Month: November 2008

The fate of a hate crime in a Hungarian court

The verdict was handed down by the Court of the City of Pécs. As far as I can figure out these city courts are at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy. The verdict is as surprising as the location because in the County of Baranya there are five city courts, including one in Szigetvár where the crime was actually committed. The background is as follows. On January 22 five young guys from Barcs after drinking quite a bit got it into their heads that they would like to take a train ride. They got on the train toward Pécs. But since they had neither tickets nor money the conductor ushered them off the train at Szigetvár. By that time it was fairly late, and they began to wander around a town they apparently didn't know. After a while they found themselves in a park. As it turned out, that particular park is often visited by local Gypsies. The five men, aged between 18 and 23, covered their faces with ski masks and kerchiefs and savagely attacked two Gypsy women, mother and daughter. They beat the older woman; when she fell on the ground they began to kick her. The daughter ran for help. One of the perpetrators ran after her with a chain in hand but luckily couldn't catch her. The five youngsters were arrested and during the police investigation they freely admitted that they beat up the two women only because they were Gypsies. So the prosecution charged them with a hate crime.

The five guys were found guilty but for assault only. According to Judge János Kovács the prosecution couldn't prove that the crime was racially motivated. What? That was my first reaction. How can that be when the guys freely admitted that they beat up the two women because they belonged to a minority group? Then I realized that the first newspaper report I read was not detailed enough. The journalist responsible for the article neglected to mention that in court they refused to admit any racial motivation. The judge claimed that the youngsters didn't know the city of Szigetvár and therefore they had no prior knowledge of the ethnic composition of the park's visitors. Moreover, it was dark and the two women's clothes in no way distinguished them as being Gypsies. He concluded that the guys were simply looking for trouble and the first likely victims they encountered were these two women. It was mere happenstance. Máté J., a juvenile, received a suspended sentence, but the others will have to serve time if the appelate court upholds the guilty verdict. The accused are appealing for lighter sentences while the prosecution wants to have harsher sentences that takes racism into consideration. Roland M. received one year and three months, Balázs K. eleven months, Zsolt S. nine months, and Gyula M. eight months.

The prosecution maintained that the crime was racially motivated and there were confessions to that end. Hungarian prosecutors are extremely successful at proving their cases because the court system favors the prosecution. We all know if only from television series how Anglo-Saxon courtroom procedure goes. The judge has either no knowledge of the case or limited knowledge (if he heard pretrial arguments) until the prosecution and defense offer opening arguments and then proceed to question witnesses. Nothing like that exists in Hungary. The prosecution puts together a written indictment which goes to the presiding judge before the court date. The judge has plenty of time to study the usually very long and detailed indictment. The defense is at a disadvantage. Hungarian prosecutors proudly claim that 99% of of their cases stand the scrutiny of the courts. Or as the critics of this procedure claim, if the prosecution finds you guilty you are finished. Given this bias toward the prosecution it is even more surprising that this time the prosecution's arguments proved to be inadequate.

A Hungarian judge plays a much more active role in the court procedure than do Anglo-Saxon judges. He himself questions the accused and therefore I'm somewhat surprised that the judge, especially since he was aware of the fact that the accused once admitted a racial element in the crime they committed, didn't question them in such a way that perhaps they would, even in a roundabout way, admit that the two women's Gypsy origin had something to do with their crime. It almost seems  that János Kovács didn't want to find out the truth.

I'm not at all hopeful that the second round at the Baranya County Court will be any better at unearthing the truth. Put it this way, I would be surprised if the next judge found the crime racially motivated.

A new murder and a new anti-Gypsy demonstration

On Monday, November 24, the first reports appeared in the Hungarian media about the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl named Nóra in the village of Kiskunlacháza in Pest County. The body was found in a wooded area on Sunday night. Slowly more information came to light. First about the possibility of rape prior to the murder. Then a day later papers reported that the girl attended school in Szigetszentmiklós where by November 25 they raised a black flag at the István Kardos General Middle School (Általános Középiskola). Nóra had a home page on which she claimed that "Dance is My Life." Perhaps dance was also responsible for her death. As it turned out she went to the village's cultural center for a musical night and left at 2:30 in the morning. Apparently her friends offered to escort her home but she refused. The family, it seems, is well respected in the village. Her mother is a teacher in the town's elementary school. How a fourteen-year-old was allowed to stay out until 2:30 in the morning is a question most likely asked only by fuddy-duddies. (Interestingly the town has now introduced a curfew for under-aged children.) In any case, Magyar Nemzet was the first paper to mention "fear" in the village. The village doesn't have a police force, just a thirty-five-member civil unarmed guard whose members are supposed to keep a watchful eye on comings and goings after dark. But as the chief of the civil guard force admitted, perhaps they had gone home by then.

