BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary's impoverished Gypsies, long shunned by their countrymen, are likely to be ignored as the country struggles to reform.
Concern is growing that the Gypsy population--estimated at 500,000, or one in 20 Hungarians--will be toppled or barred from the democratic bandwagon sweeping through Central and Eastern Europe.
Some predict that the poor, once-migratory grouping will miss out entirely on economic, social and political improvements. Hate literature and graffiti in Budapest stating "Gypsy-free zone" and "Let's go kill the Gypsies" attest to the racial discrimination they have long been subjected to.
"Democracy is not going to help the Gypsies," predicts Pal Farkas, an ebullient, if pessimistic, Hungarian Gypsy politician who recently lost his bid for a parliamentary seat on the Hungarian Social Democratic ticket.
Easily recognized among ethnic Hungarians because of their distinctive dark skin, hair and eyes, Gypsies have been scorned for centuries as shiftless and conniving. In 1987 the Hungary's Communist government funded a genetic study of Gypsies that purported to prove that Gypsy "criminality" is hereditary.
Today Gypsies are mounting a frantic political assault to improve their conditions. But observers say the effort is neither coordinated nor unified. Rather, it is torn by factional infighting as fierce as that between Gypsy and non-Gypsy.
Every Gypsy leader interviewed for this article denigrated the political efforts of all the others.
Political observers say the incoming Democratic Forum government is unlikely to take serious steps to help the Gypsies, despite campaign promises. They say many Hungarians' hatred of Gypsies, coupled with the depressed economy stemming from 45 years of communist mismanagement, provides little incentive to resolve the Gypsy problem.
Like Native Americans, Gypsies are an indigenous grouping that has been converted into a dependent, deprived society. They are at the bottom of the social ladder in terms of income, employment, education, infrastructure, medical care and housing, according to Anna Csongor, a Hungarian researcher specializing in the education of Gypsies.
"The ideology of the (political) parties seems to be 'a country with so many problems can't face the Gypsy problem,' " said Gypsy Jeno Zsigo, who directs the Gypsy Social and Cultural Development Center in Budapest.
Zsigo said 70% to 80% of Hungarian Gypsies live in poor areas. Many urban Gypsies are now homeless and suffer frequent physical attacks.
Ten or so Hungarian Gypsy parties sprang up before the March and April legislative elections. The groups received a government campaign subsidy of about $16,000, but many Hungarians resented this tiny support, calling it a waste of money.
In a historic step, two Hungarian Gypsies were elected to the new 386-seat Parliament. But another, Agnes Daroczi, who holds a university degree, lost even though she cut a deal with the non-Gypsy Alliance of Free Democrats' Party. In exchange for a position on the slate, Daroczi agreed to keep her Gypsy identity secret and deliver the Gypsy vote.
Daroczi's Phralipe (Brotherhood) Party, a Gypsy political movement, seeks a revival and development of traditional Gypsy culture, plus official recognition of the Romani language.
Other parties, like the Truth Party of New Hungarians, led by a retired Gypsy truck driver, favor assimilation into the mainstream Hungarian culture.
Farkas, the politician, said he urged fellow Gypsies to abstain from voting in the elections to demonstrate Gypsies' political impact. Leaders say relief from a multitude of social and fiscal burdens will require a concerted political effort, though such unity seems unlikely.
"The Gypsy organizations lack an intelligentsia, and the intelligent Gypsies are not organized," said Janos Bathory, chief counselor of the Hungarian Council of Ministries for National and Ethnic Minorities.
Bathory, who campaigned with the winning Hungarian Democratic Forum, decides how government aid is distributed to minorities including Jews, Germans, and Czeches.
Aid does little to alleviate the Gypsies' problems, which are staggering.
"They are the only group in Hungary with any significant amount of illiteracy," said Csongor, the researcher. The majority in Hungary work at unskilled jobs or are musicians or artists, she said.
During the Nazi Holocaust, an estimated 50,000 Hungarian Gypsies perished. Hungarian nationalism and Gypsy poverty have helped trample the survivors or their descendants.
In Romania, where Gypsies are believed to make up nearly 20% of the 23-million population, five Gypsy or Rom people were elected to the new legislature.
But Romanians have also branded the late, hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as having "Gypsy blood."
In Hungary, most of the formerly nomadic Gypsies have been settled for hundreds of years. The vast majority live in the nation's poorest villages where education is minimal and jobs are unavailable. They are expected by the government to fend for themselves.
Education is a serious problem. Many Gypsies distrust state schools. They view teachers as apathetic at best and intolerant or patronizing toward children at worst, Csongor said.
Her husband, Gyorgy Mezei, a social worker, said Gypsy children in Budapest have been fainting recently in school due to malnutrition.
"Fifty percent of the Gypsies don't finish compulsory education," said Zsigo, also a social worker.