This post is part of the series of blogs explaining country-specific research papers, investigating how minority claims for political justice are dealt with in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and how minorities experience it. Each of the case studies analyses one particular issue affecting recognition and representation of Roma relevant in its national context. Two cross-country studies, one highlighting the history of minorisation in the analysed countries, and a further one analysing the findings of the national case studies, complete the picture.

The segregation of Roma children in (public) education has been widespread and overt for decades throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary. Furthermore, the Roma are systematically disadvantaged in society because of their low educational attainment. Our case study investigates how the Roma are politically represented and the extent of their political participation in the fight for school integration. Put another way, our research examined discourses of different actors to see how the current political system and political actors accommodate the Roma in education policy. Our analysis hinged on the question: what is the problem represented to be (and by whom)?

As part of this, we firstly recognized that a wide variety of politically active stakeholders are involved in education policy vis-à-vis the Roma. But since we had only limited time and resources at our disposal, we narrowed down our focus to the political discourses (“problem representations”) of political parties, left and right wing government, Roma political leaders/representatives of the so-called minority self-governments, and civil society organisations representatives (both critical of or sympathetic to conservative government) involved in national policy dialogue.

Since 1993, the Roma in Hungary—along with other minority groups—have been formally recognized as an ethnic group and as belonging to the Hungarian state. Moreover, the opportunity to form so-called “minority self-governments” at local, regional, and national levels allows for the political institutionalization of a host of minority rights. This institution of political autonomy includes the right to use the native language and names, to promote the culture, to be educated in the mother tongue, and the right to operate minority schools where instructions is partly or primarily conducted in the ethnic/national language. On paper, the minority self-governments allow for the political representation of minority interests, including in parliamentary debate and proceedings. Yet, the existing research on minority self-governments strongly suggests that this system is ineffective in imparting visible and substantive changes in the living conditions of the Roma.

Generally, discourses across the spectrum of political parties associate Roma with “problems.” The dominant approach is to use paternalistic frames when talking about the Roma: criminalization, victimization, and casting them as benefactors of the Hungarian government’s and taxpayers’ benevolence. Both Socialist and Conservative governments have problematized the education of the Roma as the lack of integration and inclusion on the part of the latter. This implies that the system needs to be fine-tuned in order to accommodate the special target group. But what is notable is the absence of proposals for a more fundamental recalculation of the education system, which is often criticized for its failure to facilitate social mobility more generally.

However, the current Conservative government has constructed a dual reality. It has challenged the boundaries of EU laws prohibiting racial discrimination, on the one hand, and a commitment to de-segregation and EU laws, on the other. It established the Anti-segregation Roundtable as a forum for “reasonable” and “practice-oriented solutions.” But the government came to problematize the question of rights as the capacity to exercise them. It contended that for the purposes of catching-up, there was a need to think about the legal space available to educational programs (often run by churches) helping disadvantaged children access education for the purpose of “catching up.” The relevant ministry insisted that as long as these don’t violate legal principles and are founded on “good” pedagogical grounds, it is permissible to separate children during a transitional time. Thus, the right to equal treatment in education was conceived as a hindrance to assimilation.

Overall, the Roma minority self-governments were problematized by interviewees as politically dependent on the Conservative-Christian political machinery of the current Hungarian government, including local authorities. They were also deemed ineffective and lacking the capacity, tools (e.g., resources, skills, education), and power to affect substantive or material change which would be felt on the ground. They have little to no influence in school (de)segregation policy, as they are not treated as equal partners or taken seriously by state institutions. Moreover, Roma minority self government representatives themselves hold different opinions regarding the ills and virtues of segregation, with some speaking out against “demeaning” treatment, while others testify in support of segregated schools in court trials.

Local civil society organisations have played a salient role in filling the vacuum left by domestic politics and inadequate policy implementation. Civil society organisations have taken on the role of representing Roma interests at the level of the courts, in direct dialogue with the government, including by participating in de-segregation programs in partnership with local authorities (and thus participate in direct deliberation with local government). Critical civil society organisations tend to argue from a human rights point of view, emphasizing the strong link between equal treatment and quality of education, as well as the need to cultivate “acceptance” of disadvantaged and Roma children into the mainstream school system. This is conceptually different from the government’s emphasis on “catching-up.” From the perspective of a more conservative civil society organisations, however, some civil society organisations want to push integration overnight, which Hungarian society cannot be expected to embrace—that Roma children themselves need time to adjust and assimilate.

It is notable that these representations take place at a high political level–the Anti-segregation Roundtable being cast as expert-based debate–and physically removed from the living space of the Roma. Thus, the affected Roma themselves are isolated from this level of political deliberation. Our range of interview and other firsthand research material revealed that political justice is not just political; it’s also intricately linked to economic, social, and culture experiences, and concerns human dignity more fundamentally. Overall, the themes, which emerged include the experience of helplessness and lack of empowerment, which is also linked to the “worthlessness” of development funds, and a reinforcement of perspectives which conceives of Roma as “disadvantaged” vis-à-vis the majority society.

Our research vividly demonstrate that political autonomy through the minority self-governments is no substitute for equal political rights. The range of “solutions” proposed by interviewees overall reveals that the way forward will inevitably involve a two-way street and thinking in generations and systems. Policy recommendations include: (1) vesting minority self-governments with real institutionalized powers to influence policy formulation; (2) cultivating Roma political figures in mainstream politics at the local level, where they can more directly influence school policies; and (3) civil society organisations should systematically aim to engage in deliberation and mutual construction with local community members.


By Eva Zemandl
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D5.2
The full publication will be available soon at: