| SELF-GOVERNMENT IN HUNGARY:THE ROMANI/GYPSY EXPERIENCEAND PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE |
Hungary's system of self-governments for the country's national and ethnicminorities has been viewed by many as a bold and innovative experiment.Particularly with respect to the plight of the Roma/Gypsy-where there islittle debate that their integration into the social, political, andeconomic fabric of the country is far less advanced than is the case forother minorities in Hungary-the system intended to offer hope throughminority empowerment. From May 9 to May 11, 1997, a workshop entitled "TheRomani/Gypsy Self-Government System in Hungary: Experience and Prospects forthe Future" was held in Budapest, Hungary. Co-sponsored by the Project onEthnic Relations, the Council of Europe, the Office of the Prime Minister ofHungary, and the Hungarian National Gypsy Self-Government (NGSG), theworkshop sought to assess the system of self-government in Hungary.
Using this opportunity to pause and evaluate Hungary's system of minorityself-governments was significant on two levels. First, it reinforced theshared desire to improve minority rights and to establish and refinemechanisms to protect individual self-expression, cultural identity, andminority rights. Second, it underscored the fact that the efforts todevelop and enhance these mechanisms are not necessarily inherentlyantagonistic to the larger goals of the societies in which the minoritieslive. Discussions that are candid and open, as well as inclusive, arelikely to provide movement toward these goals. At the same time, thesediscussions offer the possibility of extending their benefits beyond theparticulars of the Roma toward the universal issues that are represented bytheir case.
The workshop addressed several key issues, such as: What are the principlesand the legal framework that constitute the basis for the self-governmentsystem in Hungary? What are its accomplishments and its shortcomings? Howwidely is it accepted? To what extent do national and local Romaniself-governments, the Hungarian national government, local authorities, andRomani nongovernmental organizations collaborate, and how effective is theircollaboration? The workshop also explored ways to improve the training ofofficials in local self-government and of those in the central governmentwho deal with Romani issues.
To consider these questions, the meeting brought together an assemblage ofindividuals uniquely positioned to offer insights from their ownexperience--Roma and non-Romani international officials, experts, andpractitioners. Afterward, a series of discussions and interviews wasorganized with local authorities and leaders of self-government in thefield. This allowed workshop participants to witness first-hand therealities of the NGSG system.
This report presents a summary of the discussions held during the four daysof meetings. The report was prepared by Peter Priadka of the PER Bratislavaoffice, and edited by Warren Haffar of PER's Princeton staff and Robert A.Feldmesser, PER's Senior Editor. The participants have not reviewed thetext, for which PER assumes full responsibility.
Livia B. Plaks, Executive Director
Princeton, New Jersey
A note on terminology
Gypsy is an English term used to denote ethnic groups formed by thedispersal of commercial, nomadic, and other groups from within India,beginning in the tenth century, and their mixing with European and othergroups during their diaspora. The terms Gypsy and the several Europeanvariants of Tsigan are considered by many to be pejorative and are oftenreplaced by the more neutral term Roma. However, because Gypsy is widelyused in Hungary, the two terms are used together in this report. Thus,Roma/Gypsies refers to the group as a whole, and Romani/Gypsy is thecorresponding adjective.
The position of minorities in Hungarian society is defined by Article 68 ofthe country's constitution and by the amendment adopted in 1990. Minoritiesare guaranteed the rights to participate in public life, to establish localand national minority self-governments, to use their own language, toreceive school instruction in the mother language, and to use their ownfamily and birth names.
The Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities Act, passed by the parliamenton July 7, 1993, guarantees to the thirteen minorities living in Hungary theright to personal autonomy and the right to establish local and nationalminority self-governments. This act explicitly includes the Roma/Gypsiesamong the thirteen recognized national and ethnic minorities.1 Although therights of national and ethnic minorities are the same, the Roma/Gypsies areregarded as an ethnic minority because they meet the following criteria:
The act permits any minority group that is not listed in the act to applyfor recognition as a minority.2 In cases where a significant number ofinhabitants belong to a minority, the establishment of settlement-levelminority self-governments offers minorities the opportunity to exerciserights that are equivalent to those that come with territorial autonomy.Because local and national minority self-governments are elected bodies,their establishment has solved the problem of the lack of legitimacy thathad characterized the old nationality associations. They are partners ofmunicipalities at the local level and of the legislature and executive atthe national level. Minority legislation and the system of minorityself-governments have brought the minority issue back in from the peripheryof public life.
Accommodation for each minority self-government is granted by thegovernment, typically in the form of office space for headquarters. Suchaccommodation must be provided by the municipalities, though they arereimbursed for doing so by the national government. Minorityself-governments also receive an operating budget, in the form either of atransfer of assets, the amount of which is guaranteed by law, or ofsubsidies from the national budget. According to a recent Hungariangovernment report, however, minority self-governments at the national leveland even more so those at the local level are not adequately preparedprofessionally for their role in the decision-making process which isgranted to them by the legislation.3
A representative of the Council of Europe welcomed the participants andstressed that the system of self-government for minorities in Hungary hasattracted great interest because it goes well beyond the minority policiesof other countries. It is a bold, innovative experiment, he continued, thatis not easy to implement, because it involves some fairly complicatedadministrative problems. He added that other Europeans are keenly followingHungary's efforts to see how the system is working and how it might beapplied in their own countries.
