[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]
A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.
Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.
On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.
Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.
“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.”
Railing against “Gypsy criminality,” vowing to defend rural Hungarians who say they are often victims of theft and violence, the “Magyar Garda” has become the talk of the country. Every week, it seems, they march lock-step – unarmed but menacingly – in a provincial town. The Guard’s website proudly lists the group’s recent and upcoming events nationwide.
Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has called them “Hungary’s shame.” President Laszlo Solyom described their activities as “immensely damaging” to the national image. And the Budapest chief prosecutor’s office deems them “incompatible with a democratic state.”
Yet the Guard, unveiled last August, is also the latest, and seemingly the most sophisticated, of the far-right groups to sprout in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years. Observers say the Guard exploits a political environment grown inured to harsh rhetoric over the past decade, while seizing upon popular fury at a Socialist-led government caught lying about the country’s deteriorating economic condition.
However, rather than focus on traditional “enemies,” like neighboring countries or the Jews, the Guard has a softer, more populist target in its crosshairs: the Roma, who number more than 500,000 among Hungary’s 10 million. And despite calls from human-rights, Romani and Jewish groups for the state to ban the Guard, some now warn that the Roma themselves may organize in self-defense.
On 29 February, for example, a Hungarian daily quoted the head of the national Romani self-government council, Orban Kolompar, as warning that it would be difficult for him to “hold back” fellow Roma when the Guard marches.
“It creates a natural reaction within the community, that if one group should come against us, we should create a group to protect ourselves,” says Viktoria Mohacsi, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament and herself a Roma. Branding the Guard “Nazi-like,” she adds, “Of course, [violence] is not acceptable, but nor is it acceptable from the other side to create such fear. If there is this potential for violence, then everyone – including politicians, police, judges – should work to prevent this.”
The rise of groups far to the right on the political spectrum is not unique to Hungary. Across the region, the revolutions of 1989-90 that launched the post-communist transition to democracy also opened political space for extremist groups.
In Hungary, they more or less remained on the fringe until 1998, when Viktor Orban, who in the late 1980s was a blue-jean-and-earring-wearing young dissident, swung his party to the right, espousing nationalist, Christian values. His party, Fidesz, then formed a de facto alliance with a small ultra-nationalist party whose playwright leader, Istvan Csurka, often indulged in Jewish conspiracies.
As prime minister, Orban himself was never accused of anti-Semitism. But he was criticized domestically and overseas for not denouncing Fidesz members who sometimes appealed to supporters with coded phrases viewed as anti-Semitic – attacking rivals as “cosmopolitans,” “Communist Jews” or possessing “foreign hearts.” Many Hungarians rejected this rhetoric, yet the proverbial genie escaped the bottle.
Even as Hungary glimmered as a freshly minted member of first the NATO military alliance, then the European Union, mainstream public discourse became rife with distinctions between “Hungarians” and “non-Hungarians” in their midst – with both Jews and Roma on the outside, looking in.
One local Holocaust-education advocate says she is troubled to see this attitude bloom among high school and university students, for it revives a historic question for Hungarian Jews who were traditionally more assimilated – or at least believed they were.
“Even young people who are not racist or anti-Semitic use the same terminology, that you can’t be both Hungarian and a Jew,” says Andrea Szonyi, who co-founded the Zachor Foundation for Social Remembrance. “It leads us back to the Holocaust, when people who defined themselves as Hungarian were taken to the gas chambers as Jews.”
In September 2006, the atmosphere grew even more toxic. Gyurcsany – whose Socialist Party is direct heir to the old Communist Party – was caught on tape admitting that he lied to voters “morning, evening and night” about the nation’s economic health to win re-election earlier that year.
Orban and Fidesz, now leading the opposition, assailed the Gyurcsany government as illegitimate. As political battle lines firmed up, a series of fierce riots broke out in the streets of the capital.
One new feature of the demonstrations in the autumn of 2006 was re-emergence of the “Arpad stripes,” the red-and-white flag derived from a medieval, royal coat-of-arms. It would later be adopted by the wartime Hungarian Arrow Cross. Today’s incarnation of the Arpad flag, though, lacks the black Arrow Cross symbol, which – like the Nazi swastika and Soviet hammer-and-sickle – is illegal to display in Hungary.
Liberal society says there’s little difference. But the counter-argument of the striped flag’s lofty historic status has held water. The banner now regularly waves at anti-government demonstrations, especially events of the Magyar Garda.
Meanwhile, tensions with the Roma have festered. Studies indicate that many Roma are mired in poverty, joblessness and social segregation, which helps explain why a significant number reportedly turn to petty crime. This also helps fuel public rage, fear and a sweeping stereotype of “Gypsy criminals,” as if all Roma prey on innocent citizens.
Enter Jobbik, a far-right political party that emerged in 2003, led by Gabor Vona, a former psychology student. Known more formally as “Movement for a Better Hungary,” Jobbik describes itself as “a Christian-national conservative party with a radical edge.” In 2006, Jobbik launched a website on “Gypsy criminality.” Then last August, it introduced its uniformed wing, the Hungarian Guard. Vona, 30, also leads the Guard.
Under the umbrella of a legally registered party, the Guard appears to choose its words and actions carefully while pushing the envelope. Some observers claim that crowds at Guard events are prone to shout anti-Semitic slogans, but officially the organization avoids any talk of Hungary’s roughly 100,000 Jews – by far the largest Jewish community in Central Europe – as this tactic has gained little traction over the years and only tarnished Hungary’s reputation.
“The Magyar Garda is about enemies: ‘Who are the enemies of the Magyars? – The Jews and the neighbors who took away our territories,’ ” says Janos Gado, editor of the monthly Hungarian Jewish magazine, Szombat. “But within Hungarian society, the tensions are greatest with the Roma, because this is a living issue and [the Guard] can win more sympathy.”