By November 25 ATV was reporting the details of the "blood-curdling murder." Whoever committed the murder first raped the girl and then put a plastic bag over her head and strangled her. She was found naked. ATV seemed to know that she was attacked about 300 meters from the cultural center.  Two days later the media knew that DNA samples had been taken at the crime scene and that the police were in hot pursuit of the murderer but that no one had yet been accused. Rumors started to fly. According to one of these rumors a whole gang of young men attacked Nóra and one of them was ready to go to the police but the other members knifed him. According to another version, the murderer committed suicide. The police said that no one was reported to be hurt and they knew of no suicide.

For days there was not even a whisper in the media that a Gypsy might be the murderer. After all, the police were still investigating and had no suspect in custody. Yet something had to be brewing in and around Kiskunlacháza. A demonstration was planned for Friday, November 28, against "violence." So far so good. But with both the Goy Bikers and the Hungarian Guard participating, the demonstration was obviously not against violence in general but against Gypsy violence. And indeed József Répás, the mayor (independent) of the village, made no secret of the village's firm belief that the murderer is one of the village's Gypsies. He announced that they "had enough of roma violence." I couldn't find out what percentage of the village's inhabitants is of Gypsy origin. I do know that they all left town before the demonstration, which turned out to be peaceful. Mind you, a large police force checked all the demonstrators: they took away a few knives and "vipers" (some lethal weapon used by fellows of less than good intentions).

The mainstream media reported 3,000 demonstrators, Magyar Nemzet, Echo TV 6,000. Take your pick. There were a lot of them considering that the village has a population of 9,000. One hopes for the Gypsies' sake that the murderer is not one of their own.

Hungary’s place in Eastern Europe

Even in the Kádár period Hungary had a few truly outstanding historians. One of these was György Ránki whose works on modern Hungarian and East European economic history, co-authored with Iván Berend, were groundbreaking. György Ránki is unfortunately no longer with us, but Iván Berend has been teaching history for the last fifteen years or so in California. Ránki himself spent years at Indiana University.

Anyway, Ránki said something that I find very true: "Europe is sloping downward from west to east." This is true in economic terms and consequently influences all facets of life. Whether we like it or not, Hungary is situated in a region that is less developed than the west. No historian has managed to give an adequate explanation for this phenomenon. Some historians tried to explain it by pointing to shifting trade routes, especially after the discovery of the Americas. One doesn't have to be a historian to debunk this hypothesis. Way before the late 15th century the West, including Spain and Italy, had a far more developed economic and cultural life than Eastern Europe. Another outstanding Hungarian historian, Jenő Szücs, a medievalist, divided the area we consider to be Eastern Europe into three regions: its western periphery (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, today's Slovenia), the central region (Hungary, today's Slovakia, and today's Poland), and the least developed eastern part: the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the eastern parts of Poland. The differences among these three have been substantial for at least a millennium. Another historian, Péter Hanák, whose works dealt mainly with the Habsburg Monarchy, pointed out that the western part of Hungary belonged to the Roman Empire (Pannonia) for a fairly long period, and the difference in development along the Danube that was the border is still noticeable. That is, western Hungary is better developed than the eastern parts. Even today, people half jokingly call the territories east of the Danube Hunnia and west of it Pannonia. Although there are some supernationalists in Hungary who think that the Hungarians are related to the Huns (they are not) and consider this alleged relationship a source of pride, let's face it, outside this circle the reputation of Attila and his Huns are not the best.

The differences between the western, central, and eastern regions of Eastern Europe persisted until the 1960s. Hungary, as Pál Tamás mentioned in an interview (Népszava), was somewhere "at the lower echelons of the central region," and even today Hungary is behind the Czech Republic and Slovenia. There was an interlude, the Kádár regime, when Hungary managed to get to the top of the heap mostly because Kádár from the mid-1960s on opened avenues toward the west and loosened the restraints of state socialism. By now, says Tamás, Hungary has simply reoccupied its traditional place in the region.