PER's Executive Director stressed that the aim of the workshop was toexamine the pros and cons of this remarkable experiment. Both the nationaland local self-governments bear a great responsibility, she continued;adequate funding and cooperation between Romani self-governments and Romanileaders are among the most important factors in determining its ultimatesuccess. Finally, she expressed PER's pleasure at being one of the sponsorsof the workshop.
A representative of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities of theGovernment of Hungary welcomed the participants and stressed their jointresponsibility to the people of Romani/Gypsy origin, who face many problemsand disadvantages in comparison with other people. She also expressedsincere gratitude to the Council of Europe and to PER for providing theopportunity to convene the workshop in Budapest.
A representative of the Hungarian National Gypsy Self Government (NGSG) alsowelcomed the participants, especially the representatives of Romani/Gypsyself-governments from various regions of Hungary. He stressed that theworkshop provided an opportunity to further develop international relationsby working together to address the needs of national and ethnic minoritiesthat are shared by all countries in the region.
The State Secretary at the Prime Minister's Office spoke about the legalframework of the minority self-government system. He said that Hungary hadso far implemented only about one-quarter of the necessary framework for thesystem. Minority self-governments have been created, and the presentlegislation provides a solid ground for them to be effective. The legalframework for Hungary's thirteen minorities, he stated, was created by theRights of National and Ethnic Minorities Act, which was based on theprinciple of personal autonomy. He acknowledged that the Hungarian systemis not without its problems. For example, anybody who is registered to votemay do so in elections for local minority self-governments, regardless ofhis or her ethnic identity. This means that some local minorityself-governments can be elected by a majority of voters who are not, infact, members of the minority community in the region. He pointed to somestriking examples of this, such as the case of a Serb being elected to theCroatian minority self-government.
The State Secretary emphasized that although the legal framework has beencreated, a viable system to provide financial support for it has not.Minority self-governments need both legal and financial guarantees.Financial backing is of particular importance for the Romani/Gypsy minorityand their self-governments, because they face the worst social crises andthe worst unemployment rates of all the minorities. The Roma/Gypsies havesuffered greatly during the changes in recent years. Because of their lowlevel of education, they have been the principal victims of economicrestructuring. Since 1993, the government, together with the Office forNational and Ethnic Minorities and civic organizations, has providedassistance in order to train members of the community for public-serviceemployment. The Secretary stressed the need for an elite within thispopulation that would halt linguistic assimilation and preserve a distinctidentity. Quality housing and employment programs are also an absolutenecessity. In concluding, he said that the system of self-government mustbe based on a civil society and not be an administrative body only.
A member of the Hungarian parliament spoke about the first elections ofminority self-governments in Hungary, which took place in conjunction withmunicipal elections in the winter of 1994. He emphasized that non-membersof an ethnic group can and do participate in the ethnic minorityself-government elections. The original intention, he continued, was toestablish a Ministry of the Self-Governments as an umbrella organization forall minority self-governments at both the national and local levels,although this has not yet been done. He observed that the legal status ofminority self-governments is not yet clear, although their basic task is toorganize the activities of minorities and respond to the needs of thecommunity.
He stressed that the Roma/Gypsies constitute the largest minority in Hungary(approximately 560,000, of the country's total population of ten million)and that they face the worst social, employment, and educational problems.Because minority self-governments have taken over some of the tasks of localgovernment, close cooperation between municipalities and minorityself-governments is essential, especially in the matter of the distributionof social benefits. Nevertheless, this kind of cooperation is not common.While the problems of the different minorities in Hungary are not identical,the law does not draw any distinctions among them, and this often compoundsproblems. However, he said, the legal framework is becominginstitutionalized; the system has been developing naturally, and it willcontinue to develop if the state provides the necessary financing. Thestate has allocated 258 million forints from the state budget for minorityself-governments.4 Some minority self-governments, he said, want to havefull-time staffs and ethnic-minority politicians.
Nevertheless, he went on, the main objective of the minority self-governmentsystem is the preservation of the distinct identities of the minorities, andthe traditions and cultures of minorities are based on language as a carrierof identity. Many minorities in Hungary-such as the Germans, the Croats,and the Slovaks-have already lost their language, and it is now too late topreserve their linguistic traditions. Nevertheless, he emphasized, thegeneral preservation of their identity is a goal of very high priority, anda satisfactory solution to achieve it must be devised.
Another representative of the Office for National and Ethnic Minoritiesspoke about the financing of minority self-governments. Municipalities,highly autonomous structures whose activities are not subordinated to otherlevels of government, are responsible for such basic matters as the communalinfrastructure and the provision of safe drinking water. He stressed thatminority self-governments have taken over a mix of responsibilities fromboth the local municipalities and the central government. Given theirmandates, they should be guaranteed an appropriate level of funding, whetherfrom governmental subsidies, municipal subsidies, domestic or foreignfoundations, or a foreign country, if the minority has a mother countryabroad.
