Roma battle stereotypes, seek political unity

European activists will take Roma issues to the UN Conference on Racism this week.

Viorel Bumbu speaks six languages, owns one of the best restaurants in town, and is building a new hotel in this Transylvanian city of 70,000 in Romania.

The son of an unschooled wool trader, Mr. Bumbu defies stereotypes often associated with Roma (gypsies). They are commonly viewed as vagabonds and thieves across east-central Europe, and routinely pitied as victims by the West.

The estimated 10 million Roma in the region face widespread discrimination and marginalization, are disproportionately relegated to remedial schools as children, and often placed in menial jobs as adults.

A decade after the collapse of Communist rule, however, a new generation of educated, self-aware Roma is challenging these stock roles and seeking greater political representation.

Bumbu, for instance, made no secret of his ethnic origins when he ran in two local elections last year. Although he lost both times, Bumbu remains unruffled.

"I did it just to show the population that we have the human resources," he says, contemplating an espresso in his Italian restaurant. "I told everyone: 'I'm Romany, but I'll be mayor for the whole city.'"

Bumbu helped found one of Romania's first Roma organizations, but left for a while after he became disillusioned with infighting in the Roma community. He has since rejoined the Roma movement, but says its divisions remain - not only in Romania.

Today, there are no Roma members in the Hungarian parliament and just one Roma holds a seat in Romania's legislature - a post guaranteed by law.

In both countries, official figures put the Roma community somewhere above 1 percent of the population. Unofficially, according to Roma groups, that number hovers around 5 percent in Hungary and is as high as 10 percent in Romania. In census counts, Roma tend to identify themselves with majority populations or more powerful ethnic minorities.

A weak Roma identity combined with power struggles within the community has made them easy for mainstream parties to neglect. But there are signs of change, says Claude Cahn, of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "The hopeful thing we're seeing is a growing number of Romany mayors and local councilors."

In his campaign to become mayor of Alba Iulia, Bumbu clearly identified as Roma. It is an unusually outspoken stance, even in his own family. Three of his brothers are successful surgeons, but all practice in other cities. "They succeeded because nobody knew they were Roma," says Bumbu, adding that many Roma intellectuals also used to hide their ethnicity.

Now, however, a new generation of Roma - who have benefited from scholarships, foreign travel, and the support of non-governmental organizations - is emerging.

"It is a growing trend for young, educated Roma to keep their identity," says Florin Moisa of the Resource Center for Roma Communities in Cluj-Napoca. "This is very helpful for the rest of the community. They are people to be proud of."

In Budapest, an "invisible college" with the declared aim of creating a Roma elite has been assisting university students, while the Roma Press Center monitors the Hungarian mainstream media and trains Roma journalists. The Press Center is planning to open similar organizations in Slovakia and Romania. In September, Radio C, Hungary's first Roma radio station, will go on air regularly in Budapest.

This emerging elite is only a tiny fraction of the Roma population, the majority of whom are more immediately concerned with the daily struggle for subsistence than with lofty political goals.

"There hasn't been the formation of any common political or spiritual identity that could lead to unified action," says Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights activist who served in Hungary's first post-communist parliament. "Roma lack the middle class that could serve as a foundation."

That's the reason Horvath doesn't give a newly formed coalition of Roma organizations much of a chance in Hungary's elections next year. "In my view, European democracy doesn't have room for ethnically based parties." Regional cooperation among Roma groups also seems unlikely.

Most activists are concentrating their efforts on local government. Bumbu, who was recently nominated for the post of Roma affairs adviser in Alba Iulia County, says it is just the beginning. "We have to solve our problems ourselves," he says.

"We need to make the majority understand that we have worth: moral, cultural, professional."

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