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Gypsies Get A Stronger Voice...And A Select Few Get A Special Lift (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight


In Eastern Europe, a region riven by ethnic hatred, the plight of one minority is still largely ignored by governments. Gypsies, who suffered centuries of discrimination culminating in mass extermination under the Nazis, have also lost out since the communist system collapsed. But Hungary's first two freely elected governments have tried to give gypsies more of a say in the country's political life. That policy could be a blueprint for other nations in the region.

No one knows the size of the gypsy, or roma, population of Hungary, but most experts agree the number is more than half a million out of a total population of 10.2 million. Last December, the gypsies, along with other ethnic minorities such as Germans and Croatians, elected autonomous local councils--417 of them for the roma. Then, in April, local delegates voted for a national assembly, the Roma National Council, which will speak for the gypsies and administer small budgets. This gives the government one representative body with which to deal, solving the problem posed by the 250 groups representing Hungarian gypsies.

GOOD EXAMPLE. Hungary has good reason for wanting to lead the way when it comes to the thorny problem of handling minorities. The country was carved up by the victorious allies after World War I, losing two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its population. This made it more homogeneous but left about 5 million ethnic Hungarians in neighboring nations. "For Hungarian politicians, it is very important to have minority self-government because they want to show the European Union, Romania, and other neighbors with a Hungarian minority that Hungary gives an example," says Sandor Revesz, a sociologist and campaigner for gypsy rights.

Just what kind of example remains to be seen. The elected assemblies have little real authority and will get little money from a strapped government. Some gypsies don't even like the assemblies because they feel themselves to be Hungarian, not some special category.

It may seem unlikely, but the gypsies fared better under communism, so they have suffered more than most Hungarians since its collapse. Under the old regime, many gypsies were relocated, losing their traditional communities and to some extent their language, since they were forced to use Hungarian. But gypsy employment levels had risen as high as 80%, as the Communist Party tried to assimilate minorities. "Gypsies are the first losers in the economic changes, because they were unskilled workers, factory hands in heavy industry," says Revesz. Many of these companies have collapsed in the past five years as their markets disappeared, leading to unemployment among the roma estimated at up to five times the national rate of 12%.

Bela Bogdan, a roma himself and head of gypsy affairs in Hungary's Office for National & Ethnic Minorities, says unemployment is "the key problem," exacerbating such other woes as second-rate education, alcoholism, criminality, and poor health. But racial discrimination also plays a major part in the gypsies' predicament. "I can't show it, but it exists," Bogdan says.

In a bid to boost educational standards and create a gypsy intelligentsia, a unique school has been set up for gifted roma children, the first in Europe. In the town of Pecs, 200 kilometers south of Budapest, 110 gypsy children attend the Gandhi Foundation school, where they study not only the usual high school curriculum but also roma culture, language, and history. Thousands of children are tested for admission. Funding comes from the government and private donors such as George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier.

Yet even this initiative has detractors who are angry that the school is named after Mahatma Gandhi, a reminder of the gypsies' origins in India. "Gypsies have lived in Hungary for 600 to 800 years, and Hungary is their home. With this reference to India, the school revives and fuels the prejudice of the majority," says Jeno Zsigo, president of the Roma Parliament, a pressure group. But at least the school offers hope. One student's mother, who gave her name as Mrs. Pal Orsos, says: "Now there is a means that gypsies can rise out of the state they have lived in so long. I am proud my daughter could get in there."By T.R. Smart in Budapest EDITED BY HARRY MAURER

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