The problem with financing, he explained, stems in part from the nature ofthe electoral system. The government of Hungary has no idea of the exactnumbers of minorities, because all eligible voters can vote for minorityself-governments. Minority self-governments are partly funded by subsidiesfrom the central state budget twice a year. Municipalities are alsoobligated to support minority self-governments, but the amount of money thatshould be granted is a matter of some dispute.
The government of Hungary is providing assistance to municipalities that donot have adequate means of financing minority self-governments. Accordingto the representative; the state budget of 1996 for the first time includeda separate section for minority self-governments, and there are publicfoundations for funding various minority projects. Minorityself-governments, he emphasized, should be fully integrated into the publicfunding systems. However, there is mistrust about issues of financialmanagement, partly due to the fact that nobody knows exactly how nationalminority self-governments are using public funds. Compounding the problem,he said, the NGSG sometimes refuses to submit to financial audits, claiming,as it did in 1995, that such audits undermined its autonomy.
Discussion of funding issues continued, as another participant spoke aboutthe activities of the Public Foundation for the Roma in Hungary. Heexplained that this foundation is supported by taxpayers and its funds areearmarked for programs that foster the integration of the Romani/Gypsypopulation into Hungarian society. Representatives of the ministries, ofself-governments, and of various counties are all included on thefoundation's board. In June 1996, a total of seventy million forints wasallocated to improve housing and living conditions, through loans andvarious other programs of support; forty million was granted to Romanientrepreneurs in the form of interest-free start-up loans; twenty millionwas provided as scholarships and grants for students (assistance to childrenwho are starting their schooling is the most popular program); and tenmillion was made available for media and legal advocacy. The participantemphasized that the government should cooperate more closely with the PublicFoundation for the Roma in Hungary.
One of the representatives of the Office for National and Ethnic Minoritiesspoke about the activity of the Public Foundation for National and EthnicMinorities in Hungary. This foundation was established in January 1995, shesaid, with funding of four hundred million forints, partly provided by theOffice for National and Ethnic Minorities. Its goals, she continued, are toprovide financial support to minorities for education; religious activitiesin the native language; publication of literature, newspapers, and magazines(in 1996, the foundation supported three journals for the Romani/Gypsyminority); and the production of documentary films and other culturalprograms. Financial assistance is also being provided for professionaltraining, for the building and strengthening of relations with mothercountries, and for research on folklore and folk music. The foundation, shenoted, has received over eight thousand applications. She stressed that 37percent of the budgeted funds went to Romani/Gypsy applicants. In addition,the foundation provided scholarships and fellowships for 670 Roma/Gypsies insecondary schools and for about 100 studying at the university level.
Implementation of the Law on Minorities
The participant from the Gypsy Research Center in Paris presented a report,originally prepared for the Council of Europe in 1996, suggesting that muchremains to be done to meet the goals of the Rights of National and EthnicMinorities Act, particularly regarding the Romani/Gypsy communities. Heemphasized that it would be to Hungary's credit if, having adopted this act,it did everything in its power to ensure its implementation. Otherwise,there is a risk that the act would become a mere facade behind which theconditions of minorities, especially those in difficult situations, like theRoma/Gypsies, would degenerate further still.
There are serious gaps in the knowledge of those in charge of applying theact, he continued, and better training programs must be developed. Theprovisions in section 17 of the act guarantee to minorities the right toestablish self-governments at both the national and local levels. The firstelections leading to the establishment of minority local self-governmentstook place in December 1994, at the same time as the general localelections. Nationwide, minority candidates in the self-government electionspolled some 1,800,000 votes, a significant number of which were cast bymembers of the majority population who chose to support minoritycandidates. The NGSG was established in April 1995, as were nationalself-governments for other minorities. Its members have been elected mainlyby the representatives of local self-governments. At that time, there were416 local self-governments with a total 2,153 electors, 1,695 of whom votedto select 53 representatives from among 260 candidates. The coalitionformed by the Lungo Drom Gypsy Association received the overwhelmingmajority of the votes, winning all 53 seats on the NGSG.
The representative of the research center concluded by saying that theCouncil of Europe should help disseminate information about the NGSG systemthroughout Europe, because the plight of Romani/Gypsy communities, althoughcritical in Hungary, is difficult throughout the entire region. Compoundingthe problem is the fact that the Roma/Gypsies have no mother country to turnto, making it all the more important that international institutions usetheir authority to push for much-needed improvements. Development programsof the Council of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe, he added, shouldhelp to build and develop contacts among representatives at the local levelfrom among the Council of Europe's member states, and exchanges ofrepresentatives should be increased to help overcome the isolation of theRoma/Gypsies. Furthermore, these exchanges should offer training programsfor local authorities and representatives of municipalities. He stressedthat self-governments in Hungary, as well as municipalities in Hungariantowns and villages, should and could participate in this program.
