Agnes Osztojkán, the first and only Roma woman elected to parliament in Hungary, recently received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award. At the awards ceremony, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton paid tribute to Osztojkan: "For overcoming racism and discrimination to emerge a leader in elected office, serving as a proud defender of the Roma people and culture, and tirelessly pressing for equal rights and the inclusion of minorities in society, we thank you for your work, we thank you for your example, and we will stand with you."
In the following conversation, Osztojkán reflects on her life and career to date as a Roma activist in Hungary, where the personal is acutely political.
Did you expect to win this award? Has it been a long road for you as a Roma woman to national politics and international recognition?
The award came as a total surprise … I assumed it normally went to women active in civil society in Africa and Asia, and I know it was not given to me as Agnes, but rather it was to acknowledge the importance of the whole Roma issue.
It’s been a long road, but not a hard one. I was born in a small village where my parents still live. They were manual workers but always cared deeply about my education. I was an excellent pupil in primary school, and with the encouragement of my teachers and the support of my parents, I was enrolled to attend an elite high school in Budapest alongside the children of the rich and famous in 1989. The first two years were very hard because my level of knowledge was lower than the others, and I spent all my free time in the library to catch up, and I did. My teachers were very kind and encouraging and my parents strongly believed in me. Coming from a small village of 800 people, there were many who assumed I would fail in Budapest and have to come home. I was determined to prove them wrong.
And where did you study in university?
At the time, my parents had jobs and could support me financially, and my first wish was to go to the law university, and they organized special courses for high school students. But this was just a short time after the system change, and I was advised that it would be difficult for someone from my background—as the first generation from my family to pursue third level education—to be admitted to the Law Faculty, which was still the preserve of the offspring of the Hungarian elite.
I was accepted to the newly established Political Science Faculty in the university in Miscolc. I had lived in dormitories with other students before, but the environment was completely different from Budapest—in Budapest, it was not an issue whether I was Roma or not, the only thing that mattered was the possibility to achieve and progress. But in Miscolc, it mattered: the fact that I was Roma mattered very much to staff and students alike.
…in a negative way?
Yes of course, and this was precisely the time when young right-wing people in Hungary started to organize in skinhead gangs and this trend was very visible in Miscolc and Eger. I decided then and recognized that I cannot deny my identity or ignore this issue. It wasn’t the best of times I can tell you, and it was made worse by my father losing his job and my mother falling ill. Many times I offered to quit my studies and go to work but my parents insisted I complete my studies.
How did you first come into contact with Roma activists in Budapest?
During my university years I spent a lot of time with friends and relatives in Budapest and in 1996 I met with Horvath Aladar and the young Roma intelligentsia who had set up Romaversitas, and they invited me to work with them as an organizer. My thesis dealt with the plight of the homeless, and I spent a lot of time among them in homeless shelters, it was hard for the soul to witness such deprivation.
I graduated cum laude in 1998, and faced a choice whether to work in civil society or in government. Fidesz had just won the election and I decided this was not the party and politics not the path. I began teaching in an afternoon school in the 8th district with young Roma students from very deprived backgrounds. I loved this work very much, and it made a lasting impression on me.
In 1998 the Soros Foundation–Hungary hired me as a program manager responsible for Roma law, Roma media, and visual education. At the Soros Foundation I met the most open, most intelligent, and most progressive people in Hungary, and it was the first opportunity for me to deal seriously with the Roma issue.
What prompted the move into politics?
Around 2009, a loose grouping of young non-Roma from civil society who knew my background and experience, approached me for discussion and friendly consultations as they wished to organize and establish an official political party. This became LMP, which translates as "Politics can be different." They wanted me to join them, and I said OK, let's see your program and your position on Roma. We began working together, and I drafted a lot for them and invited other young Roma to join. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, I had a symbolic place on the party list but I think it was important for me and for LMP.
The party wanted me to run in the national elections in 2010, and due to personal circumstances it took a lot of persuasion before I agreed. Another Roma woman turned down the opportunity. I argued with her that we always say the non-Roma never make room for us to take a leadership role: "Now we have an opportunity to be in the front row and take our places in the Hungarian Parliament." I eventually agreed to be placed second on the Budapest list.
I can still remember the evening of the election: one minute huddled over the TV in the party offices, the next minute the party leader grabbed my hand and pulled me into the full glare of the TV cameras and crowds of reporters. At that moment it dawned on me that we had won seats in the parliament. I called my father and told him "Dad, I think I’ve become a member of the Hungarian Parliament." He was stunned; he said "I see," wept, and then hung up the phone.
Entering Parliament must have been daunting. In the 2010 elections, the neofascist Jobbik party emerged as the third force in national politics. Do you remember the first day in Parliament?
At the swearing-in ceremony of the new parliament, the men and women from Jobbik were clad in black and white uniforms, and the rest of the MPs were in dark suits. I wore a very special colorful traditional Roma dress with vivid floral patterns, made by a Roma fashion designer. This not only provided photo opportunities for the media and a strong contrast to the black and white uniforms of the far right, but was acknowledged by Roma and non-Roma as a very important symbolic message.
