In many discussions on the Roma issue in East-Central Europe, someone will inevitably say, with a mixture of wistfulness and bewilderment, “Where is the Martin Luther King of the Roma?” There are indeed some parallels between the experience of Roma and African-Americans. But a galvanizing civil rights leader with broad appeal like Martin Luther King has not yet emerged in the region.
There are a number of problems with this approach, however. It fixes on the figure of a single leader and obscures the roles played by numerous other civil rights leaders that preceded, accompanied, and often challenged King. It also assumes that the kind of leadership that King provided, which liberal whites found non-threatening, is what would most benefit Roma in East-Central Europe today.
Aladar Horvath has been a Roma civil rights activist for more than two decades. He created one of the most important Roma organizations – Phralipe – and served in the Hungarian parliament in the early 1990s. He has also studied the experience of African Americans. When I asked him whether he’d changed his thinking over the last 20 years since we’d last met in 1995, he said that “my thinking hasn’t changed. But I would be braver and more courageous. I didn’t have enough faith in myself to go up against this system. I should have been less Martin Luther King and more Malcolm X.”
Part of this realization comes from a frustration at seeing how little has changed for the majority of Roma in Hungarian society. “I wanted Roma to have a choice to integrate into Hungarian society or live separately,” he told me in an interview last August in a Budapest restaurant. “But they’re not allowing us to integrate.”
The lack of integration is particularly clear in the realm of education. “In 1997, there were 128 segregated schools,” Horvath reports. “Now there are over 300. On top of that, there are classes that are segregated within non-segregated schools. This is all connected with the geographic segregation… There are geographic areas of 30 square kilometers where a child might not meet a non-Roma person. Micro-regions and ghetto schools were created. We can clearly say that the school system in Hungary is an apartheid system.”
If he were appointed education minister, Horvath would move immediately to dismantle this segregated system. “I would take measures to stop this pushing of Roma from the cities,” he told me. “Those in the towns and villages should remain there. This is affecting 1.2 million people. I would create a fund from the EU stabilization money that would be dedicated to head start programs for towns and schools. In the budget, it should be reflected that this affects 12 percent of the population.”
Of course Roma in Hungary do not just face the frustrations of systemic exclusion. The last 25 years have seen an explosive growth in far-right anti-Roma organizations, attacks on Roma villages, and several murders.
“When the Hungarian Guard was formed, the paramilitary organization, I was organizing a boxing league for kids,” Horvath remembers. “The head of this league, a Roma boxer, said, ‘Tell those paramilitary people that 28 of us will go there, and we’ll have a fight, with bare hands. If we lose, they can form their Guard. But if we win, they should stop the organization.’ I thought about it, but we didn’t do it. Now I think we should have come face to face with them. I don’t think there’s a way to practice non-violence against fascism.”
We talked about his early years as a teacher and activist in Miskolc, his views on the “talented tenth” strategy, and the prospects for a Roma political party.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was hoping that 23 years later, someone would ask me about what I thought about the fall of the Berlin Wall! I heard about it on TV and over the radio. The feeling was somewhat similar to when we joined the EU. It was a window opening up to the world. And there was a feeling that this socialist camp was going to be dissolved. I don’t remember what I was doing exactly. But this was the feeling I had. At that point, in our activist work, we were doing anti-ghetto work in Miskolc, which also fit into this general opening up of society.
Did you grow up here in Budapest?
No, in Miskolc. Later, I was a young teacher in Miskolc working on this civil rights, anti-ghetto campaign.
What did it mean to do anti-ghetto work at that point?
The local government in Miskolc had a plan to evict Roma people and send them two kilometers away from Miskolc. The local municipalitymade the decision in February 1989. But I heard about the plan earlier, in September-October 1988. The local mayor, the municipal council, and the police all thought that the Gypsy people do not havethe characteristics of proper socialist citizens and so needed to go outside of the city. The local municipality organized a new territory for the Roma people — 162 “very nice” houses. But they were really like barracks. Each family would have gotten an apartment that was 29 square meters.