Another participant from Western Europe spoke about the Norwegian experiencewith Sami self-government, the topic of a case study sponsored by theCouncil of Europe--Democracy, Human Rights, Minorities: Educational andCultural Aspects. She pointed out that there are many similarities betweenthe Roma/Gypsies in Hungary and the Sami in Norway: Both represent thelargest ethnic minority in their respective countries, and both have beentargets of assimilation and discrimination. Moreover, their socialsituation is significantly worse than that of the majority population oftheir countries. The system of Sami self-government in Norway has existedsince 1989, when a Sami Assembly was first established. The creation of aminority self-government system, she said, is an ongoing process in bothcountries. She emphasized the great responsibility borne by Norway andHungary as pioneers of a new model that will benefit both the minority andthe majority populations. The study referred to considers both the positiveaspects and the challenges of Sami self-government, and the Hungarianexperiment in minority self-government may well benefit from the Norwegianexperience. Some of the conclusions of the study are:Minority self-government has a positive effect on the experience of ethnicidentity of the minority as well as of the majority.Minority self-government may, however, provoke and mobilize otherminorities, or it may lead the majority to feel that its own position isthreatened.When the political situation offers possibilities for participation andinfluence through minority self-government, it should not be difficult torecruit outstanding politicians from the minority group.Clear and coherent policies from the central authority are necessary toavoid the creation of interethnic conflicts within a minorityself-government at the local level.Conditions of the ethnic and national minorities are affected byinternationalization and by the nation-state's role in internationalorganizations.Minority self-government in general presupposes qualified representatives;adequate training programs are therefore necessary.
Organization and Activities of the National Gypsy Self-Government
The President of the NGSG discussed the important political challenges thesystem presents for both the national government and the Roma/Gypsies. Heemphasized that every Hungarian county is represented in these structures;the NGSG has set up twenty-two offices in twenty counties. The NGSG, hesaid, should serve as a coordinating body and provide authority for localbranches. The legal framework would therefore have to be changed, becauseminority self-governments now have no functions other than cultural ones.
A representative from the NGSG described its organizational structure. Thesystem has fifty-three members, seven of whom are members of a presidium,consisting of the president, the vice-presidents, and the officialsresponsible for social policy, culture, and education. The NGSG has its ownoffice, with an office manager, an auditor, and experts in various fields,currently including sociology, psychology, and education. The NGSG makesproposals and recommendations to the government and the parliament regardinglegislation on Romani/Gypsy affairs. It has a special committee on housingaffairs and seeks to assist in alleviating the conditions of theunemployed. However, he explained, since the regional associations do nothave the necessary legal status, more effective coordination between theNGSG and local self-governments is lacking. The NGSG, he added, is alsoresponsible for building contacts and improving relations between theRomani/Gypsy population and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and thepolice.
He pointed to the particular problems of the settlements, where almost allresidents are uneducated and, as a result, unemployed. Many no longerreceive state subsidies and are unable to obtain bank loans for starting upsmall businesses. He said that more than 80 percent of the Roma/Gypsies endtheir schooling at age sixteen. He remarked that Hungarian society stillharbors a great deal of prejudice against Roma/Gypsies; NGOs and civicorganizations need to work more actively to overcome that prejudice.
Another participant mentioned that the Rights of National and EthnicMinorities Act has left many issues unresolved. For example, the legalposition of minority self-governments is unclear. The act has no provisionsfor implementation, and as a result, local representatives have to strugglefor acceptance in their communities. Because of this, municipalities arenot able to make effective decisions on Roma/Gypsy issues, either. Heexpressed the belief that new constitutional provisions were needed; thepresent constitution does not have rules against ethnic discrimination.Regarding funding, he suggested that the local self-governments receivedirect subsidies in the same way that municipalities do.
Another participant argued that the Public Foundation for the Roma inHungary does not have sufficient funding. Further, he pointed out, thereare 237 Romani/Gypsy organizations in Hungary, but they are allowed torepresent only their own members. However, self-governments can representthe approximately 60 percent of the Romani/Gypsy population in Hungary thatare unemployed.
The NGSG representative stressed that self-governments have been unable tofulfill their mandate themselves and lack the necessary power to pressurethe government to do it. Thus, the self-governments require greater autonomyto address the social problems that exist within the Romani/Gypsycommunities.
Another participant declared that the social situation of large Romani/Gypsyfamilies is especially bad. Citing his experience as a social worker, hesaid that the Roma/Gypsies in Hungary have been the biggest losers under thenew regime and that the political rights and freedoms they have gained donot make up for the discrimination and economic hardships they have had toendure. The present legislation, he said, is essentially useless. An NGSGrepresentative agreed that it is not sufficient to limit the discussion tothe legal and administrative aspects of the NGSG. He pointed out that theNGSG has received only 96 million forints, a very small sum in view of itsmandate.
