Sunday, April 24, 2011
Racial Tensions in Hungary
The evacuation of some 300 Roma women and children from the village of Gyöngyöspata over the Easter weekend has made the news around the world. This is not the first instance of racial conflict in Hungary in recent years. Never-heard-of place names of relevance include Olaszliszka, Galgagyörk, Tamásipuszta, Nagycsécs, Tatárszentgyörgy, Tiszalök, Kisléta, and now Gyöngyöspata. Ask any Hungarian, and they will not be able to locate these towns and villages on the map one by one, but they will know these are the battlegrounds of racial strife between Hungarians and Roma. Odds on, they will blame the Roma for it exclusively.
Clear and present danger of racial warfare presented itself last week in Gyöngyöspata, where criminals identified as Roma by the victims have been terrorizing the non-Roma villagers for years now. With practically no police presence in the area, the self-proclaimed “peace marshals” of the extreme right, this time calling themselves “Véderő” (Defensive Force), descended upon the village and set up a military training camp: all that WITHOUT guns. With Hungary’s extremely strict gun laws, there was no threat of a shoot-out, yet the situation did develop into a crisis serious enough to prompt the Red Cross to evacuate some 300 Roma women and children for the weekend to children’s camps in Csillebérc and Tiszaliget. They also gave the current Fidesz government a diplomatic way out by calling it a pre-organized tour and an Easter gift. The media nonetheless descended upon the village and all parties turned on their respective fear mongering engines. For the umpteenth time, a dangerous racial conflict developed into a media show, and will be treated as an isolated event.
Conflicts between Hungarians and Roma have been around for centuries: the two lifestyles do not seem to match. However, in the meantime, the world has moved forward and methods of handling racial and ethnic conflicts have been developed and made available. Most Hungarian politicians and intellectuals are well aware of this; thus, the fact that these conflicts remain unresolved indicates that the race card is part of the permanent political election campaign Hungary has been mired in since 2001. Hungarians do not consider themselves racist and they fail to understand that racist slur is actually racism. One of my biggest frustrations as a university lecturer comes from my inability to help most of my students understand that “race” is a social construct, just like “ethnicity” and “nation”. What makes race particularly dangerous is that it is supposed to be based on “clearly visible facts” (people do look different) and that it is ALWAYS used to discriminate. This is one of the pitfalls of all the education reforms we have had since 1989, combined with no attempt to teach kids how to debate and resolve conflicts. Instead, a fake narrative of political correctness took over the debate on race and one’s perceived political orientation defines where one stands (or is supposed to stand) on these issues. The three basic positions are those of the “left”, the “right”, and the radical/extreme right. Conspicuously missing is the Roma take on all this.
The “progressive left” in Hungary (the socialists, who are the former communist party, and the “liberals”, who are more like libertarians) has introduced the PC language of the American 1990s without explaining the differences: in their universe, the Roma issue is the same as the African-American one was in the Sixties, although the Roma were never kept as slaves and no institutionalized, legal segregation ever existed in (independent) Hungary. Their rhetoric was that Fidesz is fascist, or that Fidesz turns a blind eye to the extreme right; thus, all Hungarians who support Fidesz are racists (and anti-Semites). They continue to state this in media events and interviews abroad, instead of carrying on the debate at home.
The “right”, represented now by Fidesz and holding a 2/3 majority in the Parliament, has stood up to the indiscriminate importation of PC language and insisted on calling things by the name and grabbing the bull by the horns. They have come to emphasize the fact that poverty is not simply a Roma problem and many Hungarians live a life just as poor as their Roma counterparts and they still do not become criminals. The trope of “Roma crime” was born on the right, but was later monopolized by the extreme right. Fidesz promised a solution to unemployment, poverty, crime, and racial conflict, but they appear to treat the problem not as a social-economic crisis shaking the very foundations of Hungarian society but as a string of isolated incidents.
