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SZDSZ says no, but for how long?

August 30, 2008 1 comment

I have to admit that I didn't expect such a categorical rejection by SZDSZ of Ferenc Gyurcsány's "nice little essay," praised by economists as a step in the right direction. I expected SZDSZ to say that the government ought to reduce expenses and not rely solely on the hope that more taxes would be collected in the future. I also expected them to offer to negotiate, to see whether some compromise could be reached. But this is not what happened.

After the top brass of SZDSZ spent two days closeted in Dunaújváros, the new party chief Gábor Fodor announced that although they are happy that finally after 120 days the government managed to come up with an action plan, Gyurcsány's patchwork quilt of "ad hoc ideas" simply won't do. "It is not adequate to solve the problems that face the country." There are problems with the contents and there are problems with the trustworthiness of the messenger. Fodor charged that the "nice little essay" harks back to the Kádár regime and gives too great a role to the state. "The omnipotence of the state that is given so much emphasis in this essay is unacceptable," said Fodor. I see almost nothing that would remind me of Kádárism in Gyurcsány's article. I think that here Fodor is scraping the bottom of the barrel. In fact, my reading of the "Compact" is exactly the opposite of the SZDSZ interpretation. During the Kádár era the deal between the state and its citizens was that the state takes care of everything and the citizens have minimal obligations. Gyurcsány in this essay raises the bar for individuals:  the state has certain obligations but only if you, the citizens, also fulfill your obligations. That doesn't sound like Kádárism to me.

In any event, it is obvious from Fodor's words at the press conference that it really didn't matter what Gyurcsány wrote or said. I think SZDSZ decided a long time ago that its future is ensured only if it positions itself as an opposition party. I personally think that this decision was wrong. I know a lot of people who have been faithful supporters of SZDSZ and who now say "never again." This anecdotal evidence is supported by the monthly polls. If things stay the same as in the last few months SZDSZ's support will be below the parliamentary threshold. Just like the KDNP, the Christian Democrats, that has a 22-member parliamentary delegation with no voters behind them. The Christian Democratic caucus is the creation of Fidesz. This way, as a separate parliamentary delegation, it can have representation in parliamentary committees when in fact it is a separate party only in name. If SZDSZ works hard enough perhaps after the next elections it can have the same status: a phony party that made a deal with Fidesz. That was meant as a sick joke, but actually its prospects are even grimmer. The most likely scenario is that SZDSZ would not get into parliament if elections were held early and may not even get into parliament in 2010 considering the events of the last few months.

So what was the instant reaction of the political experts? Orsolya Szomszéd of Vision Consulting, a group of right-leaning political scientists, thinks that although SZDSZ is positioning itself as an opposition party it will not necessarily vote against the acceptance of the budget. The government needs only an extra six votes if all members of parliament are present at the time of the vote. But if some of the SZDSZ members are absent, the vote may go in the government's favor without SZDSZ taking a major political hit. It is also possible that some people in the SZDSZ delegation don't agree with the party gurus and will vote for the budget. Zoltán Kisszely, another political commentator, expects a reconciliation between the two parties, with Gyurcsány acting as middleman. Kisszely more rashly predicts that MDF and Fidesz will also be partners. That seems much less likely. But a guaranteed winner: this is not the last word on the subject.

The latest blemish on the Hungarian judicial system

August 29, 2008 33 comments

On August 27 came the news that the legal proceedings against the Hungarian Guard that were supposed to continue on Monday, September 1, will be postponed because the judge recused herself and her request to step down from the case was granted by her superior, the head of the Civil Division (Polgári Kollégium) at the Budapest Court. Let me give the exact legal definition of "recusation" as it appears in Black's Law Dictionary. "In the civil law, a species of exception or plea to the jurisdiction, to the effect that the particular judge is disqualified from hearing the case by reason of interest or prejudice." To translate this into less legalistic language, "to recuse" means to disqualify oneself as a judge in a particular case either to avoid a conflict of interest or because of prejudicial bias. The judge could have asked the head of the Civil Division to be disqualified at the outset if her son was a member of the Magyar Gárda. Or she could have refused the assignment if she had such strong sympathy or antipathy toward the Hungarian Guard that she could not have judged the case on its merits.

But this wasn't the case, although the Budapest Court used the word "recusation." No, the judge received a couple of nasty anonymous telephone calls and she became scared. As Albert Takács, former minister of justice, said this morning: when a person decides to be a judge he/she ought to realize that the job has its dangers. It goes with the territory. Can you imagine if every judge who handles a murder case would recuse himself on the grounds that he received threatening letters from the relatives or friends of the accused? Moreover imagine the following. I'm the defendant in a civil suit and I don't like the judge because it looks as if he is going to rule against me. So I ask my friends to make a few threatening telephone calls and, behold, the judge recuses himself. New judge, new chance. And if I don't like the look of that judge, I can repeat the game until I get a sympathetic judge.

