Jobbik: Meet the BNP's fascist friends in Hungary
As the electoral triumph of the BNP shocks the main political parties in Britain, our correspondent reports on the rise of the extreme right in Hungary and among its Eastern European neighbours
Eastern Europe is hurtling back to the future, nowhere more than in Hungary. This week, Jobbik, the far right party, allied to Britain’s BNP, won 14.8 per cent of the vote in the European elections. This gave the party, also known as the Movement for a Better Hungary, nearly as many votes as the ruling socialists, securing them three seats in the European Parliament. Budapest’s chattering classes are in a state of shock.
Once again the language of the 1930s is shaping political discourse. The region’s old hatreds, supposedly laid to rest by EU membership, have been reanimated. Jobbik campaigns against “Gypsy crime”; the Slovak National Party and the Greater Romania Parties denounce their homelands’ ethnic Hungarian minority; and Ataka, Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist party, attacks, verbally, that country’s ethnic Turks.
Watching the election results, I realised that life can indeed imitate art. Which is especially unsettling as I have just written a thriller about an extreme-right takeover of Eastern Europe, under the guise of the European super-state. The Budapest Protocol draws on my years of reporting from the region for The Times. It conjures up a dark world where a continent-wide conspiracy, rooted in the last days of the Second World War, exploits collapsing economies, endemic corruption, soaring poverty and violent crime and foments hatred against the Roma (Gypsies) to undermine already shaky democracies and take power.
Even before the election results, reality trumped my imaginary scenarios. I knew that Roma houses are frequently firebombed. But I did not imagine that gunmen would lie in wait as a terrified father fled his burning home with his five-year-old son and then open fire, killing both. That happened in February when Robert Csorba and his son Robika were murdered in Tatárszentgyörgy, central Hungary. They were buried in the same coffin, Robika resting on his father’s chest. In April Jeno Koka was killed in Tiszalök, eastern Hungary, the fifth Roma to die violently in the past few months. Koka, a 54-year-old grandfather, had just said goodnight to his wife Eva and was setting off for work when he was felled by a shot to his chest. He bled to death a few yards from his door.
Roma activists claim that a hit squad is operating, and witnesses talk of masked men and mysterious SUVs that roar off in the night. There are disturbing similarities between the murders: the killers usually target the last house in the village to make a quick getaway. The murders are planned with military precision, say the Hungarian police. The police chief, József Bencze, has 100 investigators working on the murders. The FBI and Hungary’s military intelligence service have been called in. A new rapid-response mechanism can lock down any part of the country within five minutes of a new attack being reported. But there have been no arrests.
Robika Csorba was born in 2004, the year that Hungary and its neighbours joined the European Union. But any dreams of a new era of tolerance have longed turned sour. In March this year, in Košice, Slovakia, police officers forced six Roma teenage boys aged between 11 and 16 to strip naked, kiss and hit each other across the face, after they were arrested for stealing a purse. The police recorded this on their mobile telephones and also filmed the boys’ genitals. The footage shows the terrified boys looking back and forth at the laughing police for instructions as they hit each other. The police mock them for not being violent enough and threaten the boys with dogs.
In November 2008, in the neighbouring Czech Republic, hundreds of activists from the extreme right Workers Party attacked a Roma settlement in Litvinov, north of Prague, armed with cobblestones and petrol bombs. Hundreds of Roma gathered, ready to confront the extremists. Czech police deployed 1,000 riot officers between the skinheads and the Roma but the running battle lasted for hours and 15 people were injured. Last month the extreme right Czech National Party even called for a “final solution” to the Gypsy issue in a television campaign advertisement for the European Union elections.
In my novel the conspiracy plans to wipe out the Roma with a fictional genetically engineered drug. That was inspired by my investigation for The Times into an actual decades-long, state-run campaign to stop Gypsy women having children. I travelled to a small village in eastern Slovakia where Gypsy women had been sterilised without their consent. In Europe, in 2003, I found levels of poverty and deprivation usually seen in the developing world and an officially sanctioned policy of apartheid. The Slovak half of the village was clean and tidy, its spacious houses built of brick and concrete and painted white. The Roma were confined to draughty hovels of wood and earth, which they built themselves, on the outskirts. They had no heating, electricity, gas, water or even sewage.
Inside one of the hovels we met Zita. She was 23 and illiterate. Like almost all Roma women, she dreamt of a large family. For Roma, the family is of supreme importance, the axle on which their world turns. Zita had given birth to her second child, a daughter, by Caesarean section. Still groggy, she was presented with a piece of paper to sign by a nurse. She told us: “They gave me a paper to sign, but I don’t know what it said because I cannot read or write. I was in pain after the operation. My signature is three crosses and I signed with that. After the operation, a nurse came and explained that I will not have any more children. I felt very bad. I started to cry.”
