Tag Archives: prejudice

László Bogdán, the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

The support of the three opposition parties for Albert Pásztor, former police chief of Miskolc, as the city’s mayoral hopeful caused a huge political storm which still hasn’t subsided. Representatives of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia or the intellectual elite, as Hungarians like to call this group, have been up in arms. How could these parties ever support a man who five years ago showed himself to be a racist?

Actually, the real target of their ire is the Demokratikus Koalíció. Since the central leadership of Együtt-PM distanced itself from the party’s local representative in Miskolc, critics left Együtt-PM more or less alone. They didn’t bother themselves with MSZP either because, as some of them admit, they don’t have great expectations of the socialists. After all, the party led by Attila Mesterházy, echoing Fidesz, endorsed “law and order” as an answer to society’s ills. DK is the only party that had consistently stood for the rights of all minorities. Its members and voters, all polls indicate, are the least prejudiced against foreigners, Gypsies, Jews, and gays. The intellectual elite expected more from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party. How could it support a racist?

And here we are in trouble because, as I know from personal experience in private debates with friends and acquaintances, we cannot even agree on what racism is. There are people who think that mentioning the ethnic origin of a person already indicates racist tendencies. Thus, when Albert Pásztor the other day announced that he will treat everybody the same without “regard to origin,” some people cried foul. He shouldn’t have mentioned people’s ethnic origins at all. And yet there are a large number of policemen who are truly racists and who don’t apply the same standards when dealing with Gypsies and non-Gypsies. So, if Pásztor wants to treat everyone equally, this should be considered a step in the right direction.

Some people are reluctant to talk about some of the serious problems that crop up between Roma and non-Roma. But is it racism to talk about the difficulties that exist between the majority and the minority cultures? I guess it depends on the source. One can detect the attitude of the speaker easily enough. Criticism can be well-meaning or hateful.

And what should we do with a Gypsy who passionately wants to change the situation of his fellow men and women but who at the same time is very critical of the majority of the Roma today. I am thinking of László Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, a village that lies between Bükkösd and Szentlőrinc in Baranya County.

Bogdán is a man in his late forties who became the mayor of Cserdi about nine years ago. He has transformed the heavily Roma village. How did he do it? The change didn’t come overnight, but by now his accomplishments are known as “the cserdi csoda” (the miracle of Cserdi). When he became mayor, Cserdi was riddled with petty crimes. On the average 200 a year. Today, there are only two or three. Unemployment was extraordinarily high, just in all Baranya villages with large Roma populations. Today, anyone who wants to work can.

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

Bogdán was born in great poverty. He told Olga Kálmán the other day on ATV that he was thirteen years old when he finally had a pair of shoes of his own. Thirty years ago he got a job at a multinational company, cleaning the yard of the factory. Then one day they needed someone to pack the factory’s products. He kept going up and up until he was heading a department. 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.

Cserdi by now owns a fair sized forest the residents themselves established. They have 3,500 square meters of green houses, and they sell their produce in Pécs. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. The village owns a house on Lake Balaton. They fixed up most of the houses in the village. Bathrooms were installed in some of the Roma houses that had not known such a luxury. This summer Cserdi organized a summer school for the children. All this is an incredible accomplishment.

And yet Bogdán is a controversial man because of his rather draconian methods of dealing with his workers. He expects excellence, punctuality, and very hard work. And he is harsh with those who don’t perform. If one of the public workers doesn’t show up on time, he is “punished.” He has to read aloud from Micimackó ( Winnie the Pooh) to his fellow workers. He took some of the young people to a jail in Pécs so they could see what is waiting for them if they end up there.

Is Bogdán’s method more effective than some of the others that are being tried at a few places–very few places–in the country? I really don’t know, but I was impressed by the man. He is intelligent and very outspoken. For instance, if it depended on him, he would abolish the whole system of Roma self-government since he believes it does more harm than good. Many of the leaders, as he put it, are barely literate, and their aggressive behavior only alienates the majority population.

László Bogdán’s interview with Olga Kálmán / Egyenes beszéd / ATV

I have no idea whether Bogdán is right. But let’s go back to my pondering about who is racist and who is not. Is Bogdán a racist because he is more critical of the Roma community than most non-Roma? Is it racist to say, as he does, that Gypsies “must learn how to behave”? These are very difficult questions.

