Romania's government has caused outrage among Romany or Gypsy communities and organizations after it asked Parliament in Bucharest to accept a proposal to change the official name of the Romany from Roma, which means "man" in the Romany language, to Tigan, which comes from the Greek term for "untouchable."
The government says the name change is necessary because of the possible confusion among the international community between the words Roma which refers to the Romany ethnic minority and Romania, a nation proud of its historical status as the last colony of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the Romanian Academy, whose role is to protect the Romanian culture and language, supports the move on the grounds that many countries in the European Union use a variation of the word Tigan to refer to their Gypsy populations.
"Imagine if a U.S. Congressman proposed to change the name Afro-American back to the insulting term n_____," said David Mark, director of the Roma Civic Alliance in Bucharest, speaking to TIME at a protest outside the government headquarters last week. "It would cause a huge scandal and that Congressman would probably have to resign."
The controversial proposal was put forward by maverick lawmaker Silviu Prigoana, a member of Romania's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who claims he is acting on behalf of several Romany groups from Transylvania that, he says, told him "they don't like to use the word Roma." When asked by TIME to provide the names of these groups, Prigoana refused, saying only that they are "those Gypsy fellows in Transylvania who wear the big hats" meaning the Hungarian-speaking Romany groups who go by the collective name of Gabor.
Prigoana denies accusations that he's acting on the orders of Romania's President, Traian Basescu, who recently stated on public radio that the introduction of the politically correct term Roma in 1995 at the recommendation of Romania's Foreign Ministry was "a big mistake." The President went on to say, "Many Europeans are confused by the terms Roma and Romania. They wonder if it is an ethnicity or a nation of 22 million citizens." The government has never made any attempt to explain the difference between the words to the international community probably because Romanians would rather not be associated with the Roma at all or to promote Romania as a multiethnic country with a large minority population (there are an estimated 1.5 million Roma and a similar number of Hungarians in the country).
According to Romani Criss, a leading Romany organization, the government never consulted with representatives of the Roma minority about the name change which could incur the wrath of human-rights organizations, since the right of minorities to choose their own name is enshrined in international law. "Self-determination is the right of a people to determine its own destiny," reads the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
In a protest letter sent to the recent Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Kazakhstan, where heads of state met last week to discuss human rights and regional security, 24 Romany groups stated that the name Tigan "is associated in the collective memory of the Roma with the slavery that existed in Romania from 1385 to 1856, and also the forced deportations in WW2." The OSCE had already criticized Romania for trying to classify its Romany minority as Tigan once before, 15 years ago.
Unlike in much of Europe, where far-right, populist sentiment is on the rise, the Roma in Romania face relatively little outright prejudice. At the last general election, in 2008, the extremist parties did not make it into Parliament for the first time in 20 years. Yet the Romanian public supports the name change many resent the Romany for the bad press stemming from the forced deportations out of France and other Western European countries earlier this year. Observers fear the seemingly minor issue of a name change could unleash a new wave of discrimination.
"The proposal is a matter of concern as it would reinforce old stereotypes and prejudice," wrote Andrzej Mirga, head of the OSCE's contact point for Roma issues, in an exclusive statement sent to TIME. "It would also be inconsistent with Romania's international obligations. The preferences of the Roma in Romania as to how they want to be referred to should be respected. After all, [the use of the word Roma] was a conscious political decision precisely to move away from stereotypes equaling Tigan with crime [and] poverty."
With Parliament unlikely to make a decision on the proposed name change until next year, the protest movement against the legislation is building. Romani Criss director Madga Matache tells TIME, "We are speaking to our lawyers, working on legal challenges to the Romanian Academy, and we are talking to OSCE and the Council of Europe, who I am sure will support us in this struggle." Romany groups continue to lobby in Bucharest, while activists in Canada have started up a worldwide petition against the legislation to send to Romania's government.
With the dignity of the Romany people and Romania's national identity at stake, a lot is riding on the outcome of this semantic clash.