Bayer and the Roma

2013. január 11. 14:09
Claiming that “a significant number of Gypsies are unfit for coexistence,” the journalist Zsolt Bayer has caused an uproar with an opinion piece that he wrote for a Hungarian daily newspaper. Bayer wrote that “this group of Gypsies are animals and behave like animals... They see something. They want it. If they don’t get it right away, they kill.” Furthermore, he added “They shouldn't be tolerated or understood but stamped out. Animals should not exist. Not in any way.” His words and the outrage that has followed distract us once again from real debate about a challenging issue.

What triggered Bayer’s publication was a New Year’s Eve stabbing at a club in a small Hungarian town called Szigethalom. Two men, a 17 year-old and a 19 year-old, suffered multiple stab wounds. Both of them are athletes in local sports clubs, one a boxer and the other a wrestler. The 17 year-old boxer was stabbed eight times in the chest because, allegedly, he was occupying the restroom too long. Later, according to police reports, his sister received threats from the family of the alleged perpetrator warning her that she should not cooperate with the investigation. This recent incident recalled a similar case that took place in 2009 when a professional handball player from Romania, Marian Cozma, was brutally stabbed and killed in front of a Veszprém nightclub. In both cases, the attackers or alleged attackers were of Roma origin. The senseless brutality of these attacks has understandably shocked society and has given an opportunity for more extremist voices to exploit these cases for their own political benefit.

Following Bayer’s publication, András Schiffer, head of the Green opposition party LMP, said that Bayer’s article met the legal definition of hate speech and therefore should face legal consequences. But Schiffer also added something quite interesting. “LMP is aware that in certain parts of the country, there is a crisis of public security and…in certain parts of the country, peaceful, honest people fear criminals, in many instances criminal families, who flout basic rules of coexistence.” Liberal publicists criticized Schiffer for 'double-speak.'

Some opposition parties, minority rights groups and other civil organizations announced demonstrations. Other opposition elements jumped on the opportunity to associate Bayer with the ruling party, Fidesz, and the prime minister. Bayer was indeed among the founding members of Fidesz in the late eighties, more than twenty years ago and still attends the party's annual birthday parties. But he does not hold a government job, has never been a member of parliament and has not held a party position since 1993 before Fidesz left the liberal group and became a center-right party. Fidesz released a statement condemning the article, saying that “public figures should never publish anything out of anger”. Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, who served as the party’s parliamentary group leader, went further, saying that such statements are “offensive to democracy, defying Fidesz's democratic principles of community”. He added that Fidesz has no room for anyone “who labels a group of people as animals”. The Fidesz spokeswoman declined to comment further on “an independent publication of an independent newspaper,” however, she emphasized that any Fidesz member can start an exclusion procedure against another party member.

The following day, Bayer followed with another piece in which he tried to emphasize, rather lamely, that his intent was to provoke discussion of possible solutions for the growing violence and also to seize the topic from the extreme-right narrative of the political party Jobbik. “I don't want to exterminate Gypsies... I want law and order... I want every honest Roma to find happiness in this country and [I want criminals] not to be tolerated.”

The Roma issue has become a seemingly intractable problem of Hungary’s 23 year-old democracy. The collapse of communism brought factory closings and mass layoffs throughout the country. After a communist economy that made employment mandatory with so-called ‘jobs’ for all, suddenly many, including large numbers of poorly educated Roma, found themselves without a job and on the welfare roles. Little has been done since then to try to get these people back into the active work force and, some twenty years on, part of a whole generation of Roma has been raised by unemployed parents and has in turn joined the jobless ranks. Political correctness has discouraged frank and open discussion of the issue and, instead, it has largely been swept under the carpet. The arrival of the financial crisis in 2008 and the struggling economy have only made matters worse.

Fidesz and the Orbán Government have at least tried to do something. The first-ever Roma member of the European Parliament from the Central and Eastern European region, Lívia Járóka, who was featured in a Hungarian Globe interview back in June, was elected on a Fidesz ticket. Járóka was one of the driving forces during Hungary’s term as president of the EU Council in 2011 behind establishing a European Framework for National Roma Strategies. The new framework makes EU social funds available to address housing, employment, health-related and educational disadvantages confronting the Roma. The Fidesz-led government has introduced educational programs, vocational training programs, Roma recruitment initiatives for the police force, public works programs to reduce the welfare roles and more. Their effectiveness is debatable but their approach has nothing to do with Bayer’s reprehensible views.

The socio-cultural issue of the Roma will not be solved overnight. It is a complex problem involving education, living standards, employment and public security. The liberal, let’s-not-talk-about-it approach, which has prevailed in Hungary does nothing to help matters in the long run, but extreme, discriminatory statements hurt just as much or more. Bayer may have succeeded in one of his objectives, bringing the topic again to the spotlight, but even if he swears good intentions, he has done greater harm and detracted from efforts to find real, long-term solutions.

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