Tag Archives: Roma self-government

László Bogdán is still the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

It was just a little over four years ago that I wrote a post on László Bogdán, “the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi,” a small village in Baranya County where about 75% of the inhabitants are Roma. Bogdán is a man of exceptional intelligence, although he has only an eighth-grade education. As a result of his talents and hard work he became the head of a department in a multinational company in Pécs, which was shuttered shortly after Bogdán left the firm. At this point he moved back to the village of his ancestors to become its mayor. Since then, Cserdi has become a showcase of what a small, mostly Gypsy village can achieve with proper leadership. Cserdi by now owns fair sized forests, which the residents themselves established; they have several greenhouses; and they sell their products in Pécs and elsewhere. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. Cserdi was riddled with petty crime before Bogdán became mayor. On average 200 cases a year. Today, Cserdi is practically crime-free. Unemployment used to be extraordinarily high, but nowadays anyone who wants to work can.

Not surprisingly, opposition politicians have been intrigued by Bogdán and Cserdi. In November 2013 Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, went to see Bogdán and, if I recall properly, was ambivalent about Bogdán’s draconian methods of achieving discipline among the Gypsy workers. Bogdán behaves the way an old-fashioned, harsh father would within his own family. He has no compunctions about intruding into the private lives of the Cserdi folks. For example, when some families complained about insufficient wages, he collected their garbage cans to show all the beer cans and empty boxes of cigarettes for everyone to see.

Although some human rights activists have criticized Bogdán, people are still intrigued by his success. A few days ago László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, accompanied by István Ujhelyi, paid a visit to Cserdi. Botka urged Bogdán “to work together for a fairer Hungary which we can all call home.” But Bogdán is a fiercely independent man. As he said in an interview in 2015, he doesn’t want to be “the harlot” of any party.

Bogdán has a very low opinion of the network of Roma self-governments that was set up after 1990. He calls the leaders practically illiterate crooks who pocket billions of euros given for Roma projects. If it depended on him, he would scrap the whole program. He considers Flórián Farkas, Orbán’s favorite Gypsy politician, the greatest enemy of the Hungarian Roma because not only has he embezzled millions but he exhibits all of the traits non-Gypsies associate with Roma culture.

Otherwise, many ideas of the Orbán regime appeal to him. First and foremost, the idea of a “work-based society.” In his opinion, his fellow Gypsies have gotten accustomed to sitting at home and receiving their monthly assistance. Gypsies have to relearn to work. He was apparently horrified listening to a speech by a liberal politician who advocated the notion of basic income. He got so upset that his “legs were shaking,” he was “all nerves.” He approves of the public works program, but not the way it works now. Communities spend the money they receive picking up cigarette butts from the streets instead of directing it to “productive work” and “commercial activities.”

Bogdán is extraordinarily articulate and has plenty of opportunity to express his ideas. Therefore it is relatively easy to piece together his ideas about the ideal way of solving the “Gypsy problem.” Since most Gypsies live in small villages, far away from larger towns and cities which they have difficulty reaching, work must be created locally. And given that these villages are in rural areas, their business activities should be centered on agriculture. The money the communities receive from the central budget should be used to pay decent wages for productive work on public properties, which should be repurposed as agricultural land. This is how he started his Cserdi project. Without any machinery the local Gypsies created a large tract of agricultural land where they planted potatoes. And today, he continues, they are in the process of establishing a small factory that would use their produce to manufacture their own brand of canned goods. He envisages the Cserdi company as one day becoming a large concern that would buy up produce from nearby villages and supply large supermarkets with their “Lasipe” product. Lasipe means “goodness” in Lovari, a Gypsy language spoken in Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia.

This all sounds wonderful, but for that, each Gypsy community would need a sizable amount of initial and continuing capital and, what is even more important, one would need hundreds and hundreds of László Bogdáns. Unfortunately, even if Bogdán were ready to work with the Orbán government, which I highly doubt, Viktor Orbán has no intention of investing much money into a large-scale restructuring of the Roma communities. He is only interested in Gypsy votes, which apparently are guaranteed by Flórián Farkas and his friends, who are running the show at the moment.

I should add that Bogdán’s local fame spread over the years, and he became well known outside of Hungary. He is very enterprising and has received a great deal of assistance from abroad. For example, he made contacts with German companies, which helped with certain projects in Cserdi. As a result, he has traveled extensively abroad. His latest trip was to the United States, apparently arranged by former Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi and Consul-General of New York Ferenc Kumin. The highlight of his three-week visit was the speech he delivered to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, “a body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” The topic of his speech was the serious problem of early marriage among the Roma, with girls becoming pregnant at the age of 12 and by the age of 30 being grandmothers. By 40 they are considered to be old women. He blamed Gypsy men for this state of affairs. He talked about his own insistence that the girls of Cserdi go to school and become educated. The trip to the United States obviously made an impression on him. “I could talk about Hungary as a Hungarian.” He was not distinguished as a Gypsy and therefore inferior.

Lately Bogdán has given a number of interviews that have made quite an impression on his audience. One especially remarkable interview was with Olga Kálmán on HírTV, in which he expressed his mixed feelings about the hate campaign conducted by the Orbán government. As a result, “My status, as a Gypsy, has been elevated somewhat. Now I belong to the third most hated group in this country. Ahead of me are George Soros and the migrants.” He also told Kálmán that as of now all young Gypsies in Cserdi attend high school. That announcement prompted an associate professor at the Budapest Technical University to write to Bogdán. Since her own daughter is studying abroad, she offered her empty room to the first Gypsy girl from Cserdi who is admitted to a college or university in Budapest. Yes, Bogdán can move people to do the right thing.

August 16, 2017

The leader of the Hungarian Roma community under scrutiny

In the last few days several investigative articles have appeared about the growing scandal at the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ), the representative of the Hungarian Roma minority. Although Ákos Hadházy of LMP called attention to corruption in one of the programs under the supervision of ORÖ in early February, the prosecutors didn’t find sufficient cause to investigate. After a while, however, it was impossible to ignore the case because the evidence of wrongdoing was overwhelming. At last an investigation began in early May. NAV, the tax authority, appeared at the headquarters of ORÖ and began collecting documents and computers.

Back in February I wrote about the case and wondered whether the former head of ORÖ, Flórián Farkas, would be investigated this time and whether, if found guilty, he would finally be punished. Until now he has always managed to avoid prosecution. In that post I very briefly outlined Farkas’s run-ins with the law. Here I would like to concentrate on his shady political career.

Flórián Farkas has had assistance from both the left and the right. Currently, he is one of the signatories of the Fidesz-Lungo Drom Alliance; the other signatory is Viktor Orbán. But he also had excellent relations with MSZP during the 1994-1998 period when an MSZP-SZDSZ coalition was in power. It seems that both Gyula Horn of MSZP and Viktor Orbán of Fidesz overlooked Farkas’s misdeeds since, for some strange reason, both thought that he could deliver the Roma vote. Whether he did or not nobody knows.

In every regime, under all governments, Farkas managed not only to survive but to ascend the political hierarchy. According to an article that appeared recently in Népszabadság, he was already active in Roma organizations during the Kádár period, but it was only in the early 1990s that he established Lungo Drom, which eventually became the favorite Roma organization of the Antall government as opposed to the Roma Parliament, which József Antall considered to be too radical. By 1993, among the various Roma organizations, Lungo Drom received the most financial assistance from the government.

Although there had been questions even at that stage about the finances of Lungo Drom, it received the support of the Horn government after 1994. Over the next four years Farkas got into all sorts of scrapes, which an ambitious investigative journalist, Attila B. Hidvégi, tried to learn more about. When Hidvégi was working on a 1995 case involving Farkas, two associates of the Hungarian secret service visited him and told him to stop digging around. He gave up. Farkas obviously had important friends in high places. Another time, when it looked as if his case would end up in the courts, President Árpád Göncz got a phone call from the ministry of justice more or less instructing him to grant Farkas clemency, which meant that the case never went to trial. Moreover, documents pertaining to the affair were declared to be top secret for 30 years.

