Attila Lakatos: Romani people must be given work
News server Českápozice.cz has published an interview with Attila Lakatos, a Romani leader from the impoverished district of Borsod in northeastern Hungary. The full Czech original is available here. News server Romea.cz publishes it in full translation below.
Attila Lakatos, a Romani leader from the impoverished northeastern district of Borsod, is famous for his open statements regarding the coexistence of Hungarians and the Romani minority. We believe that his opinions, which were expressed in an interview for the right-wing daily Magyar Nemzet (MN), should be brought to the attention of the Czech Republic, where coexistence between the majority society and Romani people also cannot be called ideal.
Lakatos advocates a policy that would facilitate two things in particular for Romani people: Education and work. We have chosen to highlight the following of his statements:
- "The most dangerous person is one who is hungry and has no work, someone who goes to sleep not knowing what he will give his family to eat the next day. Roughly one-fifth of Hungarian Romani people find themselves in such a situation. We can't be surprised if some of these people commit theft," Lakatos claims.
- "My opinions are not popular among either the majority society or among representatives of the Romani minority. The reason is that I have the courage to say what others, for various reasons, do not. We should have been making these statements 15 years ago, not just today," claims the leader, a businessman who employs 40 Romani people.
- "I am not a multinational company, I cannot employ thousands of Romani people. They must get the opportunity to educate themselves and work, otherwise things will be bad."
- Approximately half a million Romani people live in Hungary. Lakatos warns that if something doesn't change in the thinking around the Romani issue, the situation could lead to civil war. "I have the courage to express this opinion because the majority society is sick of being robbed, of sowing what others then reap. It can't go on this way. Romani people must get work, then everything will be in order," he claims.
Romani people will only listen to one another
MN: Hungarian society has been shocked by appalling cases recently in which Romani people have essentially attacked innocent people for no reason, either brutally beating or stabbing them. Why, in your view, are these assailants breaking the basic rules of coexistence?
LAKATOS: Romani people have boisterousness and irritability in their blood, you won't get rid of it through "three strikes and you're out" or anything else. In those cases, the fact that Romani people are proud and don't want to compromise on that pride much is definitely playing a role. They often say they won't be anyone's doormat.
MN: Can this be explained by mere pride?
LAKATOS: That and stupidity. The enemy of the Romani people is not the Jobbik movement (an ultra-right party sitting in Parliament – editors), but most often their own stupidity. Many of them are so backward they just go ahead and beat people, chop them up, without asking a thing.
MN: That is how the psychology of part of the Romani population works?
LAKATOS: Something an 18-year-old Romani youth said to me recently is a good example of their mentality. I was trying to get through to him, telling him he should not harm others because he would end up in prison. He responded that he would at least have made a name for himself once he was released.
MN: Is there any way to get Romani people to change this way of contemplating life, to reject these brutal actions on their own?
LAKATOS: Members of the older age groups universally condemn these crimes. Roughly one-third of the Romani population, mainly the younger ones, are causing disruptions in this country, but most of us pay the price for that.
MN: What do you think about the circumstances and forms of these crimes?
LAKATOS: Knife attacks are always attributed to us, and unfortunately not entirely without justification. It often also happens that while committing a crime out of self-interest, Romani people are also capable of killing, even over trifles - a hammer, some pasta, some plastic dishes.
MN: That's the value of human life to them?
LAKATOS: During such crimes the perpetrators often act under the influence of alcohol, opiates, or sedatives. That's interesting, because we keep emphasizing that a large part of the Romani people lives in deep poverty and suffers hunger. Where do they get the money for drugs?
MN: How would you answer that?
LAKATOS: Unfortunately, I often don't know myself.
MN: Could you name cases in which Romani society has been subjected to brutal attacks like this?
LAKATOS: This only occurs between Romani people themselves. When I hear somewhere that two larger groups have attacked one another with mattocks, scythes and swords, I immediately know it's about us. Out of 10 cases of brutal attack, only one at the most will involve Romani victims. The fact that Hungarians don't let us get involved in anything because of our bad reputation contributes to this.
MN: You have long emphasized that if Hungarians and Romani people are to live together peacefully, Romani people must be committed to the idea. How, exactly?
