Thursday, December 9, 2010
IRE OF THE TIGAN
Dec 8th 2010, 11:16
THE Romanies of Romania will soon be the "Tigan" of Romania, if the government has its way. A controversial bill before parliament will change the name of Romania's main ethnic minority from "Roma" to "Tigan", a word that "is associated in the collective memory of the Roma with the slavery that existed in Romania from 1385 to 1856, and also the forced deportations in WW2", according to a protest letter sent by Romani groups to heads of state at a recent OSCE summit in Kazakhstan.
The bill was submitted by a controversial MP called Silviu Prigoana, who is sometimes called Bucharest’s “King of Garbage”, owing to a sprawling waste-disposal company he owns. Mr Prigoana, who is part of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, claims that he drafted the name-change law at the insistence of (anonymous) groups of Romanies from Transylvania. But Romani organisations suspect that the law is a pet project of Traian Basescu, Romania's president, who said in September that the use of the "Roma" name was a "mistake".
We have been here before. Fifteen years ago Romania's foreign ministry issued a confidential memo which recommended replacing "Roma" with "Tigan" on the grounds that the former sounded rather too much like the name of the country, and might damage its image abroad. (You hear the same argument today.)
The document leaked, and Romani organisations were outraged. A conference was organised to discuss the issue in May 1995, and the Romanies, relying on a Council of Europe convention on ethnic minorities, successfully argued that under the principle of self-determination they were entitled to decide on their own designation.
The issue was picked up by the OSCE, which issued a diplomatic reprimand to Romania. The government backed off and cancelled its earlier note. Since then "Roma" has been the term used in all official documentation and at international meetings. But the underlying issues were not addressed: Romania's Romanies still live in dire poverty, and Romanian media continued to encourage the impression that the presence in western Europe of people called "Roma" was damaging Romania’s reputation. The recent economic crisis, which has hit Romania particularly hard, has added fuel to the glowing embers of resentment and prejudice.
Nicolae Gheorghe, a sociologist and former Roma adviser to the OSCE, helped lead the charge against the proposed name change in 1995. He told me that the current proposal shows "the populist and nationalist direction that the present leadership of Romania is going in". He explains that "the term 'Roma' was never used by all Romani groups, particularly at the local level, but it has become the internationally accepted generic term that groups from Spain, Romania and other countries choose to call themselves. If this name change takes place it will represent a big step backwards."
Of the 19 public institutions that were consulted about the proposed name change, just one supports it: the Romanian Academy, a bastion of elderly scientists and linguists charged with defending Romanian culture. In a statement, the academy says that it supports the name change on the grounds that "many European countries use, without any restrictions, words with the same origins [as Tigan]". In Germany the term is "Zigeuner", in France "Gitani" and in Russia "Tzigan". The concept of self-determination deployed successfully by the Romanies in 1995 is nowhere to be seen in the academy's statement.
Not everyone agrees. "The term 'Tigan' does not exist in the Romany language", Delia Grigore, a lecturer in Romany language at Bucharest University, has written. "It is a word that is profoundly insulting to the Roma and comes from the Greek term for 'pagan', 'heretic' and 'untouchable.'" Over 100 Romani activists marched on the Romanian Academy last Tuesday, demanding a public debate on the issue. The Roma Civic Alliance of Romania issued an open letter [link in Romanian] which accused the government of acting in a "totalitarian manner" and violating the constitution.
Posted by Morgan at 10:42 AM