With roots in northern India, for centuries the Balkan Romani have been a consistent part of European heritage. However, their past in Europe has not been without hardships. What is it about this particular ethnocultural group that invokes such fascination, and yet such resentment?
Who are the Romani people?
Still generally on the margins of society, for many years the Balkan Romani people have been negotiating phases of complete exclusion and forced assimilation. Xenophobia from the past has resulted in today’s still prevalent stereotypes of the “traveling Gypsy” and the practice of Hindu purity laws.
Early concepts such as Social Darwinism promoted the linkage of social differences to racial differences which helped perpetuate further clichés of the Romani’s impossibility to adapt to modern society’s way of life.
However, not only did different cultures within individual Romani groups develop during their westward migration, but also, depending on where they settled, different religious groups emerged within them. From European Romani who still practise the Hindu purity laws, to Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muslims – the majority of the religious spectrum is maintained in their various societies.
Romani in the Balkan Region: WW2, Communism and the Balkan War
Racial ideology during the Second World War led to a systematic genocide of the Romani people in Nazi-occupied Balkan countries. For decades this racial killing has not been given its proper recognition.
As communism permeated the Balkans, a false sense of optimism was created. When asked about life during communist times, a high percentage of people from the former Yugoslavian federation have positive associations with it. In their eyes communism provided them with a secure job and health insurance.
For the Romani population, communism proved to be a much bleaker reality. As communist state policies were put into action, they further hindered the Romani people from becoming a part of society. The much needed helping hand of the state was denied. Though allowed to work, it mostly included difficult labour in factories leaving them with no possibility of climbing the economic ladder.
Another task that proved to be difficult during communist times was the preservation of the Romani identity. Bulgaria, for example was keen on realizing a unified Bulgarian socialist nation with only one ethnicity. This entailed forced name changes and forced integration into society. Not too long after the polices were realized, their failure became apparent, as the traditions were kept alive in one’s own home.
The Balkan wars in the 1990s led to even more tragedy. Romani people, as well as other ethnic minorities, accused of partnering with the opposition, were forced to choose sides. This led to another ethnic cleansing in which many more innocent lives were lost.
Europe’s love-hate relationship with the Romani People
According to a recent report by the European Roma Rights Centre, the Romani people still are the most vulnerable minority in the Balkans. Forceful evictions prove to be a constant threat leaving them with no place to go; the everlasting discrimination of Romani people in predominantly non-Roma schools and the discrimination in the workplace lead to high unemployment rates, which ultimately creates a vicious cycle from which an escape is hardly even a possibility.
But in a harsh contradiction to the hate crimes which the Romani people still face today, stands a romanticism of Romani music and culture throughout the whole Balkan region – and beyond. Indeed, it seems the whole world is enticed by the apparent exoticism of the Romani – as long as they remain at arm’s length…
Culture & Music – the key to Romani acceptance?
Be it as musicians in Balkan weddings, on street corners or in restaurants, Balkan Roma or “Gypsy” music, plays an important role in the European Roma society as well as for the common man. In a formerly war-torn region whose past social, political and ethnic conflicts still sicker through into the present day, there is a strong need among people to find a commonality.
Comparative to how flamenco music is revered in Spain by both Roma and non-Roma citizens, Roma music seems to be just the one thing that every culture from the former Yugoslavian territory agrees on. It permeates through the Balkans like a golden thread and becomes an expression of a unified Balkan mentality. Something that erases the divisions and acts as a mediator between cultures.
Roma musicians like Esma Redzepova († 2016), who was dubbed the “Queen of the Gypsies” are seen as a common treasure in southeastern Europe. Esma’s music is celebrated proudly by people who do not even share Macedonia as the same place of birth, or understand the lyrics. She was the much-needed positive role model and success story for the Roma community. Even after her death, people remember her as an inspiring music icon, but also for her selflessness, as she adopted more than 47 Roma children.
With Roma culture and music becoming more mainstream, some aspects of the Roma life were even romanticized with images of the “carefree gypsy”. The two extremes seem to vary between the Roma as a mystical musician and entertainer on one side, and a criminal on the other.
How Europe can do better for its Romani citizens
This love-hate dichotomy leads to the question of whether it will ever be possible for the Romani people to be a fully accepted and integrated ethnic group. As a first step, it would be important to recognize the horrible crimes that have been committed against Roma in the past.
According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), recognition of the brutalities is a necessary component for ‘restoring dignity and justice.’ One of the IHRA’s causes is to sensitize the general public towards the victims, which could lead to a better general understanding of the Romani people’s current situation.
As hate crimes are still the harsh reality for Roma, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, the solidarity of non-Roma and validation of the acts in the past could lead to a better mutual understanding and boost a new sense of community.