It doesn’t happen too often that I write about soccer because I must confess I have virtually no interest in the sport. I think that in my entire my life I witnessed only one soccer match–at the age of nine. I was visiting some relatives in Vasas (today part of Pécs) and there was this huge event in the life of the mining village: the Pécs soccer team came to play Vasas. It was held on an ordinary field, and the audience stood on the sidelines because there were no seats. Pécs won, everybody was cheering for Vasas, I was alone on the other side. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on, but that didn’t prevent me from cheering madly for the visiting team. Even then I was an independent soul.
My interest in the game hasn’t grown since, so you can imagine how much attention I was paying to the European championship. However, it was impossible not to hear bits and pieces about the different teams and their chances. I must admit that this little information came in handy the other day when I went to the hairdresser who is Italian and an avid soccer fan. I casually mentioned the Dutch, the German, and the Italian teams. I sounded like a pro. Fortunately the conversation didn’t go far enough to expose me as a total phony.
What I really don’t like about the game is the violence that often accompanies it. The hosts of this year’s European championship, the Austrians and the Swiss, boasted about how peaceful the games were. They added that no liquor could be taken into the arenas. Moreover, from what I hear about ticket prices perhaps the audience was not the brawling sort. Even if in Austria and in Switzerland there was no trouble, the situation was different in Madrid. Fifty-nine people were arrested and one was found dead. The Spanish fans in their happiness broke shop windows, set garbage cans on fire, and acted half-crazed. And there was a scene that I hope Krisztina Morvai also saw: two policemen mercilessly beating a guy with their nightsticks. Wow! Maybe the defender of the “innocent” Hungarian demonstrators should shift her focus from Budapest to Madrid.
I think that the attitude toward soccer has changed radically in the last fifty years or so. Both Péter Esterházy and his brother were avid players. Their aristocratic mother disapproved. As Péter Esterházy said in an interview, it was not suitable for her children. Only lower-class kids played soccer. And similarly, middle-class men and women did not go to soccer games. Today, there is a soccer mania and almost everybody is interested in the sport.
But Hungarian teams attract very few fans. From what I understand, the teams are terrible. It takes a lot of money to develop a professional soccer team, and in Hungary there is simply not enough money. Moreover, the better Hungarian players leave the country so they can earn a living. On some of the bankrupt Hungarian teams the players occasionally aren’t even paid their meager salaries.
So the bad Hungarian teams draw small audiences, and the behavior of these audiences is unspeakable. They scream obscenities, run onto the field and occasionally beat up the players or the referee, and send the other team’s members to Auschwitz. A sociologist lately tried to differentiate among the social strata in right-wing demonstrations and found five distinct groups: the worst was comprised of the soccer hooligans. They are the ones who will most easily pick up beer bottles to hit somebody on the head, set fire to garbage cans, or turn cars upside down.
And moving beyond soccer to another of my sports beefs: international meets are usually accompanied by unabashed nationalism. (Even I at the age of nine cheered for the home team simply because it was the home team.) Wasn’t it naive to think that the Olympic games would bring nations together in a clean, noble competition? We all know what happened to this idealistic picture of the Olympics. But Beijing is coming, and the hype is already in full force. Although I won’t be glued to the tube, I’ll know more about the competition than I probably need or want to.
Last year was the first time in Hungary that far-right groups attacked members of the gay festival held in early July, a day designated for the event worldwide. At that time I wasn’t terribly surprised because physical violence had became commonplace in Hungary ever since the fall of 2006. Initially the police managed to keep order and guard the safety of the participants. At that time (July 7, 2007) I wrote a piece praising the Hungarian police about a job well done. Two days later I had to change my mind: the police left the scene too early, and these extreme homophobic groups attacked people after the official celebration ended. Blood was flowing.
This year we might expect much greater trouble. First of all, the police have become weak-kneed. The gay community went to the the Budapest police to request a permit for their planned parade on Andrássy út. To the utter surprise of everybody, the police announced that, unlike in previous years when the gays didn’t unduly interfere with traffic, this year they would. So the police chief refused permission. An outcry followed. A day later the police chief changed his mind. (I suspect after some pressure from above.) Most likely the Budapest police simply didn’t feel like getting involved and, suspecting trouble, thought that the best course of action was simply to ban the event and save everybody a lot of trouble. But, let’s face it, this is a cowardly and in the final analysis an unacceptable way of handling extremist outbursts.
While a year ago the anti-gay groups were mostly satisfied with verbal abuse and only at the end was there physical violence, this year at least one attack has already taken place. Not just a few guys bloodying the faces of some of the participants but a very dangerous incident that might have ended in tragedy. What happened is the following. A far-right internet site apparently listed a number of gay bars in Budapest. A few days later, the best-known such establishment received a telephone call asking about their hours. That happened around 2 o’clock in the morning. One of the owners informed the caller that they were still open. The callers appeared and threw some Molotov cocktails into the bar while there were still about a dozen customers inside. Fire broke out. The people inside managed to contain the fire and luckily no one was hurt. So that’s where we are at the moment, and there is at least another week before the actual parade. I’ll bet the Budapest police are not happy.
In western Europe, on the whole, these gay pride parades usually take place without serious trouble. There are exceptions, but normally the police manage to handle the few dozen muscle-bound guys who take pleasure in such activity. One cannot say the same thing about eastern Europe: there were troubles a couple of days ago in Bulgaria. If I recall, similar problems occurred in Bucharest a year ago. Until last year Hungary seemed to be closer to Vienna than to Bucharest or Sofia. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
One reason for the eastern European vehemence against gays is ignorance. Just as in so many other things, information in the one-party dictatorships was practically nonexistent. In perhaps all of the former Soviet bloc countries, homosexual acts even among consenting adults were punishable offenses. Even people from whom one expected some rudimentary knowledge of homosexuality said such stupid things that I couldn’t believe my ears. Almost fifteen years ago there was a Hungarian-language list on the internet where the topic was discussed. There was a doctor on the list. He claimed that he was a psychiatrist. He came up with the brilliant idea that homosexuality is like smoking: one can get addicted to it. However, a homosexual can quit his homosexuality just as a smoker can overcome his addiction. Not long ago a Catholic bishop offered another fantastic theory: homosexuality has become fashionable so young people decide to become gay. A Fidesz local politician who is a member of the committee on health issues in a Budapest district just announced that he would like to find out whether homosexuality is an illness or not. He knows nothing about it.
