Gypsies

The Hungarian government on immigration and emigration

Anyone who bothers to look for figures on immigration into European countries is not going to find much data on Hungary for the simple reason that the number of foreigners living in the country is minuscule. Of course, we all know about large immigrant populations in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, but there is significant immigration even to countries like Finland or Slovenia. In Sweden, to give but a single example, 32,000 people applied for asylum in 2010.

Until very recently both Hungarian immigration and emigration were of low intensity. Foreign-born inhabitants constitute only 4% of the labor force and about 1% of the population as a whole. These foreign-born individuals are almost exclusively of Hungarian ethnicity. They immigrated from the neighboring countries in the last twenty years or so. Lately, however, the number of emigrants to Western Europe from Hungary has grown enormously. Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and the Netherlands are the favorite destinations. At the same time, especially since Croatia became part of the European Union, the immigration routes from the Balkans and the Middle East have changed, and Hungary has become one of the favorite “transit countries” for immigrants wanting to reach countries where economic opportunities are greater. As Péter Mihályi, a well-known Hungarian economist, said the other day, only rich countries have “immigration problems.” Very few immigrants from outside the European Union ever receive permission to settle in Hungary, and the few lucky ones who do immediately pack up and move westward.

According to Hetekthe weekly of the Assembly of Faith (Hitgyülekezet), between 2000 and 2012 only 2,000 to 3,000 people arrived a year, legally or illegally, in Hungary, and as soon as they could, they moved on. But in the last two years these numbers have grown exponentially. Apparently there are days when along the border with Serbia the police arrest 800-1,000 illegals. As for those legally seeking to move to Hungary, in 2013 19,000 immigration applications were received; a year later that number was 43,000. Of these 43,000 potential immigrants only 500 received refugee status.

If it depended on Viktor Orbán, no so-called “economic immigrant” could ever receive permission to settle in Hungary. In fact, if it were up to him, he would stop immigration to Europe altogether. József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament for the last ten years, summarized Fidesz’s position in a recent interview on ATV. The argument goes something like this. Western Europeans in the past fifty years or so became too pampered. They didn’t want to do all the dirty work and therefore either imported guest workers like the Germans or relied on immigration from their former colonies like France and the United Kingdom. And look at the result: terrorism in Europe. This must be stopped.

butterflies

Orbán and his colleagues in Fidesz grossly oversimplify the issue of immigration into the EU. Most economists are convinced that without the Turkish and later Yugoslav guest workers the German economic miracle couldn’t have happened. It is a generally accepted theory that without immigration there can be no economic growth in the western world. This is especially true of Europe where the low birthrate practically mandates a relatively generous immigration policy. Otherwise, soon enough there will be only two wage earners for every retiree. Most European leaders and academics, with the notable exception of Viktor Orbán, maintain that without young immigrants European demographic trends cannot be reversed.

Therefore, the European Union’s current position is that immigration from third-world countries, even if it causes social friction, has great benefits in the long run. According to Péter Mihályi, whom I quoted earlier, “Europe has no future without immigration.” So, if Fidesz were to succeed in stopping all immigration to the country, Hungary’s future would be sealed. The few immigrants accepted into Hungary leave while almost half a million people born in Hungary are currently working abroad, almost exclusively in Western Europe. It is a vicious circle. Hungary is not an attractive country for immigrants, but without immigrants an aging society that cannot reproduce itself is doomed. The problem is only made worse by the large emigration to the West.

A few years back Viktor Orbán himself seemed to have realized this dilemma and went so far as to suggest that ethnic Hungarians should be encouraged to leave Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine and move over to Hungary en masse. Since then, he gave up the idea. It is hard to tell why. Most likely for nationalistic reasons.

There is one more aspect of Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration which he himself did not elaborate on but which József Szájer talked about more explicitly. Orbán mentioned briefly that there are unemployed Gypsies who need jobs. As long as they don’t have employment, Europe should not import people from abroad. Some commentators interpreted this fleeting mention of the Roma as suggesting a possible export of Gypsies from Hungary and other Eastern European countries to the West. Judging from what Szájer said, this is exactly what Orbán has in mind. Szájer pointed out that there are 10 million Gypsies in Europe who could do some of the menial jobs that Western Europeans no longer want to do. If the Roma population of Hungary could be exported to Western Europe, the major socioeconomic problem the Orbán government can’t solve, the integration of the Roma, would disappear. Poof! When the reporter noted that the Roma lack skills necessary for some of the available jobs, Szájer made light of the problem by saying that “they will take care of that.” I guess the “they” are the governments of the countries where these migrants would move.