Activists believe that hundreds of Romany women were coercively sterilised during the communist regime and its aftermath. They were subjected to segregation in wards, waiting rooms, toilets, washing and dining facilities. They were often verbally or physically abused and were denied access to their medical records. Their hospital files were often stamped with an “R”. Zita’s husband, Krystian, said: “They think that the Roma are devils and they can do what they want with us.” The last documented case took place in 2007, according to Ostalinda Maya Ovalle, of the European Roma Rights Centre, based in Budapest. Not a single woman has yet been compensated.
Much of the support for the far Right is a protest vote: against incompetent governments, widespread corruption and the continuing economic influence of old communist elites, reborn as democrats with better suits and their fingers in the European Union subsidies till. It’s easy to sidestep political institutions when they have little popular support. Jobbik benefited from a fury at the government that makes the anger in Britain over MPs’ expenses seems genteel. It dates back to September 2006, when Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister, admitted that the Government had been consistently lying about the economy.
Hungary was convulsed by a week of violent protests and riots, the worst instability since the failed 1956 uprising. The police were either incompetent or brutal, failing to control the violence or clubbing protesters senseless. Protesters occupied Kossuth Square in front of Parliament, camping out and cooking great pots of goulash. A minority were extremists, but most were just normal people, furious at a political class of former communists that for years have enriched themselves and impoverished the country.
That rage has grown louder and more vociferous, as crime rises and feelings of insecurity, especially in the countryside, strengthen. Jobbik is expert at channelling public anger, away from political institutions and on to the streets. It also has a uniformed wing, the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard). Its several thousand members wear black paramilitary-style uniforms and march in formation. They target villages, protesting against “Gypsy crime”. In December 2007 the Gárda held a rally at Tatárszentgyörgy, where Robert and Robika Csorba were killed in February 2009. Gárda leaders condemned the crime and there is no evidence that its members were involved. Critics say that the Gárda’s uniforms are similar to those of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi movement, which killed tens of thousands of Jews. Jobbik strongly denies that it is anti-Semitic and has condemned the Holocaust. “We are not against anyone, just for Hungary,” its leaders say. Their uniforms are not paramilitary, but are based on the traditional outfits of Hungarian folk dancers. Maybe, but folk dancers don’t march in military formation. An allied website — jobbik.net — carries a lengthy article explaining how Hungary is a “Jewish colony”.
The Gárda is Jobbik’s masterstroke. Anti-Roma sentiment soared after two murders allegedly carried out by groups of Roma. In October 2006, Lajos Szögi, a teacher, was driving his daughters through the village of Olaszliszka, in northern Hungary, when his car brushed against a Roma girl. He got out to check that she was all right. The girl ran away. Szögi was surrounded by a mob, including the girl’s father, mother and brother. He was beaten to death in front of his young daughters. In February, Marian Cozma, a star handball player, was stabbed to death after a fight in a nightclub in Veszprém, western Hungary. Cozma and his team-mates had gone to the rescue of a barmaid being beaten by a group of men. Two team-mates were severely injured. Such events cause widespread fury and disgust: both at the perpetrators and the failure of the police to protect ordinary citizens.
In an already shaky democracy, these feelings of insecurity, whether genuinely rooted or imagined, are the weakest part of the social contract between citizens and the state. In my novel, the conspiracy reintroduces the Gendarmerie, the national paramilitary police force that in 1944 forced half a million Jews on the trains to Auschwitz. The Gendarmerie was disbanded after the Second World War. Its return is now a major plank of Jobbik’s platform. Last month Jobbik caused uproar when it signed a “co-operation” agreement with the Independent Police Trade Union, a radical group with almost 5,000 members. Consider: thousands of armed public servants, responsible for law and order and public security, are now allied with a far-Right political party with its own uniformed guard. There is a whiff of the Weimar Republic here.
Across Eastern Europe, there are murderous attacks on the Roma minority, a fury with the political class, soaring poverty and unemployment, worries of economic collapse, fear that the street not parliament may be where the country’s future will be decided, and dynamic new forces of extremists driving a wedge between citizens and the state. In Hungary, Roma villagers have already formed self-defence squads to patrol their homesteads at night.
All the ingredients are in place for a long hot summer of social unrest. Disturbingly, that is not fiction, but fact.
The Budapest Protocol by Adam Lebor is published by Reportage Press at Ł11.99. To order it for Ł10.79 inc p&p call 0845 2712134 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst