Tag Archives: Aladár Horváth

Hungarian Roma dilemmas

I decided to return to yesterday’s discussion on the latest developments in the “Bogdán case” because I think it is a much more complex issue than meets the eye or my short summary of the recent events would suggest. Yesterday I didn’t go into the serious differences of opinion between László Bogdán and some Roma human rights activists over the right way to handle the “Roma problem.” In order to understand the situation in which Bogdán finds himself, it is necessary to hear the criticism they level against the mayor of Cserdi. And then there is Bogdán’s offer of Cserdi as a place where refugee families are welcome which, according to some interpreters, might be the reason for the Hungarian media’s suddenly discovering Bogdán’s run-in with the law in 2010.

Let’s start with the latter because it is easier to sort out. First, some background. Bogdán spent three weeks in the United States in March and April, where among other things he gave a talk about the situation of Roma women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. How did this trip come about? First, in 2015 the Hungarian government made Bogdán Hungary’s ambassador charged with nurturing talented youngsters. Therefore we must assume that the Orbán government considers László Bogdán someone who can represent the country abroad. And indeed, it was Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York, who organized his trip. As Bogdán explained to BaMa, a Baranya County news site, they arranged his program, which included trips to 17 American cities. Of course, the highlight of the trip was his speech at the UN where “as a representative of Hungary [he talked] about the Gypsy community in Hungary and his Cserdi initiative.” He reported from the United States to BaMa that he celebrated March 15 with George Pataki, former governor of New York, and was the guest of former U.S. ambassador Colleen Bell at a charity event.

George Lázár suggests in an article in The Hungarian Free Press that László Bogdán’s recent problems stem from his decision to sponsor a Syrian family’s stay in Cserdi. Lázár points out that Bogdán was the “darling” of the government, whose trip to the United States was organized by high officials of the Orbán government. But, he continues, “Everything changed when recently Mayor Bogdán announced that he would welcome refugee families to vacation in his village.” Suddenly, the media suspected that there was something not quite right with László Bogdán. George Lázár, this morning on Facebook, noted that it is hard to imagine that the Hungarian government was unaware of Bogdán’s conviction in 2014, and it cannot be a coincidence that PécsMa discovered this story just now. Did the Hungarian government know about Bogdán’s troubles with the law when, for example, in 2015 he was appointed “ambassador”? I don’t know. But the conviction became final in 2014, just a year before his appointment to the post. Whether the Hungarian government is behind this story surfacing now is hard to tell.

The other aspect of the controversy surrounding László Bogdán is his standing in the Roma community. Roma human rights activists—and independent experts on Roma issues—have serious objections to Bogdán’s ideas. Shortly after his return from the United States, an article appeared in 168 Óra written by András Balázs, an assistant professor of sociology, criticizing the speech Bogdán delivered at the United Nations. His talk at the UN was about the exploitation of Gypsy women by Gypsy men, who look upon them as baby machines. Early marriages and too many children, and thus by the age of 30 they are grandmothers and at the age of 40 they consider themselves to be old. Balázs asserted that Bogdán’s focus on violent Roma men is “internalized racism,” which only strengthens the prejudice of the majority population. Moreover, when the people of Cserdi gave away produce to needy people, he came up with the slogan “We didn’t steal them from you; we grew them for you.” His paternalistic leadership is not conducive to the development of local initiatives. Balázs also blames the media, whose darling “the ambitious mayor” became, while the true Roma human rights activists’ voices can barely be heard.

And that leads us to the fateful meeting between the leadership of the Roma Parliament and László Bogdán on September 25, where the first alleged assault on the mayor took place. The video is available on YouTube, included here. At the meeting there was a clash between two entirely different views. The chief aim of the human rights activists is to reduce the majority community’s prejudice. László Bogdán, by contrast, maintains that the prejudice against the Roma is not entirely unwarranted and that in order to minimize or eliminate prejudice the Gypsy community must change. They must become hard-working and responsible members of society. His opponents consider some of his ideas outright racist. During the two-hour meeting Bogdán received a lot of criticism from Roma leaders who don’t share his vision. Aladár Horváth, who is the president of the Roma Parliament, opened the meeting by comparing the Cserdi model to Jobbik’s Érpatak model, where a bizarre character, Mihály Zoltán Orosz, runs the show “with an iron fist.” As I wrote in a post about Érpatak, “law and order dominate” the village. After this less than complimentary introduction, Bogdán delivered a speech in which he praised the Cserdi model which, one must admit, works very well. In the question and answer period there were some sticky questions about his conviction, and several people compared Bogdán’s ideas on Roma issues to those of Jobbik. There were people who called him a Nazi. At the end, Jenő Zsigó, an important Roma human rights activist, rose and delivered a powerful speech.

