I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.
The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.
But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.
While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.
Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.
Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.
The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.” Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?
By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.
While the MSZP bigwigs are trying to figure out what they did wrong in the past instead of attempting to come up with a strategy that might be useful in the future, let us turn to another topic: a new “experimental” literature textbook for grade 9 students. A sample page from this book was made available on Facebook, compliments of the Association of Hungarian Teachers. Hungarian teachers flocked to the site and were horrified. An outcry followed. The text disappeared from the Internet in no time.
Rózsa Hoffmann’s tenure in the Ministry of Human Resources is coming to an end. One newspaper announced, I suspect with a certain glee, “The Hoffmann Period Is Over.” Unfortunately, by the very nature of her job, her influence on Hungarian education, especially now that the Orbán regime will have another four years, will cast a long shadow. It will take years, if not decades, before Hungarian public education will recover from Rózsa Hoffmann’s messianic zeal.
Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democrats, described the departing education secretary as someone who fought like a “Berber lion.” Well, the Berber lion wrote a farewell letter in which she inflicted her final wound, making sure that the choice of textbooks will be seriously restricted from here on. Many popular textbooks will no longer be available and will be replaced by textbooks issued by two newly nationalized publishers. I read about one Budapest teacher who broke into tears when she heard that they are taking away her favorite textbook for third graders.
Let’s see what kinds of textbooks these Fidesz-Christian Democratic experts have in mind for Hungarian kids, in particular the experimental literature textbook for grade 9 students. (I would like to think that the Facebook post was just a belated April Fools joke, but I guess from the response that it wasn’t.) Thanks to social media it seems this experimental book will never be published, but perhaps without Facebook it would have been. The page the Association of Hungarian Teachers picked dealt with Greek gods and mythology.
Before I begin to translate selected passages, let me point out that it is hard to believe that this book was written for fifteen-year-old students. It is so simple-minded, save for all the sexual references, that I think a ten-year-old would be offended by it. I should add that I find it difficult to write in such a primitive style as the original Hungarian, but I will try. As for the run-on sentences, they are like this in the original.
A 19th-century Hungarian writer once said that he would like to live in a country where people tell tales. Well, ancient Greece was such a country. The Greeks recognized that it is sexual desire that moves everything in life; so they called it Eros (Amor or Cupid in Rome); they realized that love is always young and that love rejuvenates the soul and therefore they showed Eros as a young child; they knew that no one can force anyone to love; they knew that love is illusive and came to the conclusion that a man in love is happy, his soul soars, therefore they told tales about Eros’s wings by which he can fly; they felt that love can be painful and that’s why they said that Eros had a bow and with it he wounds his victims.
They saw that there are many wars in the world, and they began telling tales about a god who is the god of war and they named him Ares, the Romans called him Mars, but they also saw that often there is war between lovers, they fight a lot, and they thought that love is a kind of war, therefore they told tales about Ares who fell in love with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (Venus). They saw that at dawn the sun arrives and at night it disappears and that’s why they told tales about a god that is the sun and named him Helios who drives his carriage across the sky every day. They saw that the moon comes up and they saw that the moon keeps changing; they saw that every 28 days something happens like what happens to girls and that’s why they thought that the moon is a woman and they called her Artemis (Diana).
They were surprised how clever a human being can be and told tales about the goddess of wisdom, Palas Athene (Minerva), and they felt that while man is clever, his body sometimes is not at all clever, as if on top man was clever, but lower down he is a stupid animal, so they spoke of beings existing in the forests who are goats lower down but men above and they called them satyrs who are running around in the forest at night chasing women (nőkre fáj a foguk); they thought that everything in the world comes from these gods and therefore they told tales about the chief god, Zeus, who falls in love with every beautiful woman and that the world is full of Zeus’s children…. The Greek men also had jealous wives and that is why they told tales that Zeus’s wife, Hera (Juno), was not taken with her husband’s debauchery and watched over the unity of the family with watchful eyes (árgus szemekkel); they thought that Hera was the goddess of familial unity.
But that is not all. On another page we can read:
What is polytheism? Our European God is alone, unknowable, almighty Lord above us and above nature. The gods of the Greeks were entirely different: there were more of them because they were born from myths of natural phenomena and became anthropomorphic creatures similar to men.