LAKATOS: According to what I see in our district, I can say that the Romani question will never be resolved from the capital nor through our own representatives. When they throw billions at improving the Romani situation and don't even know where that money is going, and when there is no progress to be see, then it just doesn't work. Instead, they need to travel to the countryside and find local people to invest in. They need to analyze problems there together with them and find out how they might be resolved. No one can do this on our behalf, because Romani people will only listen to one another. Then, together with Romani people who have respect in a given area, they should visit all of the families, go house to house if they have to, and explain to them that their children must attend school and the adults must work.
MN: Can't the current Romani representatives take care of this on their own? Do they even enjoy respect among the Romani population?
LAKATOS: How can they enjoy respect when they are essentially inaccessible to ordinary people?! If they manage to arrange a meeting with them, then our people travel to the capital, everyone rattles off what's bothering him, and nothing happens all the same. Since the revolution in 1989, the statewide representatives have never paid attention to the interests of the Romani minority and have never informed the government correctly about the Romani situation. They told them everything was fine while most of the Romani population were worse and worse off. Today Romani people are even afraid of one another in many instances.
MN: Is there any representative whose advice everyone would listen to?
LAKATOS: At regional level one there are many honorable people one might rely on, and we must take action, otherwise there will be a civil war here sooner or later. The problem is that for some reason the media are not curious about us.
MN: Some members of the Romani intelligentsia have said more than once that when they return to their birthplaces, society does not accept them there and basically excludes them as different. Why is there no way back to their societies of origin for them?
LAKATOS: On the one hand, when a Romani person completes his studies, only one out of 10 of them at the most is willing to return to his own people, because he's had enough of all those problems. On the other hand, yes, their original societies most often reject them because they got ahead. Enormous envy is at work among many of them, as well as stupidity.
MN: What is your opinion of the liberal human rights defenders who take the Romani side in some cases and announce they are taking Romani affairs into their own hands?
LAKATOS: They operate on the principle that what is bad for us is good for them. They are just exploiting us. We don't need them anyway, because while various offenses are committed against Romani people, it's not as if there is some kind of enormous racism here. What's more, the human rights defenders just confuse the Romani people. In some cases they come to them uninformed as to the entirety of a matter, but they immediately incite them against someone anyway. Then they leave, never to return. A Romani child assaults his teacher and starts shouting that he was violating his rights because he's a racist - he's just parroting what some human rights defender told him. Charges like that are naturally untrue for the most part, and no one should ever raise his hand to his teacher anyway.
MN: How effective is the information that keeps coming out in the press - how important is reconciliation?
LAKATOS: That's hard to judge, but it is clear that the vast majority of ordinary Romani people take no interest in newspaper articles or in what is going on in the country as a whole. I repeat, what is needed is to explain to them, directly in their own communities and homes, what the rules of coexistence are.
MN: It is certain they will take them to heart?
LAKATOS: They will have to, they will have no choice.
MN: Do you consider what the majority society does, or is doing its best to do in the interests of normal coexistence, to be sufficient?
LAKATOS: The Hungarians are sick of taking 10 steps to get closer to Romani people while we take no steps. Everyone has had enough of the Romani question and they are right, because no progress can be seen anywhere. Despite this, the Hungarians are not turning away from us. I've seen a Romani home burning and a Hungarian putting out the fire, how Hungarians have taken up collections when a Romani child needed an operation. Whoever from our community says Hungarians are racists needs to do something good just once and he'll see them stand up for him.
MN: When, in your opinion, did the situation start to deteriorate?
LAKATOS: It deteriorated greatly in 2007, 2008, when that Hungarian group was murdering us, hunting us down. The problem is that most Romani people were quiet at that time, mainly because they were better off during the socialist governments thanks to welfare.
MN: Are you saying that before then Hungarians and Romani people lived in total harmony?
LAKATOS: Naturally the Romani question was also here prior to the regime change and will always be here. Crime and petty theft have bothered the life of the majority society for a long time. Before, however, the situation was not so exacerbated.
MN: A person of Romani origin once said that in their circles what really decides things is money and power, and that the more a person has, the greater respect he enjoys. Do you agree with that?
LAKATOS: Where don't money and power decide?
MN: You're right, but nonetheless the majority society also recognizes education, for example.
LAKATOS: That is precisely what should change in our community. Money and power should not be the only things that decide, study should play a role too. Also, as I have always said, work.
MN: Who can become an example for Romani children?
LAKATOS: That's a terribly difficult question, because most of them won't accept a Hungarian, and also they frequently reject Romani people who have studied and gotten somewhere. That also reduces their taste for doing the same in the future.
