He has gone through rubbish and fought in the street but a Roma mayor’s unorthodox style has turned around his small Hungarian village, slashing crime and unemployment and fighting stereotypes in the process.
The Roma (also known as Gypsy) minority makes up about seven percent of Hungary’s population of 10 million and is one of the largest in central Europe, according to the Council of Europe.
But anti-Roma prejudice remains rife, with 58 percent of Hungarians saying “crime is in the gypsies’ blood,” according to a recent study by the Budapest-based research institute Political Capital.
Laszlo Bogdan, mayor of Cserdi, a village in southwestern Hungary where more than half of the 430 souls are Roma, set himself the task of proving people wrong.
“I wanted to change perceptions,” the soft-spoken, dark-skinned and tough 40-year-old, with tattoos up his arms, told AFP.
Since his election in 2006, he has revitalised the once run-down and disreputable village and given it a facelift.
He also cut back on welfare aid, while local police confirm that the crime rate has been on a downward trend since he took office.
Hungarian media have already dubbed the transformation “The miracle of Cserdi.”
But Bogdan rejects this, saying: “What’s the miracle in gypsies working?”
– ‘Like terrorists’ –
Cserdi battled with high unemployment and crime after the collapse of communism 25 years ago. But life for the Roma community was especially tough.
Gabor Volcsanyi, an IT specialist who works for local councils in the region, said the Roma community was “uncontrollable,” often looking to pick a fight.
Under Bogdan, things have now changed. Bathrooms were installed in poor households and the community centre has been rebuilt.
Development money and funds from the local council paid for this, but the villagers also contributed, hoeing 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of land for a private owner to get money together and doing renovation work themselves.
Bogdan also got locals involved in a national public work scheme that now employs 72 people, growing tomatoes, peppers and potatoes on formerly unused lands and providing extra income for the village.
His efforts have helped Roma and non-Roma alike.
Jozsefne Takacs, a non-Roma villager, said she gladly said goodbye to the 22,000-forint (69-euro, $94) monthly welfare payment to join the scheme, which pays almost three times as much.
She admitted they didn’t have much faith in his ideas at first, but their confidence grew when they saw his commitment.
– Changing mentalities –
In Bogdan’s office, large sheets of paper describe the monthly income and expenses of each household: Bogdan says he goes over them with his constituents to discipline their spending.
He even checks some of his residents’ rubbish to see if they spend their few funds on tobacco and alcohol, and discusses it with those concerned.
Unapologetic, he told AFP: “It’s easy to complain all the time, to point the finger at politicians, to blame other people because I don’t have a decent piece of bread.”
He even took Roma boys from Cserdi to a prison to show them where they would end up if they didn’t make changes in their lives, and brought girls to a university in Budapest to show them there was an alternative to teenage pregnancy, common in the Roma community.
Bogdan has also met his fellow Roma on their own turf, taking part in street fights when challenged.
This has been the recipe of his success: as a Roma — he says he didn’t have shoes of his own until he was 13 — the mayor’s word carries more weight than outsiders, Volcsanyi said.
Hungarian society is still not tolerant enough, according to Bogdan, who says he was fired from a previous job on trumped-up charges of theft.
And the combative mayor, who has been invited abroad to talk about his unconventional methods, has plenty of projects in store, including plans to get companies to invest and create jobs in Cserdi.
Next year, he also wants to open an eatery and start selling “romburgers” — “the Gypsy version of the hamburger,” as he put it.