Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

Progressive Inaction in Hungary

by Sarah Roe

When Hungary passed its law on minorities in 1993, the act was hailed as setting a positive, progressive example for the region. Besides declaring expansive minority rights and establishing mechanisms for their protection, it set up a system of local and national minority self-governments that enjoy considerable independence. About 400 Romani councils have been set up around the country to represent the country's roughly 500,000 Roma, Hungary's largest ethnic minority.

Yet the Romani leaders elected by their people to head those councils are finding the system has placed them in the role of scapegoat. Underfunding and lack of cooperation from local and national governments gives the minority governments few opportunities to improve the lot of their people.

Take the example of Ozd, a fairly typical town in Hungary's over-industrialized northeast corner, where Roma make up about a third of the 40,000-plus population. Since 1989, the town's iron and steel industries have collapsed, leaving unemployment at more than 40 percent in town and near 100 percent in the Romani villages. In Hetes, population 600, the main source of income other than state support is an old slag heap where Romani men, women, and children gather smelted rock rich in iron ore for which they are paid 2.5 forints (1.3 cents) per kilogram.

Villagers in Hetes say there are toxic substances on the land where their children play. The aged sewers regularly overflow onto the street and rats are a constant problem. Skin diseases are a common complaint, and hepatitis and tuberculosis, illnesses that had been all but wiped out in communist Hungary, are re-emerging. Villagers typically pack six families each into houses that the local government classifies as uninhabitable.

This year, the Romani council in Ozd will get about 5 million forints ($26,000) from the city government, the largest amount given to any minority government in Hungary. But after administrative costs, only 400,000 forints ($2,080) are left for concrete projects. According to minority government President Aladar Kotai, most of his staff work without pay. Kotai is visibly afraid of going to places like Hetes, where villagers shout at him for not solving their problems.

Nonetheless, cash-strapped local governments see minority governments as just another drain on resources and resent their presence. It doesn't help that Roma are less politically organized and less likely to vote than the majority Hungarian population. In Ozd, as in many other towns with large Romani communities, there are no Roma on the regular city council.

Critics say Hungary's progressive minorities law was developed more to instruct neighboring countries on how to deal with their Hungarian minorities than at helping minorities in Hungary. Alison Lys of the British government's Know How Fund says the system has isolated Hungary's Roma. "In theory the act is wonderful, but in practice it produces an instant ghetto system."

Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments. The Ozd minority government has directed its project funds into training, education, and health care. A folk school will be built, with the aim of preserving both Romani and Hungarian cultures. Local doctors report progress in the promotion of contraception to women. And a program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development is helping Romani leaders improve their lobbying skills. 

Copyright © Transitions Vol. 4, No. 4 September 1997.
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.

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