There were several good stories to choose from this weekend, including a couple of Crimean-themed one: News on the Russia-Crimea Bridge construction; and also Prosecutie Poklonskaya’s new dress. Hopefully I can get to those stories later in the week.
But for today I picked this one, about gypsies. And no, not the Romantic or Operatic Gypsies, like Hugo’s Esméralda; or Azucena from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. No, these are real gypsies, and they live in Tula, Russia, in a town called Plekhanovo.
This piece is written by Petr Akopov.
The story begins with an incident of unrest among the Romani people of Plekhanovo. Angry gypsies attacked the Administration Building, and also threw things at representatives of the gas company (газовщики).
Romani Unrest, the Back Story
The Romani people (fancy name for gypsies) first started settling in the Tula region back in the 1960’s, in Soviet times. So, they have a long-established community here, but the numbers have grown in the last decade or so. One of the reasons being, in the past 15 years, the gypsies started building nice houses with all the modern conveniences, including gas heating. This sedentary lifestyle was found to be attractive, so more and more gypsies arrived to partake of it.
Problem: We are talking something like 180 houses. Of which, around 60 houses are completely legal. And the other 120 houses are illegal. They are built on land which the gypsies do not own. The gypsy families simply seized communal land, to which they did not have any title, and then just up and built houses on it. Since the houses are not legal, the gas cannot be officially turned on. Hence, in order to get the gas, the gypsies illegally tapped into the pipes. The gas company objected to this and tried to put a stop to this illegal syphoning. The gypsies fought back, against the gas company, and against the municipal government. One violent incident brought into full relief the status (mostly illegal) of the gypsy community in Tula; and the perennial question, what to do about these people?
The Tula government officials are to hold a hearing next week and decide whether or not to just demolish the 120 illegal houses. However, if this demolition takes place, then more unrest, and possible violence, will ensue.
The Tula officials are putting out mixed signals, how they will proceed. Last Thursday, the Mayor of Plekhanovo hinted that the city might just “legalize” the 120 houses in question.
But then, on Friday the press liaison of the regional administrative said just the opposite: that the illegal 120 houses will be demolished. But then this plan was said to be just a variant of the Mayor’s, and that both plans envisage a “compactly built” community within Plekhanovo, in which the gypsies can dwell. Neither plan envisages actually expelling the gypsies from the town. They are still going to live in the town, but how? One way is to give them the rights they squatted for: a patch of land, and the houses they built with their own hands. The Romani themselves support this plan, and promise that if this can be done for them, then they will stop stealing gas from the pipes. They say their biggest problem is that they cannot legally get hooked up to the pipes, since their houses are considered illegal. Legalize the houses, legalize the gypsies, hook up the gas meter.
Why Gypsies Like Tula
There are something like 200,000 Romani living in Russia as a whole, of which fully one tenth of them live in the region of Tula, and around 3,000 dwell just in the town of Plekhanovo. Making Plekhanovo probably the largest concentration of gypsies in all of Russia. Known as a “wandering people”, these particular gypsies have adopted a sedentary (i.e., non-nomadic) lifestyle, and do not wander around. Hence, the need to build permanent homes. The main feature of the gypsy lifestyle is that they never engage in farming. They do lots of other stuff, though. The thing which attracted gypsies to Tula in the first place, is its great location: It is near the capital, Moscow, and hence convenient for the types of businesses (mostly illegal or semi-legal) in which gypsies traditionally engage. The gypsies live in a compact and yet mixed community: Living among them also are around 6,000 ethnic Russians. The two ethnic groups are not particularly friendly towards each other: As always, the gypsies stick to themselves and are suspicious of outsiders. However, the gypsies live mostly like the Russians, they have a “pass” (internal visa), and their children attend school.
Gypsies have a reputation (sometimes deserved) for engaging in various scams, and robbery; and the like. However, the greatest problem the gypsies pose to the Tula officials, is their alleged involvement in narco-trafficking. According to Akopov, the Russian grapevine, or neighborhood word-of-mouth (he calls this “sarafan radio”) exagerrates the scale of this narco-traffic problem. And yet, it is not made up either. The problem is there, and it exists. In Soviet times, there were multiple attempts to integrate gypsies into the “Soviet nation”, to socialize these people, and make them one with all the others. And yet even Soviet officials, who were pretty good at ethnic integration, failed at this. The gypsies are simply not socializable or integratable. They are mavericks who abide by their own code, and do not accept “outside” laws as pertaining to them. The European nations have not been able to tame them either. Gypsies have always been their own people. A state within a state. They don’t like other people; and other people don’t like them.
But What Will the Russians Think?
Akopov goes on to say, that attempts to legalize the illegal homes and gas-tapping of the Romani, while one logical solution to the problem, might upset the ethnic Russians who have to live in the same community.
The land taken by the Romani was communal land. Which was supposed to belong to all the residents of Plekhanovo, both Russian and Romani. There is apprehension that ethnic Russians will resent, if gypsies can just come and take common land, build illegally on it, and then receive an amnesty. These are questions of property, and of fairness, which cannot be brushed away with simple formulas, such as “Everybody needs to be tolerant.” Because this is not the same as being tolerant towards another culture or set of beliefs, which Russians have already proved they are. This is more a question of communal justice.
Furthermore, the argument goes, if the gypsies receive amnesty for these illegal acts, then they will just go on and keep doing the bad things that they have been rewarded for doing. If these 120 houses are legalized, then where is the guarantee that a hundred more will not pop up tomorrow?
On the other hand, it is simply not an option to just demolish these 120 houses. We are talking about the lives of 3000 people, who have been members of this community for over 50 years.
Something else must be done. Some compromise must be found.
What Is To Be Done?
This is Akopov’s suggested plan:
- Formalize the concept of gypsy “self-rule”. Grant them autonomy. Deal with the people through their own leadership, their “barons”. Give their communal leaders a guaranteed spot in the municipal government. The gypsy leaders will speak for their people, and at the same time, will be held accountable for the misdeeds of their community.
- Principled struggle against corruption in the organs of power. Corruption is a bad thing in relation to any ethnic community, but especially so when dealing with a diaspora such as the Romani. And not just any diaspora, but, in the case of the gypsies, a diaspora which has a historic inclination to criminality. Corruption and bribe-taking among local officials is one of the root causes of the current problem. Otherwise, how could this illegal construction of homes go on for 15 years with nobody noticing it?
- In the harshest possible manner, the drug-trafficking within the gypsy criminal milieu must be dealt with, and put a stop to. Most gypsies are not engaged in this; but some are; and most of the others know who is doing it. The gypsy code forbids them to snitch on each other. Therefore, it is up to law enforcement to put a stop to this. It won’t be easy to separate the good gypsies from the law-breakers and their criminal businesses. But it has to be done. After all, gypsies are always going to be a part of Russian life, so what else can you do?