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The Roma Court in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe
Elena Marushiakova & Veselin Popov
The presence of inter-group self-government, carried out by a specific institution still continues to be, as in the past, a main characteristic feature in the lives of many (but by far not all) Roma groups in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe. This specific institution appears in a number of rather varied Roma groups who live in these vast territories. It clearly displays their ethnic specificity and defines and distinguishes the separate sub-structures of the Roma ethnic community, since the presence or absence of a similar institution and its form and functions define to a great extent the very character of the Roma group (the main structural unit of the Romani community).
The most common designation for the Roma court is kris (i.e. court in Romanes). The designation kris is characteristic mainly for Roma groups of the Kelderari (Kăldărari, Kalderaš and so on) and the Lovari / Lovara not only in the regions in question, but also in many other countries in the world. The Kelderari and the Lovari nowadays live in Romania (mainly in Transylvania), Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, in the countries of the former USSR (mainly in the Russian Federation, and also in Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania), and in the former Yugoslavia (specifically in Serbia, as well as some Lovari in Croatia). The term kris is also used by their closely related groups or (more or less) separated subgroup divisions, for instance Čurari, Posotari, Kherari, Khangljari, Colari, Drizari, Mašari, Cerhara and others in Hungary, as well as Bougešti, Drizari and others in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (who are usually known to researchers collectively as Lovari). In the last few decades large parts of these groups (mainly from the former Yugoslavia) have migrated to different countries in western Europe, as for instance Kalderaš in Austria, Lovari and Khajnjara in Italy and so on.
Quite often other designations for the Roma court are met among the different Roma groups in the whole region. In Bulgaria among a segmented community referred to by the general name Kardaraši / Kaldaraši (the self-appellation Řom Ciganjak means “the true, the proper Gypsies”), the term used is mešere or mešare or mešarjava, and more rarely (in north-eastern Bulgaria) the terms žudikate or dalavjara are also used. Among communities closely related to them who are frequently called Lâješi or Čori (the self-appellation is Řom Ciganjak) in the Romanian region of Dobrudzha, the term žudikate is used. The term žudikate is also used by a segmented community, known in what is today the Republic of Moldova under the general name Lejaši (the self-appellation Řom Ciganjak is also used) who are referred to as Katunarja in Bessarabia and in southern Moldova, as Čokenarja in northern Moldova and as Kišinjovci in Russia and Ukraine (after migrating there). In a number of cases among the different Roma groups on the territory of what is today Romania where a Roma court exists (for example, Kazandži, Džambaša, Zlatara, Aržentari, Korbeni, Karamidari and others, often known under the umbrella terms of Pletoši, Lâješi or Kortorari) the designations žudikatе and kris are used as doublet forms. Along with this a certain territorial division exists when using these two designations - in Wallachia and Moldova žudikate is used more often, while in Transylvania (even among the same groups) the situation is exactly the opposite, as the usage of the term kris prevails. Sometimes the designation divano is met, used as the second or third term among different groups, as well as the term stabor. The latter is used in some places in Transylvania in the more general sense of community meeting.
In the countries of the former USSR, kris is used only by Kelderari and Lovari, and žudikatе is used only by Kišinjovci. Regarding the Ruska Roma, a group widely spread throughout the entire former Soviet Union, the term most commonly used is sendo / syndo. The same terms are used by Servi in Ukraine and Russia, as well as by the Vlaxi and Plaščuni in southern Russia and eastern Ukraine. Today, among various Roma groups that have settled in the countries of the former Soviet Union the terms syndo or sudo are gaining ground, as are the terms sxodka and razborka. Among the Ursari in Moldova the term used is globa. The Krimurja, who migrated from the Balkans in the 18th century to the Crimea and who are today widely spread throughout Ukraine and Russia, use the designation davija. Some Roma groups in Kosovo (e.g. Gurbeti, Maljoko) use the word plečnija. In spite of the Albanian term used, this institution among Roma bears form and functions of a Roma court and differs from the Albanian Council of Elders.