But if that is the case, why are Hungarians so dissatisfied? The answer is simple enough: the problem is the heritage of the Kádár regime when Hungarians felt that they were the leading country in the region. And in comparison to Czechoslovakia the citizens of Hungary could indeed feel superior. Okay, they were not as well off as the Austrians, but they were certainly better off and freer than the Czechs or the Slovaks. Immediately after the change of regime this relative advantage of Hungary was a great asset. Hungarians were more open to western economic penetration and western businessmen felt more at home in Hungary than elsewhere in the region. But this relative advantage disappeared once the other countries caught on. The Czechs, especially after they separated from the Slovaks, reoccupied their former leading role in the region. And the Hungarians keep comparing themselves to the other Eastern European countries and can't get over the fact that the Czechs and the Slovenes are ahead. What really hurts is that Slovakia, once part of Hungary and not even its most prosperous part, seems to be doing better than Hungary at the moment. However, what Hungarians don't seem to realize, or at least certain people don't want to realize, is that the rapid Slovak development in the last few years was due primarily to the appearance of several foreign auto companies. I was astonished to hear the other day that 25% of the Slovak GDP comes from the auto industry. I don't want to be a Cassandra, but I can pretty well predict what is going to happen in the next few years with the Slovak economy. Slovakia will most likely reoccupy its traditional place in the region.

Can Hungary catch up to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia? If the past is any indication most likely not, but it can improve its relative standing. This can be done, however, only with more openness toward the outside word and better education, including foreign language study. Hungarians have never been eager to embrace new ways. But let's hope that necessity will force Hungarians to change.

Hate-speech: the fourth round

This is the fourth time that the socialist and liberal members of parliament have tried to do something about the ever-growing  spread of linguistic abuse of certain groups. The favorite targets are the usual suspects: Gypsies, Jews, and gays. The linguistic abuses are not mild. At soccer games between the Fradi (Ferencváros) and MTK (a team formerly with lots of Jewish players) the Fradi fans keep chanting: "The trains are going to Auschwitz." Or at liberal demonstrations the extreme right wingers "send the Jews into the Danube" just like in the winter of 1944 when the Arrow Cross men gunned down members of the Budapest ghetto and threw their bodies into the Danube. The verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse of Gypsies is very common and again there is nothing a member of these groups can do. As of last year the gays were also verbally and physically attacked. So it's no wonder that some people believe that something must be done.

However, there is a very serious problem: the Hungarian Constitution and the rulings of the Constitutional Court. According to the Constitution free speech has a paramount role in Hungarian law similar to the American practice. Those who argue for restrictions on free speech point to the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were shipped off to Auschwitz and other death camps with active Hungarian participation. These people point out that the Nazi atrocities began with words that eventually were translated into action. They also highlight the growing verbal and physical violence that is becoming far too common. They claim that in 1990 when the Constitution was written it was an entirely different world. There was no deep division between right and left, and the extreme right either didn't exist or constituted only an insignificant force. It was also a time of limitless hope in the democratic instincts of people and the strength of democratic institutions. They couldn't even imagine people chanting little rhymes about sending people to Auschwitz.

President Sólyom, we mustn't forget, had a large role to play both in framing and in interpreting the Constitution. He has always rigidly maintained that free speech is more important than human rights. For the sake of free speech we must endure a certain discomfort. Therefore it is naive of the left even to try to come up with a piece of legislation that will pass muster. There have already been three attempts to change the law, all of which failed. Only a year ago parliament tried to make a change in the Civil Code to allow members of targeted groups to sue even if the verbal attack wasn't directed at them personally. Sólyom didn't like it, sent it to the the Constitutional Court, and, behold, big surprise, the Constitutional Court agreed with former Chief Justice Sólyom that it was unconstitutional. Soon enough the socialists and liberals began drafting a new piece of legislation, this time through a change in the Criminal Code: T/6219 was passed on November 13. The proposed legislation would allow a person who considers himself a member of a group that is being abused to go to court and demand satisfaction. The legislation was sent for signature to President Sólyom who decided that this new piece of legislation is also unconstitutional and therefore he is going to send it on to the Constitutional Court to have an official judgment on the question. What are his objections? According to him, the proposed legislation doesn't provide any test to decide whether the injured party is part of the group that is being abused. Sólyom goes even farther: he would like to know whether the person in question has a "strong enough bond" to that community. This is an incredible idea. First of all, how can a Gypsy or a Jew prove with certainty that he is a Gypsy or a Jew? A bodily examination in the case of a male Jew? Most Hungarian Jews are not even circumcised. And what about women? Or will it be necessary to produce a family tree going back generations and generations when birth certificates still indicated one's religion? As for a gay person, should he have to perform a sexual act in front of the judges to prove that he is gay? Because otherwise I have doubts that you can ascertain someone's heritage or sexual orientation. As for the "strong enough bond" that sounds even more bizarre. Let's say that a Jew isn't religious and doesn't go to synagogue. Does this mean that he's not a Jew? Or take a gay person who is in the closet and doesn't go to gay bars. Does it mean that he has no right to feel offended? Or a Gypsy who went to university and doesn't live in a hut in one of the village ghettos? The whole thing is nonsense. But never mind, I''m certain that on these grounds the Constitutional Court will completely agree with the great constitutional expert.

