Smoke and mirrors: Roma and minority policy in Hungary

07 November 2001

Claude Cahn1

Hungary prides itself not merely on having effective minority policy, but on having actually broken new ground in the field of minority rights - of being, among European states, the minority avant-garde. The centerpiece of the edifice about which Hungarian government officials ritually boast in international fora is Act LXXVII of 1993, the so-called "Minorities Act". The Minorities Act establishes 13 minorities in Hungary - Armenians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Germans, Greeks, Poles, Romanians, Ruthenes, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Ukrainians and "Gypsies"2 The Minorities Act secures rights to the use of minority languages, educational activity, "cultural autonomy" and the right to maintain links with the state and communal institutions of the "mother" country or language group. In institutional terms, the act has given rise to "local minority self-governments" and "national minority self-governments", advisory bodies to local governments and the national government respectively, of which, as of June 30, 2000, there were over 13003 This paper will argue that while the 1993 act has been somewhat beneficial - especially in highlighting the existence of certain minorities in Hungary and thereby promoting, to a very limited extent, multiculturalism - the act has at the same time reified the exclusion of non-white minorities in Hungary, most notably the now numerically significant groups of various Arab, African, Turkish, Chinese and Vietnamese peoples in Hungary. Additionally - and more centrally for the purpose of this paper - the Minorities Act has set up an institutional framework largely inappropriate for addressing the situation of Roma ("Gypsies")4; who face basic human rights issues in Hungary due to high levels of discrimination, intense anti-Romani sentiment and near full exclusion in some areas, often as a direct result of government policies in other areas5.

Minorities in Hungary and Roma

Hungary has geopolitical reasons for providing a strong minorities framework: As a result of the international agreements which ended World War I - most notably the domestically notorious 1920 Treaty of Trianon - territories which had historically fallen under the government of Hungarian rulers, and which belonged in the popular imagination to an "historic Hungary", were stripped from Hungarian control and allotted to other states, under whose governance they have remained ever since, except during World War II. The territories of Transylvania, parts of the Banat, Transcarpathia, all of Slovakia, Vojvodina, Burgenland and parts of Slovenia and Croatia, are now located in the countries bordering Hungary - Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. All of those countries have Hungarian minorities - in the case of Romania over two million - and many of these Hungarian communities are geographically concentrated. Nationalism has been a marked feature of Hungarian political life in the post-1989 era, especially under the 1990-1994 government of Jozsef Antall and the present coalition government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power since 1998, and relations with neighbouring states have often been precarious over the issue of the Hungarians abroad6. Until recently, Hungary maintained geographic limitations on the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the 1951 Geneva Convention), recognising only "European" refugees. In practice, non-Hungarians are rarely recognised as refugees in Hungary7.

At the same time, there are no minorities in Hungary that raise any sort of serious internal geopolitical threat to the Hungarian state. The Slovak, Romanian and Serb minorities are present in nowhere near as significant numbers as the Hungarian minorities of those countries. There are not one but two minorities of political significance to Ukraine, since the Slavs near the Ukrainian border with seeming cultural links to Transcarpathia do not regard themselves as "Ukrainians" but rather as "Ruthenes"8; the "Ukrainian" minority number several hundred, their inclusion in the Minorities Act was reportedly at the insistence of the Ukrainian government, and they are widely held to be comprised entirely, or almost entirely, of embassy staff and stranded Soviet-era bureaucrats. The Germans, although numerically more significant - over 30,000 persons claimed to be German in the 1990 census and according to government sources the real number may be possibly around 200,000 - for the most part do not speak German and in any case are not a potential ethnic fifth column in the same sense as the approximately two million Hungarians of Transylvania9. Also, due especially to western-oriented sympathies, desire to join European structures and a common history in two World Wars, friction between Hungary on the one hand, and Germany and Austria on the other, has been virtually non-existent10.

It was in the context of achieving international pressure on neighbouring states - especially Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia - that the Minorities Act was conceived and adopted. The Romani issue had not yet achieved the international profile in 1993 that it has today. Indeed, early drafts of the law envisioned protection only to "national minorities" - to the exclusion of Roma - and Romani organisations had to lodge strenuous protest to be included in the law at all11.

The effects of the 1993 act on Roma in Hungary

The Minorities Act is less than a decade old, and the jury is still out on its full effects, especially with respect to Roma. Viewed through the prism of other minorities, it can be seen that the Minorities Act has had a number of beneficial effects. To take just one example, the Lutheran Gymnazium in Buda is a gem, both rendered explicitly legal and provided with support as a result of the Minorities Act. The German minority has secured state-funding, is assured that the (substantial) support they receive from German state programs for the Gymnazium is fully legal and in no way viewed as treasonous, and indeed has developed a bilingual school to which many middle-class Hungarians aspire to send their children: Germany, Germans and the German language are for the most part highly respected in today's Hungary12.

The Roma, however, are for the most part not a group seeking to add cultural cache to a comfortable middle class status. Far from it. Unemployment among Roma runs at 70-100 percent in some parts of the country - notably the northeast. Layoffs, due to restructuring of the Hungarian economy from heavy industry and policies of full employment, began in the mid-1980s and were very disproportionately Romani. Today, towns such as Miskolc, Ozd and Salgotarjan, in Hungary's northern industrial belt, have large populations of Roma, many of whom have not had a job in over a decade.

Deprivation, poverty and chronic unemployment are not the only issues separating Roma from other "minority groups" in Hungary. The Roma of Hungary are a diverse set of communities and individuals for whom many of the provisions of the Minorities Act must be flexed considerably in order to be rendered applicable. Take the right to communicate with the state and communal institutions of the "mother" country or language group; not only is there no Romani state and only meager communal institutions - located in no "mother" country13, but indeed, language itself is a matter of dispute. This brings us to another central tenet of the Minorities Act, concerning rights with respect to the use of mother tongue. Over 70 percent of the Romani population of Hungary speaks Hungarian as a home language. The remaining Roma speak not one but two non-Hungarian languages: up to 15 percent speak Romani, most of these the Vlach Lovara dialect; another possibly 15 percent of Roma/Gypsies in Hungary speak, in addition to Hungarian, Beash, an archaic form of Romanian.

It is for these reasons that many of the organisations addressing the needs of Roma in Hungary approach the issue only secondarily as an issue of minority rights, but primarily as a core of systemic discriminatory violations of basic human rights. The changes of 1989 were also accompanied by a wave of renewed anti-Romani sentiment, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism, as well as the destabilisation of the police. As a result, Hungary witnessed, throughout the 1990s, high levels of police abuse, racially-motivated crime and several episodes of community violence against Roma. Perhaps most disturbing has been the rise of local groups called "civil guards" (polgarsag); these are local chapters of a nationwide umbrella non-governmental organisation, the members of which provide a rudimentary policing function, but are not at all bound by standards of training or disciplinary codes expected of the police. One local lawyer and expert on policing in Hungary has described the civil guards as a "quasi-fascist group" and raids of Romani houses by civil guards have in many instances resembled summary mob justice14.

In the face of the steady brutalisation of Hungary's public life, as well as the growing infection of racism, authorities have remained generally passive: Hungary lacked a legal provision that could be used against racially motivated crime until 1996. Since then, the new provision - Article 174B of the Hungarian penal code - has rarely been applied, and the first known case of its use in a case in which Roma had been victimized was in September 2001. The head of the Hungarian police could not adequately answer the question, posed by the author, of whether any instructions at all had been issued to police officers as to how to investigate racially motivated crime15. Concerning non-violent discrimination more generally, Hungary lacks adequate legal provisions16, and although there are widespread allegations of discrimination and segregation in the fields of education, housing, employment, and the provision of social services and health care, few have been sentenced and remedies are often inadequate.