MN: Since the state can't put a cop on every street corner, what do you believe is necessary in order to automatically prevent these conflicts?
LAKATOS: We have to do a great deal of communicating with the people, go from house to house. Enroll the children in school. Then the municipal police forces should be reintroduced, because as long as they were up and running, order was better maintained. Those police served their purpose because they answered to local organizations and a certain amount of work could be demanded of them for their salaries.
MN: What do you say to the proposal by former socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány that children should be separated from their parents in order to acquire the social norms that are essentially necessary? Basically his proposal is similar to what the extremist Jobbik movement has also suggested.
LAKATOS: Previously I believed that was a bad idea, but now I say it might work. Naturally, I don't have permanent separation in mind, but boarding schools where the children could learn during the week and would only go home during the weekends. That way they would be removed from these environments that drag them down, and I can imagine that the children might even start teaching their parents at home after a while. However, as I already said, there is naturally the need to pay attention to the parents at the same time, to speak with them.
MN: Many Romani children coming from environments of unimaginable poverty often haven't acquired even the most basic of habits, such as using toilet paper or brushing their teeth. What, in your view, is the cause of the fact that it is not the case, for this disconnected part of the Romani population, that their poverty includes cleanliness, while an essential part of the majority society has acquired those norms?
LAKATOS: I agree that dirt is not an inevitable part of poverty and squalor. In our community I always stress the importance of hygiene. I can see that more and more young people are also adhering to that. With the older age groups, however, it will be hard to achieve some of these fundamental changes.
MN: As far as the schools go, are you an advocate of integration or segregration?
LAKATOS: Under no circumstances is it a good solution for the Hungarians to enroll their children into separate schools, because then non-Romani and Romani people will never meet one another until they are adults. If they don't get to know one another during childhood, then later they will most decidedly view one another as foreign. The Hungarians could learn a little craftiness from us, while we could learn the behavioral norms from them that are not part of Romani life.
MN: Do you think that would work in practice?
LAKATOS: Parents and teachers are responsible for making sure there is order during school lessons. It's a question of how the children are being raised.
MN: The social networking sites are buzzing with accusatory remarks by Romani people against Hungarians and vice versa. What is strengthening this hatred?
LAKATOS: The fact that most people have been led astray. The lion's share of responsibility for that lies with the liberal human rights defenders, who have cheated us and who immediately shout "racism" without investigating the background of an entire matter before they decide where the truth lies. They invent this racism or overplay it even as they usually cover up our own responsibility. By doing this they have unbelievably harmed the Romani population.
MN: What can you yourself do against conflicts?
LAKATOS: I have already traveled to Romani settlements many times in order to negotiate order. It happened, for example, that 30, 50, or even several hundred Romani people were facing off against one another and a conflict was about to break out but managed to be settled. Often it takes several hours, but it works. Often even Hungarians turn to me with requests for assistance. I go there, I speak with the Romani people, and I iron out the situation. Both sides can count on me in the future as well, even though my business has slowly started to suffer from my leadership.
MN: In your view, is there a chance that the vajda system of leadership will one day be revived here and that leaders like yourself will earn respect again?
LAKATOS: That really is what's needed, just like councils of elders should be established in the villages to take responsibility for the local community. However, in my view that is rather unrealistic. They attack us as illegitimate because we are unelected.
MN: So why don't you try holding elections?
LAKATOS: That wouldn't make much sense, because in many places minority representatives only vote for the biggest families according to the majoritarian principle, irrespective of whether they would be good for the job or whether they are respected. The other Romani people often never vote because they are sick of it all.
MN: The government has expended a lot of energy in the interest of helping masses of unemployed people find meaningful employment for themselves - for example, through community service - as well as honest incomes. Is this working in practice?
LAKATOS: That initiative isn't bad in and of itself, but in many places people still aren't making normal work available. I wouldn't call sweeping the street meaningful employment.
MN: What, then, would you recommend the government do?
LAKATOS: Romani people must be given work everywhere that it's possible to do so, and the best would be agricultural jobs. Have them take care of gardens and till the fields, get them to raise the animals we use. Naturally, it would be necessary to supervise it all so they don't steal, so they don't sell off the seed and eat the animals. If we employ those Romani people who are breaking the law, then they won't have enough energy left over for crime.
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