As the history of segregation in the United State demonstrates, the business community can be just as racist as anyone else – even if it undercuts their profits to refuse to serve minorities. Gradually, however, the business community began to see minorities as consumers and thus vital to their bottom line. Hollywood, for instance, realized the potential of African American audiences in the early 1970s, a trend that later took off with Spike Lee and his successors, and the movie industry is now waking up to the reality of Latino filmgoers. In the early 1990s, writer David Rieff pointed out in a famous Harpers essay entitled “Multiculturalism’s Silent Partner” that corporations were fast off the mark to embrace multiculturalism as a marketing strategy. Music companies, fast food restaurants, clothing designers, political parties: virtually every national brand has targeted the “minority demographic” as a way to acquire an edge in the marketplace of products and ideas.
When it comes to Roma, East-Central Europe is still in its segregation era. The business community hasn’t really begun to see Roma as consumers because it’s too busy worrying about how an association with Roma would adversely affect its image (much as executives from Crystal and Timberland strained their companies’ relations with African Americans after they were reluctant to embrace their “urban” consumers).
Istvan Forgacs would like to change that. Businesses, he told me, “don’t think of Roma as consumers. I looked at the demographics. If you’re a bank and you don’t offer services to Roma as clients, then in five years, you’ll have to close the bank branch. So, the banks have to start working with Roma. But, you might say, ‘Roma don’t have money.’ Do you know that a huge percentage of Roma get payments through the post office? In cash. Why doesn’t a bank try to get more Roma clients? This is the future.”
Forgacs works with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on Roma issues. Before that he served in the Hungarian government and before that he worked with the Open Society Institute. He has also worked on Roma issues at the European level in Strasbourg. Now he believes in working at a local level, and he has largely abandoned the more confrontational politics he’d once adopted.
“The Roma issue should be an economic issue,” he told me on a car trip from Miskolc to Budapest in May 2013. “The business community should be thinking about the Roma issue. We should think about a Roma bank or financial institution. 80 percent of Roma at the moment don’t use bank services. That’s 200-300,000 people. This wouldn’t be such a big number in the States. But it’s a huge number here in Hungary. So any bank that pays attention to Roma will suddenly have a bigger market position.”
In Miskolc, we met with two young Hungarian women, one Roma and one non-Roma, who had been involved in the cross-border youth exchanges set up by NDI in Slovakia and Hungary. I’d visited the Slovak Roma in Kecerovce, and the following day I travelled to the eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc to meet their Hungarian counterparts. They talked of growing tensions between Roma and non-Roma and also within the Roma community in Miskolc. The young Roma woman was studying to be a cultural anthropologist but was worried she wouldn’t be able to get a job, so had a fallback option of becoming a customs officer. They despaired of the political situation in Hungary and thought about going abroad. Surprisingly, they were more optimistic than their Slovak counterparts that one day they might see a Roma president in their country.
Their report on tensions in Miskolc has been born out by recent news. This summer, the city government began to evict Roma from the city center, bulldozing the predominantly Roma neighborhood in order to build a sports stadium. The city is offering compensation, but only if the Roma relocate outside the city limits. Roma activist Aladar Horvath, who successfully challenged a plan to relocate Roma back in 1989, is again campaigning against these evictions, calling them ethnic cleansing.
Forgacs knows that it’s an uphill struggle to get Hungarian society to recognize Roma as equal citizens. The power of Jobbik, the far-right party, has been growing. “Gabor Vona, the president of Jobbik, very often repeats this sentence from three years ago: ‘The Roma father who works and sends his children to school, that Roma father is my brother.’ Jobbik very often repeats this kind of thing,” Forgacs told me. “It knows that many Hungarians want this from Roma – to work and send their children to school. Jobbik says that if it rules the country, it will only give money to those Roma who are willing to change. And they will get a lot of support for that position. The society at the moment doesn’t want to devote more money to Roma issues.”
The city government in Miskolc indeed seems to be going along with Jobbik by offering money to Roma who are willing to change….their address.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Hungary. I was a student. I was born in 1976. So, in November 1989, I was 14. We were watching the news on television and reading the newspapers about everything that was happening. I felt that there was some kind of link between the events in Germany and my life. It was very strange.
How much did your life change as a result of the changes here in Hungary?
Very much. A lot of people found themselves in a worse situation after the changes. And that was also the case with the Roma. More than 80 percent lost their jobs at factories. But I grew up in a part of the country that was relatively well off. The name of the town is Zalaegerszeg, near Lake Balaton and close to the Austrian border. I never faced real poverty in my community. I never experienced real tensions between Roma and non-Roma when I was growing up.
Our Roma community was 3,000 people. They had a chance after the changes to start their own businesses and establish relationships with non-Roma. One of my main credos is that economic interest is always the most important. If the economic resources are in the hands of the non-Roma, then you have to establish a relationship with them in order to gain access to some of those resources. Most of the Roma in my community had some kind of entrepreneurial relationship with the non-Roma, and that provided the basis for cohabitation. So, for them, the changes in 1990 were very important because before 1990, they had no chance for this kind of work.
Actually, I don’t believe in a “Roma community” in Hungary. There are many different Roma communities in Hungary. The Roma in Miskolc are very different from Roma elsewhere. There are many different tribes. So, I don’t like to talk about one community.
What did you family do?
They started a business with used cars. At that time, in Hungary, there were no used car distributors. You had to go to Austria or Germany to buy used cars. During socialism, you only had socialist cars. Then, with the changes, you could buy what you wanted to buy. So, my family had a business where they went to Austria or Germany, bought used cars, imported them into Hungary, and sold them for a higher price. You had to be smart to do this kind of work, but you also had to work really hard.
How does the Hungarian majority view the Roma population?
The majority just doesn’t want give any money to Roma. They don’t want to give anything to Roma, because they think the Roma don’t deserve it. “I work in a factory,” the average Hungarian will say. “I pay my mortgage. I work two, three jobs. Why? Only to provide social benefits to Roma?” It’s a very common attitude in most parts of the society.
But it’s also a paradox, because never before have there been more people seeking positive changes for Roma than now. The majority is hungry for positive changes among Roma. The majority in society distinguishes between good and bad Roma. They want to see Roma who care, who can change, who can pick up their garbage. If you, as a Roma, understand how much the majority is struggling to keep this country alive and therefore create fewer problems for them, the majority will try to help you. Even if you as a Roma can’t pay taxes or help repair the big hole in the Hungarian budget, at least try to create less mess – the majority will appreciate this.
At the moment, the percentage of Roma in the Hungarian population is 7-8 percent. The official data is 3.1 percent. But many experts say that the Roma are really 7-8 percent. The structure of Hungarian society is changing rapidly. The number of people who lived in this county 10 years ago was 750,000. The number of people who live here now is 700,000. So, 50,000 people left in the last 10 years. But the proportion of Roma is rising. As non-Roma move to other parts of the country, the general income of the county has gone down, the amount of tax revenue has gone down, and so the general level of education is also going down. How can a state function administratively without enough taxpayers? There is no chance for the taxpayers to sustain the country.
Let’s say that you live here in Miskolc. You work hard. You pay your mortgage. And you see these people living in a sad situation who don’t or can’t contribute. Year by year, the number of tax payers declines and the number of those dependent on government services grows. So, the average Hungarian looks at a Roma and sees a person who is stealing their taxes. It’s a lack of solidarity.
