In April of 2003 an educational seminar and round-table discussion were held at the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany People. The events were organised around the International Day of Gypsies, which is celebrated on April 8th.
Representative from the Gypsy community, activists from Gypsy and other social action groups and members of the media were all invited to take part in the seminar on human rights protection, held on 6 April 2003.
After greeting the seminar participants, the director of the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany (Gypsy) People, Stefaniya Kulaeva handed the proceedings over to the writer, artist and specialist in Gypsy history and culture, N. V. Bessonov. He gave a speech entitled “Gypsies and the Press” and presented his new work, a piece by the same name. Bessonov’s work was published together with the article “Legal Self-Defense” by the legal scholar and respected Chechen lawyer, Ya. A. Reshetnikov. Here is what Bessonov had to say: “In Soviet times, when the traditional occupation of Gypsies – petty trade – was considered a crime, buying one’s way out of out of court became a common practice. Times have changed, and the word “speculation” is no longer part of our vocabulary. Nevertheless, the tradition of exaction is alive and well, and in recent years, has even flourished. How can we solve this problem? We could leave everything as it is: let people continue to pay bribes and the police will have no complaints. Or we could take action, using the opportunities afforded to us by Russian law. We are not defenceless: we have a constitution, the presumption that people are innocent until proven guilty, laws which have not been repealed and procedures which must be followed. All of these structures are in place to help us avoid the ills of bribery and exaction. Ya. A. Reshetnikov’s article was written to inform people of their rights. The article seems to reveal nothing new, but a person who finds himself in a difficult situation may become flustered and confused. If he is well informed beforehand, he will be better equipped to handle the situation. There is a great deal of simple yet useful advice in Reshetnikov’s article.” Bessonov went on to emphasise that, “Gypsies live in an informational vacuum. Indeed, the press presents a false picture of the Gypsies. Myths about Gypsies are passed from one newspaper or television channel to the next. How do these myths arise? Instead of seeking accurate, first-hand information, many journalists simply use the internet to do their research. Their motives are obvious: making personal contact with Gypsies is difficult, and articles must be written quickly in order to meet deadlines. Using the internet, a journalist can find a hundred articles which assert that Gypsies are drug dealers and then write the one hundred and first article on precisely the same topic. And yet no one questions the veracity of these articles. Thus our first task is to provide journalists with objective information. Some might think that this a hopeless fight and that it will not change anything. But I know from personal experience that this is not entirely true. In its time, the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets published something negative about Gypsies (either an article or a notice in the police blotter) in nearly every edition. I sent the first edition of “Gypsies and the Press” to every journalist who has written about Gypsies and – would you believe it – in a month the anti-Gypsy articles in Moskovskii Komsomolets had all but disappeared. Thus we can see that journalists are not the enemy; they are simply people who are oftentimes unfamiliar with the topics on which they write. We plan to send complimentary copies of our book to various editorial offices, television channels and libraries. We hope that the situation in the press will improve. The press should be a mirror of society, but the disparity between society’s attitudes toward Gypsies and the attitudes held by the press is scandalous. We have concluded from our study of public opinion that, on the whole, people have a “friendly but guarded” attitude toward Gypsies. Yet 90 per cent of the material that the press publishes on Gypsies is negative and 10 per cent is neutral. Our task is therefore to tell the truth about Gypsies and thereby calm the anti-Gypsy fervour of the press. As I see it, this is a realistic goal. We must also disseminate more positive information on Gypsies. Unfortunately, some journalists are nationalists or fascists. With them, our only recourse is the law. We must bring them to account for libel and for inciting racial hatred. These avenues are now open to us.
As for the theme of drugs, so beloved by the press, we would suggest the following: The problem, of course, is not an invented one. Some Gypsy families are indeed involved in drug dealing. But to assert that drug dealing is the “Gypsies’ business” is utterly false. Moreover, there is now an anti-drug dealing trend among the Gypsies. I know personally of several Gypsy communities which have decided that anyone involved in this criminal business will be evicted from the community. After all, it is the Gypsy youth which is suffering most of all. Drugs have caused the deaths of many young Gypsies.
We have begun compiling information about Gypsies who died during the fascist occupation, who fought in battles, who were sent to concentration camps and who suffered during Stalin’s Terror. The publication of this material is essential. I would ask anyone in possession of such information to share it. I hope to publish a book of our findings, to be titled Gypsies in the Grip of Two Dictators.
