Hungary’s Roma self-government falls on hard times

May 7, 2017

This is all the Türr Institute’s cohesion program could manage.  Photo: MTI/János Mészáros

Translation of Fülöp Zsófia and Tibor Rácz’s article “The National Roma Council and the bankruptcy of Roma representation: From one Roma day to the next” published in print weekly Magyar Narancs on May 4th, 2017 (pp. 13-14).

Roma councils in towns and villages are unable to promote the interests of their communities, while the country as a whole is preoccupied with other things. The system that is supposed to represent Roma citizens has failed, and what remains of it is exploited to fleece Hungary’s most disadvantaged citizens. How did it come to this?

“It is very hard to work in a minority council at the local level: resources are scarce, we can organize a Roma day once year, but we are unable to offer any real help,” said a lady in Mátraverebély who is a member of a minority council. “And we don’t get much in the way of support from the National or County Roma Councils. They turn up promising the earth when there is a campaign on, then they disappear and we never see them again. Take me, for instance – despite being a local representative, I’ve never met the county representative, who I would have asked for help. We are left to fend for ourselves.” The minority council is allowed to use one of the rooms in the community centre as an office, and during our visit a couple of Roma residents dropped in for a litre of milk, a kilo of bread, or to inquire about official documents.

Dead end

Some 30-40% of Mátraverebély’s 2,000 or so residents are Roma, and besides the minority council, the village’s “proper” local government also has a Roma councillor – a rarity in today’s Hungary. It is Csaba Csemer’s third term in office, but he says things have become difficult since the last election. “I used to be the president of the treasury committee, I directed the people in public works schemes, they counted on me, we did a lot of good for the community,” Csemer said. “This all changed in 2014: they don’t let me discuss the big issues, and if I do, they just ignore me and talk among themselves.” The village leaders had given him the feeling more than once that it would be fine if he kept his salary but did not turn up for council meetings. But Csemer is convinced that being part of the local government is more important than whether or not there is a minority council.

The Mayor of Ács, Béla Lakatos, agreed. He said the Roma community is under-represented in local government, and there are no young, educated and reliable people who could play a leading role and improve the situation for gypsies. “As long as there are only minority governments, there won’t be any real representation – it’s a dead end,” Lakatos said. “Minority councils cannot take part in the life of the village, and the gypsy community needs to represent the interests of society at large, not just its own.” This is why Lakatos decided to set up the Association of Roma Mayors, which began amid great enthusiasm but now exists only informally. There are some 34 or 35 villages in Hungary led by Roma mayors. He gathered them together but the number of participants has dwindled since the first meeting.

“It’s hard to set up an interest group like that, and you cannot be sure that a small village would dare to get involved. A mayor can always be blackmailed through his village, the political pressure is too great. Where a member of parliament doesn’t take kindly to something, you have to look after the interests of the village. It would have been a big step forward but I wasn’t strong enough to do it.”

Lakatos believes in the importance of using direct elections, as the representatives of county and national minority councils often think first of their own livelihoods. Csemer is not satisfied with the representatives of the national minority council either. They turn up during campaign season and “tell the locals that things are bad, we’re suffering brother, but never fear, I’m going to save you, because this cannot go on,” he said.  “Then some food and drink is handed out, they bring clothes, and they don’t look at us again until the next election.” Lakatos sees it as morally unacceptable for those in “higher circles” to stand in the election, while educated youngsters who could effectively represent the real interests of the Roma leave their villages never to return. On top of this, a lot of money flows out of the system, family businesses are arranged to tap into the earmarked funds, which then do not go where they are needed.

It would be difficult to separate this general feeling of dissatisfaction from the activities of the National Roma Council (ORÖ) and operational methods. The council has 47 representatives (the law states that a given ethnic minority can elect 47 representatives if the number of recorded members of the minority exceeds 50,000 on the day an election is called). Of these 47 representatives, 29 belong to Lungo Drom, a branch of the Fidesz party whose president is Flórián Farkas. The Roma Civic Association (RPT), the Roma Civil Rights Movement (RPM), and the left-wing Hungarian Forum of Gipsy Associations (MCF) each hold six mandates. In national and regional minority elections, voters have to choose between the electoral lists of these organisations – something to which Lakatos and many others object.

The ORÖ is an autonomous and self-funding legal entity, represented by a president with up to four deputies. It has the right to be consulted over questions of developments that affect the Roma minority – which leads many to believe that the prevailing political powers are far from indifferent as to who is in charge of the ORÖ. So the big business opportunities are at the “top”: those on the lower levels say this explains why ORÖ representatives have no time for minority councils in smaller towns and villages.