Achievements and Shortcomings of the Minority Self-Government System
The representative of the Hungarian Parliamentary Commission for Nationaland Ethnic Minority Rights spoke about potential modifications of theminority self-government system, from the perspective of an ombudsman forminority rights. He stressed that there needs to be some possibility forthe national and ethnic communities in Hungary to become an integral part ofsociety, without having to assimilate. Such integration has two aspects:integration into the minority community and into society. It is necessary,he continued, to create a system that would enable minorities to protecttheir identities. Integration into society does not require melting intothe larger society. Hungary's experience with minority self-governmentcould be a model for other countries, but it should not be copieduncritically. It is necessary to create self-sufficient minoritycommunities with their own elites, which could represent their interests ina clearly defined way, in accordance with democratic principles and inpartnership with other segments of society.
In any case, he went on to say, the system of minority self-government hashelped to resolve the problem of legitimacy within minority groups in ademocratic way; their legitimacy can no longer be questioned, since theyhave been democratically elected. They can represent their communities andbuild them up from the grass roots. The existence of such representatives,he said, is justified only if they have the authority and capacity to dealwith community problems without recourse to extralegal or coercive methods.He stressed that Hungary is not and cannot become an ethnically homogeneouscountry; it is impossible to remove minorities, as many Hungarians seem towish, because 10 percent of the Hungarian population belongs to one minorityor another. He had recently submitted an interim report to the parliamenton the minority self-government system, in which he said that the systemrequires significant corrections and amendments.
He went on to say that self-government is a kind of autonomy, and every typeof autonomy includes three elements: structural, functional, and financial.If one of these elements is missing, it is impossible to speak aboutautonomy in any meaningful sense. But only one of these elements has reallybeen implemented in Hungary: the structural. Minority self-governments arelegal entities, organized by themselves and not by external forces, and theyare legally entitled to make some decisions. However, the other two elementsof autonomy do not exist in Hungary. There is no central coordination of theallocation of money for the more than 800 minority self-governments. It isnot even clear what kind of activities should be financed or how theirbudgets should be managed. A genuinely autonomous system cannot existwithout an autonomous system of financing.
Regarding the elections of minority self-governments, he said that theproblem of voter registration can be dealt with in one of two ways: byregistration by families who determine for themselves whether they belong toa minority, or by voluntary individual declaration of minority affiliation,which would mean, in effect, no registration. The second way is the currentsystem in Hungary; everybody who is eligible to vote is free to vote forminority self-governments as well. The representative also touched upon theissue of minority members in parliament. The Hungarian constitutionguarantees each of Hungary's thirteen minorities one parliamentary seat, butthis rule has encountered problems. According to a recent agreement amongparliamentary parties, every minority should get a mandate. However, it isstill not clear how minority representatives are to be elected.
A participant from Bulgaria made the point that the Hungarian system ofminority self-governments has both positive and negative aspects. On thepositive side, it helps to stem assimilation, and it revives culturalidentity. Language is one of the keystones of culture, he said, and the factthat 80 percent of the Romani/Gypsy people in Hungary do not speak theRomani language suggests that the Roma/Gypsies in Hungary have graduallyassimilated into the majority culture and that their identity is in theprocess of disintegration. The establishment of self-governments shouldhelp to stem this process by putting the problems of the Romani/Gypsy peopleon the public agenda. It will also give more Romani/Gypsy people theconfidence to identify as Roma/Gypsies.
A second positive aspect, he said, is the fact that the system has thepotential to address many of the problems of the community and to do so withthe participation of the Romani/Gypsy people themselves. The system couldput an end to the tradition of either ignoring minority problems or dealingwith them from the outside and making decisions without the participation ofminorities themselves. The system of self-government gives minority membersthe opportunity to take an active part in addressing the problems of theircommunity, instead of having programs imposed on them from above, withoutconsulting them. In this way, the Hungarian system gives minorities someconfidence that their problems are not being ignored and, by involving themin problem-solving, it develops leadership skills and provides experience.Communities need strong leadership to represent them and to be advocates oftheir interests and rights.
Among the negative aspects of the system, said the participant fromBulgaria, is that elections were not the appropriate procedure forestablishing the first NGSG, because many of those elected had had noexperience with Romani/Gypsy issues. The first step should have been theappointment of members to do preparatory work, consisting of public-opinionresearch to study attitudes toward the idea and how people viewed itseffectiveness. Other negative aspects of the system, he said, werethe lack of cooperation with the national government and NGOs, even thoughthey are working on the same problems and toward the same goals, and thefailure of the NGSG to identify its priorities or a long-term strategy forachieving them. Consequently, efforts are often misguided and limited toshort-term crisis management.
According to the Hungarian constitution, said this participant, "minoritiesare an indispensable part of the Hungarian people." But if the NGSG doesnot engage in greater cooperation with other institutions, the result willbe the segregation, not the integration, of the Romani/Gypsy community. Itwould be helpful to learn from the experience of other countries that aretrying to integrate their ethnic groups. For example, in the United States,a basic principle is the institutionalization of ethnic diversity. Thisprovides an opportunity for the representation of different interests andfor joint problem-solving through consensus and conflict prevention. Anissue that remains unresolved is the question of the legitimacy of the NGSGwithin the Romani/Gypsy community itself, as well as among the generalpublic. In addition, the internal organization of the NGSG needs to beassessed.