The Northwest Centre’s lawyer, M. N. Nosova, gave a report entitled “Human Rights and Means of Protecting Them”. She spoke about the problems facing the Gypsy population that she has to deal with as a lawyer and presented statistics on discrimination against Gypsies. Nosova presented information on the legal mechanisms of Russian and international law. She addressed issues including: the conventions on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms adopted by the European Council, the European human rights court in Strasbourg, the human rights representative of the Russian Federation and social action groups involved in the protection of human rights. Informational materials were distributed to the seminar participants.
A.N. Klein, an employee of the Northwest Centre gave a speech entitled “Experiences of Human Rights Protection in Pskovskaya Oblast”. He emphasised that, in recent years, it is not only everyday nationalism, brought on by centuries of anti-Gypsy prejudice, which has increased. Groups of young neo-nazis, skinheads for the most part, have also become active. Gypsies are one target of their violence. (Here, the speaker gave several examples of such violence). The police and other authorities often treat Gypsies unfairly, refusing to help them and frequently causing them additional hassles. As a result, many Gypsies have no documents and no registration (this is a particularly serious problem for Gypsies who were born in the Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union and now live in Pskovshchina). In conclusion, A. N. Klein said, “I would like to say the following to all Gypsies: Often we do not know what our rights are or how to defend them. Few of us are literate. But we must not be afraid to demand fairness. We too are Russian citizens and have the same rights as all other citizens.”
I.S. Berdyshev, a psychologist from the Northwest Centre, gave a speech on the psychological impact of crisis. The seminar ended with a practical lesson on how to respond in situations in which legal defence is required, conducted by the lawyer M N. Nosova. Seminar participants were asked to consider a series of concrete examples: legal action which can be taken against aggressive skinheads, against police who refuse to take a statement from a victim, or in the case of intimidation.
On 7 April 2003 a round table discussion was held in the Northwest Centre. Various problems facing the Gypsy population in the region were discussed. Representatives from St. Petersburg local government, workers from Gypsy organisations in the Northwest, representatives from social action groups, and members of the media were invited to participate in the discussion.
The discussion was opened by the chairman of Memorial, V. E. Shnitke. “I would like to say a few words about why Memorial concerns itself with the problems of the Gypsy population. Indeed, a society devoted to past victims of political repression would not seem to have any interest in this issue. But in fact, Gypsies are among the national minorities which suffered under the Soviet regime. In the course of our work on human rights issues, and particularly the work of our anti-fascist commission, we have begun learning about the history of fascism and nationalism and how they figure into our country’s history. Jews and Gypsies are two national minorities which have been victims of genocide. The gene pools of both groups have been, to a great extent, annihilated. We naturally wanted to find out how Gypsies live now and what their position is. We conducted several seminars on the theme of Gypsies and, as a human rights organisation, we were appalled by the human rights violations against Gypsies which are tolerated in this country. We could not ignore these issues, and for several years we having been operating various projects devoted to protecting the rights of Gypsies. One of our most important achievements has been the creation of the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany (Gypsy) People. The Centre is of particular importance in light of the fact that Gypsy rights have been almost entirely ignored by the social action and human rights organisations in the Northwest. The press has taken such an aggressive anti-Gypsy position that we are ashamed of our local journalists. Simply reading some newspapers causes one to hearken back to a different time in history. Memorial considers the work of the Centre to be exceptionally vital. We will do everything in our power to support the Centre so that the problems facing the Gypsy population can be resolved.