As some legal experts who commented on this case said, this latest "shakes the Hungarian judicial system at its very foundations." One lawyer suggested that it was not the smartest thing for the Budapest Court to announce the real reasons for the judge's retirement from the case. She could have been quietly removed and another person appointed in her place. Well, perhaps the Budapest Court would have looked better if the truth didn't become public, but somehow I don't think that would have been the proper and decent way of handling the case. As is usual with Hungarian judges, the answer is that the head of the Civil Division "had to grant her request, the law doesn't not allow any other possibility." Occasionally one has the feeling that some of these judges can't even read the law because I simply can't believe that the law would say that "if you're scared you can just retire from the case."

The Hungarian Guard immediately denied that they had anything to do with the intimidation of the judge and expressed their outrage that there are some people who try to influence "the independent Hungarian court system." The only thing I could imagine at this point was that the Hungarian Guard is intimating that perhaps some "lawless" Gypsies made the threatening telephone calls.

The whole thing is outrageous. Mind you, it was already outrageous that an important and politically loaded case has been dragging on for months. If I recall correctly, the first court date was sometime in April. In between a few pretty horrendous things happened: the guardists waving red and white striped flags in the courtroom or some of the guardists blockading the doors and not allowing journalists and heads of one of the Gypsy organizations into the courtroom. The spokesman for the Budapest Court gave only feeble explanations for these rather unusual events. Perhaps indeed this judge was not really fit to handle this case, but leaving the scene like a scared rabbit and calling it recusation, well, that is too much. At least in my opinion.

Back to school in Hungary

August 28, 2008 15 comments

On September 1 Hungarian children are returning to school, and the press is full of complaints about the financial burden this places on the family. Before I go into some of the details of what Hungarian schools demand, a sidenote and a personal hobby horse. In Hungary the educational establishment, specifically the ministry of education, still hasn't figured out that it would be much cheaper for the parents if the schools or school districts, similarly to the practice here, purchased textbooks and lent them to the children for the year. If a child ruins the textbook then the child's parents will have to compensate the school for the loss of the book. Otherwise the book is lent out to a new child the following year. Some textbooks can have quite a long life expectancy (until they become outdated). This practice teaches children to take care of the books that don't belong to them, and it is decidedly less wasteful than having parents purchase brand new books each year. And the textbooks are not cheap.To give a few horrifying examples, especially considering average Hungarian wages: the price of the first-grade textbooks in a Budapest elementary school (Szent László Általános Iskola) is 8,000 Ft ($50), for fourth graders 11-13,000 Ft ($70-$80), and for seventh graders 16,000 ($100).

But that is not the end. I'm not even sure whether I will find the English equivalents of all the items that the school demands because I don't know what is what. The above mentioned elementary school has an arrangement with one particular store for the basics; this package costs 6,000 Ft. (almost $40). However, it's incomplete and most likely includes only crayons, pencils, erasers, notebooks, and such. But the school usually demands a great deal more than that. I am copying the list attached to an article in Népszava, "This year it is a bit more expensive to begin school." So, here in paragraph style, starting with the Hungarian description (since sometimes I'm guessing at what these "must-haves" are) is the shopping list for parents of first graders. I will give the total price at the end.

(1) Tisztasági csomag (hygiene package: towel, glass, a package of napkins, Kleenex); (2) Tornazsák (fehér zokni, póló, shorts, jó minőségű tornacipő ) (gym bag: white socks, T-shirt, shorts, and good quality sneakers); (3) Ünneplőing, illetve szoknya vagy nadrág (clothes for special occasions: usually a white shirt/blouse and blue pants or skirt); (4) Iskolatáska (backpack); (5) Papírdosszié (paper folder); (6) Vízfesték (watercolor set);  (7) Dobókocka (dice? What's it for? Taking on Vegas?) (8) Stift vagy folyékony ragasztó (This is a bit of a mystery but it is either "stift" or liquid glue); (9) Vékony, vastag ecset (thin and thick brush);  (10) Olló (a pair of scissors); (11) Üzenőfüzet (a little book in which the teacher sends messages to the parents); (12) Leckefüzet (I guess this is a booklet in which homework assignments are recorded); (13) Papírcenti, 100 cm (measuring tape, thank God from paper and therefore cheap); (14) 2 csomag írólap (two packages of writing paper); (15) 10 db boriték (10 envelopes; I wonder what these are for); (16) Zsírkréta (I assume some kind of crayon); (17) Gyurma (modeling clay); (18) 30 félfamentes rajzlap A/4, 20 famentes rajzlap A/4 (drawing paper); (19) 2 csomag kivágóminták (színes papir) (colored paper for cut outs); (20) Korong (that is a disk but I can't fathom what the kids need this for); (21) 1 db hangjegyfüzet, 2 db négyzethálós füzet, 3 db vonalas füzet (1 notebook for music, 2 notebooks for math, 3 notebooks for writing); (22) Hurkapálca (skewer; another mystery); (23) Tolltartó, 12 színes ceruza, 1 radír, 1 hegyező, vonalzó (pencil holder, 12 color pencils, 1 eraser, 1 pencil sharpener, ruler).

