The Best of Intentions: Hungary and the Roma

The Best of Intentions: Hungary and the Roma

Article about Zoltan Balog

Hungary’s man in charge of Roma integration seems to care about the task at hand, but does he have the resources to make real progress?

Zoltan Balog is a man whom the spin doctors of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban should pamper and coddle. He is the 54-year-old pastor of the Calvinist Reformed Church, who has been a member of the ruling Fidesz party since the early 1990s. During Orban’s first government, from 1998 to 2002, Balog was his chief adviser. And even now he’s in the good graces of the prime minister, because he voluntarily sat on the ticking and already smoldering time bomb of Hungarian society: Roma integration.

 “After the elections Viktor offered me the post of culture minister. But I told him that I want the Roma,” says Balog, state secretary for social inclusion.” ‘You’re crazy,’ Viktor told me.”

Around 600,000 Roma live in Hungary, mostly in the northeast, divided up into three subgroups: Hungarian Roma (86.9 percent), who speak Hungarian; the Olah Roma (7.7 percent), who speak Romani; and the Beas (4.6 percent), who speak an archaic form of Romanian. Each has a slightly different culture.  Two-thirds of them live in extreme poverty, and only 15 percent have some regular work. They have their own organizations, whose leadership follows the rotations typical in all areas of public life in Hungary: now that Fidesz is back in power, the party has its own people at the head of the official Roma organizations. 

Because they eke out a livelihood in all sorts of ways, the Roma are the target of the latent hatred of the majority population and the main source of political capital that led to the emergence of the extremist Jobbik party, the third strongest grouping in parliament. From 2008 to 2009, a group of extremists lit the houses of Roma on fire and then killed those who tried to escape. Hungarians who are growing increasingly poor, especially in the countrywide, are disappointed with the political, social, and economic situation, and need a visible enemy – something that Jobbik offers with its rhetoric about “Roma crime.”

Balog grew up near the city of Miskolc, in a poor region that has been the most affected by the Roma “problem.” He’s been in contact with Roma since his childhood, even though he doesn’t speak Romani. His mother was a pastor who concerned herself with the social inclusion of Roma children.

“I went voluntarily to work in a large engineering factory. I put together there a Roma brigade, which twice won a factory competition. At the time, Roma tried hard to work with us,” Balog says today. ”Afterward the Socialist leadership of the factory accused us of a clerical-ethnic conspiracy and disbanded the brigade.”

The Roma issue in the wider European context was among the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency in the first half of last year. Today Balog presents to foreign visitors and experts a 190-page national strategy for social inclusion for the years 2011 to 2020, according to which Orban’s government wants to combat extreme poverty and integrate the Roma more into society.

One of the first visible steps is a public works program to help Roma return to work. Within three years, Budapest wants to create 100,000 jobs for the Roma in the public sector plus encourage their employment in private companies through tax benefits.
The government clearly understands the importance of the Roma problem. Or at least that’s the impression given to the outside. For example, at a ceremony last week to mark the start of a year dedicated to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish savior of Jews from wartime Budapest, three of the four people awarded with the Wallenberg prize are working with Roma in rural areas.

It all looks beautiful. So what’s the problem?

First, the Fidesz government, with its besieged-fortress mentality, only recently understood the need to present people like Balog to the wider international public.

Second, all of this is just on paper. My Hungarian friends and acquaintances, opposition journalists, and social scientists all tell me, almost verbatim, “The man is fine – the problem is that he doesn’t have either the money or the power to implement his plans.”

One added a more troubling story. Even though Balog knows the Roma and really wants to do something for them, he can’t avoid thinking about them romantically. During a televised discussion, he used a more than 100-year-old book by composer Franz Liszt about Romani musicians to provide an example of good Roma relations.

And the third problem? No national strategy can manage to eradicate longtime, embedded stereotypes based on hatred toward an ostracized minority. Only patient work and the good will of all those concerned can do that. Both are scarce in Hungary and in all of Central Europe.

 *Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared.