Becoming a Leader

The Hungarian Guard, a far-right paramilitary organization founded in 2007, followed a pattern. It would solicit an invitation from someone in a village. Then it would show up to hold a rally or a paramilitary exercise. The Guard would specifically target villages with large Roma populations and justify its presence as an effort to protect non-Roma residents.

In April 2009, in the town of Janoshalma, the Guard intimidated Roma families to such a degree that 38 people fled to a nearby forest and lived there in fear for several weeks. Rather than rein in the Guard, the mayor of the village asked the Roma to leave -- not only the village but also the country. They fled to Strasbourg.

The Hungarian Supreme Court banned the Guard in 2008, but it has reappeared in different guises (such as the Hungarian National Guard) alongside other paramilitary organizations. Violence against Roma continues: physical attacks, arson and murder. This August, four men were convicted of killing six Roma, including a five-year-old child. One of the men was present at the founding of the Hungarian Guard, but "found them too soft and 'ridiculous.'"

Bela Racz grew up in a small village in Hungary with a mixed Roma and non-Roma population. In 2009, far-right-wing groups targeted his village. "We blocked the village with cars so that they couldn't enter," Racz told me in an interview in his office at the Open Society Foundation in Budapest in May.

He said:

You know who was calling them to our village? The local Catholic priest and one or two young Guards. But what's good in our village, if there is an emergency, the Roma will protect each other. So, they never came back. I understand why. When we were there, we said many bad things like, 'If you come here, you will die!' And of course they said the same things to us. So, it was a question of who was stronger. When the police came to us, we said we wouldn't move. The police went to the Guard and said, 'It's not good if you go there. I'm sorry but we can't protect you.' So they left and didn't come back.

Racz had begun organizing in his village several years before, after returning from a stay in Europe and a training course in South Africa. Several people in the village were energized by what he told them of his experiences. They created an NGO to address the discrimination and economic adversity that the Roma community faced.

"We had a meeting with one of the counselors in the municipality to talk about these problems," he recalled. "They made promises. But that was the problem. We didn't have any power. And we thought, 'We too want power.' We made a mistake, though, that we didn't make a larger community and ask for more people to get involved. I was 21 at that time. I just knew that I had to do something. But I was not a leader."

After the confrontation with the Hungarian paramilitary, however, Racz decided to take the next step. He decided to run for mayor in his village.

"I had two priorities: to do something for my people in the village and to make a kind of model for how we could do this," he said.

Bela Racz:

Because my family is here in Budapest and my official job is also here, I couldn't go home that often. But I put together a campaign. I campaigned for two months. I made individual visits to each house in the village. What was good about this model was that it showed how we can campaign, how we can motivate and involve people. And those leaders in power started to become fearful. They were doing many illegal things and were worried about losing their status. I invited the mayor to sit with me and have a discussion about the issues, not about him, but about the issues in the village. He was afraid to come. We made many visits to Roma and non-Roma. But I didn't have any money. I didn't have anything to pay people. He just paid some of the Roma to vote for him. So, I couldn't win the election.

We talked about how he would campaign differently if he were to run again, his current work on school desegregation, and the impact of the post-1989 changes on the Roma community in Hungary.

The Interview

Feffer: Was there a moment when you felt that you acquired a consciousness about politics?

Racz: It was in 1998 when I got the right to vote. I was 18. Before that, as I said, politics was just theoretical, like the discussions with my father and with my teacher about history and the political rhetoric of the past. But in 1998, we were young. It was when Fidesz won for the first time. We very much supported Fidesz. Enough with the Socialists, we said, they didn't change anything when they were the government between 1994 and 1998. It was the same old Socialiist guys sitting in government and parliament, and we said: not again. So, I went to vote. It was important. I had this right. And Fidesz was different at that time, not like now. It was young and reformist. I was very excited to be part of that.

