Referendum proposed on autonomous Roma province in Hungary

In 2011, István Kamarás–formerly employed by the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s (KDNP) Barankovics Foundation–claimed refugee status in Canada, noting that he no longer wanted to “lend his name to the government’s actions that oppress Gypsies.” He added that he is “forced to emigrate from the country” and is “forced to accept in his heart the centuries-long hopelessness of the Gypsy people.” Since then, Mr. Kamarás and his family returned to Hungary and he established a new political party with a considerable following on social media. But what really propelled him into the spotlight was when he submitted a referendum proposal to the National Election Office this week on the creation of a autonomous Roma province in northeastern Hungary. Mr. Kamarás is calling for territorial autonomy and his proposal incorporates lands currently under the jurisdiction of four Hungarian counties.

István Kamarás on the left.

The logic behind the proposal and Mr. Kamarás’ political movement, the Opre Roma-Gypsy Democratic People’s Party, is that Roma political elites in Hungary have been both corrupt and incompetent, doing almost nothing to help raise the nation’s largest and growing minority out of abject poverty. Mr. Kamarás refers specifically to the way in which EU funds aimed at Roma integration were misappropriated. His second rationale for territorial autonomy has to do with the changing demographics in counties like Nógrád and Borsod. In both counties, the proportion of students who belong to the Roma minority exceeds 33%. The national average is 15%, although the highest proportion of Roma school children anywhere in the country is found in Budapest’s 8th District, where 48% of students are Roma. (The Mandiner site published a noteworthy interview on these demographic realities with researcher Attila Z. Papp of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, back in 2015.)

The proposed autonomous Roma territory would be called the Roma Province of Northeastern Hungary (Észak- Magyarországi Roma Tartomány). The proposal was announced in the Csongrád county village of Magyarcsanád, which is perhaps best known for being a truly multicultural community. While the Roma actually only comprise 8% of the population according to official statistics, ethnic Romanians form 12% and thus the largest minority group. There is also a community of ethnic Serbs (2%) in this village of 1,400 residents. From what I could tell from photos posted to Facebook, the announcement of proposed territorial autonomy looked like a jovial, social event–akin to a picnic.

Supporters of the Opre Roma-Gypsy Democratic People’s Party in Magyarcsanád.

The referendum initiative, however, faces an uphill battle. First, the question must be approved by the National Election Office, after which point Mr. Kamarás and his supporters must collect at least 200,000 signatures. There are at least 1 million Roma in Hungary, so technically it would be possible to collect the required number of signatures with no support from the majority population. However, civic engagement among the Roma has been exceedingly low. If the question is accepted and if at least 200,000 valid signatures are collected, the referendum could proceed. The territorial integrity of Hungary is a very sensitive subject among Hungarians, in light of massive territorial losses following the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Although Mr. Kamarás is not proposing outright separation from Hungary, I would be surprised if any major political party offers to support his concept in a referendum. For his part, Mr. Kamarás has announced that he will keep equal distance from all existing political parties.

The Opre Roma-Gypsy party logo.

Mr. Kamarás has, however, made effective use of social media. His Facebook page has around 2,000 followers and he is highly active in posting short video clips, vlogs, photos and other material. Mr. Kamarás is also currently on a national tour, spreading his message in eastern Hungarian towns with large Roma minorities.

“Your origins are not important and your social class within the Gypsy community does not matter either. It does not matter where you live, nor does your economic background make a difference. It does not matter what party or ideology you supported up until now. Nor does your education, your profession or religion make a difference. There is only one thing that matters. If you agree with our mission, then walk with us. We Roma/Gypsy people will finally take our fate into our own hands”–writes Mr. Kamarás.

What exactly is the party’s program of Roma/Gypsy empowerment, other than territorial autonomy? Some of their demands offer fascinating concepts for study and debate, even though certain ideas may be problematic. One part of their platform focuses on a type of affirmative action program. Mr. Kamarás proposes to set a quota for the entire public sector, whereby ministries and organizations receiving public funds would be required to ensure that the Roma comprise a minimum proportion of the workforce, commensurate to their overall proportion of Hungary’s population or to their regional weight. Mr. Kamarás goes further: private firms that choose not to hire Roma, or to adhere to a certain proportion, would be required to pay a fee to the state, which would then be used to fund Roma integration programs. Another aspect of their platform is the establishment of a public institute that studies Roma languages, culture and history in Central Europe. Finally, the party supports the concept of guaranteed minimum income for all.

There is a significant problem with the otherwise fascinating idea of adopting a Roma quota and affirmative action program in public sector hiring. There is an acute labour shortage in Hungary and across so many sectors, Hungarian employers (both public and private) are struggling to fill vacant positions. I believe that despite latent discrimination and prejudice in Hungary, many of these employers would be happy to filling these long-standing vacancies with qualified Roma. The problem is that many unemployed or underemployed young Roma do not speak any foreign languages (this is absolutely essential in most fields in Hungary) and do not have adequate education or training. A Roma man or woman who is not at least functional in English or German, for instance, will not be hired to work in a hotel, restaurant, museum or other attraction anywhere in Budapest or the Lake Balaton area. Yet in both places, the tourism and hospitality sector is struggling to fill vacancies.

Mr. Kamarás is doing some of the grassroots building and campaigning that is so essential for any political movement to get off the ground. His group will also have to work with experts and professionals to vet his program. As well, he will endure the uphill battle of convincing the majority population that he poses no threat to Hungary’s territorial integrity and that his plan really does help integrate the Romani. Some are incredulous. One gentleman commented on the party’s Facebook page: “Perhaps you can start by simply not voting for Fidesz, even if the party transports you by bus right to the voting booth.” Another person commented that Mr. Kamarás should not try to establish a ghetto. The party president wrote back and correctly noted that territorial autonomy and ghettoisation are not the same.

The road ahead for Mr. Kamaras is long. He must mobilize local Roma at the grassroots level to be more engaged in civic issues and he must convince them not to vote for Fidesz, in exchange for very modest aid and bus rides to the voting booth. And he must also engage the majority population in a positive way.

2 Comments

  1. Well… Mr Kamaras better start learning to fly … it will be easier.
    Anyone knows about successful Roma self government in Europe? More than 50% self financing I mean.

  2. Pingback: Autonomous Hungarian Roma Province? - rroma.org

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