The Hungarian Guard and the Gypsies

The leaders of the Hungarian Guard were not quite telling the truth when they claimed that the members of the Guard would busy themselves with charitable and cultural activities. Soon enough after the establishment of the organization it became evident that the Hungarian Guard planned to take advantage of the Hungarians’ very strong anti-Gypsy (Roma) feelings. We have no hard data on the number of Gypsies in Hungary because no one has to answer questions about his ethnicity on any official document or even in the census. A safe guess is that about half a million people belong to this group, perhaps even more. I have seen as high a number as 700,000.

One cannot exaggerate the seriousness of the situation; for decades the Roma problem has been swept under the rug. The main problem is that the vast majority of the Gypsies are uneducated. A lot of them didn’t even finish eight grades, so they weren’t eligible to go to trade school. Before the change of regime the Gypsies’ situation was fairly tolerable. They were employed as unskilled laborers in big state enterprises where they were not really needed. (The state wanted full employment, whatever the cost to profitability.) In the long run, of course, this didn’t solve the problem. After 1990, when these unprofitable state enterprises ceased to exist, the Gypsies became unemployed. And most weren’t qualified for living-wage jobs in a free market economy. Gypsy families are large and most of them live in abject poverty, under circumstances unimaginable to us.

For the time being the Gypsies are quiet. There’s been no Gypsy uprising in Hungary as there was in Slovakia. No one has built a wall to separate Gypsies from non-Gypsies as happened in a village in the Czech Republic. However, every thoughtful observer recognizes that the Gypsy question is perhaps the most pressing social problem in today’s Hungary. And, as we know, the solution can be only incremental and the process very slow.

And now a gauntlet thrown down: the demonstration of the Hungarian Guard against the Gypsies. The Guard decided to use the Gypsy question to its own advantage. It would be easy to achieve quick popularity, they figured, if they called attention to "Gypsy crimes." They picked a village, Tatárszentgyörgy, not far from Budapest where there is a sizable Gypsy population. The guardists announced that two hundred of them would march through the village and would demonstrate against crimes committed by Gypsies. Actually more than three hundred showed up and in a rather threatening fashion marched through the village. Quite a few people cheered them on. One of their speakers demanded the reintroduction of capital punishment which, by the way, is impossible due to Hungary’s European Union membership. They also complained about "positive discrimination" and demanded introduction of legislation that would introduce formal segregation.

Prior to the demonstration, the mayor of the village forbade the march because, according to her, the request was made under false pretenses. The Pest County police overrode her decision. In the morning the Gypsies demonstrated against the planned demonstration which took place in the afternoon. After the Guard’s demonstration the ombudsman for minorities (himself of Gypsy origin) asked the four highest dignitaries of the land–the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the house, and the head of the Supreme Court–to condemn the Hungarian Guard. Even before the ombudsman’s request, Ferenc Gyurcsány minced no words about what he thought of the Guard’s actions. Katalin Szili also expressed her disapproval. The spokesman for the president promised that there would be a statement forthcoming from the Sándor Palota. Zoltán Lomnici, the chief justice, understandably remained quiet.

Some people would like to see action on the part of the prosecutor’s office because, after all, the Hungarian Guard is not a cultural and charitable organization. According to those who were present, their demonstration was designed to put the fear of God into the village’s Gypsy population. But what will happen if the Gypsies one day have enough of such demonstrations and decide to go out on the street themselves? Obviously nothing good.