Political odds and ends after the Hungarian budget debate

This blog will be something of a hodgepodge because today's news consisted of a series of sound bites that by themselves don't deserve deep analysis. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I don't know yet whether they have any significance. The first piece of news that grabbed my attention this morning was that the liberals who yesterday said that they had decided to vote for the budget for patriotic reasons by today were somewhat sore and acted as if they were not very happy with the outcome. I guess one reason for their letdown is that SZDSZ's votes didn't matter. They now talk about the "Janus-faced MDF" because they came to the conclusion that it was actually MDF votes that saved the government's budget. Poor MDF had been accused earlier of lending a helping hand to MSZP; now here it is in black and white that the MSZP government's success actually hinged on MDF's cooperation. Fidesz will make hay out of this, I'm sure.

I mentioned yesterday that there were three independent members who voted with the government. One of these was actually kicked out of the Fidesz delegation only about a month ago because several times he didn't follow caucus instructions and voted differently from the other Fidesz representatives. His name is Antal Császár and I must say that he is an odd man out in the Hungarian parliament: he is actually a worker. He did not go to college and for years he worked as an engine fitter in a coal mine. In the 1990s he learned a new trade: how to make pálinka. Pálinka is a traditional brandy made out of fruits, especially apricots, plums, or pears. Pálinka is also known in Romania and Slovakia, but, according to an EU ruling, only pálinka made in Hungary can be considered genuine pálinka within the European Union. In my childhood making pálinka was a state monopoly but almost everybody who had a few fruit trees engaged in illicit distillation. I must say that in the good old days pálinka was a lowly kind of drink, but lately I see that it is considered elegant and some of the brands are pricey. It seems that Császár flourished as a distiller of pálinka because he became head of the Party of Entrepreneurs. It was as a delegate from this party that he entered the Fidesz caucus. To return to Császár, the independent. Ferenc Gyurcsány was so grateful that he immediately offered Császár a government post: commissioner for the distribution of the 1,400 billion forint package designed to bolster the Hungarian economy. Császár accepted. HirTV immediately inquired "How much was the blood money?" I wouldn't be surprised if in 2010 Császár were on the MSZP list.

Another interesting event this morning was an interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány on Napkelte. The reporter was Kata Apáti-Tóth, a newcomer to the show after, on Fidesz's insistence, the "liberal" journalists were booted out by the president of MTV. Apáti-Tóth is young and quite good looking but her depth of knowledge of even current events is not too impressive. One has the feeling that the day before the program she sits down with a list of questions which have only one aim: to say something nasty about anything the guest says. So if Gyurcsány says something quite ordinary like big reforms cannot be introduced without the help of the whole society, then Apáti-Tóth will say: "But you're governing." Or if Gyurcsány complains about the opposition's unwillingness to cooperate, then Apáti-Tóth will say: "Why don't you invite Viktor Orbán for a chat?" Of course, she should know that Gyurcsány invited Orbán several times and Orbán refused. Gyurcsány throughout the interview had a kind of forgiving smile on his face while he tried to explain the facts of life to the reporter. It wasn't an easy job. Out of the whole interview only one thing captured the media's imagination: Gyurcsány said that he is just waiting for the final passage of the budget on December 15, and after the holidays he will continue with his reforms. Reforms, reforms? What kind of reforms?

Another memorable moment came at the end of the interview when Apáti-Tóth inquired from Gyurcsány what he thought of President Sólyom's latest brainchild: the Council of the Wise Ones, which came into existence yesterday. I'm not kidding. This is the name of it. Only in a country where respect for authority is as high as it is in Hungary could anyone come up with such an idiotic designation. You can well imagine what Gyurcsány thinks of it, but he was polite. The Council is supposed to deal with education and corruption because Sólyom thinks that these two topics need urgent attention. How four people, two of whom don't even live in Hungary, can do anything practical about either education or corruption I haven't got the foggiest. Gyurcsány smiled sweetly and said that if he wanted to be ironic he would say that government doesn't work that way, but if the president wants to set up a Council of the Wise Ones he can. But, he added, "we don't have half a year to write studies."

