Month: September 2009

Factcheck Hungarian style

The first time I encountered factcheck.org was during the 2002 campaign when listening to the early morning news on NPR (National Public Radio). The segment, an analysis of Republican and Democratic campaign speeches, pointed out the not entirely truthful claims about the state of American education. I wished at that time that there would be something similar in Hungary where untrue "facts" are repeated ad nauseam without anyone correcting them.

As a faithful viewer of ATV's "Egyenes beszéd" (Straight Talk with Olga Kálmán) I was astonished to hear two interviews on consecutive days (September 21 and 22). The first was with György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő and chairman of the Association of Hungarian Local Governments (Magyar Önkormányzatok Szövetsége or MÖSZ). The topic was the decrease in subsidies to the cities and towns from Budapest, not exactly welcome news to the mayors. We heard the usual complaints: no one told them anything, they were not given enough time to study the proposals, they are incapable of running their cities and towns on less money. The interview then turned to the recent meeting at which the two sides–the association and the government–were supposed to iron out their differences. Olga Kálmán wanted to know what was accomplished. The answer: absolutely nothing. There was no opportunity to reconcile their differences. So how did they spend their time? "We didn't negotiate, we chit-chatted a bit." Gémesi further elaborated on the actual agenda and claimed total failure.

The next day István Jauernik, the undersecretary in the ministry dealing with the affairs of local governments, was Kálmán's guest. He represented the government in the negotiations. He thought that the meeting had some positive results. "It was a meaningful exchange of viewpoints." It lasted two and a half hours during which time they managed to clear up some misunderstandings. At the very end Kálmán mentioned that Gémesi had been her guest the day before and that he had a very different opinion about the whole encounter. To which Jauernik said that Gémesi wasn't even present. You should have seen Olga Kálmán's face. She could only mutter: "This is new to me."

If a Hungarian politician is capable of pretending that he was present at a meeting when he wasn't and takes a very strong position on its outcome, one can imagine the level of political discourse in Hungary. It very rarely happens that the two sides appear on the same show, and the few times they do the conversation usually turns into a shouting match. The listener can't even understand their arguments because the politicians don't allow each other to finish a sentence. But, as I said, such encounters are rare because one side or the other refuses to engage in a direct confrontation. Thus, the burden is on the reporter to catch the half truths or outright lies the politician utters. Even if the reporter is well informed, that is a daunting task because not all facts and figures can be at his/her fingertips and one cannot be prepared for all eventualities. One never knows what surprising new "fact" a politician can come up with.

Seven years after I first heard of factcheck.org something similar is now being done in Hungary. Given the state of Hungarian politics it is not surprising that the fact-checker is a journalist of liberal persuasion who is keeping an eye only on right-wing politicians and right-wing papers. His name is György Bolgár, and I've mentioned him and his call-in show frequently in this blog. Bolgár is a walking encyclopaedia. It very rarely happens that he doesn't remember something, and the few times he doesn't he promises to check it out. The next day, like clockwork, there is the answer.

It has been bothering Bolgár for a long time that politicians, especially the politicians of Fidesz, handle truth in a cavalier fashion. And most likely people on the liberal side also urged him to tap into his vast factual knowledge and his penchant for fact checking. On June 15 of this year he launched a column entitled "Hogy mi van?" ("What one can hear!"; this is the best translation I can come up with. Suggestions are welcome!) in 168 Óra. The subject of his first piece was Gábor Vona, who claimed that since 1947 no grassroots movement ever managed to become a serious party represented in parliament. Bolgár pointed out that Fidesz was a grassroots movement that got into parliament easily after very little preparation in 1990. A week later (June 29) Bolgár contradicted Viktor Orbán who claimed that there are forty electoral districts where in the last twenty years the MSZP candidate has always won. In 1990, Bolgár reminded his readers, MSZP won in only one district! On July 8, Bolgár talked about Gabriella Vukovich, a demographer and former deputy director of the Hungarian Statistical Office under Viktor Orbán, who in Magyar Hírlap of all places claimed that Hungary's population decrease is the highest in the whole world. The fact is that in three other countries in the European Union the situation is worse. On August 24, Bolgár noticed that Károly Konrát, Fidesz MP and former undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior in the Orbán government, claimed that between 1998 and 2002 there were no neo-Nazi demonstrations in Hungary. It is not true. On February 13, 1999, the Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front) organized a demonstration attended by 1,500 people, including many neo-Nazis from other countries. In military formation, accompanied by the beat of drums, they moved into the old Castle District. Under police protection. On September 6, Bolgár argued a bit with Péter Szijjártó who claimed that the Hungarian situation is so bad that people live better in Romania than in Hungary. New documents prove, according to Szijjártó, that if a Hungarian works one hour he makes less than a Romanian in Bucharest. It turned out that this comparison between Romania and Hungary was done during the few short weeks when the Hungarian forint had weakened considerably. 

