Aladár Horváth in Washington: the Roma issue in perspective

Aladár Horváth, a former SZDSZ member of parliament and chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation, is spending a few months in the United States. A couple of weeks ago he gave a lecture in Washington entitled Hungary: From Bad to Worse/End of the Republic, Rise of Barbarism.

You may recall that there was quite an argument over Richard Field, the American businessman who initiated the evacuation of the Roma women and children on Good Friday from the beleaguered village of Gyöngyöspata where a paramilitary organization called Defense Force (Véderő) decided to perform military exercises. Whatever one's views of Field's action–and he was pilloried by the right, he certainly called attention to the plight of the Roma in Hungary.

In his lecture Horváth concentrated on how it could happen that twenty years after the change of regime democracy has failed in Hungary. How is it possible that  Viktor Orbán and his party can rather easily dismantle all the democratic institutions and for all practical purposes be in the process of establishing a one-party rule?

According to Aladár Horváth the problems started right after the change of regime. One of the problems was that the parties involved didn't pay enough attention to the modern meaning of "nation." At the same time they missed the opportunity to inculcate into the hearts and minds of the people the notion of the "republic" and what it means. In addition, they neglected a most important question: the integration of the Roma. They were not paying attention to the huge regional differences within the country. These two last topics are interconnected: Gypsies live in the most backward areas of the country.

When it came to minority issues the leaders of the new regime didn't dismantle the old structures. The Roma problem was still handled as a police matter only. The minority self-governing bodies that were set up were no more than institutions of ethnic separation. Among the parties there was no agreement about how to handle the most serious social problems of the Roma: chronic unemployment, segregation, and official discrimination.

After Hungary joined the European Union a sizable amount of money was spent on various projects, yet economic and social tension within the country grew instead of decreasing. The schools became more and more segregated, and the differences between localities became more and more glaring. The money was spent mostly on the maintenance of organizations on the state, regional, or county levels. Only morsels were spent on real projects, and these morsels went to the better-off communities. There was practically nothing done with the most poverty-stricken villages where most of the Roma lived.

Thus social problems became "ethnicized." Poverty, deviance, and criminality received "a Gypsy face," and as a result the far-right had an easy time of it. Jobbik began its anti-Gypsy rhetoric in 2006 and by 2008-2009 it led to a series of murders. The democratic parties were "the captives of their racist constituencies" and therefore they didn't raise their voices loudly enough against Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard.

Horváth claims that the 2002-2008 period didn't bring any measurable change in governmental attitude toward the Roma. The socialists, according to him, were indifferent and without a plan while the liberals believed in the trickle-down effect which didn't happen. Therefore it wasn't too surprising that the inhabitants of the poorest regions of the country became attracted to the right or even extreme-right parties. That included even the Roma. According to a poll by Szonda Ipsos 80% of the Gypsies voted for Fidesz because of their disappointment with the socialists. Fidesz's promise of 1 million jobs also made the party attractive to Gypsies who still remembered the good old days of János Kádár when 80% of them were gainfully employed.

Nonetheless, the Orbán government, says Horváth, has taken steps that make the life of the Roma even more difficult. The flat tax is advantageous to the well-off and disadvantageous to the poor. Even smaller offenses are harshly punished. The government introduced the controversial California legal invention, the mandatory "three strikes" law. They give tax breaks based on the number of children in the family, but the law is written in such a way that few Roma qualify. Lowering the mandatory age to stay in school to sixteen from eighteen might entice some Roma boys and girls to drop out of school. And one could continue.

Finally, Aladár Horváth talked about the Orbán government's plans for building large projects such as stadiums, reservoirs, and dams with absolutely unskilled labor comprised mostly of Gypsies. The workers would be supervised by retirees from the police force and the armed forces who would have to give up their pensions and return to work. The whole thing, as we have already discussed, is a nightmare. Horváth called them "forced labor camps" (munkaszolgálat), known from the war years.