A tipping point came in October 2006 in the village of Olaszliszka. A motorist who hit and injured a Romani girl with his car was then beaten to death by an enraged mob as his two daughters watched. Several weeks ago non-Romani residents of the village asked the justice minister to protect them from what they say has been a rash of increasingly violent crimes committed by Roma.
A Jobbik spokesman, Zoltan Fuzessy, denies that either his party or the Guard is “anti-Roma,” but rather “bringing attention to something that had been swept under the carpet” – criminality among Roma.
“If there’s a problem that needs to be solved, the first step is to recognize and admit there’s a problem, then do something about it,” Fuzessy says. “Even if there’s a storm now, we’re trying to at least have a discussion about it.”
Indeed, the question has roiled the media. For example, the leading left-liberal daily, Nepszabadsag, is publishing reams of opinion about “the Roma question.” The argument is not left versus right, but among left-leaning commentators: Is crime committed by Roma due to racism and discrimination? Do Roma traditions at the margins of society play a role? Is the phrase “Romani criminality” itself racist?
Among ordinary Hungarians, though, the Guard has breached the floodgates of this hatred, says Gyorgy Ligeti, a sociologist and president of the Kurt Lewin Association, which promotes inter-ethnic tolerance.
“The Guard says we’re not against the Roma community, only Roma criminality, but now everyone has a question in their mind: ‘Is there a Roma criminality? Is there something unique about the Roma?’” Ligeti says. “It’s urban legend, of course, but the Guard has made it easier for people to ask these questions.”
European parliamentarian Mohacsi, for example, says she was recently in a restaurant near her Budapest office, in the city’s heavily Roma-populated Eighth District, when the restaurant owner approached her table. She says he first berated her about representing Romani, not “Hungarian” interests in Brussels; he then turned to the Romani “genetic” predisposition to criminality. “That had never happened to me before,” she says.
Meanwhile, the Guard continues to seek out new members. At a February recruiting event promoted on its website, a handful of members have gathered on a frigid Sunday morning in their third-floor office in a non-descript apartment building across the Danube from the majestic Hungarian Parliament. At the office door, a uniformed Guardsman with a shaved head and a 5-centimeter scar on his left cheek greets the trickle of visitors. Inside, Arpad flags festoon the walls, one with the mythical Hungarian falcon – the turul – stitched in the middle. Only two potential recruits are spotted during the event’s first two hours, but there’s no confirmation: a visiting journalist, after a few minutes of chilly conversation with the Guards, is turned away. He’s given a telephone number and told to call the district “captain”; calls to the captain will be unsuccessful.
Although Fuzessy says the Guard will soon induct its next batch of followers, on the national political scene Jobbik is maneuvering to hoist its support well above the 2 percent it garnered running in partnership with another far-right party in the 2006 elections to parliament. Already, it shares seats with Fidesz on several local councils, but 5 percent is the threshold to enter parliament. The next elections are slated for 2010.
Toward that end, Jobbik plans to soon broach another hot-button issue that will surely rattle Hungary, if not the region. In June, Fuzessy says, the party will launch a campaign to publicize the fate of the estimated 3 million to 4 million ethnic Hungarians who live in countries surrounding Hungary. Two-thirds of Hungarian territory was severed from the motherland by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, as punishment for waging war on the Western powers in World War I.
Hungarian revanchism is exactly the reason the countries with the largest Hungarian minorities, Romania and Slovakia, offer for not supporting Kosovo’s independence, as they say European recognition of the Serbian province’s sovereignty would set a dangerous precedent.
“We have to talk about Trianon,” says Fuzessy, “because of course it’s an open question and still has to be resolved in the way of autonomy – both cultural and territorial.”
Words are one thing, say observers; threatening marches are another. Guard founders told the Associated Press last summer that they planned shooting exercises for its members, and there have been reported sightings of members conducting military-like training in the Buda Hills.
Foes, then, are pressing to undermine the movement before it goes any farther.
“The Guard may be one or two thousand crazy people who like to play soldier games, but on the other hand, this party has a relationship with normal political life,” says Peter Feldmajer, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.
Beyond the calls from Jewish and Romani activists for the Guard’s outright ban, the Hungarian parliament on 18 February passed a law against hate speech – apparently with the Guard in mind. Although two previous attempts to regulate offensive speech have been contested before Hungary’s Constitutional Court, one advocate says such legislation is necessary.
“There used to be coded language, but there’s not anymore; it’s a shift of what is acceptable,” says Andras Kadar, co-chairman of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “This is an apt moment for state organs to deal with the issue of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and make clear that ‘democracy’ cannot serve to justify all sorts of racist acts.”
The state’s case against the Guard for allegedly engaging in racist, unconstitutional activities opened on 12 March in a packed, tense Budapest courtroom, days after Romani leaders presented a petition to parliament with 70,000 signatures calling for the group to be disbanded. The case was adjourned until 19 May. Earlier, representatives of minority groups such as Feldmajer and civil-rights lawyer Erzsebet Mohacsi said they were lobbying local mayors to ban the Guard from marching in their towns, while also organizing anti-racism protests.
“The Roma are not fighters; we never had this idea of community-based aggression against other communities,” says Mohacsi, who is the parliamentarian’s sister. “So we must use those ways of action that are provided by the country where we live, using the majority’s system to get our rights.”
As for Tamas Gyimesi, the Hungarian Guard member talks like he’s now found his raison d’etre.
“Maybe one day, the Garda can become a power in the hands of somebody who can create a real homeland for Hungarians,” he says. Asked why he thinks minorities are reacting with trepidation, Gyimesi offers a sly smile: “Perhaps it’s fear of the unknown.”