Thus one cannot be surprised that guys with an eighth-grade education attack participants of the gay parade or throw Molotov cocktails into a gay bar when the doctor, the bishop, and the politician say such extraordinary things.
Hungarian drivers are notorious: apparently you put your life on the line when you try to cross a street. Just lately there were several fatal accidents at pedestrian crossings. One was really terrible: a grandmother was pushing her grandchild in a stroller, and a car that refused to stop ran them down. Both died.
Then there are the horrific pictures in the newspapers. The bodies of the vehicles are twisted beyond recognition, and the cars sometimes land upside down. Often these are single-car accidents; the driver simply lost control. He was going at such a speed that he was unable to take a curve and smashed against a telephone poll, a fence, or a house. People, including children, fly out of these wrecks because they refuse to buckle up. Children who are not supposed to ride in the front seat do. Politicians don’t exactly set a good example. I can think of two horrible “political” accidents. One, years ago, when Gyula Horn, shortly before the 1994 elections was driven somewhere in his Volvo and the car was involved in an accident. He broke his neck. He wasn’t buckled in. Two years ago, an important MSZP politician, László Toller, the very successful mayor of Pécs, was being driven home from Budapest when the driver lost control of the car. Toller has been in coma ever since, the driver died two weeks later. Neither of them was wearing a seat belt. The resulting statistics are horrifying: fatal accidents in Hungary are twice as high as the average of the European Union.
Gyurcsány’s government decided to tackle this problem as well. Something had be done, they said. They named a former undersecretary of the ministry of justice, Ferenc Kondorosi, to be in charge of changing certain laws and making sure that there would be vigorous enforcement. This was just another irritant for a society that has a rather peculiar view of rules and regulations. One of the most abused provisions of the then-existing traffic laws was that if the camera and radar (Traffipax system) recorded a car’s license plate and its excessive speed, the owner of the car was not liable for the traffic violation if he announced that it wasn’t he who drove the car. He lent it to somebody else. At this point the Hungarian police were at a loss: they had to give up the idea of fining the person. If that had happened a few hundred times, it would have been bearable but, believe it or not, eventually there were one million such fines hanging in the air. These generous Hungarian drivers: they just lend their cars to anybody, friend, relative, God knows whom else. (I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but in North America owners of cars jealously guard their vehicles. Moreover, if there is an accident and it is not the driver listed on the insurance policy at the wheel, the insurance company might not pay.) In order to remedy this situation, the Hungarian government decided to change the law: the owner of the vehicle is responsible. Period. In my opinion that is a very sensible way of looking at things. If the owner was foolish enough to lend his car to somebody else and if that person was caught speeding he can settle the business with his friend. The police has nothing to do with their private arrangement. In the face of the new law Hungarian drivers had to devise another way to speed with impunity: if there’s no license plate, there’s no record of speeding. Suddenly license plates fall off. Lost! Again, not just a few hundred but thousands. So another hole to plug.
Let me tell you a couple of stories I heard about Hungarians complaining about the police who fined them for traffic violations. The first story is from here. It was years ago; in the infancy of the internet there was an English-language list on Hungary. Among the contributors was a Hungarian Ph.D. candidate somewhere in Ohio. One day he wrote an irate post. He was fined for being parked in a spot with an expired parking meter. He arrived as the policeman was writing out the ticket. He tried to explain to him that his landlady’s clock was slow and that was why he was late, but the heartless policeman didn’t care and kept on writing. Our Hungarian simply couldn’t understand that clock or no clock he had violated the traffic laws. We tried to explain that the policeman’s action was reasonable. To no avail.
My other story is very recent. Yesterday in György Bolgár’s program one of the topics was zero tolerance. One guy who considered himself very experienced in the affairs of the world said that he was dead against the Hungarian version of zero tolerance because, and now listen carefully, in New York zero tolerance means something different from in Hungary. In New York the police found all those who committed the smallest violation while in Hungary only those get punished whom the police happen to catch! Bolgár tried to explain to him that of course in New York the police fined or arrested only people whom they happened to catch, but he didn’t get very far with him on this score. Then our caller came up with an even more interesting interpretation of what our attitude toward the law is supposed to be. There are laws that are simply stupid. He gave an example. In a village the speed limit was 40 km, but he was travelling through the village in the dead of night. There was no one on the street, and yet this horrible policeman pulled him over and fined him because he was speeding. Outrageous. He didn’t endanger anyone’s life. Thus, in his view we are the sole interpreters of all rules and regulations. If we find something ridiculous or superfluous we can simply disregard it.
Too bad that I couldn’t give him a local example. There is a state highway nearby where the speed limit is 45 mph. The road is straight and there are very few houses. We all suspect that the speed limit was artificially set low to enrich the already affluent neighboring town’s coffers (the classic American speed trap, but usually a way for struggling towns to boost their revenues). So you hear my annoyance. And those who live here are super careful and often often flash their lights to warn oncoming drivers about the police car hiding in the bushes. However, if I were foolish enough to drive 60 miles per hour and were caught I would meekly pay (as in the early years a couple of my visitors did until I warned everybody about the speed trap).
It was exactly a year ago that I wrote my first blog. The topic was Hungarian agriculture; I described an interview with the minister of agriculture, József Gráf. Since then I have been pretty diligent. Altogether I wrote 331 pieces, and 33,143 people have visited the blog. I know traffic is modest, but nonetheless I’m pleased, especially since the beginnings were rocky. It takes time before the internet audience notices the new kid on the block.
I decided to start Hungarian Spectrum because I was dissatisfied with political information available in English about Hungary. Admittedly, there are some English-language internet papers, but I don’t know any English-language blog devoted to an analysis of daily political events. Most of the time Google Alerts call my attention to some Hungarian recipe. Or to some girl who was an exchange student and tells the world about her experiences in Hungary. These, of course, are important and have their own audiences, but I thought that there were also people who would like to follow Hungarian politics but either didn’t speak the language or just wanted to hear another voice.
I was always interested in politics, I guess, and if the Soviets hadn’t decided to impose their system on Hungary after World War II, I might have ended up as a politician. It seemed to be running in the family. Both my parents were very active after the war in the Smallholders’ Party, a moderate conservative party that won an absolute majority in the first free elections in 1946. My father, an engineer turned businessman, had progressive ideas about the future of Hungarian agriculture where independent small farmers could pool their resources to share modern equipment. My mother was the representative of her party in the multi-party Association of Democratic Women where, I remember, she had daily problems with the delegate of the Hungarian Communist Party. At one point the party wanted my mother to run for parliament, but by that time it was obvious that the communists were going to win the election regardless of how people voted. So she declined. However, years later, after my mother’s death, I found the party’s pin tucked away in one of the drawers. Obviously, it was important for her to keep it when the best thing was to forget about such involvement.
My political interests propelled me to participate in the events of 1956. By that time I was a university student in Budapest and because I happened to live in the dormitory that was situated in downtown Budapest, right across from the Hotel Astoria, I witnessed fierce fighting from close quarters. Sometimes too close for comfort. However, as soon as possible I left the dormitory and offered my services to the Budapest Revolutionary Committee established by students and young instructors at the Faculty of Arts. After the Russians returned I worked on an underground paper. It was a very modest paper–typed, stenciled, and distributed at street corners. The work was not exactly without risk, especially when, by the beginning of December, many of those involved in putting out underground papers had been an arrested. It was just a question of time. We wrote some of the articles, but many of them came from an unknown source through a young fellow we hardly knew. One day he told me that he had heard rumors that behind the paper were people from Imre Nagy’s closest circle. By that time Imre Nagy had been arrested. It was at that point I decided to leave Hungary. It was only after 1990 that I found out that the man behind those articles was Miklós Gimes, one of the three men sentenced to death and executed on June 16, 1958.
Thus writing about politics is not entirely new to me, but circumstances didn’t really allow me to pursue this course. My academic interest always lay with history although the road to finding my real calling was long and arduous. I guess that one reason for not contemplating majoring in history was that the times were not conducive to budding historians. The greatest falsification of history was going on. In addition, I had, for four solid years, the world’s most boring history teacher. However, in September-October 1956 I had a brief encounter with history that was a real discovery. Without going into the dull bureaucratic details of my university career it was in September of 1956 that my status changed: university authorities allowed me to drop one of my majors and concentrate on Hungarian literature and linguistics. For some unknown reason Hungarian history became part of the new major. I was suddenly plunged into a course in post-1790 Hungarian history. That was especially funny since my main interest at that point was Old Hungarian literature, way before 1790. The lecturer was a young assistant professor, György Szabad. He was fantastic. Never in my life had I heard such engaging history. He could transport us to a princely estate around 1790. All the details of running of the estate, including the purchase of cows straight from Switzerland that were giving more milk than the Hungarian breeds. Or how he could make us imagine by looking out the window what Pest had been like in those days. It was a new world.
Like so many heroes, the sheen disappeared. First in his book, At the Crossroad of Revolution and Compromise, he distanced himself from the notion of compromise. After the change of regime, he became involved in politics and was the MDP speaker of the house. By now Szabad is no longer a moderate but has moved quite far to the right.
I have been quite amazed at the political transformation of some people. Formerly very important party cadres like Imre Pozsgay or Mátyás Szűrös today are enthusiastic followers of a right-wing Fidesz. This party bears no resemblance to the original Young Democrats who marched out of parliament when György Szabad called for a few minutes of silence in remembrance of Trianon. (Just to set things straight I consider both Szabad’s and Fidesz’s behavior in this case reprehensible.) Ordinary party secretaries who were reporting on people in the Kádár regime now teach religion in the local school. People who worked for the secret police are nowadays the most vehement enemies of the old regime. They scream and holler and go to court. One such person is Katalin Kondor, former head of the Hungarian Radio, who most likely was an informer, but who managed to convince the court that the documents historians claimed were genuine were simply not enough to prove her service to the secret police. Or just lately, János Martonyi, formerly Orbán’s foreign minister, “cleared his name” in court because the documents his accusers presented, although genuine, were not enough for the judge.
Of course, we change our minds over a lifetime. It would be strange if we didn’t. At one point I believed in the domino theory advocated by American policy makers until I came to the conclusion that, despite my anti-communist bias, it was a fallacious theory. But I don’t believe in total transformations. I can’t trust those people. Something is wrong. Unfortunately, they are abundant, especially in countries whose history is volatile. People are afraid: the new regime might take its revenge on those who are too close to the former regime. They could be kicked out of their job or worse. In the last few months one sees a somewhat similar movement. A lot of people believe that sooner later Viktor Orbán will win the elections. And then there will be a real “clean up” (tisztogatás). So the movement away from the current government by well-known “intellectuals” has already began. Perhaps the best example is László Kéri, formerly one of the most vocal critics of Orbán. He has changed his tune. He said that the government “national security office” was spying on Orbán and that’s the only reason that the contents of his speech leaked out. Well, that came in handy for Orbán who said that for years he has been watched by the Hungarian equivalent of the CIA-FBI. Someone is watching him, reporting on him all the time. He must live with this. I’m very disappointed in Kéri, but he doesn’t stand alone.
I mentioned in one of my comments that Lajos Bokros only once prior to 2007 published his views on the Hungarian economy when he co-authored a long economic analysis. It appeared on April 28, 2006, in the midst of the 2006 election campaign. His co-authors were three reform-minded economists with close ties to SZDSZ: Tamás Bauer, István Csillag, minister in charge of economic affairs in the Medgyessy government, and Péter Mihályi, who was the architect of the ill-fated healthcare reform. Let’s review their analyses and prognoses.
First they announced in the spring of 2006 that Hungary’s economy was not in crisis. The GDP had grown by 4%–good, but, with the exception of Poland, anemic in comparison to the other countries in the region. Making fun of János Kóka’s unfortunate remarks about the “Pannonian puma,” they called Hungary the “Pannonian pussy cat.” They summarized the weaknesses of the Hungarian economy: too few entrerpreneurs, not enough skilled workers, high unemployment, excessive taxation, big government, soaring deficit.
After outlining these problems they moved on to the remedy, what later came to known as the convergence program. Yes, they said, the deficit must be cut and at the same time the government must shrink. I don’t think they had a clue how large the deficit was because the over 10% deficit surprised even János Veres and Ferenc Gyurcsány. (Let me add right here that the current government has excelled in this respect. The deficit is already under 4%, and the government spends 20% less on itself than before. However, this doesn’t seem to satisfy the economists.)
