings, etc.) in such a structure, the inane complexity of which can be illustrated by the fact that the Council of Europe and the European Council have nothing to do with each other, would have made me hang myself within a few months!

The Programme, though, is a worthy endeavor, and I happen to know that's so because numerous Roma (the p.c. term for Gypsies, who supposedly also consider "čigāni" to be “slightly derogatory") live across the street from us—they’ve been taking advantage of things like free computer courses and small business loans, and they’re thrilled. They are active in one of the NGOs. The sad fact is that despite their abilities (including knowing Latvian better than any minority except the Livonians, who are practically extinct), ca. 98% of Latvia’s Gypsies are unemployed. A huge proportion of our illiterates are Gypsies, most Gypsies have little or no formal education, and about half of the population in Latvia would not like to live near Gypsies (which percentage drops significantly, and tellingly, among those who actually do live near Gypsies).

Then there is their basic vulnerability—Russians have Russia, Jews have Israel, Livs have Estonia... Gypsies have nowhere (a few years ago, some presented a rather postmodern proposal—to join the EU as a nation without a territory).

Not that Gypsies are angelic, of course—it’s a very long and historic two-way street (or the shoulder of a divided highway, with roadkill) full of self-fulfilling stereotypes… I mean, if you won’t hire Gypsies because they steal, they’ll have to steal (or, as in Rīga, get involved in the drug trade—they don’t run it [look to “Caucasians,” especially Chechens, for “Mr. Big"], but not a few are “employed” in it). Getting them to go to school is notoriously difficult. The Programme will train Gypsy teaching assistants for preschools, popularize education, encourage employers’ associations to network with Gypsy NGOs, try to dispel stereotypes among Latvians, and get the Gypsies representation when they are discriminated against.

Last but not least, it will also assist them culturally and in “preserving their identity”—the latter is an interesting thing, because the bigotry directed towards them has obviously assisted them in that regard; without a land and with no aid until recently, their identity still flourishes. I’ve not yet met a Rom who doesn’t speak Romani, despite their centuries of wandering through foreign lands.
And then there’s their clairvoyance…

A study of Latvia's Roma is available here. The photograph is of a Roma "king" in Romania, details here. My post was originally a response to Irēna at Latvians Online.

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Blogger Stefan said...

how long has this plan been in action?

latvia, it seems, has a variety of interesting programs for integration of, assistance to, and preservation of the culture/language of national minorities. thus integration here does not mean soviet-style cultural assimilation or latvianization, but social integration. . .of course, i am thinking of the efforts to socially integrate latvia's largest ethnic minority (the russian community), many of whose pundits and members decry and resist social integration as, supposedly, a form of cultural genocide or as intending full latvianization, as you well know. . .

it seems to me that since well over half of latvia's russian population has now achieved citizenship and sufficient fluency in latvian, and yet russian language and culture absolutely continue to flourish in latvia, that such efforts are to some degree working. on the other hand, given that the russian and latvian communities seem very estranged, i wonder how much such polarization is a failure of the integration policy. that's a question in the form of statement. . .what do you think?

18 February, 2007 16:15  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

This plan takes effect this year, but there have been various programmes that predate it and will be co-ordinated from now on.

A week or so ago I answered a questionnaire from someone writing a dissertation on the Latvian/Russian divide, and I may as well post my answers rather than try to answer you here, Stefan (lemme revise them a bit and I'll put them up, in a few days).

To distill my take, I think integration policy towards Russians/Russophones is basically fine, despite many a failing -- the gulf between the communities (which are not at all monolithic) is vast, and the main problems are with the, er, "imperial minority." There might be less polarization if Latvians agreed to a bicommunal Ruslatviya -- but we never will and we shouldn't.

19 February, 2007 11:22  
Blogger Unknown said...


I have to agree with you, Peteri, translating, your involvement with the National Action Plan for Latvia's Roma sounds much more interesting, fruitful than going through reams of legislative gobbledygook for Brussels (my own personal opinion, of course). The Roma are a fascinating group, invoking the Gitanos of Spain, Flamenco, Django Reinhardt and did you know--( a little trivia), Elvis Presley, who is claimed to have had 'Romanichel' bloodlines. A proud, spirited people with a zest and flair for life, defying all ordinary convention, which adds to their mystical quality and at the same time, unfortunately, perhaps to their downfall.