The opposition organized two meetings in Budapest where I talked about this problem. I told them at this meeting that this would be a Romany ghetto. I organized a discussion at my apartment in Miskolc for Roma and non-Roma intellectuals, and we began organizing. After four weeks, the local government withdrew the plan. I became known around the country for this. Later, in 1989, I organized Phralipe, an independent Gypsy organization, with my Romany and non-Romany colleagues. In 1989, we made an election contract with the Free Democrats. I was a candidate with SzDSz, and I entered parliament.
Where were you a teacher in Miskolc?
I was an elementary school teacher.
The students were Roma and non-Roma?
They were Roma. They lived in a Gypsy ghetto in the center of Miskolc. It was the same place that I grew up: a working-class Romany ghetto. Where I livedused to be a workers’ hostel, and then the workers afterwards got the apartments. The school director called me up and invited me to be teacher at the school. There were a lot of Romany boys and girls who were overage. So there were big age gaps in the classroom. I was a teacher until 1989.
What did you think of your experience as a teacher? Did you have enough resources? Did students have a positive response to teachers?
I wasn’t prepared for this kind of environment. I didn’t learn how to do this at college. But I did a lot of things from my gut. Some colleagues in school filed complaints against me for two reasons. One, I ate with children during class. Second, in gym class we were warming up together with Roma dance steps. I invited the school superintendent to come to the class for the whole day and see what we were doing. He needed to see that many of the students came to school hungry and there wasn’t enough food for everyone, so many of them had to share. And many of these kids, because of their background, couldn’t pay attention for the 45-minute class period. At that point, small group teaching was not in vogue. And you can’t teach a 12-year-old and a 7-year-old the same things in the same class. I divided the students by age and knowledge level. But I wasn’t prepared enough to make quick progress with them with the material we had.
This was a school where you were teaching Roma students, but the school as a whole was Roma and non-Roma?
Yes, it was a segregated class of Roma in a mixed school. The reason I took on this segregated class was that I agreed with the notion that by separating the kids for a few years they’d be able to catch up and then be reintegrated with the rest of the students. I spoke their language better; I was better friends with the parents because I grew up with them. I did one year with them. Then I had to do mandatory military service. I got them back when they were in third grade. In the meantime, an alcoholic teacher was with them. They were in third grade, but they hadn’t made any progress at all.
What do you think about the status of education today for Roma? Has there been any improvement since you were a teacher?
The statistics as well as my experience demonstrate that things have gotten worse. In 1997, there were 128 segregated schools. Now there are over 300. On top of that, there are classes that are segregated within non-segregated schools. This is all connected with the geographic segregation. After the democratic changes and the economy collapsed, hundreds of thousands of Roma lost their jobs. With different methods, they were pushed out of the cities or to the edges of towns. In 1990, we knew of only three villages that were only Roma. Now there are over 300. There are 110 Roma-majority towns and another 200 towns that are over 30 percent Roma population.
A settlement ghettoization has been going on. Two Hungarian researchers are following this trend. It’s coupled with a permanent unemployment that is now in its third generation. It’s not as if there is a Hungarian village with a Roma settlement. Instead, the village has been Romanized and there might be a settlement as well connected to it. There are geographic areas of 30 square kilometers where a child might not meet a non-Roma person. Micro-regions and ghetto schools were created. We can clearly say that the school system in Hungary is an apartheid system.
If you became education minister tomorrow, what would you do?
I would take measures to stop this pushing of Roma from the cities. Those in the towns and villages should remain there. This is affecting 1.2 million people. I would create a fund from the EU stabilization money that would be dedicated to head start programs for towns and schools. In the budget, it should be reflected that this affects 12 percent of the population.
What’s the overall Roma population in Hungary?
In 2011, the census said that 315,000 Hungarian declared themselves of Romany descent. That’s 60 percent more than 10 years before, when 194,000 people declared themselves of Roma descent. That doesn’t mean that there are 60 percent more Roma. But more people are living in Roma ghettos, so they can’t say that they’re of non-Roma descent. In 1990, we were saying 5-600,000 people were of Roma descent. Now we are saying 800,000 to a million.
