Horizontal Rule

“Law is Key But Attitudes Are Just As Important”

21 November 2007

During an interview with ERRC staff members in July 2007, Hungary's first Minorities Ombudsman, Dr Jenő Kaltenbach, reflected on questions posed about his time in office

When you became the Ombudsman, what did you conceptualise as the most fundamental problem for Roma that must be addressed? Here I am talking about your personal priority issue.

In Hungary, this kind of sensitivity started developing in second part of '80s. Prior to that, Hungary was a country in which most of the people thought it to be a country of ethnic Hungarians; it was believed that nobody else was living in Hungary. It was thought that this was a homogeneous country because of the well known events in the 20th century. People simply learned that Hungary is in fact a country with a relatively mixed population; a percentage of about 10% of the people have an ethnic background other than Hungarian. The "Roma issue" was seen by most Hungarians as a social problem – a problem of exclusion, which was very much rooted in the nature of Roma themselves. So there were very few people – some sociologists, some intellectuals – who acknowledged that this is not the case. At the end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s, people started to think in alternative ways – they began to perceive Roma as a subcategory or group within rural society with special needs and special problems. But there were also people who perceived Roma as a group posing danger or risk. There was a sociologist, for example who wrote an article about Roma as presenting a security risk for the country or the social peace.

At the very beginning of the '90s in Hungary, a new path was opening for minority issues in general. For Hungary, the minority issue was always a priority issue, but it was suppressed during the Communist era, and after breakdown of the Communist system the issue simply came back as a reaction. This is another fact that contributes to the understanding of the whole of the Hungarian history.

Dr Jenő Kaltenbach was born in Ófalu, in Hungary, in 1947. He received his degree in law from Szeged Science University in 1975. Dr Kaltenbach has been until recently the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities Rights (the first ever Minorities Ombudsman), and Representative of the Republic of Hungary to the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), of which he was Vice-Chair in the period 1998-2003. Since February 2005, he has been Vice-President of the European Ombudsman Institute. Further, he was a co-founder of the Minority Roundtable, and co-developer of Hungary's Minorities Act. The German minority elected him leader of their local government and he won the Minority Award in 1995. He is currently Head of the Public Administration Department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Science in Szeged, Hungary, and Lecturer at the Department of Public Administration of the Faculty of Law at the Eötvös Loránd University of Science, Budapest. He has been on the Board of Directors of ERRC for two years.

Naturally, at first, the centre of the whole minority debate was not the Roma question, and not even domestic minority problems: It was the issue of ethnic Hungarians living in the surrounding countries. But, to be credible, of course, you had to deal not only with the socalled "Hungarians beyond the border" but also the minority issue in the country. Therefore, there were two parallel debates concerning minority rights. From the very beginning, I was involved in this for two reasons. First of all, I am a member of a minority group; an ethnic German. Secondly, my professional background is geared towards dealing with minority issues; I am trained as a lawyer dealing with self-governments. I wrote my thesis about the self government system and I was one of the initiators of the so-called minority roundtable.

In 1990, the Hungarian government – the Ministry of Justice – drafted a law on the rights of minorities. The draft was very unsatisfactory for the people involved; primarily the ethnic groups of the country including Roma, of course. We had a meeting in Budapest and I suggested that the draft made by the government should not be accepted and a new draft should be worked out. That was the point at which my involvement began. It was in January, if I remember correctly, 1991. From that point I was very much involved in the preparation of the minority law in Hungary. This was a long, long negotiation between representatives of different groups on the one hand, and the whole range of negotiations with the government's representatives on the other. In this period, it was very clear that minority rights issues should be part of the democratisation of the country, the creation of the rule of law system, the constitutional system, and it should be something which contributes to the solution of the social tensions between the mainstream and the – not only Romani – non-mainstream people.