Jenő Zsigó at the Roma Parliament meeting, September 25, 2017

Jenő Zsigó, unlike Bogdán, has a stellar background. He comes from a family of musicians, a group that was always considered to be the aristocracy of the Gypsy community. He received two diplomas from ELTE, one in education and the other in sociology. Both of his theses were related to questions about the Roma community. He has been especially active in propagating Roma art and folk music.

In his speech Zsigó compared Bogdán to Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. He accused him of developing a “system of dependency,” a kind of “feudalistic system” where in Cserdi everything depends on him. When Bogdán says that “there is no need for human rights advocates,” he denies the rule of law. When Bogdán says that there is no need to break up the Gypsy ghettos, he is promoting segregation. The speech was an indictment of the things that the human rights advocates find reprehensible in Bogdán’s model.

Unfortunately, Bogdán had to leave, and therefore we don’t know what kinds of arguments he would have used in the face of Zsigó’s criticism. But he promised that, if invited, he would gladly return. I suspect that if Bogdán had had the opportunity, he would have said: “And how much have you managed to achieve with your human rights advocacy? Is there less prejudice today than 30 years ago? I at least can show a village that is thriving.” As a friend remarked to me: “Zsigó is an excellent civil rights and minority leader, who is very convincing. In turn, Bogdán is also an excellent man with real results. The question is which is better in improving the life of the Gypsy community. Both positions have their weaknesses. Zsigó’s fight for equality and tolerance meets head on with the majority’s pejorative opinion, while Bogdán’s talking about ‘good Gypsies’ (people of Cserdi) and ‘bad Gypsies’ (the overwhelming majority) only adds to the prevailing racism in Hungary.”

November 6, 2017

The famous Gypsy politician’s reputation has been tarnished

Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum are well acquainted with the name of László Bogdán, “the miracle worker of Cserdi.” I have mentioned him innumerable times, and at least twice I devoted full posts to him. Bogdán is the Roma mayor of Cserdi, a small village in Baranya County where the majority of the inhabitants are Gypsy. He is an impressive man who, although he had little schooling, is exceedingly articulate with a large vocabulary and surprising eloquence. His story is anything but typical. He started off sweeping the floors of a multinational company in Pécs, but his superiors discovered him and kept promoting him until he was heading one of the departments of the factory. In my first post on Bogdán I wrote: “Why he left his cushy job I have no idea, but he decided to run for parliament. When he lost, he settled for being the mayor of Cserdi, his birthplace.” In the last few days we have learned that Bogdán’s sudden departure from Elcoteq was not exactly voluntary.

Bogdán was already a media star in Hungary and had many admirers abroad as early as 2014, when I first wrote about him. His fame since then has only grown. I devoted another post to him, saying that he is “still the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi.” He is in the news constantly. After the inhabitants of Őcsény rebelled at the idea of having a Syrian family spend a few days in their village, Bogdán offered Cserdi as a place where the residents would welcome them. Again, the Hungarian media was full of praise for the enlightened and generous Gypsy leader who is ready to stand by another despised minority. It was in the midst of this new media tsunami that something happened that may have tarnished the sterling reputation of the mayor of Cserdi for good.

MTI / Photo: Zoltán Balogh

Judit Péterfi, who has a program on HírTV called “Privátszféra” (Private Sphere), was filming a 40-minute program about the everyday life of László Bogdán. As part of the program, the staff of HírTV accompanied him to a forum where he was to give a lecture. The forum was organized by the Roma Parliament, a group that doesn’t approve of Bogdán’s views on the issues confronting the Roma minority. Judit Péterfi made a notation on Privátszféra’s Facebook page to the effect that Bogdán, accompanied by the camera crew, arrived all smiles but soon “felt uneasy” as the debate heated up and that “at the time of his departure he was kicked and spat on by someone or someones from behind.” The claim was that Bogdán’s pro-refugee position prompted the assault.