Interestingly enough, the same economists who today want to save money on pensioners and on various social services then emphasized that the austerity program didn’t have to hit the poorer strata of society. On the contrary, the country might be able to provide even more support to people of little or no income, and they added that “of course this would mean higher taxation of the upper strata.” (By now this is not at all what they demand: they want to lower taxes across the board.) They also thought that in spite of introducing a serious austerity program, wages didn’t need to lose their purchasing power. However, they added, the standard of living could not grow at the same rate as before. (Considering that in four years real wages increased by 30%, that was not surprising.)
Their first recommendation was to prepare a supplementary budget to be approved by parliament by July 1, 2006, because they were convinced that reducing the deficit couldn’t be achieved without such a move. (As it turned out, they were wrong.) In addition, they suggested a 20% VAT on all products and services. They wanted to stop all subsidies of natural gas with the exception of “the truly needy.” (We see an outcry today over higher gas prices even with subsidies.) Then came some suggestions that would have have hit the middle class and the retirees. The policy then in effect was that employees paid 4% and employers 10% into the health care system. To beef up the system they proposed that employees would pay twice as much (8%) and employers the same 10%. In addition, every individual, including pensioners, would pay an additional 5,000 Ft per month.
As for additional compensation for the retirees: the extra month of pension would not be paid separately but would be included in the normal twelve-month cycle. At this point these economists didn’t know who would form the new government and therefore warned that “the irresponsible promise of a fourteenth-month pension must be withdrawn.” This was a Fidesz promise before the elections.
The economists also suggested introducing a steep tuition increase, much higher than the government eventually proposed. Only poor students with excellent grades would be exempt. They wanted to stop the practice of financing universities based on their enrollment.
The authors demanded speedy action. During the summer the government was supposed to prepare all the bills whose passage would be necessary for the implementation of the austerity program. By the end of 2006 all would be set to go ahead. The budget for 2007 would already reflect the changes they recommended. They listed six areas that needed attention: health care, education, administration, local governmental structure, taxation, and social services.
I can’t summarize all of these proposed changes, but I will pick the one that is the most important: health care. This is the area where the government has experienced its greatest setback. What did our four economists want to achieve? What did they think was the best solution? I already mentioned doubling health insurance costs (8% from 4%) for employees and the extra 5,000 Ft to be paid monthly by everybody including the pensioners. In addition, immediately the government must begin to set up competing private insurers. Oh, what nice dreams. Each citizen would have a whole year to decide which insurer he would like to choose. The whole system would be set up by January 2008. The year 2007 would be a year of transition during which the hospitals and doctors would be able to sign contracts with the private insurers.
As for the status of the healthcare providers, it is obvious that the institutions will eventually end up in private hands because, according to our economists, “the ownership of the hospitals and the practices will be immaterial given the competition.” Moreover, both state and private insurance companies will insure all patients, whether they are treated in public or private hospitals or medical practices. Doctors will not have civil service status. Thus, “tips” for doctors and nurses will disappear because there will be no need for them. (Hmmmm.)
These were the original plans, but it became clear that even a milder version of them failed miserably. It didn’t fail because the government didn’t communicate well but because the Hungarian people resisted changing the last stronghold of the socialist system. The medical establishment is as corrupt as it was in the Kádár regime. Almost nothing has happened to it in the last twenty years. Governments have traditionally steered clear of the problem. At last there is a government that has tried, but the economists are not appreciative. They refuse to see that, given a determinate and ruthless opposition in addition to the resistance of the upper echelon of the medical profession who has been benefiting from this corrupt system, the reform of the healthcare system was virtually predestined to fail.
Economists are looked upon in Hungary as a fiercely independent group within the intellectual elite whose only guideline is strict professionalism. They are respected scholars, and whatever they say is the "truth." Apparently, according to Zsófia Mihancsik (in the last issue of Mozgó Világ, a monthly), this high esteem of economists goes back to the Kádár regime when at one point it seemed that the ills of the regime were not so much political as economic in nature. Even practicing journalists, admittedly without any economic background, look upon economists' words as holy writ. I had an interesting experience with one of these journalists. Some time ago in Napkelte (Sunrise), the early morning political show on the Hungarian equivalent of public television, the journalist confidently explained to an MSZP politician that the American experience proves that lower taxes translate into higher economic growth. This was the situation under President Reagan, he added. Well, my curiosity was aroused and I decided to inquire from him where he learned that. Answer: From So and So. I asked him: Don't you realize that there is this kind of economist and that kind of economist? Or, as the standard joke goes about the dismal science, on the one hand, on the other hand, and on the third hand. It seems that this never occurred to him. If an economist says something it must be true.
Anyone who has followed recent Hungarian developments must be struck by the sudden activity of economists. Suddenly they are full of excellent ideas. Not a day passes that one of these gurus doesn't come up with some plan that will save, if not the world, at least Hungary. And their recipes are fullproof. Not long ago I talked about the four young economists of Oriens who promised an economic paradise in two years if their plan is accepted. Luckily it wasn't. There are two or three all-knowing economists who can be heard practically daily. One of them is László Csaba about whom I will say nothing because he is considered to be Fidesz's "court economist." However, I would like to say a few words about László Békesi and Lajos Bokros, both former ministers of finance under Gyula Horn, and both of whom, by the way, were eventually fired by the socialist prime minister.
Békesi always looks as if the end of the world were at hand. He had the same demeanor during his tenure as minister of finance. Mind you, then the situation was really critical. But since then Békesi has not become a more cheerful soul. And now that Fidesz has managed to whip up a "crisis situation" Békesi is an obvious media guest. It is not necessary to go into the details of what Békesi says because he is completely in sync with the other suddenly active economists. What they all have in common is a firm grasp of textbook economic theory and a total disregard of the existing political situation.
Listening to Békesi, as I indicated above, is not fun, but I must say that I had to laugh the last time I heard him. He was being interviewed after the deal with Daimler-Benz became public. He was asked how it was possible that such a prestigious, world-renowned auto manufacturer decided to establish a large plant in Hungary if the Hungarian economic situation is as bad as he and his economist friends claim. Békesi was at a loss. The decision, he kept repeating, was totally unexpected. Something must be not quite right. We will perhaps one day find out what kind of illegal, sinister force is behind it. He didn't elaborate, but I had the feeling that what he had in mind was something like this: Perhaps pressure was put on Daimler-Benz from above (the German government, European Union?) to choose Hungary and thus bolster Ferenc Gyurcsány's government. One possibility he didn't contemplate: he is exaggerating the problems of Hungary, and the situation doesn't look so bad from abroad as the Hungarian economists would like us to believe.
