“A responsible politician does not talk the way (Minister of Human Resources) Balog talks. We learned from the 1930s and 40s what people are capable of when a group is excluded from the nation.”
Anti-gypsy sentiment and rhetoric is a systemic part of government communication, stresses Roma rights activist Jenő Setét. He believes the same can be said of the entire Hungarian political elite, including political newcomer Momentum, which he says is incapable of communicating without invoking racism. Setét believes it is time for the Roma to develop self-awareness and stand up for their own interests and rights, and become conscious citizens.
The following interview took place last Thursday following a speech delivered in Budapest by Setét at an event commemorating the 105th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish-born diplomat credited with single-handedly saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews and preventing the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Budapest in the final days of the Second World War.
Please comment on the fact that the Hungarian government was not represented at the event even though diplomats from the Swedish and US embassies were among those in attendance.
On Thursday we commemorated the Pharrajmos, that is, the Roma Holocaust. The Hungarian government was not properly represented there either. The few Roma working at the Ministry of Human Resources that showed up were no substitute for a high-ranking government official. Of course, this came as no surprise. It is easy to explain the government’s absence. The issue of human rights comes up at such events as we are commemorating human rights heroes. However, we can infer from government communication of the past few years concerning human rights organizations like the Helsinki Committee or the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, for example, that it considers human rights a four-lettered word. It uses the expression as a form of stigma. If the political will existed to participate in such events, then they would show up.
On the subject of stigmatization. Recently a strongly anti-semitic campaign took place in Hungary against George Soros. Can you imagine a similar anti-Roma government campaign during the period leading up to next year’s general elections?
What do you mean “during the period?” Anti-gypsy sentiment and rhetoric is a systemic part of government communication. For example, in July the Minister for Human Resources Zoltán Balog said “the question of whether Hungarian-speaking gypsies living abroad is an asset or a burden has yet to be decided by the government and Hungarian society.” That was an awful statement that only gives grounds for protests and outrage and calls for his resignation. From this statement it is a mere step to declaring that Hungarian-speaking gypsies living abroad are a burden. Such rhetoric is an expression of a mode of thinking that does not consider gypsies to be part of the Hungarian nation. This is also terrible because in Hungary the vast majority of gypsies primarily regard themselves as Hungarian, that is, the gypsies have a Hungarian identity. We only count as Hungarians when we give our lives for our country or the Hungarians, whether at home or abroad.
Are you referring here to the anti-Hungarian pogrom which took place in Marosvásárhely (Tirgu-Mures, Romania-ed.) in which the gypsies took the side of the Hungarians against the Romanians?
For example. The gypsies rescued the RMDSZ (Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania) headquarters and its politicians from the Romanian rabble. It is unworthy that we can only be Hungarians when we have to die for our country, but when we want to live we become stigmatized gypsies who are not admitted to institutions, who are not given work, who have their water turned off or are doomed by the police with various excuses. A responsible politician does not talk the way Balog talks. We learned from the 1930s and 40s what people are capable of when a group is excluded from the nation. Moreover, the Hungarian mother tongue constitutes a strong basis for the Hungarian political forces in Slovakia and Romania. For example, (Slovak-Hungarian party politician) Ábel Ravasz is the government commissioner for gypsy affairs. His deputy, István Vavrek, is a gypsy, who struggles both as a gypsy and non-gypsy Hungarian.
You mentioned that Balog should have resigned after his Tusvány speech. But already in 2014 he said that Hungary didn’t deport gypsies (in the 1940s-ed.). Before that he was decorated as a black belt racist. In light of all of this, what do you expect from him?
I also protested in 2014, and was one of the organizers of the protest. Balog even apologized. We need to adopt the common point of view that such speech must not be tolerated on the part of anybody.
According to a recent survey by Medián, the vast majority of people living in Hungary are bigots. Racist slogans tend to win over votes rather than lose them. In light of this, how do you expect government racism to provoke general outrage?
What you said is characteristic of public life in Hungary. However, we are at a commemoration of Wallenberg. If Wallenberg had allowed popularity to determine his actions, then he would not have saved the Jews of Budapest.
Could such Hungarian governmental politics provoke a separatist gypsy response? “If you want to exclude us from the Hungarian nation, fine, but then we will invoke our rights of self-determination by building an autonomous gypsy republic somewhere in north Hungary.”
