Tag Archives: Roma

Karl Pfeifer: An interview with Zsuzsa Ferge on poverty in Hungary

Zsuzsa Ferge is the foremost Hungarian expert on poverty. By training she is an economist who has been working in the field of social statistics, sociology, and social policy. She became a full professor of sociology at ELTE in 1988 and a year later  established the first department of social policy.  Her main fields of interest have been social structure, social inequalities, education, and social policy. She is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the European Academy, and the European Academy of Yuste Foundation. She is the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh. Although she retired in 2001, she is still the director of the Poverty Research Center at ELTE and head of research at the unit working on the National Program against Child Poverty at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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Karl Pfeifer’s short report on the conference

On my way to the conference on poverty organized by Stádium 28, I saw the car of Érpatak mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz, who is worried about “the efforts of Freemason Jews to rule the world.” On his car I discovered a sticker praising his own “Érpatak model” of “law and order.”

The hall of the Jesuit Center “The House of Dialogue” was filled with mostly young students who wanted to hear about the real situation in their country. One hopes that eventually they will participate in efforts to change the disastrous situation that exists in parts of the country.

As for the program, Ivan Szelényi, professor emeritus of sociology at Yale, spoke about inequality in the U.S.

Éva Havasi, a sociologist who specializes in social statistics and is senior adviser in the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, gave a lecture on the different ways of measuring poverty. She pointed out that a few years ago the Hungarian Central Statistical Office abolished the category of subsistence level, and therefore people interested in the depth of poverty in Hungary have to rely on their own calculations. According to her computation, 37.3% of Hungarians live under the subsistence level.

Zsuzsa Ferge finished her short and poignant lecture with the question: When will the government formulate a policy to reduce poverty and increase happiness in Hungary?

During the panel discussion Júlia Szalai, visiting professor at CEU, pointed out that most people are totally unaware of the depth of poverty in the country because it is concentrated in about 100 ghetto villages. Since there is no serious effort on the part of the government to ease poverty in Hungary, one wonders whether there are groups who are actually interested in the permanence of poverty. It is hard to imagine that being the case, but the government’s indifference to the problem is unfortunately real.

Especially impressive was the contribution of the Roma civil rights activist Jenő Setét, who told the audience that not one of his uncles reached the age of 50. He spoke about the successful government propaganda that claims that “we live in a world where everyone who wants to work can work.” This assertion is a brazen lie when there are regions where “in a 60 km radius there are no jobs.”

The plight of the public workers was also a topic of discussion. At first glance, the idea of a work-based society sounds attractive. Providing work instead of doling out meager financial assistance might be a better way to deal with the problem. But because the local mayors decide who can get work and who cannot, the whole public works program has become a weapon in the hands of the local authorities. Favors are distributed according to political loyalty. The program functions as a deterrent to protest and revolt against the government.

The interview

Karl Pfeifer: When I began to write about Hungary in 1979, I read the Kemény survey on Roma1 in Hungary. Yesterday I heard Jenő Setét, the Roma activist, speaking about the Roma not having any water nearby during the summer and that many have to walk 100-200 m to the closest fountain. It seems that not much has changed for the Roma since.

Zsuzsa Ferge: On the contrary. A lot has changed for the Roma. Their situation has gotten much worse. When Kemény published his survey, 90% of Roma men and 70% of Roma women had a job and earned a living. Most of them left the so-called cigánytelep (ghetto); they had more or less decent housing; they had quite good relations with their co-workers; and their children received good treatment in schools. Everything Kemény wrote was true. They were poorer than the rest of society and their educational attainment was curtailed. Their situation was not good, but it was relatively better than it had been 30 years earlier and much, much better than 30 years later.

What happened in 1990? The Hungarian government, without any preparation, privatized all big firms and, as a result, 1.5 million jobs were lost. Seventy percent of the Roma became unemployed. They were the first ones to be fired. Since then very few jobs have been created for those who have no special skills. The governments between 1990 and 2010 paid little attention to the poor, and in the last eight years the Orbán government’s economic policies have been outright antagonistic toward the poorest strata of Hungarian society.