And now let's talk about Lajos Bokros. I used to respect the man, but lately I have very serious reservations about him. Not as an economist because he admittedly did a very good and brave thing in the spring of 1995 that helped to save Hungary from economic and financial ruin. But where was he with all his reform ideas when the government announced its reform plans two years ago? Did he help? Did he tell Hungarian society that these measures were necessary? Did he tell the Hungarian people that Fidesz's attacks on the government's reform plans were misplaced? That Fidesz and Orbán were outright wrong? No, he didn't. He said nothing. Now that Fidesz has managed to put an end to many of the reforms, Lajos Bokros surfaces and attacks Ferenc Gyurcsány and his government for not having the guts to continue the reforms that were killed by Fidesz. This is not decent behavior. Not in my eyes.
And by the way, for those of you who understand Hungarian I highly recommend Sándor Friderikusz's final program tomorrow night on ATV. Inspired by Zsófia Mihancsik's penetrating article about Lajos Bokros in Mozgó Világ, Friderikusz has organized a get-together between Ferenc Gyurcsány and three economists. It should be a real treat. As for Mihancsik's article I will summarize it next time.
As promised, let's review the Gyurcsány government's failures. First, there was the ill-fated plan to build a separate, modern government complex to which all the ministries would have moved. In theory, the idea was good. At the moment ministries are housed in old, inefficient buildings in downtown Pest. These buildings were not erected to house ministries or any kind of offices. Some of them were luxury apartments built in the late nineteenth century. Heating is very expensive because of the high ceilings. The rooms are too big for individual offices. Communication among ministries is cumbersome. By contrast, the proposed complex would have had a smaller footprint and maintenance would have been less costly. But the proposed construction, introduced in the middle of an austerity program, became a prime target for the opposition. And that wasn't the only problem: inadequate preparation, charges of corruption, professional criticism about the projected costs, all led to scrapping the project. It surely added to the government's woes.
The other very serious failure was the reform of the health care system. From the beginning there was friction between the coalition partners: they had entirely different concepts of the future of Hungarian health care. The final shape of the compromise bill was less than satisfactory. It is not at all sure whether the new health care system would have functioned properly. However, we will never know the answer to this question: the referendum put an end to the whole thing. We are more or less back to square one except for those few changes that survived the Fidesz onslaught on healthcare reform. Again, the coalition partners lost their heads and didn't know how to handle the situation. At the beginning they acted as if they didn't take the referendum seriously, but half way through they began to campaign against the three "yeas" and urged their people to go and vote. That was, in retrospect, a mistake. There should have been better data available about the electorate's willingness to go and vote. Today we know that the only hope was that not enough people would bother to vote. In this case the same thing would have happened as in December 2005 when the referendum on the dual citizenship of Hungarians in neighboring countries failed. And in this respect, SZDSZ committed the worst errors: posters urged people to "say no to socialism!" This in a country where obviously socialism doesn't have a bad ring! On the contrary.
Despite these government failures, there is no economic or social crisis in Hungary. One can, however, talk about a political crisis. There are many reasons for this development. Gyurcsány's reforms, his whole approach emphasizing personal responsibility, were basically alien to the majority of Hungarians. The party that seemed united during the campaign quickly became fragmented as its popularity dwindled. After each meeting of the party leaders, some anonymous sources talked to the press and often without any foundation let their imagination wander. They talked about the dissatisfaction inside certain circles with the prime minister and his policies. They speculated who would take Gyurcsány's place. One also ought to mention the friction between MSZP and SZDSZ. One event sticks in my mind: after an extreme right atrocity Gyurcsány talked about the neo-Nazi danger at a press conference. At the same event, five minutes later, Mátyás Eörsi, then head of the SZDSZ parliamentary delegation, got up and announced that there was no such danger. The opposition was delighted. In general, SZDSZ leaders kept threatening the government to withdraw from the coalition months before the actual break. If the MSZP and Gyurcsány don't do this or that, they are leaving. While this was going on in government circles, Fidesz was absolutely united. Not a hint of criticism of the head of the party.
Thus we have arrived at another source of the government's poor showing: its opposition. For the first time in Hungarian history we have a party that József Debreczeni calls a "populist-fundamentalist force" that uses mostly extraparliamentary tools: leading masses to the streets, manipulating the electorate and news, using referendums and the threat of referendums to paralyze the work of the government and parliament. Politicians of the left and center, left-liberal intellectuals, even the media simply don't know how to combat this powerful force.
However, I see some change in the last month or so. The change didn't come because the government spokesmen suddenly became so clever or because the dwindling left-liberal media all of a sudden found its voice. No, it all began with Viktor Orbán's colossal mistake when his chat with the young political scientists became a bit too relaxed. Orbán said immediately after the contents of the speech became public that he didn't mind that the speech leaked out. By now I'm sure he does mind it. Very much. Two polls have come out with very similar results: Fidesz has lost a sizable voting bloc. A five or six percent loss in one month is serious business. Today we learned that Medián conducted another poll, this time specifically asking people what they thought of the speech and Orbán's new austerity program. An overwhelming majority has a very negative reaction to practically everything Orbán proposed from "freezing pensions" to "stopping investments and road construction." Well over 60% of them said no to this new austerity program that "will be very painful for very many people." And now there is Gyurcsány who says: "Thank you very much for all your sacrifices in the last two years. They were not in vain. From here on there is no need for more sacrifice. From here on the road will lead to a better life." Which plan will be more popular?
József Debreczeni wrote a piece lately with the title "Joseph Leopold II or Gyurcsány in half time?" Who was Joseph Leopold II? Well, there was a Joseph II and there was his brother Leopold II. Both were sons of Maria Theresa. Joseph II ruled for ten years; he was full of fantastic plans for reforming his whole empire, including Hungary. In order not to have his hands tied by the Hungarian consitution he never allowed himself to be crowned, an act that would have obliged him to swear allegiance to the Hungarian constitution. Ten years later, on his deathbed, he withdrew all his reforms. A crushing defeat. Then came Leopold II who in two years managed to patch up things with the Hungarian nobility and even succeeded in introducing some of his brother's reforms.