Judit Péterfi, as it turned out, heard about the incident from Bogdán himself because the reporter and her crew had left before the end of the meeting. Those 20-22 people who were present reported to Index, the news site that became interested in the story, that the gathering was peaceful; they did have some arguments, but the atmosphere was in no way strained. Aladár Horváth, president of Roma Parliament, reported that he and a couple of others accompanied Bogdán to the taxi that waited for him because he was on his way to give an interview for Olga Kálmán’s program “Egyenesen” (Straight). During the interview Bogdán didn’t say anything about an assault.

A few days later the rumor circulated that, in addition to the incident in Budapest, someone wanted to run Bogdán down by car in Pécs. After the alleged incidents Bogdán disappeared for almost a whole month. Both Index and Szabad Pécs tried to get in touch with him, to no avail. Eventually, on October 25, exactly a month after the meeting, RomNet, a Roma news site, tracked him down. The explanation for his silence was a bit of a stretch. Why would these incidents be a trigger for Jobbik or other anti-Roma groups to raise anti-Gypsy feelings in the country? However, he didn’t change his story about the assaults, both in Budapest and in Pécs. Moreover, a day later, he accused Aladár Horváth of “mild racist thoughts” based on an angry Facebook entry by the president of the Roma Parliament in which he said that Bogdán was “still a Romanian slave in his soul.” (On Gypsy slavery in Romania, see this blog post.)

The next day Pécs Ma (Pécs Today), a right-wing internet site, reported that Bogdán hadn’t left Elcoteq of his own volition. In 2010 the firm accused him of embezzlement. The charge was that he, together with an accomplice, had moved cell phones and other electronic parts off the premises. In 2014 he received a suspended jail sentence of two years and had to pay a fine of 200,000 forints.

All of this has shaken the trust of those who have admired and promoted László Bogdán. I assume that the story was especially painful for the staff of HírTV, specifically for Judit Péterfi and Olga Kálmán. At last, on November 2, after a long hiatus, Bogdán appeared as the guest of Olga Kálmán at his own request. During the interview he admitted that he had been sentenced for embezzlement but claimed to be innocent of the charges. A subcontractor of Elcoteq stole the goods and stored them in a warehouse that he rented from Bogdán. Bogdán had no idea that the goods stored there had been stolen. Otherwise, he repeated the charge that his fellow Gypsy leaders were in some way responsible for the physical attacks on him. But, he added, he doesn’t know who the culprit was. The interview can be seen here.

November 5, 2017

The eviction of Roma organizations

Budapest Beacon reported on November 1, 2016 on the eviction of two Roma organizations from their headquarters:

Hungarian NGOs Roma Parliament and Phralipe Independent Gypsy Organization were forcibly evicted from their Budapest District 8 headquarters last Sunday, reports mno.hu. Several police cars arrived along with removal trucks to evict the organizations from the building at Tavaszmező street 6, citing the dilapidated and “life-threatening” state of the property as well as arrears as the reason for the eviction.

The district claims that the organizations have unpaid debts to the district government, something both organizations deny. Phralipe has regularly paid its bills, has no outstanding debts and has a valid lease agreement with the district, Phralipe president Béla Babos told Népszava. He dismissed the district’s claims that the building is life-threatening as an “alibi”, claiming that his organization received no warning prior to the eviction.

The district claims that the Roma Parliament owes “several hundred-thousand forints,” and had refused earlier offers to move into a different property. However, the organization’s president Aladár Horváth denies this, citing a 2011 court decision that found they had no debts to the district or to utility providers.

The district has been pressuring the organizations to relocate for some time, reportedly offering them the choice of five properties which, according to Horváth, were “small and moldy.” Although willing to relocate in principle, the organization ultimately insisted on remaining in the Tavaszmező street property until the district offered them “a property of similar size and quality,” Horváth said, adding that the NGO had repeatedly requested that its current lease be extended. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” said Babos, who claims that the organizations were current with their rent and utility bills.

The eviction comes after several years of attempts by local authorities to “drive away the sole surviving, system-critical, independent umbrella organization” for Roma, according to a statement issued by the Roma Parliament.  Withdrawing a lawsuit brought against the NGO for alleged arrears dating to 2011, the district refused to conclude a new lease contract, classifying the organization as occupying the building without title.  According to the statement, the lack of a valid lease precluded the organization from applying for grants, and forced it to substantially reduce its operating costs.

