Hungary (4): Shuttered Factories and Rants Against the Roma

Foreign Policy, 29.10.2015
James Traub
  • The slow decline of a Hungarian industrial city and what it tells us about where the country is going.

From the hills surrounding Miskolc, an industrial city in the impoverished northeast corner of Hungary, the most visible sign of life is the towering smokestack of the steel plant once known as the Lenin Metalworks. In its Communist-era heyday, the plant employed 20,000 or perhaps 30,000 people — no one could tell me for sure. Like virtually all the city’s heavy industry, the Lenin Metalworks was hopelessly uncompetitive; it was first privatized and then, in 2007, closed for good. In 1990, Miskolc had a population of 200,000 and was Hungary’s second-largest city. Now, it is down to 160,000.

I spent time in Miskolc earlier this month because I wanted to understand the forces driving Hungary’s right-wing politics. In the 1990s, Miskolc’s vast industrial working class had made it a Socialist bastion. Those workers, now retired, still reliably vote for the Hungarian Socialist Party. But most of the rest of the population votes either for the conservative ruling party, Fidesz, or for Jobbik, the ultranationalist party that now constitutes Fidesz’s most robust and well-organized opposition.

Miskolc is a 18th-century city with a charming downtown of broad boulevards traversed by a new tram with free Wi-Fi. The deputy mayor, Janos Kiss, assured me that the unemployment rate had fallen from 12 percent in 2010, when Fidesz took over, to 6.6 percent. When I mentioned this impressive figure to Simon Gabor, leader of the local Socialist party, he rolled his eyes and said, “He lied.” Gabor insisted that many of Miskolc’s unemployed are not registered as such while the labor force itself has shrunk drastically as skilled workers have left either for Budapest or London. High-end manufacturers can no longer find the educated workers they need. He also pointed out that the fancy trams, and most other infrastructure improvements, had been paid for with funds from the European Union.

You don’t have to go far from downtown to see a very different Miskolc. On a steep hillside overlooking a shopping mall lies a Roma encampment whose name was translated for me as “Castle Corpse.” The houses are made of patched-together brick and tin, the yards cluttered with plastic bottles and trash. Asphalt gives way to dirt as the roads climb up the hill.

The story of the Roma in Miskolc is intimately linked to the city’s decline and to its rightward political tilt. Community activists estimate that about 20,000 Roma live in Miskolc. (Hungary does not officially count citizens by ethnicity.) In the Communist era, most Roma men worked at the Lenin Metalworks and other big plants. When the factories shut down, the Roma, a group discriminated against across Europe, were the last to be rehired. Most have been unemployed since. (This is one reason why the low unemployment rate seemed hard to take seriously.) Varadi Gabor, a Roma activist, told me that the factory had been the one place where Roma and non-Roma got to know one another; now, with virtually no regular contact, suspicion, fear, and rumor have flourished.

A local journalist, Attila Bujdos, told me that in the 2014 election none of the big national issues, such as immigration, made a dent on voters. “The Roma question,” he said, “was the only important issue.” All the parties competed for who had the most anti-Roma policy. The Socialists encouraged the former police chief, who had been fired after publicly stating that Miskolc’s crime problem owed wholly to the Roma, to run for mayor. Fidesz circulated a petition calling for the abolition of the encampments. That was enough for Fidesz to barely out-poll Jobbik. The government then passed a measure authorizing payments to Roma families of up to 2 million forints (slightly more than $7,000) to move out of an encampment in an especially prized area. The families had to buy property outside the city limits to qualify for the payments. (The Constitutional Court later ruled that the law violated Hungary’s constitution.)

One morning, I stopped by a café and sat down with a 52-year-old unemployed taxi driver named Attila Tisza. (“Attila” seems to be a very common name in Miskolc.) Tisza supported Jobbik. His friend Bela Kormoci was a Socialist, but he was too glassy-eyed to join the conversation. He was midway through a beer, as was everyone else in the café save Tisza, who was just passing the time of day. Tisza bridled at what he said was the stereotype that Hungarians hated Roma. “We just hate Romas who are criminals,” he said. He did favor demolishing the encampments, which he found unsightly. And he worried about the tide of Muslim immigrants he had been reading about. “We’re afraid of Muslims,” Tizsa said, “because in the Ottoman era, Muslims killed a lot of Hungarians.” (The Ottomans ruled much of Hungary from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century.)

Muslims are a hypothetical threat in Miskolc. The deputy mayor told me that to his knowledge the city had no immigrants of any kind, save perhaps for a few students who may have stayed behind after completing their studies. The Roma, however, are an obsession. One of my taxi drivers while in Miskolc, Csabi Szabo, said to me, rather grandiloquently,

“The Roma don’t respect God, or the law, or anything else.”

“The Roma don’t respect God, or the law, or anything else.” When we would venture into a Roma neighborhood, he would say, “Now we’re leaving civilization behind,” or, “This area has been contaminated.” Szabo would not have denied that he hated the Roma. Poor Hungarians “pay high taxes,” he said. “And then the Roma don’t even work and get welfare payments.” (Those funds, for what it’s worth, are minuscule, which is why the Roma live in squalor: Impoverished Roma families are eligible for the same welfare payments available to all Hungarians, which is a maximum of about $57 a month.) Szabo was a staunch Jobbik man. They may not have been able to get rid of the Roma, he said, “but at least they talk about this as a grave problem.”

There are many reasons for Hungary’s embrace of right-wing politics, but chief among them is economic failure. When the Cold War ended, Hungary, which had long enjoyed an unusual measure of autonomy, was the ex-Soviet state best positioned to make the transition to democracy and capitalism. Things have not worked out as expected. Poland, once much poorer, now has a higher GDP per capita than Hungary and is Eastern Europe’s economic powerhouse. The population has steadily declined and is now at about 9.8 million down from about 10.4 million when the Berlin Wall came down. Hungarians are voting with their feet. Those who remain behind vote their disillusion.

The anti-Roma politics so potent in Miskolc have helped propel Jobbik to prominence across Hungary. As scapegoats, however, the Roma can only be just so useful; they’re not easy to blame for the misfortune of the average Hungarian. This is why the refugee crisis holds vast potential for Jobbik (and perhaps why Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orban has tried to preempt Jobbik’s rhetoric and policies on the subject). The party draws an explicit link between the Roma, Hungary’s current Other, and the refugees, a yet more frightening Other at Hungary’s gates. Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik legislator in Budapest (see my earlier column for more on Gyongyosi), put it this way in my conversation with him: “The reason why Hungarians are anti-immigrant is that we live in a place where people who speak our language and share our religion have not integrated with the rest of society. It’s natural that we don’t want to integrate with some sub-Saharan immigrant who might be a member of a terrorist organization and could have some disease I’ve never even heard of before.”

The Roma of Miskolc don’t know where to turn. Attila Tamas*, a local Roma activist and a confident and eloquent representative of his community, told me that the Roma need some political force to champion their cause. “Wouldn’t that be political suicide?” I asked. Tamas smiled as the question was translated to him. “Of course,” he said.

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