ROMA GROUPS WITH AND ROMA GROUPS WITHOUT A ROMA COURT
Notwithstanding the wide spread of the Roma court among different groups in central and eastern Europe, there are many other Roma groups living in these regions without the institution of the Roma court. These groups have no memory of ever having had such an institution. In general, the number of Roma in central and eastern Europe who do not know a Roma court is approximately two or three times larger than that of the Roma who have a court (the exact factor is difficult to determine as the precise number of Roma in the region is unknown). Additionally, the proportion varies in the individual states and cultural-historical regions. For instance in the Balkans, as well as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the number of communities where a Roma court exists does not exceed 5 to 10% of the whole Roma population; in Romania and Hungary, their share is about one quarter to one third of the whole population; in the countries of the former USSR, a Roma court exists in practically all of the Roma communities, except for those who have a preferred ethic identity such as Rumungri in Transcarpathia (part of them are Hungarian-speaking Madjari), as well as the Tatar-speaking Dajfa / Tajfa in the Crimea and Romanian-speaking Vlaxija and Lingurari in the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
It is necessary to determine a commonly valid criterion to distinguish those Roma among whom the Roma court exists and is actively practiced from those among whom it does not exist (and without recollection about its past existence). The examination of the field material shows clearly that neither the way of life – nomadic, semi-nomadic or settled – nor mode of marriage (through elopement or arranged marriage), nor Romani dialect or language are such criteria.
ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ROMA COURT
This basic conceptual idea which predetermined the form and manner of how the Roma court functions is above all the concept of consensus. Every ruling of this court would not only have been adopted unanimously by the members of the court, but by the entire community as well (including the defendants). If a consensus were lacking, the very institution of the Roma court could not exist, as no other mechanism exists which could carry out its rulings. The presence of the common, basic conceptual idea of consensus also predetermined the similarity of the numerous Roma courts, and as a result only slight differences have occurred in its forms and its manner of functioning among the different Roma groups.
The composition of the Roma court is identical in the various Roma groups in the regions which were investigated - it includes the most authoritative and respected people from the group. All of the judges of the Roma court in the region are approached ad-hoc for each court session. The composition of the Roma court is not consistent and participation in the court is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Naturally, the most respected members of the community are invited to take part in the court much more often, but this does not make them members due to hereditary positions, nor permanent members of the Roma court. It is mandatory that the members of the Roma court be men, although occasionally it has been reported that, against tradition, some individual respected women have been invited to be judges, but this is usually the exception. The informants point out the possibility of participation of women in Roma court in principle, sometimes even they speak about such legendary or half-legendary women, but this is always quoted as an exception.
The number of judges is not fixed, but depends on the complexity of the case, and the number of judges can be increased or reduced. Various figures are known, from a minimum of three, most often 11-15, to a maximum of 21-25 persons. The larger courts, however, belong more to the past, and the trend today is to keep the number of judges participating low. The composition of the court is determined in a similar way by the different Roma groups. The plaintiff announces that he will “gather the people” i.e. “a court hearing” is called. Respected people who are to resolve the issue are invited, and the person being called before the court is notified. The defendant also has the right to invite other respected people. Today this tradition in Bulgaria and in Romania has seen some formalisation, nevertheless it still functions in the spirit of consensus - both parties agree to invite the same number of people, and an agreement by both parties is reached on the odd member of the court.
Most often the problems of a given Roma community are resolved within the community itself; i.e. the members of the court who are invited are members of the community. In very serious cases of conflict where the community is concerned about any bias of the judges, even members of other Roma groups can be invited to become judges. This is, however, relatively rare.
In a dispute between the members of various Roma groups, it is mandatory that the court is mixed. The possibilities of holding such a mixed court, however, is acceptable only to “respectable” groups, i.e. Romani-speaking (ex)nomads; The possibility of holding a mixed court with groups of lower standing who are not considered respectable (i.e. settled groups, and/or groups, who have lost their language) is categorically rejected (often because they are simply unaware of the institution).
