Tag Archives: Jenő Zsigó

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 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