Voluntary segregation is taking place. The non-Roma die or move out of the village, and the Roma stay behind. So, the educational system is becoming segregated in this way. There was a court case a few weeks ago involving a Roma settlement in a major city in Hungary. At the so-called Roma school in this settlement, 70 percent of students were Roma. It was closed several years by the court, which said that it was a segregated school. Last year, the Greek Orthodox Church took over the school. They started to get a following from the town, and the Roma started to send their children to the school. Again, the court said that it was a segregated school. The Roma families started a petition that they wanted to keep their kids at that school. They said that it was much better to have their children studying there than to take a bus for 30 minutes to another town where they faced real anti-Roma sentiment that they’d never faced before. So, that’s an interesting question. Should we force an eight-year old kid to have that experience just because of integration?
We were talking earlier about contraception. Is there sex education in school?
There is a kind of sex education in the schools, but it is not enough. At the moment, the question of contraception and Roma is a politically incorrect topic. I don’t care if it’s politically correct or not. We need to deal with this issue — and it’s not because I don’t want any more Roma babies. It’s important to raise awareness in Roma communities about the size of families and about the relationships with the non-Roma majority. The issue of early marriage is also not politically correct to talk about. They say, “Oh, but it’s a cultural heritage to have a baby at 14!” It’s simply not true. It’s a culture of poverty. I have to tell you: having a baby at the age of 14 is not a cultural tradition that I support.
Are there political parties that want to talk about education around contraception in Roma communities?
Yes, the radicals. Jobbik. The others are afraid to put the issue on the table because they are afraid of being labeled political incorrect.
You can talk about contraception in more even-handed ways, so that it applies to all young people. Or does that challenge religious beliefs?
Yes, but there are no discussions about this at home. Mothers and fathers are not prepared to talk about this.
You also mentioned a new bill on self-defense.
There will be a paragraph giving people the right to defend themselves, even to the point of killing the perpetrator in self-defense.
We have something similar called “stand your ground” laws.
Yes, it’s something like this. Before, if you were attacked in your apartment, it was a question of investigation whether you defended yourself, whether there was a gun involved and so on. Now it will not be a question of investigation.
Is there a controversy over that?
There were dozens of very serious, very brutal killings in the last couple years by Roma kids. Many experts say that this is part of the culture, the violent culture you see on TV. It affects not just Roma. It affects everyone.
You mentioned that the liberals in Hungary criticize the majority. Do you think this has always been the case?
Being liberal today in Hungary is different than it was 10 years ago. To be labeled as a liberal today is a kind of hate speech. Most people in society believe that being liberal means that you are an irrational person who pretends that you care but you don’t care. You’d like to rule the country. You believe that you are above all those in society who have to fight with Roma on a day-to-day basis. You live in Budapest, on the Buda side. You can send your kids to good schools because you have friends in good positions.
That’s a perception. Do you think that’s also a reality?
Yes. But I don’t call them liberals. I don’t have a word for them. Being liberal today is fighting against the current regime because the current regime is a dictatorship. Liberals are free-minded people who like multiculturalism and would like to overcome these very pro-Hungarian attitudes. At the moment, you don’t have too many choices about what party to join. You can go with the Socialist Party, the biggest opposition party at the moment. But the politicians in the Socialist Party seem to have the same hatred of Roma as the politicians in the governing Fidesz party. Being a conservative or a social democrat, the attitudes towards Roma or Jews are the same. The way people relate to Roma has more to do with their actual experience — where they live, who they are dealing with — than what party they belong to.
The so-called liberals – the ones who hate the Communists and hate the conservatives — are more sophisticated. They want to know more about the world. But they have less practical experience. There are more intellectuals among them who take the time to think about issues connected to Hungary. But when it comes to Roma, they’ve probably never had any real contact with the Roma community.
What did you imagine you would do with your life when you were 14 years old and the Berlin Wall fell?
I always thought I’d do something in public administration. At a very early age, I had a feeling that if I were part of it I could change things, especially on Roma issues. Sure, it would be great if I could change things with Roma by myself without the system, but we’re talking about much more complex things than just me. The opportunity is there to help change the Roma community, and I knew very early on that I wanted to do something like this.
