Democracy Without Democrats in Hungary

05/12/2014 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014

Anybody can claim the mantle of democracy. Russian neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky runs a party called the Liberal Democratic Party. East Germany was called the German Democratic Republic. And even North Korea makes a nod in this direction when it calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The countries of East-Central Europe are, of course, in a different category. They have received democracy's "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval -- membership in the European Union. To gain membership, they had to meet all manner of political and economic benchmarks. But the true test of a democracy is whether people behave democratically, at all levels of society.

Andras Biro has a unique perspective on Hungarian democracy. He left the country after the 1956 uprising and didn't come back until the mid-1980s. In between he worked as a journalist and a UN consultant, much of the time in Latin America. In 1990, he founded the Autonomia Foundation to strengthen democracy in Hungary. One of the primary aims of the organization has been to help Roma improve their own position in society through small grants and loans. For this work, he received the Right Livelihood award in 1995.

I met Biro in 1993 when Autonomia was already active on many fronts. Twenty years later, as he approaches his tenth decade, Biro remains engaged in a variety of enterprises. Last May, after interviewing him in his apartment in Budapest, we went to the Central European University where he participated in a roundtable discussion on Roma issues. I expected we would take a taxi to the event, but no, we walked down to the bus stop and took public transportation.

To say that he is unhappy with the current political situation in Hungary would be an understatement. "Over the last 23 years, the developments in Hungary and its connection to the global situation can be summed up in one sentence -- democracy cannot be established without democrats," he told me. "This society didn't have any democratic experience except for the short orgiastic moments of revolution, which were not conducive to establishing real democratic structures such as laws, a constitution, or the democratic instincts without which there is no democracy."

In place of democracy, Biro sees a country increasingly held together by a culture of corruption. "During the previous so-called democratic liberal governance, corruption started to become a very important part of economic life," he observed. "It was not legitimized. Now, parliament enacts laws that legitimate the structural corruption. People get money from the state in order to recycle it back to the political mafia."

He was no less withering about the lack of democracy from below, particularly in Hungary's so-called civil society, an import from the United States. "U.S. society could handle this, and your democracy was not in danger," he pointed out. "But the export of this idea to Hungary - where there are now more than 60,000 NGOs and foundations - is something else. It has created a kind of business sector, and it has prevented the rise of a real civil society with a real political role. Of course, these NGOs have a social service role too. But if they dominate the game, then they thwart the whole democratic process."

His criticism extends to the work that he has done as well. "Quantitatively, Autonomia was a success," he told me. "The donors kept coming, one after the other, particularly American donors. After only two years, I had a yearly budget of one million dollars. Of course, it's another danger when you have too much money, because it can sometimes thwart the process. But we were careful. We didn't enter the NGO game. And the repayment ratio on the loans we gave was extraordinarily high, higher than any banks these days. But qualitatively, I'm not at all sure if we have done anything worthwhile to mention."

Qualitatively, Roma civil society remains weak. But this is also a reflection of the democratic structures within which it operates. For Biro, the civic engagement of Roma is a more sophisticated test of Hungarian democracy than mere EU membership. "As long as the Roma do not become citizens -- they already have passports and IDs but I'm talking effective citizens -- our democracies won't be able to call themselves democracies," he concluded. "This is the litmus test for democracy, what determines the mental and psychological health of a given society. And nowadays, Hungary is an extremely sick country."

The Interview

I want to push you on this question of strategy on Roma issues. You've talked about how this do-goodism is ultimately self-defeating, even if it makes people feel good briefly. But you also said that your strategy of providing microloans was successful quantitatively but you had some questions about its qualitative success. Can you explain that?

Our objective was not simply economic. We gave loans to local Roma NGOs in order to provoke a democratic process inside the NGO itself. And it turned out that these organizations were basically family structures. We lost the battle in this respect.

So, what strategies? For me, there is nothing else methodologically possible except to make Roma themselves part of the discourse. If they remain passive objects or subjects of government intentions and societal approval or disapproval, nothing will ever change. For a certain period of time and in certain sectors, affirmative action is needed -- but not indefinitely. The crux of the matter is to take into account the demographic weight. This gives us an opportunity to exploit the fact that the Roma are growing, whereas the majority is declining. Stated in political terms, if the Roma could all go in the same direction by voting, they could determine the game between the parties.

Like the ethnic Turks do in Bulgaria.

Precisely.

But unfortunately, as you point out, they are too diverse and don't act as a single voting bloc.

Right, they don't have this power. Without a genuine movement and legitimate leadership -- i.e., democratic processes inside the movement -- and by this to create a political weight and effective citizenship, I don't see any possible change.

Now this won't be the strategy of any political party or power structure. It's the business of the Roma. They always say, "We don't have a Martin Luther King, Jr." Why don't you have Martin Luther King, Jr.? There was no Martin Luther King, Jr. for centuries for Blacks in the States. But then something started to move. I don't want to compare, because it's too easy, but there's one thing to mention. When Africans arrived in the States, they were immediately proletarianized. Which was horrible for them, of course. But they immediately got close to people because they were the nannies and the servants. In the meantime, they experienced racist discrimination against them -- in a country where human rights were in general respected. All these conditions are not here in the case of the Roma.

AFSC more or less promoted the civil rights approach, though sometimes it was more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr.

You must have this diversity of approaches. We don't have either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr.

You will meet Nicolae Gheorghe. Between us, he is very sick. And I am very upset about this because we are very close friends. In fact, he is the only Roma with whom I have a real relationship, and not because they are bad and I am good. But because I am a gadjo. Whatever I do -- this barrier is difficult to overcome. But since the beginning between the two of us, this problem didn't exist -- probably because we were both Communists: believers not apparatchiks. Then in different ways we worked ourselves out of this intellectual prison of modern Marxism.

I want to give you some other strategic thoughts of what to do. If we have the organic intellectuals that Gramsci talked about, then something can start to move. Because of the Orban regime, civil society is starting to emerge in Hungary. It's a society like any other. Back in 1989, people received from the top a new system that they didn't have before, and they thought that with this they would soon have the income of the Austrians. Then they saw that this was not the case, and the political path was really corrupt. Now there's 54 percent of the population that very consciously has decided that they don't want to vote. Politics is a dirty word -- and dirty work. But this is starting to change with the youngsters, and I'm happy to see that. They are organizing in a new way, like the horizontal organizing of Facebook. They say, "Gentlemen you don't understand. Please try to understand us." They don't say, "You animals, you fascists." It's a totally new discourse, which is a fundamental change from my youth and the concept of class struggle. Even in the trade unions there are new phenomena.

In some ways, Hungary could follow the Slovak example. Meciar was the reason that Slovak civil society emerged: it emerged in opposition to Meciar. So, in opposition to Fidesz and Orban, it could reemerge here as well. On the strategy issue, I talked with Robert Braun, who is running for parliament. He argues that it's a mistake to focus on Roma as Roma rather than focusing on inequality more generally.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.