A participant from the Czech Republic stressed that the main problem of theRomani/Gypsy community in his town in the Czech Republic is that ofco-existence with the majority population. He said that the Hungarianmodel, where minorities have a right to establish self-governments, couldespecially serve as an example to other post-Communist countries. In theCzech Republic, he continued, the Roma have practically no chance to be elected to the nationalparliament. The Hungarian system gives minorities the possibility of havingtheir own representatives at the national level--people who can belegitimate negotiating partners in state institutions. He concluded byvoicing his skepticism about the possibility of establishing minorityself-governments in the Czech Republic.
Local Minority Self-Governments in Practice
A representative of the Regional Association of Local MinoritySelf-Governments from Zala County, in which 7 to 8 percent of the populationare Roma/Gypsies, spoke about their problems in that part of the country.The regional association consists of eight members, each of whom representsone local minority self-government. The most serious problems in the regionare education and unemployment. The social welfare system was not dealingadequately with these problems. The problem of financing, he continued,could be solved by enlisting the help of NGOs. He recommended that the lawon the rights of minorities be amended, and he concluded by calling on thoseat the national level of the NGSG to provide more support to those at thelocal level.
A representative of the regional association from Szabolcs-Szatmar-BeregCounty stated that his county is one of the most disadvantaged in Hungary.The regional association consists of thirty-five members from thirty-fiveminority self-governments, including the German and Slovakself-governments. He pointed out that more than two hundred people haveasked the association for assistance but, due to legislative shortcomingssuch as the fact that regional associations have no legal status, they havenot been able to provide more than legal assistance. He closed by sayingthat one of the most important problems of the Roma/Gypsies is the lack ofproper training; only 12 percent of the Romani/Gypsy population in thecounty have received proper training or education.
Representatives of local self-governments described their experiences. Oneof them pointed out that 80 percent of the Romani/Gypsy population cannotspeak the Romani language. Also, only twenty-five young Roma/Gypsies fromhis town have received any vocational training, and only one has attendedcollege. However, he expressed appreciation for the support received fromthe Hungarian population in his region. He said his region's localself-government meets weekly to discuss the problems of the varioussettlements and ways of providing help. He is also a member of themunicipal government, and in that capacity he expressed appreciation forthe financial support of the NGSG and the Ministry of Welfare. One problem,he noted, is that the Roma/Gypsies are sometimes unable to pay back theloans they have received.
Another participant spoke of the need for greater cooperation between theNGSG and both the municipalities and the NGOs. His self-government has fivecommittees for dealing with such problems as housing, living conditions,families, health care, and unemployment (the local unemployment rate amongthe Roma/Gypsies is about 95 percent).and their staffs try to provideappropriate assistance. He emphasized that every small success is theresult of a long and difficult effort. A colleague of his added that lifeexpectancy among the Roma/Gypsies is eight to ten years lower than among theHungarian population. Their level of education is very low. Immunizationprograms for children are insufficient; his local self-government is tryingto provide additional vaccinations.
A representative of a Budapest township mentioned that his self-governmenthas received more than two million forints in financial support from themunicipality and has even signed a financing agreement with it. Hisself-government also receives financial support from the Public Foundationfor the Roma in Hungary and from the Office for National and EthnicMinorities. The self-government provides financial assistance according to aplan that is drawn up at the beginning of each year. Aid is provided foreducation, for equipment for public schools, sports, and culture, and forthe development of settlements and housing. He expressed gratification atthe fact that the Romani/Gypsy community of his town had its own televisionand radio programs.
In addition, he said, the city of Budapest is extraordinarily important inthe NGSG system, because 10 percent of its population of two million areRoma/Gypsies. They have established self-governments in twenty of thecity's twenty-two townships. (Even before the minority self-governmentsystem was introduced, there was an independent Roma/Gypsy Minority Club.)The municipal authorities have signed several contracts with theself-governments and have provided them with rent-free office space and aroom for a theater. The municipal budget has a separate item for financingthe self-governments. Nevertheless, she emphasized the need for a moreempathic attitude toward the situation of the Roma/Gypsies.
A member of the Romani/Gypsy self-government from the same part of Budapestsaid that his self-government is in a very fortunate situation. Themunicipality in his district respects the right of veto over issuesaffecting the Romani/Gypsy community. This can be considered as tremendousprogress.
Romani/Gypsy Self-Governments and NGOs
A sharp division of opinion between the NGSG and Romani/Gypsy NGOs becameevident at the workshop, over such issues as these:Self-governments, as elected bodies, are legal representatives ofRoma/Gypsies, whereas NGOs have to fight for their legitimacy.The NGSG receives money directly from the state budget and other governmentbodies created to support the system, whereas NGOs have to struggle fortheir funding.The NGSG is dominated by members of the Lungo Drom organization. Activistsrepresenting numerous Romani/Gypsy NGOs are in opposition to it.The NGSG tends to monopolize all activities of Roma/Gypsies or at least tocontrol them. The NGOs thus feel threatened.
