Demonization, Hungarian-Style


MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – The Hungarian restaurateur in a Harley Davidson jacket wants you to know he’s not a fascist. Nor a racist. And certainly no anti-Semite.

He has a Jewish friend, he says, and expresses sympathy for his Holocaust-surviving father.

“Zsuzsa!” he suddenly calls out to one of his restaurant workers – a Romani woman wearing a white cap, t-shirt and apron.

“How do you feel here?” he asks tenderly, touching her shoulder. “Does anyone bother you?”

“No, never!” she says, flashing a smile, but with a look of understandable bewilderment.

“That’s good,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt you.”

As she walks off, the restaurateur leans in, lowers his voice.

“And she’s one hundred percent Gypsy,” he says. “If I’m a Nazi, why would I hire Gypsies?”

With his anti-racist bona fides out of the way, the man dives back into the topic at hand.

“Why do we never hear about Slovak criminals, or German criminals, or Greek criminals,” he asks, “but we only hear about Gypsy criminals and Jewish criminals?”

The businessman is a zealous supporter of Jobbik, the hard-right party that for two solid years has demonized the Roma and Jewish minorities, who comprise some 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, of a population of 10 million.

The Jobbik message strikes a chord. Last Sunday, the party raked in a stunning 17 percent of the vote in national elections – a record high for such parties in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially the 10 that are now members of the European Union.

I just analyzed this milestone for a Prague-based magazine, from the perspective of a foreign correspondent who lived for a long stretch in Budapest and has tracked the far-right’s evolution for 15 years.

In several parts of post-Communist Eastern Europe, young democracies today are tested by nearly perfect-storm conditions: economic frustration, stirred with festering inter-ethnic resentment, seasoned by years of incitement that, in Hungary’s case, de-humanizes Roma and Jews with the kind of language deployed by everyone from Hitler to Hutu radio in Rwanda.

It’s some of the same disillusionment with democracy that has also fuels nostalgia for the good old days of Communist dictatorship, which I wrote about last November.

Of all the comments I heard this week about Hungary’s April 11 election results, one stuck with me. They were the words of Jobbik’s clean-cut, firebrand leader, Gabor Vona, who is just 31: “I still feel, however, that two-thirds of Hungarians are Jobbik supporters but don’t know it yet.” If he’s right, that would presumably include the 53 percent collected by the mainstream right-wing party, Fidesz.

I was curious to explore the notion that Jobbik enjoys even wider appeal. So, from my home in neighboring Slovakia, I dipped across the Hungarian border for a few hours to taste the atmosphere. I chose Mosonmagyaróvár because it’s a small city near the border, has Old World charms of its own – and makes for a fun, tongue-twisting dateline. Mosonmagyaróvár … it rolls right off the tongue.

There’s no science to gathering vox populi – the interviewing of ordinary folks on the street. During Tuesday’s drizzle, though, a hair-dresser with seating felt like the right choice. Set in a 200 year-old building, the shop’s authentic, low-arched ceilings were painted a stylish green.

Small businesses like theirs struggle because of how the Socialists mismanaged the economy, say the owners, the husband-wife hair-cutting tandem of Miklos and Maria Kraz.

Fidesz, whom the Krazes say they’ve backed since even before the party’s first tumultuous turn in power (from 1998-2002), will follow through on their promises and make things right.

“We can get out of this chaos we’re living in,” says Miklos, snipping a customer’s locks.

But there’s another major problem, they say: the Gypsies, their crimes, and their abuses of the welfare system. Thus, they have a soft spot for Jobbik, which crusaded on a platform to wipe out what they call Cigánybűnözés, or “Gypsy criminality.” On the other side of town, they say, the elderly are afraid to go out at night.

“That’s why we also need Jobbik,” says Maria, sweeping hair off the floor. “To stop all that, to fight back.”

Having the two parties, side by side in Parliament, rings nicely.

“There’s no doubt that they have a lot in common,” says Miklos.

The Krazes, though, concede that they personally have not experienced problems with Roma in their neighborhood. But they, like seemingly everyone else, knows someone who has a story – individual incidents that are then extrapolated out to collectively brand an entire community.

There’s no talk of how some Roma may also be driven by indigence, or how policies marginalize them. The lack of empathy is later confirmed by a young Hungarian colleague in Budapest. Anita Komuves is a reporter for the country’s largest daily, Nepszabadsag, and hails from the humble town of Kiskunfélegyháza. She was just home for Easter, where she met her cousins.

“They are simple working people and they were all telling me how many conflicts they have with the Roma,” she e-mailed me Wednesday. “You just cannot tell them about sociology and historical context when they had something stolen or been insulted. It’s a reality there, a reality that no one has addressed in the past 20 years. And that’s what I’m angry about.”

Back in Mosonmagyaróvár, my interpreter and I head to the touristy Old Town.

Randomly, we enter one of the largest eateries in the cobblestoned quarter. That’s where we find the restaurateur, who initially says he only has “five minutes” for us. Ninety minutes later, we’ve gotten an earful of the crudest stereotypes, cherry-picked horror stories, and plenty of conspiracies against the “whites” that, of course, we won’t hear about from the “Jewish media” in Budapest.

“They say there shouldn’t be segregation, but it won’t work any other way,” he says.

The man is no crank, but an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur operating on Main Street. Yet while he speaks with the conviction of anyone who has uncovered “The Truth,” he’s not one to speak truth to power. When I ask for his name, he requests anonymity. The city authorities, he says, may come after him, with trumped-up inspections or some other harassment, “Just because I support Jobbik.”

At the very end, as I’m itching to pack up and leave, he surprises me by uttering perhaps the fairest, most accurate comment he’s made the whole time.

“If there weren’t so much poverty in the country,” he says, “no one would give a damn about the Gypsies or Jews.” 

Hungary, Racism