Finally, I would like to call attention to an interview with Viktor Orbán on Magyar Rádió today in which he explained that those Hungarians who could not find jobs in Hungary and moved to the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and other countries in Western Europe are “not economic immigrants.” They are proud Europeans who have free movement within the boundaries of the European Union. There is no such thing as immigration or emigration within the borders of the European Union. Oh, the duplicity of the man! He has been fiercely defending the sovereignty of nation states for years, but now he is a champion of a single Europe. Of course, strictly speaking he is right: a citizen of an EU country has the right to settle in any of the twenty-eight member states. But when David Cameron complains about too many immigrants, he also has in mind immigrants from the East European countries, including the great number of Hungarians in Great Britain.

The Orbán formula seems to be: we will send our economic migrants to Western Europe while we will not allow anyone into our country because we want to keep Hungary Hungarian.  As for the Hungarian Roma, Western Europe can take care of them. A perfect solution all around.

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József Debreczeni on the Roma question

After describing Bishop Miklós Beer’s efforts on behalf of the Roma minority and publishing the English translation of an article by Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, I think I should mention a book by József Debreczeni entitled Ne bántsd a cigányt!: political vitairat (Don’t hurt the Gypsies: A polemic). A rather odd title that needs some explanation. It echoes the name of a book by Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian-Hungarian politician and writer (1620-1664), Ne bántsd a magyart – Az török áfium ellen való orvosság (Don’t hurt the Hungarians – An antidote to the Turkish poison). In his book Zrínyi wrote: “How it is that you, Hungarians, can see the danger with your own eyes and yet are not awakened from your deep sleep.” Zrínyi was referring to the Turkish danger, but Debreczeni finds the quotation equally applicable to the danger that exists in Hungary today as a result of an uneducated, unassimilated, poverty-stricken underclass with a very high birthrate.

Debreczeni is neither a sociologist nor a historian of the Hungarian Roma. After getting an M.A. in history, he taught high school for a while but then became politically active in the late 1980s. After a short stint as a member of parliament (MDF), he became a freelance writer. He is best known for his biographies of József Antall, Viktor Orbán, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, he wrote two books on Orbán. The first appeared in 2002 a few months after Orbán lost the election and the second in 2009. The title of the second, Arcmás, means “portrait” but the word has two parts: “arc,” “countenance” and “más,” “other.” The message was that the Orbán of 2009 was very different from his earlier self.

Debreczeni considers the “Gypsy question” to be the greatest problem threatening “the existence of Hungarian society,” in which he includes the Roma minority. He highlights three aspects of the problem. First, the increasingly hopeless socioeconomic situation of the Gypsy minority. Second, the growing geographical isolation of Gypsies from non-Gypsies. Third, the demographic problem. The average Hungarian woman bears 1.3 children, a statistic that includes Roma women. Without them, that number is only around 1.0. Gypsy women have on average more than three children, and among the least educated and the poorest that number goes up to more than four. Given the low employment figures among the Roma, if these demographic trends continue Hungary will become “a third world” country. That is, if Hungarian society does not do something to answer the Gypsy question in the next decades.

After the regime change the new political elite was unable to handle the growing problems of the undereducated, unemployed Roma men and women. Just to give an idea of how little attention the new democratic parties paid to the Gypsy question, it was only SZDSZ that mentioned the problem at all in their first party program. But, in Debreczeni’s opinion, they went astray when they looked at it as simply a human rights issue. To “left-liberals” the fault lay only in prejudice and racism. This view became a “dogma,” which in turn became an obstacle to facing facts.

Meanwhile came Jobbik, a far-right party whose popularity was based in large measure on its anti-Gypsy rhetoric. At the EP election in 2009 it got 400,00 votes or 15% of the total. In the same election SZDSZ got a mere 2.16%.

“The democratic, left-liberal, anti-racist Roma politics has failed,” Debreczeni contends. He believes that the continuation of “the intolerant, confrontative, and by now unproductive liberal human rights approach” will lead nowhere and that Hungarians should find a new avenue to offer “a decent, democratic discourse and politics that would assist the integration of the Roma.” “If we can’t find it, we are lost.”

Ne bantsd a ciganytDebreczeni’s book, published two months ago, caused an upheaval in those “left-liberal” circles he criticized. A Roma activist, Jenő Setét, a close collaborator of Aladár Horváth, was the first to speak out against Debreczeni’s book. He complained about the very notion that Gypsies “are different.”

Indeed, Debreczeni, relying on research done by others, does claim that ethnic groups carry cultural baggage that may make them different from other folks. For example, he thinks that Hungarian-Germans are harder working than Hungarians. Gypsies, who until quite recently were self-employed, have a rather lackadaisical attitude toward time since they could work at their leisure. But critics charge that Debreczeni didn’t stop with a description of cultural differences. What upset people most is that he seems to make a value judgment: certain cultures are superior to others.