A member of an NGO called Romani Parliament stressed the fact that some ofhis colleagues were not allowed to participate in this workshop. Heconsidered this to be a telling example of the troubled relations betweenthe NGSG and other organizations. In his view, the main problems facing theRomani/Gypsy community in Hungary are poverty and long-term unemployment;the Hungarian government and national parliament, he said, are fullyresponsible for this state of affairs. The only way to achieve socialrights is to fight for them together with other groups of the populationwhose situation is similar to that of the Roma/Gypsies. Further, heexpressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the right of minorities tobe represented in the national parliament of Hungary had not yet beenfulfilled. The Roma/Gypsies, he stressed, are victims of the reformprocess, in part because they are excluded from the privatization program.He declared that the situation of the Roma/Gypsies in Hungary was muchbetter fifteen years ago; at that time, Roma/Gypsies could achieve much morethan they can now. Today, the only "right" the Roma/Gypsies have is theright to beg. To improve this situation, public life must be opened to theentire Roma/Gypsy population. Representatives of the Roma/Gypsies, he said,should be properly trained professionals. Therefore, it is necessary "tochange the regime" of Roma/Gypsy representation in Hungary. Otherwise, theRoma/Gypsies will remain slaves forever.
A representative of the Foundation for the Protection of Roma Civic Rightssaid that there is still no real parliamentary representation of theRoma/Gypsies in Hungary and that policy decisions are more favorable forHungarian minorities outside Hungary than they are for non-Hungarianminorities within Hungary. The Roma/Gypsies, he continued, are victims ofsocial prejudice and as a result cannot participate in the building of ademocratic society. The Office for National and Ethnic Minorities shouldapproach the NGOs as friends and not as enemies.
A member of the Association for the Protection of Rights in Szolnok saidmany organizations were founded after the establishment of the new regime in1989, particularly as civil rights and freedoms were expanded. However,only a small number of these organizations survived more than a few yearsbecause of legislative, financial, and organizational problems. Theestablishment of minority self-governments is therefore a much-needed step.Because political parties cannot always represent the interests of allcitizens, the system of minority self-government is critical and representssignificant progress. But, he stressed, minority rights can be enforcedonly through the joint efforts of minority self-governments and NGOs.
A representative of the Bureau for the Protection of National and EthnicMinority Rights said that his organization deals with cases ofdiscrimination against minorities. Virtually all of the bureau's clients areRoma/Gypsies. Among other things, the bureau provides legal representationin cases of discrimination against minority self-governments and theirmembers. He cited one case in which a member was verbally attacked andrequested legal assistance from the bureau; the result was a settlement thatincreased public awareness. The bureau also cooperates with minorityself-governments in the areas of education and training and supplies legalexpertise to members of minority self-governments.
A member of the Association of Romani Women Taking Part in Public Lifecriticized the system of financing minority self-governments. The speaker,who is also a member of a local self-government in a district of Budapest,said that they have no money to establish cultural and community centers. Itis impossible, she said, to do a professional job without adequatefinancing.
A participant from a Romanian NGO sharply criticized the elected HungarianRomani/Gypsy representatives for lacking sufficient knowledge about theirrights. They do not use the rights they already possess, he charged,especially the right of veto at the local level. He added that the systemof minority self-government in Hungary is a very special experiment inEurope, and he asked those who criticized the current regime whether itwould be better to return to Communism, where there was no freedom ofdiscussion. He went on to say that the situation of the Roma/Gypsies inRomania is more difficult than it is in Hungary. NGOs in Romania do not have the right to run candidates in local(municipal) elections. In Austria, too, only one Romani/Gypsyorganization-Sinti of Austria-is supported by the government. Others arenot recognized as "partners' of the government and therefore do not receiveany financial support.
A representative of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities said thatthe Roma/Gypsies have acquired responsibility for themselves. She stressedthat the government must search out partners on lower (regional and local)levels. If local self-governments are not connected with NGOs, they have noone to represent.
A representative of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities assertedthat the Roma/Gypsies are first-class citizens of Hungary and that they wanttheir share of all the opportunities enjoyed by other Hungarian citizens.Minorities in Hungary, she continued, have been victims of the Holocaust andsubsequent discrimination. The minority policy in Hungary could be reallyeffective and could set an example for other countries. She said thatHungary is not out to paint a rosy picture of the situation of itsminorities for foreign consumption. Rather, the country is willing tospeak openly about the shortcomings and problems of its minority policies.In Hungary, she continued, people still know very little about minorities,especially about the Roma/Gypsies, who continue to be the objects ofprejudice. She stressed that members of the self-governments should beaware of their rights and should use them, especially the right of veto.However, the greatest responsibility lies with the national government,which should respect the human dignity of every citizen. There is stillmuch to be done, she said, by everyone.
