Journal of Democracy 9.3 (1998) 142-156
For the approximately six million Roma (Gypsies) who live in Eastern Europe, the transition from communism has been an altogether deplorable experience. Though entire sections of society (unskilled laborers, pensioners, and so on) have been hurt by the marketization processes that began nearly a decade ago, none has been more adversely affected than the Roma.
A wide variety of long-marginalized groups whose exclusion had been based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other grounds had greeted the fall of the ancien régime enthusiastically, expecting an end to state-sanctioned discrimination and societal prejudices. On the whole, marginal groups -- and especially ethnic minorities -- have been more successful in acquiring rights and stopping discriminatory practices in countries where democratization has advanced rapidly than in countries where the process has been sluggish. One feature common to all East European states, however, is the desperate situation of the Gypsies.
Reliable estimates put the world's Gypsy population at about 10 million. As Table 1 shows, Europe is home to about 8 million Roma, almost three-fourths of whom reside in Eastern Europe. Another million live in the United States. In a number of Western democracies, the Roma continue to suffer discrimination -- some of it de jure, but most of it de facto. Even though the Roma of Western Europe tend to be at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale in the countries where they live, their standards of living are far superior to those of their East European brethren.
In Eastern Europe, a relatively prosperous region by global standards, the vast majority of Gypsies live in misery and want. Prejudice against them is wide and deep, and, on several occasions since 1989, has led to vigilante-style violence and pogroms. The Roma's progress in attaining political representation in proportion to the size of their communities has been halting at best; their political power remains minimal. Perhaps most troubling of all, the key markers of their predicament are nearly identical in all of Eastern Europe. Their situation poses a threat to the democratic society that political and civic elites aspire to consolidate.
A good handle for understanding the Romani predicament is provided by the concept of marginality (which, put simply, denotes the domination of one group of people by another). Marginality is a multidimensional notion with separable political, social, and economic aspects. A group such as the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia or people of Indian ancestry in Trinidad and Tobago may be economically influential but politically marginalized. Moreover, marginal status itself may change: a group or an entire nation that was once politically excluded may, in time, find itself in the dominant position (as did Estonians with the demise of the Soviet Union).
The uniqueness of the Gypsies lies in the fact that they are a transnational, non-territorially based people who do not have a "home state" that can provide a haven or extend protection to them. For the Roma "every country is a 'foreign' country, a 'country of residence'; there is no homeland to go back to, or even to turn to in a symbolic capacity." This explains why Romani communities do not, strictly speaking, constitute a diaspora. There are, to be sure, other ethnic groups whose situations are somewhat similar: the Kurds, for instance, are transnational and without a motherland, but they are territorially based; the Jews are also transnational and used to be non-territorially based until the birth of the modern state of Israel; the Berbers of northern Africa are transnational and seminomadic, but they, too, have a homeland, west of Tripoli, to which they periodically return. On the other hand, the Gypsies -- whose distant origins can be traced to northern India -- are unique in their homelessness, a situation that, in important respects, explains their marginality as well as their relationship to the states of Europe and beyond. If, following Karl Deutsch, we envision ethnic stratification as a "layer cake," then the Roma have remained firmly ensconced at the bottom tier throughout their long existence in Europe. Characterizing the Roma as a pariah group subjected to widespread and intense societal rejection, Frederik Barth...