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Dávid Balogh

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Dávid Balogh

The day after the eviction, the Ministry of Human Resources announced  that the former offices of Roma Parliament and Phralipe, which police claimed were “life-threatening”, were to house the Cziffra György Roma Education and Cultural Center, an organization founded and funded by the government. 

According to its statement, the Roma local government first heard of the government’s intention to install a new Roma organization in their headquarters last year, and initial negotiations took place with the “expert” input of House of Terror director Mária Schmidt (“To this day, it is not clear what she has to do with Roma culture,” reads the statement) and Budapest District 8 mayor Máté Kocsis (Fidesz).

According to the statement, Kocsis reneged on his promise to invite the Roma Parliament to subsequent negotiations, which allegedly took place without its involvement.  

The groups suspect the government of creating a “token gypsy” organization to “colonize the cultural and spiritual heritage” of the 25-year-old organization. “The corporatist system itself is building (on a small site for a lot of money) a pro-government cultural and public center where the servile Roma intellectuals, created in their own image, can take a place on the Board of Patrons,” Roma Parliament said in the statement.

According to its website, the Roma Parliament was founded in 1990 as “the first non-governmental umbrella organization for Roma” which works “for mass-scale changes to the situations of Hungarian Roma” through legal advocacy, cultural identity foundations, art and public life programs, among others. The group had been in its Tavaszmező street location since 1990.

Below is the statement of two of the leaders of the Roma Parliament, Aladár Horváth and Jenő Zsigó.

 

Farewell to Hungarys Roma Parliament

Hungary’s Roma Parliament will bid farewell in a ceremony on Wednesday afternoon, November 2, to its headquarters, which the State has ransacked, and intends to knock down. The Roma Parliament has worked here for 25 years. The break-up is the next stage in a spate of state terror that two weeks ago closed the main left-wing daily paper, Népszabadság. Its trumped-up reasons (a hazardous building) coincide with a government order saying it needs it for other purposes.

We look forward to seeing at the ceremony all who view as vital Hungarian democracy that embraces the Gypsy community and the Roma Parliament’s work over a quarter-century. We especially count on the “family” of the Roma Parliament and its forebear, Amaro Drom

  •  our scholarship and summer-camp students,
  • bands, musicians and performers who played on our stages,
  •  journalists, poets, writers, critics and analysts papers that Amaro Drom published,
  • artists who did the murals on the historic walls of our building,
  • those to whom we gave legal and welfare aid and representation over the decades,
  • those active in our social, public and political training events, notably the Roma Academy,
  • all past and present members, heads and staff members; all who inspired the Roma Parliament, in whose communities they grew up.

In recent years, the Józsefváros LGO has tried several times to oust the one independent umbrella organization critical of the system and working for Roma togetherness. Most recently in 2011‒12, the courts ruled an LGO application to dispossess us was unfounded: the Roma Parliament was not in debt to the owner or any utility company. The LGO withdrew its case, but despite a promise, did not reinstate the tenancy unilaterally and suspended on false claims of indebtedness. So it could claim the Roma Parliament held the building without a legal basis. This excluded us also from fund applications. So heads and members of the organization had to cover their shrunken maintenance costs from its own sources of income, the art gallery, meetings, conferences and concerts.

Government Order No. 1785/2014 (December 18) provided for founding a new Capital City Roma Cultural and Methodological Education Centre. (This body under the Capital City LGO performs no meaningful activity. It came into being by annexing the internationally known Gypsy House headed earlier by Jenő Zsigó. Its premises were in Szentkirályi utca, in Józsefváros’s fashionable Palotanegyed, where “regular voters” live. The Fidesz-led LGO refused to renovate it and the money to do so returned to LGO funds. Now that nearly one-billion forints is to be the “starting capital” for implementing the government order.)

