Romani political participation and racism: reflections on recent developments in Hungary and Slovakia
05 December 2000
The eradication of anti-Romani racism continues to be one of the most important political challenges in contemporary Central Europe. International and domestic human rights organisations have repeatedly pointed out the responsibilities of the state authority in this process. Politicians in power can develop policy initiatives to improve legal safeguards and to tackle discrimination. Domestic Romani associations have frequently attempted to push their governments towards more determined action in this field. However, to date the real impact of Romani interests on government decisions continues to be limited. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, politicians in Central Europe are in general not prepared to attach crucial importance to policies dealing with anti-Romani racism. Moreover, mainstream political parties have been reluctant to allocate favourable positions to Romani activists on their party lists and thus have excluded Romani interests from mainstream politics. In some cases, leading politicians have even capitalised on popular anti-Romani sentiment.
The anomalous situation of the under-representation of Roma in politics has incited Romani interest organisations and Romani political parties to seek special channels to influence policy making. This article seeks to compare two countries that have responded differently to the political demands of Roma: Hungary and Slovakia. Already in the first half of the 1990s, Hungary granted its Roma minority cultural autonomy and introduced a system of elected "minority self-governments", including "Gypsy self-governments". In Slovakia, a non-elected advisory body for Romani affairs was only initiated after the 1998 elections. Although these approaches are motivated by a very different stance towards collective minority rights, they commonly aim at addressing the Roma's systemic disadvantage in politics by designing group-specific institutions. Both countries have elicited positive reactions from the European Union for this aspect of their "Roma policies". One wonders, however, how these developments are to be evaluated from the perspective of the Roma. The crucial question is whether and to what extent the designed strategies for Roma political participation will realistically lead to a firmer policy against anti-Romani behavior.
The under-representation of Roma
Between 1990-1994 the Hungarian National Assembly contained three Romani MPs. Two Romani candidates (Ms Antónia Hága and Mr Aladár Horváth) had been elected from the list of the liberal party Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) and one Romani MP (Mr Tamás Péli) had been a candidate of the Socialist Party (MSzP). Of these three only Hága was able to keep a seat until 1998. There are no Romani MPs in the current National Assembly, despite the constitutional rights of every minority to have ensured political representation (Article 69, paragraph 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Hungary)2. Separate Romani parties stood candidates in the elections of 1990, 1994 and 1998, but they failed to attract enough votes to gain representation. In 1998, the most succesful candidate nominated by a Romani party (Democratic Party of the Hungarian Gypsies, MCDP) polled only 1.4 percent of the vote in his individual constituency. Ms Ágnes Daróczi appeared on the national list of the SzDSz in 1998, but did not obtain a mandate. More or less the same development is observable in Slovakia. In the first elections to the various parliaments in Czechoslovakia in 1990, Slovak Roma ran for office in coalition with the leading anti-communist movement organisation Public Against Violence (VPN). Romani candidates were elected to the Federal Assembly (Mr Gejza Adam) and into the Slovak National Council (Ms Anna Koptová). The Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) also included Roma on its list and this brought Mr Karol Zeman and Mr Vincent Danihel into the Federal Assembly in the 1990 election. After 1992, Romani representation in the Slovak National Council disappeared completely3. The Romani parties Roma Civic Initiative (ROI) and the Party for Labor and Security (SPI) stood separately in the 1992 elections, but reached no more than 0.6 and 0.97 per cent of the vote - far below the fice per cent threshold. In the 1994 elections, the ROI enjoyed support from the nationalist-oriented Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) of former premier Vladimír Mečiar, but again did not manage to attract enough votes (0.67 per cent). No separate Romani parties took part in the 1998 elections. Romani candidates Ján Kompuš and József Ravasz ran on the HZDS list. However, weeks before the election Mr Kompuš died and was not replaced by another Romani candidate. Mr Ravasz, who appeared at number 88 on the HZDS list, failed to win a seat.
