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Roma in Hungary: time to pay attention

“A significant portion of the Gypsies are unfit for coexistence. Not fit to live among human beings. These people are animals and behave like animals. … From his animal skull only inarticulate sounds come out and the only thing he understands is brute force… This must be solved, immediately and in any way.”

Zsolt Bayer, Hungarian journalist and founder member of the ruling Fidesz party, Magyar Hirlap newspaper, Jan 5.

Crude racism of this kind sadly isn’t unusual in Hungarian society. Openly talking about using force or ’solving’ the issue “in any way” in a national newspaper is however still a significant step. It is particularly concerning when the journalist in question is a personal friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. As Eva Balogh at Hungarian Spectrum notes today, the Hirlap, and their political backers, have decided against distancing themselves from Bayer’s article and instead gone on the offensive.

Boring Hungarian politics? Same old backward East European attitudes and Borat style racism?

It is tempting to be dismissive. People have cried wolf about Hungarian fascism on plenty of occasions since 1989. There have been scares about various bogey-men of the Hungarian far-right and warnings about anti-antisemitism, ‘Greater Hungary’ nationalists and of course, now and then, the odd bit of news about discrimination against Roma.

But things have changed significantly in recent years. Uniformed fascist gangs, the various ‘Hungarian Guard’ offshoots, frequently engage in ‘warning marches’ and intimidation in villages with Roma populations. Neo-Nazi websites rant about what they have dubbed ‘gypsycrime’. Broadsheet newspapers discuss the ‘Gypsy Question’ with no apparent awareness of the politico-linguistic origins of the various ethnic ‘Questions’ in Eastern Europe that have always needed ‘Solutions’.

Sadly it is not unusual to hear Hungarian liberals and progressives also trade urban myths and stereotypes about the Roma population. You won’t need to be in Budapest long before someone tells you that when ‘gypsy’ families were given new public housing, they stripped out the floorboards to use as firewood. The exact same myth was told by Serbs about ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But perhaps the biggest myth is that ‘cultured’ Hungarian society has tried so hard to integrate the Roma but it is just impossible….

In the West, the attitude to East European Roma is more one of ambivalence than antagonism. Anti-racists are aware of this minority and that they are treated badly across Central and Eastern Europe, but activists working in the field find it hard to get heard. The issue of ‘gypsies’ in the U.K gets discussed within the context of the ‘travellers’ debate.

The basic history bears repeating:

The Roma have been in Europe since arriving from India in the 12th century and have faced slavery, persecution and frequent campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’ including attempts at genocide. The Roma were specifically targeted by the Nazis and sent to death camps in the holocaust, known to Roma as ‘Porajmos’ (“the destruction”). Many Hungarian Roma faced the same fate as their Jewish compatriots. Contrary to the myth of ‘assimilation’ under communism, Roma were discriminated against in education and employment throughout the decades of one-party rule. Since 1989, near Third World levels of poverty in rural villages have accompanied the discrimination and now open racism.

Such is the level of racism in countries like Hungary that successful, integrated Roma frequently try to hide or even deny their ethnic background. It is an understandable survival reaction, one which other ethnic groups had to adopt in that region in the past, but which sadly reinforces the negative stereotypes that Roma are ‘incapable’ of entering ‘cultured’ society.

Now the Roma are being labelled “animals” who need to be dealt with by a well-connected figure in the Hungarian political elite, it is time anti-racists internationally started to pay close attention.

Given their historical record, the Hungarian right should be taken at their word.

They should also know that anti-racists are watching them closely now.

But monitoring the hate campaign and reporting it, isn’t enough.

Anti-racists across Europe need to start talking to Roma rights groups and discussing practical matters. Political parties need to start being informed about the plight of the Roma and the public educated about the issues.

The warnings have been issued clearly. It is time to start paying attention.