It's always beneficial to hear Roma leaders talk about the problems of their own people. Democratically sound solutions are, of course, very difficult to come by. 


  1. I was fortunate to attend. I live in the area and my office was pretty close to the place.
    I was really impressed with Horvath. Very intelligent guy. Johnny Boy will probably throw in the usual anti-Hungarian bullshit about somebody traveling abroad and “smearing” the Great Homeland. That’s not Horvath. He didn’t just want to give us the low-down on the Orban government – he saw the problem of the socially disadvantaged (mostly Roma) in general and held responsible all the Hungarian governments since 90 and even beyond. He equally chided all flavors of the political spectrum including his own party the SzDSz. In his opinion the “world citizen” concept of the SzDsz didn’t work with population. He seemed to be fairly gloomy about Hungary’s state. He came through, I’d say, a bit depressing.
    Regarding the 80% of Roma who voted for the Fidesz. In his opinion the Roma voters rather voted from fear. They picked the FIDESZ to escape the Jobbik in most of the places. Also he mentioned something interesting about the MszP. The MSzP, in an attempt to appeal to their older voters, those who actually are very close to the Jobbik, built in some anti-Roma rhetoric into their election campaign, mainly along the lines of the “high number of children – pulling benefits without work” excrement tauri. That didn’t help with getting Roma votes.
    I was afraid that some of the local “turul troopers” will show up in the meeting to wreak havoc, like in Stockholm recently, but the audience, mostly Hungarians, were very civilized. Some people (they looked like church ladies) didn’t seemed to be sympathetic at all to the Roma and asked a few steep questions “why don’t they travel farther to get work” or somebody said that they are all pick-pockets. But again in a very civilized manner (it was hard to believe we are all Hungarian). Horvath, who is a Roma himself, answered these questions very calmly. Again I was really impressed.
    I have only one suggestion to him. He should take a few classes in public speaking. It’s soo heart breaking, to see people who pack so much intellectual punch, being partly ineffective on stage. I think Agnes Heller was the same a few month ago, if you remember the video.
    Again. He’s a great guy. I really enjoyed the meeting. Many thanks for the organizers.

  2. “Hungary: From Bad to Worse/End of the Republic, Rise of Barbarism.”
    The title more or less says it all.
    Interesting post, Mutt, I wish I’d been there.

  3. Excellent report, Mutt. The Roma problem is perhaps the biggest problem Hungary faces, bigger than the economic crisis. Even if the economy turns around and hums like a well oiled machine, the Roma still find themselves outside the Hungarian society and will see little benefit from it.
    Learning from the American Civil Rights advance of the last 50 years, the first thing that has to happen is for Hungarians to wake up and recognize that the Roma problem is a Hungarian problem. Instead of demonizing the Roma as born criminals, somehow an inferior race, incapable of progress, recognizes that Hungarian society has long shunned them, relegated them to the periphery and washed their hands from blame.

  4. Eva: Democratically sound solutions are, of course, very difficult to come by.
    I believe this is the real problem. Mr. Horvath like many other Hungarians suffer what I call the Hungarian sickness, or better “Problema van” sickness.
    The Hungarians are unmatched in identifying, describing and analyzing problems. But unable to find alternatives to the solution of the problem, and selecting from these alternatives, except when the solution is their own pocket.
    I am not certain whether this is a mentality (afraid of being penalized) or education issue, perhaps both. In my experience Hungarians can solve problems, once you lift the burden of penalization. However, they still need a lot of guidance.
    As to the Roma issue. Forced labour camps, demonization, etc. does not work and will never work. So what is the solution?
    I do not believe that this will be a quick solution, but acceptance that it is a Hungarian problem helps. Also the Roma should take their responsibility and come with solutions or at least how to start solving this problem.
    This last point will be the toughest point to deal with.