One cannot be terribly surprised that a blogger, László Szily, gave the following title to his post: “The moon menstruates every 28th day in Hoffmann’s textbook.” Or that 444.hu addressed the departing secretary as “Rózsa Hoffman, you European God.”
On Saturday the MSZP committee of important party leaders (választmányi bizottság) gathered to evaluate the situation following the disastrous showing of the United Alliance. Apparently the at times heated debate lasted almost six hours. The gathering began with a forty-minute speech by party chairman Attila Mesterházy who, according to those present, repeated what he had already said publicly in an interview with HVG. First of all, he announced that there is no need for hasty action. It takes time to assess the situation. In any case, according to the party’s by-laws, there will be an opportunity to vote on possible personnel changes after the October municipal elections. At that time he will be a candidate for the chairmanship.
Otherwise, Mesterházy admitted that they didn’t listen to the demands of the people, that they ignored Jobbik, and that they didn’t appeal to sentiment, which is more important than rationality. In brief, at least in my interpretation, Mesterházy thinks that they should more or less have followed the path Fidesz chose in the last eight years or so. That is, let’s be as populist as Fidesz is, but let’s do it better. If Fidesz operates with highly charged nationalism, let’s be nationalistic. If the people want law and order, let’s create a law-and-order MSZP and by extension, because Mesterházy admitted that cooperation among the democratic parties is necessary, a law-and-order Unity Alliance. Mesterházy even dragged in the latest tiff between Brussels and Budapest over the distillation of pálinka. He stands with Viktor Orbán on that, he would also fight Brussels on the issue. But the European Union doesn’t want to forbid the distillation of pálinka, as Mesterházy implied. The argument is over taxes. The EU doesn’t want to allow Hungarians to brew pálinka without paying excise taxes on their product.
All in all, I believe that what Mesterházy outlined is no remedy for the ills of MSZP or the Unity Alliance.
The party leadership didn’t call for Mesterházy’s immediate resignation, a good decision considering that the EP campaign has already started. In fact, Tibor Szanyi, who will lead the MSZP delegation to Brussels, is hard at work and managed to get the necessary 20,000 endorsements in record time. Yes, now is not the time to get rid of the whole top leadership, although apparently there were voices demanding such a radical step. There was, however, plenty of criticism of Mesterházy’s leadership techniques. One of the main complaints was that he tried to imitate the leadership style of Viktor Orbán and hence created a highly centralized MSZP, which goes against socialist tradition.
In the wake of its 2010 defeat MSZP tried to reinvent itself to portray a younger, fresher image. The selection of the new leadership was based on age instead of experience and merit. In its rejuvenation campaign the old leadership was pushed into the background. Mesterházy somewhat naively thought that Fidesz politicians would no longer be able to call MSZP a bunch of commies. He should have known better. The name calling continued unabated.
Antal Rogán and Gergely Gulyás are now offering MSZP a (poisonous) olive branch. They are talking about the possibility of reaching an understanding with MSZP as long as the coalition gets rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Orbán is fixated with Gyurcsány; he wants the former prime minister out of politics for good. The Fidesz leadership doesn’t really care whether MSZP is full of old apparatchiks or young Turks; they’ll attach the “communist” label in either case. But they’ll gladly work hand in hand with these so-called communists to achieve their goal of silencing Gyurcsány.
I mentioned that the EP campaign has already started. It was DK that organized the first street demonstration. While Mesterházy is ready to fight Fidesz for the same voters, Gyurcsány blissfully ignores “the psyche of Hungarian society” which, according to Mesterházy, MSZP misunderstood. He doesn’t have to make compromises in the hope of competing with Viktor Orbán for the same votes. He can ignore the nationalism of the majority and stand for a United States of Europe, which might not be a popular position in the present nationalistic atmosphere created by Fidesz. Although he made a compromise for the sake of unity, the party’s official position is that no new Hungarian citizens in the neighboring countries should be able to vote. While Együtt2014-PM was ready to bargain with Fidesz over the new constitution, Gyurcsány could simply announce that, if it depended on him, the new constitution would be thrown out as soon as he is in power. Yes, he can say all these things because at the moment he is in no position to translate his ideas into action.