The second critic was István Hell, who belongs to the group of left-liberals Debreczeni criticizes. He wrote on Galamus that “we have created the current socio-cultural state of the Roma,” and he cites “segregation, limited educational opportunities, and not doing anything about these problems in the last twenty-five years.” The last and most outraged critic, Magdolna Marsovszky, expressed her surprise that such a book, which she considers racist, can be published at all.

Debreczeni answered all three. See his answer to Jenő Sötét in HVG and his article on Hell’s criticism in Galamus. István Hell wanted to continue the debate, but Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, put an end to it, claiming that it is not fair to criticize an author for the opinions of others that he quotes.

Most likely not independently from the appearance of this book, Sándor Friderikusz decided to have a three-part series on the Roma question on his excellent program, Friderikusz, on ATV. The series aired on October 7, November 4, and November 18. I highly recommend these programs, which point out the complexities of the issues.

József Debreczeni is one of the vice-presidents of Demokratikus Koalíció, and therefore some people might consider the opinions expressed in the book to be DK’s position on the issue. However, I’ve seen no sign of either an endorsement or a criticism of Debreczeni’s suggestions on how to handle the Roma question.

The plight of the Hungarian Roma: Writings of a Catholic bishop and a Roma activist

Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác, has been in the news quite a bit lately. He called media attention to himself on September 21 when he asked the priests of the churches in his bishopric to read a letter to his “brethren in Christ.” His circular took as its prompting text the gospel reading for the day, the parable from Matthew 20:1-16 about the householder who hired unemployed workers for his vineyard and gave the same amount of money to all without regard to how much time they spent working during the day. Beer thought it was finally time to talk about the miserable lot of the Roma minority in Hungary.

People were surprised to learn about the circular because until now the Catholic Church has remained quiet about the mass poverty that followed the change of regime in 1990. Gypsies who until then were employed, mostly in the building industry, as unskilled laborers were the first ones to find themselves out of a job, and the integration of Gypsies and non-Gypsies that had begun during the Kádár regime came to a screeching halt. Gypsies today live a segregated existence in villages far from job opportunities, and prejudice against them has grown to new heights.

Beer in this circular was battling prejudice. The Gypsy, he wrote, is also the child of God; “as Christians we cannot pass the responsibility to others.” He emphasized something that few Hungarians accept: “the Gypsies did not seek their misery and cannot raise themselves alone without our help.” What would Christ do today for the Roma in Hungary? The biblical answer is that “although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Magyar Nemzet decided it was time to interview this would-be social reformer. In the interview Beer said a few things that don’t sit well with the majority of Hungarians. “Let’s not be angry with them when perhaps they take produce from someone else’s property because their children are starving since, despite their efforts, they cannot find employment.” Public works might be a first step, but it is not the answer in the long run. He also criticized some of the efforts of the Orbán government–for instance, the programs that cost billions of forints that gave Gypsy families one-day-old chicks or seed potatoes without teaching them how to take care of the chicks or what to do with the seed potatoes. Above all, he said, “we must strengthen their self-esteem.” Since Beer likes to refer to Pope Francis, some journalists started calling him “our Pope Francis.”

Bishop Beer’s latest was his midnight Christmas sermon broadcast on MTV1, which became available on YouTube two days later. He talked about the darkness that will be followed by light. Darkness is what divides people: jealousy, wickedness, party strife, suspicion, falseness, corruption, lies, political machinations. And he quoted Attila József’s famous poem “My country,” which was an indictment of the Horthy regime. József was right, says Beer, when he talked about the “wily fear that directs us.”* Thus Beer compared the present situation to the 1930s when the poem was written. As I watched the parishioners’ faces I wondered how much of the subtext of Beer’s sermon they understood.

*Unfortunately, this particular poem is not available in English but I found a translation in French. See the link given above.

* * *

Continuing today’s theme, here is a recent article by Aladár Horváth on the plight of the Hungarian Roma community. Horváth is a former member of parliament (SZDSZ) and a Roma activist.

 

PROTEST, FIGHT OR FLIGHT

Next year’s budget has pronounced the death sentence on the poor living in torturous poverty. From next March on, the governing majority will cease state assistance (regular welfare, nursing care and habitation support), waiving all duties connected to welfare to the care of municipal governments in severe lack of resources. It will be subject to restricted local budgets and the will and caprice of local potentates who can get what kind of assistance under what legal title. This will exclude tens or hundreds of thousands more from minimal assistance, while the corrupt elite of billionaires is sentencing at least one million people to death, leaving further three million behind “on the street” – as envisioned by László Bogár, a chief government ideologue.