As education minister, I would target money to the most disadvantaged settlements, and I would create a three-tiered development program that would target the poorest in terms of social services, income, and minority status. We would have to make sure that the Roma people in these poverty pockets get this money. I know that this part was included in the Roma EU development strategy because some professionals in the Civil Rights Foundation wrote it up and gave it to the Fidesz member of the EU. She fed it into the Roma EU strategy. But nothing happened.
The whole program would be based on the spontaneous cooperation of these settlements. The program would bring government employment and industries into these areas by giving incentives to businesses to create employment in these areas. Until the industry gets there, the people would be helped to create self-supporting communities. EU money would go toward building up the infrastructure.
I have lots of ideas, but they don’t even let me come close to the gate.
What was it like when you were inside the gate — in parliament — and what did you accomplish?
The most important step in this time period, 1990-94, was that there was an authentic Roma voice in parliament. In 1990, there were a lot of skinhead attacks, and we addressed those as soon as they started. We laid the foundation for modern policy on these issues. We felt at that point that the Hungarian state must guarantee the human rights of each individual as well as guaranteeing minority and cultural rights. We were also seeking restitution for the crimes committed against Roma during the Holocaust and also during Socialist times.
We organized a roundtable with all the minorities in Hungary — and provided a basic text for the law on minorities to the government. For two years, we worked together with the minorities and the government to create this law. By 1993, the bill went to parliament for a vote. Three people didn’t vote for it: two neo-Nazis and me. The right-wingers thought it was giving too many rights to the Roma. And I thought it wasn’t giving enough. At that point, the right-wing representative said that we needed to have a law for Hungarian citizens, because soon there would be a majority of Roma in Hungary, with all the Roma coming in from Transylvania.
I was very young. I didn’t know what the parliament was for, exactly, but I knew I had to be the voice of the Roma people. I felt under constant psychological pressure. Could you tell, 20 years ago when we met?
I thought you were quite calm. 20 years ago, I remember you speaking rather softly, even when you were saying things that were not particularly soft.
It’s my mother’s influence.
When the Hungarian Guard was formed, the paramilitary organization, I was organizing a boxing league for kids. The head of this league, a Roma boxer, said, “Tell those paramilitary people that 28 of us will go there, and we’ll have a fight, with bare hands. If we lose, they can form their Guard. But if we win, they should stop the organization.” I thought about it, but we didn’t do it. Now I think we should have come face to face with them. I don’t think there’s a way to practice non-violence against fascism.
You were the only Roma representative in parliament at the time?
There were two MPs with the Free Democrats, a woman also. A year later, another Roma joined the fraction of the Socialist party.
Would you consider going back to parliament if you had the opportunity?
We’re thinking about this. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my leaving the parliament. And I have to agree with the people who say that there have not been any voices for the Roma people in parliament. We were not successful in raising up a new generation of Roma who can be influential at that level. But it’s not us who decides who goes into parliament. It’s the parties.
Which leads to the question: which party would you work with?
As a Roma civil rights activist, I feel that I can’t declare myself a liberal. For example on cultural issues, I might be promoting conservative issues in the sense of conserving cultural rights. On human rights issues, we are liberal, on the left side. But from the social or economic perspective, the Hungarian Left equals the center Right.
In 2011, a major polling agency conducted a survey that asked, “Do you agree that criminality is in the Roma blood?” 60 percent from the Fidesz constituency said yes. And from the Socialists, it was 61 percent.
What about a separate Roma party?
Last year, we actually formed and legalized a Roma party. For the Hungarian parliamentary elections, we’ll represent ourselves as a Roma party. If it turns out that we have support, we’ll run for the national and local elections as well.What we see as the number one agenda is for Orban to leave. We would support the Left in order to dethrone Orban. In the European elections, however, we’ll run as a separate party to see what kind of numbers we can get.
A number of Roma in top positions come out of the organization we created to support Roma youth in higher education: an LMP member, a Fidesz European parliament member, a minority ombudsman. The woman with LMP, in the three years in parliament, hasn’t called me once. There was a Nazi party demonstration, and I called her then. But the party leaders were against her representing Roma rights. They said, “You’re an education expert, and you should stay that way. We’ll represent the Roma issues.” So, she didn’t even respond to my call.