I was the one who called György Bolgár's attention to a false statement by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz's foreign policy expert, about the Slovak-Hungarian statement signed at Szécsény by Robert Fico and Gordon Bajnai. According to Németh, the English version (the original, subsequently translated into Hungarian and Slovak) is different from the Hungarian one and from what Bajnai claimed. It says, according to Németh, that the Slovaks will abide by recommendations of The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe only when it comes to the implementation of the Slovak language law. The fact is that there is absolutely no difference between the English and the Hungarian text. Both say the same thing: the two countries will abide by all the recommendations, about the law itself as well as its implementation.

Admittedly, this is far cry from factcheck.org which watches all political statements, not just those of one side. But it is still better than nothing. I do hope that sooner or later a group of enterprising fact checkers will get together and get to work. There is plenty to do. Perhaps more than in the United States.

Mostly about the Hungarian prime minister

The first time I heard the name of Gordon Bajnai was when I read in 2006 that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány called on him to be the head of the National Development Agency. Later appointments in more and more important posts followed; eventually he became head of the newly formed National Economic Development Ministry. And now, of course, prime minister.

The prime minister's given name, Gordon, is not exactly commonplace in Hungary. Actually I would be surprised if there were another person in the whole country named Gordon unless, of course, it is a brand new baby whose parents became enamored with the prime minister or the name. As things now stand, that it is not at all impossible. Gordon Bajnai is becoming more and more popular. And not without reason.

As I said, I knew nothing about Bajnai because he entered politics from the business world. However, I have a very good internet friend who happened to be his college classmate who kept telling me that this guy was very, very smart and very, very nice and that he will do a fantastic job. The same person started a "let's support Gordon Bajnai to be the next prime minister of Hungary" on Facebook, and I think she was very disappointed when there were not too many supporters. When she first mentioned  her initiative to me I was amused. Although his name had been mentioned several times as a possible successor to Gyurcsány, I didn't see how this quiet, unassuming fellow whom I elsewhere called a "boy scout" could be a really good prime minister. I guess I was too accustomed to Ferenc Gyurcsány who is anything but quiet or unassuming.

Then he took over and, although he didn't talk much as opposed to his predecessor, it soon became obvious that this quiet man had a will of steel and a power of persuasion to go with it. From the business world he brought along a willingness to compromise that is such an important ingredient in politics and that is in short supply in Hungary. He announced on day one that the 3.8% deficit target is "carved in stone" and kept his word. Then I heard Paul Lendvai, the well known Austrian (Hungarian born) journalist say that he heard Bajnai give a lecture in English in Vienna and he wished that Austrian politicians could speak English as well as he does. At home he was making headway both in parliament and in handling the economy. Moreover, in foreign policy about which he really shouldn't know much, he did a good job when he sat down and, in my opinion, had quite a successful meeting with Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister. Then I talked to people who met him in New York and who gained a very favorable impression of him. As László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, wrote in Népszava (the Hungarian variety), in New York "a miracle happened." Even right-wing Hungarians who came to listen to him "were jealous of the socialists" for having such an excellent man as Gordon Bajnai. Bartus said something that I found interesting. This man really didn't want to be prime minister and tells the world that he is not planning to be one. And, Bartus added, perhaps that's why he is so good at it.

And now I'm continuing my "delusions" as NWO called one of my posts when I was a bit more optimistic about left-liberal chances at the 2010 elections than most people (September 13: "Some good news from Hungary"). The trend that started in August seems to be continuing. According to the Századvég-Forsense poll released today, the popularity of socialist politicians has grown by five points while Fidesz politicians lost three points on a scale of 100. The lead of Fidesz politicians over their socialist colleagues is only 6 points at the moment. The greatest change is in the popular assessment of Gordon Bajnai. In the last quarter his standing went up by nine points. Right now Bajnai has 45 points out of 100. At the same time Orbán's went down by four points and therefore he has only 52 points. I am always amused when in Hírkereső, a Hungarian Google News, I look at the headlines. The left-liberal papers, the very few, hail the changes and therefore their headlines are optimistic. For example, Népszabadság introduced the news about this latest poll: "Bajnai is pressing hard on Orbán." Right-wing papers, on the other hand, prefer such headlines as "Fidesz politicians are still ahead." It is not a lie, indeed they are still more popular than the socialists, but the real news is that the gap is closing and not that Fidesz is still leading.

