The Right Wing and the Roma: EU Presidency a Test for Tolerance in Hungary

By Siobhán Dowling in Budapest, Hungary

Hungary will assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in January and the government is pledging to forge a policy for addressing the Roma in all of Europe. But the country has its own troubling history with the Roma, who have been deeply impoverished and pushed to the margins of society since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Csaba Csorba is standing in scrubland beside the burned-out shell of a small house. He points to the spot amid the tall grass where he found his son Robert bleeding in the snow almost two years ago. Nearby lay the body of his four-year-old grandson Robi. The small boy had been shot through the head, his face was unrecognizable.

The murders of Feb. 23, 2009 saw the Hungarian village of Tatárszentgyörgy become synonymous with hate, hatred towards Europe’s Roma people. Robert Csorba, a 27-year-old father of three, had gathered up his young son in his arms and ran out to escape the flames that engulfed his house, the last one on the edge of the village. Unknown assailants had attacked under the cover of night, throwing Molotov cocktails at the door and then opening fire when those inside tried to flee. Robert was shot in the lungs and lived for another hour, dying on the way to the hospital. His six-year-old daughter Bianka was injured but survived, while his wife Renata and younger son escaped the blaze.

There is no indication that the murderers even knew who their victims were. “The attackers didn’t really care who they killed,” Robert’s father says today.

Csorba, a short stocky man who is missing many teeth, looks at least 10 years older than his 47 years. He believes his son might have survived if he had received proper medical attention. “The ambulance only came an hour and a half after we called, even though the hospital is five minutes away, and it didn’t have oxygen,” he claims. And he alleges that when the police arrived, they said the fire had been caused by electrical problems, and that the doctor claimed his son’s wounds had been caused by nails from falling beams and not gunfire.

It was only after the intervention of Viktória Mohácsi, a Roma politician who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, that the investigation into the deaths became a murder enquiry. Last year, four men were arrested in connection with the crime, tracked down through mobile phone records. But the suspects have yet to face trial.

Tough Questions as Hungary Takes EU Helm

The Csorba family were the latest victims in a series of vicious attacks on Hungary’s Roma that shocked the world in early 2009. Now, barely two years later, Hungary is about to take the helm of the rotating European Union presidency, and leaders in Budapest say a central plank in the country’s EU agenda will be addressing the issue of the Roma. But how much leadership can be expected from a country in which virulent hatred of the Roma is part of every-day discourse and where an avowedly anti-Roma party regularly attracts the support of almost one-fifth of the electorate?

The new center-right government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, elected in April, has pledged to forge an EU-wide policy for the addressing the Roma issue during its six months of leadership in Brussels. “By the end of the Hungarian presidency, the European Union will have a Roma policy,” Orbán told state news agency MTI in late December. The Hungarian leader said a draft policy would be presented in the spring and debated before seeking approval from the EU member states. “The European Roma strategy has to lay emphasis on education and employment,” he said.

The issue took center-stage in EU politics this summer, following the expulsions of around 3,000 Roma from France. The EU rapped Paris on the knuckles for its actions, saying it contravened rules on the freedom of movement of EU citizens, though it desisted from accusing the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy of discrimination against an ethnic group.

The events of this summer brought into sharp relief the fact that Europe’s largest minority group, with a population estimated at between 10 and 12 million, are living in the deepest poverty. Yet the Roma issue, in both Eastern and Western Europe, is often being presented within the framework of the problems the Roma pose, for example as a security or public order issue, rather than the troubles they themselves face, from massive unemployment, poor access to education, to discrimination and in the worst cases, anti-Roma violence, including murder. And the wave of hate crimes against the Roma in Hungary in 2008 and 2009, along with the rise of the fiercely anti-Roma political party Jobbik and a general turn to the right in Hungary, raises questions about what Europe’s Roma population should anticipate from the Hungarian EU presidency.

The Face of Eastern European Poverty

The government in Budapest estimates that of the 10 million people living in Hungary, 700,000 are Roma. They are thought to have first arrived in Hungary in medieval times, having originally migrated from India. Excluded from the feudal system of rural peasants and urban craftsmen, they developed other skills, carving out niches in metal-working, prostitution and menial labor. During the Holocaust, like elsewhere in Europe, the Roma here fell victim to the Nazi murder machine. As many as 50,000 Hungarian Roma are believed to have perished in the concentration camps.