Then, in 2001, I was abroad. I could travel, so I went to England, Denmark, and southeast European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. I also went to South Africa for a PAKIV European Roma training course. I experienced a different understanding of democracy in England and Denmark and also in the Balkan countries. I started to rethink the experience of democracy here in Hungary as well. Also, when I was in England and Denmark, I was invisible. It didn't matter that I was Roma. What was important was what I knew and what I wanted. After I came back after a year to Hungary, I felt: What am I doing here and what is this country? These people are punishing us. I just felt like punching them.

I established an NGO in my village. I started to talk to young people, Roma, non-Roma, to say that it can be different. Why aren't we asking about our rights? For a couple years we were discussing and visiting the representatives of the municipalities and organizing forums. It was a very active time. I was also studying at university at that time. Then there was an opportunity to come to Budapest. So I moved here and started to work in the ministry of education on EU structural funds and EU projects related to school desegregation.

Now I'm working in the western Balkan countries, mainly with NGOs and municipalities on projects like education. But politics is always in my life. I am always talking about politics with my friends in my generation. It's more open now, but politics have become worse, more segregated between Roma politics and general politics. I believe that we should insist that Roma are Hungarian citizens and we should address issues that are connected to Hungary. We are also a minority, so there some cultural issues we need to deal with connected to the discrimination and racism that exists in this country. But if we're talking about politics, there are no Roma who think they should be part of the municipality and run for election. We think this is what non-Roma do, and we have instead this Roma Minority Self-Government system. But the younger generation understands that without insisting on citizens' rights, you can't achieve anything. So, politics is in our life all the time, even if you're not fighting. It comes into your home. It's all the time pushing you.

Feffer: The experience of setting up an NGO in your village, tell me more about that. Did you already know some like-minded people in your village that you could work with? What were the issues you wanted to work on?

Racz: When I came back, I found out that I had many things to say to people about what I learned and what I saw. This started with my family. When I came home, all my family came to me. I was an interesting guy coming from abroad, so they asked many questions. I told my stories. And I realized that people are very interested to know these stories. But they were also saying, "Oh, it's different there, why isn't it like that here?" There were informal discussions in pubs and in my house -- with people in my family and outside my family. There was an old Roma guy who was leading the Roma minority self-government. He'd never had a chance to talk with the big leaders in the village. He was so lonely. And he said, "Ah, now I have someone to work with and do something together." Some people were more interested and some less. Eight or ten people stayed around and continued to discuss. We talked about why it was that public work was given to some people and not others. There was also an issue with woodcutting, people cutting wood in the forest for heating. We asked, "Who is the owner of these trees, and how can we make this legal?

I took on the task to learn about the laws and what we could and couldn't do: our rights and obligations. We had a meeting with one of the counselors in the municipality to talk about these problems. They made promises. But that was the problem. We didn't have any power. And we thought, "We too want power." We made a mistake, though, that we didn't make a larger community and ask for more people to get involved. I was 21 at that time. I just knew that I had to do something. But I was not a leader. I was just doing things and helping people. We did some youth projects like summer camps. We organized some vocational training for young girls and boys on how to deal with the labor market, how to put together a CV, many things. But then I left for this job and my studies.

In 2010 I went back to my village. Well, I was going back every month for my family. But I mean I went back to run in the election for the mayor. I will tell you why. Jobbik and the Hungarian Guards wanted to come to my village. This was in 2009. We blocked the village with cars so that they couldn't enter. It was different than in 2001. I felt more confident. There were some people who saw me as a kind of leader. In 2010, I understood that the situation for Roma would not change without political power. We couldn't do it at an international or national level. We had to start at the local level.

I had two priorities: to do something for my people in the village and to make a kind of model for how we could do this. Because my family is here in Budapest and my official job is also here, I couldn't go home that often. But I put together a campaign. I campaigned for two months. I made individual visits to each house in the village. What was good about this model was that it showed how we can campaign, how we can motivate and involve people. And those leaders in power started to become fearful. They were doing many illegal things and were worried about losing their status. I invited the mayor to sit with me and have a discussion about the issues, not about him, but about the issues in the village. He was afraid to come. We made many visits to Roma and non-Roma. But I didn't have any money. I didn't have anything to pay people. He just paid some of the Roma to vote for him. So, I couldn't win the election.

Feffer: The mayor is non-Roma?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.