NT: Why have previous Hungarian governments failed to deal with the Roma situation in Hungary and what can your government do differently?
ZB: We have data on government activities towards the Gypsies – as they have been traditionally called in Hungary – since the time of the Austro-Hungarian queen, Maria Teresa, in the 18th century. That 250 or 300 years context is important, when we address this issue now. That is how long they have been part of this society – not as first class, or even second class members of society, but perhaps relegated to a kind of third class status, but with a clear position in society, nonetheless. And not a good position at all. By the 1980s, in the last years of Communist rule in Hungary, around eighty-five per cent of Roma people had a job, a place in the official labour market. But most of that work was in exactly those heavy industries which were closed down with the return of capitalism. That has led to a situation today where only about fifteen per cent of Roma have work. That has been a particularly dramatic and traumatic experience for them. I would like to stress that this is not just an ethnic question. It is an issue of segregation, but the segregation of whole regions of the country, and other social groups alongside the Roma, from development, from economic growth and so on. The state has largely withdrawn from those areas – there is no police force, no social care, no schools, no jobs, no infrastructure, poor road and rail connections. All of which adds up to a situation of deep poverty, not only for the Roma, but for them first and foremost. Past governments did not take sufficient account of this development. The last five to eight years were particularly hard for these people. The public was aware of it, my government is aware of it, and now we need a new initiative.
NT: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said the churches will play a central role in this initiative.
ZB: It’s clear what these people need. They need jobs, first of all. They need good schools, good education, social care, health care, and new housing. And for all of these things we need economical growth. And money, although money by itself is not enough. Money can make the situation worse, just as it can make it better. Welfare support can lead to passivity instead of activity. So what we really need is people, in communities and groups, to be engaged. We need the churches, but not only the churches. Civic society, civic initiative, need to accompany the money which goes to the Roma, to teach them to better manage their own lives, to help them prepare themselves for the labour market. Without this altruistic component, the money is either insufficient, or even harmful. But in this way, I am hopeful that we can manage the situation.
NT: How will this work in practice? I have heard it suggested that local priests in majority Roma villages will open their vicarages for pre-school education, and for adult education. Is that what you are thinking of?
ZB: Yes. But it will not be easy. I can imagine that the majority of church-goers are reluctant to address this problem. But there is an elite, not only of priests but also of activists in the churches who are ready and able. And not only in the traditional churches but also in the new Protestant churches – the Pentecostalists, the Seventh Day Adventists and so on. They are fully prepared to get involved, and they can be seen as an avant-garde in their own churches. They are very important people for us. I am preparing an agreement with church leaders on the Roma question. We want to create the structures for these initiatives, for the activities of the churches. But the actual content, and the human resources will come from the churches themselves. The leader of the Greek Catholic church Bishop Kocsis is very active. This is also a question of the credibility of the churches, and an opportunity for them, to show the good face of their Christianity. In practice, they will combine their spiritual work with the practical matters of health care, of preparing people for work, and helping them look for jobs. Taken together, the social and spiritual work will be more effective. Roma people are very religious, so they are more open to initiatives of this sort than to other approaches.
NT: What’s the timetable?
ZB: To begin with, we have to manage the crisis left behind by the previous government. But we have already begun to prepare the new initiative, which can start next year. I see the autumn as a time for discussion and decision making. The 2011 state budget will provide the financial support for such programmes. We also need to investigate recent programmes of the state and of the European Union. Some do not function, some have problems with corruption. Active programmes can be modified, before we start new ones next year.
NT: What will actually be new about your approach? Do you also see examples of good practice from the past?
ZB: What will be most novel, is the high priority we are devoting to this issue. For the first time in Hungarian history we have a State Secretary for Social Inclusion. The post in the previous government, of State Secretary for Roma Integration, had more to do with public relations. The new title is very important – social inclusion. It’s very important to handle this question not only as an ethnic question, but as a question of regional problems and the problems of deep poverty. I have a task-force of more than fifty people. We intend to build a network throughout the whole country, a regional network of Roma people to manage – as a Roma Agency – questions of the labour market, of education, health care, and so on. The government should be present on the county level and on the local level in institutions and organisations. For example in the centre for the labour market, in the centre for health care, in the centre for child care and so on. And all these government organisations have to have Roma Agency people responsible for special questions of Roma employment, education, and healthcare. So this will not be an isolated network, but an integral part of the governmental network. At the local level, the county level and at the country level.
NT: Answerable to you, at the centre?
ZB: Yes. It’s our responsibility, our network, and we can provide the initiative from the govermental to the local level, and integrate it into the other initiatives of the state – for financial, health care and other policies. That’s the second point. And the third point is the complexity of the approach. We want to make programmes together, for education, for jobs, for healthcare, and for housing. The reason that previous governments or programmes failed, is that the initiatives were isolated from one another. In one place just an education programme – but the parents had no job. In another case, just an employment programme, but the children had no money to go to school, or no care once they got there. In a third case there was just a housing programme, to tackle segregated Roma settlements. We want to construct a compact and complex activity – together. And with continuity. What happened until now, was that when a programme ended, that was it, there was no follow up. And the cycle started again, with no job, and no education. So we will have a complex approach, with continuity – housing, education, work, health care together in the same model experiment.
