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Briefing Surveys Human Rights of Russia's Roma Population
Friday, October 15, 2004

By Erika Schlager
CSCE Counsel on International Law

On September 23, 2004, the United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “The Roma in Russia.”  Panelists included Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director, European Roma Rights Center; Alexander Torokhov, Director, Roma Ural; and Leonid Raihman, a consultant for the Open Society Institute specializing in minority issues in the former Soviet Union.

Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor to the Helsinki Commission, moderated the briefing.  She noted the Commission’s long engagement regarding the human rights problems faced by Roma as well as the overall human rights situation in Russia.  Highlighting the need to examine the particular situation of Roma in Russia, she observed that since Roma “constitute a relatively small part of the Russian population, their plight is often overlooked.”

Dr. Petrova noted that, for the 2002 Russian census, approximately 182,000 individuals identified themselves as Romani.  Unofficial estimates, however, suggest that the number of Roma in Russia is much higher; a figure often cited is 1.2 million.  She argued that the fate of Roma in Russia is emblematic of the racism, xenophobia, and discrimination faced by other ethnic minorities in Russia, particularly Jews and people from the Caucasus region.

In a comprehensive statement, Dr. Petrova outlined nine key areas of concern:  historical and social discrimination against Roma; the legal and institutional context of anti-discrimination legislation; the current political and ideological climate in Russia; the abuse of Roma rights by state actors (primarily the police); the abuse of Roma rights by non-state actors; discrimination in the criminal justice system; the portrayal of Roma in the Russian media; the lack of personal documents; and access to housing and education.

The main focus of Dr. Petrova’s statement concerned abuse by both state and non-state actors.  The main impetus of anti-Roma abuse in Russia is related directly to the ideological “war on drugs.”  People of Roma descent are targeted through racial profiling and various media outlets as illegal drug dealers and are subject to frequent police raids.  The “war on drugs” has also become an excuse for police brutality and racial targeting in which police plant drugs on the Roma or in their homes and then arrest them for the possession of illegal substances.

Dr. Petrova ended her statement with a call for the United States Government “to play a leadership role and use its economic and political weight to help improve the position of Roma in Russia and address the human rights problems of Roma in Russia as a matter of urgency and as a primary concern in combating racial discrimination.”  She asked human rights monitoring agencies both in the United States and in Europe to prioritize Roma rights in Russia and to draw the Russian Government’s attention to Roma issues that are currently not being addressed.

Dr. Torkohov, representing the Ekaterinburg-based Roma Ural, presented his organization’s efforts to monitor media coverage of Roma, examine factors contributing to lower levels of education among Roma, and assist Romani Holocaust survivors obtain compensation through existing programs.

Torkohov offered a number of recommendations to improve the current situation.  With respect to education, he suggested creating preschool programs for Roma children to improve literacy, working with both children and parents to understand the value of education, and facilitating cooperation between parents and schools.  Given the pronounced bigotry against Roma that characterizes portrayals of Roma in the broadcast and print media, he also suggested training journalists to improve their professional skills.

Leonid Raihman focused on ill treatment of Roma by the police, access to justice, and problems associated with the lack of personal documents, including passports.  Endemic corruption among the poorly paid and poorly trained police in Russia has fostered an environment in which Roma are the routine victims of extortion by the police.  This extortion, in turn, contributes to the economic marginalization of Roma.

Raihman also described the serious and complex problem of personal documents for the Roma.  He said the absence of personal documents, as well as the rigid nature of the personal documents system in Russia, represents an aspect of the problem.  However, he felt that ethnicity was the primary reason for problems in obtaining a passport.  “Administration officials,” he stated, “especially in housing and immigration departments abuse the discretionary decision-making power accorded to them by the passport system to discriminate against Roma and members of the vulnerable groups.”

Mr. Raihman urged the U.S. Government to use its power “to persuade the Russian Government to place the human rights problems which the Roma face high on their agenda.”  He stated that it is time for the Russian Government, as well as the rest of the world, to acknowledge and deal with the problems faced by the Roma in Russia.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Judy Abel contributed to this article.

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