It became obvious in 1995, when I was elected by the parliament, what the problems were. The problems and the key issues themselves were not a surprise for me. There had been two different kinds of problem areas in the field of Roma rights in Hungary. One was the integration of Roma into Hungarian society. What 'integration' means and what it should mean "to integrate" was not very clear at that time and nor has it been ever since. Second was the issue of identity, and the preservation of the ethno-cultural identity of those who would like to preserve their identity. To give the opportunity to the people to be as they are. Before that – because of historical reasons – Hungary was one of the most assimilationoriented countries in the region.

You said that integration and identity and the preservation of identity were the fundamental issues that you wanted to deal with. Were you able to tackle these during your time in the office?

I do not think it is possible to do so in twelve years. It is a very, very long-lasting procedure. On the one hand it is a very old, non-tackled problem, it has been for more than several hundred years in this part of Hungary and not only in this part of Europe, but in all of Europe. Integration is an open-ended debate of the society. I do not believe one can simply solve it because new facts and new elements of the same problems will come up again and again. I think integration and society, in many respects the relation between them, is an open-ended, ongoing process, and the question should actually be "Are we closer to a peaceful relationship (between members of the society)", or "Is there any progress from the beginning of the '90s in comparison with the current situation?" Even the answers to those questions are very complex. Let's examine one key aspect. If you look at the legal system of this country, there is huge development. At the beginning of the '90s, there was nothing in our law to tackle minority rights issues. Only the constitution spoke about equality, but nothing else. The perception about what equality means was very weak and conservative. The terms "equality" and "equal treatment" differ because the term "equality" was generally conceptualised in an outmoded sense, and "equal treatment" was not known. So, compared with that earlier situation, the legal system and the legal tools have developed very significantly in the last 15 years. The other side of the coin is the implementation of laws. Are the legal instruments and tools alive? Are they used? Is the legal profession aware of them? Law-enforcement problems are an old Central and Eastern European problem where there is traditionally a rather big gap between the legal reality and the everyday reality. In the Western countries this gap is relatively smaller.

I would say that, traditionally, lawyers relate to the laws in Eastern countries and in Western ones in a very different manner. The Western European idea is that the law should rather be a limitation and not so much an instrument of the state power; that it should not be a tool of the powerful, but one to protect citizen's rights. This was and partially is not the case in the Eastern part of Europe where law was and partially is still rather considered to be a tool for exercising state power.

You talk about certain phases with regards to addressing minority issues in Hungary since the collapse of Communism. Do socio-political changes and how the issues are addressed correspond to certain patterns?

There are phases, of course. I would say there was a very progressive phase at the very beginning, as in a marriage. Everybody's happy because there is a new situation. We all are happy because we are free, there is democracy, and we have to develop it, and so on. We have a lot of "naïve" ideas. We are full of illusion and progress. But then people realise that everyday life is something else and this is the same in the development of democratic institutions also. This pattern fits in the problem areas of minorities, including Roma. There were excellent times and soaring aspirations in the early '90s, when everything key was created including the Minorities Act and a lot of other legal tools to serve such areas as educational rights for Roma.

Honeymoon times?

Honeymoon times, yes, something like this. But then, there is another fact which is not less important in the case of Hungary. There was always an idea in Hungary that we have to play the role of the excellent student in the region. In other words, there has been the prevalent belief that Hungary could make an impact on the regional situation by changing herself. We had to set the example, be the flagship for the surrounding countries because of the big Hungarian communities living in neighbouring states, and the idea was that then they would follow suit.

It was the same in the 1920s after the First World War. But then, people realised that it was not the case. The surrounding countries were not following the Hungarian example; not because they are evil or something, but simply because their situation was and is different. You cannot have a solution for everybody because the circumstances of the countries can bear a lot of differences.

So then came the disillusion phase and decline in enthusiasm, towards passivity. This happened in Hungary, too, by the end of '90s. Since then, minority rights issues are moving further and further away from the centre of policy-making and the centre of attention of the media.