As for his ideas on the European Union, besides wanting to have a stronger central power Gyurcsány also seemed to indicate that more financial help would be necessary to avoid the kind of political climate that produced the growth of the extreme right in the eastern fringes of the Union. I’m trying to interpret what Gyurcsány had to say on the subject. Surely, he cannot hope for larger EU subsidies. Perhaps he contemplates using the EU convergence monies not only for building roads and paving city squares but for eliminating poverty. He said that it is not enough to have free travel and the right of entrepreneurship; “people must feel that poverty can be eliminated in the long run and the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed.”
I don’t know how the Hungarian left will improve its standing among the Hungarian electorate. But listening to the demands of the people as they have been shaped by powerful government propaganda is not a formula for success. Steve Jobs famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” The left has to create its own unique product line, one so attractive that people will decide that it is something they simply have to have.
A few days ago I mentioned a possible connection between Jobbik (and other extremist parties in Europe as well) and Putin’s Russia. In that post I quoted a 2009 study from the Hungarian think tank, Political Capital. Considering the importance of the subject I would like to call attention to a new revised, up-t0-date study of Jobbik’s relationship with Russia by Political Capital. It can be read in English here. At that time I didn’t go into any details because, quite frankly, I wasn’t well versed in the matter. But this morning I discovered an English-language blog written by Anton Shekhovtsov. Yesterday he posted an article entitled “Fascist vultures of the Hungarian Jobbik and the Russian connection.” The title was intriguing and what followed were some details I hadn’t found in the Hungarian media. For example, a speech delivered by Jobbik EPM Tamás Gaudi-Nagy in a T-shirt with the following message: “Crimea legally belongs to Russia! Transcarpathia legally belongs to Hungary!” May I remind everybody that Gaudi-Nagy was the man who threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the windows of the Hungarian parliament. Here is Gaudi Nagy’s English-language speech with Hungarian subtitles.
There is widespread belief that Jobbik is being supported by Moscow, although we have no direct evidence of such financial support. One thing is sure. Jobbik has more money than the party could possibly collect from its Hungarian followers. Jobbik couldn’t have run the extensive campaign it did on the meager subsidies the government hands out to the parties. Besides Russia, Iran has also been mentioned as a possible source of revenue.
In any case, Shekhovtsov suggests that Gábor Vona, the party’s chairman, was invited to Russia by Aleksandr Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University “who is known for his proximity to fascism.” He seems to be a political eclectic. He is, for instance, one of the most popular advocates of the creation of a Eurasian empire. And he helped write the program for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
Vona had an opportunity while in the Russian capital to deliver a lecture entitled “Russia and Europe.” In this speech Vona called the European Union a “treacherous organization” and declared that it would be better for Hungary to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union should the occasion arise.
While in Russia, according to ATV, Vona also had a meeting with Ivan Grachov, chairman of the Russian Duma’s commission on energy, and Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee on international affairs. Kalashnikov is a member of the top leadership of the Russian communist party.
The plot only thickens with the entrance of Béla Kovács, a man about whom we know very little but enough for some people to suspect that he is a Russian agent. He was born in Budapest, but after finishing high school he moved with his parents to Japan, sometime in the late 1970s. His father was apparently employed by the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo. It is possible that he also spent four years at “one of the private universities” in the United States, but he graduated from the Institute of International Relations, known for its close ties to the KGB. In addition to Hungarian, Kovács speaks Russian, English, French, German, Japanese, and Polish.
He returned to Hungary in 1986 but in 1988 went back to Moscow where he apparently worked for several Russian companies involved in international trade. We don’t know why, but in 2003 he again returned to Hungary, where he established a small salad bar which failed. In 2005 he discovered Jobbik, whose “bright enthusiastic young men” changed his life. Soon enough he became a very important man in the party. He handles the party’s finances, and in 2010 he was chosen to represent Jobbik in Brussels. There he is considered to be a Russian lobbyist.
Kovács is a man of the world and seems to have connections with leading members of far right parties all over Europe and the United Kingdom. As his Jobbik colleagues said, without him they wouldn’t have been able to find their bearings in Brussels so easily. It was his idea to create the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes all important far-right parties.
He was one of the representatives of extremist parties whom Russia invited “to monitor” the Crimean referendum last month. Most of the overseers came from right radical circles, although there were a few from the far left parties of Finland, Germany, and Greece.