Debreczeni brought up Joseph II because a lot of Gyurcsány's critics compared him to Joseph II and predicted his failure just as the overzealous Joseph failed at the end of the eighteenth century. But as Debreczeni says, the comparison is not quite apt. Gyurcsány governed in a constitutional manner unlike Joseph. Moreover, Gyurcsány most likely has two more years and after Joseph came Leopold. Surely, Orbán knows that (even if he wasn't thinking of Joseph and Leopold because his historical knowledge is limited to high-school history) and that's why he wants those elections right away. Politics is full of surprises. We will see.
A lot of people think that it may not be half time because the Gyurcsány government will not be able to last until 2010 in spite of the fact that even László Kövér, the grey eminence of Fidesz and according to some the real mover and shaker of the party, announced a couple of days ago that early elections were unlikely. I happen to agree with him, something that doesn't happen too often because Kövér is one of my bête noires. I don't think that Viktor Orbán really believes in elections any time soon; he simply keeps talking about them, perhaps in order to keep his followers excited and hopeful. But surely, who could believe that Gábor Fodor's party would allow him to make a deal with Orbán? Writing a letter to Fodor and inviting him for a discussion about early elections was essentially risk free, with a huge potential upside. But the odds were staggeringly against it. To tell you the truth, I don't know why yesterday's conversation took place at all. Why did Fodor agree to the meeting when he announced ahead of time that the topic closest to Orbán's heart would not be on the agenda? And why did Orbán proceed with the meeting nonetheless? Did he think that he could perhaps convince his old college roommate and current political enemy that after all it is in his interest to help him be the next prime minister of Hungary? I understand that Fodor couldn't get out of the meeting. After all, he is the one who claims that all the ills of Hungarian politics stem from the lack of dialogue between the two sides.
The "dialogue," by the way, lasted an hour and a half. Although some people called it long, friendly, and fruitful, I agree with Ibolya Dávid who called it a bust from Orbán's point of view. She used a slang expression meaning that Fodor pulled a fast one on Orbán. I wouldn't go that far, but for Orbán the meeting was not a success. Basically, it was useless and meaningless. Yes, they can say that they met and talked and think alike about many things, but the critical conversation will take place on Tuesday: between Fodor and Gyurcsány. I suspect that there will be no renewed coalition. I doubt that Gyurcsány himself would like to see such an eventuality. Or that the MSZP leaders would be too crazy about the idea in spite of Péter Kiss's repeated insistence on its desirability. Moreover, I don't think that MSZP voters would be too happy if this unlikely event were to occur. Népszabadság asked its readers to vote on what the relationship between the liberal and other parties should be. Among the possibilities: SZDSZ should not be part of the government. This category was by far the most popular among the several possibilities that also included the possibility of a coalition with MSZP. Moreover, I don't think that SZDSZ's "crawling back" to the government would be very popular with core SZDSZ voters either.
My hunch is that SZDSZ, or at least the majority of its parliamentary members, will support the government from the outside and wait for better days. In the next two years they can perhaps rebuild the party, hoping to receive at least 5% of the votes in 2010. Gyurcsány I think is confident that his party will win the elections in two years' time. He not only said that a couple of days ago in an interview, but I'm convinced that he truly believes it. At the moment the overwhelming majority of both the Hungarian people and political observers dismiss this as a pipe dream, but he still has time to make dream come true.
So where do we stand at what probably is half time? Although the critics act as if nothing happened in the last two years and that the little that happened was hastily taken back after the devastating referendum, the situation is not all that bad. The most spectacular success is the very substantial decrease in the deficit: from 11% to 4%. In consequence it is not surprising that the country's economic growth slowed, but there was no recession, and in the last quarter the the GDP was 1.6% higher than a year earlier. During the same period industrial production grew by 6.9%. And the trade balance remains in Hungary's favor despite higher energy prices.
There are even some success stories in health care, allegedly the real disaster of the last two years. For the first time since the change of regime the Healthcare Fund is solvent. I remember when yearly the budget had to kick in 40-50 billion forints. Breaking the monopoly of existing pharmacies made life easier for most people: many new pharmacies opened. And that people could buy over-the counter-drugs outside of pharmacies, much opposed by pharmacy owners and Fidesz politicians, turned out to be a hit. Hospital reform at least resulted in less corruption when it came to waiting lists for operations. In the good old days, a few thousand forints could ensure that people with connections and money would be operated on within days while others waited for months on end. Also, thanks to clever negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies, hundreds of drugs became cheaper.
Because of strategies used to ferret out tax evaders a lot more money arrived in the government coffers. The number of illegally employed workers decreased. Many small businessmen (at least 10,000) received loans under very favorable terms. And it is easier to establish a business than previously. In spite of the close relationship of the farmers' association with Fidesz, there have been no demonstrations because farmers are satisfied. The minister of agriculture is popular. Money is pouring in from the European Union, admittedly less than to French or English farmers but more than they got before Hungary became a member of the Union. An interesting statistic: I just read that 95% of the farmers who applied for money for different projects from the European Union filed the application electronically. Now, one mustn't think that every Hungarian peasant has a computer, but there are many hundreds of people whose job it is to give advice and help farmers find their way in the labyrinth of the European Union bureacracy.
The huge Hungarian central bureacracy is smaller than before. The numbers employed shrank by about 20%. The government wanted larger cuts but interest groups were up in arms and the process slowed down. The biggest criticism is that the local governments still employ an inordinate number of people. However, changing anything in that area requires a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz refused to touch the local government structure. It's worth mentioning here that Orbán in one of his carefree moments said something about getting rid of half of the people employed in local government. Gyurcsány jumped on it and asked Fidesz to cooperate with the government in this respect. We will see what Fidesz's reaction is going to be when it comes to the nitty-gritty. Most likely they will say no.
Many people think that the reform of Hungarian higher education is a total failure because the voters rejected the introduction of tuition. However, this is not true. First of all, even now half of the students pay tuition. Those whose entrance exam didn't reach a certain level. The unfairness of the system is that the students' paying or non-paying status was forever fixed, regardless of their grades. This will be changed. From here on a student's grade point average will make a difference. Someone who in the first year had to pay tuition may not the following year if he worked hard and received good grades. At the same time, originally non-paying students might end up paying tuition if their grade point average is unsatisfactory.
As for infrastructure and big government projects, an incredible number of superhighways were built in the last few years. The first fruit of this investment is Daimler-Benz's decision to establish a factory in Kecskemét. One of their reasons for choosing Hungary was the existence of a good infrastructure. What would have happened if the government hadn't invested money in building roads as was the norm during Viktor Orbán's tenure between 1998 and 2002? It seems that Orbán has a strange idea about saving money: on important investments in the future of the country. It was during his ill-fated talk with Kéri's students that Orbán announced that when he becomes prime minister he will stop all these projects: roads, bridges, metro, everything. A sure way of killing economic development.
These are the success stories, but of course there were many failures as well. The list is long enough to fill another blog on another day.
József Debreczeni, a publicist with a degree in history, is no friend of Viktor Orbán although he wrote a not unflattering biography of the former prime minister. But that was six years ago, in 2002. Since then Debreczeni changed his mind and has become the most vocal critic of Viktor Orbán. Some people even say that he has developed an Orbán phobia. Meanwhile he became a fan of Ferenc Gyurcsány to whose life he also devoted a biography. Considering that Debreczeni was once a member of parliament as a representative of the conservative MDF and a great admirer of József Antall, there are many people on the right who consider him a traitor to the cause. He, on the other hand, keeps repeating that he is a defender of democracy first and foremost, and in Gyurcsány he sees a democrat while in Orbán he sees someone who is an enemy of democratic institutions.
One of Debreczeni's most recent pieces entitled "Horthy és Orbán" (Horthy and Orbán; Népszabadság June 14, 2008) draws a comparison between the classical authoritarian Horthy regime and Orbán's populism and argues that it is a huge mistake to compare the two. No, Orbán has nothing to do with the conservatism of Horthy and his prime minister, István Bethlen; rather he has a lot in common with Gyula Gömbös and Béla Imrédy, two prime ministers who tried to transform the conservative Horthy regime into a dictatorship. They didn't succeed. Gömbös died in office in 1936, and Imrédy was dismissed by Horthy.
On the right an immediate outcry followed the appearance of the article. János Pelle in an opinion piece in HVG (June 20, 2008) claimed that Debreczeni's comparison between Orbán and Gömbös was "politically incorrect." (How political correctness comes in here, don't ask me. Obviously, Pelle has a peculiar interpretation of the term.) He indignantly asked how anyone could compare Orbán to Gömbös, the antisemite, and Imrédy, the war criminal. Pelle's criticism is unfair. Debreczeni is not talking about their antisemitism but about their attempts to overthrow the democratic institutions of the country and their desire to establish a dictatorship.
Debreczeni focuses on the widely quoted sentences in which Orbán belittles or ignores the role of parliament; the reader doesn't get a refresher course on the political philosophy of Gömbös and Imrédy. Here I would like to spend some time on Gömbös's program; thus perhaps we can come to a better understanding of what Debreczeni had in mind.
There is no question that Gömbös during his tenure as prime minister (1932-1936) tried to establish a fascist type of dictatorship. He failed only because the old conservative elite managed to torpedo his plans. The most detailed description of Gömbös's plans appeared in one of the writings of Béla Béldi (1935). Béldi was head of the propaganda section of Gömbös's party, the Nemzeti Egység Pártja (NEP, Party of National Unity) and therefore his "reorganization plans" ought to be taken as authentic.
According to Béldi, Gömbös wanted to create a new kind of state. He made it clear that the change would be fundamental by saying that "the current text of the constitution cannot be considered taboo." The liberal remnants of the old regime must be completely eliminated. For this task the establishment of a disciplined, well organized, and united society is necessary. The whole nation must be one cooperative whose entire life is based on patriotic and moral principles. [Remember István Stumpf's words about a total reorganization of the current political system and the creation of a constitution fundamentally different from the current one.]
Béldi, in a manner very similar to Orbán, criticized parliament as not being a truly democratic institution because election laws–no matter how they are written, cannot represent the people as a whole. Moreover, the normal legislative work of parliament is too slow. Life, according to Béldi, is much faster and more complicated than in the old days and therefore parliament's role must be reconsidered. And parliament should not represent people on a territorial basis; rather, different interest groups should send representatives who will be appointed rather than elected. [See Stumpf's ideas about an upper house representing different interest groups.] Béldi outlined a plan according to which the full sessions of parliament would be greatly restricted and emphasis would be shifted toward the work of the committees. [Indeed, one of Orbán's very first decisions was to decrease the number of plenary sessions. The Constitution specifies that parliament while in session must hold plenary sessions weekly. During the Orbán government's tenure full sessions were held only every third week. Constitution? What constitution? Law? What law?]
There is another interesting comparison, namely the structures of NEP and Fidesz. First of all, NEP planned to include under its umbrella the entire adult population of the country. They were hoping that if they succeeded, all other political parties and organizations would cease to exist. They worked extremely hard to organize cells in every city, town, and village. These cells consisted of 40-45 people. [See the citizen cells of today attached to Fidesz.] NEP was organized in a very centralized manner. Gömbös decided almost everything. For instance, the election or dismissal of all local leaders had to be approved by Gömbös. [As we know, this is also the situation in Fidesz since Orbán returned to the active leadership of his party. In exchange for his return he demanded total reorganization: all power is in his hands. A real bolshevik party, some say.]
Gömbös made it known from his first day in office that he was not only the leader of his party, but the leader (vezér) of the country. And his followers exulted him to the point that he seemed more than a mere mortal. He was portrayed as a man of extraordinary powers who was able to solve all the problems of the country. [Orbán's utterances about stopping international economic problems at the country's borders if he is the prime minister reminds me of Gömbös's cult of personality. Or think back to the pictures of older men and women kissing Orbán's hands as if he were the pope.]
Gömbös was portrayed as the only man who could cure the ills of the country and who would lead the people on the "only right road." How would he do this? With the right instinct. This instinct replaced knowledge (about the economy, society, history, law, politics, etc.) that Gömbös lacked. [There is a great deal of that in Orbán's psyche as well. If he is confronted with some hard hitting facts, the answer is: he knows what the Hungarian people think and feel. He listens to the people and that is enough.]
All in all, Gömbös had a program that cannot be described in any other way but an attempt at establishing a dictatorship by "constitutional means" as he himself announced in his plans. His stranglehold on parliament would have ensured the elimination of the parliamentary system itself. This is what Debreczeni is afraid of if Orbán manages to return to power. Indeed, there are too many similarities between Gömbös and Orbán for comfort.