In the early '90s, the media was very keen on dealing with these issues. As we, the Ombudsmen,1 were elected in 1995 to this new position we were very popular in the media. There were a lot of articles, TV shows and other media productions dealing with the Ombudsman-ship. I received a lot of media attention myself because the creation of the Minorities Ombudsman position was a novelty. No country in Europe had it. But then it turned out that in fact we had to take our job seriously. Ombudsman-ship is not window-dressing; it is not something that can be displayed like a nice flower. We have to make people uncomfortable by putting our fingers into the wounds of society. For whatever reason, in a country like Hungary, the media always follows the mood of the policy-making and politicians, not to the contrary as it is in some other countries. This is why there was a certain decline also in media interest, or a certain slide of the popularity of the whole minority rights debate, as soon as the policy-makers lost interest.

But what about the people who are actually discriminated against?

The so-called "national" (language) minorities are small groups with an uncertain identity, not very well organised, not powerful, and they are not seen as important from the point of view of the politicians because they have few votes. In general, these groups are politically rather well integrated so you cannot bring people to vote because of their personal, ethnic background. By and large, they vote because of their political relationships, or political direction. But this has not necessarily been the case with Roma. Eventually politicians discovered Roma as an electorate, as potential voters. Some years ago, there was an article in one of the most popular daily newspapers in Hungary about the voting nature of Roma. It stated that Roma are in fact keen voters. There had been a prevailing belief before that Roma were not really active voters. The main perception of Hungarian politicians was "Do not pay attention to Roma, they do not vote anyway." The article I am referring to stated that this was not the case; that the voting practice of Roma was more or less the same as the members of the mainstream society. It was news that they are voters. Some months later, I think, FIDESZ made a special agreement with the biggest Romani NGO and the biggest Roma political party, and immediately others sought to contact other Romani organisations.

Nowadays, we have right-wing Romani organisations and left-wing Romani organisations. This is not something evil, but the real problem is that those Romani leaders who are involved in political parties are always or too frequently, and unfortunately, not the agents of Roma to the party but rather the agents of the party into Romani communities, so their contribution to the change of the political concept of their party is rather modest. But, coming back to your question – Roma are by now a political factor in Hungary. Or at least, some Romani leaders play a certain role in Hungarian politics, a very limited role. But anyhow, politics discovered Roma as an electorate. I think nowadays Roma are as yet unable to use this perception as an opportunity in an effective or wise way.

Why do you think this is the case?

On the one hand there is no unified Romani community in this country. This is a very fragmented group without an agreement about what should be done. Different Romani leaders do not agree on almost anything. There is a permanent fight against each other and this is off course utilised from the outside, too. On the other hand, there is a very small and weak Romani elite for the moment, with a rather limited capability, which seems not to be able to organise the group and to play the role of a partner in the political debate. At the same time, the problems and needs of Roma are so enormous that even the whole country, Hungarian society, seems to be unable to tackle them or at least it will take a rather long time. But if we take a look at the achievements of some Western countries in this area, there are also not a lot of great success stories. Even powerful European organisations like the EU, for example, have great difficulties in finding the right way for a Europe-wide concept.

Can you tell us of about the practical side of your position, such as everyday activities, for example, how you reviewed your cases? What were the obstacles and, contrarily, what assisted you?

I think the Ombudsman-ship is basically an institution without tools, at least in the traditional sense. I mean, one cannot punish anybody or something like this. This is something which is very unusual in the legal culture of this country, and not only this country but the countries of the region. Everybody deems others to be important if they have power. People are accustomed to this kind of attitude. If there is a powerful person or institution, then you have to pay attention. It is not the case with our institution; Ombudsmen do not have these tools and this kind of power. So the main issue and challenge was to create the perception that we are powerful as far as the civil servants are concerned. Additionally, you have to create the perception that you are useful. People who are powerful are not obliged, or not forced to have good reasoning, because they are powerful. In our case, it is not enough; you have to explain why you take a stand. You have to explain your position in a very convincing way, because otherwise they will not follow you. I think it is one of the most difficult tasks to create authority without having the old well known capacities for it.

