February 12, 2009 / 2:45 PM / 11 years ago

Simmering resentment targets Hungary's Roma

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST, Feb 12 (Reuters) - A deepening recession is stoking resentment of Roma in Hungary, fuelling tensions with the central European country’s largest minority and increasing problems for the minority Socialist government.

The far-right Jobbik party hopes to make gains following increasingly public demonstrations of antagonism against the Roma, or gypsies, and has called a rally on Friday against what it says are murders and other crimes committed by Roma people.

The biggest opposition party, Fidesz, has also increased pressure on Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s government by urging it on Tuesday to clamp down on crime.

"The radicalisation of the far right and ... of the social dialogue is breaking up the thresholds and controls which have worked so far (in society)," Antal Orkeny, a professor of minority studies at Budapest’s ELTE University, told Reuters.

A police chief in the northeast city of Miskolc, in one of the poorest regions, last month blamed Roma people for street robberies. He was removed, but then reinstated and thousands of people demonstrated to support him.

At a memorial on Sunday, following the murder of Romanian handball player Marian Cozma in Veszprem in western Hungary, some people in the crowd cried "Death to the gypsies!" even before police made clear the suspects were Roma.

Hungary has one of the largest Roma communities in eastern Europe, making up 5 to 7 percent of the population of 10 million. They have remained on the margins, lacking jobs and proper education for decades.

With unemployment around 7.8 percent in September-November and rising across an economy already propped up by a $25.1 million IMF-led rescue package, rivalry has intensified in hard-hit sectors such as construction, where unskilled Roma could in the past find work.

Friday’s rally is organised by far-right Jobbik, which defines itself as a "national-Christian party" and fights against "Roma crime". In January, it had 4 percent support among decided voters in an opinion poll by Szonda Ipsos.

It is calling people to Budapest’s Sports Arena to protest at what it says are "brutal robberies and murders committed by Roma criminals".



POVERTY AND PREJUDICES

Jobbik backs the Hungarian Guard, a radical nationalist group of almost 2,000 members. Jobbik, which may field a candidate in European Parliament elections in June, is leading the drive to capitalise on resentment of the Roma.

But as the minority Socialist government struggles to counter the impact of recession and popular frustrations mount, the biggest opposition party, Fidesz, has joined in.

On Tuesday Fidesz, which opinion polls show has 61 percent support, called on the government to clamp down on crime.

"It is time for honest, straightforward speech. We must say that the number of serious crimes committed by Roma people is rising at an alarming rate," Fidesz said in a statement.

The government, which in 2006 faced riots stoked by far-right groups and whose popularity has slumped, has said more public works programmes and a strong police are needed.

"We must act while we can, and not wait until unmanageable social developments emerge from prejudices and a drive for vigilantism," Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany wrote in his blog a day after the Veszprem murder.

"If this issue stays on the agenda and Jobbik gives the simplest answer to that, it improves their chances to get into European Parliament," political analyst Zoltan Kiszelly said.

Winning a seat in Europe could pave the way for it winning seats in Hungary’s parliament in an election due next spring.

"We have two consecutive election years coming up, and no party thinks they can win votes by forcefully denouncing extremism and standing up to defend the Roma," Rob Kushen, director, European Roma Rights Centre told Reuters. (Reporting by Krisztina Than, Additional reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Timothy Heritage)




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