The time after the political changes in 1989 in the region saw some changes in the holding of the Roma court, mostly as a result of different factors such as the opening of the borders and establishment and/or re-establishment of contacts between some related Roma groups from different countries and migration to western European countries. In recent years, an increasing number of cases of transnational Roma courts have been summoned in order to make decisions on marriage problems among Roma living in different countries have been reported.
The procedure of carrying out the Roma court in the region of central and eastern Europe is quite similar. The members of a Roma court have to be invited with “due respect”, i.e. their travel costs are covered (including air travel in the Soviet Union) and frequently they are brought in to the hearing by car. They are invited to a sumptuous meal and if necessary, they are provided with accommodation. Initial court expenses are covered by the plaintiff, although at the end usually the guilty party has to cover these costs or part of them as part of the verdict.
There are differences in the region with regard to payment of the judges for their work. In Bulgaria it is called denguba and is regarded as compensation for the days spent for trial. In Romania the term used is vâtrârit and the judges are paid for their decision and the days spent. For Roma groups around the former Soviet Union it is considered to be absolutely inappropriate to pay for the court, only the expenses of judges are covered. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the contrary, the money for the court is given and counted publicly by the chair of the trial in the beginning of the process in front of the community.
A court may be held at any appropriate location e.g. a big room in one’s own house, in a courtyard, on a meadow, in a restaurant rented for the purpose, in a specially prepared tent, and in some cases (in Romania and Bulgaria) at a stadium for cases which provoke great community interest. Any member of the Roma group who so wishes may be present at the hearing, including women and children. The proceedings are directed by the most authoritative member of the court, however his standing is as a rule not institutionalised, i.e. he is Primus inter pares.
When the trial starts, both parties present their position, followed by a discussion by the court participants - circumstances are clarified, witnesses are summoned by both parties, etc. In the course of the hearings judges are the ones who most often take the floor, yet anyone present has the right to speak, to give evidence, or back their opinion on the relevant question by citing past examples. Discussions are not limited by time, and especially in difficult cases the hearing may take several days. The main aim is to bring the parties’ positions closer and to allow for a consensus to be reached through mutual compromise. After the judges decide that a common position has been established, they hold consultations, formulate a decision which is acceptable to everyone involved, and then publicly declare it (usually this is done by the most respectable among them).
The decision of the Roma court always involves money - a specified sum (either gold or a foreign currency) which is paid to the aggrieved party or as compensation for an unjust accusation. Decisions are always in line with the financial possibilities of the offender against whom the ruling has been made, and they may be given a certain period of grace for paying the sum. The main purpose of this approach is to guarantee that the poorer members of the community are able to continue to live normally and to develop their own “business” (no matter of what kind) and not to drop out of the community, which would be imminent if they were impoverished and socially marginalised.
The ruling of the Roma court cannot be called into question as this would be seen as contempt of court. In practice, however, the court ruling may be appealed against in all Roma groups in the region, without affecting the authority of the judges. This is done by pointing to procedural grounds such as new circumstances or the appearance of new witnesses, which may require another hearing. At the second hearing, the judges who are invited are usually new and there are usually more people of greater authority present. A third hearing of one and the same case is also possible, however this is not socially acceptable - a pronouncement by such a large number of people with authority has to be respected. Although there is no clearly stated rule forbidding it, there have not been any cases of more than three hearings. Generally, appeals against a decision of the court are more frequent among Roma in Bulgaria, Romania, less so in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while in the former Soviet Union this is rather the exception.
TAKING AN OATH
In all of the Roma groups in the region in question there is one last and most reliable method of establishing the truth in cases where the information gathered is not clear or when statements by witnesses are contradictory. This is the taking of an oath in public (xas sovlax, žas te solaxares, etc.), before the Roma court in a ritualised form with some nuances among individual groups.
