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Vol 2, No 38
6 November 2000
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Csardas Second-Class Citizens?
Interview with József Krasznai,
Leader of the Zámoly Roma
(Part Two)

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

[Click here to read Part One]


When visitors to Budapest spend a pleasant evening in one of the many fine restaurants, which grace the city, they are often entertained by virtuoso bands of gypsy musicians, serenading them at their tables as they sample the delights of our cuisine. The romantic cliché abides in the mind of the tourist long afterwards, alongside images of the Chain Bridge lit up in the wistful chill of an autumn evening. The stereotypes associated with the Roma in the mind of the average Hungarian could not stand in starker contrast had they been deliberately engineered to do so.

The rétinéger (translating literally as meadow niggers) are perceived as lazy, thieving scroungers, whose presence in a neighbourhood lowers its tone and pushes property values downwards. Trapped in a vicious circle of deprivation, chronic underpriviledge and stigma, the majority are unable to break free of the trammels of the underachievement expected of them, thereby fuelling the prejudices against them further. What emerges from the second half of my interview with József Krasznai is a bleak picture of the reality faced by our largest minority.

The Roma in today's Hungary

CER: Perhaps you could go into the situation of the Roma in contemporary Hungary in a little more detail. What remedies do you think may be found to the problems facing the Roma in the course of everyday life?

József Krasznai: First of all, I would like to talk about the anti-Roma sentiments, which exist in Hungary. Many people have examined this issue, but ultimately what we are confronted with is a process, which affects all of Hungary's Roma. The situation of the Roma living in the former Socialist countries is roughly similar. We are aware, however, of what happened with the Czechs and the Slovaks when the country split in two: regardless of which side of the frontier the Roma ended up on they were told that they didn't belong there, but on the other side and that they should apply for citizenship over there and that is without even mentioning what went on in Romania and Yugoslavia. Basically, more or less the same fate befell the Roma there as well.

Coming back to Hungary, though, we know that the biggest losers of the transition to democracy were the Roma. The reason why this should be the case is that under the former regime, the primary task to be fulfilled by the leaders of the Communist dictatorships was to churn out large numbers of unskilled labourers to replace machines and these workers were the Roma. Who else would they have been? They had a strong presence in the construction industry, in the mines, in agriculture and carried out the most strenuous physical labour for the lowest possible pay to boot. This is not a new phenomenon and I would like to shed some light on the high unemployment rate these days, since the two themes are linked.

A substantial percentage of the Roma, around 85 per cent, is said to be out of work. It is also claimed-and in my opinion it is true enough-that a similarly high percentage of the Roma is undereducated. We also have to bear in mind that a system of so-called remedial classes was established under the former regime and the Roma were completely cut off from their peers, with four years lumped together in one large classroom and another four years in a second one [what Krasznai means is that four entire year intakes were thus forced to occupy a single spacious classroom at once, which is a recipe for chaos if ever there was one!].

We label these children functionally illiterate: they are able to scrawl down their own names, but cannot do anything else. Then we had the changeover to democracy and we were suddenly confronted with these huge masses of unskilled people, who simply did not fit into the new economy.

Under the old system we had what we called tolerated unemployment [whereby the surplus workforce was absorbed by having them on the pay roll, but leaving them to perform menial or unnecessary tasks as an exercise in massaging the statistics where full employment was an ideological necessity], but now these people have ended up on the streets and lost their jobs.

Then the Hungarian Justice and Life Party activists [MIÉP, extreme right-wing nationalists] came along—I don't think they require any introduction—but we need to recall that from the beginning of the 90s onwards racism took off at a giddying rate and the various anti-Roma campaigns organised by the neo-Nazis has claimed several Roma victims. Although this process is on the wane by now it still exerts a very strong influence.

The relationship between the Roma and the majority is quite different to the relationship between the majority and any other minority living in Hungary. The Roma cannot be mentioned in the same category as, for example, the German minority, the Serb, the Bulgarian or any of the other minorities. The Roma minority is the biggest in number and the poorest along with it.

What we are dealing with is an extremely impoverished, chronically educated social stratum, who do not to all practical intents and purposes have an intellectual elite or white-collar component of their own. The few, who do exist, have "gone native" to such an extent that nobody would guess even by chance that they are Roma because they are afraid that if anyone found out that they might be interested in the Roma cause, they would be automatically made redundant.

