Society

Hungary: Roma hunting season set to continue

6 April 2011
Le Monde Paris

Gyöngyöspata (Hungary), March 12, 2011. Members of Szebb Jövoert surround the house of a Roma family.
Gyöngyöspata (Hungary), March 12, 2011. Members of Szebb Jövoert surround the house of a Roma family.

At a time when the EU has called on member states to make greater efforts to integrate Roma living on their territories, Viktor Orbán’s government, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, continues to turn a blind eye to the ongoing campaign to intimidate "Gypsy criminals" conducted by far-right Magyar groups.

At the end of March, paramilitary members of Hungary’s extreme-right Jobbik political party organised several weeks of village patrols to counter “Gypsy criminality” – a worrying demonstration of strength that failed to prompt a reaction from Viktor Orbán’s government. At the same time, the EU called on member states to take concrete action to improve conditions for the 10 to 12 million Roma living in Europe. 

Apart from its medieval church, and its wine cellars nestling against the surrounding hillsides, there is not much to distinguish Gyöngyöspata – with its communist era village hall, Coop grocery, muddy Roma ghetto and well-weeded gardens where the first hyacinths are beginning to bloom – from so many other Hungarian villages.

However, last month the events that took place in the village, which is an hour’s drive northeast of Budapest and home to 2,850 inhabitants, may well have a significant bearing on the future of Europe. In an initiative organised by Jobbik (the political party that took 16.8% of the vote in 2010 general elections but whose popularity is now declining in the polls), the far right made Gyöngyöspata the site for a experimental programme to counter "Gypsy criminality," which included more than two weeks of daytime and night-time patrols by militia-men, supported by local people who provided free food and accommodation.

On 6 March, Jobbik’s national leader, MP Gabor Vona, arrived to address a crowd of 1,500 paramilitaries, most of whom were kitted out in the black uniform of Szebb Jövoert ("For a more beautiful future"), an organisation that is covered by the legal umbrella of village self-defence militias. There were also a number of particularly aggressive looking individuals sporting combat fatigues and skinhead haircuts, who were armed with axes, whips and accompanied by pitbulls. When the patrols began, Roma families were too terrified to send their children to school.

In spite of the resemblance between Szebb Jövoert and the Hungarian Guard, a Jobbik-linked militia which organised similar campaigns to intimidate the Roma minority until it was banned by Hungary’s constitutional court in 2009, the police did not intervene. The government led by conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took no notice of the situation until 16 March, when the militias had already left the village.

On 15 March, which is a day of national celebration in Hungary, Mr Orbán gave a speech in Budapest in which he praised the Magyar people’s courageous resistance to the diktats of foreign powers, including the European Union, whose presidency Hungary took over in January of this year – but not a word about Gyöngyöspata.

On the same day, a handful of counter demonstrators led by Aladar Horvath, who heads a well-known Hungarian civic association for Roma rights and freedoms, arrived in Gyöngyöspata. Among them were Pastor Gabor Ivanyi and two MPs from the liberal Green LMP party, (which only obtained 314 votes in the constituency in 2010 general elections, even though there are 6,000 Roma voters in the area). "The overwhelming majority of our votes went to Fidesz” (Mr Orbán’s party, which now has a two-thirds majority in parliament), points out Janos Farkas, the leader of Gyöngyöspata’s 500-strong Roma community, “because he promised us jobs." 

A year later, the rate of unemployment in Hungary is as high as ever, while the government has axed family allowances and cut back on funding for "self-governing bodies" for minorities.

Ever since forests were re-privatised in 1992, the Roma have been deprived of the right to gather mushrooms and collect firewood. "In exchange we were promised work cleaning up the forests. Then the owners blocked that idea,” explains Mr Farkas. “But we have been living here for five centuries, our ancestors defended this country against the Turks, we are Hungarians first and Roma second!"

Crime is on the increase in the Hungarian countryside, where residents feel they have been neglected by the authorities. A number of murders have had a major impact on public opinion: they include the 2006 killing of a teacher in Olaszliszka (Northeastern Hunagary) who was lynched in front of his children, when he knocked down a 12-year-old Roma girl. Jobbik has a erected a monument to his memory. However, the 2009 series of Roma murders perpetrated by a group of neo-Nazis, who are now on trial in Budapest, has failed to move the country’s population.

In Gyöngyöspata, the conflict appears to have been prompted by the purchase by the Hungarian Red Cross of number of houses that it intended to use to re-house Roma families who had been left homeless by the floods in 2010. The plan to move Roma families into the centre of the village met with stiff resistence from locals who wrote to Gabor Vona, explains Oszkar Juhasz, the president of the local branch of Jobbik (which obtained 26% of the vote in the constituency in 2010).

Mr Juhasz is a wine-grower and a descendent of one of those low-ranking noble families which were barely better off than the serfs, but which believed themselves to be the lifeblood of Hungary. In the hall of his house, there is a map of country with its pre-1920 borders. For the extreme right, which is obsessed by the historic loss of two-thirds of Hungary’s national territory, the high Roma birth rate is a serious threat: "Since 1898, their numbers have increased by a factor of more than 100,” he says. “We are not racist, but more often than not the policy of Roma integration simply results in lower living standards for non-Roma."

On Saturday 2 April, Oszkar Juhasz put on his black uniform to march in the streets of Hejöszalonta, a village in the Northeast of the country which has a population of 900, alongside other "Hungarian patriots." In a press conference on the previous day, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary faction, Janos Lazar, raised the question of liberalising gun control laws to facilitate self-defence – a measure that is one of Jobbik’s political demands.

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