We first heard a year and a half ago that the new institution was to rise from the ruins of the Roma Parliament. The specialists brought in to negotiated said so: Mária Schmidt, Director-General of the Terror House (what she has to do with Roma culture is still unclear), and Máté Kocsis, Mayor of Józsefváros, told us the new building was planned for the site of the Roma Parliament at Tavaszmező utca 6. In July last year we approached the Mayor requesting we be drawn into the talks, which he promised, but our organization was never invited. In December we ran a conference on the matter and invited the Mayor and Assistant State Secretary, but they did not come. We showed a photograph series, “Misplaced Dreams”, of 19 civil Roma initiatives in the last four decades for institutions of Roma cultural autonomy (Roma theater, museum, national cultural and arts center, Capital City Gypsy House etc.), all defeated. We also showed a 20th, the fine architectural proposal devised by the Roma Parliament and its professionals in 2009, whereby the Tavaszmező utca premises would convert into our own cultural and community center. (The technical side was done by the Technical University’s architecture professor with four of his students and landscape architecture students of Corvinus University ‒ could this now be the official plan, shed of us?)

The response to our initiative was a single official letter calling on us to vacate the premises.

Then on the initiative of the Fidesz-member head of Józsefváros Roma local government we were offered five premises ‒ outside the district, mainly small and musty or distant and unmaintainable ‒ which we rejected. On April 14, 2016 we wrote to the Minister of Human Resources, Capital City Mayor and heads of the district, requesting they either leave the Roma Parliament where it is and conclude a new contract with us, or provide us with convenient premises similar in size and quality, for our events and storing and displaying our collection of over 200 paintings.

A reply to our Ministry letter came from Károly Czibere, State Secretary for “Social Catch-up”, on 9 May 2016: Tavaszmező utca 6 was to be the “Capital City Roma Centre”… which was “also backed by the patrons’ committee of famed Roma artists convened by Minister Balog, who were informed of details at a patronage supper on July 18, 2016.”

The LGO made no attempt to meet our requests for the new premises. Indeed they attached conditions we could not meet: the local Roma local government could have the old studio of Radio C in Teleki tér (incidentally unsuited to the purpose) and rent it to us, etc.

It became clear that the political motive was to make the Roma Parliament disappear, not find it premises. That explained the lack of honest communication or willingness to agree, and messages rather than dialogue.

Every letter from State Secretary Czibere reiterated that “the aim of the Ministry and the LGO is for Tavaszmező utca 6 to transfer to state ownership by agreement…. From what has been said I do not think anyone will decide your fate without consultation. Our hopes are to find a solution to housing your organization as soon as possible” (letter of August 15, 2016).

Two weeks later we read in the press that the LGO would make a legal attempt to push out the Roma Parliament.

On the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution, Józsefváros LGO broke into the Roma Parliament, emptied it and closed it, while the case was still before the court. It was officially held that the building was dangerous. Yet the government website announced next day the formation of a Cziffra György Roma Education and Culture Centre, to be housed at Tavaszmező utca 6: “The choice in consultation with Józsefváros LGO fell on Tavaszmező utca 6…. which the LGO undertook to empty.” No wonder we were not allowed back in the dangerous building! Meanwhile an illegal stocktaking of our intellectual and cultural goods, artworks, archives, financial documents and valuables built up over 25 years was made and they were taken to an unknown place. We tried to discuss our possessions and documents with the Józsefváros Mayor, but he did not deign to reply.

By a seemingly unstoppable process, Hungary uses illiberal (Mafia-like, dictatorial) force to pull down 25-year walls of a civil-rights movement and colonize its cultural and intellectual heritage. Its corporative system means building (on a small area at high cost) a governing-party cultural and public center with patrons who are servile Roma intellectuals shaped in its own image.

It was painful but expected. The Roma Parliament has no truck with Hungary’s authoritarianism, opposes it vehemently, and supports the Republic. We stand by Roma pushed out of many places, thrust from Székesfehérvár, driven to Canada from Miskolc. Our fate is theirs. We too are pursued.

At this point we must bid farewell to the Roma Parliament, the iron stair decorations, stuccoes, ’56 bullet holes on the front, frescoes on the stairs, stage, theatre and our Home. But we can never bid farewell to our civil revolutionary ideas embodied there until our dream of equal dignity and chances of social inclusion for the Roma becomes reality.

October 30, 2016.

November 2, 2016

Eviction looming for both Roma and non-Roma poor in Székesfehérvár

Press Release of the Roma Parliament

Residents of Székesfehérvár—largely Hungarian citizens of Roma ethnicity—have turned to our organization for assistance in confronting their housing crisis. In three meetings in July, a total of 30 families asked the Roma Parliament to represent them and defend their legal rights and interests. According to the families, there are at least 60 to 80 households, or about 500 individuals, currently at risk of eviction and becoming homeless. Among those who asked for our assistance about a third are not Roma. Our assessment is that among those are being evicted about half are Roma and half non-Roma Hungarians. Most have had no warning and are currently debt-free. They earn the minimum wage or below, mostly from public works.

