“Without Roma pride there will not be Roma integration”.
On Saturday several thousand people–Roma and non-Roma alike–marched peacefully in Budapest from Mátyás square to Blaha Lujza square in support of Roma dignity and civil rights. According to Roma Pride Day organizer and civil activist Jeno Setet (pictured right of center holding a sign and speaking into a megaphone) the purpose of the “cultural demonstration” was to promote Roma self-awareness and self-worth through a celebration of Roma culture and historical legacy. The following interview with Setet appeared in the 19 October 2013 issue of Népszabadság:
This year is the first time in Hungary Roma Pride Day has been organized, and you are the main organizer of the event. What does Roma pride mean when many would rather conceal their heritage and given what part of society associates with the gypsy way of life?
The point of our event is to call attention to the fact that being a gypsy is not a social state but one of human decency just as being Hungarian or any other nationality. A lot of Roma people also accept the negative picture of gypsies that the media projects. That’s why one of our objectives among others is to show those extraordinarily varied values—for example our role in history and the Hungarian freedom fights, as well as our cultural treasures—through which gypsy self-esteem, self-worth, and pride can be restored. So long as the Roma community lacks the necessary self-respect and sense of self-worth, demanding that the majority of society respect us at least as much as we respect ourselves makes little sense.
When they started organizing Roma Pride Day were there international or domestic examples?
In Miskolc last October there was a similar movement in response to extreme right protestors that had arrived to the city. In contrast to the “hide in fear” tactics employed until then the people of Miskolc chose a stance that was non-violent but determined. We felt this kind of stance should be continued. Secondly, several weeks ago there were similar movements throughout Europe that were also inspiring. Thirdly, our motivation is that we are fed up with only finding negative images of ourselves no matter where we look.
However peaceful this demonstration may be there are bound to be those who will interpret it as a provocation.
Why should somebody defending their own identity be a provocation? We mustn’t allow the radical right mentality to dictate ours as well. I won’t allow this and am not interested in what the extreme right thinks about me. Instead, I’m interested in whether I find many gypsy and non-gypsy people who think it important for us to turn out on such a day and declare that everyone has the right to assume their own ethnic identity in this country. I am the kind of gypsy who is extremely proud to be Hungarian at the same time, and also that the two live together indivisibly without rank.
Aren’t you afraid of possible counter-demonstrations?
I’ll stand in front. I am a big enough man and will be a good target should it come to this. But the question is rather if we encounter extreme right wing provocation how the state organs will respond. How is it possible for example for the police to stop investigating those who threw rocks at a Roma family’s house in Devecser citing the absence of a crime? The police report tells us they did not see what we saw and captured on video. Does such a report not encourage a repeat of such events? And what is the role of the State in the fact that the extreme right wing can do all of this with impunity: is this favoritism the institutionalized point of view of the State or not?
What do you think?
My job is to formulate these questions and insist everyone answer them. Minimally we should not communicate with the extreme right, wink at each other, make joint proposals, or express ourselves similarly. When we talk about violence against women you cannot refer to blind Komondors. (Setet is referring to the spousal abuse case in which the accused, a Fidesz MP, claimed his wife had tripped over their blind dog—ed.).
The responsibility of the extreme right is one thing, but the question is whether the nine million of us who are not extremists will remain silent and speechless. At present it is deemed correct and honorable to openly insults gypsies. Well, I’ve had enough of that.
Do you hold the entire political elite responsible?
Left and right wing points of view are very far from one another in many things, but on gypsy matters there is a tragic consensus. The political parties have deceived themselves into believing there is no point in competing for Roma votes because the Roma don’t vote anyway. It is a fatal mistake even from the parties own perspective if they say they do not want to address the Roma as Roma.
You have urged more serious State involvement in solving the gypsy problem than today’s event. A lot would just say the gypsies are once again looking for a state handout.
I am happy to be called a beggar if the teachers, public servants, pensioners and drivers looking to realize their interests are called the same. If, on the other hand, they don’t think this a just description, then I don’t either. The responsibility of the state is huge. Whether those neighborhoods where gypsies live have the same infrastructure as the rest of the village is the result of local and state government decisions. The degree to which Roma are represented in the labor market is also largely the responsibility of the State as state and local governments and public institutions are the only employer in many settlements. The quality of public education also depends primarily on the state.
The children of the Roma nation are being destroyed. Many of them are the product of segregated education and sentenced to a lifetime of unemployment. The retraining programs lead nowhere and only bring profit to the trainers. At best public works programs are good for preventing bread riots while unemployment among the Roma is 90 per cent. I think it would be normal if every state and local institute employed Roma. If you visit the customer service center of Budapest’s 8th district where proportionally the largest Roma community lives you won’t find a single Roma employee. How can we expect the Münchhausen effect to lift us up from the mud?
One often hears that the gypsies will solve their own problems sooner or later and that they shouldn’t expect help from the majority.
That’s what those in power say to justify inaction. What they say is just as incomprehensible as saying that sooner or later pensioners will sort themselves out. How can you expect a people suffering from 90% unemployment to be active citizens and self-aware ethnically and politically?
What is the state of Roma public life? How credible are its leaders?
Minority groups are always a reflection of the social majority, even in their divisiveness. The Roma organizations are rather distant from the people which the Roma as a kind of foreign center of power. We need to return to the means of a classical movement: we need to stay in constant contact, we need to be credible, and we have to behave honorably. There is room for improvement.
You wrote about the Devecser matter that the gypsy minority government was silent and cowering.
Most minority organizations are cozy with political parties. Each party buys a gypsy association and puts it in representative place whereas Roma representation never appears in the party structure. The parties simply exploit the Roma community believing it’s enough to distribute firewood and chicken backs to get their votes.
The repeated Baja election shows that the gypsies are rather regarded as a group that can be bought.
Buying votes is a serious predatory political behavior. These actions don’t prove anything about the bought community but rather those who buy them. People have become accustomed over the past twenty years to getting something every four years since none of the parties deliver real results. If after twenty-five years the road everyone promises still doesn’t reach the Roma place of settlement then how will there be jobs outside of public work? Why should anyone believe politics is a thing over which one can have actual influence?
You define yourself as a civil activist. Do you think they will make a politician out of you one day?
Out of me? I would rule that out. In order for someone to be a politician you need two things: ambition and the support of a party. In the present situation we have neither. I think in me they see an opinion leader or someone very involved in political activities.
I am not a politician but I reserve for myself the right as a civil citizen to formulate an opinion about public topics and not merely to have opinions about Roma matters. In Hungary real civil activists who are independent of political parties enjoy less respect and freedom of movement. But who says we are trying to be popular?
Who is the target of today’s march?
I strongly believe that the Roma matter is everyone’s concern. If the rights of one gypsy are violated, if the rule of law does not protect them the same way it protects others, then that adversely affects everyone’s interests. That’s why we are also awaiting non-Roma participants this Saturday. I really believe that many different groups will come because they understand the importance of giving credence to Roma self-worth.
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