The Hungarian Guard, a far-right paramilitary organization founded in 2007, followed a pattern. It would solicit an invitation from someone in a village. Then it would show up to hold a rally or a paramilitary exercise. The Guard would specifically target villages with large Roma populations and justify its presence as an effort to protect non-Roma residents.
In April 2009, in the town of Janoshalma, the Guard intimidated Roma families to such a degree that 38 people fled to a nearby forest and lived there in fear for several weeks. Rather than rein in the Guard, the mayor of the village asked the Roma to leave – not only the village but the country. They fled to Strasbourg.
The Hungarian Supreme Court banned the Guard in 2008, but it has reappeared in different guises (such as the Hungarian National Guard) alongside other paramilitary organizations. Violence against Roma continues: physical attacks, arson, and murder. This August, four men were convicted of killing six Roma, including a five-year-old child. One of the men was present at the founding of the Hungarian Guard, but “found them too soft and ‘ridiculous.’”
Bela Racz grew up in a small village in Hungary with a mixed Roma and non-Roma population. In 2009, far-right-wing groups targeted his village. “We blocked the village with cars so that they couldn’t enter,” Racz told me in an interview in his office at the Open Society Foundation in Budapest in May. “You know who was calling them to our village? The local Catholic priest and one or two young Guards. But what’s good in our village, if there is an emergency, the Roma will protect each other. So, they never came back. I understand why. When we were there, we said many bad things like, ‘If you come here, you will die!’ And of course they said the same things to us. So, it was a question of who was stronger. When the police came to us, we said we wouldn’t move. The police went to the Guard and said, ‘It’s not good if you go there. I’m sorry but we can’t protect you.’ So they left and didn’t come back.”
Racz had begun organizing in his village several years before, after returning from a stay in Europe and a training course in South Africa. Several people in the village were energized by what he told them of his experiences. They created an NGO to address the discrimination and economic adversity that the Roma community faced.
“We had a meeting with one of the counselors in the municipality to talk about these problems,” he recalled. “They made promises. But that was the problem. We didn’t have any power. And we thought, ‘We too want power.’ We made a mistake, though, that we didn’t make a larger community and ask for more people to get involved. I was 21 at that time. I just knew that I had to do something. But I was not a leader.”
After the confrontation with the Hungarian paramilitary, however, Racz decided to take the next step. He decided to run for mayor in his village.
“I had two priorities: to do something for my people in the village and to make a kind of model for how we could do this,” he said. “Because my family is here in Budapest and my official job is also here, I couldn’t go home that often. But I put together a campaign. I campaigned for two months. I made individual visits to each house in the village. What was good about this model was that it showed how we can campaign, how we can motivate and involve people. And those leaders in power started to become fearful. They were doing many illegal things and were worried about losing their status. I invited the mayor to sit with me and have a discussion about the issues, not about him, but about the issues in the village. He was afraid to come. We made many visits to Roma and non-Roma. But I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anything to pay people. He just paid some of the Roma to vote for him. So, I couldn’t win the election.”
We talked about how he would campaign differently if he were to run again, his current work on school desegregation, and the impact of the post-1989 changes on the Roma community in Hungary.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you first heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was nine-and-a-half years old at the time. I first heard about it from the 7 o’clock news. We were watching TV like usual, so I saw what was going on in Berlin together with my parents. I didn’t really understand it, since I was a child. But my father explained to me that it was against the Socialists, against the Russians. It was just the news for me.
Did it have emotional meaning for your parents?
Yes, of course. They much more believed in socialism. They were simple workers. At that time, we had a very good life. We lived in a village near the Slovak border. My father and mother worked in a company. They didn’t have any problems. My father said something interesting, “Why don’t they like this system?” He understood that in Berlin it was different from in Hungary. But I saw that my father didn’t like what was happening. We didn’t have any longer discussion about this.
Did the changes that took place in Hungary in 1989-90 have an impact on you as a child?
Yes. My first impression was from school. I heard the teachers talking about something, but we didn’t understand what it was. My history teacher was removing the pictures of the Socialist guys from the classroom, like Bela Kun. The teacher was also a kind of a Socialist guy. The majority of the teachers believed in this. I saw that they were fearful about what was happening. But we didn’t understand all of this, just that they were talking.
There were these kerchiefs for the Socialist schoolchildren. The older ones had red kerchiefs. I had the blue one, but I couldn’t get the red one. I was waiting for that red kerchief so much! And I was so disappointed that I couldn’t be in the club of the more important children. We asked the teachers why. They said that the system had changed. They gave a simple answer: “We don’t have red kerchiefs any more because there’s no more socialism.”
We were studying history in the fifth grade at the time, and I liked history very much. We had very good discussions with our history teacher. He had to teach history differently from that time. I was reading and looking at maps all the time. I saw how in one day Germany united, then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the map just changed. We were also studying the Hungarian revolution of 1919 and Bela Kun and the Communist time in the country – also World War II and the role that Hungary played. And it was all different from what my father told me. Also 1956. He said it wasn’t a revolution, that it was something bad against socialism. Then they started to teach a different way. Our generation felt, well, not exactly lost, but not knowing what was going on, who was telling the truth and who was lying.
Did the change have an impact on your family?
In the larger family, it was hard to say. Many of them lost their jobs. But some of them, like my father and uncles, found new opportunities to start businesses. They did quite well. In my village, the majority of Roma could work in the building industry as managers or as entrepreneurs. For my father and my village, it was a positive change for Roma in the 1990s. But after the end of the 1990s, with the change of the market and the institutions, there was a loss of opportunities and jobs as well. Since 1997, my father didn’t have an official job. Of course he had many unofficial jobs. But he couldn’t find an official job.
Is he near retirement age?
No, he’s 54. But he’s ill. He has some health problems. He can’t do the same physical work as before. But at that age, you can’t find jobs, especially in the countryside. The same is true for my mother. They receive some social benefits. My father does some jobs where he can. But mainly my brother and sister and I help them, financially as well.
They still live in the same place?
Did a lot of people lose jobs in 1997?
They lost jobs. They lost status. They couldn’t just go to a shop and get what they need. When I was a child, there was no problem in doing that. In the 1990s, people could no longer buy things for their children. Roma and non-Roma also began to have conflicts and misunderstandings. We didn’t have any ethnic problems when I was a child in my village. Since 1996 or 1997, there was a big change in the attitude of the people. People stopped talking to each other. Organizing things like the May 1 events stopped. We lost so much. The political change destroyed many things that were good at a community level.
My village has about 1,800 people. It’s not so big. Everyone knows everybody else. But some people stick together — rich Roma, rich non-Roma, poor people,. The local leadership, the mayor, they don’t care what’s going on. They have their own individual capitalist approach and don’t care about the result.
Was there a moment when you felt that you acquired a consciousness about politics?
It was in 1998 when I got the right to vote. I was 18. Before that, as I said, politics was just theoretical, like the discussions with my father and with my teacher about history and the political rhetoric of the past. But in 1998, we were young. It was when Fidesz won for the first time. We very much supported Fidesz. Enough with the Socialists, we said, they didn’t change anything when they were the government between 1994 and 1998. It was the same old Socialiist guys sitting in government and parliament, and we said: not again. So, I went to vote. It was important. I had this right. And Fidesz was different at that time, not like now. It was young and reformist. I was very excited to be part of that.
Then, in 2001, I was abroad. I could travel, so I went to England, Denmark, and southeast European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. I also went to South Africa for a PAKIV European Roma training course. I experienced a different understanding of democracy in England and Denmark and also in the Balkan countries. I started to rethink the experience of democracy here in Hungary as well. Also, when I was in England and Denmark, I was invisible. It didn’t matter that I was Roma. What was important was what I knew and what I wanted. After I came back after a year to Hungary, I felt: What am I doing here and what is this country? These people are punishing us. I just felt like punching them.
I established an NGO in my village. I started to talk to young people, Roma, non-Roma, to say that it can be different. Why aren’t we asking about our rights? For a couple years we were discussing and visiting the representatives of the municipalities and organizing forums. It was a very active time. I was also studying at university at that time. Then there was an opportunity to come to Budapest. So I moved here and started to work in the ministry of education on EU structural funds and EU projects related to school desegregation.
Now I’m working in the western Balkan countries, mainly with NGOs and municipalities on projects like education. But politics is always in my life. I am always talking about politics with my friends in my generation. It’s more open now, but politics have become worse, more segregated between Roma politics and general politics. I believe that we should insist that Roma are Hungarian citizens and we should address issues that are connected to Hungary. We are also a minority, so there some cultural issues we need to deal with connected to the discrimination and racism that exists in this country. But if we’re talking about politics, there are no Roma who think they should be part of the municipality and run for election. We think this is what non-Roma do, and we have instead this Roma Minority Self-Government system. But the younger generation understands that without insisting on citizens’ rights, you can’t achieve anything. So, politics is in our life all the time, even if you’re not fighting. It comes into your home. It’s all the time pushing you.
The experience of setting up an NGO in your village, tell me more about that. Did you already know some like-minded people in your village that you could work with? What were the issues you wanted to work on?
When I came back, I found out that I had many things to say to people about what I learned and what I saw. This started with my family. When I came home, all my family came to me. I was an interesting guy coming from abroad, so they asked many questions. I told my stories. And I realized that people are very interested to know these stories. But they were also saying, “Oh, it’s different there, why isn’t it like that here?” There were informal discussions in pubs and in my house — with people in my family and outside my family. There was an old Roma guy who was leading the Roma minority self-government. He’d never had a chance to talk with the big leaders in the village. He was so lonely. And he said, “Ah, now I have someone to work with and do something together.” Some people were more interested and some less. Eight or ten people stayed around and continued to discuss. We talked about why it was that public work was given to some people and not others. There was also an issue with woodcutting, people cutting wood in the forest for heating. We asked, “Who is the owner of these trees, and how can we make this legal?
I took on the task to learn about the laws and what we could and couldn’t do: our rights and obligations. We had a meeting with one of the counselors in the municipality to talk about these problems. They made promises. But that was the problem. We didn’t have any power. And we thought, “We too want power.” We made a mistake, though, that we didn’t make a larger community and ask for more people to get involved. I was 21 at that time. I just knew that I had to do something. But I was not a leader. I was just doing things and helping people. We did some youth projects like summer camps. We organized some vocational training for young girls and boys on how to deal with the labor market, how to put together a CV, many things. But then I left for this job and my studies.
In 2010 I went back to my village. Well, I was going back every month for my family. But I mean I went back to run in the election for the mayor. I will tell you why. Jobbik and the Hungarian Guards wanted to come to my village. This was in 2009. We blocked the village with cars so that they couldn’t enter. It was different than in 2001. I felt more confident. There were some people who saw me as a kind of leader. In 2010, I understood that the situation for Roma would not change without political power. We couldn’t do it at an international or national level. We had to start at the local level.
I had two priorities: to do something for my people in the village and to make a kind of model for how we could do this. Because my family is here in Budapest and my official job is also here, I couldn’t go home that often. But I put together a campaign. I campaigned for two months. I made individual visits to each house in the village. What was good about this model was that it showed how we can campaign, how we can motivate and involve people. And those leaders in power started to become fearful. They were doing many illegal things and were worried about losing their status. I invited the mayor to sit with me and have a discussion about the issues, not about him, but about the issues in the village. He was afraid to come. We made many visits to Roma and non-Roma. But I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anything to pay people. He just paid some of the Roma to vote for him. So, I couldn’t win the election.
The mayor is non-Roma?
Yes, he’s non-Roma. And he’s been the mayor since 1994.
Is he affiliated with Fidesz?
No, he’s independent. In these small villages, the majority of the mayors are independent. But he’s right of center.
Did you run as part of a party?
No, I was also independent, of course. I wanted to do it myself. None of those parties is my favorite. I have problems with the Left parties as well. The common point for all of them is that they don’t take Roma as equals. They just want votes. The Right says clearly that we are animals. The Left says that we are good people if we vote for them.
Are there any Roma parties here in Hungary?
There are. But basically they are working close to the Left or Right parties. They aren’t independent. They say that they are the most legitimate party for Roma. For instance, Fidesz has its own Roma party led by Florian Farkas. He’s also in the Hungarian parliament. And he’s doing nothing for Roma. He just does what Viktor Orban tells him to do. There was an independent Roma party running in the national election, but it couldn’t even reach .2 percent.
At the local level, Roma run as independents. I don’t know any villages where there are Roma mayors or counselors who are part of parties. They’re all independent.
If you ran again for mayor, how would you do it differently?
I’d campaign longer. I’d spend more time in the village. Some people said, “Why are you running for mayor here? You’re always in Budapest.” They were right. I’d also work more with non-Roma. I was focused on Roma. I thought only Roma would vote for me because I am Roma. I remain skeptical. But I need to try with non-Roma as well. I have to be in the village more and just hang out. Just like I did in 2001. I am much more of an outsider now. I have changed. And they have changed too. If we want to do something together, to build something together, we need to have a common understanding.
Would you consider running for office here in Budapest?
No. But I think politics can be done not only in political parties. What you do is also politics. You make interviews, you call it information, and you show it to people. This is also politics. I talk to people, I write articles. I try to be involved in many projects where I think I can push and give something. That is my individual political approach, which is not connected to elections or parties.
How long have you been in your current job?
Three and a half years.
I came to Budapest in 2004, when Hungary became part of the EU and we had the new structural funds to use to change the situation of Roma in education through the desegregation of schools in municipalities. I worked as a municipal community facilitator. I went to school directors and municipality leaders to talk about possible change. We asked them to write applications and then run programs. We provided technical assistance for applicants. I worked in the national development agency dealing with the structural funds for another four years and then I came here to Open Society.
My fate is that I cannot find the best job for me. I’ve been learning non-Roma society in this job and in the previous one. But to be honest I want to do something for my people, especially in my village. Right now in my village people are starving. They don’t have anything to eat. What I’m doing now, through this NGO, is to set up a meal providing system. We go there with trucks. I pay for the gas. We bring food whenever we can — rice, pasta, anything. It’s not for an election. It’s for my people, and for part of my family. It’s really difficult now to say to these people that they should stand up for their rights, not when they can’t even give anything to their children. I’m trying to help them, but there is no real result. I don’t see any change because the political situation, the economic situation, they’re just getting worse and worse.
If you had won the election, what could you have done to change the situation in your village? So that people wouldn’t be starving, for example? What are the possibilities for the village?
There are possibilities. My village, for example, is an area of hills and forests and some agricultural land. I see a possibility to make a kind of community, first of all. That’s what we have lost. We are in the same village, it doesn’t matter whether we are Roma or non-Roma. I see an opportunity to go to the forests owned by the municipality during the summer and collect wood for the winter. And also grow new trees. It could be a kind of environmental activity. We could use the structural funds to buy the necessary equipment. We also have land on which to grow potatoes or keep animals, as it was in the past. We just need to discuss these possibilities with people and also show that we trust them. Then it can work.
In my village, my grandfather and the older generations were smiths working in iron. They were famous. They exported what they made to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The company was owned by Roma at that time. The Roma in my village are very talented. They like and know how to work. This younger generation, however, hasn’t seen the fathers working, so they don’t see the point. But when I was a child, all the Roma were working. They even earned more money than non-Roma! We should give people hope and options.
I talked to people about the desegregation of schools issue in Croatia where there’s been some success. How would you compare the situation here in Hungary on desegregation with efforts in other countries?
The desegregation issue is a bit different here in Hungary. We don’t have the big ghettos here as in the Balkans. In education, we’ve had from the practical point of view some good results: integrated classes, integrated schools. But the new government says that segregation is good in some ways. I disagree. If they don’t establish an equal educational system in the school, these Roma children will lose the opportunity to get jobs because of the discrimination They won’t get the same qualifications as the others. We’re losing momentum. Hungarians started to believe, because of the political rhetoric, that we should study together, be together. People do what the elite says and what they see in the media. But now we see the opposite. Some articles from intellectuals, even from Fidesz, say that we should be separate, that Roma are animals. We are going backwards. This is very dangerous.
The situation is worse in other countries, like in Slovakia. In Slovakia, they have special classes and schools for Roma. You finish kindergarten together and then, if you’re Roma, you go off to another school. This is the selection process for children. In Bulgaria, they have many cases like this as well. I don’t know which is worse. Both are very bad. Here in Hungary, and not just in education, we are losing the momentum to change things. As we pass many years without any positive changes, people just start to lose their belief that they can have the same education, the same opportunities, the same rights, that they can do the same as others. If you go to countryside, you can see people without dreams.