One local resident, Elvira Lakatos, put it this way: “We take bread away from our children’s mouths so there would be a roof over our heads.”

The Székesfehérvár city hall is not extending leases that are up for renewal or is presenting reasons to annul the leases on such grounds as that families hosted relatives for 3-5 days and did not report the visit, families do not use the property for their own purposes, the family has been living in the apartment long enough to have saved money to take care of the rent on an apartment on their own. No official justification for the evictions has been provided.

The locals are guessing that the apartments are needed for 30 NATO soldiers, the Videoton business, skilled laborers from abroad, or perhaps Hungarians impacted by the foreign-currency denominated mortgage crisis.

The apartments in question were largely built with EU funding for the purpose of housing the Roma community and disabled individuals. We met one individual confined to a wheelchair who will have to leave his home within three months.

Thus far we have met with ten families who have either become homeless or are staying with relatives as a result of the new evictions. One retired, ill Roma individual left so as not to lose custody of grandchildren. The Lakatos and Szajkó families had their children taken away (three each), and the children are now staying with foster parents while their parents live in the forest. One individual now residing in the forest—Noémi—goes from the forest to her job as a cleaner at a supermarket.

The Roma Parliament on July 27 considered the concerns of the Roma and non-Roma families, and presented the individuals now living in the Palotavárosi forest, separated from their children.

In the name of the 30 families who turned to us for representation, we are demanding:

  • An immediate halt to evictions and a pledge to impacted families that the city will not follow in the footsteps of Miskolc’s anti-Roma policies.
  • In the case of those currently living in the forest, we request assistance, housing support, and custody of their children.
  • A review of the municipality’s policies and decision-making, especially when it comes to families with children, ill individuals, pensioners, and grandparents.
  • A municipal decision annulling eviction decisions made over the past months.
  • Assessments of the socioeconomic condition and income levels of families impacted, to be used when examining future changes in residence to avoid threats to the well-being of families.

We call upon the leadership of the city as well as on political parties not to repeat the professional and political mistakes of the 1997-2000 Székesfehérvár ghetto affair. We ask that local officials and politicians use current evidence, not outdated, ten-year-old photos. We also ask that they respect the basic rights of their citizens and voters and show the city’s residents—Roma and non-Roma—that they have representation.

These are the goals of the Roma Parliament.

 

The statement of the city of Székesfehérvár

The response of the city of Székesfehérvár to Aladár Horváth’s press conference is a lengthy and somewhat confusing statement that it is not easy to follow. The announcement begins with a denial that the evacuation decision has anything to do with ethnic discrimination, which is odd in light of Horváth’s own admission that only half of the families to be evicted are Roma. The city’s account also includes such, in my opinion, superfluous pieces of information as that unemployment in Székesfehérvár is low and that the earlier elimination of “infamous ghettos met with the approval of the overwhelming majority of the people of Fehérvár.”

Following these introductory remarks come some details regarding the four “evicted” families mentioned in Horváth’s press release who found shelter in the forest. It is hard to decipher what the real situation is, but it seems that six non-Roma and two Roma individuals do live in the forest and that they are being taken care of by “the street activists of the Crisis Center on a daily basis.” It is not clear from the city’s release whether these eight people have anything to do with the eviction of individuals from low-income housing that Horváth is talking about.

City officials deny Horváth’s claim that the families are not behind on their rent. At least “one Roma couple owes a sizable amount of money on their rent” and they are guilty as well of a “total disregard of the rules of cohabitation.” The city claims that this couple has been offered “several possibilities for their housing needs” but they declined all offers. The fact that the official statement mentions only one family leads me to believe that the others are indeed current on their rent.

The town officials explain that the real reason for the evictions is the city fathers’ desire to have a turnover in the inhabitants of these low-rent apartments owned by the town. The idea is that families in need should stay no longer than three to eight years, during which time they should be able to get on their feet and move to apartments available on the open marketplace. Some of the families have been living in these buildings for the last 17 years.