A few days ago Tárki, a polling company, together with Image Factory, a firm offering "political and business solutions," looked into the question of national pride and the nation's self image. Three years ago 40% of all Hungarians were proud of being Hungarian. Today, only 32%. This question of national pride has always puzzled me. Where we are born and what language we learn as infants is really happenstance. Something over which we have no control. Why anyone should feel pride because of it is beyond me. Especially if we try to flesh out the basis of this pride. For most people the source of national pride is sports. So there will be a frenzy this summer if the Hungarians do well in the Beijing Olympics. On the other hand, I guess a certain shame will set in if they don't get as many medals as they are hoping for. Some think that the Hungarians are a very talented people. Proof of this is the number of Nobel Prize winners. Alas, with the exception of one, all of them achieved world fame abroad. Others think that Hungarian cuisine is just fantastic. They like to say that the three best cuisines in the world are the French, the Chinese, and the Hungarian. Hmmm! What about the Italian, the Spanish, the Thai, the Vietnamese, and I could mention many more. Hungarian men are proud that Hungarian women are so beautiful. Again beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. We like what we are accustomed to. For example, I once had a Hungarian visitor who told me that she had never in her life seen so many ugly people as in the United States. In any case, 57% of those polled are actually ashamed of certain things they associate with the country. In 2005 that number was only 41%.
This news item inspired many people, especially on the right, to ponder the idea of national pride. Among them was Klári Fekete, the mother of Krisztina Morvai whose exaggerated political utterances bordering on the unacceptable have made their rounds in the last few years. Klári Fekete phoned György Bolgár today to share with him and the many thousands of listeners her own feelings about national pride. She thinks that Viktor Orbán's emphasis on national pride is very important and that the trouble in Hungary is that there is not enough of it. Not as in the United States. And then she told a story that is hard to believe. She claimed that she happened to be in New York watching the Fourth of July fireworks when the national anthem was played. Next to her a young American man who was well over 200 pounds began to sob. She, who always has a white handkerchief in her purse, offered it to him, but he rejected it, saying that on this day "'we don't wipe away our tears." I have been living in the United States for the last forty years and have never had the privilege to witness such a moving scene. To tell you the truth, I very much doubt that it ever happened. In the United States the national anthem is most closely linked with sports events–a rendering of the national anthem and then, "play ball!" My personal memories of the national anthem come from years of attending and participating in dog shows. Every dog show in the United States begins with the national anthem. Some people actually stop in their tracks, but most go on grooming their dogs or whatever they were doing, sometimes with a little less gusto.
Her second story also had something to do with the United States. She is very good in languages (she herself claimed) and makes sure that she keeps her skills well oiled. Therefore she watches foreign-language programs on television all the time. Back in the days of the Clinton administration she didn't follow politics, but her interest was suddenly aroused by Viktor Orbán when she saw him on BBC as he told off Bill Clinton. According to her what happened was the following. Viktor Orbán, the guest in the White House in 1998, told President Clinton: "In this room there are five Hungarians and only two of you who don't speak Hungarian; therefore I will speak in Hungarian." When she saw this, she said to herself, that's my man. This is called national pride. This is how proud people should behave. (Some would call it outright rude, if it happened that way. Luckily it didn't.)
Well, this is not how I remembered the affair. Orbán visited the United States because of Hungary's admission to NATO. There was a photo op in the White House gardens. Orbán began to speak in English, but halfway through he apologized to Clinton for continuing in Hungarian. Of course, our memories are not always perfect, but I was pretty sure that this is what I heard on the National Public Radio one morning when I was doing my constitutional. I decided to write a quick note to the program's forum and behold Bolgár noticed it and decided to read it in the middle of the program. Later on I even remembered that Orbán rather disingenuously reminded Clinton that not only the American president studied in Oxford but he himself as well. He mentioned that Clinton and he shared the same tutor and he brought greetings from him. Was I right? Was I wrong? Thanks to the internet and Google, the answer came within seconds. I was right. I found the official transcript of this photo op.
Let me quote a few sentences. After Clinton's introductory words, mostly about Kosovo, this is what Orbán had to say.
"I'm very much delighted to be here. I'm very happy that I was invited to have this discussion with your President. I'm very happy to be here as probably the first time in the history of Hungary as Prime Minister of an ally to the United States, a future member of NATO. And I would express all of the Hungarian citizens' gratitude to the President that he was tough enough to convince all the members of the Senate that enlargement of NATO and to involve Hungary into the process of enlargement is a step which is not just good for Hungary, but it is in the interest of NATO as well. And he was a tough fighter to convince everybody around the Western Hemisphere that NATO enlargement is in the interest of those countries living in Central Europe who just got through the occupation of another empire.
"So we consider your President as a person who brought his name into the history of Hungary, the Hungarian history, as a person who provided security and national independence to Hungary.
*Just for a second, I have a letter to your President, anyway, which was sent by Mr. Pachinski (phonetic), who was your tutor in Oxford and who was my tutor in Oxford as well, and I just met him a week ago in Budapest. And he asked me to give this letter to you, his best wishes probably you can find inside it.*
We will discuss definitely about Kosovo, the Hungarian and foreign policies in the Middle East, that they should look for a peaceful solution. But if a decision would be taken by NATO, we are ready to contribute as an ally to do. Host nation support could be provided. Up until now, Hungary and foreign policy was not invited into this action, but we are ready to take part. And we will discuss many other points as well. It will be too long to explain just now here. Thank you very much."
After these introductory remarks in Orbán's best English, the reporters bombarded Clinton with questions, most concerning his possible impeachment. Eventually Clinton managed to close this rather uncomfortable line of questioning and returned to the Hungarian prime minister:
"So these are some of the things that I hope to discuss with the Prime Minister. Now, perhaps he would like to make a few opening remarks, and then we'll answer a couple of questions.
*PRIME MINISTER ORBAN: If you don't mind, I would like to do it in Hungarian – *
*PRESIDENT CLINTON: Sure.*
PRIME MINISTER ORBAN: (Speaks in Hungarian — translated.) ….."
In brief, Orbán had to switch into Hungarian because he was unable to express himself well enough in English.
That is the trouble with some of these people like Morvai and her mother. Truthfulness is not exactly their strong point.