Things used to be better

Károly Sárközy, the ORÖ representative for Tolna County, is currently enjoying his fourth term in office. He said the degree to which the local and county or national bodies can work together has always been dependent on the specific place and person involved. “Where they are thinking along similar lines, there are no separate Roma issues. Where a village and the national minority government treat the fate of residents as a shared responsibility, things can work well. But there are also many examples where they don’t,” Sárközy said.

RELATIVES AND CLIENTS

The Türr Institute was not only caught up in the ORÖ projects, but also in the notorious Voldemort affair. One of the main protagonists in this latter case – the firm Public Services Ltd, then owned by Sándor Holbok – also featured in a 1.5-billion-forint project managed by relatives and flunkies of the member of parliament for Békés County, György Simonka (see Magyar Narancs, 12 January, 2017).

Advocata Ltd and Adequo Ltd were also regular winners of ORÖ contracts, almost continually from 2011. Its former owner, Nándor Bírher, is known for being Flórián Farkas’s adviser. Adequo, of which Bírher was a part owner, belonged in 2010-2011 to Péter Garai. Between 2011 and 2013, Garai was head of the Türr Institute’s directorate in Pécs, then in 2014 the Human Resources Ministry nominated him as deputy state secretary responsible for European Union Development Policy. Advocata prepared the project management handbook for the “Bridge to the world of work” programme for a fee of 7.6 million forints, and has collected 25 million from ORÖ for consultancy work even before the programme got off the ground. The company’s director, Tamás Monostori, was the Bridge programme’s professional director (for a monthly salary of 900,000 forints).

As reported by HVG, an entire network of firms lived from the ORÖ’s hundreds of millions. Independent Research Group Ltd, a company owned by the Miskolc Holdings board member Sándor Béke, netted 7 million forints for conducting market research for the council’s association programme. The firm MK Business Ltd, owned by Ócsa businessman Károly Sponga, wrote a background study on how to research regional offices, for which it got 6 million from the ORÖ. Also during this period, the television personality and one-time adviser to István Csurka’s MIÉP party Péter Farkas Zárug – also editor in chief of the council’s periodical Európai Út [European Path] – regularly advised mainly Gypsy councils for at least 6 million forints. A legal practice owned by a member of the board of trustees of the Hungarian National Foundation for Recreation, Tamás Pörzse, collected the sum of 15 million forints from the ORÖ.

More difficult to understand, and arguably unsuccessful, was work carried out for the ORÖ by TRSU Consulting. The firm was contracted to carry out accounting and monitoring work for the ORÖ in the Bridge programme, for which it earned 23.7 million forints. Curiously, the firm’s revenue for the whole of 2015 was 23.6 million. The clear profit of 14 million could be described as large in comparison to the revenue, and not bad at all compared to revenue of 551,000 forints the previous year and 8 million in 2016. Even stranger are the figures for Edelényi and Partner 2007 Ltd. The company’s only successful bid in a public tender was with the ORÖ in 2014, when it received 24.39 million forints for developing a recruitment strategy, although in the end the worker’s cooperative did not have a single member. Revenue for the firm, owned by Zsolt Edelényi-Szabó and in fact a real estate business, approached 26 million forints, and its profit  was more than 4 million. In recent years, the company’s revenue has not exceeded 4 million forints, and it generally ran at a loss.

László Babai has worked since 2002 as a minority council representative in Bonyhád. As he put it, they can only struggle to represent the interests of the Roma: there is not enough money in the system, and a lack of committed people with the necessary professional training. Moreover, the law on national minorities – which defines the tasks of minority councils – is outmoded, and not suitable for ensuring real representation.

“We are vulnerable on the one hand to local councils, where the mayors act as little kings and Roma who confront them are tilting at windmills, and on the other hand from the point of view of resources,” Babai said. “We are under the same state financing rules as in 2002, besides which we receive task-based financing on the basis of a points system, where they monitor our performance in representing Roma interests, organising programmes to protect our traditions and cultural events, and what institutions we run.” Funding for this comes from local councils and European Union and other tenders. But these latter are not found everywhere, and it can depend on the given village whether or not the minority council is supported or not.

Babai also has experience of the other side of the fence: in 2002 he found himself sitting on the local council thanks to a preferential mandate. “They couldn’t ignore us then, we looked into everything, we helped in and took decisions over Roma issues, too. We were able to be there when Roma camps were closed down – in a word, we could provide genuine representation. They withdrew the preferential mandate in 2006, and a chance of re-entering the council did come again until 2014. That was when Fidesz reinstated this possibility, but you have to work with such a complicated calculation system that it was impossible to get in,” Babai said, adding that since then all decisions have been taken over their heads.