My head is spinning. I checked what my local Connecticut elementary school demands for first graders (the only outlay for their parents) and found this: 1 pencilbox, 1 pack of 16 Crayola crayons, 2 folders, 2 Elmer glue sticks, 1 pair of blunt scissors, 1 ring binder, 2 pink erasers, and 12 #2 pencils. How modest for a town that was awarded not only the "best small town in Connecticut" award but also the "most expensive small town"!

And now let's see what all this stuff costs the poor Hungarian parents. The supplies I mentioned above will cost 14,000 Ft. in addition to the 8,000 Ft. for the textbooks. That is a handsome 22,000 Ft or over $135. For a first grader?! As I already mentioned, the cost of textbooks goes up as the children move from grade to grade. So it's no wonder that parents are complaining. 

I really wonder whether all this is necessary for a first grader. I guess if the school wants to teach them musical notation in the first year the kids need a rather expensive notebook. But is it possible? Is it necessary? I understand that the Hungarian school system is set up such a way that it crams too much into the first year or two. In the end the kids don't have a firm grasp of the three R's. In spite of all this fancy stuff a good 25% of fifteen-year-olds can't understand what they read. They are functional illiterates. This in a country that until recently thought of itself as excelling in education, in learning, in cultural achievements. Something has to change. But how?

“A nice little essay”

August 27, 2008 9 comments

This is what an economist and former minister of finance, Mihály Kupa, called Ferenc Gyurcsány's piece entitled "Compact." Why compact? Because, as Gyurcsány explains, what is at the core of Hungary's current problems cannot be remedied by a simple tax cut. The whole political and social culture of Hungary must change. And for that there must be understanding, cooperation, and agreement between the government and the country's citizens.

This is of course nothing new in Gyurcsány's political messages. Ever since he became prime minister he has kept repeating that people's attitudes must change. Some people I know who are actually quite liberal and well educated find all this talk about "re-education" unacceptable. The Hungarian people are what they are. You can't exchange them for something better. Moreover, this mantra reminds some people of the agit-prop (népnevelés) work of the socialist regime, especially in its early days when a new type of socialist man was going to be forged. In a way a new kind of man did emerge after about forty years of socialism, but most likely not the kind Stalin-Rákosi-Kádár had in mind. This new kind of man demands that the state care for him while he himself doesn't want to contribute anything or at most very little for sustaining the level of support that he demands from the central coffers. Gyurcsány described the Hungarian attitude: they want to pay as little in taxes as the Irish (36.7%) and receive as much of the GDP (56%) as the Swedes. As he said: "This doesn't float."

Another aspect of Hungarian life that doesn't sit well with him is what in German is called Schlamperei (sloppiness), a description that aptly described the state of affairs during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This "sloppy" attitude is all embracing: there are rules, many and complicated, but they are either ignored or circumvented. Hungarians go to great lengths to find loopholes in the law and thus avoid obligations. Gyurcsány here as elsewhere says that this will not do. With freedom comes responsibility, and the government has to be strong enough to enforce the law. Yes, he says, we will try to lower taxes, but there mustn't be a disconnect, as there is now, between paying taxes and receiving benefits.

After reading the "nice little essay" from beginning to end (something I couldn't do yesterday) I am struck by Gyurcsány's candor about the limitations of his tax reform program. He acknowledges that lowering business taxes will not prompt companies to hire more workers in the short run. And since the employment rate will not immediately rise, the amount of personal income taxes paid will not be significantly higher either. In order to offset the shortfall in tax revenues the Hungarian government must reduce the black and grey economy (currently about 20% of the GDP) to 10%, the European average. That would mean an extra 1,200 billion forints a year in tax revenues. This would be more than enough to lower taxes by about 300 billion a year as he proposes. Moreover, even if the government is unable to eliminate as much of the illegal economic activity as projected, the first year's maximum revenue loss of 300 billion forints will not upset the planned deficit reduction because the budget has 300 billion set aside for emergency purposes.

The reactions to the "nice little essay" are predictable. According to Mihály Varga, it is no more than "trickery" although some of the ideas, like reducing the size of the black economy to ten percent, were first uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. Ibolya Dávid is convinced that SZDSZ will find this proposal acceptable and sees a new coalition (even if not official) emerging. The SZDSZ spokesman this morning, though negative, added that their experts would have to analyze it, and SZDSZ would formulate its answer after consultation with them. One of the SZDSZ experts, Péter Mihályi, the ill-fated health-care reform's father, said that although he didn't think 1,000 billion could be saved by eliminating half of the illegal economic activities, Gyurcsány himself considers his piece only a starting point. He expects that discussions will follow.

This weekend the SZDSZ top brass will mull over the proposals. I think the plan has merit, although I have the feeling that Gyurcsány and MSZP will have to compromise on expenditures for social welfare. Currently 50.1% of the GDP goes to education, healthcare, pensions, etc. He would like to reduce that number to 43-44%. That is still more than some of the other countries in the region spend. At the same time he would like to reduce taxes by 3-4% to 35-36%. I'm curious what the final shape of these proposals will be.

Full speed ahead

August 26, 2008 1 comment

The summer doldrums are over, and fall (I don't know why I always equate it with the start of a new school year rather than the official date on the calendar) promises to be especially envigorating. Gyurcsány, whom I at one point compared to Nicholas Sarkozy, has incredible energy. Especially after a couple of weeks of vacation.

In the morning the minister of education and culture, István Hiller, in the presence of the prime minister announced a six-year program to refurbish schools that sorely need fixing up. A quarter of all schools were built prior to World War I. (My high school was a bit older than that. The oldest part of the structure was built in 1851.) The money for this particular project comes from European Union subsidies. Originally, the government planned to spend about 40-50 billion forints, but so many applications arrived (1109) and of them so many were considered worthy that eventually the amount was raised to 80 billion. Altogether 253 schools will be modernized. I was happy to see that most of the schools receiving money are situated in the poorer regions of the country. In Budapest only three schools will be renovated under this program.

In the evening Ferenc Gyurcsány had a meeting with members of the MSZP delegation to inform them about the government's plans for the next year and a half. Ildikó Lendvai, head of the delegation, gave a press conference afterwards during which she categorically denied that the government had authored a new program. Rather, the original program will be continued: the government will try to boost the competitiveness of the country, increase the number of new jobs, and initiate welfare reform (hoping to wean people from welfare to work; as part of this reform they plan to fund work programs).

Of course, everybody was interested in tax reform. But since the prime minister's article on that topic will appear in tomorrow's Népszabadság, Lendvai refused to divulge the details. But who can keep a secret in Hungary?  By late evening internet sites started to report leaks. But they were trumped by HVG, the respectable economic weekly, that managed to get a copy of the article and published it online. Anyone who reads Hungarian can find the Word document complete with colorful graphs: http://tinyurl.com/5kwvmw As usual it is a thorough, well written, and thoughtful piece. It shows a great deal of preparation and a general familiarity with the European situation as well as the economic details of the region.

I don't want to summarize Gyurcsány's paper here. However, some points are worth mentioning. The government will continue to enforce a more rigorous tax collection program. The laxity of tax collection in Hungary is incredible. The list of people who owe billions is known, but the ÁPEH (the Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service) can't collect the unpaid taxes and has no authority to punish those in arrears. If U.S. laws governed tax collection in Hungary, hundreds if not thousands would be sitting in jail. However, since 2006 there have been more frequent visits from ÁPEH, more returns have been checked, and it seems that the results are promising if not ultimately satisfying. More money finds its way into government coffers than before. The collection of medical insurance payments was also very lax. A lot of people for years didn't pay a penny and received full coverage. No wonder that the Health Care Fund was always in the red and the shortfall had to be made up from the budget. That was also remedied and this past year there was even a surplus. For the first time in who knows when. This stricter regime will continue, and there will also be a serious effort to decrease the size of the black and grey economy, which is substantial in Hungary.

In addition, the government is planning to reduce taxes by 1,200 billion forints within four years. There is some tax relief for individuals (mainly in a rejiggering of tax brackets), but the lion's share of the cuts is directed at businesses. Next year employers won't have to pay the "solidarity tax," currently 4% of their taxable income. Moreover, their contribution to the health and pension plans of their employees will be reduced by 4-5%. On the other hand, corporate taxes will be raised from 16% to 18%. Whether this is enough for SZDSZ to vote for the budget in December we don't know. However, János Kóka a few days ago wanted to have a tax savings of 1,000 billion forints in three years. This seems pretty close.

Tomorrow I'm sure the media will be full of predictable reactions to Gyurcsány's proposals. Orbán will remain silent; at the moment he and his wife are in the United States basking in glory. He will visit former president George H. Bush and will attend the Republican National Convention.

The end of the “silly season”

August 25, 2008 Comments off

The second half of the summer is called the "silly season" in Anglo-Saxon countries because the media, given the usual dearth of political news, come up with silly stories to fill their pages or their time slot. In Hungarian (as in such languages as Dutch, Norwegian, and Polish) it is called the "cucumber season" (uborkaszezon).  After all, lots of cucumbers grow during this time.

So the "silly season" or "cucumber season" is rather on the boring side if one is interested in politics. A Hungarian political scientist friend of mine wrote the other day that she was surprised to hear from an American friend that such a politically dead season doesn't really exist in the United States. Well, sometimes the news cycle can be slow during the summer but not in an election year. The two candidates can't really take time off from campaigning–or if one does–however briefly, the other capitalizes on it and dominates the media. Directly on the heels of the Olympics, the Democratic Convention begins today, with the Republican Convention to follow next week.