This cannot merely be looked upon as a further station on the road of a series of bloodsucking measures; these policies already satisfying the criterion of genocide.Especially if you consider them together with the system of public works (“work makes you free”), the political practice of legalizing the segregation of Gypsy children, while depriving the Roma from civil and human rights institutions and ethnic organization, added to the segregated nature of urban Roma ghettos and village “reservations”– in other words, full segregation: you can safely say that apartheid in Hungary has been institutionalized.

As no rational economic argument exists for “saving”this barely 40 billion HUF [about 150 million USD], since “Hungary is performing better”[1]– this is barely the price of three soccer stadiums, a fraction of the cost of the Prime Minister’s planned residence in the Buda Castle, or the annual consignments of Közgép,[2] in other words, it amounts to the salaries of a few CEO’s of any Hungarian company that “performs better” –, only calculated political interest can be behind this decision. This is confirmed by the government communiqué that says the reason for such restrictions are people showing up on welfare payment days at the post office “with large SUV’s.”As much as we know the “natural history” of corrupt post-Soviet or further banana republics,we can safely suppose that this is a strategy of conscious scapegoat creation, an evil and bastardly manipulation cooked up in the witches’ kitchen of Hungarian government policies.

To wit, if there is no money for a family to pay for breakfast, blankets, or, God forgive, medicines for a small child, the parent will face a choice. Starvation, sickness, suffering and early death, or committing criminal acts.The consequence of the latter will be being caught and going to jail. Which leads on to the volunteer spiral of drugs, prostitution and violence.And as the number of criminal cases grows, society itself will demand even tougher measures against criminals, contributing to an even further restriction of civil rights, while “blue-light” [police] news will distract attention from the responsibility of the true culprits.

As no doubt the highest number of criminal acts investigated will be among those who are most oppressed and most monitored: the Roma– they’re the ones that can whip the news media into a frenzy –, you can safely say that the racial hatred stirred against Gypsies will be such a fuel in the hands of the government that riots can be provoked any time, then a state of emergency, and then nothing will matter more to people than to control those who upset the public order.

I suggest two avenues of action to those that do not derive advantages from this regime, unless they want to die in humiliation and live a life of suffering, dying 20 years earlier or spending long and tortuous years in prison: fight of flight.

My dear companions in distress, if you don’t believe in change, in demolishing this corrupt apartheid system and building a livable country in its place, and if you are able, go and find a new home country for a time or for good! A country where your values matter more than the color of your skin, where people count upon your knowledge and your work, where your children can grow up in safety with smiles, where struggling has a purpose, where you can be yourself. If you don’t have a good profession, language skills, funds or the strength to leave your country of birth which has denied you, or if you believe in yourself and in the chance of change, and if you are standing on your feet, struggle and fight for a new system change, for a new republic which can be home to every one of its citizens, and so can for you too!

Either of these decisions are tough, but those that wish to live in dignity will have to decide and take a step. Those of you that choose to stay in Hungary: get in contact with the people’s resistance movements, the new civil organizations, the parties under formation! And please participate in mass demonstrations: make the Roma visible! This promises perspectives because every power built upon evil must collapse once. We can only hope that the coming chaos and the civil war are not going to bury innocent people. A new Republic will be built upon new foundations in the place of the former one,[3] and this time, together with the Roma.

—-

Published in Népszabadság Online, December 27, 2014

[1] Recent slogan of Prime Minister Orbán – the translator

[2] The largest construction company close to the government, winning all tenders for road constructions and renovations –the translator

[3] Hungary is no longer a republic – the new Constitution in effect since April 2012 only defines the country as “Hungary” – the translator

A week in Hungary: worrisome developments

There is no silly season or “uborka szezon” in Hungary this year. In fact, I could easily write three or four times a day about not at all silly stories. Today I decided to catch up and offer a smorgasbord of “illiberal” news.

Let’s start with Zoltán Balog’s unfortunate statement about the Gypsy Holocaust on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the murder of thousands of Gypsies in Auschwitz. Balog, minister of human resources and a very close associate and spiritual adviser of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

On Sunday morning Balog was interviewed on the state radio’s program Vasárnapi Újság. This program, even during the socialist-liberal government, was known for its far-right tendencies, but it was a favorite of Viktor Orbán who often appeared there. Balog was asked to say a few words appropriate for the occasion. Instead of paying tribute to the Roma victims of the Holocaust, he began ruminating about the proper historical interpretation of the deportation of the Hungarian Gypsies while showing a total ignorance of the details. He said that there are a lot of uncertainties–for example, the  number of victims–and offered up the nonsensical excuse that “no Hungarian Gypsies were ever deported from Hungary. Only from Austria.” He also had some advice for the Roma. They shouldn’t dwell too much on tragic events because Gypsy culture is already prone to portray its members as victims, as people who are at the bottom of society. And such an attitude hurts their chances of success.