The most recent serious threat to the human rights situation of Roma in Hungary has taken place in the field of housing. The government passed an amendment to legal provisions on illegal occupants ("squatters") in March 2000 and the law went into effect in May. From mid-May 2000, local authorities were no longer forced to seek a court order before evicting illegal occupants; evictions in such cases can now be ordered by a notary (jegyzo), an assistant to the mayor. Notary-ordered evictions must be implemented by police within eight days, and appeals against them do not stay the expulsion; it is now possible for a person to be evicted from her home and to be homeless for over a year (given present court back-logs) before a court rules on the legality of the eviction. The law includes provisions to rehouse evicted furniture, but not evicted people. In addition, the Constitutional Court ruled in late 2000 that the right to housing is not a fundamental right in Hungary, and therefore the new law was not in violation of the Constitution. Homelessness - including Romani homelessness - is now rising visibly in Hungary. Although there is no data on evictions by ethnicity17, most independent observers believe that evictions are being implemented disproportionately, and probably dramatically so, against Roma, and that many local authorities have taken advantage of the law simply to remove Roma. Drastic cases that have thus far come to light include Ozd, where local authorities published in a local newspaper their intent to expel every one of the over 100 predominantly Romani families living in the run-down turn-of-the-century blocks of flats at the lower numbers of Arpad Vezer Road, in order to make room for young middle- and upper-income couples, purportedly poised to move to depressed Ozd once proper housing is made available18. In the process of early evictions, authorities reportedly expelled one man from a flat that he owned, and set a number of other persons on the street on grounds that they owed money from a common water meter. Other individual cases coming to the attention of the European Roma Rights Center and other organisations indicate that the scope of what is now considered to be "illegal tenancy" is extremely broad and open to abuse by local authorities - including cases in which Roma can demonstrate having paid rent and utilities in full for a number of years, but have failed to secure a written contract from the landlord, usually the local authority itself. Winter 2000-2001 was the first year without an informal eviction-stop in place during the winter months. One additional effect of the new legal provisions is that they appear likely to trigger a new wave of the removal of children from family care and their placement in state institutions19.

Since the Minorities Act is ill-suited to address issues of fundamental human rights abuse, the government has recently begun arguing that the function of the act, where Roma are concerned, is to integrate them into the political process, as well as to educate them on representing minority interests. According to a recent publication of the Hungarian government's Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, for example:

As a result of increased public participation, Roma participation in public affairs was further strengthened, and the means whereby their political interests could be realised were employed with even greater efficiency during the 1998 local minority self-government elections. The number of local minority self-governments nearly doubled in comparison with the previous term. Seven hundred and fifty-three local Roma minority self-governments operate within the 1,367 local and nine municipal minority self-governments established after the elections. This means that today nearly 3,000 Roma have a role in public affairs at local level20.

The idea that, where Roma are concerned, minority self-governments are not about cultural rights, but rather about training in civic participation, is compelling. However, it raises the question of how long the Romani leadership will accept the tawdry version of participation afforded by the Minorities Act. Local minority self-governments have no vote in the local council. Article 29 of the Minorities Act states that, in issues relating to local public education, media, culture and language, decisions can be made only with the agreement of the local minority self-government, but there is no effective legal recourse where a local government does not do this. Where local minority self-governments oppose the actions of local governments, they can appeal to the county administration (kozigazgatasi hivatal), like any citizen. However, according to the present division of powers, this office is largely ineffective at striking down local legislation. Another avenue of appeal leads through the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities - an office whose powers are limited and do not include over-ruling local ordinances. The National Minority Self-Government, meanwhile, can only "comment" on legislation of relevance to the minority.

Apart from those who have secured election, few think the procedures for choosing minority representatives are adequate. Anyone may vote in a local minority election, raising the prospect of local minority representatives being elected on the strength of votes from the majority population. One commonly cited example in this respect is the legend of the Serb elected to head the local Croatian minority self-government (by the majority Hungarian electorate). Concerning Roma, the fish stinks: the Szolnok-based national organization Lungo Drom, under the leadership of Mr Florian Farkas, has managed to win all of the 53 seats on the National Gypsy Minority Government (now called "The National Gypsy Government") in 1994 and 1999 - the two elections that have thus far been held. The 1994 elections were actually held in Szolnok, but since that raised some eyebrows, the 1999 elections were moved to Budapest, where counting behind closed doors produced the following result: The first 53 places for the 53 seats in the National Gypsy Government went to Lungo Drom candidates, with opposition candidates coming in at numbers 54 and 55.


