Roma minority

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 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/

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

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 “foreign language examination factory”

For those of you who don’t follow the comments to my blog posts there is a huge debate among readers of Hungarian Spectrum over who is responsible for the video of a fake meeting of six Roma in Baja. Most of us couldn’t make head or tail of the story of R. (Róbert) G.  Since then more information has become available, and there is a good possibility that no political party was involved. Instead, it might have been a private initiative to get some quick cash, although R. G. seems to be a well-off man who owns several houses in Baja as well as in Budapest and the house where the meeting was staged looks substantial and well maintained. The bizarre nature of R.G.’s story didn’t prevent Fidesz politicians from accusing the opposition of hiring the culprits to discredit the government party. MSZP denies any involvement and threatens to go to the police if Fidesz’s accusations continue. DK demands a thorough investigation of the case.

We can be duly horrified at this particular case, but the truth is that corruption is endemic on all levels in Hungary. Quite independently from the fake tape there is proof that Fidesz politicians in Baja bribed the local Gypsies for their votes and that is a crime. Of course, creating a fake video for money is also a crime. But what can we expect in a country where corruption can be found at the highest levels of the administration, starting with the prime minister? It has long been suspected that he amassed his considerable (and under-reported) wealth in not exactly the most honorable way. And it’s better not even to mention the cesspool of party finances.

So let’s turn to corruption in another sphere: phony language proficiency results. Who is involved here? Language teachers, university professors, politicians, high government officials, high-ranking police officers, and people who work for the official language testing center, commonly called Rigó utca after its location in Budapest. We are talking about scores of people at the testing center as well as at the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University and the Budapest Engineering School. Because, after all, it was not only the proctors who had to be paid but also those who gave out the test questions ahead of time as well as those who came up with the right answers and passed them on to the test takers. The customers were in the hundreds or perhaps in the thousands. It’s no wonder that the Hungarian media talk about a “language-exam factory.”

Blikk, a tabloid popular with the less educated and politically less curious public, broke the original story back in July. Some of the facts later turned out to be not quite accurate. For example, the newspaper called Corvinus University the center of the “exam factory.” Blikk was also wrong when it claimed that the “factory” began its operation only in 2010. Apparently it has been in existence since the 1990s.

Interestingly enough, Blikk‘s revelation didn’t make a splash in the larger Hungarian media, but Blikk didn’t give up. It pursued the scandal. A few days after the original article the paper revealed that about 80% of the people who took advantage of the opportunity offered by the “exam factory” were university students who needed to pass the language exam in order to receive their diplomas. The rest, older politicians and other public employees, didn’t mix with the students; their exams were organized separately. Apparently there were some unexpected encounters when government and opposition politicians ended up taking the exams together, presumably in happy harmony!

Soon enough we also learned that an intermediate language exam cost 300,000 but an advanced one could be purchased for only 500-550.

On October 4 the prosecutors charged 18 people with involvement in the falsification of foreign language examination results. Although by now we know that members of parliament were involved, they will not be charged with fraud because in their case the three-year statute of limitations has expired. However, the prosecutor’s office of Pest County which is handling the case confirmed that at least one Budapest mayor is a suspect. The number of people who will most likely be charged is not 18 as was originally announced but well over 600 if we include those who took advantage of the “exam factory.” As far as numbers are concerned, this will be the largest criminal case in the history of Hungarian jurisprudence.

The chief organizer was András P., owner of a private language school in Győr, whose private fortune as a result of the scam is considerable. Origo estimated close to a milliard forints. Under András P. there were several layers of intermediaries who also got a piece of the pie. Each language teacher received about 10,000 forints per student, which doesn’t sound like big money until you realize that we know of only four language teachers if Blikk‘s information is correct and the number of participants in the scheme was well over 1,000. I guess eventually we will know more because there are detailed lists of all the “customers” stored on the chief organizer’s computer.

Apparently, it was enough to know what "yes"means in English

Apparently, it was enough to know what “yes”means in English

As long as corruption is as widespread, even in fields that are connected to intellectual achievement, we cannot hope for improvement in Hungarian universities, public administration, and, yes, in politics. A country in which 30-35% of university students admit that they cheat on their exams and 40% of university graduates are unable to pass a fairly simple language test is destined to be second- or third-rate in a highly competitive world.

Fidesz and MSZP are silent. Or, to be more precise, when asked they said that they have no intention of starting an investigation of the matter within their own parliamentary caucuses. Members of  the small LMP delegation triumphantly announced that their language tests are valid. They were either taken in the 1980s or at none of the places where the phony tests were administered. DK also announced that none of their people are involved in the scheme.

When I write about a topic in which members of parliament play some role I usually check the website of the parliament which, among other things, details the members’ language proficiency. I never had much trust in those results from Rigó utca, but after this case I will have even less so.