I graduated from the school of public administration. And I loved it. I loved working on management and leadership issues. After that I had a chance to go to Budapest to start my career here in this international environment in 1998. I used to run the OSF Roma education program for four years. We established Roma community centers all around the region. We did trainings for Roma leaders. At that time, I believed that we had to somehow force the change by pushing the government. We were not really concentrating on the Roma community but rather on those who had the resources. I loved this work.
A leader from one of our Hungarian Roma community centers became a member of parliament, from the Socialist party, which had won the elections in 2002. He became state secretary for Roma issues. George Soros was very happy. This state secretary was able to allocate $5 million for a scholarship program. And I was very happy. I thought that this was the way to change the system and use the power of the NGO sector.
I got an offer from the prime minister’s office to be head of section dealing with Roma issues. I went to work there for 2 years. That was terrible. I hated it. After the Soros network, where you had all the resources and there was always a solution for everything, you found yourself on the other side, in a place where you thought changing a law would solve the problem, but it didn’t. Before the 2002 elections, I was sure that all the liberals and the social democrats were the real democrats, and Fidesz and Viktor Orban’s guys were the servants of the devil. They wanted to kill the Roma and the Jews. But then I had to realize that the social democrats also don’t care about Roma. They even hate Roma. They didn’t want their mayors to work with Roma in the countryside. I realized that I had gotten into government but no one wanted to make any changes.
Were you responsible for the scholarship program?
No, that was someone else.
Was it successful?
Yes, but $5 million? What is that? Not much at all. The Council of Europe offered almost 20 million euros for a housing project for Hungary. The government didn’t sign the contract. It was for a Roma resettlement project. The government said, “We are afraid of the reactions of the major suppliers.” This was a big disappointment.
Somehow I started to change. I went to Strasbourg. I worked for the Council of Europe on the Roma-Travellers program, the first European-level effort. I came home and started to work on Roma issues at the local level here. That’s the future.
You have to think about your new consumers. People haven’t thought about that with Roma. They don’t think of Roma as consumers. I looked at the demographics. If you’re a bank and you don’t offer services to Roma as clients, then in five years, you’ll have to close the bank branch. So, the banks have to start working with Roma. But, you might say, “Roma don’t have money.” Do you know that a huge percentage of Roma get payments through the post office. In cash. Why doesn’t a bank try to get more Roma clients? This is the future.
So, I’ve been working on customer services focused on Roma. Hungary paid a lot of money to get information based on a professional survey about the eating and shopping habits of Roma.
Were there any surprising results?
We asked cereal companies: If 100 consumers go to Tesco, how many of them choose your product? 12? How many of them will choose your product in 10 years? There will be fewer families among those already eating your product. So, eight? You will lose four. But it could be different if Roma bought your product. If you created something cheaper, at a price for less well-off families, maybe you can keep your market share.
We’ve been working on this for a couple years. The Roma issue should be an economic issue. The business community should be thinking about the Roma issue. We should think about a Roma bank or financial institution. 80 percent of Roma at the moment don’t use bank services. That’s 200-300,000 people. This wouldn’t be such a big number in the States. But it’s a huge number here in Hungary. So any bank that pays attention to Roma will suddenly have a bigger market position.
We also work on corporate social responsibility (CSR). A business that sends 100 kilos of chocolate to Roma kids or sends their board of trustees to paint the houses of Roma families — that’s not CSR. It’s when a business pursues its own interest that is also in the interest of the community. For example, you’ve seen those small Roma villages in Slovakia. There are no shops. Or there’s a poor shop that’s only open on Monday and Wednesday. What if a Tesco minivan goes to the village to sell products to the people there. In this way, Tesco can create jobs — you need drivers, coordinators. You also provide a service to the community, because they don’t have continually open shops during the weeks. Maybe you also provide discounts. But the business interest is also there. Any company that can supply these services will have a better chance of becoming a market leader. And if they don’t do it, the other company will. There’s real space for the Roma issue to be a real economic issue.
