THE Gypsies of Eastern Europe will face an even more uncertain future than under the communists if populist prejudice compels the region's new democracies to legislate against them.
The parliament of the two-month-old Czech Republic is already torn by controversy over a draft law that would limit Gypsy rights of movement and residence and even restrict education. Other governments in the region are under domestic pressure to adopt similar action.
Gypsies, who call themselves Romanies, have historically been Europe's most disadvantaged and discriminated-against ethnic group. Public enmity and suspicion in recent decades have forced many Gypsies to abandon their nomadic lifestyle. Traditional roles such as horse dealers and jacks-of-all-trades have had no place in modern societies.
Yet around the world, many Gypsies still cling to a rigorously structured tribal and sub-tribal culture brought thousands of years ago from northern India. Many have been urbanized but not assimilated. For the most part, Gypsies reject Western culture.
During Adolf Hitler's holocaust against "impure," non-Aryan groups, more than a half-million Gypsies were killed.
In the following four decades of communist rule, Gypsies rebounded, achieving Europe's highest birth rate. Today they make up Europe's biggest minority, with an estimated 5 million Gypsies in southeastern and Eastern Europe and another relatively untroubled 2 million in the West.
Communist officials tended to ignore Gypsies, leaving them an under-privileged section of society. But in the past year, a continent-wide rise in racist antagonism has swept across the newly democratized East. In western countries the targets are Jews, Muslims, and immigrants generally. In the East, though anti-Semitism has also reemerged, the Gypsies are the prime target.
Despite the turmoil surrounding the Czech Republic's separation from Slovakia and transformation from a centralized to a free-market economy, the biggest stir in Prague lately has been over the Czech parliament's proposed anti-Gypsy legislation.
Prague liberals and Romany organizations denounce as unconstitutional violations of human rights both the draft law and by-laws passed by many local municipalities giving them powers to evict and expel Romanies from their area. But ultra-conservative politicians and a "skinhead" public following say that the proposed nationwide draft is not tough enough.
Austrian television recently depicted how future Czech-Slovak friction lurks over the Gypsy emigration issue, as well as trouble for the 400,000 Gypsies in the former Czechoslovakia.
By Jan. 1, when the Czechoslovak federation was split, 30,000 Slovak Gypsies had already requested Czech citizenship. No one knows how many more have simply moved west without announcing an intention.
The Austrian TV segment showed a Slovak family's eviction from an abandoned, derelict house in which they had squatted in a small Czech town.
A Czech official was heard saying that Slovak Gypsies were illegally "coming in such numbers" that local resentment was mounting. People "feared to go out after dark," he added, reflecting the common distrust of the nomadic Gypsies.
Czech bystanders approved official action. "They [the Gypsies] occupied the house illegally," one told the Austrian reporter. "They should be sent back to Slovakia," another said. And a gray-haired woman said simply: "Exterminate them."
The Czechoslovak separation accords guarantee free movement and passage of goods and people between the two nations. There is no frontier between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, at least not yet. But in the meantime, Gypsies increasingly are left in a political no man's land without elementary human rights.