In a cafe in Budapest's 8th District, known for its high population of Roma - also known as Gypsies - Hungarian activist Jeno Setét spoke about the discrimination he says his community faces on a regular basis.
He described how he and his wife, a non-Roma, were applying to live in an apartment. The owner initially thought Setét's wife would be the only renter - but when he found out that Setét, a Roma, would also be living there, the couple was immediately told they could not take the apartment.
The Roma make up about 7 percent of Hungary's 10 million people, and are overrepresented among the poor and unemployed.
Discrimination is said to be widespread: for instance, according to one survey, only about one-third of Hungarians would let their child be friends with a Roma child.
Although statistics are sketchy, Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, said that "anti-Roma sentiment has been rising a lot in the last years, and this in some cases led ... to violence against Roma".
"These Roma are animals and they behave like animals."
- Zsolt Bayer, journalist and founding member of the Fidesz party
In early January 2013, a founding member of the ruling centre-right Fidesz party was accused of racism after writing a column about a bar fight on New Year's Eve in which some of the participants were reportedly Roma.
Zsolt Bayer, who also works as a journalist and does not hold a position within the government, wrote in the Magyar Hirlap newspaper: "A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals."
Human rights groups denounced the comments, and NGOs called on companies like IKEA to stop advertising on the paper's website. In an email, IKEA told Al Jazeera it was not planning on buying ads in the future.
Fidesz's reaction was more muted. Soon after Bayer's remarks, Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics told local television station ATV that he condemned the remarks.
However, the next day, a Fidesz spokesperson said the party would not take a position on Bayer's comments because he was writing as a journalist and not a politician. Prime Minister Viktor Orban remained silent on the issue, and Fidesz did not respond to requests for comment.
Bayer later wrote that his words were distorted and taken out of context.
According to Anton Pelinka, a professor of nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest: "The surprising point [is] this does not come from [far-right party] Jobbik but someone who is connected to Fidesz. For me, a little shocking that Orban has not criticised Bayer for his comment."
Pelinka also stated that while anti-Roma sentiments have always existed in Hungary, in the last few years they have become "more open, more visible".
Stoking race fears?
Critics blame the nationalist Jobbik party for inflaming racism against the Roma and the country's Jewish community.
Jobbik became the third-strongest part in Hungary's 2010 national election, winning 17 percent of the vote. According to a poll conducted in 2012, Jobbik is the most popular party among Hungarians under the age of 30. Although Jobbik probably stands little chance of winning a national election, the party could siphon off support from centre-right Fidesz.
Although the party says it does not discriminate against ethnic groups, Jobbik members often talk about "gypsy crime", blaming the Roma for an increase in violence.
On a rainy morning in a town east of Budapest, a handful of Jobbik members gathered to show off abandoned houses they claim Roma residents vandalised. Through a translator, Jobbik Vice President Tamás Sneider said he was concerned about the increase in the Roma population, especially in the countryside.
"There is no public security in whole regions of Hungary ... the Gypsies terrorise and [threaten] Hungarian inhabitants," he claimed.
Some party members met in Gyongyospota, which became infamous for ethnic conflict between Roma and non-Roma residents in 2011.
The Jobbik members pulled into the driveway of the town's mayor Oszkár Juhàsz, also a party member. His truck is emblazoned with a symbol of the Hungarian Guard - a group affiliated with Jobbik that was dissolved by court order in 2009. The mayor said in the past he had taken part in "patrols" around town with the Guard to look for "gypsy crime".
"We don't want anything else, [we] just preserve Hungary for ourself and for our children and this phrase 'racist'... it's just an attempt to discredit our ideas," Juhàsz said through a translator. Jobbik's members often stress they are only criticising a part of the Roma minority, and not all of it.
For his part, Pelinka said this technique has been used for a long time by racists who claim that the good, law-abiding members of a minority are the exceptions.
Meanwhile, Pelinka and Jewish leaders said anti-Semitism is rising in the country in tandem with anti-Roma sentiments.
In a 2012 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, over 60 percent of Hungarian respondents said that Jews "talk too much about the Holocaust" and 73 percent said Jews have too much power in the business world.
The survey also found that, when compared with 2009, "levels of anti-Semitism have increased most dramatically in Hungary" as well as in the UK and Spain.
Last year, a town near Budapest named a park after Hitler ally Miklós Horthy, Hungary's head of state at the start of World War II. In January, a local referendum failed to change the name after the vote was ruled invalid due to low turnout.
According to the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest, at least 500,000 Jewish Hungarians are thought to have been killed during the Holocaust. An estimated 100,000 Jews now remain in Hungary.
In November, international outrage erupted after Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi said the government should create a list of Jews in the country who were "national security risks".
Jobbik apologised and said the call was referring to politicians with dual citizenship. The party often talks about "Israeli colonisation" of Hungary and believes Jewish Hungarians, including those in parliament, are influenced by Israeli interests.
"[Gyongyosi] didn't say anything special," Sneider said. "Part of the Hungarian Jewish political elite wants to use all these opportunities for their political aims."
"It seems that the political class is not willing to demonstrate for the Roma people."
- Jeno Setet, activist
But Peter Feldmajer of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary called Jobbik "anti-Semitic" and said such voices are becoming louder and stronger every year. Hate speech has become part of everyday life, he said. "You can [hear] the same voices what was in the 30s, in the 40s... exactly the same sentences as what the fascists said between the two world wars."
After Gyongyosi's comments, about 10,000 protested in front of parliament, some holding signs portraying the MP with a mustache similar to Hitler's. In a rare show of unity, opposition parties on the left and supporters of the conservative government participated in the rally.
In contrast, far fewer showed up to a demonstration protesting Bayer's comment comparing Roma to animals.
It is harder for the poorer Roma minority to mobilise and gain political influence in Hungary, Setét said. "What did not happen after Bayer is the main problem: that it seems that the political class is not willing to demonstrate for the Roma people."
Setét said he was especially afraid moderates will become more accepting of anti-Roma sentiments. Hungary is set for an election in 2014, and critics wonder what Fidesz may do to take away support from Jobbik, the only other conservative party in parliament.
However, Setét said the issue is not just about political parties, but about the whole society. "It's not only a Roma question or not the Roma people's problem... it's a nation-wide problem."
Source: Al Jazeera