It seems from the above explanation that among those about to be evicted were some, perhaps most, who paid their rent regularly. It’s just that the authorities thought that they had overstayed their welcome. Whether these people were aware of this policy, whether it was in fact a policy, is not at all clear.

Finally, the city’s statement contains several before and after pictures showing old low-income housing occupied by Roma families and what was recently built to replace it. The contrast is striking (with the discarded junk I assume intended to reflect poorly on the occupants) but unfortunately irrelevant.

fehervar1

Fehervar2

The problem is that the new housing units seem intended for an entirely different segment of society. Those who are facing eviction currently live in apartment buildings, not in the slum-like “before” housing. Wherever they end up if they are evicted, it won’t be in the attractive low-income housing that was opened with great fanfare recently. The city fathers obviously believe they’ve been subsidized long enough and that it’s time for them to pay the going rate for housing. There were dozens of pictures taken at the time the new housing was opened, and I couldn’t spot one Roma among the occupants. They look to me to be mostly elderly white folks with a sprinkling of middle-aged or young people.

Fehervar3

The city of Székesfehérvár declared on July 27 after Aladár Horváth’s press conference that it had followed all the rules and regulations and that, as far as the city’s low-income housing is concerned, there is perfect understanding in the city council. For example, the recent statement of Roland Márton, the head of the MSZP-DK-Együtt caucus, reflects consensus on the issue. I may add that the Székesfehérvár city council consists of 15 Fidesz, 1 Jobbik, 1 independent, and 3 MSZP-DK-Együtt members. I couldn’t find a copy of Roland Márton’s statement.

July 31, 2016

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 plight of the Hungarian Roma: Writings of a Catholic bishop and a Roma activist

Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác, has been in the news quite a bit lately. He called media attention to himself on September 21 when he asked the priests of the churches in his bishopric to read a letter to his “brethren in Christ.” His circular took as its prompting text the gospel reading for the day, the parable from Matthew 20:1-16 about the householder who hired unemployed workers for his vineyard and gave the same amount of money to all without regard to how much time they spent working during the day. Beer thought it was finally time to talk about the miserable lot of the Roma minority in Hungary.

People were surprised to learn about the circular because until now the Catholic Church has remained quiet about the mass poverty that followed the change of regime in 1990. Gypsies who until then were employed, mostly in the building industry, as unskilled laborers were the first ones to find themselves out of a job, and the integration of Gypsies and non-Gypsies that had begun during the Kádár regime came to a screeching halt. Gypsies today live a segregated existence in villages far from job opportunities, and prejudice against them has grown to new heights.

Beer in this circular was battling prejudice. The Gypsy, he wrote, is also the child of God; “as Christians we cannot pass the responsibility to others.” He emphasized something that few Hungarians accept: “the Gypsies did not seek their misery and cannot raise themselves alone without our help.” What would Christ do today for the Roma in Hungary? The biblical answer is that “although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Magyar Nemzet decided it was time to interview this would-be social reformer. In the interview Beer said a few things that don’t sit well with the majority of Hungarians. “Let’s not be angry with them when perhaps they take produce from someone else’s property because their children are starving since, despite their efforts, they cannot find employment.” Public works might be a first step, but it is not the answer in the long run. He also criticized some of the efforts of the Orbán government–for instance, the programs that cost billions of forints that gave Gypsy families one-day-old chicks or seed potatoes without teaching them how to take care of the chicks or what to do with the seed potatoes. Above all, he said, “we must strengthen their self-esteem.” Since Beer likes to refer to Pope Francis, some journalists started calling him “our Pope Francis.”

Bishop Beer’s latest was his midnight Christmas sermon broadcast on MTV1, which became available on YouTube two days later. He talked about the darkness that will be followed by light. Darkness is what divides people: jealousy, wickedness, party strife, suspicion, falseness, corruption, lies, political machinations. And he quoted Attila József’s famous poem “My country,” which was an indictment of the Horthy regime. József was right, says Beer, when he talked about the “wily fear that directs us.”* Thus Beer compared the present situation to the 1930s when the poem was written. As I watched the parishioners’ faces I wondered how much of the subtext of Beer’s sermon they understood.

*Unfortunately, this particular poem is not available in English but I found a translation in French. See the link given above.

* * *

Continuing today’s theme, here is a recent article by Aladár Horváth on the plight of the Hungarian Roma community. Horváth is a former member of parliament (SZDSZ) and a Roma activist.

