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Romanian Gypsies Gain Political Clout as a Minority

Ethnic group of 2.5 million seeks to protect its culture

`THIS is the beginning of a new period for us,'' a Gypsy black marketeer in Bucharest says, refusing to reveal his name. ``You know in our language, we have a saying: `When I die, you should bury me standing, because I have been on my knees all my life.' Well, we are going to have to invent new proverbs. I'm planning to open my own shop, a real, legal shop, next month,'' he adds proudly. One of the first measures taken in Romania after the December revolution that overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was the recognition of minorities' rights. Rivaling ethnic Hungarians as the largest minority in the country, the 2.5 million Romanian Gypsies found themselves for the first time on an equal footing with other Romanian citizens.

Freedom has taken many forms for the diversified community. Some have simply joined the swelling number of black marketeers, but others are organizing the first Gypsy political parties. Four Gypsy parties had registered across the country in preparation for the May 20 elections.

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``They will vote for me because I am one of them,'' said Ion Ciaoba before the voting took place. He has been chief of the Gypsies since 1971. ``They are not that interested in politics. They just want to preserve their culture.'' A candidate for the Bucharest-based Democratic Party of Free Roms, Mr. Ciaoba was the only Gypsy running for a seat in the Senate. The party also presented four deputies for the lower chamber. Although he failed to win the Senate seat, Ciaoba may be appointed to one of the nine slots reserved for minorities.

The Democratic Party of Free Roms is a unique Bucharest phenomenon. It was born out of the Commission on Minority Affairs set up by the country's interim government to ensure fair political representation in the election.

``We choose to call ourselves Roms because it was our true name when we were nomads. It means `one of us' in our language,'' sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe explains. ``Tzigani, the Romanian word for Gypsy, was given to us in the 12th century. It then meant `one of them' - from then on we were stigmatized as racially inferior.'' Gypsies have darker skin because of their Indian ancestry.

Above all, the Gypsy political effort is a quest to regain cultural specificity. ``We want to show that it isn't the skin color which defines people - it's their culture. And our culture is based on an oral tradition, so for us playing music and singing means speaking,'' explains Constantin Angheluta, a musician.

``Many of us also dream of seeing a written version of our dialect,'' Mr. Angheluta continues. ``We would need to set up our own schools where the Romani language is taught,'' he says enthusiastically, plucking the strings of his cobsa, an instrument similar to a lute. But lessons of Romanian nationalism are fresh in the minds of many Gypsies who fear that such a project would rekindle discrimination.

In their own community, differences are ripe. ``Gypsies are historically divided into 14 loose associations,'' Professor Gheorghe explains. ``Illiteracy can be as high as 20 percent, especially among old people. Then you have nomad Gypsies who have little affinity with their urban fellows. And 15 percent of us are Hungarian Gypsies.''

For the Hungarian Gypsies in the Transylvanian town where Gheorghe lives, Bucharest seems far away. ``We don't have any candidate,'' community leader Amtal Moscal says. ``We don't have much education. We are just happy not to be screamed at any longer when we go to the stores,'' he continues, stepping over pigs and children as he proudly gives a tour past the half-built shacks in which his fellow Gypsies live. But if formal education is sometimes lacking, entrepreneurial spirit is not. Mr. Moscal is making plans to rebuild the brickbuilding business his community was known for before the Communist regime.

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But resistance to change will remain among many Gypsies. When asked if she also plans to open a shop, like her neighbor black marketeer, Sanda ZamFir opens her toothless mouth in surprise. ``I was born on this pavement,'' she says, pointing to the litter of black-market goods at her feet. ``And I'll probably die here.''

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