The reaction in opposition circles was uniformly negative to this latest Balog faux pas. A lot of people interpreted Balog’s words as Holocaust denial or at least a diminishing of its importance. Historians expressed their astonishment that the minister in charge of Hungary’s Roma strategy knows so little about the details of the events of 1944 and the fate of about 5,000 Hungarian Roma who perished and the tens of thousands who were deported.

As usual came the standard excuse: his adversaries misinterpreted his words, although this time he added that he could have expressed himself more clearly. Instead of admitting his mistake, however, he launched into an attack against his political opponents. It is not he “who has to explain himself but the Left under whose governance Gypsies were murdered in Hungary.” As if the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments were responsible for the serial murders of several Gypsies.

Now let’s move on to another story that broke a few days ago. Some eagle-eyed journalist found an interesting picture on the front page of the publication of the Hungarian Medical Association. It was taken in the enormous study of Viktor Orbán in the parliamentary building when the president and the vice president of the association paid a visit to the prime minister. In the background a poster depicting the crown and the Hungarian colors reads: Győzelem (Victory).

A few telephone calls to historians revealed that the poster was designed by Sándor Légrády (1906-1987), who made quite a name for himself as a designer of Hungarian stamps. The poster Viktor Orbán so proudly displays in his office was done in 1940-41 to commemorate the Hungarian army’s entry into the territories Hungary received in the Second Vienna Award (August 30, 1940). I might add that Légrády was a politically committed person who in 1941 became an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office ( Bárdossy government, April 1940-March 1942) and who was later transferred to the ministry of defense. Because of his posters extolling the war he was briefly detained in 1945 but was acquitted two years later.

Viktor Orbán's study with the controversial poster in the background

Viktor Orbán’s study with the controversial poster in the background

What is such a poster doing in the Hungarian prime minister’s office? The official account is that he received the poster as a gift after the 2014 parliamentary election. A Fidesz politician explained the significance of the poster. Viktor Orbán began his infamous speech in Tasnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad by thanking the Transylvanian Hungarians for their support. Their votes gave Fidesz that one extra seat in parliament that ensured the continuation of the two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows Viktor Orbán to continue his rule unchecked. About 100,000 people who may never have set foot in the country decided the fate of Hungary for four years if not for longer.

This explanation is believable, but one must question the decision to display such an irredentist poster in the prime minister’s office. The year 1941 marked Hungary’s entrance into World War II. It was the year Germany attacked the Soviet Union. It was the year the United States entered the war. It is an affront to Romania, to Russia, and indirectly to all the countries who fought Nazi Germany and her allies–including, of course, Hungary. Just like his spiritual adviser, Orbán has no sense. A few years ago he proudly displayed a Greater Hungary decal on his car!

I would also like to mention that since leading American newspapers raised their voices in critical editorials against Viktor Orbán’s designs to transform Hungary into an illiberal state, the whole right-wing media has begun an anti-American campaign. At least three leading Fidesz opinion makers spoke out–István Tamás (Nemzeti.net, July 30), Tamás Fricz (Magyar Nemzet, August 4), and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap, August 6). Soon I will devote a full post to the Orbán government’s anti-American propaganda campaign.

Here is another timely topic: the fate of some Roma families in Miskolc. On June 25 I wrote about the local Fidesz leadership’s plans to evict Roma families from their homes in order to make space for a new football stadium. The city was ready to pay 2 million forints to each family if they moved out of Miskolc altogether. Well, the evictions have begun. A young couple with a small child were the first victims. Then came an older woman who is disabled. Roma activists are trying to prevent the forceful removal of hundreds of families, but I doubt that they will be successful.

And finally, the situation of the NGOs. Viktor Orbán declared war on them in his speech and he was not kidding. Only yesterday papers reported that, although the Hungarian government made some concessions concerning the distribution of funds, the Norwegian authorities refuse to release the funds until the investigation of these NGOs stops. Viktor Orbán is not backing down. A criminal investigation of Ökotárs Alapítvány, the firm that distributes the Norwegian funds to NGOs, has begun. The charge is embezzlement.

László Bogdán, the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

The support of the three opposition parties for Albert Pásztor, former police chief of Miskolc, as the city’s mayoral hopeful caused a huge political storm which still hasn’t subsided. Representatives of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia or the intellectual elite, as Hungarians like to call this group, have been up in arms. How could these parties ever support a man who five years ago showed himself to be a racist?

Actually, the real target of their ire is the Demokratikus Koalíció. Since the central leadership of Együtt-PM distanced itself from the party’s local representative in Miskolc, critics left Együtt-PM more or less alone. They didn’t bother themselves with MSZP either because, as some of them admit, they don’t have great expectations of the socialists. After all, the party led by Attila Mesterházy, echoing Fidesz, endorsed “law and order” as an answer to society’s ills. DK is the only party that had consistently stood for the rights of all minorities. Its members and voters, all polls indicate, are the least prejudiced against foreigners, Gypsies, Jews, and gays. The intellectual elite expected more from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party. How could it support a racist?