In parentheses, let me remark that this is my own personal greatest regret. The most honourable course of action for them to follow would be to take the vanguard in the Roma cause and start getting tough, thumping the table, saying so and so many billions should be poured into educating the Roma so that they can catch up with us and so that we can finally start taking part in rebuilding the country.

If someone is properly qualified then it is not such an easy matter to kick them out of a job as it is to get rid of someone by accusing them of being undereducated. You cannot sit anyone down in front of a computer and expect them to work with it if they have only completed six years of primary school education.

Not a question of money?

The failure to provide a decent education was the biggest sin committed by the previous regime. I do maintain, however, that if the previous regime was at fault then this democratic system, which also has material resources at its command, ought to do something to promote improvement of the Roma's situation socially.

I have visited both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, where I have been informed that it is not a question of money, since these major European organisations are providing funds to assist the Roma in Hungary in hauling themselves up beyond mere subsistence level because only then is there any prospect of even talking about creating jobs.

Until this stage has been reached it is impossible to do so, and they are completely right on that score, since any multinational, which moves to Hungary to set up shop needs skilled workers: the bigger the company, the more advanced the technology it utilises and under-skilled Roma simply cannot find a niche in it. They are forced to live off benefits and the various social security payments.

This is the single biggest problem. Whilst a stonemason earns let's say HUF (Hungarian forint) 40,000 (USD 131), a Roma receives around HUF 16,000 to 18,000 (USD 53 to 59) in total, including dole money, family allowance, the lot. He might also do some undeclared work on the side, whatever he is able to get hold of, as he is in a position to make a better living that way, provided he shows a little ingenuity, than if he were to drudge away for eight or ten hours a day.

What does someone, who plugged away eight hours a day, quite justifiably have to say to this? I bitterly struggle through eight hours a day, I pay my taxes and these people are living off them. This is the way things stand at the moment. When I was at home I said that society, as a whole should be the first in line to do something about improving the situation. Because people could say that yes, I go out to vote and I will vote for the party, which included helping the Roma in its manifesto so that they too can become active workers as soon as possible.

Currently, the Roma do not live up to the criteria new employers apply to the workforce. Applicants have to undergo a series of very exacting tests, the type that would cause a secondary school graduate with a full set of qualifications to sweat. Small wonder then that someone, who has completed three or six years' worth of education, cannot be taken into account as a contender.

I would say that everyone should vote for the party, which, let's say, has its own separate programme and sets up a special intervention fund in order to implement it. The most important thing is for education to get off the ground and once there is a target group to create jobs for, then let jobs be created.

It doesn't work in reverse: we launched education and training initiatives within our organisation and at the end it turned out that we had retrained the participants as stonemasons, carpenters or whatever else and nobody gave a damn about them. We ought, on the other hand, to have helped train computer-literate workers, because they were needed, but we were not able to offer them anything in that direction. It was at that juncture that I said we should always be retraining people in the skills, which happen to be in demand at a given moment. We shouldn't just provide training for training's sake.

Education is the problem

The way matters stand in Hungary at the present moment is more or less as follows: 75 per cent of Roma children attend remedial classes and they cannot even move on to trade schools afterwards [where specific skills, such as plumbing or carpentry are taught], only into technical schools where they do not receive any practical teaching and then the employers turn around and say thank you very much, but this is a kid from a remedial class, who can't even calculate a square root or measure a right angle and I really don't need someone like that. So these children are the functional illiterates within our society.

This is what the problem means in Hungary today. They do not treat us badly in Hungary because we are Roma, the majority is not like that and it is not true that the entire country is racist. There are people like that, but the problem, which exists in inter-human relationships, is not caused by someone being Roma, but because majority society claims that approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the 6 to 700,000 individuals concerned are in work.

If this huge number of people does not work then what does it live off? From the taxes I pay. I have to admit that this argument is perfectly correct. It is not the Roma, who are responsible, since undereducated individuals, who have not been to a school giving practical training, are unable to understand things. Everyone with an ounce of progressive thinking in them and the government as well must strive towards helping transform these people into workers as soon as possible.

I do not know to what extent the example of Zámoly can be generalised, but it represents a clear reflection of what the relationship between members of the majority society and the local Roma is like in certain small communities. Because of tensions of this sort, some Mayors have decided that they would clear all the Roma out of their villages, at least to the extent that it is possible to do so. Obviously, this is out of the question on an official basis, although the laws have been drafted in such a way as to leave a lot of leeway for getting round them.

