Roma Woes as a Reflection of the Political Course

Dyumen “took” Crimea two years ago. Now he’s “taking” a Roma settlement in Plekhanovo

It’s all happened before, of course: Gas and electricity are disconnected. Frozen Roma mothers and grandmothers wail and curse in desperation. OMON troops, SWAT teams and excavators appear. Homes are demolished. When Arkhangelsk’s mayor, Donskoy, and Kaliningrad’s governor, Boos, destroyed Roma homes to leave children, the elderly and nursing mothers out on the street previously, even the local press was reluctant to cover it. This time, however, the indignation of residents of the Roma tabor (the name for the dense Roma settlements produced by Voroshilov’s 1956 order to “introduce Roma to a non-nomadic way of life”) has not only gone viral online, but also became the main topic in the mass media for several days.

Events in Plekhanovo are extremely sad and deserve attention. We truly hope that this becomes a cause for serious discussion about a problem long in need of attention: the plight of the Roma residents in tabors. These strange, semi-isolated settlements house hundreds of thousands of Russia’s Roma citizens in harsh conditions where life is hard and houses (the quality of which can vary greatly) are more often cold and disintegrating. Tabor residents do not receive a proper education, cannot find jobs, and generally don’t know what will happen from one day to the next —be it a demolition, removal or raid by special forces (tabors have been targeted by all such activities).

Travelling across the country to gather information about tabors and the main problems there in 2006, I found that residents faced an inability to document ownership of homes and land, as well as difficulties accessing heat, water, electricity, education and work. At the root of all of this was racism, ubiquitous discrimination and persecution. The results of my research were published online and illustrated with unique photographs and videos, including dozens of interviews with tabor residents complaining of their inability to realize their rights. But, alas, despite this effort to draw attention to the plight of these people, it all went unnoticed.

Whilst in one respect it seems that no one is interested in the problems of the tabor, Roma issues are nevertheless readily politicized – usually to the latter’s detriment. Thus, having taken electoral office on the back of a “Clean City” campaign (note, the often dark political undertones of racial or “blood” cleansing) the mayor of Arkhangelsk recently stated: “I gave a promise during my campaign to evict the Roma, and I’m going to fulfill it!”

Likewise, the story of the Roma in Tula has everyone hooked—someone’s going to flex their muscles! Indeed, there hadn’t been a raid in Tula for a long time and the heroic new governor – General Dyumen, “conqueror of Crimea” – being of military origin, is an expert in special operations. The pathetic and awkward attempts of Roma women, tangled up in their own long skirts trying to fend off bulldozers with flailing sticks was dubbed “over the top” by the new Governor Dyumen, who threatened that he “will not allow a repeat of this outrage in Tula Oblast!” (The sight of these machines advancing on Roma communities is terrifying for their targets who fear not just being cut off from their only source of hot water in the winter, but also demolition of their homes, as was the case in Plekhanovo). Thus, hundreds of battle-hardened OMON troops—armed to the teeth, sporting masks, helmets and a wall of shields to protect their close-knit chain— were deployed, rapidly overwhelming defiant tabor residents (initially mainly several dozen women and children, reduced to only a few verbal protesters). Several reckless old women tried to decry the raid and one man sought to secure journalistic coverage of the attack on “women and children,” but all were quickly struck down, beaten, and arrested. With the end of the raid Dyumen claimed: “I especially want to note that the police forces summoned to bring order faced resistance that put their lives in danger, which is not acceptable under any circumstances.”

So what was the point of all this? Perhaps to provide a lectern for this usually close-mouthed individual to raise his voice before to the nation, particularly as an adjudicator of “acceptability”? Governor Dyumen, afterall is a serious, well-known “conqueror of Crimea.” Now, he has suddenly landed a civilian position in the land of Leo Tolstoy, and on comes the showdown: some gas, some Roma homes, some problems of a profoundly social nature…. When he became governor less than a month ago, Dyumen promised the president, “the issues I will primarily focus on are the socio-economic sphere and, naturally, those connected with the region’s powerful military-industrial complex. We will work on these.” At the time no one could understand why such a successful strongman was thrown into such routine work. Indeed, given his background, how on earth could he have any knowledge of the problems of the socio-economic sphere, or indeed how to solve them?

The problems faced by Roma and specifically tabor residents are acute, and not just in Tula. Moreover, during these times of growing economic crisis, they are particularly pertinent to the extent that they might be used to set a precedent for other vulnerable sectors of society when it comes to allocating scare resources. A tightening of the national economic belt won’t just see retirement savings reduced or cut en masse. Gas, water and electricity are likewise likely to be cut. So why not start with the Roma: create a media spectacle by pushing frightened vulnerable women into demonstrating against such cuts with sticks (notably photographers and cameramen just happened to be at hand) and bring in 500 fighters with batons and shields to show the rest of the country that seeking to defend your right to heat your home will not be deemed “acceptable”.

Indeed, we have yet to see any cameras present near demolished Roma homes—they were notably absent in Saint Petersburg in 2003 (when police officers shot at the feet of fleeing residents), in Kaliningrad in 2006 (when a women holding a baby jumped from the window of a home being demolished by a bulldozer), and in Omsk, where an elderly woman threw herself and her grandchildren under the treads of the equipment demolishing her home.

ADC “Memorial” has spent many years trying to draw attention to tabor problems. It even produced a short film called “The Right to Life in Roma Settlements”, outlining the problem of unregistered houses in tabors and how difficult it is for these homes to connect to water and electricity systems legally, despite decades trying to document ownership. Human rights reports on Roma evictions  and the poor quality of education in elementary schools attended by Roma children (preventing them to graduating to high school) have likewise long been publicised.

It’s easy for those have never experienced the impossible circumstances faced by residents of tabors to accuse the Roma of “illegally connecting” to gas mains or to decry their “resistance” during attempts to deprive them of their means of heating, and even of their homes. People denied the ability to stand up for their rights just try to survive. But the Roma, it seems, are not allowed to do even this…

Stephania Kulaeva

This article was first published in Russian on the website of Radio Liberty