Tue Feb 17th, 2009 at 04:57:11 AM EST
|A 4-5,000-strong funeral march for a dead sporter yesterday. The bilingual (Hungarian-Romanian) banner reads: "We will never forget you". (Photo from Index.hu.)
On 8 February in a nightclub in Veszprém/Hungary, for reasons still not entirely clear, a newly arrived group attacked another. At the end of it, two of the attackers, said to be heavyweight felons, drew their knives. End result: two seriously hurt, one dead. One attacker was arrested with an accomplice by Austrian highway police the next day, the other surrendered a few days later.
I don't know how frequent such disco fights are. But this one was special for a number of reasons:
- the attacked party was prominent: seven players of the top-notch local handball club (which competes in the EHF Champions League);
- the one killed, Marian Cozma, was Romanian, the seriously injured were Croatian and Serbian;
- the stabbers were ethnic Roma, and this happened just after the row over a police captain, who claimed that 100% of violent crime committed in his city last year was perpetrated by Gypsies.
There was massive public reaction in both Hungary and Romania. This was the number one theme in the media for a week, with breaking news and live TV coverage of the burial. But I found it hard to write anything on it, as things got (stayed) ugly, there aint' any silver lining, only the far-right stands to benefit. Still, some background below the fold.
Updated with some photos and an English match report link
The association of Gypsies with crime is one of the strongest negative stereotypes about Roma throughout Central and Southeastern Europe. There are some crime types traditionally thought to be monopolised by Roma - stealing food and animals, cable theft, lynch-mobbing intruders - apparently supported by police statistics, though even those are discredited by low crime solvency rates, signs that f.e. cable theft is now an international business, and the prejudices of denouncers, witnesses, police and judges.
As for the bigger picture, though one would expect a higher crime rate just from the fact that the majority of Roma in the region live impoverished, a sociologist study of police records a few years back found a different pattern: regions with a high ratio of Gypsies in the population had a somewhat lower crime rate, but a significantly higher crime solvency rate... which leads us back to the prejudices of denouncers, witnesses, police and judges.
However, perceptions of crime don't have to have statistics as basis. The ethnic focus of the current public discourse on crime is the result of a successful far-right campaign, which set the frame of the debate by mainstreaming catchphrases and pushing their line after every spectacular crime event: a moving of the Overton Window, applying all the lessons from the US Right.
A few years back, a notorious far-right propaganda site hosted on (changing) servers in the USA coined the term "Gypsycrime". By now talking heads are discussing it in he-said-she-said manner. The same website headlined every major crime involving a Roma perpetrator, or assumed a Roma perpetrator where none were known (example I reported earlier: cause of a train acident); with far-right posters linking to the article in virtually every political forum soon -- with the result that now violent crime and murder are also under the "Gypsycrime" umbrella. Quite a feat even in the field of perceptions, given that no Roma were involved in the most spectacular crimes of recent years (e.g. the Massacre of Mór or a mafia hit job also killing bystanders).
And now we had a top policeman reinforcing it. And the real tragedy of it: he could keep his job. The rumour is that the governing Socialists feared voter loss in one of the most faithfully Socialist-voting provinces...
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After the Marian Cozma murder, sympathy protests erupted across the country (as well as Romania). Every politician offered condolences. The Veszprém handball club retired Cozma's shirt number. Cozma's father offered one of his kidneys for the also stabbed Croatian teammate. The Romanian and Hungarian handball associations agreed an annual commemoration match on the day Cozma died.
|Candles for Marian Cozma at the entrance of the premises of Cozma's former club, Dinamo Bucureşti, in Bucharest. Photo from Napló.
But the outbreak of genuine sympathy and outrage was mixed up with underhand and not-so-underhand racism from the start. For, the very first protests were part initiated, part seized upon by the uniform-donning, Árpád-stripes-flag-waving far-right -- above all, far-right youth party JOBBIK.
JOBBIK's roots are among men who were students in the nineties just when I was, centred in a few pockets, including ones at the Budapest Technical University. (Incidentally, I am visiting a course there this semester, and the extremism and amount -- and lack of removal -- of far-right graffiti propaganda in toilets is incredible.) JOBBIK's extremism was intellectual and postmodern (as opposed to the stale pre-war anti-semitism of older far-right parties or the working-class physicalism of skinheads). For long, they were a fraction-percent dwarf that attempted alliances both with the center-right (Fidesz) and other far-right (MIÉP).
JOBBIK gained a higher public (and media) profile via the internet (the above mentioned site is also aligned with them), and the creation of the notorious Hungarian Guard paramilitary. For long, this meant more that they could affect public discourse than that they could gain a significant following, especially when the news on them was dominated by internal conflict and various scandals in the Hungarian Guard, and finally the ban of it as officially recognised civic association.
However, in recent months, other far-right groups faltered, while JOBBIK profiled themselves enough with the "Gypsycrime" theme, so that they managed to establish themselves as leading far-right force, and there are serious concerns that they may pass 5% in the next elections.
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For his part, the leader of the main opposition party (right-populist Fidesz) declared that "there is no Gypsycrime, but there are ever more Gypsy criminals". Whatever that is supposed to follow from (no police statistics for sure) and lead to. Meanwhile, one member of a small cabal of far-right journalists (still) aligned with Fidesz wrote an openly racist column in a major paper declaring that the 'killers aren't Hungarian citizens because they aren't people, they are animals'.
The Right is also discussing an 'underlying need' for better public security in rural areas, and want to bring back the gendarmerie.
Now, on one hand, the 'need' part is ridiculous and a nice example of perceptions determining everything: crime rates are actually at or below the EU average, below that of even many EU-15 countries, and say murders were tending down over the last decade. On the other hand, as for proud traditions to be continued, the historical Hungarian gendarmerie first excelled in crushing rural movements, then in doing most of the dirty work for the Nazis by collecting Jews in Hungary and delivering them in trains at the border. (They were disbanded after WWII.)
|Above: gendarmes stop a protest march of hungering miner families in 1928. At other instances, they had no scruples drawing bayonets or shooting into crowds - or teach defeated strikers a lesson. (Photo and drawing from Partizaninfo.)
Below: Hungarian gendarmes with a German soldier; gendarmes putting Jews they rounded up in Soltvadkert on a train. (Photos from Holocaust in Hungary.)
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Given all of the above, even a silent march without far-right flags and uniforms, one that is a symbol of overcoming the strongest national animosity for both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism: that against one another; leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
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(In English, though it doesn't mention the controversy about the killers' ethnicity at all, also see EHF's match report of Sunday's home match against Reale Ademar, which was directly preceded by that funeral march and marked by salutes to Cozma throughout the match. Photo from there.)
|Again bilingual: "Good-bye Birdie".