I wrote an article about who the heroes in Hungary are. It’s those women and mothers who have no money but can still give lunch and dinner to their children. They are not dreaming big things. They’re just thinking about meals for tomorrow. The segregation issue is important. But if people are starving, it’s a more important issue. The issues are related, of course. We could solve this problem with an integrated program of housing, education, and employment. But if you are starving, then…
You said that you were successful in surrounding your village with cars to keep out Jobbik. Did they ever come back?
No, never. You know who was calling them to our village? The local Catholic priest and one or two young Guards. But what’s good in our village, if there is an emergency, the Roma will protect each other. So, they never came back. I understand why. When we were there, we said many bad things like, “If you come here, you will die!” And of course they said the same things to us. So, it was a question of who was stronger. When the police came to us, we said we wouldn’t move. The police went to the Guard and said, “It’s not good if you go there. I’m sorry but we can’t protect you.” So they left and didn’t come back.
Are they still pursuing that strategy of targeting particular villages in Hungary?
Yes, their strategy is to go where there are some local people who are interested and are organizing. If they have local supporters, they can do it easily. Sometimes even the mayor supports them, and unfortunately there are many of these.
Some villages did exactly what we did, blocking with cars. Other villages set up parallel demonstrations, which I think is a mistake. They demonstrate, we demonstrate, and then we shoot at each other? No, we should just block the village. We have the right to protect ourselves if the police show no interest in protecting us. We should just say no to racism and to these Guards.
Have you seen any change in the level of racism in Hungarian society?
In the 1990s, when I was at school, there were more physical attacks with the Skinhead movement. We had many fights among teenagers at the time. But it wasn’t an issue in the media. Since Jobbik was established and the increase in murders of Roma, the Roma agenda is always on the political agenda, even on the local level.
Before, the Roma issue was a taboo. Now it’s not a taboo. It’s good to talk about it, but it matters how you talk about it. Some politicians get votes by presenting a stereotyped picture of Roma, by talking about punishing Roma. I’ve had different experiences. I know what it was like before. I’ve talked with non-Roma politicians. I ask them simple questions. I start to talk with them and I can influence them. If we have a common background, then I can change their mind. But this generation hasn’t seen anything different. They don’t have this sense of equality rooted in democracy. They think that if you look a certain way and follow certain norms, then you’re a better person. And if you don’t, then you’re not part of society.
Non-Roma have just this conflict when they see me. They think I am Roma, but then they hear me talk and they are confused as to whether I’m Roma or not. I am brown, so they can see that I am Roma. So, I say, “Yes, I’m a Roma.” And they say, “Ah, but you are so different.” And I say, “Ach….”
I understand that a lot of people are leaving Hungary, especially young people. Does that include Roma as well? Among your friends, are they saying, “Hungary is crazy, I’m leaving.”
Yes, many, especially the young generation. They grew up in a democracy and a more global system, and they know what’s going on in other countries. They have their individual desires. Of course they want a better life. I have many friends, Roma and non-Roma, who went abroad to many countries for a shorter or longer time. Even I was thinking that as well. In 2010 I lost my job, because the government changed and we were kicked out. We were thinking about leaving the country because of the financial situation and the anti-Roma activities. It’s still on the agenda. I said to my family, “If the situation doesn’t change, we should think about it. Why should we stay in this country when we have a right to move?”
When you think back to your worldview when you returned to Hungary in 2001, how much has it changed? Have you had any major reevaluations of your assumptions about how the world works?
From a personal point of view, I’ve grown as a professional, as a human. I have more choices, in part because the world is more open.
From a social point of view or a Roma point of view, we lost more than what we gained after the changes because of the simple fact that this society was not ready for this very fast change. The change was done too quickly. It was done without any understanding of what the results of this fast change would be. The combination of democracy and capitalism that came to our society is very different from Western European countries. How can these democratic values go hand in hand with capitalism, which doesn’t care about people? It focuses just on competition and financial results. I’m not a socialist. But if a democratic system is like this, I don’t want to take part in it. Why can’t we have something more humane? George Soros is a capitalist, but he cares. He invests, as you know. Our politicians and our big companies should have the same view and understanding.
I have three last quantitative questions. When you look back to 1989-90 and everything that has changed or not changed from then until now in Hungary, how would you evaluate all that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
When you think of the near future and the prospects for Hungary over the next few years, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Budapest, May 3, 2013