NT: In Szécsény in northern Hungary a pilot project to tackle the long-term unemployed, including the Roma, has been running with some success for several years, as part of the Hungarian Academy of Science’s project to eradicate child poverty by the year 2032. It is partly based on a Scandinavian model, of a very labour-intensive involvement of the social services to help local people. Are you familiar with that project – is this the kind of thing you have in mind?
ZB: I do know this project, and others – there is also the Childrens’ Own project from Harlem in the United States. We should learn from the experiences of others, and build them into our own. The problem facing the Roma of Hungary and Central Europe is a very particular problem which we have inherited from history, with a very strong “post-communist” component. The heavy industry and massive construction industry where the Roma used to work collapsed. They are jobless, rootless, and not integrated. We need a new model for integration, taking advantage of the experience of others, but
basically our own.
NT: The new government has said that a million jobs should be created over the next ten years. How many of those will go to Roma?
ZB: This is the most important task for us. 100,000 jobs for the Roma. That would mean doubling the number of workplaces at the moment. But it will only be possible as part of the general economic growth of the country. Our job, my job, is to give the Roma the chance to take part in the economic growth we hope to generate – to give the Roma a chance. Without Roma integration we have no chance, the society as a whole has no chance of growth.
NT: Just to be clear – are you speaking here of the same figure as before –- to double the proportion of working Roma from fifteen to thirty per cent?
ZB: Yes. Its a minimal project, but I hope to manage it. And the question is not only whether a person has a job or not, but what kind of job. At the moment there are public jobs – like mowing the verges, sweeping the streets – paid by the local government, but fewer Roma in jobs on the free market. And one of the main reasons for that is the lack of education. Public works should help people to have a better chance of finding work on the open market.
NT: Have you already had consultations with Roma leaders or representatives about your plans? Are they open to your ideas?
ZB: The Roma are a very heteregenous group, and very divided. So this is a crucial question for me: who is my partner? We have in Hungary the rather successful concept of elected local minority councils – not only for the Roma, but for all the other registered national and ethnic minorities, thirteen altogether. But these minority councils are responsible for cultural autonomy and education in the minority language, but not for wider problems of integration. So I will also need other partners, civic organisations for example. We are holding discussions with many groups and organisations, but they are not so effective. And that is a real problem. In summary, I can say that I am waiting for the response from the side of the Roma society to our initiatives.
NT: What could go wrong with your plans?
ZB: Everything! But I hope it won’t. The key issue is to change the mindset of both the majority and the minority. A certain view exists according to which Hungarians are racists, and the Roma are victims. But that is a false picture. I think in every society there are racist attitudes. But it is more or less a question of the social climate at any given time. At this moment people are angry and stressed and take out their frustration on other social groups. So we need a change in the social climate, to pave the way for more integration and more cooperation – not only between non-Roma and Roma, but also among the Roma themselves, as well as within the non-Roma majority. So this is a key issue – if we cannot change the attitude of the majority towards the Roma, we will fail. But I think that this is not only a moral or emotional issue. It is also a rational issue. This country cannot prosper without its Roma population. If the Roma lose, we lose too. We need to recognition this connection between Roma well-being and non-Roma well-being. That will succeed if we can change this negative trend against the Roma, at the same time as we change the mentality of the Roma. This mentality according to which “we are just victims, we are not responsible for ourselves, the state or the local government has to do everything for us, and we will just wait for that support to arrive.” What I would like to see instead is something like this: “we are responsible for our own lives, the state can give us a chance, but it is our responsibility to seize that chance.”
NT: Some might argue that other policies of the government – the crackdown on crime, and linking welfare payments to the school attendance of children-, increase the pressure on the Roma?
ZB: Yes, it is a pressure, but we need this pressure to show people – not only but also Roma people – that if the state gives support, this support is for the children, and for the children to go to school. And as far as crime is concerned, crime is crime. There is no such thing as Roma crime or Roma criminality. Criminality, everywhere in the world, has social and cultural components. But it is not an ethnic question, not a genetic question, but a question of social-cultural background. It is important to speak about it, and find ways to manage such problems, but not as an ethnic question. The criminality found among groups afflicted by grinding poverty is the same, for Roma or non-Roma. And what happened in Hungary in the recent past, during the previous governments, was that the state moved out of those areas of Hungary without infrastructure or with poor infrastructure, from those separated or segregated regions, starved of industrial development. Communities were abandoned, without schools, and without police. So people developed self-defence groups, with a “Guard” and neo-Nazi folklore, and so on. The state was responsible for this situation, but the state was no longer there. So people took the law into their own hands. What needs to happen now is for the state to return to these areas. Crime is crime, whoever commits it, and tough measures need to be taken to confront it. But at the same time we have to give people a chance, so they don’t turn to crime in the first place.
NT: What are your criteria for success, or failure?
ZB: I hope not only to double the number of the jobs for Roma, but also to double the number of Roma youth who pass their school-leaving exams. I really hope to see a proud Roma presence in the middle class. A significant Roma presence in the police, among teachers, nurses, lawyers…and perhaps less politicians.