Beginning in 1997, Hungarian Roma began to flee to Canada and apply for asylum, and some of them - around 20 percent at present - have been recognised as deserving refugee status. In an era in which the right to asylum everywhere has been rolled back to its bare bones, with governments particularly loath to provide refugee status to persons claiming asylum on grounds of ethnic persecution, since there is a danger that the case in question will be indistinguishable from hundreds of thousands of other such claims, this has proved embarrassing for the Hungarian government.

The embarrassment of the Hungarian government has not to date, however, compelled Hungarian lawmakers to supplement their "minority rights" based approach with policies and laws addressing the basic human rights situation of Roma in Hungary and, especially, the role of discrimination. It is widely rumoured that, for the past year, Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities Jeno Kaltenbach has been fighting a (thus far losing) battle with the Ministry of Justice to introduce amended draft legislation against discrimination. The commissioner is rumoured to favour comprehensive legislation - in line with contemporary international trends - while the Ministry of Justice appears to favour a mildly strengthened version of the present, unsatisfactory, hodge-podge of weak provisions scattered throughout Hungarian administrative, civil and penal law. The government has also broadly failed to make any inroads into the high levels of anti-Romani sentiment in Hungary or to amend a national school curriculum blind to diversity and thick with monochrome Hungarian ideology.

A sudden change of approach by the Hungarian government - unlikely in the extreme given the present occupants of public office - will not yield immediate results. Many of the issues burdening Romani/non-Romani relations in Hungary are the legacies of centuries of ingrained prejudice and crude forced assimilation policies of the past. Nevertheless, there is not, in fact, another road to go down. The main question is whether Hungarian authorities will begin now to address the burden of historic anti-Gypsyism in Hungary, or whether they will wait for the situation to deteriorate further.


