Aladár Horváth, a former SZDSZ member of parliament and chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation, is spending a few months in the United States. A couple of weeks ago he gave a lecture in Washington entitled Hungary: From Bad to Worse/End of the Republic, Rise of Barbarism.
You may recall that there was quite an argument over Richard Field, the American businessman who initiated the evacuation of the Roma women and children on Good Friday from the beleaguered village of Gyöngyöspata where a paramilitary organization called Defense Force (Véderő) decided to perform military exercises. Whatever one's views of Field's action–and he was pilloried by the right, he certainly called attention to the plight of the Roma in Hungary.
In his lecture Horváth concentrated on how it could happen that twenty years after the change of regime democracy has failed in Hungary. How is it possible that Viktor Orbán and his party can rather easily dismantle all the democratic institutions and for all practical purposes be in the process of establishing a one-party rule?
According to Aladár Horváth the problems started right after the change of regime. One of the problems was that the parties involved didn't pay enough attention to the modern meaning of "nation." At the same time they missed the opportunity to inculcate into the hearts and minds of the people the notion of the "republic" and what it means. In addition, they neglected a most important question: the integration of the Roma. They were not paying attention to the huge regional differences within the country. These two last topics are interconnected: Gypsies live in the most backward areas of the country.
When it came to minority issues the leaders of the new regime didn't dismantle the old structures. The Roma problem was still handled as a police matter only. The minority self-governing bodies that were set up were no more than institutions of ethnic separation. Among the parties there was no agreement about how to handle the most serious social problems of the Roma: chronic unemployment, segregation, and official discrimination.
After Hungary joined the European Union a sizable amount of money was spent on various projects, yet economic and social tension within the country grew instead of decreasing. The schools became more and more segregated, and the differences between localities became more and more glaring. The money was spent mostly on the maintenance of organizations on the state, regional, or county levels. Only morsels were spent on real projects, and these morsels went to the better-off communities. There was practically nothing done with the most poverty-stricken villages where most of the Roma lived.
Thus social problems became "ethnicized." Poverty, deviance, and criminality received "a Gypsy face," and as a result the far-right had an easy time of it. Jobbik began its anti-Gypsy rhetoric in 2006 and by 2008-2009 it led to a series of murders. The democratic parties were "the captives of their racist constituencies" and therefore they didn't raise their voices loudly enough against Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard.
Horváth claims that the 2002-2008 period didn't bring any measurable change in governmental attitude toward the Roma. The socialists, according to him, were indifferent and without a plan while the liberals believed in the trickle-down effect which didn't happen. Therefore it wasn't too surprising that the inhabitants of the poorest regions of the country became attracted to the right or even extreme-right parties. That included even the Roma. According to a poll by Szonda Ipsos 80% of the Gypsies voted for Fidesz because of their disappointment with the socialists. Fidesz's promise of 1 million jobs also made the party attractive to Gypsies who still remembered the good old days of János Kádár when 80% of them were gainfully employed.
Nonetheless, the Orbán government, says Horváth, has taken steps that make the life of the Roma even more difficult. The flat tax is advantageous to the well-off and disadvantageous to the poor. Even smaller offenses are harshly punished. The government introduced the controversial California legal invention, the mandatory "three strikes" law. They give tax breaks based on the number of children in the family, but the law is written in such a way that few Roma qualify. Lowering the mandatory age to stay in school to sixteen from eighteen might entice some Roma boys and girls to drop out of school. And one could continue.
Finally, Aladár Horváth talked about the Orbán government's plans for building large projects such as stadiums, reservoirs, and dams with absolutely unskilled labor comprised mostly of Gypsies. The workers would be supervised by retirees from the police force and the armed forces who would have to give up their pensions and return to work. The whole thing, as we have already discussed, is a nightmare. Horváth called them "forced labor camps" (munkaszolgálat), known from the war years.
It's always beneficial to hear Roma leaders talk about the problems of their own people. Democratically sound solutions are, of course, very difficult to come by.