In Slovakia, Roma constitute approximately eight per cent of the population, in Hungary approximately five; but in parliament they are absent4. Why have Roma systematically been under-represented? Weak minority representation in democratic polities may be caused by a range of organisational factors, such as the limited size of the minority constituency or the fact that the minority population is distributed across various electoral districts. In the case of the Roma, there is clearly also a more fundamental factor at play. Although there are no legal restrictions on the political rights of the Roma, the dominant political climate produces a barrier inhibiting them from participating in political life. In both Hungary and Slovakia, Roma are usually portrayed as a social problem and a threat to political stability; they are not seen as serious contributors to the political debate. In their struggle for votes, mainstream political parties have cultivated this image. In the beginning of the 1990s, there were still certain parties that attempted to win the "Romani vote" and to this purpose put Romani candidates on their lists. But this proved not as easy as expected. Romani candidates were relatively unknown to Romani voters who themselves were difficult to mobilise as a result of their long-standing social exclusion from society. Realising the potential size of the Romani electorate, mainstream parties have sometimes developed new political strategies5. But in general these parties became increasingly reluctant to support Romani claims openly and they distanced themselves from Romani politicians. The idea gained ground that Romani politics are "by nature" quarrelsome and maladjusted.
Strikingly, the absence of Romani representatives in the national legislative bodies in both Slovakia and Hungary contrasts sharply with the number of Roma involved in minority organisations and local politics. In 1999, the Slovak Ministry of the Interior reported that there were 59 Romani associations and 14 Romani political parties officially registered. It also reported that following the 1998 local elections, six mayors and 86 council members had been elected from Romani political parties6. A recent report of the Hungarian government states that in Hungary almost 250 Romani organisations are registered7. Moreover, since 1993, Hungary has entitled its minorities to form local and national "self-governments" - elected advisory bodies that have a limited say in matters of culture and education. Since the last minority elections in 1998 there are 753 local "Gypsy minority self-governments", which means that at present approximately 3000 Roma have a certain role in public affairs at the local level. There are also 53 Roma active in the national "Gypsy self-government". Hungary has currently also one Romani mayor and 177 local council members who identify themselves as Roma.
One can conclude that despite the fact that Roma are increasingly organised in independent associations and in local ethnically-based political parties, the gap between them and mainstream parties is widening. What matters is not that the Romani population of a country should exclusively be represented by Romani politicians, but that the absence of Romani politicians in the central arenas of politics reflects a growing negative stereotypical thinking about Romani politicians - a negative view which mainstream parties do not seek to challenge in fear of losing votes. In these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult for Romani politicians to defend their interests on the national level. Likewise, it becomes increasingly unlikely that non-Romani politicians will stand up to represent Romani interests effectively.
Racism and the construction of the "Roma problem"
The growing gap between Romani and non-Romani politicians is related to the widespread influence of racism on popular thinking and public behaviour. By racism I mean a way of thinking which involves the categorisation of a group of people as naturally inferior on the basis of stereotypical understandings of perceived social and cultural differences8. In this form, racism is generally an incoherent assembly of ideas and stereotypical images which underlies certain behaviour, institutional practice and everyday conversation.
That Roma have been subject to negative categorisation in Central Europe is clearly illustrated in the way in which the problems they are facing have been explained in public, by politicians and even in some official reports. In public opinion it has been frequently asserted that the cause of the problems facing the Roma lies in "Romani culture" itself, understood as a static phenomenon incompatible with "European" culture. Consider, for example, this quote from a recent letter to the Central Europe Review:
I do not think that the Romanies will be ever capable of integrating themselves into European society. A specialist in the cultures of India has written in one book that the Romanies simply have different customs, a different culture, a different morality, and so they are encountering problems9.
The negative view of Roma which emerges from this quote does not at all match the complex reality of diverse and fluid forms of Romani culture. However, it is considered to be true by many people because it offers the illusion that the social position of the Roma and the general breakdown of inter-communal relations between Roma and non-Roma is not an issue for which society at large bears any responsibility. Their argument is that Roma have origins outside Europe and are therefore "natural troublemakers". This is what can be called the construction of the "Roma problem". Public opinion makers and press have played a key role in the reproduction of this argument, for example by assuming a natural connection between Roma and crime10.
The Gypsies can now charge policemen even for the slightest use of force. We must not have privileged groups in this country11.