Since 2010 discrimination against the Roma has been increasing. What Setét said yesterday is true. Discrimination is reinforced through the efforts of the government in order to cover up all the real problems that exist in the country. It manipulates people through hate campaigns to fear and/or loathe others. It has created a “culture of hate” in which an overwhelming majority of Hungarians by now hate migrants, hate foreigners in general, and hate George Soros. An organic part of this hate campaign is “consultation with the people,” which consists of a questionnaire posing questions about the population’s attitude toward the “migrants” and about the “Soros Plan.” Concentrating hatred on the migrants and Soros is also an implicit way of concentrating hatred against the Gypsies and the Jews. So, the migrants, a minority, can be replaced by the Gypsies and Soros by the Jewish “world conspiracy.”

KP: The association organizing the conference on poverty in Hungary had difficulties finding a site, and in the end the event took place in a hall belonging to the Jesuits. At least in Austria the Catholic Church is, as far as social issues are concerned, to the left of the left-wing parties. It seems paradoxical.

ZsF: I am not surprised by your question. There are many different strands within the Hungarian Catholic Church. On one hand, the government is handing as many schools, old age homes, and hospitals as possible to the Catholic Church. It also favors the churches by allocating two to three times more money per student to parochial schools than to public schools. On the other hand, the Jesuits offered a place for this group of scholars, who are not exactly revolutionaries. It is a group composed of members and doctors of the academy who just want to conduct an academic debate about important questions. Such an academic discussion poses no danger to politics. Still, social scientists have something to say about social reality. They have the necessary scientific instruments; they have the know-how; they have the research facilities to diagnose the ills of society. That is what the “Stadium 28” group stands for. Actually, we went first to the university, where the rector offered a room, but then a new rector was appointed who immediately withdrew the permission. It was at that point that the Jesuits offered this place, which is fantastic, and yes, it means that they are more open to autonomous thinking than many other institutions.

KP: I have the impression that now, unlike in the Kádár period, poverty is not hidden. Even in Budapest, one can see homeless people everywhere. Is Hungary still a country with three million beggars?2

ZsF: There are statistics, there is reality, and there is government information. The three are at odds with one another. The government wants to cover up the problem. Statistics try to measure poverty, but yesterday in this academic conference statisticians told us that it was extremely difficult to measure poverty for many, many reasons. So, it happens that the statistical measures of various aspects of poverty are sometimes very similar to European averages, but in some cases, especially where exclusion is concerned, which means lack of goods, lack of ability to cover basic necessities, then Hungary is at the bottom of the European ranking, usually together with Romania and Bulgaria. In brief, poverty in Hungary is a very serious problem.

The sad reality is that the majority of the poor are those Gypsies and non-Gypsies who have no qualifications, who have no possibility of getting jobs except what is called government public work, which is a poor substitute for real, productive employment. Those village dwellers who subsist on a pittance are becoming invisible. In the villages many of the Roma are recreating their former ghettos, which were defined 20 years ago by the excellent British sociologist John Rex, who said that the Gypsy settlement starts where the collection of garbage stops. The local authorities do not collect garbage from the Gypsy ghettos and therefore it is infested with…. A very depressing place. Theoretically, all houses and flats should have water. But if you do not pay for it, sooner or later you will be cut off, and many of those people who live on a cigánytelep have to go 200 meters or more for water because water is scarce and often cut off. Water is the first need. However, water is not considered a basic necessity by this government.

The same is true for the life chances of children. For five years my group of researchers used to visit villages in one particular region in order to offer the inhabitants help. We tried to ease their situation somewhat. Well, in 2011 the government ended the program altogether. People in poverty face extreme difficulties. Both parents and children encounter hunger. Many of these villages have no medical facilities, and the poor people have no means of transportation to reach a doctor. There is no money for medication. Malnutrition is common, healthcare is inadequate, and what is most upsetting is that the schools serving these people are thoroughly deficient. Instead of trying to provide adequate education for the children of these disadvantaged families, the quality of these mostly segregated schools is extremely low. One of the last decisions of the government was to allow people to teach in schools without proper qualifications. Up to now, you had to have a teacher’s diploma to teach in school. Now, you do not. So, these children have no chance to ever get out of these villages and receive an education that would prepare them for the job market. The school reform has lowered compulsory education from age 18 to 16 and abolished the rule that in order to leave school students must have a certificate attesting to the fact that they finished at least the equivalent of eight years of primary school. Now when they are 16 they can leave school and become a wage earner as a member of the large public work force.

1. http://kisebbsegkutato.tk.mta.hu/uploads/files/archive/311.pdf
2. Hungary was characterized in 1928 by György Oláh as the “country of 3 million beggars.”