Under communism there was a certain amount of forced integration, with the regime determined to harness the Roma’s labor potential. They were employed at the lowest rungs of the economy, in mining, metal work, road building and other unskilled jobs. Nevertheless, the Roma had steady incomes, giving the communities some stability, and slow improvements in educational attainment and health followed.

Ravaged by Years of Chronic Unemployment

With the collapse of the communist planned economy after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, jobs for the once in demand unskilled Roma workforce quickly disappeared. “The Roma were the first to lose their jobs,” says Lívia Járóka, a member of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party and the only member of the Roma minority with a seat in the European Parliament. “In the last 20 years, very little has been done to recognize this process of ghettoization and slumification, this complete dropping out of society,” she says.

Although Járóka points out that around 30 percent are well integrated, the sizeable majority of Hungary’s Roma are cut off from the rest of society, stranded in separate districts in towns and cities or marooned in small villages. Many of these settlements are in formerly industrial regions of the northwest, an area hit particularly hard by the collapse of the Soviet system and now ravaged by years of chronic unemployment.

Járóka says she has seen for herself the devastating impact on the Roma community: “What it means to lose your job, to lose the financial security of your family, to be a father of several children, not having work and not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow.”

‘A Social Problem as Well as an Ethnic’ One

The 36-year-old former anthropologist says that, as the sole Roma member of the EU parliament, she bears a “huge responsibility.” A parliament with 21 or 22 Roma MEPs would more accurately reflect their proportion of the European population, Járóka believes. The politician also claims that the problems that plague the Roma are in no way exclusive to them — they represent the poverty of residents of certain highly disadvantaged regions, not only in Hungary, but across Eastern Europe. “The Roma are simply the most visible face of it,” she says.

Járóka believes that targeted funding, particularly from the EU’s coffers, provides the best way to tackle the problem. In November, she presented her proposal for a “micro-regional development program” to the European Parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs.

Járóka’s views echo those of her government back in Budapest. “If we see it as a purely ethnic problem, we are on the wrong path,” says Zoltán Balog, Hungarian minister of state for social inclusion. “It is a social and economic problem as well as an ethnic problem.”

“It is a problem in all of the Eastern European countries,” he admits. “Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, it is getting more dramatic,” he says, adding, “Now it is an issue within the whole of the EU.”

Balog, a former Lutheran minister who was involved in the civil rights movement, is not a member of Fidesz. He asked to be appointed to his current post when the new government came into power. “Three million people live below the poverty line, of which, 300,000 to 400,000 are Roma,” Balog explains. He says his government ministry is seeking to target programs at the regions where these people live — both Roma and non-Roma. This approach has an obvious political advantage in that it makes the policies more palatable to a public that can be resentful of funds being chanelled specifically to Roma programs.

Are the Roma a National or EU Problem?

Robert Kushen, director of the European Roma Rights Center, a legal advocacy group based in Budapest, says that the familiar stereotype is that the Roma are the “welfare queens of Europe. So if you can counter that by directing programs that impact non- Roma as well, that’s great.” However, Kushen is adamant that this approach ignores the reality that the Roma face problems not shared by some other impoverished groups: rampant prejudice and racism. “It’s something Roma face every day,” he says. “And my concern is that if you downplay that too much then there is the risk that you’re not taking the problem seriously.”

Kushen is concerned that the government’s initial Roma policies have been punitive, and “seem designed to play to the right wing.” These include changes to social welfare programs that only allow a single adult in a household to collect social assistance, or rules that tie access to social welfare to children’s school attendance. “We still haven’t seen any meaningful policies to address Roma exclusion in Hungary,” he argues.

Kushen is also cautious of presenting the plight of the Roma as a pan-European problem, warning that such thinking could enable member states in the region to shirk their responsibility to bring the minority back from the margins of society. “At the end of the day, all the issues are ones that have to be resolved by national governments,” he argues. The EU can provide resources or set standards, but “it is the member states that really have to step up” their efforts.

Tivador Fátyol is skeptical of what can be achieved under the Hungarian EU presidency. The director of Radio C, a completely Roma-run station based in Budapest, is a debonair man in his sixties with a neatly trimmed beard. Fátyol says that millions of euros have been spent by the EU and the Hungarian government on the Roma issue and that “nothing much has happened.” Nor is he optimistic that Hungary’s presidency and its promised focus on the Roma will bring about much change. “Our core question is what is going to happen in the future, how will the next generation live? People in the villages live in inhuman conditions,” he says.

