BARCS, Hungary | Hungary’s system of minority self-government is a complicated affair, but when a third level of minority representation was added this spring, many Romani leaders and activists welcomed the addition of a regional dimension as a way to bridge the gap between the national and local levels.
“Regional minority self-government was missing for a long time here. It will help us to communicate closely with the national Romani self-government,” Tibor Szegedi says. The 24-year-old is a representative of the Romani self-government in the town of Barcs in Somogy County and a police officer working with minorities in the county seat, Kaposvar.
Romani and other voters went to the polls last fall to elect some 2,000 minority self-governments at town and village level, 200 more than in the 2002 elections. Minority representatives function as a kind of parallel government, working alongside local authorities on behalf of their constituents, primarily in the areas of education and culture. In March, those elected representatives then chose county-level minority governments, for the first time.
To some ordinary Roma who voted last fall and to elected representatives who took part in the spring elections and subsequent vote for national Romani officers, it must look as though what was supposed to be an opportunity to broaden the scope of self-government was squandered. Instead of moving forward with new ways to address the plentiful problems facing this poorest of Hungarian minorities, Romani leaders slid back into mutual recriminations and allegations of mismanagement or worse.
As an illustration, consider the scene when members of Hungary’s major Romani organizations met in March to elect a new president of the National Roma Minority Self-government. People usually call this body the Roma Parliament, but there was little parliamentary decorum in sight as the two most influential Romani organizations, Lungo Drom and the Hungarian Gypsy Forum, tried to get their man into the job.
There were rumors that some of the 53-member national self-government put their votes up for sale. Two Lungo Drom members jumped to the Gypsy Forum and the rest of their delegation walked out. Lungo Drom’s defeated candidate Florian Farkas complained bitterly.
“The Hungarian parliament didn’t want me to be the president because it’s easier to employ and pay only three people than to look after a half million Roma in Hungary,” he told the Hungarian News Agency. The “three people” are the top officials of the National Roma Self-Government, whose salaries the government pays.
“My friends and I threw ourselves into Romani minority self-government with huge enthusiasm,” says Istvan Kalanyos, a 54-year-old member of the Romani organization DCKSZ in Barcs who served as a local Romani self-government officer for 10 years.
“But back then we weren’t aware of what we know today – that the minority self-government has no authority outside the area of cultural autonomy. Minority self-governments are unable to help Roma in the fields of education, health, housing, and others.”
Nearly 15 years ago Hungary adopted one of the most comprehensive systems of minority self-governance in Europe, giving a degree of autonomy to each of the 13 officially recognized national and ethnic minority communities. The interests of the estimated 450,000 to 600,000 Roma, the largest minority in Hungary, are promoted by 5,500 elected representatives working in hundreds of towns and villages.
By law, the field of action of minority self-governments is limited to basic education, media, language, and culture. In their daily work, however, the self-governments, especially those serving the Roma, face and seek solutions to all kinds of ills that beleaguer the community.
In Somogy County, southwestern Hungary, there are 79 local Romani minority self-governments served by 395 representatives. Their annual budget for utilities and other overhead is around 600,000 forints (2,400 euros) each. The county authority gives financial help depending on its budget and capabilities, and municipalities also provide funds.
In Barcs, a town on the border with Croatia, the Romani office gets on average 3 million forints (12,100 euros) annually from the city hall. In Kaposvar the grant is typically 6 million forints, and in the nearby city of Pecs, 5 million forints. The paperwork is always in order for these amounts received but sometimes it seems that only the self-government chairman knows where the money goes. Szegedi says he has been given no access to the Barcs Romani minority’s finances. The town’s Romani community house was built for the cultural needs of local Roma from the national self-government budget, but the feedback of many Roma from the community is negative as they criticize the chairman.
“I am not a member of the chairman’s family so I have no right to enter the community house,” one woman said, mirroring the views of several others whose requests to use the facility were turned down.
The community center is a place for the Romani minority representatives but not the house of all Roma, chairman Imre Balogh told me. “Meetings, gatherings, and open discussions about the Roma, yes, but no events for the teenagers and their interests, like discotheques.”
The nationwide Romani community has had its “house” too since the beginning of the decade: the National Roma Information and Cultural Center in Budapest. The center was far and away the biggest single project of the Hungarian Romani community, but it was deep in debt and producing no income.
Last year Orban Kolompar, the candidate eventually elected to lead the Roma Parliament, perhaps thinking about the upcoming elections, decided to sell the center. Strange things began to happen. The unguarded building was broken into and a fire broke out. Then the taps disappeared and the place was flooded completely. Then it emerged that Kolompar wasn’t authorized to sell the place anyway and the police started looking into the affair.
NON-PROFITS SHOW THE WAY
Behind almost every Romani minority self-government stands a non-government organization. These associations do better at winning government and private grants to aid their communities than do the Romani self-governments. This is why the work of non-profits is so important in places like Babocsa, the village whose Romani self-government he served, Istvan Kalanyos says.
“There are 1,870 people in Babocsa. Forty-two percent are Roma, and I just wanted to help them. Unfortunately, even after 15 years of the Romani self-government’s presence in our village I can’t see that much has improved,” he says. “But I still believe that the Romani self-governments will find their feet and that the living conditions for the Roma will get better.”
Answering a question whether Romani self-governments can be effective and helpful without these Romani civil-society organizations, the non-Roma assistant to the Barcs Romani self-government, Andrea Baratine Cziraki, replied in the negative.
“Two or three times per year some kind of cultural event happens here – on May Day and international Roma day – nothing else,” she says. “Roma can’t make phone calls from our office while dealing with various problematic situations because of the self-government’s financial problems. It’s impossible to offer them any extra help. I really don’t know how to say anything positive.”
“Self-government” has a grand sound but maybe people haven’t taken on board the reality that the law allows elected minority representatives to do only so much, although they try to do what they can in areas like employment, housing, and health care. The deeper issue, though, is that Romani politicians are not going to earn respect outside their communities until they achieve it among themselves.
Lucia Curejova is a writer and researcher associated with the department of Romology, University of Pecs, Hungary, and teaches Romani language and journalism to disadvantaged students in Barcs.