And here we are in trouble because, as I know from personal experience in private debates with friends and acquaintances, we cannot even agree on what racism is. There are people who think that mentioning the ethnic origin of a person already indicates racist tendencies. Thus, when Albert Pásztor the other day announced that he will treat everybody the same without “regard to origin,” some people cried foul. He shouldn’t have mentioned people’s ethnic origins at all. And yet there are a large number of policemen who are truly racists and who don’t apply the same standards when dealing with Gypsies and non-Gypsies. So, if Pásztor wants to treat everyone equally, this should be considered a step in the right direction.

Some people are reluctant to talk about some of the serious problems that crop up between Roma and non-Roma. But is it racism to talk about the difficulties that exist between the majority and the minority cultures? I guess it depends on the source. One can detect the attitude of the speaker easily enough. Criticism can be well-meaning or hateful.

And what should we do with a Gypsy who passionately wants to change the situation of his fellow men and women but who at the same time is very critical of the majority of the Roma today. I am thinking of László Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, a village that lies between Bükkösd and Szentlőrinc in Baranya County.

Bogdán is a man in his late forties who became the mayor of Cserdi about nine years ago. He has transformed the heavily Roma village. How did he do it? The change didn’t come overnight, but by now his accomplishments are known as “the cserdi csoda” (the miracle of Cserdi). When he became mayor, Cserdi was riddled with petty crimes. On the average 200 a year. Today, there are only two or three. Unemployment was extraordinarily high, just in all Baranya villages with large Roma populations. Today, anyone who wants to work can.

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

Bogdán was born in great poverty. He told Olga Kálmán the other day on ATV that he was thirteen years old when he finally had a pair of shoes of his own. Thirty years ago he got a job at a multinational company, cleaning the yard of the factory. Then one day they needed someone to pack the factory’s products. He kept going up and up until he was heading a department. Why he left his cushy job I have no idea, but he decided to run for parliament. When he lost, he settled for being the mayor of Cserdi, his birthplace.

Cserdi by now owns a fair sized forest the residents themselves established. They have 3,500 square meters of green houses, and they sell their produce in Pécs. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. The village owns a house on Lake Balaton. They fixed up most of the houses in the village. Bathrooms were installed in some of the Roma houses that had not known such a luxury. This summer Cserdi organized a summer school for the children. All this is an incredible accomplishment.

And yet Bogdán is a controversial man because of his rather draconian methods of dealing with his workers. He expects excellence, punctuality, and very hard work. And he is harsh with those who don’t perform. If one of the public workers doesn’t show up on time, he is “punished.” He has to read aloud from Micimackó ( Winnie the Pooh) to his fellow workers. He took some of the young people to a jail in Pécs so they could see what is waiting for them if they end up there.

Is Bogdán’s method more effective than some of the others that are being tried at a few places–very few places–in the country? I really don’t know, but I was impressed by the man. He is intelligent and very outspoken. For instance, if it depended on him, he would abolish the whole system of Roma self-government since he believes it does more harm than good. Many of the leaders, as he put it, are barely literate, and their aggressive behavior only alienates the majority population.

László Bogdán’s interview with Olga Kálmán / Egyenes beszéd / ATV

I have no idea whether Bogdán is right. But let’s go back to my pondering about who is racist and who is not. Is Bogdán a racist because he is more critical of the Roma community than most non-Roma? Is it racist to say, as he does, that Gypsies “must learn how to behave”? These are very difficult questions.

We know that the great divide between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians must be minimized. And this means that both sides have to change. The majority population will have to shed its incredible prejudice while the minority must be given the opportunity to achieve a higher economic and social status. But it is hellishly difficult to find the right way to this goal.

The city of Miskolc is ready to pay its Roma inhabitants to leave town

Today we are moving to Miskolc just as one of the ministries may do sometime in 2015 if the Orbán government disperses its ministries all over the country, as currently planned.

This is Hungarian Spectrum‘s second trip to Miskolc, a city that has fallen on hard times in the last twenty-five years. Miskolc and environs was one of the most important centers of Hungarian heavy industry in the socialist period. In the 1970s almost 80% of the workforce of the county of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén worked in that sector. After the change of regime, with the disappearance of heavy industry, the area became one of the most impoverished in the country. Miskolc, the county seat, had a population of almost 200,000 in the 1970s; today it is around 160,000.