I discovered an article about Kovács on the website of the new neo-Nazi party, Magyar Hajnal (Hungarian Dawn). It claims that in 2010 he was penniless but a couple of years later he managed to live lavishly, a fact that was confirmed by other sources. According to József Gulyás, a former member of the parliamentary committee on national security, Kovács’s background and activities are “entirely impenetrable.” Mind you, Gulyás is convinced that Jobbik “is a phony nationalist party which serves only Russian interests.”
I assume that, given his background, the Hungarian national security office is keeping an eye on Kovács. Given their poor performance in the past, however, I have the feeling they know no more about Kovács than anyone can discover by diligently searching the Internet for clues.
The first foreign media reactions to the results of the Hungarian election were anything but enthusiastic, but now that the dust has settled and there has been time to take a look at the figures, it is dawning on journalists and analysts that these “fantastic” results were achieved in a highly dubious manner. Even the raw figures give food for thought. How is it possible to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than 44% of the votes? And then there is the disturbing statistic that among voters outside of Hungary’s borders 95% opted for Fidesz. Pictures showed vote collecting in street stalls in Transylvania, the source of most of the votes, with no attempt to even feign secret balloting. The ease with which these new citizens could cast their ballots as opposed to the difficulties expats in the United States, Canada, Australia, and western Europe encountered when they tried to register and actually vote makes critics question the intentions of the government. The final verdict most likely will be that Fidesz won this election before a single vote was cast.
Viktor Orbán’s team designed an electoral system that pretty well guaranteed Fidesz a two-thirds majority, which ensures that Viktor Orbán can rule Hungary, with the help of his 133-135 minions in parliament, as a prime minister of unlimited power. A Russian journalist, Leonid Bershidsky, who works for Bloomberg, called Orbán’s Hungary “the European Union’s only dictatorship,” and he compared Orbán to Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan. One could argue that it is incorrect to describe Viktor Orbán as “a ruler exercising absolute power without the free consent of the people” because after all he won two elections. Moreover, he is “restricted by a constitution, laws, recognized opposition.” But, given the two-thirds majority, any law can be changed. And indeed laws were changed to fit the needs of the government all through the last four years. As we know, the constitution was also changed several times, and there is nothing to prevent Orbán’s parliament from changing it again. As for the consent of the people, well, one could argue that point, especially if we look at the 2014 election. Because although it is true that Fidesz won the 2010 election fair and square, we cannot say the same about this past election. Finally, a dictator according to the dictionary definition rules without an opposition. Well, in our case there is an opposition in the sense that there are a few dozen people who can make speeches in parliament, but they are unable to make a difference. Orbán’s team can forge ahead without any effective parliamentary opposition. For the time being, the majority of judges still come out with some surprisingly fair decisions, but Orbán already managed to get his own men on an enlarged constitutional court and tried to decapitate the judiciary by sending seasoned judges into retirement at the age of 62. The system that was introduced resembles the political setup of the Horthy regime (1920-1944) which Orbán, it seems, finds attractive.
Perhaps Leonid Bershidsky’s description is too strong, although he knows Putin’s Russia quite well, but other West European journalists also find the Hungarian situation serious. For example, Cathrin Kahlweit, writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), talks of Orbán’s laying down “the foundations for a permanent one-party government” achieved by “the declaration of a permanent revolution.” And these journalists call attention to the dangers this new breed of populists pose to the European Union. In Austria, Wolfgang Müller-Funk, professor of cultural studies at the Institute of European and Comparative Linguistics and Literature at the University of Vienna, calls Orbán’s system “Führer-Demokratie,” which is a threat to Europe. MDR, a radio and television station from Leipzig, called Orbán “a political predator” and compared him to Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.
Let’s see what Freedom House had to say about “the state of democracy in Hungary.” According to its report, “the changes initiated by Fidesz contributed to an outcome that was both less than fair and of benefit to Fidesz, as critics predicted. Indeed, Hungarian analysts suggest that without the electoral revisions, the party would have lost the supermajority it has enjoyed since 2010.” And Freedom House’s report didn’t even mention one of the most unfair features of the new Hungarian electoral law, the so-called “reform of the compensation list.” András Jámbor, a communications expert, wrote a piece for Al-Jazeera in which he described the system as one “where votes for individual candidates who did not win their electorate were transferred to their party list, originally designed to amass votes received by runners-up in districts – have now also allowed district winners (in most cases Fidesz candidates) to add their surplus votes to party lists, widening the gap between winners and their contenders, and bringing seven more seats for Fidesz.”