Did you have anything or anyone assisting you in achieving authority?

All Ombudsmen must be very much embedded in society. I mean, they must have very good contacts with opinion-makers, the press, the media in general, the NGOs, of course, the representatives of the people you represent, the Romani community, and to minority communities in general. But this was not that difficult for me because I was involved before, so I knew all the people and – I hope this does not sound very arrogant – I had a certain reputation in these groups. So, I believe people trusted me because they knew me. I was not someone coming from outside, and I was probably able to preserve this kind of trustful relationship.

Have there been instances in which the interests of the Ombudsman Institution clashed with the interests of other groups defending rights?

Conflicts are inevitable; they are in the nature of the Ombudsman Institution (but also in the nature of public affairs). This reality consequently leaves you in a position in which you have to fight with different actors in society. First of all, of course, there are politicians. The opposition usually likes the institution because of the very nature of the institution; because we are usually criticising the powerful, the institutions, and the ruling administration and their politics in general.

Secondly, there are powerful and influential circles in society. I can at this point mention one of the cases to you. One of the most powerful professions in Hungary is the medical one. There was a case in a hospital where special rooms for the pregnant Romani women were established. They simply segregated non-Romani and Romani pregnant women. We undertook an investigation and, of course, the medical circles were very angry and regarded this as interference in their professional sphere. Several similar instances happened in many cases against local opinion leaders, primarily mayors. Local administrations and local politicians were distressed because most complaints were against them, naturally. So, we have had a very controversial relationship with powerful segments of society.

But what was very important for me, at least, was not being seen as an agent of Roma, but to be seen as a neutral party and a reliable instance that is not biased in either direction. There was a difficulty convincing Romani representatives of this because many Roma and the Romani NGO leaders wanted to see me as one of them; which would in fact be a very dangerous thing from the point of view of the credibility of the institution. Just to give you an example, there was a demonstration at the end of the '90s. It was a walk demonstration. All of the Romani groups called me to join them. I told them "One would not ask a supportive judge to walk with you in the rally or to run in a race, would you?" I wanted to preserve neutrality and credibility. If you are involved in daily business taking sides, you lose credibility automatically.

You mentioned that, unfortunately, the law in Hungary renders the Ombudsman Institution without tools. Still, can you describe the potentials of this Institution in terms of addressing Romani matters?

It is very obvious that traditionally people look at a state-established institution in this part of Europe as something which would not be on their side. They are not part of the game. The Ombudsman's role is, at least partially, to convince people that this is their state and this state has to serve them and not to oppress them. They have an institution as their institution and they can have an impact, they can influence the decisions and priorities of politics. They are part of the game and not an instrument of game. This is not a novelty; this is the very philosophy of Ombudsman-ship – to contribute to the establishment of trustful relationships between citizens and the state, serving the idea that the state is serving the citizens' well founded and legitimate interests. This is much more important and much more difficult if the citizens belong to a minority because the fear that it is not their state is much, much more relevant than in the state-citizen relationship of the members of the mainstream society. So it was very important for me to give the impression and experience that this country is the home of everybody, every citizen in this country.

In terms of achievements and failures, if you look at your term from the perspective of a glass, is it half full or half empty? Is there anything that you can name as "I wanted to achieve that during my term, but I wasn't able to?"

A long list!

I was not able to instigate more involvement of Roma in politics. As far as changes are concerned, to reform or amend the local election law or electoral law is the key practical issue. There are still strongly segregating legislations in Hungary. I cannot go into too much detail, but, there are two electoral laws at the local level. One is for settlements with more than 10,000 inhabitants, which, being a proportionate system guarantees a balanced political representation in local decisionmaking. But in the small communities, the system is segregating and provides to the relative local majority much, much more influence than it deserves, excluding the relative (frequently Roma) minority from public affairs. To change these local electoral laws was one of my objectives which I could not achieve. The Ministry of Interior was very much against the change. Of course, they did not formulate a very clear position; they merely said "Let's wait for the next reform of the electoral law" and so on, for the sake of postponing.

Secondly, I was unable to implement one of the measures of the Hungarian constitution, namely the representation of minorities in the parliament. I think it is a shame, not just because the minorities have no representation in the highest decision-making body, but simply because the constitution can never be ignored in a rule of law state.

Thirdly, I think the so-called autonomous system for minority self-government is anything but autonomous. This has much more the features of a mode of participation in the decision-making processes of public bodies, but has no or very little authority to make autonomous decisions on matters pertaining to the group it represents.

As you probably know, I was against the final version of the Equal Treatment Act which enabled the creation of the specialised body, the Equal Treatment Agency. The Equal Treatment Agency is the second best solution, not the best. I argued against the establishment of a new agency (practically a unit of the public administration) instead of the extension of the Ombudsman's power simply because one of the most important requirements for such an institution is independence, but my argumentation was blocked for political reasons. The first bill, the draft law of 2000, was prepared by my institution – parallel to the drafting of the European Union's Race Equality Directive – which was the first draft equal treatment law in Central and Eastern Europe (the third one on the whole continent by the way), in which we proposed different solutions in some respects from that of the official draft of the government from 2003. But the administrators and bureaucrats did not like it and those in powerful circles did not like it for different reasons and wanted something else.

What are the reasons for this – who blocked it?

Before the elections in 2002, there was no willingness on the side of the government to establish an equal treatment law. Afterwards the government was not willing to overrule the powerful circles of the central administration and they did not try to find a compromise with the parliamentary opposition which had been necessary to bring "our" draft through the parliamentary procedure.

In an article written about my period in office by a Hungarian journalist last June, it was stated, "his endeavours were blocked by the narrow-minded administration and by ignorant politicians." This might be close to reality, and additionally there was also the inability of the people involved to exercise real pressure. One of the main problems or weaknesses in this field, in Hungary and I think in some other countries, too, is that Roma – for the reasons described earlier – fail to exercise pressure or effective lobbying.

If you compare your position to other Ombudsmen, do you think they experience the same barriers with regard to political or national action and reaction?

No, I do not. There are a increasing number of Ombudsmen because of the Race Equality Directive. Although they are not only Ombudsmen, they are, in reality, Ombudsmanlike institutions. But they are not known enough. I think even lawyers make mistakes and simply mix up the Civil Rights Ombudsman with the Minorities Ombudsman. Although the legal framework for them is the same or similar, the nature of each institution is very different. The Civil Rights Ombudsman does not really need to specifically seek support because of his legal status and because of the very nature of the issues under his jurisdiction; he or she was popular from the start. There is no issue that could be more popular than fighting the tax office for example, or the police. One is the Don Quixote. You are fighting against the state, everybody likes you, everybody is happy because you are fighting against the wicked institutions. But if you write on your flag that you are fighting for Roma, that is something completely different.

And it is the distinction between fighting for an issue and fighting for people which creates division?


You mentioned the laws that you considered amending or changing. Hypothetically, if you would be a legislator one day, with full parliamentary support guaranteed, will these aforementioned laws be the same ones you would immediately act on or would you have something else in mind?

One of the key problems in Hungary, and probably in similar countries, is the creation of law itself. Some of the arrogance and the voluntaristic attitudes in law-makers' minds from the authoritarian past has prevailed. We simply create the law and period. It has to work. Society has to accept it, because we are the law-makers (Speaking about law-makers, I don't mean only parliamentarians but the powerful central administration as well, which has a great impact on the law-making process). It is an incorrect approach. You should prepare the law; I mean you have a lot of convincing work to do, you have a lot of PR work, and you have to achieve a lot of agreements between the law-makers and the other parts of the society – trade unions, civil organisations, and interest groups and so on. It is a very complicated game and you have to prepare well, to lay the groundwork; a firm foundation. It is like the work of the peasant; you have to prepare the ground for your flowers because if you do not, they will not grow. This is something which is not very clear for most of the lawmakers in Hungary: They simply think that they are the law-makers and they make a decision and everybody should accept that this is it. And this is much more the case in issues in which there is no powerful interest group present.