The C in Radio C stands for cigány, or gypsy, a term which is politically correct in Hungary. The station has become hugely popular far beyond the Roma community for its rich mix of music. Housed on a side street next to a small market in the 8th district, the Roma-dominated area of central Budapest, it consists of just two small studios and a number of bare rooms with a few sofas, some old computers and countless photographs of famous Roma musicians on the walls. The radio station is broke and is fighting for its survival. Fátyol says it is important that institutions such as Radio C keep going, because Roma journalists know the problems their society faces best. He says that the majority in Hungarian society “see us differently and we see ourselves differently,” adding wryly: “It’s an old Hungarian habit to tell the Roma how to act or think.”

Getting out the Vote with Anti-Roma Rhetoric

In addition to persistent poverty and social exclusion in recent years, Hungary’s Roma have also experienced a climate that is increasingly hostile — with a surge in hate speech and violence directed at them. A visibly impoverished minority, they provide picture-perfect scapegoats in times of political and economic uncertainty. The issue provides fertile soil for the politics of the county’s far-right Jobbik party.

Founded in 2003, the party — which has its roots in a right-wing student movement — has found anti-Roma rhetoric to be a vote winner. Jobbik’s first triumph was attracting 14.7 percent in elections to the European Parliament in 2009 and securing three seats. In 2010, it became the third-largest party in parliament, attracting 16.6 percent of the vote in the Hungarian national election.

Like many far-right and right-wing populist groups across Europe, Jobbik politicians pride themselves on their straight talk. “In the last 20 years the gypsy question was a taboo,” says Ádam Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman for religious affairs. “We are the only ones who say that the gypsies are one of the biggest problems.” Jobbik have a two-pronged approach to attacking the Roma: First they slam them for being welfare scroungers, and then they campaign on a platform of protecting society from “gypsy criminality.”

The Roma are an easy target. By virtue of their high levels of unemployment and the fact that they have more children, on average, than the rest of the population, they are necessarily bigger beneficiaries of the social welfare pot than other groups.

‘Gypsy Criminality’ As a Campaign Slogan

“The social net is so widely spread that there is a certain group of people that is physically very strong and that lives very well from this social welfare,” Mirkóczki says. “We want them to find their way back to the labor market. We don’t want to exclude them. We want them to have the same living standards as the rest of society.” And how does he suggest going about this? “The situation is simple: Cut the unnecessary social welfare or cut it completely.” What he doesn’t explain, however, is how these cuts are supposed to increase the living standard of an already impoverished group that faces tough discrimination in an already tight job market.

Jobbik even used “cigánybujözés,” or “gypsy criminality,” as a campaign slogan during the recent local elections in October. When MTV, the state broadcaster, tried to block Jobbik election ads, which featured the “gypsy criminality” slogan along with a woman walking down a street with a hooded figure lurking ominously in the background, the courts ordered that they be aired, citing freedom of speech.

“It’s a socio-cultural term,” Mirkóczki says. “It’s often claimed that we use it genetically or racially differentiated, that is not true. The fact that it is not used anymore is very obviously due to political pressure.”

Conflating Roma with Criminality

Szilveszter Póczik was one of those who fought to change that kind of terminology. The criminologist and historian explains that until the mid-1990s the term “gypsy criminality” was commonly used by academics and the police, as a way to denote a certain type of crime, either motivated by poverty or of a particular brutal or emotional nature. He argued that it should instead be described as “poverty-related crime.”

“We should not label an entire minority by mixing up Roma, the minority, with the general idea of criminality,” Póczik says. “That gives the impression that they are somehow organically or systemically criminal.” He does, however, insist that there are problems with crime in the Roma community due to the extreme poverty many of them live in. He says the settlements where some of them reside “are like favelas in South America with an African type of poverty.” “It is understandable that conflicts arise between the majority population and the Roma who live in these circumstances,” he says.

For Jobbik, however, there is no such nuanced approach. “We say this is gypsy criminality because, apart from the Roma, no one else carries out this kind of crime” Mirkóczki claims. “Of the worst brutal criminal acts of the past few years, 100 percent were carried out by Roma.”

In Hungary, the police are not allowed to record ethnic data related to perpetrators, so Jobbik can provide no proof of their assertions that all these crimes were carried out by Roma. But that does not deter them, in fact in many ways it plays into their hands, because the lack of record keeping also means their claims cannot be refuted as easily.

‘The Classic Victim/Oppressor Inversion’

For Magdalena Marsovszky, a cultural theorist and expert on anti-Semitism and anti-Roma prejudice, this type of rhetoric is typical of the far right, in that it seeks to present the minority as a threat to the majority society. “Everything is turned on its head,” she says. “It is the classic victim/oppressor inversion.”

That inversion is perhaps nowhere as blatant as within the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, the now banned paramilitary group which was founded in 2007 by, amongst others, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona. That perceived threat from Roma criminals provided the impetus for its formation. The guard immediately began to appear in the Roma areas of towns and in Roma villages, holding dozens of rallies to “defend Hungary,” spreading fear among the people there. Its first march was in, of all places, the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, where Robert and Robi Csorba would die only a few years later.

The guard members wear a uniform of black pants and vests with white shirts, and a cap emblazoned with a medieval coat of arms, the Arpad Stripes. The symbol is a centuries old Hungarian banner, a version of which was used by the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party that briefly ruled Hungary toward the end of World War II.

The courts banned the group in 2009 but it still exists, it just no longer gathers for public marches. “It can be banned 10,000 times, but it cannot be destroyed,” says Márton Gyöngyösi, deputy leader of Jobbik’s parliamentary group. He claims the Hungarian Guard members are harmless: “They have no weapons, and their black and white uniform is normal Hungarian folk dancing costume.” Gyöngyösi says the group was founded because the Hungarian state fell apart in 2006, after the Socialist prime minister was caught on tape admitting that he lied in order to win that year’s election. The Jobbik politician says it was a natural instinct for people to come together and “provide security.”

‘They Create a Climate that Is not OK’

It is important to state that neither the Hungarian Guard nor Jobbik have been implicated in any way in the murderous attacks of 2008 and 2009. However, Tara Bedard, a programs officer at the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), claims that their presence has had a definite influence in the country. “They contribute to a climate in which people feel more empowered to act out on negative feelings that they might hold, frustrations that they might have,” she explains. “And there’s nobody in Hungary who is standing up to say that the image they promote, the climate they create is not OK.”

During its time in opposition, the now ruling Fidesz itself was not averse to harnessing anti-Roma rhetoric. In February 2009, Viktor Orbán stated publicly: “It is clear that the ratio of perpetrators of serious crimes of gypsy origin is increasing day by day, considerably and tangibly.”

‘The Most Pressing Human Rights Issue in Europe Today’

The party’s flirtation with populist nationalism, as well as its efforts to undermine the authority of the Constitutional Court and increase control over the media since coming to power, have created some unease. Its decision to give ethnic Hungarians in other countries passports not only antagonized neighbors, but also seemed to set a yardstick for what it means to be Hungarian.

Marsovszky is critical of the climate created by Fidesz. “The cultural outlook of this government is really the same as that of the far-right in that it sees Hungarian society as a racial national community.” She argues that this comes across in the way some members of the government speak about the ethnic Hungarians in other countries as “blood brothers.” And in Hungary, which has little immigration, it is the Roma, “the people with dark skin,” who are excluded from this community. “There are many politicians in Fidesz or those with ties to the party who have a very anti-Roma attitude,” she argues. “And when they try to tell Europe what to do about Roma, then I don’t have that much hope that anything will change here structurally.”

The government has already come in for criticism from abroad for not dealing more robustly with hate speech and violence against Roma. In October 2010, the United Nations Human Rights panel called on Hungary to tackle the widespread and “virulent” hate speech against Roma in the media and from those in public life and called on the government to promote tolerance and counter “hate or racially motivated crimes.”

During the same month, Amnesty International released a critical report on anti-Roma violence in Hungary, calling on the government to improve the way the criminal justice system investigates crimes motivated by racism.

‘Justice Has Been Very Slow to Come for the Roma’

ERRC’s Bedard says that violence against Roma is “the most pressing human rights issue in Europe today.” The ERRC has followed up on the investigation into the murders of 2008 and 2009 as well as 50 other attacks on Roma over the last two and half years, checking with the police and prosecution authorities to see if those who experience acts of violence get justice. “The results so far have been pretty disappointing,” Bedard says, “Justice has been very slow to come for the Roma who were victims of these attacks, if it is to come at all.”

Robert Csorba’s family are among those still waiting for justice.

His widow Renata and his two surviving children now live with her parents about one kilometer away from their former home. A shy young woman, 24-year-old Renata Csorba says it is too painful to talk about what happened the night of the murders, saying simply: “We are two fewer now.”

Originally published on Spiegel International,1518,737283,00.html

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