October 21, 2017

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

Orbán’s trust in Flórián Farkas is unwavering: The price is 2.5 billion forints

I’m somewhat late in reporting on the latest developments surrounding the infamous Flórián Farkas, Viktor Orbán’s “strategic Roma ally.” Farkas is a Fidesz member of parliament, commissioner in charge of Roma affairs, and chairman of Lungo Drom. He is the man who delivers the Gypsy vote for Fidesz.

Over the years it became evident that, under Farkas’s watch, billions of EU money designed for a project called “Road to Employment” had disappeared. This left the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ/National Roma Self-government) bankrupt.

In February 2015 Ákos Hadházy, then a new member of LMP who specialized in tracking down corruption cases, discovered a massive embezzlement of about 1.6 billion forints ($5.5 million), which the organization was supposed to spend on a work program for the unemployed Roma. The prosecutor’s office began investigating the case. Two years later they were still investigating. In the meantime Flórián Farkas disappeared from sight, I assume in order not to call attention to himself. He may also have also been working behind the scenes to save his skin. The prosecutors either had to abandon the case or bring charges against Farkas by June 24, 2017. Farkas, by the way, has the reputation of being a real survivor. He’s had some very close brushes with the law but has always managed to escape prosecution.

While the prosecutors were allegedly investigating the case, the ministry of human resources, which is responsible for Roma affairs, began an investigation of its own. It came to the conclusion that almost all the money ORÖ received had been “diverted.” The Gypsy organization was told that it would have to reimburse the ministry for the more than 1.6 billion forints it received. In the first eleven months ORÖ was to pay only five million forints per month, or 3% of the total obligation. Over the next 12 months, however, the balance of the diverted funds was to be paid back to the ministry. But where was ORÖ going to find that much money?

The Orbán government solved ORÖ’s “financial difficulties.” You may recall that at the end of 2016 the Orbán government found itself flush with cash. In a great hurry it disbursed about 300 billion forints among its favorite organizations and projects, including 1.3 billion forints to ORÖ in the form of “special assistance.” So, that problem was solved. The Orbán government on taxpayer money covered the funds Flórián Farkas and his accomplices had embezzled. In fact, the government had no choice. OLAF, EU’s anti-corruption office, had begun an investigation, and it was becoming obvious that this money would have to be paid back one way or the other. Since the original money was gone, the government had to dish out the missing funds.

The prosecutor’s office faced a deadline of June 24 of this year to determine what to do with Farkas. That dilemma was solved on May 29 when László Kövér and Flórián Farkas signed another “strategic alliance” between Fidesz and Lungo Drom. This time the signing ceremony was nothing like four years ago when the whole media reported on the official ceremony at which Viktor Orbán and Flórián Farkas signed the agreement. This time the ceremony was held not in the parliament building but in the modest Fidesz headquarters on Lendvay utca, and the organizers made sure that only the state television station’s journalist and cameraman were present. In the last minute the Fidesz organizers brought the event forward by two hours but neglected to inform all the other members of the media.

László Kövér and Flórián Farkas / Source: MTI

While the short ceremony was taking place, the prime minister, who happened to be in Hódmezővásárhely at the time, said that his trust in Farkas was unbroken and that Farkas would remain the number one leader of the Hungarian Roma as far as the Hungarian government is concerned. Indeed, ever since 2002 Lungo Drom has been a strong supporter of Fidesz. I’m sure that Orbán also appreciates that Farkas didn’t abandon him when in that year Fidesz lost the election. Farkas remained faithful to him through eight hard years in opposition.

After the signing Ildikó Lendvai, the former leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, wrote an amusing piece titled “The wolf is inside.” It was a take on a children’s game called “the lamb is in, the wolf is out” (Benn a bárány, kinn a farkas). “Farkas” in Hungarian means wolf. In the game children form a circle. One child, the lamb, is inside and another, the wolf, is outside. The goal is for the wolf to catch the lamb. Clearly, Farkas is safe now, inside the circle. No one will catch him for at least five more years.

Although there were rumors to the effect that Farkas’s position inside of Lungo Drom had been considerably weakened, he managed to continue in his position as chairman of the organization. In the middle of June it was reported that Farkas had resorted to trickery in order to remain in power. Instead of holding a formal meeting of the leaders, he organized a dinner party where his friends and supporters unanimously voted for his reelection. At the same time he set up a new Roma organization called “Roma Integrációért Országos Szövetség” (National Association for Roma Integration) which will be eligible to apply for EU funding. That really boggles the mind.