What would you want to change in the coming terms?

For me change is not the only issue. It is much more important to respect the constitution. My first argument is and would continue to be, please respect your constitution.

Was there any change in your work when Hungary joined the European Union? Did it have an actual effect on the last couple of years of your term?

There was a big difference and it was very impressive for me to observe the differences between my position and the position of the Data Protection Ombudsman, even during the accession process. You know that data protection if one of the pilot programmes of the EU. There is a Data Protection Directive and there is a data protection institutional system within the EU. Because of that, Hungarian politicians and Hungarian opinionformers have been very much interested in the topic of data protection in general because it is a key EU issue. Even during in the accession process and afterwards, my data protection colleague was a very highly respected person because of the EU scheme and because of the powerful EU regulations backing his position. It was not the case for me, the Minorities Ombudsman. The EU does not care enough about minorities. There is no EU law, there is no EU institution system, there is no EU unit and there is no EU policy. Although during the accession process, in accordance with the Copenhagen Criteria, minority issues have always been part of the accession reports (the annual reports of the EU about human rights, about Roma and about the state's respect for the Copenhagen Criteria), after Hungary became a member of the EU the attention on both sides, on the national as well as the European, went down rapidly. To change the relationship of EU institutions towards the minority, and especially Roma, issue, I think we need a much more active and effective lobbying by European (international) NGOs like ERRC and minority organisations because this kind of pressure is not to be expected from the Member States.

As far as gathering ethnic data is concerned, how do you interpret the possibilities granted by existing Hungarian regulations?

Well, this is a very complicated issue across Europe. There are different approaches. In short, there is an ongoing debate across Europe, because the legal situation of each country differs widely. I mean, if you compare the situation in the UK with that of France or Germany, there is a huge difference. And this is a very sensitive question in many countries. There are countries which simply deny that such issues exist.

We have here one of the strongest data protection laws and one of the most powerful Data Protection Ombudsmen. At the same time, the interpretation and the implementation of it is very unsatisfactory. The situation in Hungary concerning the right to free ethnic self-determination of the citizens is absolutely unacceptable because of the very open nature of misuse. You can declare yourself Roma today, a Serb tomorrow, a Ukrainian next and a German the day after that. According to estimations, one third of the members of minority self-government bodies in fact do not belong to the group they should represent. The absence of a strong regulation on how to handle ethnic date leads to many absurd situations. The reason for this absurdity is not that the legal environment is confusing but the fact that there are very problematic and confusing relationships, attitudes and perceptions by mainstream society to and about ethnicity. This is a common feature of all nation-state systems and concepts.

How would you solve this conundrum?

One should stop this very strange way of relating to ethnicity. Ethnicity is something that is a part of reality. I know, of course, all the events in the past – I know the risk, the dangers and so on. But as long as you treat or look at ethnicity as something unusual, or something which you have to suppress, something shameful, something which is a private thing which has nothing to do with public, as long as you do not stop with that concept you cannot solve any problems or issues relating to ethnicity.

One needs to 'healthily neutralise the concept of ethnicity'. We have to accept that – once you artificially deduct, take away the 'ethnicity factor' – the society might actually be poorer from the ethnic point of view, too. It also means not thinking that the only way to preserve peaceful coexistence is to deny ethnicity. All of our societies in Europe are more or less multicultural and the ideology resulting from this is multiculturalism. This became a certain kind of fashion in the '80s and '90s, and people connected to that idea a lot of expectations that the nice world of multiculturalism would win. It will not, in my opinion. The expectations are not real. In the end, simply because of the fact that all European societies are ethnically plural, and this is a growing tendency, we have to find something further and more than just the nation-state concept or we should re-interpret the concept of the nationstate away from the absolute dominance of one single language or one single culture per country. There are good examples not only outside Europe that this is possible. If we don't find a solution to the integration of our societies other than the traditional way, I'm afraid tension will grow and peaceful coexistence is in danger, and the first conflicts of this kind have already emerged.

