Hungary: Painful Realities

As Hungary readies for accession to the European Union (E.U.), the centuries-old “Gypsy question” continues to resist all efforts at resolution. Though Hungary’s Roma, or Gypsies, have made significant gains in civil and political rights under E.U. minority law, prejudice against them remains deep-seated. In the days surrounding the remembrance of the Romani Holocaust, Aug. 2, commentators had an opportunity to reflect on the place of Roma in Hungarian society.

An Aug. 2 editorial in Magyar Nemzet quoted Chancellery Minister Peter Kiss, who said: “Europe and every majority society in Europe owes a debt to the Roma.” And yet, on that same day, Elza Lakatos of the Roma Press Center noted in Magyar Hirlap how that debt had yet to be repaid: “According to estimates, tens of thousands of Roma in Hungary were killed in Nazi concentration camps and local pogroms. No memorial exists to these events.”

The realities of Roma life are sobering. A July 2 article in HVG offered chilling numbers on the conditions under which they live: “In Hungary in 2000, 40 percent of the report’s estimated 450,000 Roma were under the poverty level....Many Roma have not had a job since the beginning of the ’90s. In Hungary, the proportion of working Roma among those able to work has dropped from 80 to 26 percent.” Hungary’s Roma face enmity as well as lower living standards. A July 30 article in Magyar Nemzet described an attack on a Rom involving two fishermen and two police officers: “They threw the then-14-year-old Kalman F. to the ground, twisted him by holding on to his ears, and then forced him to strip and dive into the ice-cold waters of the Tisza.” An investigation revealed that the incident was not the first involving the officers. The two officers were dismissed from the force, and they and the fishermen each received sentences of over three years in jail. The sentences, however, were later reduced, prompting the young victim in late July to seek a half-million forints (US$2,177) in damages from the state.

Divisions among Roma themselves make it difficult to fight prejudice. The ruling body for Hungarian Roma, the National Gypsy Council, or OCO, has been mired in controversy since its creation in 1993. The atmosphere in the council has been poisoned by infighting and charges of corruption. The council is now divided over who should be its leader. Aladar Horvath was elected on March 12, but the membership, unhappy with his allegedly high-handed manner, replaced him with Orban Kolompar. To date, neither has ceded power.

Some progress is being made in areas vital to the betterment of conditions for Hungary’s Roma, mainly in education. Laszlo Teleki, the state secretary for Roma equal opportunity, said in an interview with Erna Saghy of 168 Ora: “Last year, 12,000 Gypsy children received financial aid [for primary and secondary school costs], while to date this year, 19,000 have received it.”