In the former Soviet Union the oath is taken before an icon, most often that of St. Nicholas Taumaturgetos (the Miracle Maker) who is considered to be the patron saint of the Roma in this vast territory. The taking of an oath is an event which takes place where the Roma court is held, before a household icon or a church icon. In Romania and Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary the oath is taken in a church, most often before the icon of the Virgin, in Romania and Bulgaria often in the presence of a priest. The group of Šanxajci or Kitajcurja from Odessa (former Kelderari from Odessa, who lived in China for several decades) take the oath before an icon and it is obligatory that this shall be done in front of a burning fire. In Bulgaria in many cases the Kardaraši (from the Njamci subgroup) take the oath near a monastery and/or near a river, as it is thought that the strongest oath is sworn in still water or a swamp, and it is good if there is an old bridge, sometimes stepping into the water, sometimes nude from the waist downwards. In Bulgaria in particular, the oath is taken over a cross, smeared with fat - it is thought that this is the strongest oath; in Romanian Dobrudzha the strongest oath is taken on sheep suet. In Bulgaria the oath is most recently taken on two wooden sticks in the shape of a cross with two cigarettes placed over the cross (the cigarette symbolizing tar, i.e. fire). After the oath the person who has taken it has to smoke the cigarettes in public. In Transylvania “the oath is made on the cross, water, earth and fire holding a lit candle”. The Krimurja in Russia and Ukraine, who are Muslim, can take the oath in the yard of a mosque, however the oath is more often taken over a loaf of bread. The Muslim Roma from Bulgaria take the oath over a loaf of bread too and Muslim Roma from Kosovo often take the oath on the holy Koran. Each oath across the whole region finishes with an enumeration of the severe consequences which would befall them in the event of perjury. Generally speaking, all Roma groups believe that perjuring oneself while the taking the oath will lead to all kinds of misfortunes in the near future. Since the taking of an oath is an extremely serious instrument in ascertaining the truth, nothing can be disputed after an oath is taken and the final decision of the Roma court is made.
EXECUTION OF COURT DECISIONS
In practice, a ruling of the Roma court is binding. The Roma court has no law enforcement institutions to ensure the implementation of the ruling and the sanctions it contains. In a community like the Roma where the power of public opinion within one single community and of the social relations within it have predominance over the individual, it appears that the institution of the Roma court is much more efficient than all legal institutions of contemporary society with their means of coercion and huge budgets.
The decision arrived at by consensus is something which cannot be ignored, as this would be seen not only as exceptionally disrespectful towards authoritative people in the community, but also towards the Roma community as a whole. The inevitable and unavoidable punishment for such behaviour would be the forced expulsion from the community. This is also the main motivation for people to obey the rules - no one wishes to be an outcast from their community, or from their immediate circle, which for a Rom is the equivalent of social death.
CLASSIFICATION OF THE CASES HEARD BEFORE THE ROMA COURT
Cases heard before the Roma court can be divided into a number of basic categories. This classification is not absolute and in practice these categories cannot be clearly outlined. Yet such a formalised classification helps to understand the essence of the phenomenon.
A. DISPUTES CONCERNING ECONOMIC INTERESTS
These are the most frequent disputes which are settled by the Roma court in all Roma groups. Both today and in their nomadic past these court settlements have varied greatly. They include a broad sphere of economic and commercial activities, which is to be expected considering the exceptional flexibility of the Roma (especially the groups under question here) in search of niches where there is a potential for gain. Thus, the Roma court could be convened in connection with encroachments into the economic market, unfair competition, undercutting, poaching, unpaid debts, etc. Indeed, these were the main reasons for convening the Roma court in the nomadic past, only the types of economic activities have changed.
B. DISPUTES RELATED TO FAMILY
A variety of cases fall under this category in which cases chiefly deal with relations between families who have concluded a marriage - for instance compensation if the bride is not a virgin, trying to find out why she is not a virgin, finding solutions or compensation if after marriage she escapes to her parents or to another man, conflicts between husband and wife, or between daughters and mothers-in-law etc. In these cases the court agreement is about the price which has already been paid for the daughter-in-law - should it be returned, what amount, and should there be some form of compensation for moral losses, etc.