A good day for MSZP and the government

This morning the government cleared the first hurdle before the final acceptance of the budget. Parliament voted on important figures and details, and the minority government had no problems whatsoever. It was already clear yesterday that the entire SZDSZ parliamentary delegation would vote in favor of the budget, and therefore not much excitement accompanied the three-hour-long vote. The procedure took that long because Fidesz insisted on voting openly, by name. One by one. There were 210 yeas and only 168 nays. Actually the SZDSZ votes weren't even necessary because seven members of the opposition were absent and three independent representatives voted for the budget. Without SZDSZ the government would have had a victory of 191to 187. Thus Gyurcsány will not have to walk to the Sándor Palace and tender his resignation to the President.

The other good piece of news for MSZP and the government was this month's first poll. Századvég-Forsense is usually the earliest of the polls and I may add that, although it is a think tank close to Fidesz, its results are normally quite reliable. I read several descriptions of the results of the poll. They more or less agreed on its findings, but the headlines are telling. Magyar Nemzet's is "The mood of the country further deteriorated." Gondola, an internet site close to Fidesz: "The mood of the electorate reached bottom." Origo, another Internet paper, claims that ""MSZP is the winner of the crisis." Stop emphasizes that "Most people want MSZP to continue governing." All these claims can be found in the report of Századvég but what a different emphasis depending on the political coloring of the publication.

An interesting picture emerges from this poll. Most of the changes occurred in the Fidesz camp. Between mid-October and mid-November they lost another 4 percent of their supporters. In the past year and a half–that, is since the summer of 2006, this is the low point in the party's popularity: only 24% of eligible voters back them. That is only six percentage points higher than the 18% support for MSZP. MSZP's voting bloc hasn't changed in the last month, but what is telling is that the percentage of those who are unsure of their choice has grown by 6%. There is another thought-provoking item: among those who are uncertain how they would vote, 75% are dissatisfied with Fidesz while only 69% are dissatisfied with MSZP. If we factor in the 4% drop in the Fidesz camp and consider that among uncertain voters the dislike of Fidesz is stronger than it is of MSZP I think we can safely assume that the growth in uncertain voters favors MSZP. Both SZDSZ and MDF have only 1% of all the votes. Fidesz also lost big (6%) among those who claim that they would definitely vote if elections were held this Sunday. MSZP's figures in this category didn't change. Another consideration in evaluating the results is that Fidesz voters are more dissatisfied with their own politicians than are those who would cast their votes for MSZP: 25% versus 10%. Although the percentage of people who would like to see new electionsis substantial, the percentage of those who would like to see MSZP continue is higher. It is also a fascinating change that Gyurcsány and Orbán are now considered equally fit to lead the country. That certainly wasn't the case even a month ago.

So Gyurcsány has reason to be happy. SZDSZ is rather unhappy because Gyurcsány in his blog indicated that today's vote on the budget represented not only the victory of the government but also the failure of the opposition. Although I understand the euphoria the situation is still very difficult. Some commentators claim that the financial crisis was actually a godsend to Gyurcsány and MSZP, but I wouldn't go that far. MSZP plans envisaged an economically successful 2009 on the basis of which they could launch a strong election campaign. But those who read the financial tea leaves are predicting a gloomy year. And in the midst of the doom and gloom will come the election to send representatives to the European parliament in Brussels. It's not immaterial how MSZP will fare under the circumstances. Let's not forget that Péter Medgyessy had to leave office after a disastrous vote for the European parliament in 2002.

Orbán’s mistakes?

Some people think that Viktor Orbán has made an awful lot of political mistakes lately. It was a mistake not to make conciliatory gestures at the National Summit, not to show up at a high-level meeting of politicians and experts on the economic crisis, not to take an active part in the hustle and bustle of everyday politics. He stayed aloof and sent emissaries to meetings.

A few days ago he decided to speak up. However, according to analysts, it would have been better if he had kept his own counsel. Here is an example of the criticism about what Fidesz and Viktor Orbán personally have been doing lately; it appeared in the English version of Portfolio.hu. "The main opposition party is frantically trying to escape even the appearance of having anything to do with the crisis management of the Socialist Party (MSZP). But what it will really accomplish with its shoddy communication is the brick-by-brick destruction of its professional credibility that it has been building up for years in opposition. Portraying Hungary's stand-by credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a hugger-mugger deal is a mere blunder; the rejection of the fiscal responsibility package is a mistake of historic proportions and the call on the central bank to cut its base rate immediately to 6.00% is pure madness."

