Hungary through American eyes

American diplomats have been employing novel ways of communication. For example, yesterday Daniel Fried gave a press conference by telephone from Washington to a small number of Hungarian journalists about the American position on economic sanctions against Russia. Daniel Fried is the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

Fried is a senior diplomat with vast experience in Eastern Europe. He served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in Soviet times; he headed the Polish desk during the regime change in the late 1980s. After Poland emerged as one of the democracies of the region, he was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Later he served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So, why does Daniel Fried think that he has to give a long-distant press conference for Hungarian journalists? Surely, because Washington wants the Hungarian public to know the American position on Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it also wants to share its opinion of the current state of Russian-Hungarian relations.

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Up to this point we have two independent versions of the telephone interview: one from Népszabadság and the other from VilággazdaságI can’t imagine that MTI was not invited, but for the time being there is no MTI report on the event.

The main message was that sanctions will be applied as long as Moscow does not fulfill all twelve points of the Minsk Agreement. A good summary of these twelve points can be found on the BBC website. Russian regular troops are still on Ukrainian soil and “the Russian aggression continues.” The United States wants a political solution to the crisis and is ready to cooperate with Russia in many areas, but Russia must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. With its aggression against Ukraine Russia “seriously endangers the European security system that came into being after the 1989-1990 East European events.” If Russian aggression continues, the United States and the European Union are ready to introduce new sanctions.

Fried then turned to specifically Hungarian issues. Hungary and its prime minister should know from Hungarian history what it is like when a country is left alone unprotected in the event of outside aggression. Therefore Hungary ought to realize the importance of the steps that are being taken in this case. Viktor Orbán first claimed that “the European Union shot itself in the foot when it introduced sanctions against Russia” and later at the NATO summit in Wales he declared that “we are hawks when it comes to military security but doves in economic terms.” Fried said that “we all want to be on good terms with Russia, to improve our relations, but this is not the right time for friendship.” Fried cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that sanctions only deepen the Ukrainian crisis. “The Russians say all sorts of things, many of them are simply not true. After all, they deny that their soldiers are in the territory of Ukraine.”

During the press conference it became clear that talks took place between the Hungarian and the U.S. governments concerning the sanctions. It seems that the U.S. listened to Hungary’s objections but was not impressed.  The sanctions hurt not only Hungarian businesses but businesses of all nations, including those of the United States. The European Union made a brave decision which Hungary supported.

The message was that one cannot play the kind of game Viktor Orbán is playing at the moment. On the one hand, he is a supporter of the common cause against Russia, but when it comes to sanctions he tries to make special deals with Moscow. For instance, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian agriculture minister, visited Moscow on September 8 where he had talks with Nikolay Fyedorov, his Russian counterpart. There Fazekas agreed with Fyedorov that “the sanctions don’t offer a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which should be settled through negotiations.”

And according to leaked documents, we know that Vladimir Putin told Petro Poroshenko during one of their telephone conversations that he “through bilateral contacts can influence some European countries to form ‘a blocking minority’ in the European Council.” The countries he has in mind are Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Cyprus. I guess Daniel Fried wanted to make sure that Hungarians understand that Washington fully supports the application of sanctions and that the large majority of the EU countries are also on board.

While we are talking about U.S.-Hungarian relations, I ought to mention that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator John McCain (R) introduced a resolution in recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15. Accompanying the introduction of the resolution Senator Carden’s press release talked at length about the sad state of democracy in Hungary where “there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. Earlier this week, Hungarian authorities raided the offices of two NGOs in Budapest in what appears to be part of a tightening squeeze on civil society. Such actions not only undermine democracy but chill investigative reporting on corruption and good governance. Now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to push back on threats to civil society and protect efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.”

In addition, on September 18 Deputy Chief of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Kate Byrnes delivered the following speech to the Permanent Council in Vienna:

Three months ago, on June 19, the United States addressed the Permanent Council regarding an apparent campaign of intimidation directed toward civil society and independent media in Hungary. I regret that I must speak to the Council again on this topic.