As for the debt of ORÖ, one would think that by now ORÖ had paid back everything it owed the ministry of human resources thanks to the government’s generosity. But in the last few months it came to light that the total amount of embezzled money was not 1.6 billion forints but 2.5 billion and therefore the “special assistance” of the Orbán government was insufficient to cover all the debts.

Although Ákos Hadházy still believes that Farkas is criminally liable and that the possibility exists of filing charges against him, I don’t think too many people would wager much money on such an eventuality.

July 10, 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

Zsolt Bayer, the purveyor of hate, in his own words

Decent, democratic Hungarians are stunned. The hate-filled, racist, anti-Semitic journalistic hack, Zsolt Bayer, on the recommendation of Zoltán Balog, received the third highest decoration the government can bestow on people of great achievement. János Lázár presented Bayer with the “Hungarian Middle Cross.”

The independent media could scarcely find words to display its disgust with the government, but some headline writers rose to the occasion. One headline read “By mistake Zsolt Bayer received the cross of the knight [lovagkereszt] instead of the Swastika.” Swastika in Hungarian is “horogkereszt.” A blog writer at Népszabadság titled his piece “The knight of the Godfather” since Viktor Orbán and Bayer are old friends and fellow founders of Fidesz.

Instead of trying to describe Bayer’s “literary output,” I think it’s best to let Bayer speak for himself. I will be only his English voice. In the past, every time I wrote about Bayer I always said how difficult it is to translate his prose. For starters, Hungarian obscenity beats American obscenity by a mile. Moreover, I hate to repeat this smut.

The first time I discussed Bayer at some length was in January 2011 shortly after András Schiff, the world-renowned pianist, wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. Bayer retorted with an article titled “The same stench.” Here are a few lines from that piece.

A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that ‘foul stench wafts’ from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff. Népszava appears with the red figure of the man with the hammer and demands freedom of the press. Most people think that this is something new and that war like that didn’t take place before. Nonsense. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.

A brief explanation. Orgovány, a small village on the Great Plains, was the site of massacres committed by the leaders of the Hungarian White Terror in 1919-1920. Most of the victims were Jewish. In plain language, Bayer is expressing his sorrow that not all the Jews were killed in those days.

Zsolt Bayer, leading the Peace March in Hungarian Guard uniform

Zsolt Bayer, leading the Peace March in Hungarian Guard uniform

A year later he got angry because Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian MP in the European Parliament, criticized Hungary. Bayer, who at the time had a program on Echo TV, had the following to say about Lunacek in the company of two other right-wingers:

Then comes a half-witted [The Germans translated it as ‘brain amputeed’] impetiginous lying idiot, Ulrike Lunacek, and I expressed myself delicately … The whole rotten filthy lie from the mouth of a rotten filth bag.” In choice Hungarian: “Csak jön egy olyan agyament ótvar hazug idióta, Ulrike Lunacek, és milyen finoman fejeztem ki magam. … Az egész egy rohadt szemét hazugság egy rohadt szemét szájából.”

In 2013 Bayer wrote another hateful piece in which, although he didn’t use the word “Jew” or “Jewish,” anyone who is familiar with Bayer’s style and way of thinking knows whom he has in mind when he talks about those who have been doing their best to ruin the white Christian race ever since the 1919 Soviet Republic, which in far-right circles is considered to be a “Jewish affair.” Those who are antagonistic toward Hungary organize themselves “in packs and attack their victims like loathsome drooling hyenas.” And he continues: “For you only death is the proper punishment. Because you believe in death, in public executions while your victims are left alone, go bankrupt, their friends deny them, they lose their jobs, and come to a sorry end. This is your goal.” Their sins are immeasurable and they will be punished. Because these mysterious people don’t realize “what monster [they] are trying to resuscitate. In fact, [they] woke him up already.” All that sounds pretty threatening, but then comes the twist:

You don’t foresee yet that it will be only we who raise our voices in your defense. We, the marked victims. We are the only ones to whom you can turn for help. It will be only we who will hide you. Because we are good to the point of ruining ourselves. And take this all very seriously. You miserable ones.

