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Hungary’s Roma Tipping Point

A strange combination of violence and political will might finally be forcing progress on a perennial issue.

by Peter Murphy 4 April 2012

BUDAPEST | Unlike his boss, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Zoltan Balog usually gets a sympathetic hearing when he pays a visit to Brussels.

 

As Hungary's minister of state for social inclusion, Balog is one of the architects of the country’s latest attempt to improve the lot of its Romani citizens. And he has been at the forefront of efforts to keep the Roma issue high on European Union to-do lists.

Zoltan Balog discusses Roma integration at a May 2011 meeting of EU employment and social affairs ministers. Photo courtesy of the Council of the European Union.

 

In April 2011, during Hungary’s EU presidency, the European Commission adopted a strategy on Roma integration that required each member state to come up with a plan. Hungary was first in line with its proposal. The commission is now evaluating the national strategies and is due to report to the European Parliament in late April.

 

“Until 2010, the commission more or less said these are internal national affairs,” Balog said in a recent interview. “Yes, every country has to solve this problem itself, but it's not possible without Europe-wide coordination.”

 

Balog believes France’s 2010 deportations of Roma were a tipping point for attitudes in Western Europe. “Sometimes negative sensations like that open the eyes. We realized then that the Hungarian presidency might be the moment to push for an EU-wide Roma strategy. I think the rest of Europe was glad that at last there was someone willing to lead on this.”

 

The plaudits for Hungary's promotion of the Roma initiative stand in stark contrast to the general drift of relations between Brussels and Budapest. The EU is reviewing a swath of new laws brought in by Orban's administration on the media, religion, the judiciary, and the central bank. On 14 March, EU finance ministers threatened to hold back some EU funds unless Hungary tackled its budget deficit, the first such move against an EU member. A day later, in a speech to mark Hungary’s national day, Orban alluded to Brussels as an unwanted foreign power meddling in Hungary's affairs.

 

“We well know the nature of unsolicited help from comrades, and we recognize it even if it’s not wearing uniforms but well-cut suits,” the prime minister said.

 

It is hard to imagine Balog making a similar remark. The 54-year-old Calvinist pastor and former chief adviser to Orban has a background in social policy and chaired the Hungarian parliament's minority and human rights committee for four years. That made him an obvious choice to lead a new social inclusion agency when Orban’s conservative-populist Fidesz party swept to power in 2010.

 

“I chose the job and am personally committed to it,” Balog says.

 

It is not without political risk. The radical nationalist party Jobbik calls him “minister for the Gypsies,” Balog notes.

 

“‘Why do we keep giving them money when we don't see any return?’ they ask. But I believe it's a historic chance for a center-right government to take steps forward on the Roma issue.”

 

For the minister, economics is a recurring theme. He cites a report from Fidesz colleague Livia Jaroka, the only Roma member of the European Parliament, that estimates countries in the region could boost their GDP by 4 percent to 6 percent if Roma employment rates were brought to the level of the general population.

 

Roma make up about a third of the 60 employees of Balog’s department, which is part of the Public Administration and Justice Ministry. Incrementally, he believes, people are coming around to the view that inclusion helps everybody. He recounts the experience of a young man in a Roma youth circle he attends.

 

“A clerk at a municipality job center told him, ‘I will give you this job because otherwise there won't be anyone to pay for our pensions.’ It was meant to offend, but it shows there is an argument getting through. People are gradually realizing that if you exclude the Roma from the labor market it works against their own interests.

 

“The attitude until now has been ‘Please don't discriminate.’ There were no jobs to offer, so, due to bad consciences, governments offered handouts to stabilize people's lives at low levels,” he continues. “But it's no longer good enough to rely on an anti-discrimination narrative. We have to use the social and economic narratives as well.”

 

Hungary’s 10-year inclusion strategy features education and health care initiatives, public works schemes, agricultural cooperatives, and an expanded housing rehabilitation fund. In line with the EU's Europe 2020 plan, it aims to reduce Hungary’s national poverty rate, disproportionately made up of Roma, from 28 percent to 23 percent through better use of existing funding as well as tapping new EU monies.

 

Critics say the plan is heavy on wishful thinking and light on clear budget lines and sanctions for missed targets.

 

“There aren't any obligatory pieces in that paper, only recommendations,” says Agnes Osztolykan of the opposition Politics Can Be Different party, one of four Roma members of the Hungarian parliament.

 

Balog says concrete measures are in place. A network of 12 regional centers employing 400 people, among them many Roma, has been set up to act as the hands of the state, coordinating funding and signing contracts with municipalities, civic groups, churches, and Hungary's unique network of Roma self-governments.

 

On the spending side, 7 billion forints ($31.7 million) from the central budget will go to a program begun in 2004 that rewards teachers and schools that organize programs for disadvantaged children. From 2017, disadvantaged children will be obliged to attend kindergarten from 3 years old to give them more time to prepare for elementary school. A carrot-and-stick approach will encourage reluctant municipalities to reduce segregation in schools.

 

On housing, a 4.7 billion forint fund, ramped up with EU funding, will go toward rehabilitation. Balog rejects critics’ claims that the fund will mostly “patch up” existing buildings in isolated ghettos rather than integrating households into the fabric of hostile towns and villages.

 

“Whether settlements will be pulled down or renovated will be decided on a case-by-case basis with the input of people who live there,” he says. “Sometimes people want to stay where they are. Other times, houses are in just too dangerous a condition to stay.”

 

As he believes employers’ views are changing, Balog see signs that mayors and local officials are beginning to show some “civic courage.”