We have always believed that anti-discrimination laws have to be passed. The government is not up for that, nobody is; and the biggest problem as well as the most glaring stupidity is that certain researchers claim that if a party attempts to get to grips with the problems confronting the Roma, it will end up losing votes. My reaction to this was that if the ordinary voter is able to see just a little bit beyond the tip of his own nose and show a modicum of foresight, then he will vote for that party because he will say to himself that there is at least a glimmer of hope now that this person will work, or if not him then his child almost certainly will.

The Székesfehérvár incident

CER: You have referred to the Székesfehérvár incident several times. Could you please give us a little more detail on events there?

József Krasznai: In 1995, I went to America for a one-month further training course and by the time I arrived back home the local council thought that they would move out the inhabitants of Rádió utca (Street) 11. This was a large block on a housing estate, accommodating 43 families, Roma and non-Roma alike, but all drawn from similar social circumstances. The local powers-that-be stated that this building was situated in a residential area where fairly well off families live, who were able to keep up their flats in beautiful condition, etc, etc.

The vast majority of the former group could not afford to spend any money on maintaining the flats because virtually all of them were unemployed and living off dole money or social security benefits, child allowances and whatever else. The local authority, whose property the building in question was, had not spent a brass farthing on the premises in ten years. If we neglect to lay a finger on something for a long time to keep it in good condition, then it automatically begins to deteriorate. After a while this building got into such a state as to render it undesirable in its surroundings.

The authorities dreamed up the bright idea of erecting 30 square metre flats well out of town next to the stray dog's home. Anyone, who is familiar with the Roma, is aware that the minimum number of children in a family is three. When I learned about the plans, my reaction was to say that this is absolutely unacceptable and so, when I arrived back home, we made a proposal to them that they should look for low rental, in other words, council flats for each separate family in the various districts of the city.

This was turned down flat. The Roma are not allowed to stay in the town, they have to be moved out of here, was the response. At that stage, the people in charge of the dog's home also started to protest that Roma should not be dumped there either, not even next to the dog's home! I swear that it is true; it even made it into the newspaper!

Once it became apparent to me that I would not be able to manage on my own, I put out a message via the TV to legal aid organisations and we set up the anti-ghetto committee. When we did not go along with the flats being put up, they hit upon the idea of building pre-fabricated houses further away from the dog's home, even further out of town where there were no buses, no school, no shopping centre, nothing that would make the place inhabitable, out in the back of beyond in other words.

We stirred up a major scandal about this and we even succeeded in preventing it from happening. Then we started trying to sort things out in such a way that those who wanted to move to small villages in the country, to work the land or whatever, could try to find a dwelling for themselves in one of the surrounding small communities, whilst those who wanted to stay in Székesfehérvár would be spread out evenly throughout the various districts of the city.

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Then the day dawned on which those families who had bought property in the countryside would have liked to have moved into their new homes, which had been purchased for them. The local inhabitants formed a human chain around the villages in question, saying that not one single Roma would move in there! The police intervened to help out because it is not possible to prevent someone from exercising his right to move into a house.

From then on, however, the families did not dare to move in, quite rightly so, since, as they themselves pointed out, there will not be a policeman standing outside every single blessed night and that without one somebody would throw a Molotov cocktail through the window sooner or later. So everyone had to go back.

There was one small village where the inhabitants welded the entrance gate to the house shut so that nobody could move in! In the two villages where no problems were encountered when the families moved in they continue to live peacefully even now. At the end of the day, those families who were not able to move out to the countryside found flats for themselves in Székesfehérvár later on.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 6 November 2000

This text is an excerpt from Gusztáv Kosztolányi's forthcoming ebook on the Roma in Hungary, due out in January.

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Becoming Independent

Marius Dragomir
Romanian Elections

Yuri Svirko
Pariah Pals

Jan Čulík
A Long Wake

Mel Huang
Dealing with
the KGB

Brian J Požun
Have a Seat

Matilda Nahabedian
Schengen's Curtain

Steven Jay Schneider
Mute Witness

József Krasznai

Sam Vaknin
The Fragmentation of Yugoslavia

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

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Drugs and
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Andrea Mrozek
Fear of Farming


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