And what is it like in Parliament, sharing the opposition benches with a radical racist party whose election campaign was first and foremost an anti-Roma hate campaign? How difficult is it for you, as a women of undoubted courage?
After the election I chose education as my expert brief. I was not going to be just "the Roma MP," but of course in a situation with far-right people sitting close to us in the Parliament it became inevitable that I would deal with Roma issues as well.
Sometimes it’s very hard for me personally to listen to them when they speak of "gypsy criminality," and basically use parliament to spread hate speech. And very painful for me when they began to organize with hate groups and paramilitaries outside of Parliament, going to the villages declaring that they will create order and intimidating Roma communities. When it started in Gyöngyöspataa, I was actually in Washington but returned to witness the same thing in Hejőszalonta.
I was there and what was particularly chilling was to see that so many of these people marching and screaming "gypsy killers" and "gypsy criminals" had brought their children with them. Of course I get a lot of abusive and threatening emails, especially after Hej?szalonta because I made a speech in Parliament calling on Zoltan Balog and the government to halt these racist provocations engineered by Jobbik, and asked if they were waiting until somebody is killed, or the conflict escalates before they intervene. It was the first time I heard Balog speak harshly, but his remarks were directed not to me but to Jobbik, and he demanded that they bring a halt to this because maintaining law and order is the task of the government and the police and not Jobbik.
In parliament Jobbik are relentless in their crude hate speech. At the outset I thought that there must be some intelligent people in this party that through discussion could be cured of their prejudice. Now I see that there is no possibility and that the majority are hard core racists. We recently had a week of argument and debate in a parliamentary committee to modify the criminal code to deal with hate groups.
The other day, after four hours listening to rubbish about "gypsy criminals" and how they will kill the whole Hungarian people I told my fraction leader; "Andris, I don’t have enough energy to listen to any more of this." Like any human being I have my good days and bad days, and on a bad day it’s much harder to tolerate this—but I always face them and would never show weakness—I face them and smile to show I am stronger than they are.
It's funny but they have a grudging respect for me; they are racists and use foul words, but not when they speak to me. When they speak ill of Roma leaders, they tell me that I am the exception. I smile and remain courteous, but this is not an easy time in my life.
Fidesz, the ruling political party in Hungary, has come under fire and attracted international criticism on a range of issues, but has made Roma integration a priority of their EU presidency. What’s your opinion?
I will acknowledge the achievements of Fidesz when I see progressive Roma people in their party. I cannot imagine how Roma people of good will and self-respect, can sit silent in parliament, just listening to concrete hate speech. I argue with them in the corridors afterwards about why they don’t speak up. They say it’s not their task. When I contacted the Fidesz Roma after Gyöngyöspataa and called on them to make a joint statement, their reply was that they have read the papers, listened to and watched the news, and that nothing happened! Fidesz Roma guys—how can I work with them when they say nothing happened in Gyöngyöspataa?
It sounds good that the Hungarian EU Presidency launched the Roma Framework and that the government wants to deal with Roma integration, but I would like to see concrete steps taken when it comes to budgeting time. During the negotiations from October to December last, I made several amendments related to education, LMP made several recommendations related to Roma—all were ignored, nothing we submitted surfaced.
Beyond declarations I have yet to see anything concrete. They speak of two priorities in the media: to increase the number of Roma students in the high-school system; and to create 100,000 job placements for low-skilled Roma. I don’t see where or from what budget line these jobs will be created because no provision has been made for it. There’s money for scholarships and that’s it.
So it’s very good that we can begin to speak about a European Framework for Roma Integration. I know that this situation is so thanks to the Decade, because I remember how for years we pushed the EU to take the issue seriously and respond as an institution to Roma inclusion. But when you read the Communication, which I am absolutely sure will be accepted by the Council, the tone is that "we should," "we encourage"—what’s missing is strong words about what we must do. I am sorry to say it but I think this is just going to be another piece of EU paper.
Looking to the future, do you imagine it will be better or worse for your son and other Roma children growing up in Hungary?
Sometimes I felt that I should flee the country and that I don’t want to bring my son up here. I don’t think the future looks too good for our children, but of course it depends on your standard of living and lifestyle. Its easier for my son; he has the opportunity to go to a good school, lives in a nice environment and of course with my circle of friends and their children he never has to experience prejudice. It’s totally different for Roma kids from poor families in the countryside. The situation is so bad. There needs to be a strong and clear message from civil society concerning anti-Gypsyism and a show of solidarity with Roma in the countryside.
Every country to some extent reflects the attitudes of its elites and as long as the Hungarian elite is incapable of taking action to counter this, then the wider non-Roma population will do nothing. And just yesterday I read the latest research from Katalin Klaus, which finds that anti-Roma prejudice is stronger and more common among the better educated and better-off parts of society than it is among the least educated and poorest people in the villages.
This is all very disturbing, and these are not the best of times, but I do believe that "politics can be different" and will continue the struggle to make it so, and to convince more young progressive Roma to take an active part in LMP to make that difference.