There is no need whatsoever for this on the part of Hungarian gypsydom. Nothing even so much as resembling that has ever come up. I am convinced that every gypsy man wants to pursue happiness and enjoy equality where he was born and where he lives.
What is your opinion about Jobbik MP Dóra Dúró’s recent proposal that only those who have completed eight years of primary education should be allowed to vote.
There is a level below which I do not wish to comment.
Does the closure of public wells in numerous villages also fall to this level?
You don’t have to be a scientific researcher or a water expert to see that turning off public wells in any community or settlement during a heatwave and denying the people living there of drinking water anywhere in the world is an inhuman act. And this is not the first occasion: four years ago the same thing took place in Ózd. I suspect, by the way, that as parliamentary elections near, crazier and crazier political proposals will be made and gypsies will be used more and more as a means in the political campaign. Dóra Dúró’s proposal is an example of this.
Although no longer the president of the Countrywide Roma Local Government (ORÖ), Flórián Farkas remains a Fidesz MP to this day. It appears Fidesz is not willing to let go of his hand. In light of this, how do you see the current political representation of Hungarian gypsydom?
Hungarian gypsydom has no political representation today. The leader of the Countrywide Roma Local Government has always been a member of the governing party. It is always the governing powers that be who decide who can be an official gypsy representative. Flórian Farkas has been a Fidesz MP for sixteen years. His party discipline belongs to Fidesz. He is one of the quietest MPs. He has not spoken in parliament for over four years. Prior to that he spoke rarely. This is absurd considering how many problems there are with Hungarian gypsydom.
Is there really a need for the thirteen ethnic local government provided for by law?
Of course. It’s a fact that in recent years there have been numerous scandals surrounding the Countrywide Roma Local Government. It is also a fact that whoever was in power exploited them for its own purposes. But that is no reason to do away with them. They could have a very important cultural and educational mission, and could fulfill the task assigned to them by law and serve as an organ that represents interests. It is not even possible to eliminate them, as the system of national local governments does not only pertain to Roma but 12 other nationalities as well.
Is not Flórián Farkas’s task to ensure that the largest number of gypsies possible vote for Fidesz?
How could a gypsy vote for Fidesz after the owner of the 5th party membership book wrote “if you run a gypsy child over, don’t even think about stopping, just trample him in the weeds.”
Every party has an actor who speaks the language of racism. Are you saying gypsies needn’t participate in elections?
Is racism as characteristic of the democratic (opposition) parties as it is Fidesz?
I would not measure this. A small slap also hurts.
As a gypsy rights activist, do you see light at the end of the tunnel, or a semblance of light?
No. The entire political elite is incapable of communicating in a manner that does not invoke racism. Just look at the term “megélhetési gyerekvállalás” (which roughly translates as “to make a living from having children”-ed.)
What about Momentum?
For now, no. Earlier Fidesz, MSZP, LMP, Jobbik. In Miskolc, DK (Ferenc Gyurcsany’s Democratic Coalition-ed.) even supported the mayoral candidacy of Albert Pásztor who talked about gypsy criminality. It’s sad, but today there is no political party that can be taken seriously that does not include drawing-room racism in its repertoire in the interest of getting votes.
If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, then what do you recommend to Hungarian gypsies? Buy a plane ticket to Canada?
We played a lot of music to the societal majority. We thought that with this they would come to like us, but that has not come to pass. Our representatives were paraded before the societal majority, but this did not bring about any results. It is time for gypsy people to become self-aware citizens and stand up for their own interests and rights, and to become conscious citizens.
Does this mean perhaps a gypsy ethnic party?
Not necessarily. In normal circumstances gypsies, in my opinion, should politicize in both gypsy and non-gypsy parties, speak out on matters pertaining to them, meet with their own decision makers, pressure them when necessary with respect to local and even national questions. In every settlement with a gypsy community there should be drinking water, garbage removal, doctors, social workers. Gypsies should be allowed to work for public institutions. Local companies should hire gypsy employees as well. A gypsy party is not necessarily required for this, but it would not be a devilish thing.
How can social bigotry be radically decreased? From your words, music and parades is not enough.
I don’t know. Probably it would not be a bad thing for leading politicians to abandon deliberate incitement. People of various ethnicities can live together if their political leaders do not pit them against one another. People lived in peace with one another for thirty years in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then such politicians came who exploited the ethnic and religious differences among them. This led to civil war and genocide.