As we said in June, just one day after the April 6 elections, the Hungarian government accused organizations that conduct legitimate work in human rights, transparency, and gender equality of serving “foreign interests.” Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that NGOs that monitor and evaluate grant proposals for the EEA-Norway NGO fund were tied to an opposition party. On September 8, Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation initiated a series of police raids on two NGOs responsible for the EEA-Norway NGO grant program in Hungary. With no prior warning, and in a show of intimidation, over 30 officers entered the NGOs’ facilities and seized the organizations’ documents and computers.

These police raids appear to be aimed at suppressing critical voices and restricting the space for civil society to operate freely. The United States again reminds Hungary of its OSCE commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

Mr. Chair, we raise these issues to express our concern about actions that appear inconsistent with OSCE principles, and also to encourage dialogue. We intend to continue to encourage the government of Hungary to observe its commitments and allow NGOs to operate without further harassment, interference, or intimidation. The United States believes that such respect for its commitments will help Hungary to become a more prosperous, robust and inclusive democracy.

Finally, here is something from former President Bill Clinton, who appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “There’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying “I don’t ever want to have to leave power” – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …”

Hungary is in the news, no doubt. It would be better if it weren’t.

Fidesz at a far-right conference in Moscow

It was only today that Cink.hu, a Hungarian internet portal, reported on an extreme right-wing gathering in Moscow on September 10-11 where the Hungarian government was represented by Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources. I myself learned about this event earlier from the excellent German-language blog on Hungarian affairs, PusztarangerThe story is quite complicated, so let’s start at the beginning.

The World Congress of Families that sponsored the Moscow conference is an American based organization that opposes same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. Because of its militant anti-gay stand, especially its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law opposing LGBT rights internationally, WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States, called WCF “one of the most influential groups in America promoting and coordinating the exportation  of anti-LGBT bigotry, ideology, and legislation abroad.” HRC claimed that their international conferences gather “the most fringe activists engaged in anti-LGBT extremism.”

WCF has organized annual congresses ever since 1997 when it was established. This year the eighth congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow on September 10-11. This particular congress was to carry the title: World Congress of Families VIII: “Every Child a Gift: Large families–The Future of Humanity.” But then came the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Three Russians–Vladimir Yakunin, Yelena Mizulina, and Aleksey Pushkov–who were involved with the conference were among those sanctioned by the United States and Australia right after the annexation. Under these circumstances WCF, which normally has very good relations with the Russian government and the Russian right, tried to make itself invisible. After all, other groups, such as Concerned Women for America, pulled out of the project, saying that they “don’t want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.” So WCF’s name was removed from the program. They decided to call it “International Forum: Large Family and Future of Humanity.” Although the organizing committee still listed two prominent leaders of WCF, they hid their affiliations.

Sharing organizational tasks with WCF were the Russian Orthodox Church, the Vladimir Yakunin Center of National Glory, the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, and Konstantin Malofeev’s Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. Both Yakunin and Malofeev are among the oligarchs sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. According to Anton Shekhovtsov’s blog, Malofeev has high-level connections with EU-based far right parties and was deeply involved in unleashing the Ukrainian crisis. Apparently a meeting between leaders of far-right parties in Europe and Russian right-wingers, including Malofeev, took place in Vienna in June. Their goal was to “rescue Europe from liberalism and the gay lobby.” Among the participants were Aymeric Chauprade (National Front, France), Heinz-Christian Strache, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ, Austria). I wouldn’t surprised if Béla Kovács of Jobbik, whom Fidesz accused of spying for the Russians, were also present. Chauprade was at the congress in Moscow and had a large role to play in the proceedings. So was the Austrian FPÖ’s Johann Gudenus. The conference ended with the issuance of a proclamation that blasts liberal social policies in Western countries and calls for Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” bans to be enacted throughout the world.

Enter Gergely Prőhle, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. He had a distinguished diplomatic career: he was ambassador to Germany and Switzerland and in the second Orbán administration served as assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In comparison to some of the others, Prőhle seemed moderate–at least until I read an op/ed piece of his in Heti Válasz about the controversial monument to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. I devoted a whole post to that opinion piece in which Prőhle showed his less attractive side.

Prőhle was one of three hundred employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who got the boot from the interim minister, Tibor Navracsics. For a while it looked as if his government career was over. But then he received an offer from Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, to become an undersecretary in charge of international and European Union affairs. (One would think that “international” includes the European Union, but this government’s naming habits are rather peculiar.)