The radical right, currently represented by Jobbik, has simplified the rhetoric to “Roma crime” against Hungarians. Their suggestions include camps for the reeducation of the Roma as well as ghettos and (school) segregation. The radical right media demands a racial showdown, claims that Roma crimes are ignored by the mainstream media, and that the government (both MSZP-SzDSz previously and Fidesz now) fails to address the “real issues”: unwillingness to assimilate, incest and crime among the Roma, and the fact that they will take over the country by 2025/2050 because of their high birth rate.
What appears to be the case matches none of these narratives. There is extreme poverty and a terrible crime rate in Hungary, but subsidies paid to the Roma and Roma criminals are small change compared to government-level white-collar crime that brought down the economy by 2008 and the previous government. Roma people hardly make up of 5% of the total population: according to the census of 2001, some 190,000 people identified themselves as Roma. Even if we factor in unwillingness to identify with an unpopular minority group and birth rate, their number cannot be larger than about 500,000. By sheer numbers, the Roma cannot be THE problem. Most of them live in extreme poverty and Roma male life expectancy is estimated at 48 years. It is true that most of them show little if any respect for the majority society, but why should they? They are NEVER asked what their preferences are, they have no jobs or job opportunities, and the majority cannot offer them a lucrative vision worthy of assimilating into. There is, of course, no such thing as “Roma crime”, as there is no “good Roma” and “bad Roma”: the inclusion of the racial identifier indicates racist motives from the start. There are Roma involved in criminal activities, often organized crime, and some of them consider this as payback to the majority society of Hungarians (“gádzsók”). If, once in every blue moon, they are asked by the media, they say they consider themselves victims and scapegoats. Roma organizations and elected bodies of self-government DO exist in Hungary, but most of the rather significant funds poured into various affirmative action programs have been embezzled by their own “representatives” and “leaders”. This is indeed a ticking time bomb, but not because of “Roma crime” or sheer numbers, but because of the unresolved racial conflict.
The lynching in Olaszliszka of Lajos Szögi on October 15, 2006 by an angry mob of Roma people is quickly being turned into a Roma Tiszaeszlár (the founding anti-Semitic myth in Hungary) by the extreme right. It has directly led to the ugliest crime spree of four neo-Nazis shooting innocent Roma victims with stolen guns in 2008-2009. MSZP, then in power, blamed the opposition, Fidesz, although at least one of the four criminals had direct links to the Hungarian military intelligence of the very government they themselves were running. Conspiracy theories abound on all sides as the first actual violent crimes against the Roma since the Holocaust are under investigation (the four shooters were arrested in Debrecen on August 20, 2009). Proposing a “Roma strategy” for this solves nothing. Hungary has about two dozen minority groups and any one of them could become the next target.
Fear mongering is picking up steam in all three camps. The “progressive left” points to the “silent partnership” between Fidesz and Jobbik while Jobbik accuses both Fidesz and MSZP of not being willing to deal with the “real issues”, and Fidesz claims this is an inherited problem and they are doing their best to resolve it, they even initiated an EU-level Roma strategy. The “progressive left” was indeed in power between 2002 and 2008 and if they really had the panacea they should have applied it. Instead, they pursued a policy of pitting various dispossessed groups in society against one another, and used the Roma for their own political gain. They and their supporters are as racist as anybody else in Hungary: in their thinly veiled hate campaign against Orbán they have described him not only as Hitler, Mussolini, Gömbös, Horthy, Stalin, and Kádár but also as a Jew and a Roma.
Jobbik is a different cup of tea. It emerged out of the defunct extreme right that surfaced in Hungary after 1989, from some disappointed Fidesz voters, and from the electoral base of MSZP, especially in northeast Hungary. Jobbik represents a unique coalition of extreme right and left. As has been explained above, they see the Roma as a direct threat to the peaceful majority and establish self-defense military organizations (Magyar Gárda in its various reincarnations) to patrol the streets of villages under the perceived threat of “Roma crime” and with no police visible in these settlements. In light of the 2008-2009 shootings, the fear is legitimate that these organizations might one day become violent.
