The Hungarian Guard and the Gypsies

The Hungarian Guard is quite well, thank you. Despite legal action challenging their status as a civil organization, Hungarian judges don't seem to understand that some cases need to be fast tracked. After two sessions the case was postponed. Who knows what the outcome will be. Given the political orientation of the Hungarian judiciary it is very possible that they will find the Hungarian Guard legal. Meanwhile, Jobbik, originally a youth organization of the extreme right but by now a full-fledged party, has found its raison d'être:  to whip up anti-Gypsy feelings. As if it needed any whipping up.

Let's start with the fact that we have no idea how many Gypsies live in Hungary. In 2001 fewer than 200,000 people declared themselves Roma or Gypsy, but sociological studies claim a much higher number. If someone asks others, neighbors for example, whom they consider a Gypsy, the number is closer to 500,000. Roma intellectuals often talk about one million Gypsies in Hungary. Thus their percentage in the population varies between 5% and 10%. Gypsy families are much larger than non-Gypsy families. While non-Gypsies have so few children that the death rate always surpasses the birth rate, Gypsy families on average have between three and four children. There are many families where there are seven or eight children. According to some calculations, if this trend continues, by 2050 Gypsies will be 15% of the population. This prediction would not be dire if Gypsies could be successfully integrated into the work force and the social fabric. But so far this has not happened.

The Kádár regime sought to solve the Gypsy problem by providing jobs for Gypsies as unskilled laborers. Since we know that hidden unemployment was persistent during the socialist period, one suspects that their work was not always needed. Most of them traveled by train from their villages on Monday morning, worked in one of the factories in Budapest or other larger cities, stayed in workers' hostels during the week, and Friday night they traveled back to their villages. When the switch from Kádár socialism to capitalism occurred after 1990, most of these state-run factories closed their doors or were privatized. And many Gypsies found themselves out of a job.

The Kádár regime's real sin here was the neglect of the education of Gypsy children. Giving low paying jobs was better than nothing, but it certainly could not solve the problem in the long run. But instead of putting every effort into educating the new generation of Gypsy kids as ordinary Hungarians, they were segregated in separate classes. School administrators claimed that they were retarded. So they were relegated to "special ed" classes and predictably fell more and more behind. Most Gypsy kids were lucky if they finished eight grades. Very, very few ended up in high school and even fewer at university. Mind you, the Gypsy population bears more than its fair share of responsibility for this state of affairs. Parents didn't insist on sending their children to school. Often older children were forced to stay at home to look after the younger ones.

By now the situation is unspeakably bad. Lack of education means lack of jobs. Discrimination is rampant, and therefore even if a Gypsy desperately tries to find a job he will be sent away as soon as it becomes obvious that he is a Gypsy. As customers, they are often discriminated against even in restaurants and only rarely does it happen that the Gypsy who was refused service decided to do something. A few years ago it was big news that a  bar owner was fined because he refused to serve Gypsies. I myself witnessed an interesting ruse: how restaurant owners defend themselves against unwanted customers. One Sunday my family and I visited a small family restaurant. It was virtually empty. Yet on every table there was a card saying that this table was reserved. And why?  In case a Gypsy family appeared the owners could say that there is no free table.

Integration is very slow. Hungary has two Gypsy parliamentary members in the European parliament (one SZDSZ and one Fidesz, both women). In the last two years one of the two government spokesmen is a Gypsy, and the ombudsman responsible for nationality questions is also a  well respected legal scholar of Gypsy origin. But most Hungarians are openly anti-Gypsy. Especially those on the extreme right. Anti-Gypsy feelings became even stronger than usual after an unfortunate event. A little Gypsy girl ran in front of a car in Olaszliszka about a year ago. The driver, a well respected teacher in the village traveling with two of his daughters, managed to avoid the little girl who fell but was otherwise unharmed. The driver stopped, the little girl's family ran out, and with the help of some of the neighbors lynched the man who died as his daughters looked on. That didn't help the situation. Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard decided to take advantage of the anti-Gypsy feelings and organized a march in Olaszliszka in the name of defending the population from Gypsy crimes.

The newest affair took place in Pátka, a village of 1,600 in the country of Fejér, close to Székesfehérvár. Apparently there are some 150-160 Gypsies living in the village, and there have been tensions between the Gypsies and non-Gypsies for years. There is an organization in the village, an unarmed civilian force comprised of volunteers who make sure that all is peaceful in the village. Three members of this civilian police force apparently threw Molotov cocktails into three Gypsy dwellings. Luckily no one died or was injured, although one of the Molotov cocktails resulted in a fire in a children's bedroom. The non-Gypsy inhabitants simply don't believe that the three men are guilty in spite of the fact that they have confessed. The Hungarian Guard immediately decided to appear on the scene where yesterday about 150 of them marched in the village, frightening the Gypsies to death. Some of them sent their children away. The non-Gypsy inhabitants and the guardists held a town meeting where the "national captain" of the Guard made a speech. The representatives of the local government didn't help the situation by announcing that a local quasi-legal codex would be drawn up that would ensure peaceful coexistence in the village.

But by now not only the extreme right is concerned about the "Gypsy question." In certain areas where there is a large Gypsy concentration several mayors have gotten together and appealed to the government  to put an end to social welfare payments to families where, they claim, the family produces more and more children in order to increase the family's income. In several other places local government officials are demanding at least ten hours a month work for the welfare payments they provide their local unemployed inhabitants who have been living on welfare and some illegal work for years. However, it is unlikely that the government will oblige since this offered "solution" is clearly unconstitutional. But the government is under an unwritten mandate to ease the tension between Gypsies and non-Gypsies. (My first instinct was to suggest a Gypsy candidate for prime minister in the next elections in sync with the US presidential campaign, but then there are those who would claim that Orbán would qualify. I don't know, I don't care. But somehow the tension has to be diffused.)