I think in one respect the analyst here is too kind. I don't see the professional credibility that Fidesz has been building up for years. There were no constructive suggestions to remedy the terrible situation in which Hungary found itself by 2006. The government tried its best and pretty well succeeded in decreasing the incredibly high deficit. Fidesz couldn't suggest anything to replace the austerity program that is "too hard on the Hungarian people." Here and there the party offered silly ideas to reduce taxes and thus further increase the deficit but nothing constructive. What happened with the IMF stand-by credit deal was definitely more than a "mere blunder." It was embarrassing. First there was the condemnation of the whole deal. Hungary didn't need IMF money. That early criticism was followed by emphasizing the "shame" that had befallen the country: Hungary was now somewhere between Pakistan and Ukraine! Once the stand-by credit agreement was a done deal and the document of intent signed and sealed, Mihály Varga, the economic expert of Fidesz, kept insisting that there must be some secret deal. When the IMF itself declared that there was no such thing Fidesz madly searched for a "contract." And when it turned out that there was no contract Varga tried to get out of hot water by claiming that that since Gyurcsány made references once or twice to "a contract" he must be a total nincompoop who doesn't even know that no contract had to be signed. If all this nonsense had been uttered only once or twice, it would have been bearable. But the sound bites are repeated over and over. A new messenger, the same message. So the same blahblah on Napkelte in the morning is heard again at noon, in the evening, and late at night. Mistakes are thus magnified.

The latest blunder was Orbán's "demand" to the Hungarian National Bank and the government to immediately lower the interest rate from 11.5% to 6.0%. In one fell swoop. This news first appeared in a regional paper called Észak-Magyarország. Instead of denying the report in an effort to maintain credibility, he repeated this nonsense in Veszprém where Fidesz bigwigs got together for a meeting. Here he added that lowering the interest rate might help Hungarian enterprises get credit more easily. Needless to say, the media jumped on the story because even those who are not too savvy in financial matters know that such a sharp reduction in the interest rate would have catastrophic results. The questions multiplied. Does Orbán really know so little that he can seriously suggest such a move? Doesn't he know that the Hungarian National Bank is independent of the government and the government, even if it wanted to lower interest rates, couldn't do it?

It seems that this latest suggestion caused consternation even within the party. Fidesz is a very well disciplined organization. What Orbán says is Holy Writ. Everybody follows. No cracks in unity. But his call for the immediate reduction of the interest rate by almost 50% was more than his followers could take. Even the very right-wing Magyar Hírlap called it "perhaps too sweeping a suggestion" and suggested a more cautious, step by step, reduction of the indeed very high interest rate. Mihály Varga repeated the same and Zsigmond Járai, former minister of finance and head of the National Bank who did everything in his power to keep interest rates high and thus make the Gyurcsány government's situation very difficult, also explained that such a reduction must be gradual. (Mind you, I remember when Járai raised the interest rate by 3-4% for no apparent reason.)

Orbán apparently had another brilliant idea: to have a referendum to stop the privatization of the Budapest Gas Works (Főgáz) pretty well decided on by the city. After all, with the same strategy he defeated government plans for healthcare copayment and tuition. But the likelihood of a successful referendum today is very much in question. Fidesz's popularity has plummeted of late in the capital. Moreover, it seems that István Tarlós who was narrowly defeated in the mayoral contest two years ago and who is now the head of the Fidesz caucus in the city council is dead set against a referendum; apparently he managed to gather nearly the entire inner circle of Fidesz against Orbán on this issue. Another sign that Orbán's hold on the higher echelon of party leadership might be loosening. A few more mistakes would certainly help those who deep down are worried about the future of the party as long as Orbán is leading it.

Hungary and the world economic crisis

Hungarian politicians, both left and right, are predicting a grim near-term future for the Hungarian economy. Sometimes I think that the government may be overstating the case in order to have an easier time convincing the population as well as the opposition to cooperate in the economic restructuring necessary for future growth. Or it is equally plausible that they want to paint a very dark picture because, if the crisis is less severe than predicted, the population will be relieved and will think that after all Hungary has a government able to conquer towering economic difficulties. The curious thing is that no matter how bleak a picture the government paints, consumers keep on spending. Absolutely no sign of slowing down. Retailers expect a good Christmas.