My knowledge about the Romani is mostly limited to legends, myths, hearsay, virtually having had no personal contact with them whatsoever; just a few glimpses from afar. As a kid, I remember a "gypsy" camp on the way to New Hampshire, MA, not far from a Latvian family we knew. And whenever we drove past, I was alway intrigued by that miniscule hamlet set down under off the highway with the caravan type dwellings, horses, wondering, what it was like to live there, what the people were like, but I never did find out. No one ever talked much about them; they kept to themselves and people let them be. Recently, when I've followed the same road, I still see the same old gypsy camp with some modifications, the caravan looking more like a makeshift mobile home, horses, along with some old cars sitting there alongside a heap of assorted rubble and bricabrac. When I was employed at a hospital many years ago, one of the gypsy kings was admitted there and I was rather bemused at all the hordes of people descending down upon the facility (the clan)--in the hospital room, cafeteria, much to the annoyance of the staff disrupting all order and propriety.

And then there are the stories--the ones I've heard from my parents, others of their generation about the 'Cigani' in Latvia. The beautiful, dark, mysterious people celebrated even in song. An incredibly beautiful gypsy queen singing and dancing around a campfire, captivating and beguiling the audience, especially the male onlookers) being absolutely mesmerized, falling at her feet. The fiery, passionate music and how can any being with blood in their veins possibly be unmoved, remain immune?! And yes...the clairvoyance! I know, this is all so subjective, the stuff of myths, legends, perhaps a figment of my own, personal myopia, but I always had this impression that Latvians, at least at that time, held the Roma in awe, even admiration and had a certain empathy for them. Even some who branded them as "theives" seemed to do so in a casual, off hand kind of manner, not particualry judgemental, implying a certain understanding for their said behavior. But, as I said, I realize this all may be pure conjecture on my part and I suppose there is a difference in being tolerant from afar, as long as it's not in your own backyard.

When I was in Latvia a few years ago, I did see a couple of bedraggled, old women asking for money in the streets and was told that these were 'Cigani', to keep away from them, steer clear of them, not talk to them. And then there was that Latvian Travel Guide warning, "to watch out for gypsy pick pockets". Interesting, that just the other day, I was watching a a travel program on Latvian TV, where I picked up a distinct conscious effort on the part of the guide to avoid naming any names, perpetrators, singling out any ethnic groups, as she talked about some of the places tourists should avoid in Riga, especially alone at night.

Because I'm one of those who have always been intrigued by the Roma and know so little about them, especially about their present day situation, this study has been a real eye opener for me. Just as an aside, I didn't know that the Russians were a distinct, separate group from their Latvian counterparts and this rather surprised me. I don't know quite what the reason for that is--maybe I expected more cohesiveness, unity among these two groups, more strength in numbers. As I was googling through the net, I came across this particular website called Virmus. I don't know how current, up to date their info is, but they claim that the Roma in Latvia "are more placid, balanced and reserved than Gypsies in Spain and Hungary." "According to the Uluf Palme Foundation, Gypsies in Latvia face a better situation in education, cultural development and human rights than do Gypsies in other parts of Europe. There are many highly cultured families in Latvia." Yet this particualr study about the situation of the Roma in Latvia reports that discrimination is a severe problem and up til now there have been no attempts to gather any data because they're better off in Latvia than in other European countries (is this assumption, BTW, or fact)? And if fact, I find it curious as to why this should be. Is it because there's a smaller minority of Roma in Latvia than in other European countries? Or could it actually be, that, we Latvians are more tolerant, in that respect?

At any rate, I'm glad to see steps, action being taken to try to alleviate these problems, though, I see it all as extremely complex, the problems of an enormous proportion. This long history, as you described, Peteri, as a two way street; mistrust on the part of the Roma for outsiders, the "outsiders" mistrusting the "gypsies", an ongoing vicious circle perpetuating stereotypes. And what makes it all the more difficult, is that the Roma are such a closed society, bringing to my mind, that perhaps, they'd like to keep it that way, that they don't want any "outsiders" in their midst. Not saying that we should just ignore them, forget about them, but I wonder how much of our own values, we might be imposing on them. And how we can find a happy medium.