  1. Claude Cahn is Research and Publications Director of the ERRC and Editor of Roma Rights. Dr Lilla Farkas and Orsolya Szendrey generously offered comments on drafts of this article. Versions of the article have appeared previously in English in Der Donauraum and in Hungarian in Fundamentum.
  2. During the drafting procedure, the Chinese embassy reportedly lobbied for the inclusion of a Chinese minority in the Act and were refused; the Hungarian Jewish community was reportedly approached and invited to seek minority status and declined.
  3. According to the Hungarian government website, as of June 30, 2000, there were 1,339 local minority self-governments, of which 738 were Gypsy minority self-governments (see
  4. The self-identifying term is disputed in Hungary, with, broadly, many individuals from the Hungarian Romani group (“Rumungre”, or “Ungriko Roma”) embracing the official term “cigány” (“Gypsy”), and many Roma from the “Vlachiko” or “Lovara” group rejecting the term and espousing the autochonous and more internationally espoused “Roma”. A third major group, the “Beash”, uses generally “Beash Gypsies”, i.e., leaning more toward usage of the former sort. These tendencies are by no means universal, however, and it is possible to hear individuals use “Beash Roma” or “I am Romani from the Beash group”, etc.
  5. This paper will not address the Hungarian government’s “Medium Term Strategy for Roma”, adopted in 1997 and amended in 1999. While this program has provided important funding to many programs, it is the central contention of this paper that conceptual problems in the Hungarian government’s approach are best viewed by scrutinizing that approach in its purest form. Hence the limited space afforded here to the Minorities Act and its deficiencies.
  6. Especially Slovakia during Vladimir Meèiar, Romania prior to Emil Constantinescu (from 1996) and any time Cluj mayor and demagogic Romanian nationalist Gheorghe Funar has actively provoked local Hungarians; Ukraine intermittently, but especially during periods when starvation appeared realistically to threaten; and Yugoslavia during periods when the government has levied for war, during the NATO bombing, and discussions of the status of Kosovo, when the Hungarian Foreign Ministry pressed the U.S. government to put the status of Vojvodina up for discussion. Recently Hungarian government officials have been loud proponents of the idea that “the future of Europe is without borders”, presumably meaning not quite exactly what the Schengen countries envisage.
  7. The geographic limitation was lifted as of March 1, 1998; non-governmental organisations working in the field of asylum regard Hungarian asylum practice as, in general, very restrictive.
  8. The Ruthenian identity is a legacy of 18th and 19th century Austro-Hungarian policies aimed at dissuading Eastern Slavic speakers from loyalty to Moscow.
  9. 37,511 persons in Hungary stated that German was their native language in the 1990 census, although only 30,824 stated that they were ethnic Germans. According to Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities Jenõ Kaltenbach, the German minority of Hungary comprises 200,000-220,000 individuals (Kaltenbach, Jenõ, “Legal Status of Minorities in Hungary”, Acta Universitatis Szegediensis de Attila József Nominatae, 1997, p.38).
  10. Indeed, during Austria’s recent isolation as a result of the entry of Jörg Haider into government in early 2000, the Hungarian government conspicuously did not take part in bilateral diplomatic sanctions.
  11. On the issue of the inclusion of Roma in the Minorities Act, see Schafft, Kai, “Local Minority Self-Governance and Hungary’s Roma”, Hungarian Quarterly, Volume XL, No. 155, Autumn 1999, on the Internet at: According to the 1990 census, there are 142,683 Gypsies in Hungary, constituting 1.37 percent of the general population. Even the most casual observers believe this is a dramatic undercount due in part to the stigma of the Romani identity and in part to resistance on the part of census-takers to register Roma as such. A publication by Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities Jenõ Kaltenbach estimates the true figure to be 400,000-600,000 (Kaltenbach, Op. cit., p.37). Some Romani representatives claim that the real number is even higher.
  12. As of 1997, according to Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities Jenõ Kaltenbach, “The number of German kindergartens is 198, the number of schools is 258. Nine of these are high schools that are either independent or have nationality branches” (Kaltenbach, Op. cit., p.21).
  13. Again, by contrast with the Germans, Hungary’s second largest minority, as of 1997, “more than 100 settlements have their partner town or partner village in Germany and Austria. The connection is especially intensive with the province of Baden-Württemberg” (Kaltenbach, Op. cit., p.5).
  14. On police abuse, racially motivated crime, abuses by civil guards, and judicial remedy of violent abuses of Roma, see Hungary Index, Internet website of the European Roma Rights Center at:, as well as “White Booklets” published yearly by the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI), available from: NEKI, H-1537 Budapest 114, P.O. Box 453/269, Hungary.
  15. See “‘An Average Police Department’: The ERRC Discusses the Hajdúhadház Police Department with the Head of the Hungarian Police”, Roma Rights 3/99, on the Internet at:
  16. As of the date of this writing, November 30, 2001, Hungarian legislation against discrimination fell drastically short of the European Union Directive 2000/43/EC, “implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin” (known generally as the “Race Equality Directive”). The Race Equality Directive is available on the Internet at: For information on government measures necessary to fulfill the requirements of the Race Equality Directive, see especially:
  17. Under Hungary’s data protection law, gathering data according to ethnicity is perceived as illegal in Hungary, absent the expressed written consent of the person concerned. Nevertheless, state authorities have requested and kept ethnic data in a number of instances, for example, as it pertains to central budgetary support for minority education. In general, the argument that gathering ethnic data in Hungary is illegal is used primarily to thwart the efforts of civil organisations and independent researchers to show patterns of discrimination.
  18. Ózd, in Hungary’s northeast, suffers from high unemployment, and most young professionals leave to seek opportunities in Budapest. The effort at gentrification — if undertaken in good faith — appears to be primarily motivated by wishful thinking on the part of authorities.
  19. From the 18th century, Hungary has practiced invasive state policies against Romani families, one source of the deep hostility with which many Roma view state officials, especially social workers, and the origin of the idea that non-Roma “steal children”. Invasive practices were especially developed under communism, and many elderly and middle-age Roma living today lost entire families because social workers regarded them as incapable of caring for their own children. In 1997, Hungary adopted children’s rights legislation harmonizing Hungarian law to international standards, whereby rights proceed “from the best interests of the child”. Recent developments appear to have crippled the positive impact of the 1997 law.
  20. Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, Measures Taken by the State to Promote the Social Integration of Roma Living in Hungary, Budapest: 2000, p.31.


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