NO ethnic question in Central and Eastern Europe engenders a more uniformly negative response than that of Gypsies. About 5 million Gypsies are spread throughout Europe, especially in the east. Wherever they are found, they are stereotyped and often marginalized. ''They steal. They make crime. I want to push them all out of my country,'' says Adrian Dumitrescu, a high school student in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Variations of such comments echo throughout the region. Fostering tolerance for Gypsies will be an essential task for postcommunist Central Europe. If Gypsies are kept out of the social and economic mainstream, they could become a permanent underclass that would stall market-reform efforts, observers warn. ''I'm not so utopian to think that the situation can change overnight, but we are still waiting for the first step,'' says Kosta Vasile, head of the Young Generation of Romany, a nongovernmental Gypsy group in Romania founded in 1991. Anti-Gypsy attacks have occurred in virtually every Central European nation. In Slovakia, a Gypsy youth died from burns Aug. 1 after being doused in gasoline and set alight by skinheads. In the neighboring Czech Republic, hoodlums, apparently acting out of racially motivated spite, broke into a home in a provincial town in May and beat a Gypsy father of five to death with a baseball bat. International human rights organizations have criticized Romania and Bulgaria for allegedly failing to protect Gypsy civil liberties. And the West has not been immune to anti-Gypsy acts, as fatal attacks against Gypsies in Italy and Austria demonstrate. Prejudice has been prevalent in Europe virtually since the first Gypsies migrated westward from India roughly eight centuries ago. Despite the stereotypes, few Gypsies have nomadic lifestyles, and their traditional professions - as tinkers and horse traders - have fallen by the wayside. But because they are a transnational group with no state to protect their interests, they can be targets for hatred. ''Gypsies are the perfect victims because there's no one to look out for them,'' says Zoltan Barany, an expert on Gypsy issues and a University of Texas professor. Attacks against Gypsies have increased since European communism's collapse. ''It's a reflection of the breakdown of social order after 1989. It's linked to the continuing deterioration of economic standards and an unfortunately escalating crime rate,'' says Holly Cartner, executive director of the watchdog group Human Rights Watch/Helsinki in New York. ''Hatred of the Roma is something that can be a unifying factor,'' Ms. Cartner adds. ''Some [Central European] governments have a lot to gain from letting this feeling play out.'' Professor Barany says demographics aggravate tension, as Gypsies have high birth rates. While population figures are hotly disputed, estimates show Gypsies make up more than 10 percent of Romania's 23 million people; roughly 8 percent of Bulgaria's 9 million; and up to 8 percent of Hungary's 10 million. The Gypsy issue could endanger Central European stability, Barany warns. ''They are having trouble keeping pace with change,'' he says. ''If they aren't educated, they could become a population time-bomb. They'll have nothing to lose, and could create social havoc or a social-services crisis.'' The Gypsy question isn't one-sided, experts say. The Gypsy community is divided and fiercely guarded about its cultural identity. Many don't speak the language of the local majority, and they discourage intermarriage with other ethnic groups, Barany said. Gypsy civic leaders acknowledge internal divisions and a lack of organization that hinders attempts to mobilize a political force. Governments have sometimes responded to anti-Gypsy violence by cracking down on hate crimes. The Czech Republic, for instance, toughened sentencing for racist crimes following the May baseball-bat murder. Yet in most cases, perpetrators of anti-Gypsy violence have escaped prosecution. The situation in Romania shows how difficult it is to bury anti-Gypsy attitudes. Local observers say much of the tension has more to do with misperceptions than reality. Many Romanians believe that Gypsies are vagrants. But while many Gypsies are marginalized, some are successful in commerce and agriculture, says Larry Watts, head of the Bucharest office of the Project on Ethnic Relations, a nongovernmental group.''But because of portion of them still do it [beg and steal], it's attributed to them all,'' he says. Romania has witnessed a fair share of anti-Gypsy attacks over the last five years, including cases where mobs torched entire sections of villages inhabited by Gypsies. Such acts, plus the fact that the country has the largest gypsy minority in Central Europe, has prompted scrutiny by international human rights organizations. Some criticism is deserved, Mr. Watts says, but it also can be excessive. ''Romania gets a bad rap in the sense that the Gypsy problem is present throughout Central Europe, and Romania gets most of the blame,'' he says. Romanian President Ion Iliescu, in a written response to questions posed by the Monitor, expressed his frustration with international criticism. He said Gypsies were not persecuted because of their ethnicity and suggested that Romania was being unfairly singled out. ''Ninety percent of Romanian illegal immigrants, expelled without much concern for human rights, from France, Germany and other countries happen to be Gypsies: None of them are expelled for being a Gypsy, or a Romanian citizen, but for having infringed the law. ''They come back to Romania and are likely to have the same attitude toward the law: Why is it that, for the same deeds, in Romania they are considered victims of ethnic persecution, and in France, Germany or elsewhere, they are considered mere criminals?'' Watts said government programs to ease tension were likely to be a long time in maturing But he cites one successful program that organizes informal discussions between Gypsies and police, who have been criticized for looking the other way when Gypsies are attacked. Although Gypsy activists in Bucharest praise the police-contact program, they say the Romanian government encourages discrimination. They point to a recent government initiative to classify Gypsies as tigan in official documents. Many Gypsies say tigan is a derogatory term for the minority and implies that Gypsies are second-class citizens. ''It's a xenophobic move,'' says Mr. Vasile, the head of the Gypsy nonprofit group. Most Gypsies prefer to be officially known as Roma, but government leaders in Bucharest oppose this, saying it is easily confused with Romanian. ''We must define them precisely, as they are not Romanian,'' Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu says. ''We want to integrate them, but it is difficult,'' he says. ''They create problems abroad by distorting the image of Romania.'' But Vasile says the problem will only grow if the government drags its feet. He argues that Western states should do more to fix the problem before it becomes their own: ''Western countries won't be able to protect themselves forever. People will start to migrate when conditions in their home countries become intolerable.'' . * Last in a five-part series on Europe's minorities. Parts one through four ran Aug. 17, 22, 24, and 29.