I decided to return to yesterday’s discussion on the latest developments in the “Bogdán case” because I think it is a much more complex issue than meets the eye or my short summary of the recent events would suggest. Yesterday I didn’t go into the serious differences of opinion between László Bogdán and some Roma human rights activists over the right way to handle the “Roma problem.” In order to understand the situation in which Bogdán finds himself, it is necessary to hear the criticism they level against the mayor of Cserdi. And then there is Bogdán’s offer of Cserdi as a place where refugee families are welcome which, according to some interpreters, might be the reason for the Hungarian media’s suddenly discovering Bogdán’s run-in with the law in 2010.
Let’s start with the latter because it is easier to sort out. First, some background. Bogdán spent three weeks in the United States in March and April, where among other things he gave a talk about the situation of Roma women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. How did this trip come about? First, in 2015 the Hungarian government made Bogdán Hungary’s ambassador charged with nurturing talented youngsters. Therefore we must assume that the Orbán government considers László Bogdán someone who can represent the country abroad. And indeed, it was Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York, who organized his trip. As Bogdán explained to BaMa, a Baranya County news site, they arranged his program, which included trips to 17 American cities. Of course, the highlight of the trip was his speech at the UN where “as a representative of Hungary [he talked] about the Gypsy community in Hungary and his Cserdi initiative.” He reported from the United States to BaMa that he celebrated March 15 with George Pataki, former governor of New York, and was the guest of former U.S. ambassador Colleen Bell at a charity event.
George Lázár suggests in an article in The Hungarian Free Press that László Bogdán’s recent problems stem from his decision to sponsor a Syrian family’s stay in Cserdi. Lázár points out that Bogdán was the “darling” of the government, whose trip to the United States was organized by high officials of the Orbán government. But, he continues, “Everything changed when recently Mayor Bogdán announced that he would welcome refugee families to vacation in his village.” Suddenly, the media suspected that there was something not quite right with László Bogdán. George Lázár, this morning on Facebook, noted that it is hard to imagine that the Hungarian government was unaware of Bogdán’s conviction in 2014, and it cannot be a coincidence that PécsMa discovered this story just now. Did the Hungarian government know about Bogdán’s troubles with the law when, for example, in 2015 he was appointed “ambassador”? I don’t know. But the conviction became final in 2014, just a year before his appointment to the post. Whether the Hungarian government is behind this story surfacing now is hard to tell.
The other aspect of the controversy surrounding László Bogdán is his standing in the Roma community. Roma human rights activists—and independent experts on Roma issues—have serious objections to Bogdán’s ideas. Shortly after his return from the United States, an article appeared in 168 Óra written by András Balázs, an assistant professor of sociology, criticizing the speech Bogdán delivered at the United Nations. His talk at the UN was about the exploitation of Gypsy women by Gypsy men, who look upon them as baby machines. Early marriages and too many children, and thus by the age of 30 they are grandmothers and at the age of 40 they consider themselves to be old. Balázs asserted that Bogdán’s focus on violent Roma men is “internalized racism,” which only strengthens the prejudice of the majority population. Moreover, when the people of Cserdi gave away produce to needy people, he came up with the slogan “We didn’t steal them from you; we grew them for you.” His paternalistic leadership is not conducive to the development of local initiatives. Balázs also blames the media, whose darling “the ambitious mayor” became, while the true Roma human rights activists’ voices can barely be heard.
And that leads us to the fateful meeting between the leadership of the Roma Parliament and László Bogdán on September 25, where the first alleged assault on the mayor took place. The video is available on YouTube, included here. At the meeting there was a clash between two entirely different views. The chief aim of the human rights activists is to reduce the majority community’s prejudice. László Bogdán, by contrast, maintains that the prejudice against the Roma is not entirely unwarranted and that in order to minimize or eliminate prejudice the Gypsy community must change. They must become hard-working and responsible members of society. His opponents consider some of his ideas outright racist. During the two-hour meeting Bogdán received a lot of criticism from Roma leaders who don’t share his vision. Aladár Horváth, who is the president of the Roma Parliament, opened the meeting by comparing the Cserdi model to Jobbik’s Érpatak model, where a bizarre character, Mihály Zoltán Orosz, runs the show “with an iron fist.” As I wrote in a post about Érpatak, “law and order dominate” the village. After this less than complimentary introduction, Bogdán delivered a speech in which he praised the Cserdi model which, one must admit, works very well. In the question and answer period there were some sticky questions about his conviction, and several people compared Bogdán’s ideas on Roma issues to those of Jobbik. There were people who called him a Nazi. At the end, Jenő Zsigó, an important Roma human rights activist, rose and delivered a powerful speech.
Jenő Zsigó, unlike Bogdán, has a stellar background. He comes from a family of musicians, a group that was always considered to be the aristocracy of the Gypsy community. He received two diplomas from ELTE, one in education and the other in sociology. Both of his theses were related to questions about the Roma community. He has been especially active in propagating Roma art and folk music.
In his speech Zsigó compared Bogdán to Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. He accused him of developing a “system of dependency,” a kind of “feudalistic system” where in Cserdi everything depends on him. When Bogdán says that “there is no need for human rights advocates,” he denies the rule of law. When Bogdán says that there is no need to break up the Gypsy ghettos, he is promoting segregation. The speech was an indictment of the things that the human rights advocates find reprehensible in Bogdán’s model.
Unfortunately, Bogdán had to leave, and therefore we don’t know what kinds of arguments he would have used in the face of Zsigó’s criticism. But he promised that, if invited, he would gladly return. I suspect that if Bogdán had had the opportunity, he would have said: “And how much have you managed to achieve with your human rights advocacy? Is there less prejudice today than 30 years ago? I at least can show a village that is thriving.” As a friend remarked to me: “Zsigó is an excellent civil rights and minority leader, who is very convincing. In turn, Bogdán is also an excellent man with real results. The question is which is better in improving the life of the Gypsy community. Both positions have their weaknesses. Zsigó’s fight for equality and tolerance meets head on with the majority’s pejorative opinion, while Bogdán’s talking about ‘good Gypsies’ (people of Cserdi) and ‘bad Gypsies’ (the overwhelming majority) only adds to the prevailing racism in Hungary.”