In January 2013, in Berlin, Zoltán Balog proudly outlined the accomplishments of the Orbán government as far as its Roma strategy was concerned. Bayer wrote that

a significant portion of the Gypsies are unfit for coexistence. Not fit to live among human beings. These people are animals and behave like animals. … If he finds resistance, he kills. He voids where and when it occurs to him. … He wants what he sees. If he doesn’t get it, he takes it and he kills…. From his animal skull only inarticulate sounds come out and the only thing he understands is brute force… There shouldn’t be animals. No way. This must be solved, immediately and in any way. [In Hungarian: “Ezt meg kell oldani–de azonnal és bárhogyan.”]

This particular article was deemed to be racist, and the state media authority fined Magyar Hírlap, where it appeared, 200,000 forints. Since then Magyar Hírlap had to pay another fine, this time 250,000 forints, because he called all refugee boys over the age of 14 “potential terrorists.”

When it comes to the migrants, Bayer usually dwells on horror stories, like the IKEA murder in Sweden, which then gives him an opening to blame liberalism for being the source of all the trouble. For example, he expresses his sorrow that the two suspects cooperated with the police because otherwise “the police could have shot them as one does a mad dog.” Now the Swedes have two murderers from Eritrea and two dead white Swedes. “Surely, the exchange was worth it. Long live liberalism! Long live human rights! Except when we talk about the rights of the European, white, Christian race.” Here Bayer uses the word “rassz,” which is practically never used in this sense in modern Hungarian. Bayer’s conclusion is that Europe must be defended. “It must be freed from this horror. If necessary with arms in hand. If everything remains the same, there will be bloodshed. These hordes believe that only the blood of Europeans can be shed.”

Perhaps the most often quoted Bayer lines were written in 2006 after the tragedy that occurred in Olaszliszka when a Roma girl stepped in front of a car driven by a school teacher. The child wasn’t hurt. The man stopped when a group of about twenty men and women dragged him out of the car and beat him to death in the presence of his two young daughters. Bayer wrote at the time:

Anyone in this country who runs over a Gypsy kid acts wisely if he doesn’t for a minute contemplate stopping. In the case of driving over a Gypsy kid, we should step on the gas. If in the meantime Gypsies surround the car, we should step on the gas even harder. Those we run over are unlucky. Leaving the scene at the greatest speed, we should call the ambulance from the car and we should stop at the next police station and turn ourselves in. (Unfortunately, I know that this scenario cannot take place because if someone runs over someone, especially a child, one must stop. So, we will stop. But we will have to do something. It is a good idea to get a gun before leaving. If we hit a child, let’s stop, and if the animals begin to gather we should use our weapon without hesitation.)

I don’t always have the stomach to read Bayer’s articles that appear in Magyar Hírlap and lately on his own blog as well. I’m sure that others could come up with hundreds more quotations that would further demonstrate that this man’s decoration by the Orbán government is a disgrace.

As for the charge of anti-Semitism, analysts pussyfoot around when it comes to the Orbán government’s attitude toward the country’s Jewish citizens and their role in Hungary’s history. I don’t think that, with the decision to award Bayer this high honor, there can be any question where Viktor Orbán stands on this issue. Bayer’s decoration must have been cleared with Orbán himself, and he must have known that this move will be interpreted as the government’s approval of Bayer’s racism and anti-Semitism. It seems that Orbán doesn’t care what the world thinks of him and his regime. Bayer’s decoration strikes me as a purposeful provocation not only of the Jewish community at home and abroad but of democratic communities in Europe and the Americas.

August 19, 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

Hungarian fantasies about a radical Roma community allied to Islamic extremists

A friend sent me dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day,” which she found amusing. It is “kakistocracy,” meaning “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.” The first two syllables don’t have anything to do with the Hungarian word with which we are familiar but with the Greek word “kakistos,” which means “worst.” This word couldn’t have arrived on a better day since I had just decided to write about the Orbán government’s illustrious minister of justice, László Trócsányi, and his faux pas at a conference on the dangers of extremism and their possible remedies.

And while I am on the subject of words, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian and lover of language, also wrote today about another “misunderstood” statement by a government official. The official happened to be the same Trócsányi, who said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Linguistic carelessness has been plaguing Hungarian political life ever since 1990, Kálmán suggested. It would be time to learn to speak more precisely.

So, what was Trócsányi’s faux pas? On October 19 Nikolaj Nielsen of euobserver.com reported on a conference in Brussels at which “Hungary’s minister of justice Laszlo Trocsanyi … said there is a risk Roma could end up in Syria as foreign fighters alongside jihadist or other radical groups.” It turned out that Trócsányi didn’t say what Nielsen attributed to him but, given the context in which his two-minute contribution was uttered, one could infer such a meaning from his words.