Register as Roma, vote by default for Fidesz

It can easily happen that, amid the frenzy of Fidesz legislative action over the last three and a half years, even the more observant among us misses a troubling piece of legislative action. Here is one that I at least missed. It was included in the new electoral law of 2011, officially called the Law on the Election of Members of Parliament. For the most part Law CCIII provides a description of the newly created electoral districts, and it was on these gerrymandering efforts of the framers of the bill that I initially concentrated. Yesterday a friend called my attention to an interview with Aladár Horváth, a Roma political activist, on ATV’s program ATV Start.

At the time of her telephone call I still hadn’t had a chance to see the program, but I was told that Aladár Horváth is urging his fellow Roma not to register as such because so identifying themselves will deprive them of their right to vote for party lists. The Electoral Law on the Election of Members of Parliament, ¶7§(2), reads as follows: “A citizen who belongs to a minority can vote a) for a candidate of his electoral district and b) for the list of his own nationality.” In brief, as opposed to a non-minority citizen who can vote for both a candidate and a party list, a citizen who registers as a member of a minority can vote for a local candidate and the minority list.

This is the first time that minorities in Hungary can, at least theoretically, have representation in the Hungarian Parliament. The lack of such a possibility was a major embarrassment for earlier Hungarian governments that often stood up for the rights of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries where in fact Hungarian parties do have parliamentary representation. Of course, it is also true that ethnic minorities in Hungary, with the exception of the Roma and perhaps the Germans, are too small to reach the threshold necessary to be represented in parliament.

The Venice Commission’s draft opinion on The Act on the Elections of Member of Parliament of Hungary welcomed this particular aspect of Law XXIII. “For the first time, special provisions aimed at favouring the participation of national minorities in parliament in the electoral legislation. . . therefore the Venice Commission welcomes the introduction of such provisions.” However, the Venice Commission seemed to have some concerns regarding the new situation faced by the minority voters. It recommended that “as voters have the right to choose between registering to vote for normal party lists or national minority lists, the law should allow such registration in a reasonably short time frame before election day. This would ensure that all voters have sufficient information to make an informed choice. However, it would be preferable to give to the voters from national minorities the possibility of choice on election day between nationality lists and party lists.”

I guess I don’t have to tell you that no such opportunity will be given to minority voters either at the time of registration or on election day. Moreover, it is very unlikely that the Roma population, undereducated and living in backward villages, will realize the pros and cons of opting for the party list versus the minority list. After all, even Viktor Szigetváry, Együtt 2014’s electoral expert, when he wrote about the new electoral system didn’t pay much attention to this particular provision of the new law. He did admit that voting for the minority list “in small measure will strengthen the majoritarian character of the whole system” but he obviously didn’t consider it a potentially serious problem.

I checked the number of people who registered in 2010 to be able to vote for minority lists in local elections. Their number is over 200,000. Under the 2011 law they will now be deprived of their right to vote for a party. Or to be more precise, by voting for the minority list they will de facto be voting for Fidesz.

The leading members of Lungo Drom,  the  representative body of Hungarian Gypsies, including the head of the organization, Flórian Farkas, are Fidesz puppets. So any Gypsy who votes for the current ethnic leadership will only help Flórián Farkas be reelected to parliament. It would be one more vote for Fidesz.

Flórán Farkas at the COÖ meeting in January 2011 / Népszabadág / Simon Móricz

Flórián Farkas at the COÖ meeting in January 2011 / Népszabadág / Simon Móricz

Farkas is an old ally of Viktor Orbán who has worked closely with Fidesz ever since 2001 when he was already the president of Lungo Drom. He signed an agreement with Fidesz-MDF at that time in which he pledged Lungo Drom’s support of these parties. After the split of MDF and Fidesz, Farkas stood by Fidesz and renewed the electoral agreement between the Roma organization and Fidesz. He has been a member of the party’s parliamentary caucus ever since 2002. He is known as someone who does nothing whatsoever for the Roma community even though he is also head of the Országos Cigány Önkormányzat (OCÖ or Nationwide Gypsy Self-government).

So, this is the situation to which Aladár Horváth called attention. The problem is that his message is pretty much lost in a sea of total indifference. For example, he gave a press conference which not even the reporters of the liberal-socialist press bothered to attend. Although he himself is making an effort to get to the Roma communities, it is unlikely that he and his friends will be able to enlighten the Roma minority about their choices and the consequences of their decision.

We can be sure of one thing. Fidesz doesn’t do anything that doesn’t serve its own interests. Just as they don’t really care about the Hungarian minority in the neighboring countries so they don’t care about ethnic minorities inside of Hungary. Their primary concern is to get extra votes from the mostly Fidesz sympathizers in Romania and Serbia and to ensure that by default the Roma end up supporting them. The rest is just talk.