The idea of the Roma as a naturally inferior category of people has underpinned such shocking proposals as the one recently made by Slovak MP Vít'azoslav Moric (SNS) that Roma are "idiots" and that a humane way of dealing with them is to put them in reservations12.
The extreme right attracts a considerable number of voters in both Slovakia and Hungary, but is currently also a rather isolated fraction in parliament13. The danger, however, lies not exclusively with the extreme right, but also with seemingly objective statements about Roma by more accepted parties that are also informed by the idea of the "Roma problem". For example, Mr Géza Jeszenszky, a founding member of the rightist-centrist party Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1990-1994) and current Ambassador to the United States of America stated recently:
Hungary has a large Gypsy minority with serious social problems deriving mostly from poverty, poor education and, in many cases, an inherited lifestyle that lacks any incentives to break out and do better14.
Refering to "inherited lifestyle" as a cause of "social problems" is an indirect way of asserting that Romani culture itself has produced a situation of disadvantage. Many voters are readily prepared to accept these and other culture-based arguments from mainstream parties as they have become accustomed to the idea that Romani identity is essentially nothing more than a biological inclination towards anti-social behaviour. Arguing that there is a "Roma problem" which is indissolubly connected to a reified and negatively-loaded notion of Romani culture is a simplistic way of avoiding the difficult process of probing the variety of political and social conditions of present problems. Racist ways of explaining social problematics are easy to sell and therefore useful in a struggle for votes.
It is no doubt a positive development that anti-Romani statements by SNS-representatives are increasingly condemned by politicians in government. Consider in this respect the Slovak Parliament's response to Moric's racist statements by deciding to strip him of the immunity from prosecution he normally enjoys as an MP. This move demonstrates that politicians in Slovakia are increasingly aware of the damage anti-Romani statements have on the country's reputation. It is also a positive development that Romani associations have become articulate in attacking views comparable to those of Moric. Nevertheless, racism continues to be a basis for politicians of more generally accepted parties and even politicians in government.
In Slovakia, this phenomenon is illustrated by the way authorities have "explained" the migration of Roma to European Union countries. They refused to perceive the phenomenon as related to the failure of policies pertaining to Roma and the resulting distrust between Roma and the ethnic majorities. Instead, leading politicians have referred to "Roma mentality". For example, in July 1999 Slovak Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Regional Development Pál Csáky appealed to the media to stop using the word "exodus" - as the refugee wave had been labelled in the press to date - on the grounds that this implied a violent act of forced eviction. Instead, Csáky described the phenomenon as "ethno-business"15. In this way, migration was portrayed as the logical continuation of what is now popularly regarded as "typical" Romani behaviour - abuse of state welfare resources. Tellingly, in January 2000, Slovak MP Róbert Fico - formerly the representative of the Slovak Republic in cases before the European Commission for Human Rights and now one of the country's most trusted politicians - tried to find popular support for his newly established political party Smer (Direction), by proposing to stop paying social benefits to returned asylum seekers for a period of twelve months16. In June 2000, he advocated the reduction of family allowance for large families, a measure which in his view would help solve the "Roma problem"17.
Migration and abuse of welfare systems are far from the only forms of problematic behaviour which are attributed to the typical "nature" of the Roma as an inferior category. Other crucial areas are housing, education and employment. Also statements about Roma "lifestyle" made by national leading politicians in Hungary have sometimes implicitly reflected such categorising views. Consider, for example, Hungary's former Prime Minister Gyula Horn quoted in the Hungarian daily Népszabadság of November 28, 1997, as stating:
while the country is doing very much to benefit its minorities, one must take the interests of the majority society into consideration as well. (...) it can no longer go on that people establish themselves in a lifestyle without labour earnings18.
In response to accusations from the European Union about insufficient protection of Roma, Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi asserted in 1999 that the main problem facing the Roma is not that they are victims of ethnic hatred but that they are poorly educated and cannot compete for jobs19. By separating the Roma's lack of education and jobs from the prejudice they face when seeking them, Martonyi implicitly stressed the Roma's own responsibility for their situation.