Judit Berki was the president of the minority government in Bátonytereny between 1994 and 2002. “In those days we worked together, for example everyone came in with the legislation that was most important to them, and together we would assess and look at how the National Assembly was working, how to maintain contacts with different offices, how to find the most effective legal remedies – we were able to work together effectively and easily. Everything has become politicised since then, there is no cooperation, and we’ve forgotten how to represent Roma issues together. We are now a long way away from the original aim of the law on national minorities,” Berki said. It would be possible to create a clean public sphere for the Roma if the principle questions were clarified at every level, and if those in power did not treat Roma affairs only as a problem to be solved, she said. “But there will be no change as long as there are people in the National Roma Council leadership who only ruin opportunities for the Roma community, destroying trust in representative bodies, racking up one scandal after another.”

Scandals

The National Roma Council has been subject to repeated scandals over the years. The EU-sponsored “Bridge to the world of work” project launched under the leadership of Flórián Farkas (now a prime ministerial commissioner) and the leak last year of documents about contracts with the council between 2011 and 2013 both suggest the ORÖ was being used to channel money (see Magyar Narancs, 19 February, 2015). To this day, the Roma council is unable to account for 2 billion forints that it set aside for “building up” the Bridge project. The method used to make money disappear using Roma programmes remained unchanged for years: the EU would transfer money, mainly for education, mentoring and training but – as the LMP lawmaker Ákos Hadházy has indicated in numerous press conferences – these programmes often existed only on paper. From the documents relating to payments made between 2011 and 2013 and the results of ORÖ tender bids found in the Notice of Public Contracts, it can be concluded that the bulk of the money migrated into companies that can be linked to Fidesz. Although the public prosecutor’s office is investigating for abuse of office following a report from the National Tax and Customs Office, just how high up the political ladder it might reach remains open to question.

It is generally thought that ORÖ is still run from the background by the former president Flórián Farkas, whom the prosecutor suspects of using contracts linked to various cohesion projects to buy the support and votes of Roma representatives. This conclusion is supported by a recording made public last year in which Farkas offers one of the representatives a 350,000-forint contract in exchange for voting against István Hegedűs, a former ally who had become a rival. An investigation into abuse of office is ongoing in another case where, despite the council’s indebtedness, he bought a 7 million-forint Audi for János Balogh. In addition, the EU’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has also launched an inquiry, and the Human Resources Ministry (EMMI) has withdrawn half of the 5 billion-forint budget for the Roma council, subsequently ordering the organisation to pay back 1.6 billion. This year, however, the government generously cancelled this demand. The István Türr Training and Research Institute also helped to squander EU funds, although the EMMI had expressly handed it the responsibility for designing and implementing of Roma projects – while taking it away from the ORÖ – in order to put an end to the scandals, or at least prevent them from coming to light. (Read about the dubious ORÖ contracts in the section headed “Relatives and Clients”.) The Türr Institute was ploughed under last year, and the migration of the Roma affairs dossier ended when it landed on the desk of the Social and Child Welfare Directorate, which now oversees the tens of billions intended for Roma cohesion projects.

Yet little has changed so far in terms of rolling out the projects. “The government system does not put up with professional criticism, and does not tolerate a political history: it makes it impossible for employees who do not make decisions based on the personal interests of the servants of the system. Nor does it tolerate anyone maintaining contact with an organisation or person who has become an enemy,” Romnet quotes Zoltán Csorba as saying while discussing why he had to withdraw from the professional leadership of the Mentorhaló [“Mentornet”] project. At the programme’s launch, over 100 mentors were ready to help with Roma cohesion projects in the countryside, but ORÖ representatives and their relatives also played a large part. Our sources tell us that Csóka János, the ORÖ vice-president, someone close to the representative Mihály Dancs, or representatives Géza Bordás and József Horváth, landed plum jobs. That was the last straw for Csorba – but the fact that the ministry took a dim view of his teaching Romany language at the Central European University also played a part in his departure.

According to an informant of ours who is close to the ORÖ, these sops serve to legitimise and provide the rationale for the continued existence of the cohesion programmes – while the disbursement locations are exactly the same as in the earlier “Bridge” and Türr Institute Programmes. In place of a genuine representation of Roma interests, we are left with the Roma days. And the government appears to agree with this: in April the EMMI launched a tender for the funding of Roma festivals, where villages can bid for 250-270,000 forints aimed at helping villagers to get to know one another. As state secretary Katalin Victor Langerné put it in the tender documentation: “We need to get closer to each other, get to know the other, that is the only thing that can reduce prejudice.”