The office of Romania’s National Agency for Roma is housed in a converted chemical plant in Bucharest that seems little changed since the days when the Warsaw Pact was forged some 55 years ago. The windows are unwashed and an old woman in a kerchief pilots the cramped elevator. Stray dogs strike up a chorus outside.
Ilie Dinca, an obese man who is the agency’s president, has the gargantuan task of dealing with—depending whom you ask—the country’s half-million to two million Roma and 2.5 to 10 percent of its population. He greets me with an offering of candies sitting atop a dish on his desk. Behind him hangs a Roma flag, a remnant of mostly failed efforts made by NGOs in the 1970s to unite and organize the Roma. “Integration of the Roma has fallen behind now that the country [Romania] is inside the E.U., even though it was a precondition for membership,” Dinca, who is Roma, says, “The situation of the Roma is going backwards and we have to be very careful so they are not put against the wall.”
He reels off a list of woes. Unemployment, long an issue, has become increasingly dire, reaching 100 percent in some Roma areas. Because of the recession, Bucharest has had to slash Roma subsidies by 35 percent. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the Roma remain a weak political force. Few hold political positions in Romania, with the exception, interestingly, of Barbulesti, where Mayor Ion Cutitaru was elected in 2007. “There is only one Roma MP and there is no Roma political party for now,” says Dinca. Compounding the issue is the country’s inability to truly gauge the size of the community and document its needs. Many Roma don’t have proper identification or even birth certificates.
The Roma are generally not well-liked by Romanians, some of whom are now lobbying to call the Roma by the Romanian word for gypsy, tigan, in order to avoid confusion between the Roma and Romanians. Romanians are not the only European people with a tumultuous Roma history, but relations between the Roma and other inhabitants of Romania have been particularly fraught: Initial curiosity turned to hostility and enslavement. Landless upon their emancipation in the mid-19th century, the Roma carved out a niche in the semi-medieval Balkan world as nomadic craftsmen. Each tribe or village practiced a specific craft—some were coppersmiths, others worked with gold and there were, of course, the bear dancers.
Though poor and different, their lives were not atrocious until the double disasters of the mid-20th century. The first was the Holocaust, in which the Roma, alongside the Jews, were targeted. Berlin had determined they were sub-humans. Because the Roma were not generally included in censuses, it is impossible to calculate the loss, but estimates range from 220,000 to 500,000 murdered across Europe. The second blow was the communist regime that followed World War II, which was intent on transforming the Roma into workers. Caravans were swapped for forced settlements in blocks of flats and collective farms. Both totalitarian projects held the same goal: to make the Roma way of life disappear from Europe.
“These historical experiences—slavery, persecution and holocaust—have shaped the nature of the Roma community in Romania,” explains Magda Matache from the NGO Romani CRISS, a group that lobbies for the Roma. She is part of a new generation of Roma activists that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet bloc, in close contact with the West and funded by generous grants from billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute. A Holocaust survivor, Soros is said to empathize with and even fear for the Roma in recessional Europe.
Matache makes it clear, however, that it is hard to generalize about the Roma. Although about 40 percent are semi-integrated and speak Romanian, there are many different tribes and settlements. “Each tribe has its own customs, level of development and problems,” she says. Even more than 20 years after the bloody revolution that overthrew President Nicolae Ceausescu, she says that the Roma are “hopelessly divided. Key problems are child marriages, parents taking their children out of school to work, rigid patriarchies and the intransigence of traditional leaders.”
I decided to drive into Transylvania to meet these leaders.
The emperor of the gypsies is poised on a throne in a dingy corner next to a buzzing refrigerator surrounded by ornamental cacti. He’s wearing a dirty fleece jacket, and I can smell his unbrushed teeth. His name is Iulian Radulescu, and he is one of a long line of Roma who for centuries have claimed to be emperors and kings, either through inheritance or by self-declaration; their power and influence varies by region.
“I am the emperor because I am the most civilized gypsy there has ever been,” he says, clearing his throat as the audience begins in his rundown shack in a Roma encampment in rural Transylvania, surrounded by the flickering gas torches of a petrochemical complex. “No gypsy has ever been as well-educated and civilized or achieved so many degrees as I have in all history,” he says. “I am a symbol of gypsies everywhere, equal in rights to Obama and all the rest of them.”
An elderly woman creeps into the throne room and sits in the far corner behind my back as Iulian speaks. “You ask about the gypsy way…ai….the gypsy way is the gypsy tricks.”
“Your Excellency, what are the gypsy tricks?”
“There are a million gypsy tricks.”
“I’d be humbled if you could tell me one or two.”
He scratches his five o’clock shadow pensively. “Well, a gypsy goes to Italy and,” miming the action over the table, “steals a car and then drives it to Romania and sells it to somebody else so then it is the other man’s problem.”
“That’s a gypsy trick?”
The emperor then gives me some background. “I went to Switzerland and I saw how things are there,” he says. When a Switzerland [Swiss] man wants to buy something but doesn’t have the money, he gets credit. But the banks won’t give this credit to a gypsy…so he begs. That’s a gypsy credit card.”
The woman in the corner curses. “Shut up,” she says, perhaps aware that the emperor is making a fool of himself. The emperor disregards her and before I leave, hands me his imperial business card. It is on printer paper and illegible.
From here I drive to the nearby city of Sibiu to see the emperor’s cousin, the king of the Roma. I arrive at the palace in the morning only to be told by a “court Roma” that the king is not available. “The king is sleeping because he had a party last night,” he says.
When I return later in the day, King Florin Cioaba I “of the Gypsies everywhere” is adjusting his tie in front of the mirror in his throne room. “The emperor is an impostor. He can call himself that if he likes,” grimaces Cioaba at the mention of his cousin. The palace is an oversized suburban mansion by a main road. The furniture is leopard skin and tiles are painted with fruit platters. Few Roma live in such luxury.
Cioaba, a stern man with a gnarled scar across his forehead, strides past oil paintings of his father on horseback. “I was crowned in front of a thousand Roma.” He tells me a list of names of organizations and international bodies that he has worked with, and indeed a United Nations report does say he holds “some moral authority” over the Roma in Transylvania.
Cioaba is somewhat notorious in Romania. He married off his 12-year-old daughter to the 15-year-old son of a rival. During the wedding, which was televised nationally, he wore a crown and held a scepter made by Italian jewelers, as local Roma eagerly darted in and out of the throng to kiss his palm.