|When Hungary passed its law on minorities in 1993,
the act was hailed as setting a positive, progressive example for the region.
Besides declaring expansive minority rights and establishing mechanisms
for their protection, it set up a system of local and national minority
self-governments that enjoy considerable independence. About 400 Romani
councils have been set up around the country to represent the country's
roughly 500,000 Roma, Hungary's largest ethnic minority.
Yet the Romani leaders elected by their people to head those councils
are finding the system has placed them in the role of scapegoat. Underfunding
and lack of cooperation from local and national governments gives the minority
governments few opportunities to improve the lot of their people.
Take the example of Ozd, a fairly typical town
in Hungary's over-industrialized northeast corner, where Roma make up about
a third of the 40,000-plus population. Since 1989, the town's iron and
steel industries have collapsed, leaving unemployment at more than 40 percent
in town and near 100 percent in the Romani villages. In Hetes, population
600, the main source of income other than state support is an old slag
heap where Romani men, women, and children gather smelted rock rich in
iron ore for which they are paid 2.5 forints (1.3 cents) per kilogram.
Villagers in Hetes say there are toxic substances on the land where
their children play. The aged sewers regularly overflow onto the street
and rats are a constant problem. Skin diseases are a common complaint,
and hepatitis and tuberculosis, illnesses that had been all but wiped out
in communist Hungary, are re-emerging. Villagers typically pack six families
each into houses that the local government classifies as uninhabitable.
This year, the Romani council in Ozd will get about
5 million forints ($26,000) from the city government, the largest amount
given to any minority government in Hungary. But after administrative costs,
only 400,000 forints ($2,080) are left for concrete projects. According
to minority government President Aladar Kotai, most of his staff work without
pay. Kotai is visibly afraid of going to places like Hetes, where villagers
shout at him for not solving their problems.
Nonetheless, cash-strapped local governments see minority governments
as just another drain on resources and resent their presence. It doesn't
help that Roma are less politically organized and less likely to vote than
the majority Hungarian population. In Ozd, as in many other towns with
large Romani communities, there are no Roma on the regular city council.
Critics say Hungary's progressive minorities law
was developed more to instruct neighboring countries on how to deal with
their Hungarian minorities than at helping minorities in Hungary. Alison
Lys of the British government's Know How Fund says the system has isolated
Hungary's Roma. "In theory the act is wonderful, but in practice it produces
an instant ghetto system."
Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments. The Ozd minority
government has directed its project funds into training, education, and
health care. A folk school will be built, with the aim of preserving both
Romani and Hungarian cultures. Local doctors report progress in the promotion
of contraception to women. And a program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for
International Development is helping Romani leaders improve their lobbying
Copyright © Transitions Vol. 4, No. 4 September 1997.
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.