Understandably, given this economic background, the population of Miskolc and other smaller towns in the county heavily favored the socialists, at least until 2010 when Miskolc for the first time elected a Fidesz mayor, a Transylvanian import, Ákos Kriza. Before he moved to Hungary Kriza completed medical school in Târgu Mureş/Marosvásárhely. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum already encountered Kriza in connection with a scandal involving the Canadian government and the Roma refugees whom Ottawa sent back to Hungary because the Canadian immigration did not consider them to be bona fide political refugees. Since most of the Gypsies who tried to emigrate to Canada came from Miskolc and its surrounding area, it was clear that once they returned to Hungary they would most likely go back to Miskolc. It was at that point that Kriza declared that ” Canada will not send its refugees to Miskolc.” As you can see, Dr. Kriza is no friend of the Roma.

Kriza, Miskolc, and the Roma minority have been in the news again since May 8 when the city council voted for the “liquidation of ghettos and slums” in Miskolc. A large area will be razed. If one didn’t know Kriza’s attitude toward Gypsies one could actually praise him and the city council for providing decent housing for these poor people elsewhere. But, of course, we would be wrong in assuming such a benevolent move from a city council with a very large Fidesz majority. Out of twenty-eight city fathers there are only 6 MSZP, 2 DK, and 3 Jobbik members.

The deal presented to the affected Roma inhabitants is that if they just move out of their dwellings and move to another house or apartment in town they will not get any compensation. Anyone who decides to leave town will receive 1.5-2 million forints, though only if he spends this money on the purchase of another dwelling. In some other town or village, of course. All the Fidesz members of the city council voted for the proposal, MSZP representatives abstained. Only DK and Jobbik voted against it, the latter because they objected to giving any compensation to Roma forced out of their homes.

Miskolc street scene in the district to be raised soon to give place to a stadium/minap.hu

Miskolc street scene in the district to be razed soon to provide room for a stadium/minap.hu

It didn’t take long before one could read in Népszabadság that the mayor of Sátoraljaújhely (Fidesz) feels sorry for the Gypsies of Miskolc but “they shouldn’t come here.” Therefore the city fathers contemplated passing an ordinance to the effect that anyone who has purchased a dwelling from money received from another municipality for the express purpose of buying real estate will not be able to get public work or welfare for five years. Sátoraljaújhely was not the only town to complain. Kazincbarcika’s mayor labelled Miskolc’s move a “poverty export.”

Those affected by the ordinance, at least 400 families, were outraged. Most of them want to stay in Miskolc and, instead of compensation, would like to receive another piece of property in exchange. These people consider the Miskolc city council’s decision “deportation” pure and simple.

By mid-June Fidesz began collecting signatures in support of the city council’s decision and at the same time Jobbik organized a demonstration with the usual skinheads in black T-shirts and frightened Gypsies. The Fidesz initiative was a great success. “Within a few hours … several thousand signatures were collected. The people of Miskolc overwhelmingly support the decision reached by the city council.” At this point, Jobbik also decided to collect signatures to deny monetary compensation for the properties currently used by Roma families.

The lack of any interest in the affair on the part of Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of Roma affairs, is glaring. In parliament Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, already informed a member of parliament who inquired about the scandal in Miskolc that he and his ministry have nothing to do with this strictly local affair. That is, the Orbán government has no intention of putting an end to such discriminatory initiatives. The only active political forces in defense of the Miskolc Roma are the Hungarian Solidarity Movement and the Demokratikus Koalíció. Solidarity organized a demonstration in which a rather large crowd of Roma and non-Roma marched together today.

The irony of this whole affair is that the razing of the Roma ghetto and slum serves only one purpose:  building the new stadium Miskolc received as a gift from Viktor Orbán. He has his priorities.

Four years ago when Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union one of their most important contributions was supposed to be working out something called the “Roma strategy.” Apparently, it was a great success, at least on paper. But what I just described is reality.

And here is the most recent piece of news on Hungary’s contribution to the Roma strategy. There is a European program called Roma Matrix that aims to combat racism, intolerance, and xenophobia towards Roma and to increase integration through a program of action across Europe. Today Roma Matrix held a conference in Budapest at which one of the vice-mayors of the city extolled all the effort the city has made for the Roma community of Budapest. Magyar Nemzet‘s headlined the article describing the conference: “One must decrease the level of discrimination.” Not eliminate it, just decrease it. Well, we can start in Miskolc and Sátoraljaújhely.

The Hungarian government supports school segregation for Roma

A  couple of days ago I noticed a short news item in Euraktiv.com entitled “Hungary criticizes EU Commission’s ‘lack of flexibility’ on Roma policies.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, who represented Hungary at the meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC),  wants flexibility in implementing the integration of schools. In fact, as we will see later, Zoltán Balog doesn’t believe in integration. This fact is well-known in Hungary, but it seems that the news hasn’t reached Brussels yet, as so many things don’t.