But real responsibility lies with the current Fidesz government holding a 2/3 majority in Parliament. If they have a policy, now is the time to implement it. Jobbik represents an interesting dilemma to them. It is a handy scapegoat for extreme right wing movements and ideas in Hungary and it takes away much of the (unfounded) campaign of the “left” that tries to designate Fidesz as the new fascists. But they also know that the 2/3 majority they now hold will not be guaranteed even if they win the next election and they need votes form the right, too. This duplicity manifested itself in many of the Fidesz campaign promises and in the new constitution.
The previous “progressive left” government has deconstructed the state and, most importantly, its monopoly for guaranteeing domestic tranquility. One key fallout from the events of 2006 (as I explained in my post on the new constitution) was the total loss of faith on the part of much of the population in the police. The Hungarian police had to deal with the uncomfortable legacy of the communist era (when blonde jokes were policeman jokes) and the last thing they needed was the PR nightmare of being seen as cronies of the MSZP-SzDSz government. By 2009, a fully armed private security firm, In-Kal Security, assumed the task of securing public government events. Meanwhile, the unarmed “peacekeeping force” of Jobbik, the Magyar Gárda, was dissolved by the courts on the grounds that peacekeeping is the exclusive monopoly of the state. This contradiction was exposed by both Fidesz and Jobbik in the 2010 campaign, and Fidesz promised to “restore law and order” within two weeks of coming to power and send at least one policeman to every village. This partial nod towards the radical right was repeated in the process of drafting the new constitution: it guarantees equal rights and protection to all minorities, but gay marriage is excluded, although, as I explained in my answer to the questions on the post on the constitution, this is a restriction of certain rights. Similarly suspicious measures include life sentence without parole or early release in cases of violent crime (a measure to compensate for the “loss” of the death penalty) and guaranteeing no protection to minority languages. I am becoming more and more curious as to how the Cardinal Acts will really outline the new system of government and elections.
As regards the actual performance of the current Fidesz government, in this matter it leaves a lot to be desired. Radical right wing media still claim that “Roma crimes” are not even reported and the promise of sending at least one policeman to every village has not materialized. When this “Véderő” organization showed up in Gyöngyöspata, no action was taken for days, until the international media began to circulate a largely one-sided version of the events. Fidesz then went into troubleshooting mode, and even Minister of the Interior Sándor Pintér visited the village. As the 300 Roma were being evacuated, the “Véderő” people were arrested and a government decree was issued to declare any unauthorized peacekeeping activity, armed or unarmed, a crime. Meanwhile, the media began to report that the evacuation was actually a Red Cross charity initiative and/or a project started by an American who funded the LMP campaign in 2010, and that it had been under way ever since Tuesday (as if the crisis had struck this Tuesday). Pintér radiates control and authority, and a local crisis has probably been averted. The problem: we need to address the whole issue of racism.
When you come up with any form of criticism the first thing you are asked to provide is solutions. In Hungary, this must be good and must NOT cost any money, as it is money we do not have. I have suggestions, but they do take some financial effort. Firstly, fear mongering must stop and genuine conversation must start. I understand most Hungarian intellectuals refrain from making public statements (I have been one of them but I have had enough) because the very moment you criticize someone, you are dubbed as a “crony of the other side”. It is true that some liberal intellectuals have displayed a considerable amount of arrogance and alienated much of the population during the past 20 years, but now is the time to step up and take responsible action. Continued pressure on Fidesz will simply confirm their feeling (and strategy) of being a “fort under siege” and bring about more defiance and inaction. We must discuss problems honestly among ourselves (Roma included) and without PC language terrorism. Secondly, we must immediately reconsider our education strategy and include debating skills and crisis management on the lowest levels. Thirdly, we need our government to use its 2/3 majority and begin to handle poverty, unemployment, and crime with no regard to racial background. As regards crime: if we really have so many people wanting to wear a uniform, draft them into the police force, train them properly in crisis management as well, and send them to every village in task forces of three: one fully trained policeman and two understudies: one Hungarian and one Roma.
It is part of the Hungarian ego to try to come up with a NEW solution for everything, and Fidesz is pretty good at this in every sense of the word. This time, however, we do not need to invent the wheel, that wheel has already been invented