Their situation is very sad--the lack of education, employment opportunies, HIV, drug abuse. I view them, not unlike the American Plains' Indians. A proud people whose spirit has been broken, finding themselves, their lifestyles an anachronism, being stuck in an alien world in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It was mentioned that they should be given the opportunity to pursue their traditional professions--"livestock breeding, horse farming and trading" being some. It sounds good, but how profitable, viable is that in today's society? It is good to hear that the Roma in your neighborhood, Peteri, are taking advantage of and enjoying the free computer learning skills, business loans. And hopefully this will be a start for them to take on new business ventures.


19 February, 2007 19:49  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thought it might be nice to provide the link to Virmus:


19 February, 2007 19:56  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Liels paldies, Irene/Irēna, for your thoughtful comments and the link (somehow a "tt" got in at the end; it works if removed, with an ".htm").

I wasn't clear in what I wrote -- the Gypsy Programme did consist primarily of eurogibberish, and translating the footnotes alone was enough to drive me to despair. But such is life in our eurocracy; at least the Programme actually has an effect.

Of a "traditional occupation" -- a Daugavpils ordinance bans sorcerey in the streets (take note, Stefan!), as well as forune-telling and the placement and removal of curses (this last should be taken to Strasbourg -- "I was cursed, and the state prevented me from finding a remedy"). By the way, none of the fortune-telling salons in Rīga belong to Gypsies (those small business loans?).

More seriously -- horse breeding is done in Latvia, and I think with considerable profit, though not by Gypsies; it also requires large investments, though. I suspect one would need quite a programme to revive things like that for Gypsies; people do work with traditional crafts in Latvia, as blacksmiths, etc., but it's a hard road -- on the other hand, the massive tourist boom, properly channeled, could bring more lati their way. I remember when the Greens (before they discovered an umbilical cord connecting them to the Ventspils truba and such) had that sort of vision for rural Latvia -- organic farms, ecotourism, crafts. It could still be done, perhaps, and I believe that long-term thinking (and different governance) could have made it a reality by now ("long-term" in Latvia meaning beyond a single fiscal year, "different governance" meaning the kind not primarily concerned with lining pockets).

The studies referred to by the Programme I was translating led the authors to believe that the main reason Gypsies are seen as "integrated" by some is the language issue. I think we have a natural sympathy for them because of our poor relations with most of the other minorities, and this has come up in the past in politics -- Lībane spoke of their exemplary knowledge of Latvian when the Gypsy community was politically a pendant of Latva's Way (Latvia's Way [LC], which dominated politics during much of the 1990s, has now joined with the Biznismeny of the Cloth [Latvia's First Party], and the Gypsy leader [who also became the president of the World Roma Congress and the first Rom to be elected to parliament in Eastern Europe]... well, not a little of the money he was given because of his ability to get Gypsies to vote for LC [there was an amusing incident with a bus full of lost Gypsies looking for the polling place they thought they needed to go to in order to vote for LC] cannot be accounted for, which soured many a soul on such handouts).

Still, I must say that in my view, stereotypes notwithstanding, their position here is better than it is elsewhere in the neighborhood (Lithuania, with its bulldozers, definitely included). The romanticization helps, even if the romanticization of impoverished, exotic "others" can be a questionable thing. The numbers matter a lot, as does history -- in Romania, where they were treated as slaves, there are too many to count and their circumstances are far worse.

In Latvia, some contributed considerably towards building the Freedom Monument, an example of how they felt. I think one definitely can say, and should say, that Latvia does treat historical minorities well, at least by comparison to most of Eastern Europe's nation-states (the emphasis on the historical; whilst homines societici aren't mistreated, in my opinion, they're a completely different kettle of fish -- even among the ethnic Russians, Old Believers have a much better relationship with Latvia than most do).

Most of the Courland Gyspsies are alive today because of one man, Mayor Bērziņš of Sabile. He was able to prevent their murder by the Nazis, and when the Soviets returned and tried to take him away as a "Fascist," the Gypsies surrounded the Chekists' car to prevent that.

20 February, 2007 12:13  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

Fascinating stuff Peteris. What happened to Berzins in the end?

22 February, 2007 23:09  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Hi Jams! There's actualy a documentary you can get; I haven't seen it, but it's available here --


The site also offers more detail on the episode, in English.

23 February, 2007 05:44  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Many Gypsies have roots, as untouchables in India. They left India, and traveled from India, through Asia to Southern Europe and Northern Africa. It correlates with inventing the melting pot music of flamenco.

26 February, 2007 00:24  

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