 

“Five years ago, under the previous government, there was a 500 million forint housing program for the segregated Roma settlements, and there wasn't a single taker,” he says. This time around, with much more money to spend, more than 70 municipalities have lined up for the funds so far.

 

“Forward-thinking mayors realize that the situation is unsustainable, and that there is no alternative to surviving together. They are more aware of the urgency of the Roma situation than they were five years ago.”

 

Almost a year after violent clashes in the village of Gyongyospata, sparked by a far-right extremist group that set up a vigilante training camp, relations between Roma and non-Roma in Hungary remain fraught.

 

In February, at a commemoration of the third anniversary of the 2009 murders of two Roma by a serial killer or killers, speakers urged the authorities to clamp down on hate groups. “We cannot be indifferent to neo-Nazis freely using public spaces in Budapest in uniforms, voicing their fear-inducing and divisive ideologies,” one said.

 

While Fidesz banned the paramilitary Hungarian Guard organization in 2009 and criminalized uniformed shows of strength in public, offshoots of the Guard and a proliferation of other extremist groups continue to appear. On the 15 March national holiday, far-right nationalists held a demonstration in Budapest near where an anti-government event was being held. Two days later, the National Hungarian Guard held a swearing-in ceremony attended by hundreds on Budapest's Heroes Square with police looking on.

 

Balog says the atmosphere of conflict, especially in the countryside, has finally brought the issue home to many local officials. It “has triggered the thinking that now we have to do something and that policing is only a short-term solution.”

 

A radical change made by Fidesz is the kozmunka program begun in 2011, whereby municipalities apply for central funding for community projects. Anyone who has been jobless for more than three months must sign up for the schemes or lose unemployment benefits.

 

The program, part of Orban’s trumpeted 1 million jobs in 10 years target, aims to provide work for hundreds of thousands of people who Balog says are “able-bodied and available for work but have never been employed.”

 

Opponents say the forced element of the program and meager monthly payment – 47,000 forints, significantly below the minimum wage – is evidence that the government is anti-poor. Fidesz counters that benefit handouts have been too generous and expensive, and have encouraged “passivity.”

 

“The basic problem is that until economic growth returns there are no workplaces,” Balog concedes, pointing out that four of the EU's 25 most deprived micro-regions are in Hungary, all of them with high Roma populations.

 

“These public jobs aren't real jobs either, but it is at least real activity. Now people will get paid every week, pay tax, have health insurance, and make pension contributions. The point is to bring them into a new, responsible relationship with the state.”

 

Balog disagrees with his Fidesz colleague Marcell Zsiga, who said in February that it was “definitely possible to live on 47,000 forints,” but he points out that the stipend is still more than double the basic welfare payment and that other supplementary benefits can “bridge the gap.”

 

He also acknowledges the danger that the scheme is open to abuse by unscrupulous municipalities who see it as a chance to get Roma out digging ditches or clearing scrub in forests.

 

“There are municipalities who are using this program to humiliate poor people, or who don't have any better ideas,” he says. “We have to improve our control of this. If money is not reaching projects that are, as we say, creating valuable work, those projects shouldn't get funding.”

 

Balog stresses the concept of conditionality and strict monitoring. Scholarships for kids will be dependent on improving grades. Family welfare payments will be linked to children's school attendance. If a child is absent for more than 50 classes, the money goes to the municipality to oversee how the family spends it.

 

“The message is that if you get something from the state, you have to respond to it,” he says.

 

Jeno Setet, a prominent Roma activist in Budapest, is among those skeptical of the program’s lasting benefits. If it is not to join the list of merely symbolic efforts to tackle integration, he says, kozmunka needs to usher Roma into proper jobs and meaningful vocational education.

 

“Now, if a Rom wants to work, then at best he gets kozmunka. A community cannot live on these kozmunka jobs alone; people have a right to earn normal wages,” Setet says. “We need someone like Brazil's Lula da Silva here, someone who is dedicated to bringing not thousands but millions out of poverty.”

 

Another criterion of success, Setet says, would be a reduction in the level of insecurity and fear within the Roma community since the rise of Jobbik and extremist groups, the 2008 and ’09 serial killings, and the events in Gyongyospata.

 

Osztolykan says she struggles to deal with hearing Jobbik politicians in parliament speak regularly of “gypsy crime.”  “I am the only Roma for whom this is a daily thing,” she says.

 

Back in Brussels, the suggestion at a January debate that Fidesz was in part responsible for Roma living in fear provoked an angry response from Jaroka. “The current Hungarian government has taken more steps for the equal opportunities of Roma than most governments in the past 20 years,” she said.

 

Among critics, though, the impression persists that Fidesz too often treads a middle ground between far-right extremists and Roma. Balog himself admits he finds it difficult to find the balance between “ideological political correctness” and open debate of problems.

 

“It's often hard to let some non-Roma people see that we understand their problems with Roma, without hurting the dignity of Roma,” he says.

 

That dignity was clearly infringed by a documentary screened on the main state-run TV channel in March that portrayed a strongly negative picture of the lifestyle of a number of Roma families. In protest, Setet handed a petition to TV headquarters that called the broadcast “undignified, one-sided, and an incitement to anti-Gypsy sentiment.” The program’s makers said their aim was to “generate a healthy debate” about “one of the most pressing questions in Hungarian society.”

 

Ultimately, the long-term indicator of Balog’s success will be the emergence of a Roma middle class with more young people passing exams and getting good jobs. His frankness in describing the current reality as a “disaster” gives rise at least to some hope for progress toward that distant goal.

Peter Murphy is a freelance journalist in Budapest. He tweets at @MurphyPeterN.

Home page photo by Habeebee/flickr.

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