You said that when you were at OSI you had a more confrontational approach — challenging the mayors, challenging the majority. But you changed your mind. What made you change your mind?
After leaving the government, I simply realized that I could continue to blame the mayor and the majority, but that doesn’t do anything for the Roma. To be honest, this was a hard realization. Some friends and I were able to get $2,000 from an insurance company to build a playground in a Roma village. We could choose the village. But there were two conditions. The local Roma had to be part of the construction work. And the local Roma had to clean up the area first. We had to find a village. And we had to find the Roma to do the construction. We went to seven localities, and none of them fulfilled the requirements. We never got the money. The insurance company eventually gave up.
These small things made me change my mind. I said, “Hey guys, I was fighting for you for years. I took on many fights with mayors and people in high positions — for you. And now you can’t do even this small thing like cleaning up the area?” But they say, “How can I do this? I don’t have the time. I have five children.”
There were other villages where the local church could make change inside the Roma community. The churches have infrastructure and resources to make change. I don’t care what they believe in, what the pastor says. It’s not my business. But you need a good leader who can realize this change at an individual, family, and community level. The big churches are beginning to recognize that they don’t have any Roma members. In the future, a church without Roma members will die out.
Here when we talk about rights, we talk about obligations as well. You have to fulfill your obligations, and then you can have your rights. The so-called liberals believe the opposite: until you don’t have your rights, you shouldn’t fulfill your obligations.
The local communities here don’t realize how important it is to have access to public services. Without those services, the community will not survive. That means giving credit to these public services at the local level. For instance, maybe you don’t accept that your son is a bad student. You demand your right to meet the teacher, and then you criticize the teacher. The teacher will say, “I’m leaving your community and going somewhere else where they respect me.” And then you’re without a teacher. Instead, you as a parent should be saying, “Jimmy, you must respect your teacher.” Or maybe you don’t have a doctor because there are no doctors who want to work in an area where they don’t receive any credit for their service. It’s not because they are racist. They feel unwanted and discredited and treated badly because they are not Roma.
Where did Jobbik come from? Why did it arise here in Hungary?
Jobbik found those voters who are, like the Roma, the losers of this transition. You call them blue-collar workers. They voted for the Communists and then the Socialist party. But they’ve gotten nothing in the last couple of years. And they’ve had difficulty living together with Roma families. The liberals say, “Hey, why can’t you be more tolerant?” But In this case, these people say that they have the right to give up tolerance because it’s really difficult to live together with Roma. That’s why so many people, who have had to fight for their lives to find jobs, have been disappointed with both Fidesz and Socialists. It’s a big crowd. And Jobbik had good slogans — saying that they were the real Hungarians.
Let me give you an interesting example. In Hungary we have good wine culture.
Egri bikaver, for example.
Yes. We have a great history of wine. When we joined the EU, there was a big scandal because the EU offered the owners of Hungarian vineyards money if they stopped wine production. The EU – the French, the Italians — said that there are already too many vineyards in the EU. What kind of EU is this when foreign interests make people cut down grape vines because of money? So there is a feeling that Hungary as a whole is a loser within the EU as well, that our interests are not important. This is what Jobbik talks a lot about. This is why Jobbik is relatively strong.
Next year, it will be even more interesting because Jobbik will be more sophisticated — because of the election.
Politicians tend to moderate their rhetoric around elections.
Yes, precisely. Gabor Vona, the president of Jobbik, very often repeats this sentence from three years ago: “The Roma father who works and sends his children to school, that Roma father is my brother.” Jobbik very often repeats this kind of thing. It knows that many Hungarians want this from Roma – to work and send their children to school. Jobbik says that if it rules the country, it will only give money to those Roma who are willing to change. And they will get a lot of support for that position. The society at the moment doesn’t want to devote more money to Roma issues.