It was in this new capacity that Prőhle was dispatched to Moscow to represent the Hungarian government at this illustrious conclave. It is hard to tell whether the bright lights in the ministry were aware of WCF’s involvement in the congress. It is also unclear whether they knew that the French and Austrian far-right parties would be taking center stage at the gathering. In the final analysis, however, even if they were uninformed, ignorance is no excuse. If nothing else,  Zoltán Balog and Gergely Prőhle were careless and negligent. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that members of the government felt that good relations with Russia were of paramount importance to Hungary and therefore they should not turn down an invitation coming from Moscow.

Gergely Prőhle at a conference organized by far-right groups in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

Gergely Prőhle at a far-right conference in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

One thing is sure. Official Hungary did not boast about Prőhle’s presence at the Moscow conference. MTI made no mention of the conference, and neither the journalist at Cink.hu nor I found anything about the event on the ministry’s website. However, Cink.hu discovered on the Russian Orthodox Church’s website that Gergely Prőhle was among the speakers at the conference, along with Aymeric Chauprade, a member of the European Parliament, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ), a member of the Austrian parliament. Gudenus delivered his speech in Russian because, according to his German-language entry on Wikipedia, he “regularly attended summer courses at the Lononosov University of Moscow and received a Russian Certificate from the Education Ministry of the Russian Federation.”

Cink.hu put a number of questions to the ministry and got some meaningless answers. They denied that the oligarchs had anything to do with the conference; it was organized by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. When Cink.hu inquired about the gathering that was studded with extreme right groups, the answer was that “it is possible that they were also there but Gergely Prőhle represented the family policy of the Hungarian government.” The ministry proudly announced that Prőhle spoke “between Russia’s Chief Rabbi and the Russian Chief Mufti.” Well, in that case everything must be okay.

It’s too bad that the journalist failed to inquire about the manifesto the congress issued that lambasted liberal Europe and called for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.” It would be interesting to know whether Prőhle, the man in charge of European affairs, signed this document on behalf of Hungary.

Hungarian citizenship offers escape route from troubled Ukraine

The Hungarian citizenship scandal is naturally growing by the hour, especially since today the second installment of Index’s revelations became public. Before I go into some of the details, let me first tell you about the official reaction of Fidesz and specifically of Zsolt Semjén, whose only job seems to be the “unification of the nation.” He claimed yesterday that the process of granting citizenship has been carefully monitored all along by the administration, which if necessary calls on the police and the Hungarian secret service to uncover fraud. The attack against the government’s citizenship program is most likely the work of  foreign powers who want to dissuade Hungarians from applying for Hungarian citizenship. I assume these foreign powers are Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. Semjén also had a few friendly words for his own compatriots: he warned them that cooperation with foreign secret service agencies is treason. So, Bálint Szalai of Index had best start preparing for a long jail sentence! The same fate might also befall those politicians who dare inquire about the irregularities.

Today Fidesz called on the “left” to refrain from inflaming the public “against Hungarians living outside the homeland.” The statement claimed that the news that broke about the thousands of phony new citizens was actually orchestrated by the opposition parties. It is “part of a campaign against dual citizenship” that the politicians of MSZP and DK opposed already in 2004.

Although the government and Fidesz try to minimize the gravity of the situation, if the news turns out to be true and the details are accurate, the European Union might be alarmed by these developments. As Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign policy cabinet, pointed out this morning on ATV’s Start, one reason that Romania has so much difficulty joining the Schengen nations is its earlier decision to offer Romanian citizenship to residents of Moldova. If the estimates of the number of people in Ukraine who now hold Hungarian citizenship legally or illegally as well as those who may apply for citizenship in the near future are at all accurate, it might mean an eventual exodus of as many as 120,000-150,000 people from Ukraine where the current political and military situation is grave. As the Ukrainian-Hungarian Miklós Kovács, whom I quoted yesterday, said today in an interview with György Bolgár of Klubrádió, a newly granted Hungarian citizenship is like Noah’s Ark for Ukrainians. These people are convinced that a flood is coming that will engulf the country in the form of the Russian army. In this case, they will have a means of escape.