 

PROTEST, FIGHT OR FLIGHT

Next year’s budget has pronounced the death sentence on the poor living in torturous poverty. From next March on, the governing majority will cease state assistance (regular welfare, nursing care and habitation support), waiving all duties connected to welfare to the care of municipal governments in severe lack of resources. It will be subject to restricted local budgets and the will and caprice of local potentates who can get what kind of assistance under what legal title. This will exclude tens or hundreds of thousands more from minimal assistance, while the corrupt elite of billionaires is sentencing at least one million people to death, leaving further three million behind “on the street” – as envisioned by László Bogár, a chief government ideologue.

This cannot merely be looked upon as a further station on the road of a series of bloodsucking measures; these policies already satisfying the criterion of genocide.Especially if you consider them together with the system of public works (“work makes you free”), the political practice of legalizing the segregation of Gypsy children, while depriving the Roma from civil and human rights institutions and ethnic organization, added to the segregated nature of urban Roma ghettos and village “reservations”– in other words, full segregation: you can safely say that apartheid in Hungary has been institutionalized.

As no rational economic argument exists for “saving”this barely 40 billion HUF [about 150 million USD], since “Hungary is performing better”[1]– this is barely the price of three soccer stadiums, a fraction of the cost of the Prime Minister’s planned residence in the Buda Castle, or the annual consignments of Közgép,[2] in other words, it amounts to the salaries of a few CEO’s of any Hungarian company that “performs better” –, only calculated political interest can be behind this decision. This is confirmed by the government communiqué that says the reason for such restrictions are people showing up on welfare payment days at the post office “with large SUV’s.”As much as we know the “natural history” of corrupt post-Soviet or further banana republics,we can safely suppose that this is a strategy of conscious scapegoat creation, an evil and bastardly manipulation cooked up in the witches’ kitchen of Hungarian government policies.

To wit, if there is no money for a family to pay for breakfast, blankets, or, God forgive, medicines for a small child, the parent will face a choice. Starvation, sickness, suffering and early death, or committing criminal acts.The consequence of the latter will be being caught and going to jail. Which leads on to the volunteer spiral of drugs, prostitution and violence.And as the number of criminal cases grows, society itself will demand even tougher measures against criminals, contributing to an even further restriction of civil rights, while “blue-light” [police] news will distract attention from the responsibility of the true culprits.

As no doubt the highest number of criminal acts investigated will be among those who are most oppressed and most monitored: the Roma– they’re the ones that can whip the news media into a frenzy –, you can safely say that the racial hatred stirred against Gypsies will be such a fuel in the hands of the government that riots can be provoked any time, then a state of emergency, and then nothing will matter more to people than to control those who upset the public order.

I suggest two avenues of action to those that do not derive advantages from this regime, unless they want to die in humiliation and live a life of suffering, dying 20 years earlier or spending long and tortuous years in prison: fight of flight.

My dear companions in distress, if you don’t believe in change, in demolishing this corrupt apartheid system and building a livable country in its place, and if you are able, go and find a new home country for a time or for good! A country where your values matter more than the color of your skin, where people count upon your knowledge and your work, where your children can grow up in safety with smiles, where struggling has a purpose, where you can be yourself. If you don’t have a good profession, language skills, funds or the strength to leave your country of birth which has denied you, or if you believe in yourself and in the chance of change, and if you are standing on your feet, struggle and fight for a new system change, for a new republic which can be home to every one of its citizens, and so can for you too!

Either of these decisions are tough, but those that wish to live in dignity will have to decide and take a step. Those of you that choose to stay in Hungary: get in contact with the people’s resistance movements, the new civil organizations, the parties under formation! And please participate in mass demonstrations: make the Roma visible! This promises perspectives because every power built upon evil must collapse once. We can only hope that the coming chaos and the civil war are not going to bury innocent people. A new Republic will be built upon new foundations in the place of the former one,[3] and this time, together with the Roma.

—-

Published in Népszabadság Online, December 27, 2014

[1] Recent slogan of Prime Minister Orbán – the translator

[2] The largest construction company close to the government, winning all tenders for road constructions and renovations –the translator

[3] Hungary is no longer a republic – the new Constitution in effect since April 2012 only defines the country as “Hungary” – the translator

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.