  5. Exactly… I sit here in Budapest watching TV not seeing a single obviously Roma face presenting any kind of program at all. I am sure of course that there are such faces and that I am missing a program or two but the overall situation is like this. Public Roma figures talkng authoritatively and intelligently about anything are hard to find… AND NOT BECAUSE THEY DON’T EXIST!!! they just don’t have the opening. The lack of media presence is not the cause of the problems of course (doh!) but it is an indicator of where we stand as a society. Public figures giving positive reference points and examples of Roma culture and life are really needed.

  6. I have seen some Roma on Paprika (cooking channel), and on a really bad reality show thingy that just seemed to pander to everyone’s stereotypes. I do not watch much Hungarian TV but as my kids flick through the channels I spot the odd thing. Serious channels seem to consist of middle to older age Hungarian men saying the Hungarian equivalent of “blah, blah, blah” …

  7. A rehabilitation in honesty would do a lots of good.
    The gipsies in budapest have a fair chance.
    the poverty in small towns is an explosive mine field.
    the virtue of honesty was buried in the gyurcsany – orban rivalry. Add morvaika and vonalka, and it is a poison soup.

  8. You are more and more alone.
    Aladárka may lie as he wishes but the strong contrast between his lies and the EU’s newly accepted EU-wide Roma strategy by Hungary earning appreciation everywhere is really striking.
    Aladárka’s credibility is zero.

  9. It shows that Hungarian concerns are taken to heart when the brightest Hungarians are invited to speak at public events, in universities as guest speakers. THe mirror and smoke approach is very apparent to the likes of Ms Clinton who raised concerns about Hungary’s Roma situation while she welcomed what was put on the paper to show others what to do. THe “solutions” presented to the Eurp is a clear refection about where Hungary stands, that here is a clear “Do what I say, not what I do attitude.” Fidesz’ fans of coures are blinded by the MTI’s filtered reporting. MTI is just like the Fidesz translators or Petofi’s poem on March 15 on the Fidesz’ celebration, the mots important parts are left out for good measures or left for the imagination.
    Do the USA and Canada has African-American and native issues? They do, but they have a very clear approach that starts from the top and spirals down to local levels with accountability installed all the way. For that matter big Universities are high;y responsible for providing scholarships based on various achievements. There are many good reasons why there are so many African-Americans in sports. America. There are talent scouts from elementary level who visit the “lowest” sport events and follows up with kids. Eac elementary has like 10 various sports teams from frisbee through swimming and baseball, soccer, basketball and so forth. THere are robotic teams, dance teams, writer and poem clubs, and the list goes on. THese activities are not outsourced but kept at the school with parent and teacher volunteers. The point is to engage and to find a spot for everyone, and then the teacher focuses on the strengths. It is different in smaller “villages” but some kind of approach from childhood would o the trick. It seems to work here. Big fancy reports written for diplomats to pat each other in the back and show that they earned their money is a joke.

  10. Right, SB, let’s see what you do when I reply very specifically to a post of yours.
    Please can you identify the ‘lies’ you claim Aladár tells and explain why you consider each to be a lie.
    If you can do that, we have a basis for discussion. If you can’t, you reveal yourself as just throwing baseless accusations around because you lack any real basis for an argument.
    Which is it to be?

  11. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you provide some sources and links to back up your claim that the “EU’s newly accepted EU-wide Roma strategy by Hungary” is “earning appreciation everywhere”.
    PS – a key word in the above is ‘everywhere’.

  12. Dearest Eva,
    these days it is no longer enough to write about history; it is about making history. I hate it no less than you do. Just like you I have my own life…I positively hate it, every minute of it.
    Would you please contact Judit Berki, post some of her articles…? I suggested this before. She doesn’t speak English.
    Such as:
    and others.
    What is that old Latin saying from high school? “Don’t waste the benefit of your misfortune”? Something like that.I am Jewish. They wore a different marking at the same time at the same place. We flew over the place /the picture of those F-16’s is still on my desk and thanks here for the Polish Air Force/. Judit doesn’t have an air force.
    Contact my friend Berki Judit. Translate and publish what she said.
    You can find her on Facebook if not otherwise. Please do it.
    Thank you:
    Peter Litvanyi_

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