The Freedom House report also called attention to the far too cozy relationship between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. “It’s worth noting that the Hungarian election coincided with one of the most serious foreign policy crises faced by Europe since the Cold War’s end: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. On this critical issue, Orbán has had surprisingly little to say. He and his foreign ministry have issued anodyne statements of mild criticism for Russia’s action, questioned the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, and made reassuring declarations about the safety of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.” The author of the article, Arch Puddington, vice-president for research, finds this attitude especially incongruous given Orbán’s anti-communist stand in the past. Moreover, he was until recently an outspoken critic of Putin’s authoritarian regime. He concludes that “Fidesz’s policies, both at home and abroad, are far from reassuring.”
It is likely that the combined effect of this questionable election and Orbán’s new pro-Russian policy will have a negative effect on his already strained relations with the United States and the European Union and will lead to the further isolation of Hungary in the community of western democracies. But Orbán doesn’t fret about isolation–at least as long as the EU money keeps flowing. As Jonathan Swift wrote (and Orbán’s quote-happy speechwriters might consider including at the appropriate time),“When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
Somewhat belatedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Viktor Orbán on his electoral victory. It was yesterday afternoon that the press director of the Prime Minister’s Office released the news to MTI, and around 4 p.m. a summary of the letter appeared on the government website. Merkel emphasized that Fidesz’s large majority carries a special responsibility to use it soberly and sensitively. “In doing so, you can continue to count on Germany as a reliable partner in Europe,” the chancellor remarked. For emphasis she added: “in this spirit, I’m glad about our continued cooperation.” I think this letter was a warning to Viktor Orbán, who has already ignored Merkel’s message. If Merkel is serious about making good German-Hungarian relations dependent on Orbán’s restraint and moderation, she can start preparing for a rocky four-year period. It looks as if Orbán has no intention of slowing down. On the contrary, on day one he decided to take on the Hungarian and international Jewish community.
Those readers who are not familiar with the background of the controversial monument commemorating the German occupation of Hungary should read my many posts that deal with the matter, starting in early January. Here it is enough to say that this monument is a distortion of Hungarian history and by extension a falsification of the Hungarian Holocaust. The question is why Orbán insists on erecting this monument despite worldwide protestation. Why is he ready to face condemnation and contempt as a result of his stubbornness? As far as I can see, there can be only two answers to this question. Either his psychological make-up simply doesn’t tolerate defeat, which is a serious problem in itself, or whitewashing Hungary’s role in the Holocaust is vitally important to him.
After three days of protest, during the police passively watched demonstrators dismantle the fence built around the future site of the monument, authorities gave the green light to the police to crack down. There were several arrests today, with most likely more to follow.
While the tug of war over the erection of the monument continues, we should talk about another topic. Fear. A day before the election, Lili Bayer, a young researcher on Hungarian politics wrote a piece on the “return of fear” in Hungary. Let me quote her:
One element missing in much of the coverage of Hungary, however, has been the rise of fear in Hungarian society. A few outspoken Hungarian journalists have come out and spoken about their experiences of being intimidated and censored, especially in the state-run media, where some topics are considered off-bounds. Some former state employees, from ex-Fidesz agriculture official József Ángyán to bureaucrats at the Central Bank have described corruption and intolerance of dissident opinion throughout the government bureaucracy. Some of the country’s most talented television hosts and policy experts have lost their jobs. Fidesz and its oligarch supporters control not only the state bureaucracy and most of the media, but also many businesses and all government contracts. Husbands, wives, and friends of opposition figures have therefore become unemployable. As a result, some Hungarians have come to fear speaking their minds.
The fear extends beyond ministries and media institutions. It is present in private corporations, in schools, and in households across the country. At its root, the fear comes from the decline of Hungary’s democratic institutions and the lack of checks on the Fidesz party’s power. Fidesz has used its two-thirds majority in parliament over the past four years to gain control over nominally independent institutions. The Media Council, which oversees both state-owned and private news outlets, is dominated by Fidesz loyalists. Justices from the country’s top court have been forced out to make way for Orbán’s appointees, thus undermining the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the government’s actions. There is therefore no institution to protect those fired on political grounds, no one willing to start a formal inquiry into censorship.