Hungarian citizenship is Noah's Ark for Ukrainian citizens

For the time being there are no comparable problems in Serbia, but the country is in terrible financial straits and it looks as if Serbia will not be able to join the European Union any time soon. There are 250,000 Hungarians living in Serbia, in addition to all those non-Hungarians who can easily find an ancestor who was a citizen of Hungary before 1920. A fair number of those who took out Hungarian citizenship plan to use the Hungarian passport as a way to get to Western Europe.

In his second article Bálint Szalai gave more details about how the whole scheme works. As I wrote yesterday, right after January 2011 the government set out to acquire as many new Fidesz-friendly citizens as possible. Semjén appeared from time to time to triumphantly announce the latest figures. As it stands now, 654,534 people have applied for Hungarian citizenship since the beginning of the program.

The Index article has a breakdown of these applicants by country. Perhaps most shocking are the figures for Ukraine whose Hungarian population was 150,000 in 2001, a number that most likely has decreased since. Yet 91,275 people applied for and about 80,000 received Hungarian citizenship. The numbers for Serbia are also high: 124,811 out of a Hungarian population of about 250,000.  The Romanian figures are modest in comparison: 420,345  applied for citizenship out of a Hungarian population of 1,230,000.

Altogether only 20,867 applications have been rejected since January 1, 2011. These rejections most likely took place after March 2013 when the rules were tightened somewhat. Prior to that date even village notaries or mayors were allowed to grant citizenship, and we know they could easily be bribed. After March 2013 only government offices of járások, sub-units of counties, could handle citizenship matters. Instead of many thousands of offices, an applicant could get a passport at only 300 locations. That meant that the price of Hungarian citizenship went up considerably. The village notary might be satisfied with 500 euros, the officials higher up wanted more. And with tighter scrutiny corrupt officials could no longer approve every case that came to them. They had to be selective. Nonetheless, according to the article, people close to this business venture estimate that 30% of these phony cases still go through.

The Index articles obviously hit home in government circles. Suddenly the authorities became vigilant. The Kemecsei Járási Hivatal (Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg) just informed the county police headquarters that a twenty-one-year-old Ukrainian man tried to get citizenship in their office although he does not speak or understand Hungarian. The poor fellow picked the wrong time.

There might be a lull in the sale of Hungarian citizenship, but unless the whole procedure is tightened up the problem cannot be solved. Tightening up means abandoning the “simplified” procedure that was adopted for the sole reason of getting votes for the Fidesz government. Citizenship is a serious matter; it should involve a thorough background check that takes time. I doubt, however, that the present government is willing to be that scrupulous. Their “unification of nation” factory has a fast-moving citizenship assembly line with virtually no quality control. And hence the fraud will continue. It might just cost a little more money for the hopefuls.

The lucrative citizenship business: Hungarian passports for Russians and Ukrainians

Today Index came out with the first of a two-part article on the mass fraud surrounding the acquisition of simplified Hungarian citizenship. The article claims that a group of Ukrainians with the active assistance of corrupt Hungarian officials has been procuring Hungarian citizenship for foreigners who are ineligible: they have no Hungarian ancestors and don’t know the language on even a rudimentary level. The article claims that their numbers might be in the tens of thousands.

The Index article made a real splash and MSZP, as is its wont, again demanded the resignation of Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, whose job is the recruitment of as many Fidesz voters from the neighboring countries as possible.

People have a short memory because the news is not all that new. More than two years ago Hungarian papers reported that “Hungarian citizenship is for sale in Ukraine.” It was discovered at that time that there was a website (http://visa-vengriya.com/) that specializes in the Hungarian citizenship business. In fact, the website is still active and it still runs the ad: “Hungarian citizenship in 2 months! Payment upon receipt of the documents. Our company offers service assistance obtaining Hungarian citizenship within 2 months. Payment service occurs after you get your hands on the documents and become a citizen of Hungary. Contact us to learn more about the procedure and leave a request for more information.”

The website indicated that applicants need have no Hungarian ancestry, did not have to learn Hungarian, and did not even have to appear in person to have an interview or receive their citizenship. Of course, extra services like forging documents to invent a Hungarian grandpa or grandma will cost extra, anywhere between 6,000 and 25,000 euros depending on how complicated the task is. Grateful clients sang the praises of the organizers.