Let’s see what Trócsányi actually said. He emphasized that, unlike in Western European countries, in Hungary there are no would-be terrorists who are ready to go to Syria and fight on the side of ISIS. However, Hungary is a “transit country” through which radical Muslims would travel to catch a plane to Istanbul on their way to Syria. And he continued:

I would like to call attention to another aspect of the problem which we haven’t talked about up to now. Radicalism can reach other groups as well. In Europe there are 10-12 million Roma. During Hungary’s presidency we paid a lot of attention to Roma strategy. We believe that this is a very important task. [We are dealing with] a community of 12 million in Europe who lag behind [leszakadt] and whose integration is very important because they can be the victims of radicalization. I would really hope that the European Commission would pay special attention to the Roma integration program.

Trócsányi didn’t conjure up the image of Roma going to Syria to fight, but he made the mistake of indicating that they may join extremist groups. And because the whole conference was about Islamic radicalism, it was easy to draw the conclusion that Trócsányi envisages a time when European Roma might join jihadists to fight against the infidel.

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

Trócsányi also spoke to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, right after the meeting. What did he consider to be the most important topics of the conference? “There was a discussion about foreign nationals who fight alongside the Islamic State. We touched on online recruiting activities on behalf of the Islamic State.” It was right after these discussions that Trócsányi rose and talked about the radicalization of the Roma. It’s no wonder that Nielsen drew the conclusion that, in Trócsányi’s mind, there was a danger that European Roma would join the jihad fighters in Syria.

The reporter’s impression was further reinforced when he talked to the spokesman for the office of Hungary’s permanent representative in Brussels. The reporter was obviously so struck by what he heard that he wanted confirmation of Trócsányi’s message. When Nielsen asked the spokesman why Roman Catholic Roma would choose to fight alongside radical jihadist groups in Syria, the spokesman said “it is because they are a deprived people and they are usually more exposed to radical views.” The spokesman added that the minister’s position “was just a hypothesis” that “had not been fully explored.” So, the spokesman reinforced the reporter’s initial inkling of a connection between the two topics.

Realizing the adverse reaction abroad as well as at home to Trócsányi’s linking the Roma community to Islamic extremism, both the government and the party have been trying to minimize the effects of Trócsányi’s ad hoc, unnecessary introduction of the topic. They called Nielsen’s description of his remarks an outright lie. A reporter for the pro-government Válasz offered perhaps the most imaginative interpretation of Trócsányi’s statement. “Trócsányi might have been thinking that one day a Malcolm X type of character will be born in the Roma community who could take them along the road of radicalization. However, luckily there is no sign of such a development, and such a supposition is not at all timely. Let’s not talk of the devil, especially when government officials should know that, whatever they say, our foreign adversaries will misinterpret them.”

The explanation of the spokesman at the Hungarian permanent representative’s office in Brussels, however, indicates to me that the topic is not new in government circles. The idea didn’t just pop into Trócsányi’s head. The linkage of Hungary’s Roma population to the current refugee crisis began in May when Trócsányi in an interview with Inforádió explained that the reason for Hungary’s refusal to accept any “economic migrants” is that the country is burdened by the integration of 800,000 Gypsies. The Roma theme also emerged in early September in Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors, where out of the blue he came up with a reference to Hungary’s Roma population. Hungary’s historical lot is to live together with hundreds of thousands of Gypsies. “Someone sometime decided that it would be that way … but Hungary doesn’t ask other countries in Europe to take Hungarian Gypsies.”

As for Hungarian Gypsies sympathizing with Muslim extremists, let me tell a funny story. Somewhere near Nagymágocs, not terribly far from the Serbian border, a group of public workers, mostly Roma, noticed that a few people were hiding in a cornfield. They got scared: these people must be migrants. One of the public workers reported their presence to the police, who told them to get on their bicycles and pedal as fast as they can. Halfway home they encountered a policeman who wanted to arrest one of the Roma in the group, thinking he was a migrant. Meanwhile it turned out that the other “suspicious” group, whose members were bopping in and out of the cornfield, were not migrants either: they were surveyors. So much for the burgeoning friendship between the Roma and Muslim extremists.

Indeed, “kakistocracy” is at work. C. György Kálmán’s suggestion to government officials to improve their language skills is not enough. One needs some brainpower as well, and that seems to be lacking in most of Viktor Orbán’s underlings.