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Story Publication logo January 29, 2013

Europe and the Resurgent Politics of Ethnic Scapegoating


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Europe’s economic crisis has become intertwined with disturbing anti-democratic trends and the rise...

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Participants in an August anti-Roma rally in the Hungarian village of Devecser. Image by Kettős Mérce. Hungary, 2012.

While Europe's economic woes have lately dominated headlines, the lights on Rome's fabled Colosseum went dark Sunday to highlight an overlooked consequence of that crisis: rising xenophobia across Europe. In a statement this week, Rome's mayor described the symbolic act, planned to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as motivated, in particular, by "acts of anti-Semitism that are spreading in a disturbing manner in Hungary, prompted by the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party."

One of a number of far-right parties that have won greater representation in European parliaments in recent years while scapegoating minority groups, Jobbik is a self-described "radically patriotic Christian party"-- others describe it as "fascist," "Neo-Nazi," "racist," and "homophobic"-- which often makes headlines for anti-Semitic and anti-Roma outbursts.

The most surprising came in late November, when Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi stunned observers by calling for the creation of a list of Hungary's Jews, especially those in government, "who represent a certain national security risk." While this wasn't the first time that Jobbik has been accused of playing to anti-Semitic sentiments, this latest episode apparently went a step too far in a country where more than half a million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, often with the help of community lists used to round them up for deportation to Auschwitz. In a rare display of civic solidarity last month, a crowd of thousands gathered outside parliament for a demonstration against Gyongyosi's comments and a rising tide of hatred and extremism.

Before his controversial remarks, Marton Gyongyosi was regarded as the educated, presentable face of Jobbik. In late September, I had the chance to interview him at length. We talked in his office, where outside the window a rose-orange sunset glowed above the Danube's gray waters. Gyongyosi, who looks the part of the well-mannered diplomat, casually brushed aside charges of anti-Semitism in his party. When I asked about a recent scandal involving a Jobbik MP who had been blackmailed over the discovery that his grandmother was Jewish -- an Auschwitz survivor -- Gyongyosi claimed he had not been pressured to resign because of the revelation about his ancestry, but because he had offered parliamentary funds to protect the secret (of course, the fact he felt compelled to do so would seem to refute Gyonyosi's denial).

Jobbik members have previously used homophobic or anti-Semitic stances to mobilize support, says David Vig of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in Budapest. But these did not prove as effective as preying off widespread, longstanding anti-Roma sentiment (the Roma -- or "gypsies" -- face discrimination across Europe and make up about six percent of Hungary's population). "Jobbik just found, very cleverly, the gap where they could get in," he said. The party's founder calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty to deal with "gypsy crime," and he also founded a party militia, the Hungarian Guard, which was outlawed as a threat to minority rights in Hungary.

Now Hungary's third largest party, Jobbik is a one-trick pony, say critics, which cynically exploits racism without offering any real policy to address the Roma's condition of social and economic exclusion. When I asked Gyongyosi what policy the party advocates to fix the situation, he responded with a half-formed idea for boarding schools to remove Roma children from their families' tangle of pathology -- just a starting point for discussion, he said. Gyongyosi sees Jobbik's role as putting "gypsy crime" at the forefront of public debate.

But rather than fostering debate, many see such Roma-baiting as contributing to a dangerous atmosphere of brewing hostility. Earlier that morning I sat among a handful of spectators in a Budapest courthouse when a side door opened and four men with tattoos and shaved heads filed out in handcuffs. Between each was a black-clad security escort in a ski mask. Dubbed the 'Death Squad,' the men were charged with six murders in a wave of grisly attacks against Roma communities, often flushing out targets with Molotov cocktails before gunning them down in front of their homes.

Hungary is home to a wide variety of extremist groups. Two of the Death Squad killers reportedly had contact with members of the Hungarian National Front, an anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma group that founded an annual international neo-Nazi event and regularly holds paramilitary training exercises on a former Soviet military base (including one last year in which its security forces practiced urban warfare against unspecified "enemies of our nation"). In October, the HNF published a propaganda piece entitled "Free Gaza: The Zionists Orchestrated the Holocaust."

Jobbik has tried to publicly distance itself from such groups in the past. But the nature of the party's intellectual bedfellows emerged during a Jobbik-organized rally in August in Devecser, a village in western Hungary. A Jobbik MP delivered the first speech, about the need to confront the problem of "gypsy crime." But the subsequent speeches from members of other groups turned increasingly threatening, according to a witness I interviewed, climaxing with a tirade from the leader of a group called Outlaws' Army (elsewhere he's called for the establishment of paramilitary camps to train Hungarian youth for an impending race war in Europe, and for the country's Jews to once again be shipped off in freight cars). "It was really like hearing Hitler," the witness said. Demonstrators eventually began chanting death threats and throwing stones at Roma houses, vowing to return.

When I asked Gyongyosi about Devecser, he talked for approximately six minutes about "gypsy crime." I told him what I meant was that a rally that had degenerated into a tirade of death threats and rock-throwing -- an international incident that made the party synonymous with neo-Nazi thugs -- must surely be bad press for Jobbik. If such actions don't reflect the party's core values, why had they not said as much?