We know that the great divide between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians must be minimized. And this means that both sides have to change. The majority population will have to shed its incredible prejudice while the minority must be given the opportunity to achieve a higher economic and social status. But it is hellishly difficult to find the right way to this goal.

Hungarian university students and politics

As voters go to the polls across the European Union to vote for parliamentary representatives, newspapers are full of stories about the rise of the far right. Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, just released a study which predicts that “in a number of countries (France, Great Britain, Denmark) these [far-right] parties may even finish in first place and in some others (Netherlands, Hungary, Austria) may come in second.” It is possible that the European Parliament will see the formation of a significant pro-Russian, anti-EU group.

Hungarian societal attitudes provide especially fertile ground for right-wing extremism. Prejudice against minorities and foreigners in general is very high in Hungary, 44% of the adult population, while in Germany that figure is 11%. I think one can safely say that widespread prejudice, intolerance, and xenophobia occur mostly in countries where little or no attention is paid to civics. In Hungary civics is at best an afterthought. (By the way, a model of how to make civics engaging can be found on the website of iCivics, an organization founded and led by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.) Hungarian college students are either politically passive or, worse, they despise politics.

A new book edited by Andrea Szabó and available on the Internet analyzes the attitudes of young people who are currently studying for a higher degree. When they were asked how they would define the word “politics” they offered the following answers: 1.strife, tension (6%); 2. lies, scam, fraud (21%); 3. a curse word (15%); 4. corruption, stealing (12%); 5. power, self-interest, responsibility (9%); and 6. government, parliament, democracy (16%). I fear not too many high school teachers read sociological studies such as this one, but these responses should make them sit up and take notice. Hungarian students desperately need to learn the basic precepts of democracy and its institutions. They should also gain an understanding of the European Union and how it functions.

Statements in the survey designed to gain insight into the students’ attitude toward democratic values also resulted in worrisome answers. The first statement was that “the democratic system is better than any other.” Among the students surveyed 42%  agreed, but 23% stated that “under certain circumstances a dictatorship is better than democracy.” Equally worrisome is the large number (23%) of those who are utterly indifferent to the kind of regime they live in. Finally, the researchers reported that 6% of the students believe that the Hungarian situation is so bad that it would be better to introduce a dictatorship in the country.

Interest in politics is also very low among Hungarian university students. They show less interest than did students in the 1970s-1980s. Then 12% said that they were “very much interested in politics.” By the late 1990s only 3-6% answered in the affirmative. And since then the situation has deteriorated further. The same research team that prepared this volume published a study in 2008 when they found that only 2.5% of young people between ages of 15 and 29 showed any interest in political matters. This is a very low number. Hungary is next to last among the 22 countries that participated in the survey. The Czech Republic came in dead last. Denmark led the pack, followed by Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, and Iceland. Even Russia was ahead of Hungary.

So, it’s no wonder, given this rejection of current political life and politicians, that Jobbik with its sharp attack on the establishment and with its easy answers to very difficult questions is popular among Hungarian college students. In 2013 Jobbik was the most popular party (17.3%) closely followed by Fidesz (16%). Last year at least, Együtt14-PM did quite well (13.7%) and LMP also received a fair number of votes (7.7%).  The socialists have insignificant support among this age group (3.1%).

Andrea Szabó defines three prototypes of university students as far as their ideological orientation is concerned. She calls pro-Fidesz students the “Tusványos” generation, named after the yearly Fidesz gatherings in Transylvania. These students are ardent Fidesz believers who accept everything handed to them by the “late Kádár generation,” a term coined by Ákos Róna-Tas for the generation of Viktor Orbán and his followers. The second group consists of Jobbik sympathizers, whom she names “the kuruc.info generation.” And finally, there is the much smaller “critical mass generation,” those who feel close to LMP’s green and anti-capitalist leftist politics.

Unfortunately, the Orbán government’s radical reshaping of the Hungarian educational system and its insistence on blindly following accepted norms will only add to the popularity of Jobbik because it feeds the personality traits of those who are attracted to radicalism: authoritarian impulses, lack of inquisitiveness, nationalism, and intolerance toward others.