Blaming Roma for everything from petty crime to trash on the streets, thousands of supporters of the far-right opposition Jobbik party rallied in Hungary on Wednesday in the eastern city of Miskolc.
Local Roma in Hungary’s second largest city simultaneously held a counter-rally rejecting what they said were typical right-wing slurs while police kept the two sides apart, preventing serious clashes.
“Jobbik will help those who build Hungary, no matter their colour,” party chairman Gabor Vona told about 3,000 supporters. “But we will go after those who destroy and won’t let them be!”
The protests underscored increasing tensions in recession-hit Hungary, which had asked for a financing deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union and whose conservative government has announced unpopular austerity measures to cut the budget deficit.
“I can’t live in this area anymore like this,” said Jobbik protester Tamas Kormendi, 25, who is unemployed.
“Not a day goes by without some incident that turns my stomach. These gypsies live like pigs and I swear they like it. Well, they will not like it for long if it’s up to me.”
The leaders of the Roma community rejected the accusation that gypsies were to blame for crime and safety problems.
Jobbik, which holds 45 of 386 Parliament seats, has capitalised on widespread public resentment of Hungary’s around 700,000 Roma, whom it has vilified for years.
The party says budget cuts left no room to pay for public safety in parts of the country, including Miskolc - a former communist industrial centre - 180 km (130 miles) east of Budapest.
The city’s ex-communist Avas housing projects, home to about 40,000 people, have seen mass immigration of destitute Roma from the countryside, where living conditions are often rustic.
Long-time residents have shunned the new Roma occupants, many of whom have large families crammed into tiny flats.
“At the Avas, you have everything that eats away at the whole country, from social problems to public safety and public health issues,” Vona said.
“All the while some try to portray this like gypsies are the victims and Hungarians the perpetrators!”
“Jobbik indeed wants segregation - segregation of honest and dishonest, builders and destroyers,” he added.
The protesters marched around the housing project with torches, intermittently bellowing slogans such as “Gypsy crime! Gypsy criminals!”
About 1,000 Roma marched in the afternoon and held a rally in the city centre. There was no friction between the protests which were in separate parts of town, heavily guarded by police.
Police brought busloads of reinforcements in riot gear to the Avas and there were hundreds of police all around the city.
Roma community leaders told Reuters that instead of stricter law enforcement, there should be greater integration of Roma into the wider community.
“I won’t lie to you, there is an integration problem, but what we need is a lot of social workers, not police,” Gabor Varadi, the chief of the local Roma Minority Government, said.
Maria Gagyi, a 26-year-old mother of four, moved into the Avas projects six years ago.
“Before we came here, we had lived in a single room with my husband and then three kids,” Gagyi said. “We had no running water, let alone a bathroom.”
“(Jobbik supporters) should come here to take a look instead of marching,” she said.
“A lot of people think the gypsies have no need for a bathroom, they just live in the slums in the summer and move into these flats for the winter. Not us.”