State responses to Romani under-representation: "Ethnic" political institutions
The under-representation of the Roma in politics constitutes a problem of democracy and damages the international reputation of Hungary and Slovakia. Sensitive to these matters, both countries have taken a number of measures to remedy the insufficient participation of Roma in decision-making procedures. The strategies they have applied depart from varying views on minority rights.
The most radical strategy has been developed by Hungary. Already in 1993, the Hungarian parliament adopted legislation which acknowledged the principle of non-territorial cultural autonomy for minorities20. The minority legislation (Act LXXVII of 1993) resulted in the establishment of a system of elected minority self-governments for the 13 officially recognised minorities - including the Roma. Hungary has presented this approach as crucial for the Roma21. Specifically it has been seen as a way to remedy the structural political weakness of the Roma and ensure Roma influence on Roma-related policies. Since the first minority elections (1994), this system has elicited mainly positive reactions from international institutions. In July 1997, the European Commission mentioned Hungary's minority legislation in its Agenda 2000 and the European Parliament subsequently commended Hungary on its "exemplary minorities policy22". However, both academics and Romani activists have been very critical, suggesting that this system unnecessarily reduces Romani politics to the participation of the Roma in one group-specific domain of political life23. Roma are granted a certain place in the decision-making process, but this place is inherently a marginal one. Besides having only limited competencies as de facto advisory bodies, the self-governments actually polarise the political landscape. The additional measures which the Hungarian government has taken from 1995 onwards - for example, the so-called "medium-term package" of measures for the improvement of the living conditions of the Roma (Government Decisions 1093/1997 and 1047/1999) and the creation of an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Roma Affairs (1999) - are no doubt important initiatives, but they do not even attempt to change the growing gap between mainstream politics and Romani politics. Romani participation is simply considered an accomplished fact. Tellingly, Romani political participation as an area in need of improvement was not mentioned by any Hungarian party in their latest policy programs24.
Slovakia’s attempt to introduce institutional channels for Roma political participation is largely a post-1998 phenomenon. The last Mečiar government (1994-1998) only managed to deliver a number of unimplemented measures aimed at "assisting" the Roma in becoming "integrated". In a 1996 government resolution, the Roma were considered to be no more than "citizens in need of special care", or in other words, a problematic category of people who do not conform to the "Slovak" way of life and are therefore socially inferior. After the 1998 parliamentary elections, when former opposition parties established a new government - a coalition dominated by the newly created Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and which also included the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) - a new approach towards designing Roma-related policy was explored. Of crucial importance here again was the criticism by non-governmental organisations and by the European Union. Slovakia had been excluded from the first group of candidate countries to begin detailed EU accession negotiations in 1998. However, with governments in the West openly supportive of the new government, Slovakia has aspired to quickly catch up with the other candidates.
The Dzurinda government has attempted to ensure Romani influence in the decision-making process through the appointment of a Government Commissioner for the Solution of the Problems of the Roma Minority. This institution, filled by the former MP Vincent Danihel - himself a Rom, as the government vigorously emphasises - has been given the task to elaborate government strategies and is, to a large extent, responsible for the distribution of available funds. Government Commissioner Danihel is, however, not an elected representative and has been criticised by Romani associations for his uncritical acceptance of governmental views on Romani migration. This has given rise to a great deal of distrust, with many Roma believing that both Danihel's position and the whole strategy in which he is involved is merely declaratory - aimed at enhancing Slovakia's standing in the international community instead of empowering the Romani minority with a substantive voice in policy making.
A fundamental criticism of both the Slovak and the Hungarian styles of addressing Roma is that specific "ethnic" institutions may empower the Roma with a limited degree of influence, but do not at all foster, and possibly even hinder, Romani participation in the central areas of policy making. Implementing group-specific measures in itself does not reduce the barrier between Romani and non-Romani politicians; it may actually institutionalise this barrier instead. Under the current circumstances, the existing distrust between Romani and non-Romani politicians is not likely to disappear because Roma widely suspect that government initiatives have been induced by considerations other than a specific concern for enhancing the situation of the Roma.