Of course, there are already tangible signs of trouble. GE is letting one hundred workers go in Győr. In the same city Audi its closing its factory for a month. There was a demonstration against the temporary closing of the Audi factory, as if it mattered at all. Gordon Bajnai, minister of economics, predicted that in the next few weeks many thousands will lose their jobs. Last week, he mentioned 1,400. Yesterday he announced an additional 1,760. He added that in the next months the situation will get worse. He also mentioned that conditions will be most critical in the western regions where the multinational companies located.

What is the government trying to do under the circumstances? Some of the money received from the European Union will be used to save 100,000 jobs and to create an extra 20,000 in small companies. That sounds a bit extravagant to me. The plan at the moment is that if in one region too many factories close, the government will step in and declare the district a "disaster area" where they will try to keep factories open and reopen already closed ones.

The Christmas shoppers are not the only ones unphased by the grim predictions of Bajnai. The trade unions are not impressed either. As I mentioned earlier, the government wants to take away the thirteenth month pay of all government employees (close to 700,000), and the 4% increase in real wages promised earlier will be scrapped. The United Trade Unions of the Public Service Sector comprising 22 trade unions have been negotiating with the government, but they are getting nowhere. Thus,the decision was made to organize a huge demonstration for November 29. If further talks are unsatisfactory from the trade unions' point of view there will be a general strike starting January 12, 2009. I heard one union leader who is demanding an 18% raise. The head of the Hungarian Medical Association wants a 30% raise for people working in healthcare. If they stick to their demands, I'm afraid the strike is certain. How long it will last is another question entirely. If members of the trade unions show the same enthusiasm for the strike this time as they did earlier, when one strike after the other ended in total failure, they won't be picketing in the winter cold for long.

. . . and Orbán spoke

Political commentators have noted recently that Viktor Orbán, by refusing to be engaged, by declining participation in different political and economic gatherings, is depriving himself of a platform. He is becoming less and less relevant. There are clear indications of the declining popularity of Fidesz although it is still way ahead in the polls. Well, Orbán decided to make a major speech. The occasion was the general assembly of the Batthyány Circle of Professors held at the Saint Margaret High School.

First perhaps a few words about the Batthyány Circle of Professors. It was established in June 1995 by a group of university professors of a conservative bent. Members must be full professors or researchers who have posititions equivalent to a full professorship in a university setting. Looking through the names of the 141 members one is struck by the preponderance of medical school professors. Actually, this shouldn't be surprising because it is a well known fact that the majority of Hungarian physicians supports the right. There are also a lot of science and engineering professors on the list. A few professors teach at law schools–for example, János Martonyi, Orbán's foreign minister who took up the teaching profession once Fidesz lost the election. There are very few professors of the humanities.

How active are they? I have the feeling not very. I actually had a personal encounter with them, if you can call it that. It was in 1998 at the time of the infancy of the Internet when there were no Internet editions of Hungarian newspapers. Followers of Hungarian news had to rely on the services of a young man employed by the Batthyány Circle of Professors to summarize items appearing in Hungarian papers. Well, one nice day sometime in the late summer of 1998 the service stopped. We kept sending e-mails to the Circle inquiring, then complaining. No answer. Eventually I asked a friend in Budapest to phone the Circle's number. There was no answer. He tried for days! It seems that the group of full professors does little more than give Viktor Orbán the opportunity to speak here and there.

Well, let's get to the speech. First of all, the speech was long. More than an hour. According to Orbán one must "courageously admit" that he and his party have long-range plans. In the short run the aim is to get into power and govern the country. But then his plan is "to make Hungary the most cultured, best educated nation in Europe." And in the long run they want "to create a most self-possessed, unified and proud community." For this Orbán and his party will need a lot of time. Let's pause here a bit: How long a time? At the moment things don't look very good. There are more than half a million people who haven't even finished eight grades. The number of university graduates is still relatively small and the new graduates are not up to snuff. Not one Hungarian university is in the top 200 in the world. There are not enough skilled workers, and according to the latest poll only 25% of the population knows any foreign language. I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but to make Hungary the best educated and the most cultured nation in Europe would take at least 25 years. Somehow I don't think that the Hungarian public would put up with a Fidesz government for that long. They could hardly wait to get rid of Fidesz after four years.