"In a rally, the more people there are, the happier you tend to be," he said. "And then you can see that there is a very thin line -- you cannot draw very straight lines between who is who and who wants what."

I wasn't surprised that he disavowed responsibility for the other groups that turned up. But his acknowledgement that there is no clear line to distinguish Jobbik's platform from that of the extremist groups flocking to their rallies seemed precisely the problem. From a cynical PR standpoint alone, I had expected he would regret holding the rally. But that was not the case.

"If you take democracy seriously, what is productive and what is not... time tells," he said. "It is very difficult to say, 'okay, this was good, that was bad, we could have done without, or we need another two more of these type of rallies.'"

Across Europe, the resurgence of such extremist politics has raised thorny questions about the limits of free speech and political participation in a democracy.

"There is this argument that democracy should be tolerant to anything," said Irene Koutelou, one of the founders of Greece's Anti-Nazi Initiative. "But democracy cannot be tolerant to stabbings. It cannot be tolerant to beatings. It cannot be tolerant to organized groups that promote violence on a racist basis." Koutelou's organization has been lobbying for more than a decade to outlaw the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn. Over the last year, the onetime fringe group has become Greece's third most popular party, and Koutelou fears its leaders wants to ride the prevailing winds of anti-immigrant sentiment to become a pan-European force.

Outlawing a party is a slippery slope -- and tricky. For years, Germany has unsuccessfully sought to ban the right-wing extremist NPD. Hungary has banned the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik's party militia, only to see it remerge as the New Hungarian Guard.

The Breivik attacks in Norway may have awoken Europeans somewhat to the danger from extremism and rising xenophobia. Still, Germans were shocked last November when it came to light that a previously unknown neo-Nazi terrorist group, the National Socialist Underground, was behind the seemingly unconnected murders of nine immigrants and a policewoman, as well as 14 bank robberies and two bombings -- all while evading the police and intelligence services for years. In July, Germany's chief of internal intelligence reported an increased risk of violence from far-right extremists.

But observers say the fault also lies with mainstream politicians, who have largely ignored the legacy of failed assimilation policies and the tensions surrounding unintegrated groups. Or, more recently, caved to the far-right.

Kristof Domina, founder of the Budapest-based Athena Institute, which tracks European extremist groups, sees German chancellor Angela Merkel's pronouncement that multiculturalism has "utterly failed" as a dangerous precedent in a country where neo-Nazi fringe groups still flourish (the Athena Institute's website documents one such group that follows a leaderless structure with 100 identified subgroups and an estimated membership of 25,000 people). "This is what we see throughout the continent," he said. "We don't have a serious debate. The issue is sidelined. Politicians do not confront it." Absent something like a European civil rights movement for marginalized groups, Domina sees the likely outcome as more episodes of Breivik-style violence.

Gyongyosi, too, pointed to Merkel's concession -- along with recent Roma expulsions under centrist governments in Italy and France -- as vindication of Jobbik's own positions. But political cover has also come from Fidesz, Hungary's ruling center-right party.

The latest example comes in the wake of a New Year's Eve stabbing allegedly committed by Roma youth. In response, Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer triggered a public backlash by writing that "most Gypsies are unsuitable for co-existence, unsuitable for living among people. These Gypsies are animals..."

Opposition politicians clamored for Bayer's membership in Fidesz to be revoked as a clear signal that hate-mongering will not be tolerated. "Prime Minister Viktor Orban's friend has incited genocide in a clear, deliberate and pre-meditated way," said independent deputy Agnes Vadai.

But the prime minister has remained notably silent on the issue -- evidence, say critics, that the country's governing party is tolerating hate speech from its members in order to court far-right voters.

In an interview with Zsigmond Perenyi, Fidesz's international secretary, he made clear his belief that Jobbik was dangerous -- "a Nazi, xenophobe, and extremist right party." After the economic crisis, he said, Jobbik swelled with support in areas with large Roma populations, where poor, uneducated Hungarians were susceptible to simplistic explanations blaming the Roma for the country's plight. The party leadership has been hijacked by more radical elements, said Perenyi. "If they tell you that Hungarians and Roma cannot live in peace together that is dangerous for Hungary. Because we have 800,000 Roma... And we have Jobbik, and they're getting stronger."

So what is Fidesz's solution? Focusing on improving the economy, he says.

But Hungary's leaders could certainly do more. The problem, says OSI's Peter Nizak, is that public opinion polls show anti-Roma sentiment to be a lone point of consensus in Hungary today. As Jobbik and Fidesz fight to peel away each other's voters, he says, Fidesz doesn't want to come out strongly against extremism for fear of losing far-right voters.

I asked Perenyi why, since he fears the spread of Jobbik's dangerous ideology, Fidesz' top officials so often seem unwilling to clearly differentiate their own values. He pointed to the prevalence of far-right parliamentary parties around Europe. "That's nothing unique or special you can just find in Hungary." One could go and ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Perenyi continued, what he had done to confront the right-wing National Party in France.

"He wouldn't understand your question," he said.



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