So, I think Jobbik will change much over the next year. Many Roma have already voted for Jobbik, even before they moderated their rhetoric. Can you imagine what will happen when Jobbik has a Roma spokeswoman? This is not a crazy scenario. Jobbik is looking for cooperation with the Roma community. There are several Roma prominent in the party. Party officials always talk about cooperation, about integrating Roma into the society. You can say that they are radicals, racists, that they hate Jews, blah blah blah. But related to Roma, they will make their rhetoric more neutral very soon.
Jobbik doesn’t try to get Roma votes because Jobbik doesn’t need Roma votes. They also don’t need their most extreme supporters. If they lose several thousand swastika-tattooed supporters in the eastern part of the country, they will get tens of thousands of lawyers, engineers, doctors living in Budapest and who are disappointed in Fidesz — that will be much better for Jobbik in the long run.
Many of your arguments are based on economic interest. But there will be racists who put their prejudices before their political or economic interests. Should we just ignore those people?
Of course not. Those people have their beliefs. Until now, political parties have clear ideologies: “We are the Blue party and these are our principles.” Then they try to figure out how to fit the Roma issue into their ideological principles. And if it doesn’t work? “It doesn’t matter,” they’ll say, “we have to do it somehow and make the issue conform to our principles.” But it should be the other way around: “We are the Blue party, this is our ideology, and this is the Roma issue. If it doesn’t fit, then we have to change our ideology and our principles.” This is where the liberals failed in the last elections. This is what Jobbik does very well. It says that we have principles, based on the practical experience of people. They don’t care about the politically correct way of discussion. They don’t care about tolerance. They say, “This is the problem and this is how we have to handle it.”
Anybody who starts a political party at the moment, they just say, “We’re against the current regime, so support us.” They choose a color – “we are the blues and we are the liberals” or “we are the yellows and we are the humanists.” It’s a big competition now to see who has the most anti-Orban approach. But you have to have some kind of positive program.
There are jokes about the opposition. What is the evidence that Hungary is a dictatorship? Even the newborn babies are crying. In other words, you have to blame the government for everything in this country because there’s no freedom, everything is wrong, everything is bad. Sometimes it’s over the top. The opposition doesn’t make a real coalition. They hate each other. They are always fighting. And they don’t show off their own solutions. You can’t see their programs.
Look at Gabor Fodor, who created this new Liberal Party. Great, you create a party with a few of your friends based on your beliefs. Then you try to persuade people to join your party. But that’s backward. You have to see what people want and create a party around that. I appreciate the fact that he has his own beliefs and believed that there were many people that shared them. But the reality is different, and they won’t get enough votes to get into parliament.
The liberals no longer seem to be a political force. But I hear from you that there’s a possibility for an authentic liberalism. Where will that come from?
I don’t know. The Free Democrats never cared about he countryside people. They never said anything about people living in poverty in the countryside. They never cared about the Hungarians living outside of Hungary in other countries. That gave other parties a chance to say that they didn’t have any positive national feeling. Their opponents said, “You’re not Hungarian, you’re serving foreign interests, you’re serving Budapest interests.” It was very easy to label the liberals this way. I don’t see how this will be different.
What about Roma parties?
At the moment I would not support the creation of a Roma party. I might change my mind. But at the moment there is no competence. I can only imagine making a Roma party now with a lot of non-Roma.
There have been Roma legislators.
Yes, but the question is: for what reason do you make a party? Just because we are Roma? There are Roma who are liberals, who are social democrats, and so on. They have an ideology. But what kind of ideology would a Roma party have?
It could be similar to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms in Bulgaria. The ideology was to gain power by being a third force between the two major parties. Perhaps a Roma party could do the same here — getting just enough votes to be influential.
You can’t get the Roma here to be so strategic.
What about at the local level?
Yes, that’s possible. At that level, you can force the local political powers to make a coalition with you. But not at the national level.
The situation with young people after the next election will be the same. They will still be apathetic and alienated. Many will still leave the country. So, we need an initiative on civic education for training young people.
Miskolc, May 5, 2013