The far right is on the march in Hungary, literally.
In recent months, hardly a week has gone by without a rally being held by the Magyar Garda or "Hungarian Guard," their members decked out in black boots and uniforms bearing nationalist symbols last employed by Hungarian fascists during World War II.
Their target: Romani (gypsy) criminals and those who want to integrate Romani children into the country's schools. Their rallies usually take place in communities with a large Roma population, where they style themselves as protectors of ethnic Hungarians.
"Roma criminality is a huge problem in Hungary that's been swept under the carpet," says Zoltan Fuzessy, a spokesman for Jobbik, a far-right political party whose leader, Gabor Vona, is also the leader of Magyar Garda. "The number of our supporters is growing day by day."
Their opponents are growing as well. Budapest's public prosecutor has called for the group to be banned, while Mayor Gabor Demszky has called on municipal officials across the country not to attend its events. Hungary's president, Laszlo Solyom, has described its rallies as "immensely damaging," while Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany calls it "the shame of Hungary."
"It is really Nazism and it is serious and becoming more and more so," says Viktoria Mohacsi, a Roma leader and a Hungarian representative in the European Parliament. "Many [Romani] organizations are calling on me to join secret meetings to organize ourselves the way the Hungarian Guard has. If this happens, there will be killing; there could be civil war."
Istvan Rev, a historian at Central European University, agrees. "The Roma are the open target and they have a basis to be frightened," he says. "If they have no other choice than to react, then everybody has a firm basis for being concerned."
Others take Hungary's center-left government to task for failing to address the root cause of the tensions Magyar Garda exploits: the appalling social and economic situation of the Roma, who account for between 8 and 10 percent of Hungary's 10 million people.
Although Hungary is part of the European Union, many of its Roma live in conditions comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa. Romani activists estimate adult unemployment at 70 percent, and official figures show that fewer than 5 percent of Romani children complete high school.
"After [the end of Communism], Roma were the first who lost their jobs," says Roma activist Agnes Daroczi, a sociologist at the Hungarian Institute for Culture and Art. "To be frank, there are many of us who are stealing. But when you deeply analyze the situation you see that there aren't any jobs, any possibilities for these people."
"The gypsies are living worse than 10 or 20 years ago because of unemployment and lack of education," adds Janos Simon of the Hungarian Institute of Political Science. As a result, crime increases – and with it, support for Magyar Garda, with their promise to defend Hungarians. "The government doesn't want to resolve these social problems; they'd rather wait for Magyar Garda to march and then say, 'Look at the primitive antigypsy chauvinists,' and try to use it to their political advantage. It's a dirty game."
Magyar Garda was founded last August with a ceremony at the gates of Buda Castle which was attended by Lajos Fur, who was defense minister in Hungary's first post-Communist government. Fifty-six uniformed members were inducted in that ceremony, and another 600 at a gathering at Budapest's Heroes' Square in October.
The group has held dozens of rallies to "defend Hungary," most in villages with large Roma populations. Its members wear shields and carry flags with the red-and-white Arpad stripes, a symbol of medieval Hungary used by the notorious Arrow Cross Party, which deported or executed a half million Jews and over 50,000 Roma during World War II.
Its political agenda isn't limited to confronting Roma crime. The group's declared aims include revising the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its pre-World War I territory and set its current borders. Any effort to do so is anathema to Hungary's neighbors, particularly Slovakia, whose entire territory was ruled from Budapest prior to Trianon.
Magyar Garda also seeks to build itself into a military force, an army outside the control of the government. "Basically there is no army in Hungary at the moment," explains Mr. Fuzessy, who says force reductions have left it impotent. "If the worst happens and there was no one to defend Hungary, it is the aim of the Hungarian Guard to be the foundation of our national defense."
For her part, Ms. Mohacsi says that if the courts banned Magyar Garda, it would send a constructive signal. "There are many people who ... felt that maybe it wasn't good to say publicly that they don't like gypsies, but now with Magyar Garda maybe they feel it's OK for them to do it," she says."
"An official decision would show to the public that this is not acceptable," she adds. "Such decisions always make people change their minds. If they like or don't like Romani people, maybe they'll keep their opinion to themselves."