Leading Hungarian politicians are starting to succumb to the American model of year-round hard work. No longer can there be a rerun of what happened in 1994 after MSZP-SZDSZ won the elections. If I recall properly, the two parties agreed on the terms of the coalition, they even managed to put together a cabinet, and then came the "silly season." The members of the brand new government with scads of problems facing them (like the country was close to bankruptcy) retired for a nice long vacation. Later when people suggested to Prime Minister Gyula Horn that perhaps that wasn't the smartest and politically most astute thing to do, he snapped back: "You have no idea how hard we worked during the election campaign and after. We had to take some time off. We deserved it." Well, there are vacations and vacations.

Nowadays I must say that kind of thing doesn't happen. This is a different generation, and they don't float in calm political waters. The prime minister took a couple of weeks off. The first week was spent in Ireland. The family, all eight of them, rented a houseboat which took them to all sorts of out-of-the-way places. They spent the last two days in Dublin, where the prime minister had some chance meetings with Hungarians living in Ireland. The family vacationed for the second week not far from Lake Balaton in the county of Somogy where they did quite a bit of horseback riding until Klára Dobrev (Mrs. Gyurcsány) was thrown from her horse and injured her shoulder. An operation followed and another will have to be performed. Finally, Gyurcsány went with his youngest son to Beijing where, let's hope, he didn't have to listen to Pál Schmitt's accusations that the Hungarians' fairly modest results were his government's fault. You know, not enough money! If only it were that easy.

While the government was busy preparing the "action plan" SZDSZ demanded in exchange for its potential support, Victor Orbán's party was active as usual. We all know that it is relatively easy to find fault with a government. I'm almost certain that among the leading politicians of Fidesz there is a division of labor. Every week they seem to find a topic and designate a person to give a press conference in which he demands this and that or calls attention to this and that. There is certainly no "silly season" for Fidesz.

Yet it seems that Fidesz's popularity didn't grow after its seven percent drop in May. MSZP's popularity didn't change either. MDF is still above the necessary 5% while SZDSZ is under. Attached is a graph of the recent polling that shows that about 25% of those asked still either don't know, don't tell, or don't intend to vote. Therefore the situation, although still favorable for Fidesz, may be more fluid than appears on the surface.Marketing centrum The most interesting aspect of this month's poll is that 47% of the people would like it if the budget, to be voted on in December, were accepted by parliament. I do hope that the politicians of SZDSZ are listening since the acceptance of the budget depends on at least some of their votes. By the way, SZDSZ has been making an awful lot of noise lately. First Gábor Fodor, president of the party, said all sorts of silly things (maybe his English is good enough to know that cucumber season is called silly season in English!) about an "action plan" that they could accept. If not, well, all sorts of dreadful things would follow including "a government of experts" and possibly early elections. What he neglected to mention was that this scenario would also include the very real possibility that SZDSZ would cease to be a party with parliamentary representation. A few days later, former SZDSZ president, János Kóka, who is still the leader of the SZDSZ parliamentary delegation (he refuses to give up his place to Fodor or a man designated by Fodor), announced that for his party the only acceptable tax reform would entail a tax reduction of one thousand billion forints in three years!

Either tomorrow or a day after Gyurcsány will outline the long awaited "action plan" (MSZP refuses to call it by the SZDSZ name) on the pages of Népszabadság. Then we will see whether the SZDSZ leaders will cooperate or not. In any event, in a day or so the cucumber season will definitely be over.

The Doctrine of the Holy Crown

August 24, 2008 1 comment

If one looks at some of the Internet sites in search of the Doctrine of the Holy Crown they seem to be written mostly by people who are perhaps a bit too close to the idea itself and hence all start with the same story. According to popular tradition during the coronation ceremony Stephen held up the crown to offer it to the Virgin Mary in order to seal a divine contract between her and the crown. According to this version the Hungarian crown was not only holy but from the beginning it was the symbol of the country. Moreover, the crown represented the legitimacy of the ruler and that legitimacy was given by the Hungarian people as represented by their leaders, the nobility.

I rely on a different source that I find a great deal more credible. The Doctrine of the Holy Crown was first articulated in the so-called Tripartitum, a summary of Hungarian common law written in 1514-1515. The author was István Werbőczy, a jurist, chancellor and later nádor, the highest office in the land after the king who could fill in for the king in his absence.

The popular story about Stephen's offering the crown to the Virgin Mary is absent from the Tripartitum. Whether the story has any historical basis is questionable, though the cult of Mary started in Byzantium and moved westward, reaching Hungary about this time. The Virgin Mary has a special status in both Hungarian and Polish history. But whatever the case, the Doctrine of the Holy Crown is fundamentally a secular, legal principle about power, not a religious one.

Werbőczy stated that "there is no prince but only as chosen by the nobility and there is no noble, only those who have received their nobility from the king." This is about as close to a populist view of kingship as was possible in the sixteenth century. And it has nothing whatever to do with Stephen. Stephen was not chosen by the nobility, and he didn't receive his power from the community. The crown was the symbol of the state and had religious significance, but the crown belonged to the king and to him alone. Moreover, the king owned the land, and the church and the nobility received land as gifts for services rendered. Even as late as King Matthew (Corvinus, fifteenth century) there was never any question that the crown could be "democratized." Only at times of interregnums or during reigns of weak kings did the idea surface that somehow through the coronation ceremony the nobility endowed the king with the right to rule.

During Werbőczy's time the power of the king was perhaps never so weak, and therefore it is not surprising that it was during this time that the doctrine became part of a legal codex. The codex assembled by Werbőczy never became law because, although the Diet (parliament) voted for its acceptance, the king refused to countersign it. King Ulászló II may have been weak but he was no fool. However, the provisions of the Tripartitum became law in Transylvania when it became a separate entity, the Principality of Transylvania (or in Hungarian, Erdélyi fejedelemség). Although Werbőczy's codex didn't become the basis of official Hungarian law, it had an enormous influence on the Hungarian legal system. Unfortunately, that influence was not beneficial. It was really a compilation of "nobilities' common law." It didn't follow the legal practices of the western European monarchies but relied heavily on feudal practices. Thus the Tripartitum became an obstacle to the development of a modern middle class.

Even after 1848 and 1867 the Doctrine of the Holy Crown remained an integral part of political thinking. By that time the Holy Crown was not only the symbol of a contract between the king and the nobility but, with the freeing of the serfs, the Holy Crown became the symbol of a contract between the king and the population of Hungary as a whole (including of course the non-Magyar citizens). The Doctrine of the Holy Crown assumed a transformative role between the two world wars when Hungary was a kingdom without a king (1920-1946). For example, verdicts in Hungarian courts were brought in "the name of the Holy Crown." But one must add that the soldiers swore loyalty not to the crown but to Miklós Horthy, head of the Hungarian armed forces.

Why the sudden enthusiasm in certain circles for the Doctrine of the Holy Crown? Although the proponents of the doctrine wouldn't admit it, I think that the most important consideration is that the Holy Crown in its modern interpretation symbolizes the whole of historic Hungary. The doctrine was used between the two world wars for purposes of irredentism and today I think it serves a similar role. You're not going to hear this from the proponents themselves, but here and there the truth slips out.

For instance, when Alfréd Pócs, our shaman-doctor, talked about his activities at the gasfields at Makó and insisted that the Hungarian government should undertake the exploration, he was reminded by the reporter that Hungary doesn't have enough money to extract the gas from the field; the gas can be very deep underground. Dr. Pócs, a great believer in the Doctrine of the Holy Crown, responded that the Canadian exploration company already uses Croatian workers to dig the wells, and he knows that the Croats would immediately join Hungary again just like before 1918 if the Holy Crown ruled the land. I am sure Dr. Pócs had an even greater vision–the lands of the Holy Crown in their entirety.

Another source for the popularity of the Doctrine of the Holy Crown may be some people's religiosity. I think here of our other doctor, Lajos Papp, who is apparently a deeply religious man, although I'm not sure whether his views fall within mainstream Catholicism.

Most people who appeal to the Doctrine of the Holy Crown probably haven't got the faintest idea what they are talking about. They just hear their leaders refer to the crown and that somehow resonates with their anti-government feelings. I wish some sociologist would undertake an in-depth study of what is behind the popularity of the doctrine in far-right, nationalistic circles since here I'm just offering hypotheses.

The extreme right and the Holy Crown

August 23, 2008 10 comments

Until recently no one knew who László Gonda was, but in the last two years he has become infamous. He is one of the leaders of the group that in the fall of 2006 camped out in front of the parliament building for almost two months while the Hungarian authorities idly stood by, not knowing what to do. László Gonda is an unlikely revolutionary. He is in his fifties, soft spoken, and polite. He  can sound quite reasonable as long as he isn't talking about the theory of the Holy Crown or other favorite topics of his nationalistic imagination. We don't know much about him except that he spent some time in Germany and returned to Hungary not long ago. As far as I know he has no job but devotes his entire existence to his muddled "revolutionary" activities. His intellectual-looking face can be seen at every demonstration that is touted as a huge gathering against the "bolshevik" government but turns out to be a protest of no more than a few dozen fanatics. Yes, Gonda is a fanatic whose ideas are harder and harder to interpret.

The last time Gonda tried to create a scene was on August 20th. First he headed a group of about twenty people who tried to interrupt the celebrations in front of the parliament building. But the square in front of the parliament is large, and the Rákóczi March is awfully loud, so Gonda's efforts failed to produce noticeable results. After that Gonda and company rushed to Heroes' Square where he complained that the new officers were not being sworn in in the presence of the copy of the Holy Crown that had been used in previous years. The swearing in itself is to the Republic of Hungary but it was during the Orbán government that someone, most likely in the Ministry of Defense, decided that this copy of the crown should be dragged out to the swearing-in ceremony. Viktor Orbán is responsible in large measure for the absolute craziness that reigns in certain circles about the place of the crown in today's Hungary.

