The Orbán government and the Roma issue

In the last six weeks I wrote twice about the renewed activities of the Hungarian far right in villages with a large Roma population and the government’s lack of any meaningful response to the clearly illegal activities of these groups. I was pretty prompt on March 3, 2011 when I reported on the appearance of an until then unknown organization called “For A Better Future Civic Guard” which on that day decided to descend on Gyöngyöspata, a village of 2,800.

Almost three weeks went by and, although many liberal organizations and the two democratic parties urged the government to do something, nothing happened. It was at this point that on March 24, 2011, I wrote another piece entitled “The far-right is active and the government is silent.” Since then a whole month went by and the Orbán government refused to do anything. In fact, they often tried to minimize the problem or act as if the police did a splendid job and thanks to their presence there were no clashes or disturbances.

Most likely if these paramilitary organizations had decided to suspend their activities, at least for a few months, the government wouldn’t have done anything to put an end to vigilante “order.” I’m pretty sure that the Fidesz leadership expected that the groups’ enthusiasm for patrolling streets and asking for Gypsies’ IDs would peter out. Here and there a few policemen appeared in the villages where these groups showed up, but the encounter between the police and the vigilantes was cozy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the police force, perhaps even the great majority, harbor very similar feelings toward the Roma as the overwhelming majority of the population at large.

But the far-right members of these paramilitary organizations didn’t stop. On the contrary, their activities became increasingly threatening. Another group called Véderő (Defense Force) appeared in Gyöngyöspata on April 18 where the group “purchased” for one forint a 1.5 acre lot with a run-down house where they planned to have “military exercises.” Their headquarters could be approached only through the Gypsy section of town. In fact, within a few days they established a “military camp.”

Meanwhile these events in Hungary didn’t go unnoticed abroad. The American ambassador, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, urged the Hungarian government to act: “instead of talk, concrete steps must be taken.” She reminded Viktor Orbán that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had announced that they are committed to the human rights of the Roma.

Then came the news reported by the Associated Press and published in practically all major English-language newspapers that “hundreds of frightened Roma women and children were bused” out of Gyöngyöspata. As usual, in Hungary there are two versions that circulate about this flight of over two hundred people from the village where the Defense Force set up camp. The non-governmental version is that Richard Field, an American businessman living in Hungary, realizing the plight of the local Gypsies, turned to the Hungarian Red Cross on April 19 and asked them to find accommodations for the women and children for the Easter weekend. The government version is that the “weekend camping” had been organized much earlier and had absolutely nothing to do with the presence of the Defense Force or the fright of the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. I leave it to my readers to decide which explanation is more plausible.

While about half of the village’s Gypsy population was evacuated or went on a weekend vacation, take your pick, the Hungarian government decided that it could no longer sit on the fence. After all, Hungary, which came up with the idea of a European-wide Roma strategy, can’t possibly allow paramilitary organizations to terrorize the local Roma population. As it is, Hungary is not offering the best model for handling the Roma problem. Just as Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, argued, while one of the thirteen main issues tackled by the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the European Union was creating a European Roma policy, it was practically looking the other way when on its own land Roma were being maltreated. He rightly pointed out that Hungarian Gypsies face blatant discrimination, living in shanty towns, facing an atmosphere of hostility, unemployment, lower life expectancy, prejudice, school segregation. According an estimate, less than one percent of Roma earn college degrees.

In any case, perhaps because of the evacuation of the Gypsy women and children, Sándor Pintér, minister of interior in charge of the police, decided to move. Or, probably more precisely, he got the green light from Viktor Orbán to put an end to the activities of the paramilitary groups. Their first move was against the Defense Force. They arrested eight members, including Tamás Eszes, the head of the organization, shown being led away on the photo. Moreover, the government published an ordinance: from here on any person who appears in uniform will be fined 100,000 forints.

Zoltán Balog, protestant minister and spiritual advisor to Viktor Orbán, is in charge of Hungary’s Roma policy. Until now I haven’t seen any concrete proposals concerning his plans to solve this huge human and social problem. Earlier I had the distinct feeling that Balog would love to drop the whole problem in the laps of the churches. After all, he said, the churches are really better equipped to handle the problem than the government. Lately I have heard less of this brilliant idea. Perhaps the churches resisted Balog’s plan.

Every time Balog opens his mouth he says something outrageous. He seems to look upon the problem simply as a burden on the non-Gypsy population. If the country doesn’t do something within a few years, he says, it will be stranded with an ever-growing Roma population that must be supported. More Roma, more money. But surely, the blatant discrimination, the indescribable poverty, lack of education, unemployment must be remedied quite independently of our pocketbooks.

Viktor Orbán wanted to save himself from openly turning against these paramilitary organizations that are closely connected to the neo-Nazi party, Jobbik. According to some estimates 30% of Fidesz voters sympathize with Jobbik and, as it is, Fidesz has lost about 600,000 voters since last April. There is a fear that if the government turns against the Jobbik-sponsored vigilantes Fidesz will lose a large portion of those who have difficulty deciding whether they belong to Fidesz or Jobbik.

Just to give you an idea of the intricate connections between the two right-wing parties, here is a family story. Sándor Lezsák is an important Fidesz member of parliament. In fact, he is one of Fidesz’s deputy speakers of the House. Lezsák’s son-in-law, a filmmaker, is a Jobbik party member whose name only recently surfaced in the media. Apparently, he is the one who was responsible for “celebrating” Hitler’s birthday on Jobbik’s N1TV, an Internet television station. It’s often difficult to decide where one party starts and the other ends. Right now my Hungarian friends worry that it will be Jobbik that will benefit from the decline of Fidesz.

April 23, 2011