Although a different approach to minority rights underlies the Slovak and Hungarian ways of facilitating Romani political participation, one can observe certain similar trends in the two countries. Both approaches have commonly organised a form of guaranteed group representation through administrative political institutions. There are certainly positive points to be made about this. For example, Gypsy local self-governments in Hungary can in theory serve as a source of civic education for many Roma who would not have the possibility to achieve this in other public bodies. Likewise, the Slovak Government Commissioner will in theory draw the attention of appropriate ministries to issues important to Romani communities.
While these measures are perhaps commendable from these latter points of view, they do not actually guarantee that Romani interests will effectively be protected. Moreover, these forms of special representation become problematic when they are seen as the only measures suited to overcome under-representation. As an exploration of the political discourse on the "Roma problem" shows, under-representation is clearly linked to a generally dominant negatively-loaded image of Roma and the Romani politician. Therefore it is crucial to oppose unequivocally the dominant stereotypical understanding of Romani identity, because it is this prejudice that prevents Roma from gaining broader political support. Special representation without at the same time correcting popular stereotypes may be counterproductive. It can simply be invoked by mainstream political parties as a reason for not taking the Romani perspective into account. It can also serve as an excuse for not including Roma in mainstream political parties. It is therefore likely that Romani activists will only be able to influence policy when problems of prejudice and racism are more successfully addressed by the state and when different mainstream political parties will be more inclusive towards Romani politicians and more sensitive to the Romani perspective.
- Peter Vermeersch is Research Assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research Flanders at the University of Leuven, Department of Political Science.
- The Hungarian parliament has to date not been able to agree on a procedure to ensure seats for minorities, despite a 1992 judgement of the Hungarian Constitutional Court that this legislative failure has produced an unconstitutional situation.
- The Federal Assembly ceased to exist following the split of the state.
- The seats of the 150-member Slovak National Council are distributed according to an electoral system based on proportional representation. There is a 5 percent parliamentary threshold for individual parties and a 7 to 10 percent threshold for electoral coalitions. Hungary has a mixed electoral system of proportional and majoritorian representation to fill the 386 seats in the Hungarian National Assembly. There is a 5 percent threshold to enter parliament through regional party lists on the principle of proportional representation.
- For example, in the run-up to the 1994 parliamentary elections in Slovakia, Meèiar publicly stated that financial loans would be made available to Romani politicians on the condition that they would form a united party. These propositions aroused mixed reactions since Meèiar had made statements before which were evidently anti-Romani. Apparently his Roma-friendly discourse was driven not by a concern for the minority itself but primarily by his desire to prevent other parties from attracting Romani voters. More than once, Meèiar referred to the Roma for his own political purposes. For example, on July 12, 1994, Meèiar said in an interview with the Austrian daily Die Presse that his party opposed a recently adopted law allowing the use of bilingual road signs because “it is concerned about the welfare of ethnic minorities.” According to Meèiar, the law was restrictive because it did not pay attention to the language of the Roma (reported by RFE/RL, July 13, 1994). This seemingly pro-Romani statement was at the same time also a clear anti-Hungarian one, and even an anti-minority statement. It used the case of the Roma to block pro-minority legislation of which many Roma, mainly those who are Hungarian-speaking, were supportive. The Hungarians are the largest and also the most politically organised minority group in Slovakia, constituting around 11 percent of the Slovak population.
- “Report submitted by the Slovak Republic pursuant to Article 25, paragraph 1 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”, Bratislava, May 1999. The report makes no mention of the annulment of the election of Romani mayor Marián Billý (ROI) in the north-eastern town of Petrová. Immediately after Mr Billý took office the local council in Petrová gave him a vote of non-confidence on the basis of a very questionable door-to-door petition. Re-election in September 1999 returned a non-Romani man as mayor (see Roma Rights, 1/2000; Michal Vašeèka, “The Roma”, in: Grigorij Mesežnikov et al., Slovakia 1998-1999. A Global Report on the State of Society, Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs, 1999, p.404).
- “Report of the Republic of Hungary. Implementation of the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”, Budapest, January 1999.
- For a further discussion of current concepts of “racism”, see Solomos, John and Les Back, Racism and Society, London: Macmillan, 1996, p.25-29.