Balog emphasized at the meeting that there can be no uniform Roma strategy for all EU countries and therefore the European Commission has to be “more responsive” to the changes demanded by member states. However, he added, the Roma issue “is a European responsibility.” How typical. The EU is responsible financially and otherwise for dealing with the very serious unemployment and poverty of the Roma minority but Hungary will do whatever the Orbán government, specifically Zoltán Balog, thinks ought to be done. And since  Zoltán Balog doesn’t believe in integration, what he would like is to have a free hand in the matter.

Naturally, Zoltán Balog was wise enough to keep his conviction to himself, and instead he listed the government’s accomplishments in the last four years. It is true that they named an undersecretary, Zoltán Kovács, to be in charge of Roma issues. Kovács, it should be noted, failed as undersecretary in charge of government propaganda directed toward the outside world and also failed as government spokesman. It is also true that the Orbán government changed the constitution to allow separate parliamentary representation for ethnic groups and nationalities, but we know from Professor Kim Scheppele’s essay on the electoral law that it only provides for the election of one Fidesz-picked MP to represent the Roma community while it deprives Gypsies of the right to cast a vote for the party of their choice. That’s why Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, urged Gypsies not to register as Gypsies and organized a separate Gypsy Party which will have 60 candidates running in the next election. Balog also talked about “training schemes in sectors such as masonry, forestry, and construction aimed at giving Roma the necessary skills to find a job on the market.” I must say this is new to me.  The only thing I have read about, in article after article, are the absolutely useless classes that prepare the chronically unemployed for nothing.

It was at least three years ago that I gained the distinct feeling that Balog, then still undersecretary in charge of Roma issues, wanted to “outsource” the problems associated with the Gypsy minority’s economic and social difficulties to the churches. He kept talking with church leaders, emphasizing their unique talents for such tasks. Although he tried to dump the whole thing onto the churches, he didn’t quite succeed. However, as the churches took over more and more schools, some poor segregated schools ended up in their hands.

Erzsébet Mohácsi / Source: Népszabadság, Photo by János M. Schmidt

Erzsébet Mohácsi / Source: Népszabadság, Photo by János M. Schmidt

Enter a foundation that has been fighting for a number of years for the rights of children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds (Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyerekeknek Alapítvány). The Foundation has been trying to mediate between parents and schools to achieve integration. But since it is becoming obvious that the government itself doesn’t stand behind integration efforts, the Foundation has only one recourse: to go to court.

Lately, the Foundation had an important win against the Greek Catholic Church, which has two schools in Nyíregyháza: one elite school and one segregated school. The school that is currently segregated had been closed earlier and the children were bused to the school downtown, but after the Church took over, the segregated school was reopened.

For one reason or another Balog is enamored with the plans of the Greek Catholic Church in Nyíregyháza. He sees this particular school as the “citadel of convergence” for Roma students. He imagines integration as a two-step effort: first you put the disadvantaged, mostly Roma, children into segregated schools where “they will catch up.” Once they achieve the knowledge and skills in these segregated schools equal to that of students in the “white” schools, the Roma children can be integrated into the mainstream population. We know that this is nonsense. American segregated schools were also supposed to be “separate but equal,” which of course they were not. According to Erzsébet Mohácsi, president of the Foundation, Balog believes that there is good and bad segregation. His segregation will be excellent, of course.

The Foundation won the case against the Greek Catholic Church where Balog went so far as to be a witness for the defense where he argued for segregation before the judge. Although the Foundation won the case and therefore the Greek Catholic Church is supposed to close its segregated school, it became quite clear during the proceedings that the good Christians have no intention of integrating. The judge apparently asked whether they could find places in the Church’s downtown school for 12 children who just started first grade in the segregated school. The representative of the Church, after some hesitation, announced that perhaps they could create a new classroom directly under the roof. The judge was taken aback and tried to explain to him what the suit was all about. The answer was that the students couldn’t be integrated into the existing classes because it would be “harmful to the other children.” Balog after the trial announced that the verdict “is a sad commentary on the judiciary, which denies parents’ right to a free choice of schools.”

I might add that Balog found an ally on the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels– the president of EESC, French politician Henri Malosse. He praised Hungary’s efforts. He visited Hungary and was very impressed because “pupils have knowledge about the Roma culture” there. He also called the critical coverage of events in Hungary “disinformation.” Although Malosse has a degree in Russian and East European Studies and speaks Polish and Russian, he seems to know little about Hungary. It is hard to believe that he would approve of segregated schools for Roma students as the norm in Hungary and elsewhere. Members of the Orbán government are very good at hiding their true intentions. Let’s hope that the hidden agenda will not remain hidden for long.