Let me quote Orbán verbatim. "We need more time than four years because for us not only the electoral success, the possibility of governing, the revenge is important–and people can pick and choose among these according to their taste–but we have far-reaching plans for which we need time, time, and time." He hopes to achieve the great success because of past defeats. He quoted a French saying (but one must be careful about Orbán's quotes, it might not be genuine) that "if one wants to jump far one must step a bit backward." Thus, the great goals that he outlined at the beginning of his speech can be achieved only after a chain of defeats. Six years in opposition is a very long time, but he and his party learned a lot during these years. In order to achieve success "it seems that one must go through purgatory." He thinks that the stay in purgatory is coming to an end, but he added cautiously that a two-thirds majority win is an illusion.

He emphasized that he is still in favor of "néppárti politika." The reason I used the Hungarian is that I would like to figure out the precise meaning of "néppárt/néppárti." On the surface it is easy: people's party. But that is surely not the real meaning of it. I am coming to the conclusion that in this context and in Orbán's head it means the gathering of all forces of the political right under one umbrella, under the leadership of Fidesz. That is, from the moderate MDF to the far-right Jobbik. If I am correct, this is not good news because it means making some kind of deal with the Hungarian far-right. In western Europe the far-right doesn't have a chance of getting into power because neither the moderate right nor the left will cooperate with them. Fidesz refuses to follow suit.

Finally, Orbán detailed his ideas about world affairs and the current international financial crisis. This is not his strong suit and therefore I'm not sure whether I can intelligently summarize what I consider to be a convoluted and confused set of ideas about the world. According to Orbán (and everyone else in the universe), power in the world markets is shifting. There is a struggle for the Asian markets in addition to Asian capitalism that wants its share of the western markets. He claims that the struggle will be "rational." It will not necessarily bring about wars because it is not military but a struggle among huge corporations. The West will not be able to win this struggle without the help of an Eastern European axis from the Baltic States to Croatia. Within this region there must be commercial and economic cooperation. A joint investment bank should be established to aid the development of the region financially. North-south superhighways should be built. These countries should cooperate in order to ensure the region's energy supplies owned at least partially by the states in the region. Hungary's interest can be found in this regional cooperation.

I'm too tired to comment on these ideas. But somehow I don't think the European Union would be too impressed with the East European Union.

Atrocities against Gypsies

In recent days sixteen attempts have been made against Gypsy families. The modus operandi was similar in the majority of the cases. Gypsies in small villages live at the ends of the row of houses. Whoever wanted to do them harm usually picked the very last house in the village, beyond which there was a forested area where the culprits could easily disappear. They threw Molotov cocktails into the targeted house. Fortunately the Molotov cocktail attacks caused only minor damage to the houses and no personal injury. But two attacks with different profiles resulted in death.

The first case, seemingly a juiced-up version of the standard Molotov cocktail attack, involved a combination of Molotov cocktails and guns. The perpetrators threw a couple of Molotov cocktails into the house, causing a serious fire. When the inhabitants ran out of the house, the assailants shot two of them dead. While they were on their crime spree for good measure they threw another Molotov cocktail at a nearby house, but that didn't do any damage. The victims were buried a few days ago with the minister of justice in attendance.

The second case doesn't fit the pattern of the village attacks. Two days ago in the eastern, poor part of Pécs a Gypsy family was watching television: father, mother, and four children. The smallest was two years old. She was sleeping at the feet of her parents who were lying in bed. A hand grenade was thrown into the room through the window. The two adults were killed. Miraculously the two-year-old was unharmed and the other three children received only minor injuries. I understand that the four children have been taken in by relatives.

The spokesman for the Pécs police somewhat hastily announced that the case has nothing to do with the victims' ethnicity. This may be the case, but it sure doesn't look too good to announce such a verdict before a thorough investigation. The police chief of Hungary was stuck with the task of trying to explain away the premature verdict of the local spokesman. 

Those who rule out ethnic conflict suspect the attacks to be the handiwork of usurers who might be Gypsies themselves. The poverty-stricken Gypsies are often in such financial straits that they have to turn to people who lend them money at an exorbitant rate. When they are in default the loansharks, the quintessential "not nice guys," lose patience.  But two counterpoints. First, why after a long period of quiet the sudden urge to kill people who owe them money, not to mention the folly of trying to collect from the dead. Second, what self-respecting loanshark uses Molotov cocktails when we all know from the movies about, shall we say, more targeted attacks.

Police Chief József Bencze said in an interview today that the police hypothesis is that the cases are related; more importantly he indicated that they are close to solving these cases. We have no idea about the course of their investigation. Those who suspect racism as a motive point to the verbal attacks on Gypsies by the extreme right, the Jobbik and its auxiliary, the Hungarian Guard. Perhaps in a few days we will know more.