How would you evaluate the elite-driven strategy within the Roma community, the “talented tenth” approach to focusing on the most talented?
We are coming out of a socialist background. The Roma intellectuals in 1990 had this social-liberal notion of raising the whole community, of trying to create a structure that would help everyone. The capitalist economy swept this away and stressed individual achievement as the path to get ahead. That’s what appealed to the next generation. The whole notion of elevating the whole community was disregarded. That’s why I’m thinking of returning to politics, because larger numbers of Roma are now realizing that that they have to cooperate in order to create change.
I was recently at a border town near Croatia, a place where only 150 people live and only 20 of them are non-Roma. They were involved in an evangelical Protestant church. In this town, the crime had gone down. I saw a lot of smiling people. When I spoke there, I got the greatest response yet. In my speech, I said that if the Roma have been completely abandoned by Hungarian society, then let’s forget all the bad lessons we’ve gotten from Hungarian society — the self-hatred, the looking down on ourselves. Let’s get back to the earlier competences such as community, knowing several languages, working hard, and knowing our craft. Instead of giving money away to Hungarian business, give your money to your own community, to your bakers, and so on. There was a lot of positive response, because in some way they were already doing this.
This is not the country that I wanted. I wanted Roma to have a choice to integrate into Hungarian society or live separately. But they’re not allowing us to integrate.
Do you think this increasingly divergent and autonomous society is inevitable?
Hungarian society has become a corporate, Mussolini-type society in the last 20 years. Within that type of society, Lungo Drom, the Roma organization of Florian Farkas, has become the state organization. That’s why we’re thinking about forming our own party. With a Roma party, we can make a choice between this feudal-type system and autonomous Roma community development. Once that happens, we can enter negotiations with the government.
You mention Florian Farkas as the Roma face of Fidesz and the government. Someone told me yesterday that they thought that Jobbik too would develop its own Roma face. Do you think that’s feasible?
In one of their sections in the eastern part of the country, the representative has already declared that he is Roma.
You talked earlier about the process of Roma moving out of cities and non-Roma moving in — what are the reasons for this?
There used to be 40,000 Roma in workers’ hostels in Budapest during the week. Once they closed those hostels, Roma employment went down. Roma had four options. Either they could leave Budapest, buy an apartment in the city, ask for subsidized housing, or break into an apartment and squat there. Practically speaking, they could either go home or squat an apartment. In Budapest, the local government used to own a lot of apartments and rented them out as subsidized housing. But then 96 percent of the housing was sold to owners, leaving only 4 percent, which doesn’t cover all the people who would need subsidized housing. And the Roma don’t have money to rent, so they leave town or, because there are a lot of abandoned buildings in Budapest, they squat.
There are a lot of gentrification programs in Budapest districts and in different towns. It’s the same thing as in the United States. Gentrification means pushing out the people who live there. During the previous government, I was in the 8th district, where the most Roma live in Budapest, I was able to make a deal with the entrepreneurs doing this gentrification program that we would serve as the ombudsman for the people. We arranged for the people who were kicked out of their apartments to either move back or to get a cheaper apartment. Very few people actually left this district. But that’s a rare example.
There’s also a restructuring of the urban landscape based on the EU model. Instead of counties, they created small regions that then get the money. These regions started to move Gypsies out to the smaller villages, to the end of the line where there’s no EU money. Apart from our organization, there was nothing stopping the government from doing this relocation of Roma people out of the cities and into the poorest regions.
Since the early 1990s, have you had any second thoughts in terms of your worldview?
My thinking hasn’t changed. But I would be braver and more courageous. I didn’t have enough faith in myself to go up against this system. I should have been less Martin Luther King and more Malcolm X.
When you look at 1989 until today, how would you evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary, on a scale of 1 to 10,with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life.
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate Hungary’s prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Budapest, May 6, 2013
interpreter: Judit Hatfaludi