Asked why he dislikes Gypsies, the Romanian replied without the slightest hesitation: "Because they are lazy, they smell bad and they refuse to work."
Contempt for Gypsies, whether destitute or successful, is one of the few remaining similarities among the countries of Eastern Europe.
A Times Mirror poll conducted earlier this year showed that 79% of Hungarians interviewed harbored unfavorable feelings toward Gypsies. The negative rating among Bulgarians was 71%, and among Czechs, an astounding 91% said they disliked Gypsies.
During the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, Gypsies were often forced into remote ghettos, euphemistically referred to as collective workers' housing. The Prague government paid Gypsy women to be sterilized in a campaign to curb the growth of their population, according to Horvath, the Gypsy leader in Hungary's Parliament. Industrial cities with large numbers of Gypsies, such as Teplice, north of Prague, have become hotbeds of crime and magnets for extremist attacks.
Even in Germany, and most pronouncedly in the prosperous western areas, 59% of the poll respondents said they had unfavorable attitudes toward Gypsies.
"Everyone Hates the Gypsies," summed up the main headline in a report last year by the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. As conditions in their traditional strongholds in southeastern Europe have decayed and driven more westward, this antipathy has grown.
"It's a question of history," said Herbert Leuniger, spokesman for the German minority rights organization Proasyl. "They've always been a rejected people. Like the Jews, they've always been seen as scapegoats."
The Soviet Union's quarter-million Gypsies have been increasingly oppressed as nationalism has spread in recent years, and Bulgaria's roughly half-million Gypsies are treated even worse than the 1 million minority Turks.
Gypsies enjoyed a more respectable status in Yugoslavia during the latter years of Marshal Tito's Communist rule. They were generally accepted in the Balkans' ethnic crazy quilt and allowed to study and teach in their own language.
But Tito's death and the gradual erosion of what proved to be a veneer of ethnic tolerance have exposed Yugoslavia's Gypsies to the worst of the raging conflict. Unlike other ethnic groups driven from their homes by the roving combatants, Gypsies are seldom allowed into refugee camps set up along Hungary's southern border.
Both Serbs and Croats have abused the Gypsies, sometimes drawing them into the fight with empty promises of a share of the spoils--captured housing--at the end of the war.
One night in early December, a drama unfolded at a Gypsy settlement in the Croatian village of Torjanci, on Hungary's border. But the fantastic and contradictory stories told by the Gypsies given refuge by Serbs in nearby Beli Manastir defied any determination of what actually occurred.
"The Ustasha (the name given Croatia's World War II fascists) attacked our village, and my husband is missing," declared Djulca Bogdan, a thin woman in a black lace kerchief who described herself and the 156 others given shelter in the community basketball court as "Catholic Croatian Gypsies."
"They burned a horse alive," another woman added.
"And they slit the throat of a dog and said, 'This is what we do to (Serbian) Chetniks!' " a third insisted as the entire gymnasium got into the recollection act.
Reciting as if from a script, the Gypsies claimed that three of their fellow villagers had been killed, then gradually upped the death toll to 10.
They said the attackers were Croatian fighters disguised in federal army uniforms who had slipped in through Hungary in a commandeered truck, although there is no road into Torjanci from Hungary. The chorus of witnesses claimed that the invaders had mined their houses, then said their houses had been burned and that the attackers had stopped in the middle of the melee to inject themselves with drugs.
"They killed my son," said Eva Ivanovic, as if suddenly remembering. "They shot him with dum-dum bullets when I wasn't more than 100 meters away."
A Serbian journalist who had begun taking notes on the reported atrocity smiled as he tucked away his notebook.
"Gypsies!" he said, with both disgust and amusement. "They can be manipulated to say anything. Who knows what really happened?"
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Berlin contributed to this article.
EUROPE'S SHADOW PEOPLE
ORIGIN: Gypsies are believed to have migrated from India more than a millennium ago, settling first in Persia, then arriving in Europe in 13th or 14th Century. Name "Gypsy" was mistakenly applied by medieval Europeans who thought all dark-skinned people came from Egypt.
NUMBERS: Routinely underestimated in census-taking because they often claim other nationalities, Gypsies are believed to number between 8 million and 10 million worldwide. Half-million are believed to have been killed in Adolf Hitler's extermination camps during Holocaust.