The Right Wing and the Roma

EU Presidency a Test for Tolerance in Hungary

By Siobhán Dowling in Budapest, Hungary


Siobhán Dowling

Hungary will assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in January and the government is pledging to forge a policy for addressing the Roma in all of Europe. But the country has its own troubling history with the Roma, who have been deeply impoverished and pushed to the margins of society since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Csaba Csorba is standing in scrubland beside the burned-out shell of a small house. He points to the spot amid the tall grass where he found his son Robert bleeding in the snow almost two years ago. Nearby lay the body of his four-year-old grandson Robi. The small boy had been shot through the head, his face was unrecognizable.

The murders of Feb. 23, 2009 saw the Hungarian village of Tatárszentgyörgy become synonymous with hate, hatred towards Europe’s Roma people. Robert Csorba, a 27-year-old father of three, had gathered up his young son in his arms and ran out to escape the flames that engulfed his house, the last one on the edge of the village. Unknown assailants had attacked under the cover of night, throwing Molotov cocktails at the door and then opening fire when those inside tried to flee. Robert was shot in the lungs and lived for another hour, dying on the way to the hospital. His six-year-old daughter Bianka was injured but survived, while his wife Renata and younger son escaped the blaze.

There is no indication that the murderers even knew who their victims were. “The attackers didn’t really care who they killed,” Robert’s father says today.

Csorba, a short stocky man who is missing many teeth, looks at least 10 years older than his 47 years. He believes his son might have survived if he had received proper medical attention. “The ambulance only came an hour and a half after we called, even though the hospital is five minutes away, and it didn’t have oxygen,” he claims. And he alleges that when the police arrived, they said the fire had been caused by electrical problems, and that the doctor claimed his son’s wounds had been caused by nails from falling beams and not gunfire.

It was only after the intervention of Viktória Mohácsi, a Roma politician who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, that the investigation into the deaths became a murder enquiry. Last year, four men were arrested in connection with the crime, tracked down through mobile phone records. But the suspects have yet to face trial.

Tough Questions as Hungary Takes EU Helm

The Csorba family were the latest victims in a series of vicious attacks on Hungary’s Roma that shocked the world in early 2009. Now, barely two years later, Hungary is about to take the helm of the rotating European Union presidency, and leaders in Budapest say a central plank in the country’s EU agenda will be addressing the issue of the Roma. But how much leadership can be expected from a country in which virulent hatred of the Roma is part of every-day discourse and where an avowedly anti-Roma party regularly attracts the support of almost one-fifth of the electorate?

The new center-right government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, elected in April, has pledged to forge an EU-wide policy for the addressing the Roma issue during its six months of leadership in Brussels. “By the end of the Hungarian presidency, the European Union will have a Roma policy,” Orbán told state news agency MTI in late December. The Hungarian leader said a draft policy would be presented in the spring and debated before seeking approval from the EU member states. “The European Roma strategy has to lay emphasis on education and employment,” he said.

The issue took center-stage in EU politics this summer, following the expulsions of around 3,000 Roma from France. The EU rapped Paris on the knuckles for its actions, saying it contravened rules on the freedom of movement of EU citizens, though it desisted from accusing the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy of discrimination against an ethnic group.

The events of this summer brought into sharp relief the fact that Europe’s largest minority group, with a population estimated at between 10 and 12 million, are living in the deepest poverty. Yet the Roma issue, in both Eastern and Western Europe, is often being presented within the framework of the problems the Roma pose, for example as a security or public order issue, rather than the troubles they themselves face, from massive unemployment, poor access to education, to discrimination and in the worst cases, anti-Roma violence, including murder. And the wave of hate crimes against the Roma in Hungary in 2008 and 2009, along with the rise of the fiercely anti-Roma political party Jobbik and a general turn to the right in Hungary, raises questions about what Europe’s Roma population should anticipate from the Hungarian EU presidency.

 


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