In May 2013, in an interview with  Átlátszó.hu, Miklós Kovács, president of the Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Szövetség (KMKSZ), openly talked about the corruption of Hungarian authorities who hand in hand with the “Ukrainian mafia” handed out citizenship to anyone who was ready to pay them off. Kovács most likely underestimated the price when he thought that for a mere 500-1,000 euros someone could be the happy owner of a Hungarian citizenship document. A Subcarpathian Hungarian-language site claimed to know at that time that a Ukrainian citizen could get Hungarian citizenship for 5,000 euros, but if the person is from another former Soviet republic the price is higher: 9,000 euros. Lawyers took care of missing Hungarian ancestors. All that was done through “legal” channels.

allampolgarsagIn November 2013 Nick Thorpe of BBC, reporting from Subotica, Serbia, described his encounter with a brand new Hungarian citizen who did not seem to know a word of Hungarian. Or at least he looked blank when Thorpe greeted him in Hungarian. “He does understand it—he just doesn’t speak it very well yet,” said the man’s female companion. Thorpe found 50 people working furiously to handle the demand for Hungarian citizenship. They were receiving 800 calls a day. And every day 100 new Hungarian citizens emerged from the consulate in Subotica. The BBC article is entitled “Hungary creating new mass of EU citizens.” To be more precise, Hungary is creating future citizens of Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden, the countries preferred by East European migrants.

Thus today’s revelations by Index are not new, but they are definitely the most thoroughly researched. According to Bálint Szalai, the journalist who investigated the case, Ukrainians and Russians gather around Deák tér in downtown Pest to negotiate with Ukrainian and Hungarian “businessmen” over the details of becoming Hungarian citizens. Most of them speak no language other than Ukrainian or Russian, but last year the journalist lucked out: he found an English speaker who revealed that his father had already received Hungarian citizenship and now works in Germany. The rest of the family is waiting for the swearing-in ceremony. They will be Hungarian citizens within a couple of hours. Then they will follow him.

The citizenship law enacted in a great hurry in 2010 demands only one ancestor who was a Hungarian citizen before 1920 or between 1940 and 1945 and some minimal knowledge of the language. The citizenship business began in earnest in Ukraine. Ukraine forbade dual citizenship, and therefore Ukrainian-Hungarians were afraid to ask for a visa to Hungary to handle their citizenship applications in person. Therefore, paid agents represented the applicants in some Hungarian village’s town hall where they paid off the local officials. The price of citizenship was between 5,000 and 30,000 euros. Szalai describes one case where, in a village near Kisvárda, the mayor received 200 applications at once. He demanded 1,000 euros for each, which he got. It took him 20 minutes to sign them.

Soon enough it became known that through the Ukrainian network a person could easily receive Hungarian citizenship without much scrutiny. Applications were pouring in with forged birth certificates of non-existent ancestors. Shortly afterward Russians became interested in this fantastic deal. First, the Russians had to acquire Ukrainian identity in order to claim Hungarian ancestors. It would be hard for a Russian to prove that his ancestors were Hungarians. Companies and lawyers specialized in making Russians first Ukrainians and then Hungarians. The citizenship business is apparently still thriving.

The reason that the news made greater waves this time around is because it appeared on a widely read internet site. According to opinion polls, something like 75% of the population are not keen on the citizenship law as it now exists: people don’t like the idea that their fate can be determined by votes coming from abroad. And in fact, in the last election, if we can believe the information given out by the government, the two-thirds majority was determined by the 100,000 mostly Transylvanian voters. Simply put, Viktor Orbán must thank the Hungarians in Romania for his practically unlimited power. Reading that tens of thousands of foreigners who have never had anything to do with Hungary are all over the world now with a Hungarian passport only adds to their anger. The government’s reaction? Tamás Wenczel, undersecretary in charge of “nation policy” (nemzetpolitika) under the watchful eye of Jámos Lázár, immediately threatened Index with a law suit. He did not deny that there have been “irregularities.” However, “lately several measures were adopted that would preclude the possibility of abuse.” Wenczel did not elaborate on the measures, but as long as every village town hall can grant citizenship to foreign nationals the abuse will continue and with it the thriving business on both sides of the border.

House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

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September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

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A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.