If you go one step beyond the nation-state, then what?

We should not destroy the nation-state, no, that is simply not realistic. If you start to destroy the nation-state you will make chaos. But one should define the nation in another ways. Nation can not mean that you are in a tin can in which everybody has the same origin.

Is there need to define nation?

There is a need to define community! There is a need to define community because community means stability, security. Yes, I do not believe people can live well in a world that is rapidly changing day by day and you totally lose orientation. You need to have a certain level of stability around you, otherwise you will be angry and nervous and aggressive and so on. So you have to have an institutional system that is familiar to you. But this does not mean that the only way to define this structure or environment is the national way, in a traditional sense.

What has been done to change the opinion of the average Hungarian towards Roma?

Not too much. In the end, if you look at the different programmes, I mean projects, by NGOs, the EU, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Hungary itself, the Roma Decade and so on, you would expect a behavioural change or an attitude change, but I do not see too much progress yet in this respect. The perception of Roma has not fundamentally changed in the mind of the everyday Hungarian, and the problem is that it is stated that this perception is based partially on their experience. But, nobody realises nor speaks about the fact that ‘this experience' results from the situation of Roma in the first place. It is not by accident that the perception might be that Roma are mostly not well dressed, that they are unemployed, they are uneducated and so on. This is their real life experience. It confirms the prejudice. But nobody arrives at the conclusion and nobody drives the public mind to the conclusion that they (the majority) are also responsible, and they are part of the reason why Roma are in this situation.

Don't you feel that there is some kind of wariness in society towards talking about Roma? It seems that there is a huge emphasis on Romani issues, at least in this region, and somehow it is starting to backlash: People do not want to hear any more about it.

You might be familiar with the saying that to change the political system, you need a weekend; to change the economic system, you need some years; and to change the mindset of the people, you need some generations.

If we stay with this issue of the image or the perception of Roma and who can form it or influence it, what about the minority selfgovernment? What is your opinion of the minority self-government as an institution?

I think the Roma minority self-government system can not substitute the involvement of Roma in political life and active politics. This system will not give them real participation, so it gives them some nice toys, or something weak. The whole minority autonomous system – if it were autonomous – would serve the preservation of identity. But this is not the main interest or the main issue in the case of Roma. It serves the national minorities' interests to a certain extent, but not too much, because they are not autonomous. The problem is that in the case of the national minorities they are too integrated. They are losing or have already lost their identity and their own community. So there the task is to preserve or regain it, and the current system would serve this aim to a certain extent. If they were to be real autonomous bodies, it would be much better than now. In fact, the initial self-government idea is something which has relatively good intentions in its background. But in the case of Roma, the problem is not the identity, the problem is integration. And you cannot have an instrument for integration which serves first and foremost the preservation of ethnic identity. So a real integration system would involve Roma very naturally in the local political affairs, but because of the electoral law this is not possible.

In a settlement with a Romani population of about 40 percent, all mandates are won by the majority, by the mainstream. No Romani candidate reaches into the local government office because of the electoral system, although they constitute 40 percent of the population. If there were a proportional system, of course, you would expect that the candidates are represented at a similar percentage in the local council, but because of the electoral system they are not subjects of the local policy but objects or tools. This circumstance has a certain impact on schooling too, which is another key area and this is in connection with the equality of opportunity in employment, etc. But as long as Roma are instruments of policy, not actors or role players or real subjects of action, there will not be real progress.

Do you see any conflict between integration and preservation of culture?

No, not at all. It is unfortunately the ruling perception and the ruling attitude is that if you are integrated then you automatically should lose your identity. This is because of the interpretation of the nation-state concept, where within the nation-state system integration means that one should lose anything that makes one different. It is valid in a nation-state concept of old fashion.

So, in the contemporary nation-state concept, there is this problem; would you affirm that?