The fear is not, of course, comparable to the fear of Chinese, Uzbeks, or Iranians, who live under the rule of much stronger and more authoritarian regimes. But the return of fear to Hungary after a two-decade absence is significant. It impacts the daily lives of millions, and has no place in a modern democratic society. The existence of this kind of fear in the European Union should ring alarm bells across the continent.
An increasing number of articles are appearing in Hungary that talk about fear, in Hungarian “egzisztenciális félelem” (fear for one’s livelihood). This fear is widespread. That’s why in the past four years the teachers’ unions could not get too many people on the streets. That’s why these same teachers cannot be enticed to strike. That’s why so many people refuse to answer the questions of public opinion firms. People notice that cameramen are hard at work at demonstrations, and they are convinced that these pictures will be used against them one day. People are afraid that their telephone conversations are no longer private. There were instances when Fidesz propaganda messages arrived on cell phones whose numbers were not public. I heard about cases where university students were threatened by their dean to stop their political activities. Naturally, these political activities were on behalf of the parties of the democratic opposition. At opposition gatherings one can see mostly people of retirement age. We know that young people all over the world are not terribly interested in politics, but there is another reason. Younger people are worried about their jobs as civil servants, doctors, or teachers.
There is another kind of fear that affects entire communities. Take, for instance, the city of Esztergom. The city had a famously bad Fidesz mayor before 2010. Esztergom is a conservative city, but even the good burghers of Esztergom had enough of the mayor. In October 2010 with a large majority they voted for an independent newcomer to politics, a woman. The people of Esztergom thought, however, that the mayor was only a bad apple among the otherwise wonderful Fidesz local politicians and voted overwhelmingly for Fidesz candidates for the city council. Subsequently the Fidesz majority did everything in its power to prevent the new mayor from carrying out her duties. And the government decided to punish the city for voting one of their own out of office. This time Esztergom voted solidly for the Fidesz candidate. They learned that voting against Fidesz is dangerous and counterproductive.
This morning one of Hungarian Spectrum‘s commentors sent me a video. It is a recording of a ten-minute segment of the Fidesz gathering in Debrecen where Viktor Orbán made his last campaign appearance. Before his speech an elderly gentleman with a monumentally large moustache recited a poem written byRudolf Kotzián. The elderly gentleman turned out to be Zsolt Dánielfy, a member of the Csokonai Theater of Debrecen. Keep in mind that Attila Vidnyánszky, the Fidesz favored new director of the Hungarian National Theater of rightist leanings, used to be the director of the Debrecen theater. Kotzián seems to specialize in bad nationalistic poems, some of which are available on a rather obscure site called Eugen. The poem recited here is a frightening warning of what lies ahead for those who don’t vote for Fidesz. Kotzián might be off his rocker, but the organizers of the gathering surely knew the content of his poem and gave their blessing to having it recited. What is the message? “You will be treated the way you voted.” If you vote against this regime, look around, you will see what happens to you. This message is repeated ad nauseam until the fear of God is pounded into those brave souls who stand up against this power.
There is also an entirely new police force whose members with their black outfits and masks are a frightening sight. By now there are almost a thousand of them. Why Hungary needs such a force is a mystery. Officially, it is supposed to be an anti-terrorist unit, but surely the terrorist threat to Hungary is minimal. The country doesn’t need a force of a 1,000 heavily armed men against non-existent terrorists. In reality, this task force has only one purpose: the protection of Viktor Orbán. What is Viktor Orbán afraid of? The people. And what are the people afraid of? Viktor Orbán. This is where we are in April 2014.
While commentators in the western media were not at all surprised about Fidesz’s electoral sweep, they were shocked at the substantial growth of the neo-Nazi racist party Jobbik. The original name of the organization was Jobb Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), which eventually was shortened to Jobbik, meaning “Better.”