PER's Executive Director said that the workshop had fulfilled its main task:to analyze the Hungarian system of minority self-government. She said thatPER is acutely aware that this system is a unique experiment, still in itsinfancy, and that cooperation among all levels of government is required inorder to achieve the goal of an improved quality of life for theRomani/Gypsy population in the country. She closed by acknowledging that noone can change the situation overnight, but the Hungarian system of minorityself-government is a significant, necessary, and long overdue first step.
A representative of the Council of Europe expressed his gratitude to theparticipants for their honesty and frankness. While the Hungarian system ofminority self-government is still in its early stages, he said, it isalready possible to see its value, and other countries should draw lessonsfrom it. He added that it is necessary to prevent ethnic conflicts frombecoming destructive. We need to find mechanisms that would guaranteeminorities a real share in political and social life, and the Hungarianshave found one promising way. The Council of Europe considers the situationof the Roma/Gypsy a critical social and human rights issue for contemporaryEurope and will continue its supportive activities.. Postscript
On the final day of the conference, participants traveled to Batonyterenye,a village outside of Budapest, for a series of discussions and interviewswith local authorities and members of the self-government. Participantswitnessed at first hand the evidence of cooperation, as well as someconcrete expressions of the difficulties that had been alluded to during thefour days of the proceedings in Budapest. Discussions were held with, amongothers, the President of the Association of Roma Representatives in NogradCounty and the Mayor of Batonyterenye. They also heard a presentationconcerning the daily workings of the local self-government.
List of Participants
Nikolai Kirilov, Community Council, Lom
Milena Petrova, Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, Government of Bulgaria
Karel Holomek, Association of Romanies, Moravia
Ivana Vajnerova, Council for Nationalities, Government of the Czech Republic
Jean-Pierre Liegeois, Director, Gypsy Research Center, Universite ReneDescartes
Emoke Asztalos-Zsakne, Desk Officer, Office for National and EthnicMinorities, Government of Hungary
Judit Berki, President, Association of Roma Representatives, Nograd County
Bela Csecsei, Mayor, Eighth District of Budapest
Florian Farkas, President, National Roma Self-Government
Tibor Farkas, Association of Roma Self-Governments, Szabolcs-Szatmar-BeregCounty
Imre Furmann, Head, Bureau for the Protection of Rights of National andEthnic Minorities
Eva Orsos-Hegyesine, President, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Otto Heinek, Vice-President, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Antal Heizer, Chief Counselor, Office of the Prime Minister
Aladar Horvath, President, Foundation for Roma Civic Rights
Jeno Kaltenbach, Commissioner on Minority Rights, Parliament of Hungary
Gabor Gellert Kiss, Chairman, Commission on Legal, Human Rights, andReligious Affairs, Parliament of Hungary
Andras Klenczner, Chairman of the Board, Public Foundation for the Roma inHungary
Aladar Kotai, President, Gypsy Self-Government, Ozd
Arpadne Kovacs, Desk Officer, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Tibor Olah, Representative, Gypsy Self-Government, Eighth District, Budapest
Miklos Palfi, President, Association of Rights Protection, Szolnok
Anna Polgar, Head of Cabinet, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Laszlo Rostas, President, Roma Self-Government, Kiskunhalas
Judit Solymosi, Counselor, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Csaba Tabajdi, State Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister
Laszlo Teleki, Association of Gypsy Self-Governments, Zala County
Attila Toth, President, Roma Self-Government, Edeleny
Gabriella Varju, Department Head, Office for National and Ethnic Minorities,Government of Hungary
Nicolae Gheorghe, Coordinator, Rromani CRISS
Vasile Burtea, Department for National Minorities, Government of Romania
Klara Orgovanova, Program Director, Open Society Fund
Project on Ethnic Relations
Livia B. Plaks, Executive Director (USA)
Andrzej Mirga, Chairman, PER Romani Advisory Council (Poland)
Peter Priadka, Bratislava Office (Slovak Republic)
Council of Europe
John Murray, Coordinator of Activities for Roma/Gypsies
Outi Ojala, Member, Specialist Group on the Roma
Tove Skotvedt, Expert, Norway
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
Jacek Paliszewski, Second Deputy Director for Administration and ConferenceServices, Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
European Roma Rights Center
Andras Biro, Chair
1See Report of the Government of the Republic of Hungary to the NationalAssembly on the situation of the national and ethnic minorities living inthe Republic of Hungary, Hungarian Government Report No. J/3670 (Budapest:Office of the Prime Minister 1997). The other twelve recognized minoritiesare Armenians; Bulgarians; Croats; Germans; Greeks; Poles; Romanians;Roma/Gypsy; Ruthenians; Serbs; Slovaks; Slovenes; and Ukrainians.
2Current government guidelines for minority recognition call for at least"one thousand citizens who profess to belong to the particular minoritygroup and are eligible to vote" sigh a petition to be submitted to theNational Assembly for consideration. Ibid., 3.
4As of December 1997, the exchange rate for the Hungarian Forint wasapproximately two hundred per one U.S. dollar.