Rape at a freshman camp in Hungary

On August 30 an incoming freshman was raped at one of the many weekend camps organized by the student associations of ELTE. I have written several times about these students associations, or Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). They were organized right after the regime change when they received powers unheard of at universities west of Hungary. In many ways they resemble the former KISZ, the communist youth organization, since they have a very large budget and some of their leaders are paid employees of the university. These associations can spend money with little supervision. They can also decide on such important matters as the allocation of dormitory rooms. Most important, they have a say in faculty appointments since they have a 25% representation on the university senates. Corruption is apparently rampant in these HÖKs. In addition, they are breeding grounds for future leaders of Jobbik. Unfortunately, university administrators either don’t have the guts, the power, or the will to reform and curtail these associations.

Among other things, these student associations are responsible for the organization of “freshmen camps” prior to the opening of the fall term. I guess the original idea was to give freshmen an opportunity to get to know each other as well as to meet savvy upperclassmen. A recent headline, however, described these camps as “szesz és szex” (alcohol and sex).

The scene of the crime was Fonyódliget at Lake Balaton where the freshmen of ELTE’s teachers’ college were supposed to get acquainted. It turned out that the organizers, leaders of the school’s HÖK, hired a 38-year-old photographer who they knew had raped someone else earlier and had in fact spent five years behind bars. The rapist first beat the freshman and then tried to strangle her, all the while taking at least 100 pictures of the act.

The picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This time at least the university administrators acted immediately. They suspended the responsible HÖK leaders and promised a full investigation.

And this wasn’t the only problem the ELTE administration had to deal with, although it was by far the most serious. Reports also poured in about the law school’s freshman bash, although the activities there seemed to have been nothing new. For years the organizers have made the freshmen sing a particularly obscene ditty. Index found the text of the obscene song and published it. If you swear that you are over 18, you can have the pleasure of reading it.

It seems that a tragedy had to occur to prompt ELTE’s administration to act. They decided that from here on these freshman camps will be organized centrally and will take place under the university’s supervision. This should have been done much earlier.

While the news was full of the rape case, the three guys who shoot the breeze on Class FM’s Morning Show, a popular program, talked about the freshman camps in a rather light-hearted manner. They called the rape of the freshman “an unfortunate event,” chatted at length about the general licentious atmosphere of these camps, adding “let’s not be hypocritical, we know what’s going on there.” There was even some inappropriate reference to gay people. The media’s reaction was outrage and apologies followed. However, these three guys’ reaction at Class FM is not at all unique, even in media circles. There is a new television reporter at ATV who did not think that his fellow radio journalists said anything particularly objectionable. And a few days later when he was interviewing a representative of an association involved with sexual abuse and domestic violence, he first skirted the issue and, when he had to say something, he brought up violence against men as also being a problem. He added that the trouble is that “women don’t talk about the assaults.” Perhaps if they just talked more, these assaults could somehow be prevented.

Even the director of communications at ELTE, György Fábry, seemed ambivalent to me. Of course, he admitted that it was a terrible tragedy and there will be serious consequences. But he tried to minimize the atmosphere that prevails in these camps. In his conversation with Olga Kálmán he kept repeating that no one forced the participants to sing the obscene song and that, in fact, this year the song was not included in the repertoire. He kept saying that some of the stories are exaggerated. From an earlier conversation on Egyenes beszéd I gained the impression that he is a great defender of HÖK. Indeed, it turned out that he, as a student at ELTE’s faculty of arts, was one of the first HÖK leaders in the early 1990s. The faculty of arts’ HÖK has been solidly in the hands of Jobbik, whose leaders use these freshman camps to recruit members for the party. When probed about the Jobbik connection, Fábry defended the group and said that the problem was not as serious as the media made it out.

Although the commissioner in charge of education who works under the general ombudsman will be investigating freshman camps nationwide, the problem is not with the camps per se. The problem lies with the almost exclusively male composition of the HÖKs. At ELTE women make up 75% of the student body, yet they are barely represented in HÖKs. Ninety-four percent of the student body at the teachers’ college are women, one man heads the college’s HÖK. These fellows often use their prominence as organizers to intimidate freshmen women. Details of what’s going on right under the noses of the university administration are well described by a recent article in Index.  Of course, the problem is not restricted to rowdy university students letting off steam. What happens at these freshman camps is part and parcel of the Hungarian male attitude toward women.