Before the 1998 election Farkas managed to convince Gyula Horn that he would be able to deliver the Gypsy vote at the forthcoming election. Horn was certainly courting Lungo Drom. He attended its congress in January 1998 where he delivered a speech, which he included in his book Azok a kilencvenes évek… (Those 1990s). In it Horn told his audience that the Roma community has to shape up and do its share in changing the situation of the Gypsy community. Some other Roma communities criticized the prime minister but, as Horn put it in 1999 when the book was written, “Flórián Farkas and I continued to work to realize the programs that had been started.” (p. 472)

Great was the surprise within MSZP when at the end of 2001 Fidesz and Lungo Drom signed an agreement to cooperate politically. This time Farkas misjudged the situation, which was not at all surprising because almost all the opinion polls predicted an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Fidesz lost but Viktor Orbán made sure that Farkas’s name was placed high enough on the party list that he would easily become a member of parliament, where he served for two terms as a member of the Fidesz caucus.

Since 2010 Farkas’s influence has grown considerably, especially after he signed a formal alliance with the government to craft the country’s Roma strategy.

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

A few days ago, Magyar Nemzet suggested that perhaps the greatest task Hungary has to undertake in the coming years is to find a solution to the problems of the Hungarian Roma community. The author of the article estimated that 20% of all Hungarian children under the age of five are Roma. If this new generation cannot be rescued from the kind of poverty and low educational attainment the Roma community currently experiences, the future of the Hungarian economy will be in serious jeopardy. The article accused the so-called Roma elite of betraying their own people. But in the final analysis, I believe, Hungarian politicians, past and present, are perhaps even more responsible for the prevailing situation. They were the ones who handed over billions and billions of forints coming from the European Union to corrupt Roma leaders.

The Roma politicians around Fidesz have their own enablers in the Orbán government. Index learned that Tamás Köpeczi-Bócz, an assistant undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, is a suspect in the case involving the financial manipulations of ORÖ. He is in charge of the coordination of EU funds, including a sizable amount of money for Roma affairs. Apparently, it is thanks to him that no investigation of the affairs of ORÖ took place until now because he informed the prosecutors that all expenses were absolutely legitimate. In brief, it seems he is part and parcel of the fraud that has been perpetrated for years.

Magyar Nemzet learned that Farkas has the exclusive right to choose Roma politicians to fill certain government positions. That’s why, claims the paper, Lívia Járóka, a former member of the EU Parliament, was dropped by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, take a look at her biography in Wikipedia. One has to wonder why she was shipped off to Brussels in the first place. And why, after two terms, did she disappear into nothingness? The Wikipedia article ends with this sentence: “As of September 2014 she is no longer listed on the European Parliament site as an MEP.” Can Hungary afford to dispense with a Roma politician of this caliber? Viktor Orbán obviously believes that it can.

Commentators think that Flórián Farkas has never been closer to being indicted, especially since there are signs that the Orbán government might stop shielding him. János Lázár announced that if Farkas cannot clear his name, the prime minister will withdraw confidence in him. Népszabadság noted that Lungo Drom is no longer mentioned as an ally on Fidesz’s website. But who will come after  him? Offhand, I don’t see any serious, reliable candidate for the job.

Corruption in Roma organizations: The case of Flórián Farkas

If you were to ask László Bogdán, the maverick, controversial Roma mayor of Cserdi in Baranya County, he would tell you that the Roma organizations that allegedly represent Hungary’s Roma minority should all be abolished. In his opinion, these people are the worst enemies of the Hungarian Roma because they are politically and fiscally corrupt. A large chunk of the billions the European Union and the Hungarian government spent in the last twenty-five years on convergence programs for the Gypsy minority ended up in their pockets.

It’s all too easy to agree with Bogdán. There are just too many stories about local Gypsy leaders pressuring their fellow Roma to cast votes for the mayor they support or to vote for the party that bought their allegiance.

The current scandal is about the disappearance of well over a billion forints from EU funds for a program called “Bridge to Employment.” Implicated in the alleged corruption case is Flórián Farkas, who has been a faithful ally of Viktor Orbán ever since 1998.

It was Ákos Hadházy, the veterinarian from Szekszárd who uncovered the illegal grants of tobacco concessions by local Fidesz officials to friends and Fidesz supporters, who once again unearthed possible fraud. Hadházy nowadays is a member of LMP and spends his spare time digging into possible corruption cases in connection with EU subsidies. He found that the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ/National Roma Self-Government), instead of creating jobs through the “Bridge to Employment” program, spent 31 million forints for office furniture, 26 million for improvements of its headquarters, 28 million to lease ten cars for six months, 19 million for a study about what kind of software the organization should buy, 21 million for seven computers, 31 million for another study on recruitment to the program, and nothing on job creation. The top members of ORÖ are outraged at Farkas’s alleged spending spree.