Constitutionally, the crown is nothing but a very important museum piece and in fact between 1978, when the crown was returned from Fort Knox to Budapest, and 2000 it was housed in the National Museum. However, Orbán, wanting to whip up national enthusiasm and use it to his own political advantage, moved the crown from the museum to the parliament. Before it was placed in the parliament building, Orbán got the brilliant idea of sending this priceless work of art on a little boat trip between Budapest and Esztergom and back on August 20, 2000. Esztergom was the capital of Hungary during Stephen's time as well as Stephen's birthplace.

Gonda went to Heroes' Square because this year at last the Ministry of Defense in charge of the swearing-in ceremony decided that the crown had no place there. Gonda wanted to place three huge pictures of the crown in front of all the cameras, but his plan was foiled. Afterward he gave an interview to one of the internet papers (Stop) in which he claimed that "the Holy Crown is the symbol of Hungarian Christian statehood." A few sentences later he added that in his opinion "this state was not established a thousand years ago but was founded by [the pagan] Árpád." So Gonda can't decide whether he really wants a country that is part of Christian Europe or he is yearning for a state that was founded by invading "barbarians." Moreover, the Holy Crown of Hungary is not really one thousand years old and therefore doesn't not mark the beginning of Christianity in Hungary.

It was only after 1978 that serious study of the crown could be undertaken, and the experts came to the conclusion that the Holy Crown was assembled into its current form during the reign of Béla III (1172-1196). The lower part of the crown is of Greek origin (corona graeca), while the top was made somewhere in Italy (corona latina). The cross on top was added in the sixteenth century in a rather crude manner, affixing it through a picture of Christ on top of the crown. It was in the seventeenth century that the cross got bent when someone carelessly closed the box in which it was placed. On the lower (Greek) part of the crown there are four pictures: three of them depict members of the royal house of Michael VII of Byzantium (1071-1078), including the emperor himself, and the fourth King Géza I of Hungary (1074-1077). Most likely this corona graeca was a gift to the wife of Géza who was of Greek origin. This lower part of the crown is definitely a Byzantine style of crown made for a woman. The corona latina, that is the top part of the crown, was not a piece that had an independent function. It was designed to be attached to the rim and provide a cupola-shaped top. The inscription on the pictures of the saints and the style of their lettering suggest the date when they were made: most likely before the middle of the eleventh century. Originally they may have decorated a reliquary box or a portable altar used by Stephen himself. Or, of course, it is also possible that it was not originally used in Stephen's court but was acquired later from somewhere else. Here is a picture of the crown.

Szent korona  

The upshot is that the Holy Crown of Hungary is not a symbol of the introduction of Christianity that began sometime in the last twenty or so years of the tenth century and gained full acceptance around the middle of the eleventh. The current Hungarian government is not terribly happy about the crown's presence in the parliament building, and I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually ended up in the restored Royal Castle. The full restoration of the Royal Castle will take place over the next seven years. 

Hungary and Georgia

August 22, 2008 10 comments

Hungary's reaction to the Russian-Georgian conflict is in line with that of the European Union. Given Hungary's energy needs and its reliance on Russian gas and oil the country can't afford to lash out against Russia. Moreover, as a member of the European Union it would be improper for Hungary to deviate from Union policy. However, I'm certain that the Hungarian government is duly shaken by Russia's revival as a military power.

It's not surprising that after a period of chaos and humiliation Russia would eventually recover and claim what it considers to be its rightful place among the great powers. The speed of its recovery is more surprising. The commodity boom certainly helped.

One major thorn in Russia's side has been the encroachment of NATO into areas that were either within its sphere of influence or part of the Soviet Union itself. Bad enough that the former satellite countries joined NATO, worse that the Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union also signed on. But lately there have been serious talks about Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of the western military alliance.

Of course, we don't know exactly why Russia sent troops into Georgia. But I assume one incentive was the hope that the pro-western Georgian government would collapse. When it didn't, the Russians kept postponing troop withdrawal. Perhaps, the Russians may have reasoned, as days went by the Georgian government's position would weaken and there might be some voices in Tbilisi calling for the resignation of Shaakisvili in exchange for a better deal with the Russians. Every day one heard that the Russian troops began withdrawal only to learn the next day that nothing had happened.

In Hungary everything that has to do with foreign policy sooner or later becomes an internal political fight between the government and its opposition. The Georgian case is no different. First came Viktor Orbán's very strong reaction to the Russian-Georgian conflict where he compared the Russian attack on Georgia to 1956. (Since then some American politicians have repeated this comparison, adding the 1968 Prague events for good measure.) Orbán and diplomacy don't mix. When he was prime minister he often behaved like a bull in the china closet. For a number of years I kept a cover of HVG, a very good weekly, that portrayed Orbán as a soccer player kicking a football sky high while his ineffectual foreign minister was trying to stop it with a tennis racket.

