Update to the post on Jan. 22, 2012: source and link to pictures added to ending paragraphs on previous marches of the New Hungarian Guard in the latter half of 2011.
For the last few days, one of the most popular pastimes in Hungary has been the compilation of lists ranking the lies told by the Hungarian prime minister to the European Parliament. Hungarians also compare and contrast Viktor Orbán’s distortions of the truth in the various speeches and press conferences he gave during his visit to Strasbourg on January 18, so that they can cast a vote on online forums on which one is the biggest lie of them all. Here, I only want to focus on one of Orbán’s lies: on his claims that his government put an end to the operations of paramilitary organizations in Hungary.During his opening speech to the European Parliament’s debate about Hungary, Viktor Orbán made it a point to mention the strong measures his government had taken against far-right extremism. “What’s happening in our country is a very exciting process of renewal,” he said.
In 2010 … we also had para-military organizations in the country… Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve done an incredible job, we are very proud of the job that we have done … Of course I acknowledge that we still have serious economic problems ahead of us, but for the very first time in Hungary now … we have actually banned para-military organizations, which was not the case hitherto. And so today we have protection for all minorities in Hungary – national minorities, the Roma population, the Jewish minority all are protected. The Hungarian government will continue to defend these minorities always in the future.
The truth, instead, is that the Hungarian far-right has never been as strong – both organizationally and operationally – as under the Orbán government. On the one hand, their strengthening is a consequence of Jobbik’s entry into the Hungarian parliament. But their success can also be credited to the lax and tolerant attitude of the Hungarian government, and to the almost symbiotic political relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik in their competition for the nationalist-populist vote.
A case in point would be the situation in Gyöngyöspata, where, during the spring of 2011, paramilitary groups held a small town’s Roma population under siege for approximately two months. Gyöngyöspata is now forever connected in the minds of those who were following the events of the spring with the fact that at some point the tensions in the town came dangerously close to erupting in violence. Yet in some sense this was only a prelude to an enduring far-right takeover in Gyöngyöspata, a “legitimate occupation” which is maintained with legality to the present day.
While “civic guards” – a newly Christened regrouping of the Hungarian Guard, which by that time had been disbanded – were present in Gyöngyöspata, the Hungarian government’s response to the situation was less than adequate. Not so much because the Hungarian authorities did not have a legal basis for intervention: they are not typically deterred from taking action on behalf of their convictions by making up the legal basis for it. After about a month and a half, the Hungarian government did in fact change the criminal code to contain more severe penalties, which was crucial for putting an end to the situation (that members of the paramilitary organizations have yet to be brought to justice for their human rights abuses is another matter, of course).
During these months, the Minister of the Interior ordered the stationing of a police force in the town in order to prevent any conflict between the paramilitary troops and the Roma population. Helped by the vigilance of the “civic guards,” the police was also busy handing out tickets to the Roma population in the village. Their infractions included violations such as using the road, instead of the impassable side-walk, to pass with a baby-carriage, or a nine-year-old girl’s picking up of a stick – “a twig suitable to serve as a weapon” – from the ground (for understanding the latter infraction, one must also know the Roma are often accused of stealing firewood from the public). In this way, Gyöngyöspata’s Roma population collected a considerable debt obligation: when these tickets are tallied up, it turns out that many Roma families owe more than 100,000 Hungarian forints for violations like the above.
Since July 2011, Gyöngyöspata is under Jobbik government: far-right candidates running in the town’s special mayoral election received 44.3 percent of the votes (up from 5.8% since the regular election in 2010). Subsequently, the Hungarian government decided to work in close co-operation with the Jobbik mayor of the town on developing its mandatory public work program. This is how Gyöngyöspata became the experimental site for refining one of the most controversial initiatives of the Hungarian government (the previous link is to a lengthier piece on the blog, this link is to a shorter report on what is objectionable about the program’s political and discriminatory motivations).
While previous governments also invested in public work programs, the Orbán government’s version of the program makes it mandatory for anyone selected for the program to participate in public work or else lose eligibility for social benefits for years into the future. The payment is lower than the Hungarian minimum wage (participants receive a net payment of 60 thousand Hungarian forints every month). As such, there are severe penalties attached to not confirming to the expectations of the program’s administration, while, as was seen in Gyöngyöspata, simultaneously there is considerable arbitrariness in the management of the program.
Only Roma residents were selected for the program from among the residents of Gyöngyöspata. But given the large number of tickets they had received from the police while the paramilitaries were in town, they often found their wages reduced. The town’s mayor deducted their debt to the municipality; at times they walked home with as little as 20 or 30% of their wages: at times, this amounted to no more than 24 thousand Hungarian forints (80 euros) for a month of hard physical labor. In addition, several workers were fired by the mayor under circumstances that are subject to dispute – they and their families are now ineligible for social benefits for the next three years.
In November of 2011, the Hungarian parliament amended the law regulating the operations of paramilitary organizations. At the time, newspapers reported that no longer would one see the successor groups of the Hungarian Guard (which is the original paramilitary arm of Jobbik, led by party chairman Gábor Vona, and which had been disbanded by a judicial verdict that found its operations unconstitutional). No longer would they be marching on the streets of Hungary because, according to the new regulations, “civic guards” nationwide would patrol in a new uniform, thus making the black uniforms worn by the guardists on the pictures below an open violation of Hungarian law.
But as is often the case in Hungary, reality does not necessarily correspond to what the newspapers say. The pictures below were taken at the protest organized by Jobbik last Saturday – just four days before Orbán’s speech in Strasbourgh.
News that three Hungarian members of parliament burned an EU flag at the protest eclipsed concerns about the conspicuous presence of paramilitary troops wearing guard-like uniforms and black boots. The event was attended by at least five paramilitary groups: the Hungarian National Guard (Magyar Nemzeti Gárda), the New Hungarian Guard Movement (Új Magyar Gárda Mozgalom), the Hungarian National Front ( Magyar Nemzeti Front), the Movement of the Guards of the Carpathian Home Country (Kárpát Haza Őrei Mozgalom), and the For a Better Future Civic Guard Association (Szebb Jövőért Polgárőr Egyesület). Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona himself informed the press organs of his party about the joining of these groups to the protest.
One must also add that sightings of Hungarian guardists did decrease in Hungary during the second half of 2011. The operation of the paramilitary troops have been less ostentatious, though this is not to say that they ceased. See, for example, the following photo album of the New Hungarian Guard, rallying in uniform in November 2011 in protest of “gypsy criminality” (at this time, according to Mr. Orbán, they were no longer tolerated by his government):
If you look through the pictures, you will also see policemen asking members of the banned paramilitary organization for their papers, and letting them go almost as soon as they check their IDs.
Therefore by no means is there an improvement in the problem of Hungarian far-right militias, as Mr. Orbán would like to have it when speaking directly to the European Parliament. On the contrary, the situation has deteriorated considerably since he started the dangerous double-speak of trying to impress both his own supporters in Hungary and the loan sources abroad. Since then, there has been an upsurge both in the number of the troops seen and in the conspicuousness they can afford to themselves – all in all, a deterioration of a situation already quite severe. At the very least, the Hungarian authorities tolerate these gatherings. A more in-depth political analysis of how this specific protest shored up support for the less radical but still conservative Fidesz party would indicate something worse: that the Hungarian government tolerates the Hungarian guards for its own political benefit.