Farkas’s position in ORÖ is murky. Officially, he is no longer the president of the organization because, according to the new parliamentary rules, a member of parliament cannot have any other job. In December 2014, however, Viktor Orbán named Farkas government commissioner in charge of Roma affairs, and in that capacity he appointed himself head of the “Bridge to Employment” program. Moreover, he seems to have a stranglehold on ORÖ. His successor, István Hegedűs, indicated that he is in his position as long as Farkas wants him there.

As for those indignant ORÖ leaders who accuse Farkas of depriving the Hungarian Roma of millions if not billions of forints, they might be upset for their own selfish reasons. Hadházy discovered that one of the organizers of the project, Tamás Monostori, told the Roma leaders at a meeting last summer that “nobody has to be afraid of being left out. It’s no secret that there is an enormous amount of money that we haven’t been able to use.” Index found even more direct evidence that Farkas promised part of the money to the members of ORÖ. In 2013, at a general meeting of the organization, he told the members who were present that “we will try to secure this money or a little more for you.” A substantial portion of the EU subsidies would be used to give full-time jobs to the elected Roma politicians of ORÖ.

As time went by, it was discovered that the transactions Hadházy unearthed in early January represented only a fraction of the money spent by Farkas and his friends. They also purchased a building (initially, the purchase price was unknown) in the elegant Gellérthegy section of Buda, on which they spent an additional 21 million. Later Farkas and Co. unintentionally revealed in an answer to Hadházy’s letter that they paid around 300 million forints for the building itself. The anti-Farkas forces insisted on calling a meeting of the representatives of ORÖ. But apparently Farkas made sure that his friends boycotted the gathering, leaving the rebels without a quorum.

At this point the government and the prosecutors decided that perhaps they ought to move. What will follow remains unclear. János Lázár, who is responsible for the disbursement of EU subsidies, announced that he would launch an inquiry only when the whole project was completed. For me this means: let’s investigate only when all the money is stolen.

Hadházy pressed charges against the leadership of the “Bridge to Employment,” but the prosecutor’s office refused to follow up. The office might, however, investigate the charge of “budgetary fraud.”  NAV, the national tax and custom’s office, is also interested in the case. And Zoltán Balog called for an internal investigation. So, we will see what happens.

It was in 2011 that Flórián Farkas took over the chairmanship ORÖ, which previously was called Országos Cigány Önkormányzat (OCÖ/National Gypsy Self-Government). His predecessor was Orbán Kolompár, who had several encounters with the law and is now serving a sentence for embezzlement.

Flórián Farkas was born in 1957 and, unlike Kolompár, finished high school. For a while he worked in the building industry. Between 1975 and 1982 he ran into trouble with the law on three occasions and spent time in jail. He has been involved with Roma affairs since 1987 and in 1991 became secretary general of Lungo Drom (Long Road in the Romani language). In 2003 he was named president of OCÖ.

Flórián Farkas surrounded by Fidesz top brass

Flórián Farkas surrounded by Fidesz top brass

His fourth encounter with the law was in 1996 when the prosecutor’s office investigated him in connection with the foundations around Lungo Drom. As a result of this investigation, he was charged in 1998 with breach of fiduciary responsibilities. The Hungarian public never found out, however, whether Farkas was guilty of the charge or not. President Árpád Göncz gave him “procedural clemency,” and the documents pertaining to the case were sealed for thirty years. Apparently the reason for the clemency was the close relationship that existed between OCÖ and the socialist-liberal government of Gyula Horn.

In 1998, when Fidesz won the election, Farkas moved over to Viktor Orbán’s camp. Just before the 2002 elections the Farkas-led Lungo Drom signed an “electoral alliance” with Fidesz. Obviously, Farkas, like everybody else, was certain of a Fidesz victory. The Roma leader was given a high enough position on the Fidesz list that he became a member of parliament. He then had eight rather lean years in opposition until, in 2010, the billions from the EU fell into his lap.

We’ll see whether he has a fifth encounter with the law. And whether he will be protected once again.