- “We Are Not Racists, But We Do Not Like the Gypsies”, Central Europe Review, Vol. 2, No. 5, February 7, 2000.
- This is well illustrated by Gábor Bernáth and Vera Messing in their cogent analysis of the influence of mainstream media on the image of the Roma in Hungary, “Seen from Afar: Roma in the Hungarian Media”, in ERRC, Focus: Roma in Hungary. Published Materials 1996-1999, pp.75-82 and on the Internet at: http://errc.org/publications/indices/hungary.shtml.
- Quoted in Nozskai, Gábor, “Cigányok és pártok 1994”, Amaro Drom, No. 6, 1994. Csurka’s remark sounds especially cynical when considered against the background of results from a study of police attitudes in Hungary carried out by György Csepeli, Antal Örkeny and Mária Székelyi. The study found that Hungarian police officers widely believe that there is an explicit connection between crime and ethnicity. Fifty-four percent of the officers questioned reportedly stated that they believe a criminal way of life is a key element of Roma identity. See Csepeli, György, “Claimed Consensus as a Means of Justification of Hostile Stereotypes Against the Roma Minority among Hungarian Policemen”, Intermarium, Vol. 2, No. 3.
- See Šedivý, Vladimír, “Moricove rezervácie”, Pravda, August 5, 2000.
- The SNS hold 9.3 percent of seats in the Slovak parliament, the MIÉP holds currently 3.1 percent of seats in the Hungarian National Assembly.
- Jeszensky, Géza, “Story on Hungary’s Gypsies ‘Ill-informed, Malicious’”, The Washington Times, December 7, 1999.
- Reported by SITA on July 8, 1999.
- Nicholsonová, Lucia, “MP Suggests Roma ‘Solution’”, Slovak Spectator, January 24-30, 2000.
- Borszék, Peter, “Súvislosti etnickej èasovanej bomby”, Práca, 16 June 2000.
- The Prime Minister’s speech at a miners’ congress in Balatonfüred, reported in Népszabadság, November 28, 1997. See also RFE/RL Newsline, November 26, 1997.
- “Can Hungary Hug its Gypsies?”, The Economist, March 20, 1999, p.57.
- This initiative was not exclusively a matter of internal politics. The then incumbent government of premier Jószef Antall made the concern for Hungary’s co-ethnics in the neighbouring countries a crucial theme of its foreign policy strategy. Ostensibly, the domestic approach towards minorities served as a moral justification for Budapest’s critical stance towards Bratislava and Bucharest. Moreover, adoption of this legislation was unmistakably promoted by Hungary’s aspiration to join the European integration process. In 1993 the European Union had stated in its criteria for EU accession – the so-called Copenhagen criteria - that minority protection would serve as an EU entry requirement. Official documents concerning EU enlargement can be found on http://europa.eu.int/comm/enlargement/index.htm.
- For example, in the 1997 “Report No. J/3670 of the Government of the Republic of Hungary to the National Assembly on the situation of the national and ethnic minorities living in the Republic of Hungary” it is stated that the “Act on minorities (Act LXXVII of 1993) is of crucial importance in assisting the integration of the Gypsy minority into society.” It is also stated in this report that “With the exception of the Gypsies, the integration of the minorities into the social and economic life of the country is a completed process.”
- European Parliament, “Resolution on the Communication from the Commission ‘Agenda 2000 - for a stronger and wider Union’” (COM(97)2000 - C4-0371/97)
- For a critical analysis of the minority self-government system see Kovats, Martin, “Minority Rights and Roma politics in Hungary”, in Cordell, Karl, (ed.) Ethnicity and Democratisation in the New Europe, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 145-156.
- Only the liberal party SzDSz - one of the two governing parties in the 1994-1998 government - has stated in its 1997 Congress Decisions that “the future of the Gypsies is the responsibility of Gypsies as well: any governmental policy can only succeed if it builds on the will, opinion and communal participation of the Gypsies”. SzDSz hereby emphasises the responsibility of the Roma, but fails to offer any plan on how to make Roma participation structurally possible.