Hungary's Rising Right: Roma Defenseless against Extremist Vigilantes

By Keno Verseck

Right-wing extremists have been on the rise for years in Hungary, and the country's Roma population lives in increasing terror. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has preferred to look the other way as vigilante groups have supplanted the rule of law.

The Hungarian Guard may have been banned, but other right-wing extremist groups have risen to take their place. Zoom
AP

The Hungarian Guard may have been banned, but other right-wing extremist groups have risen to take their place.

It was one year ago that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's national-conservative Fidesz party rose to power behind populist calls for law, order and more police. Soon after he was sworn in, he promised a "noticeable increase in public security within two weeks."

But now, his government is losing its grip. The police and the judiciary have lost control over the growing right-extremist citizen groups and paramilitary-style gangs.

In recent months, extremists have repeatedly staged marches, primarily in eastern Hungary, against "Gypsy criminality." And police in the villages which have been targeted have shown a preference for standing aside. Roma activist Aladár Horváth says that the country has been gripped by a "civil war-like atmosphere" and "rampant racism."

The situation is particularly grim in the village of Gyöngyöspata. On Tuesday, right-wing radicals entered the town and three people were injured in the resulting brawls. Dozens more extremists marched in on Wednesday morning. Fully 100 Roma left the village as a result, according to news agency MTI.

'Anti-National Propaganda'

Orbán's government has so far sought to play down the problem. In a parliamentary debate over the situation in Gyöngyöspata, members of Fidesz voiced concern about right-wing extremism. But they also accused the opposition Socialists and the Green Alternative party of "anti-national propaganda." The opposition, Fidesz lawmakers said, are using the incidents in Gyöngyöspata to damage Hungary's standing abroad.

State Secretary Zoltán Balog, responsible for issues relating to the Roma minority, would also prefer to trivialize the problems generated by the right-wing vigilantes. But he admits that the authorities should have taken action in Gyöngyöspata much earlier to prevent an escalation of violence.

That, though, didn't happen. As early as the beginning of March, the right-extremist group Szeb Jövöért ("better future") -- the name comes from an old fascist greeting -- showed up in the village. Last week, it was Véderö, likewise a group of right-wing vigilantes, which arrived in Gyöngyöspata to take part in training exercises over Easter weekend. Police banned the event, but two-thirds of the 450 Roma who live in the village left anyway, out of fear of right-wing violence. They spent Easter in a recreation center near Budapest. The exodus was organized by a foundation run by an American businessman in Hungary together with the Red Cross. The government, including State Secretary Zoltán Balog, referred to the trip as a "weekend excursion."

Roma activist Aladár Horváth says the case of Gyöngyöspata is a sign that the Hungarian state has retreated from certain regions and left them to the right-wing vigilantes. "For the Roma there, the rule of law, the police and the judiciary simply don't exist anymore," he says. "They are defenseless."

'Gypsy Criminality'

Indeed, Gyöngyöspata is merely the apex of a development which has been underway for years. Most of the right-wing vigilante groups model themselves on the Hungarian Guard, founded in 2007 as the paramilitary wing of Jobbik, the right-wing party which received 17 percent of the vote in general elections last year. The group had several thousand members before it was banned in 2009.

The Hungarian Guard, clad in black uniforms, made a habit of frequently marching through towns and villages to call attention to so-called "Gypsy criminality," often with the raucous approval of non-Roma residents. Consequences for Roma, however, were often grim. In 2008, for example, the Hungarian Guard repeatedly turned up in the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, south of Budapest. In February 2009, a right-wing group set alight a house belonging to a Roma family on the edge of the village. A man and his son were shot to death as they tried to escape from the flames; his wife and daughter were seriously injured by gunfire.

The perpetrators, who ultimately murdered a total of six randomly chosen Roma and injured 55 in arson and firearm attacks, were arrested in the summer of 2009. They are currently being tried in Budapest. But horror at their crimes was far from widespread and right-extremist marches continued.

Jobbik was able to build on their general election success last April by securing up to 30 percent of the vote in eastern Hungary in municipal elections last autumn. In the small town of Tiszavasvári, population 13,000, the right-extremist mayoral candidate Erik Fülöp received 53 percent of the vote. Party head Gábor Vona has since referred to the town as the "capital of our movement" -- a reference to Munich's Third Reich nickname as "capital of the movement."

Marching on the Edge of Town

Fülöp, 29, is a lawyer, and says things like "coexisting with the Gypsy society is very difficult, the state is treading on the rights of Hungarians." Last week, he founded a gendarmerie for the town of Tiszavasvári, paid for out of city hall coffers. It is reminiscent of the Hungarian Gendarmerie which, under the authoritarian regime of Miklós Horthy, was a kind of political police force between the two world wars. In addition to being notoriously brutal, the group also helped with the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the German extermination camps.

Last week, a significant number of Hungary's right-wing elite travelled to Tiszavasvári for the group's inauguration. The Interior Ministry, said Jobbik head Gábor Vona ironically, need not be "envious" of the "historic initiative" taken by his party. They just want to help the police. Mayor Fülöp said nobody needed to fear the gendarmerie. "Only those who have committed a crime need be afraid," he said.

The very next day, the group went on its very first march -- through the Roma settlement on the edge of town.

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