Almost all the articles dealing with the election mention that “every fifth Hungarian” voted for an extremist party. Of course, this is not quite accurate because only 62% of the eligible voters actually bothered to vote, and it is a well-known fact that Jobbik followers turn out in high numbers. They even surpass Fidesz sympathizers. Nonetheless, this result must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán, who has been trying for years to convince the West that his party is the guarantee that Hungary will not fall prey to extremists. After all, he argues, Fidesz is a party of the moderate right-of-center. On the far right are the neo-Nazis and on the left the “communists.” Naturally, with the exception of a very small communist party that hasn’t managed to get into parliament in the last twenty-four years, there are no communists in Hungary, a detail that doesn’t seem to bother the propagandists of Fidesz.
Now Orbán has to face the fact that all his efforts at weakening Jobbik’s base have failed. He thought that if he moved his own party farther and farther to the right he would be able “to steal” the Jobbik sympathizers. He showed Jobbik voters that his own government could satisfy all their demands. In his last termViktor Orbán gave numerous unexpected gifts to Jobbik. This was especially true when it came to media policy and questions of unifying the nation across borders. The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime was also originally a Jobbik demand. Moreover, it is possible that Orbán’s pro-Russian stance was inspired by Jobbik.
Despite Orbán’s best efforts, the 10% growth in Jobbik’s voting base came largely from the ranks of former Fidesz voters. On the last day of the campaign in Debrecen Orbán warned his audience that splitting their votes between Fidesz and some other party would weaken the Fidesz cause. Although he didn’t mention the party by name, it is clear that he was thinking of Jobbik. And indeed, once we have all the numbers I suspect we will find that a fairly large number of Fidesz voters split their votes between Fidesz and Jobbik. They voted for a Fidesz candidate locally but chose to use their second vote for the Jobbik list. In the final tally 100,000 more people voted for Jobbik than four years ago.
Jan-Werner Mueller in his article in The Guardian sees a correlation between the growth of Jobbik and Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy. In order to understand the connection between Jobbik and Orbán’s pro-Russian policy we have to go back a bit. The first time I learned of Jobbik’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia was in 2009 when I read a study on “Russia’s Far-Right Friends.” According to this study, Jobbik’s attachment to Russia became evident for the first time during the Russian-Georgian border dispute. It also turned out that Gábor Vona, Jobbik party chairman, made at least two trips to Moscow even before 2009. Jobbik wanted “to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union.” Jobbik also wanted to expand Hungary’s nuclear capacity and even then, the authors of the study believe, Jobbik had the Russian Rosatom in mind when it came to the Paks power plant’s expansion. Keep in mind that at this point Viktor Orbán had very different ideas about Russia, which he considered to be a danger to Europe and Hungary. It seems that Jobbik managed to convince him otherwise. He saw the light and more or less copied Jobbik’s ideas on Russo-Hungarian relations.
These moves didn’t slow the growth of Jobbik, just as government policies didn’t help the position of the conservatives vis-à-vis the extreme right in interwar Hungary. Orbán followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with MIÉP, the precursor of Jobbik, during his first government (1998-2002) just as he did in handling Jobbik. Give them what they want and perhaps they will be satisfied with Fidesz rule. That strategy didn’t work in the Horthy era as it doesn’t work now.
To be fair to Horthy, there’s appeasement (at a distance) and appeasement (embracing). I think we can safely say that Orbán’s ideas are closer to the extreme right today than were those of any of Horthy’s governments. After all, Orbán is a populist while Horthy and his ministers were hard-core conservatives. The leaders of the extreme right in the 1930s held some “revolutionary ideas” when it came to social policy. Many of the party’s ideologues were outright admirers of the Soviet experiment with its planned economy and egalitarian ideology. Szálasi, for example, was well versed in Marxism. For Horthy all that was anathema. It would have been unimaginable for Horthy to allow his government to conduct a pro-Russian/Soviet policy or to get too cozy with Ferenc Szálasi and his friends. On the other hand, Orbán seems quite willing to take over Jobbik’s ideas–their pro-Russian foreign policy as well as their views on modern Hungarian history–and pass them off as his own.
There is a paper thin line between Jobbik and Fidesz. I know that the western media is preoccupied with the growth of Jobbik, but I think everybody would be better off realizing that the real problem is Fidesz and the system Viktor Orbán created. Jobbik will be in opposition, but Viktor Orbán, who often carries the Jobbik banner, has practically unlimited power. He is the much greater danger, not Gábor Vona.