Yes. There is a contradiction in the nation-state context between integration and preservation of identity. But I do not agree that this is the only way of interpreting the nation-state.

So in today's world, integration is a nice term for assimilation?

Of course if politicians, mainstream politicians, speak about integration they actually mean assimilation.

If we think of the integration policies of Hungary in the last 5 years, do you see any progress?

Let's look into the concrete issues. If you speak about integration, there are different fields in which you can observe if it works or not: Education, for example, housing, treatment or the relationship between the state organs in general, police, local administration, of course, employment and so on. If we look at these fields, I have not seen too much progress compared with the extent of the efforts made. We have been speaking for almost 20 years about the situation in the school system – the segregated classes, the treatment of Romani children, the relationships between Romani parents and the school, about the relationship between the Romani minority self-government and the mayor or the local administration in general. And what I see – though there are good examples of course – is that there are hundreds of schools in Hungary, and hundreds of villages and towns in Hungary, in which more or less segregated education is a fact, an everyday reality. I do not see very much progress in solving this issue, although efforts have been made by the Ministry of Education and Culture. By the way, in this field, one of the problems is – although it may sound strange – the local autonomous system of government of this country itself. I can certainly understand that after 40 years of Communism, and after I do not know how many years of authoritarian rule, there was a big need for decentralisation, but it was a little bit too much. There is too much in the hands of the local government.

You mean the local self-governments?

The local administration, the local councils are in an absolutely key position in Hungary now concerning schooling. The central education administration of this country has almost nothing to say, or at least little influence.

You are saying that this is one of the major reasons that the implementation of government policy is fragmented?

Implementation of policy sometimes does not happen because of the key position of the local lawmakers, local officials and the local policy-makers.

Do you see a role for the ERRC in fighting this?

Yes, but it is a very tricky issue because if you start to say that decentralisation is wrong, you would be immediately unpopular for political reasons. You would be deemed a Communist because centralisation is only connected with Communism.

If you look at the ERRC, after 10 years activity, and the environment we just talked about, what would be your recommendation for an issue to prioritise?

I completely understand that ERRC is foremost an international NGO, not a national NGO, but your presence in the Hungarian environment and Hungarian relations is not very visible. And, if I am not wrong there have been some or certain tensions between you and local Romani organisations, or a part of the local Romani organisations. As I was asked also this question some years ago, I can only expand on this saying that the ERRC should strengthen its relationships with allies; in other words, the relationship with specialised bodies in all EU Member States and also candidate countries. You should strengthen your contact and relationship with institutions sitting in the same boat, so to speak.

So you recommend building networks.

Yes, and do it proactively. For example, I cannot remember any event organised jointly by the Ombudsman and the ERRC, or something similar, and the Ombudsman is dealing with more or less the same issues. I believe Roma rights are human rights, of course, and that is why you should strengthen your contacts with organisations specialising in ethnic equality. Now there is a Minorities Ombudsman who is additionally Romani, which should be an additional, positive aspect for your possible, natural cooperation with the Minorities Ombudsman Office. Endnote:

  1. In Hungary, there are three "Parliamentary Commissioners" (Ombudsmen): the Civil Rights Ombudsman, the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Ombudsman and the National and Ethnic Minorities Rights Ombudsman. For further information, see: http://www.obh.hu/index_en.htm.

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ERRC submission to UN HRC on Serbia (June 2017)

30 June 2017

Written Comments by the European Roma Rights Centre concerning Serbia to the Human Rights Council, within its Universal Periodic Review, for consideration at its 29th session (January-February 2018).

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ERRC submission to UN HRC on France (June 2017)

30 June 2017

Written Comments by the European Roma Rights Centre concerning France to the Human Rights Council, within its Universal Periodic Review, for consideration at its 29th session (January-February 2018).

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ERRC submission to the European Commission on Roma Inclusion in enlargement countries (May 2017)

25 May 2017

Written comments by the ERRC to the European Commission on enlargement component of the EU Roma Framework.


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