The next to speak were employees of the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany (Gypsy) People. The director of the programme, S. B. Kulaeva, wished all in attendance a happy International Gypsy Day. She noted that, “it is in the last twenty years that decisive changes have taken place in the emancipation of the Gypsy people and in the unification of Gypsies with European and world culture. It is in this period that persistent efforts have been made to overcome the isolation of Gypsies and to offer them the same opportunities that other national minorities have. Our region is very large and is home to Gypsies from different ethnic groups. The problems facing Gypsies in the Northwest are multifaceted and include: lack of access to education and medical care, poor social protection, and difficulties in obtaining citizenship and official registration. Once isolated because of historical circumstances, Gypsies are only now beginning to re-enter mainstream society. This is precisely the reason that we wish to establish a dialogue among representatives from the Gypsy community, human rights activists, government officials and various specialists, of all whom are in a position to help. Our Northwest Centre for the Protection of Gypsies is not the first attempt that has been made in Russia to find a solution to the problems facing the Gypsy population. However, up to now such efforts have been limited to gathering information and publishing articles in international human rights journals (such projects have been developed by the Moscow-Helsinki Group and the European Gypsy Rights Centre). This work was done on a high level, but ordinary people knew almost nothing about it. We have decided to combine future human rights work, publications and human rights monitoring with actual legal aid, so that when we encounter the individual cases of injustice which lead us to lobby for the rights of the Gypsy ethnic minority as a whole, we will be able to help suffering people in a concrete way.
M.N. Nosova, a lawyer from the Northwest Centre, spoke about the problems that she encounters in the course of her work: “As I see it, our most pressing issue today is ignorance of the law among Gypsies. As a result of this problem, Gypsies are unable to exercise even the limited rights that they do possess. Moreover, they do not know what their rights are, let alone how to act when these rights are violated. In the areas that we are now trying to reach there are a great many legal problems, and our work must be focused in several different directions: we offer educational activities for members of the Gypsy population, legal consultation services, and on-call strategic teams to respond to problems.
I.S. Berdyshev, a psychologist from the Centre, said: “The scope of the work to be done by psychologists on this project is enormous. Many of the people whom I encounter in my work have lived through stressful and, indeed, tragic situations. Their suffering is a result of the uncertainty, anxiety, despair and fear that are experienced by children and adults alike. People who have been subjected to discrimination and violent attacks need psychological help and professional support.
Natalya Evdokimova, chairman of the Committee on Social Issues of the St. Petersburg legislative body, made the following contribution to the discussion: “I am ashamed to say that I am completely unfamiliar with the problems faced by the Gypsy population in Russia and the Northwest. Naturally I know that Gypsies have been persecuted throughout history in many different countries, but the current plight of Gypsies in this country is for me terra incognita. I am very pleased that Memorial has brought this problem into public view so that it can be discussed. Obviously, we must introduce legal measures to protect the rights of all national minorities – not only Gypsies but other groups as well – which have suffered discrimination. We need to make this message clear on the national level and introduce anti-discrimination legislation. We must also take action in Petersburg, the largest city in the Northwest. I believe that it would be expedient to create a group to evaluate the social protection of national minorities. The group could cooperate with the St. Petersburg legislative body’s Committee on Social Issues. Until we can provide people with shelter, medical care, a pension and social benefits, we cannot begin to discuss the issue of human rights. This issue should also be addressed on a regional level, in the Northwest Parliamentary Assembly.
A.I. Tumashevich, director of the St. Petersburg Centre of Gypsy Culture, greeted the seminar participants and said, “We would like to thank Memorial for ensuring that Gypsies would not be forgotten on their international day of celebration. We are pleased by their efforts, but we feel that the Gypsies themselves are still not active enough. Although there are two Gypsy social organisations in Petersburg, this day is still not widely celebrated. Not long ago the Gypsies were a nomadic people. Not much time has passed since they officially adopted a settled lifestyle in 1956. In Gorelov, where I live, we conducted a small survey of local families who have school-age children. At home, these children hear stories about the good old days of travelling and living in tents from their middle-aged relatives. But at school they are told just the opposite. It is difficult for a child to make sense of all this: Whom should they believe? What should they aim for in life? We must address this problem, following the excellent example of Aleksandrovskaya school. As far as human rights are concerned, we need only say that Gypsies are Russian citizens. As I see it, we do not need new legislation to protect Gypsies. Rather, we need citizens and authorities alike to observe existing laws.
The historian, writer and artist, N. V. Bessonov, said, “The opening of the Centre for the legal protection of Gypsies is a very important event for the Gypsy community of Northwest Russia. I know of similar centres that have been successful, and I know that with hard work even the most difficult situations can be overcome. Discrimination against Gypsies and the lack of accurate information about Gypsies are both serious problems. Therefore the legal protection centre must work on a range of issues.
At the end of the round table discussion, participants shared their views on the topics which had been presented. The seminar and round table discussion were reported in the Petersburg and international press.