In any case, the Russian ambassador's reaction to Orbán's strong condemnation was equally ill-tempered. Ambassador Igor Savolski called Orbán a liar and expressed his "disgust" at hearing Orbán's attack on Russia. He accused him of Russia phobia. Orbán wasn't deterred; yesterday he wrote a letter to the prime ministers of Georgia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states in which he called Russia the aggressor and urged Georgia's acceptance into NATO. One can certainly argue about who was the aggressor and who wasn't, but it is somewhat odd that the leader of an opposition party who has no possible way of conducting the foreign policy of the country finds it appropriate to make such a move. Igor Savolski in response called Orbán an agent of the United States, adding that it is a good thing that the European Union doesn't follow Orbán's advice. Judging from the exchange between the Russian ambassador and Orbán it's not too hard to imagine how strained relations between Russia and Hungary would be under an Orbán-led government.

Meanwhile Mátyás Eörsi (SZDSZ) who reports to the European parliament on the region just returned from Georgia and saw no sign of any Russian withdrawal as of yesterday. Today Russian troops apparently withdrew from Gori. Somehow, I don't think that the Georgian-Russian conflict will end any time soon.

St. Stephen: The founder of the Hungarian state

August 20, 2008 9 comments

Today is a national holiday in Hungary because on the Hungarian liturgical calendar August 20th is the name day of István, hence the Day of St. Stephen. Initially Catholic countries designated particular days of the calendar to honor saints, but soon enough the name day tradition spread beyond the realm of the saints. What to do with such non-saintly names as Adam and Eve? They were accommodated, but they had to share a day, Christmas Eve. (Talk about a bummer!) Then came all those pagan names that couldn't be deprived, so pagans got their own name days. After a while on any given day there could be two or three names honored. A person's name day remains a celebratory event in Hungary, but it comes with its own downside, especially for women. Friends and acquaintances appear unannounced with flowers; in return they expect food. Nice little holiday for her!

I checked name days in a fair number of countries and it seems that August 20th is Stephen's Day only in Hungary in commemoration of his canonization in 1083. He was born as Vajk, a name of Turkic origin meaning "rich." His father's name was Géza (also of Turkic origin). He was the most important chieftain of the Magyars but was obviously a transitional figure since he was already referred to as "prince" (fejedelem). According to most historians it was Géza who began his people's conversion to Christianity. Although there is a late nineteenth-century painting entitled "The Baptism of Stephen" in which he is depicted as an adult, most likely he was baptized early in life. According to one of the Legends of St. Stephen, the bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert, ministered the baptismal rite to Stephen.

Géza obviously envisaged a westward orientation for Hungary because he made arrangements for his son's marriage to Gisella of Bavaria, daughter of Henry the Wrangler (951-995) and sister of Henry II, later Holy Roman Emperor. Géza died in 997; according to western customs his son Stephen would have automatically succeeded him. But that was contrary to the old Hungarian (and Slavic) custom where succession followed seniority. Stephen's older cousin first had to be defeated (and killed) before Stephen could rightfully claim the position of prince. Once feeling secure in his position, he turned to Pope Sylvester II and asked for a crown in recognition of his kingship. I might mention here that the so-called Holy Crown of St. Stephen is not the crown Stephen received from Rome. Perhaps one day more about the intriguing story of the crown. However, the sceptre and the coronation cloak do date from 1000.

Stephen's importance cannot be overestimated in the history of the country; even today August 20th is considered the birthday of Hungary. When the first parliament of the Third Republic convened in 1990 a decision was made about which national holiday to consider paramount. There were three contenders:  March 15, celebrating the 1848-1849 revolution and the war of independence; October 23, the day of the outbreak of the uprising against the Hungarian communist leadership and Russian occupation; and August 20. They decided on August 20. Not everybody agreed. The liberals and socialists then in opposition would have preferred March 15th as the birthday of the modern, democratic Hungary. However, it seems that while March 15th and October 23rd are contentious holidays, where left and right simply cannot agree or celebrate together, August 20th usually comes and goes without any upheaval. Once again, August 20th passed without incident.

In the morning, in front of the parliament building in the presence of the president, prime minister, speaker of the house, and head of the constitutional court, a huge Hungarian flag was raised very slowly to the tune of the mournful Hungarian national anthem. Earlier a fancy military unit arrived as the central military band played the Rákóczi March. Apparently far away from the official event about twenty people tried to disrupt the proceedings but to no avail. Later, on Heroes' Square the new graduates of the military and the police academies took their oaths. At night there was about half an hour of fireworks over the Danube.

One interesting twist. The organizers of today's festivities invited groups immersed in the crafts and customs of the late tenth and early eleventh century to give demonstrations that would appeal to children. I assume that this was an attempt to neutralize those people who show their opposition to the goverment by returning to the ancient ways of Hungarians. And indeed why not invite them to show what they can do when it comes to ironworks, leatherworks, horsemanship, old jewelry making? I'm sure that not only children but adults enjoyed their demonstrations. And perhaps the traditionalists will start to believe that the government is "national" after all.

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