Generally, Roma groups in the countries of the former Soviet Union rarely turn to a Roma court on such occasions, their aim is to settle matters within the two extended families and not to bring the issue before the community. The court is more often summoned in such cases among the Kelderari and the Lovari because they have the custom of paying a price for a bride, but only within the group. However, among Roma groups in Bulgaria and Romania court settlements on such occasions are a regular phenomenon (about half of the cases). Probably the main factor for explaining these differences is the fact that arranged marriages involving paying a price for a bride among Roma groups in Bulgaria and Romania are customary, while among Roma in the former Soviet Union such payments are comparatively rare - they are customary only among the Krimurja, and in a more or less oblique form among Kelderari and Lovari, and generally is absent among the rest of the groups.
C. MORAL AND ETHICAL DISPUTES
The calling of the Roma court on such moral issues can be found all over the regions that were investigated, however in general it is rare. Several variants are possible. In principle, cooperation with the authorities is sufficient reason for a court examination of the case, which is especially strongly underlined by Roma groups living in the countries of the former USSR. Yet for practical purposes, the Roma court is convened with such accusations only when people are affected or above all when specific economic interests are at stake. During Roma court hearings not only the fact of the cooperation itself is discussed, but also its consequences - e.g. economic losses to a specific member of the community who initiates the court hearing. Thus the formulation of such inadmissibility is left on a rather “ideological” level, while in life things are, as always, much more complicated. The court is convened more often in cases of conflict or situations where someone’s prestige or name has suffered, as prestige and name for these Roma are seen as exceptionally important things. Often cases concerning moral questions go hand in hand with those regarding family relations.
D. PROBLEMS CONCERNING THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY (OR PARTS THEREOF)
The calling of the Roma court on such occasions is considered possible by all Roma groups, yet for practical purposes this is exceptionally rare. Such cases recently happened in Russia when the Roma court, startled by cases of drug addiction among young Roma, locally ordered a ban on the sale of drugs, which was a reflection on the community itself. An interesting variation on the idea of the Roma court for resolving problems of an entire Roma community was the proposal by a well-known Roma leader in Moscow to summon a sxodka with respected people from all Roma groups, in order to elect the appropriate leaders of the Roma movement and Roma civic organisation.
IMPORTANCE AND PERSPECTIVES OF THE ROMA COURT
The Roma Court has played an exceptional part in the lives of many Roma groups living in the region of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe. The presence (or absence) of a Roma court is a clear marker differentiating Roma from the remaining settled Roma communities and from the surrounding population. This is also expressed by the Roma themselves where the institution is based. The Roma court is a typical and effective mechanism of their ethno-social organisation; it is an active social regulator, controlling and blocking deviant behaviour in a given community and guaranteeing its sustainability.
Seen from a historical perspective it appears that the presence of a Roma court has become the most reliable means for the preservation of the community’s ethnic identity and ensures the survival of its endogamy. Moreover, the presence of a common Roma court in the countries of the former Soviet Union has contributed to the development of a consciousness of a pan-Romani unity which in this region has a markedly stronger presence than anywhere else in the world. In other words, the Roma court is essentially an active factor in the development of the community.
Despite the old time character of the institution, it too is subject to change. Roma communities, with their own way of life, are predestined to live within an alien macro society; it is only natural that they cannot be completely isolated. In spite of this we could hardly expect the Roma court to disappear, as in many cases it is the only (or at least the most important) core element which consolidates and preserves a given Roma community. Nevertheless, the principle of consensus, which is the underlying concept of the Roma court, is increasingly in contrast with the development of modern civilisation which is built and functions on other principles and norms. Thus, the prospects for the Roma court remain unclear, and to a great degree depend on the perspectives for the overall development of the Roma community.
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