László Bartus introduces his piece by saying that Bajnai might be the only serious rival of Viktor Orbán because he so different. And then he brings up a photo that appeared in Népszava (September 25).Bajnai Obamaval  I must admit that I was also amused at seeing this picture but Bartus put it really well: "On the protocol photo released by the White House the Hungarian prime minister is standing between Barack Obama and his wife. Gordon Bajnai looks on this photo as people normally think of him on the basis of his looks. He gives the impression of a tourist who just happens to be there. He lacks the political savvy that made Obama and his wife able to produce the same smile while being photographed with all the presidents and prime ministers gathered in New York. But his look on this picture is much more honest and much more human. He has no illusions of stardom, his posture is that of 'everyman'." Bartus then points out the difference between his outward appearance and his inner workings. He thinks, and I tend to agree with him, that "the current prime minister of Hungary may surpass his predecessors and his rivals."

My suspicion is that Viktor Orbán is somewhat worried about Bajnai and the achievement of his government. Otherwise he wouldn't be trying so hard and wouldn't use tactics which under the circumstances seem totally unnecessary. If the Fidesz lead is so overwhelming and unchangeable, why would Lajos Kósa (the most popular Fidesz politician, by the way) feel compelled to organize a demonstration against the government's decision to give 4.5% less money to the local governments than they got last year. In all seriousness he said in the new "Ma reggel" (that seems to be functioning instead of Nap-kelte) that children will go hungry, schools will have to be closed, and hospitals will not be able to receive patients. The demonstration is planned for October 10 in front of the Parliament. Kósa talked only about a gathering of (Fidesz) mayors, but the inimitable Szijjártó yesterday called on everybody who is against the government and this horrific budget to join in. Starting street demonstrations again? Why? With an overwhelming lead? Hard to fathom. Unless they also have the feeling, as I do, that this is not the end of the story.

Land Ahoy! Hungary’s agriculture by S. K.

This time it's a strictly private opinion that I am risking here, based on an e-mail circular I received during the week. This circular letter is urging the repatriating Hungarians of the diaspora to buy land in Hungary, because the traitor government is conniving to “sell out” the land to foreigners. To facilitate the purchase, there are agents and lawyers of the proper Hungarian patriotic persuasion at the buyer’s disposal. The letter also exhorts the readers to support Jobbik, “because this is the only hope, if they succeed in getting elected to Parliament, only this party shall protect the interest of Hungarians.”

Well, the “protection” of Hungarian lands from foreigners is an idea that cropped up first in the times of the Fidesz government: Viktor Orbán broke out in sanguine oratory against the real and virtual contracts providing agricultural land to many Austrian and a few Dutch farmers to return to production.

But the idea originated in the late nineteenth century, when the tempestuous social, industrial and capitalistic changes brought along a certain inevitable pressure against the rural lifestyle which then and ever since was considered the embodiment of the Hungarian national soul and substance. The land and the peasant way of life was, in the eyes of its defenders, what made the country what it was, and without it, they said, Hungary would cease to exist. This desperate struggle to retain the centuries old, but unsustainable tradition led to the “cultural wars” between urbanists and the Hungarian "narodniks" that culminated after World War I and was rekindled time and again ever since. The Hungarian word for these defenders of the village culture is "népiesek" that is very difficult to translate. "Populists" is the closest but that word is already taken. Therefore I'm using the Russian word "narodnik" most of us are familiar with. These "narodniks" as opposed to the “urbanists” have not rested since the change of the regime in 1990. In fact, the cultural war is steadily escalating, because there is a large number of advocates of the concept that Hungary can be saved only by its traditional agriculture. They are convinced that Hungary could outperform any competition with its agricultural production if only given a fighting chance. At the same time, they claim, the urbanists are nothing more than the decadent and evil emissaries of the foreign banks, themselves the bulwark of predatory Jews, who have no other aims than to colonize the poor, undefended Hungary for their own profit.

This is implied in Viktor Orbán's oratory, this is what the Jobbik is talking about, this is cropping up in Krisztina Morvai's rantings in the European Parliament, and this is behind the circular letter I received this week. Fidesz originally intended to include a question about the sale of land in last year’s notorious referendum, to prevent constitutionally any sale of any land to foreigners at all. The question however was left out at the end.

Indeed, Hungary was probably the largest exporter of produce and cattle in Europe–in the fifteenth century.  But never since. Yet this legend is still alive in the national conciousness. The fact, however, is that while the latifundia and entailed estates were in existence, operated by cheap labour, there was some rationale to support the notion of a prosperous agricultural country. Notwithstanding the fact that even so, those large operators were in constant trouble and were often unable to survive economically, exactly because of the more advanced competition.

Further discrediting the conservative claim is the well-known, but intentionally disregarded fact that a large portion of the agricultural population actually did not own any land and survived only as day laborers, while an even larger segment owned tiny, subsistence farms that were subdivided constantly in each new generation, until finally the peasant family had nothing left and was forced to move to the cities to find work. (There is a legendary criminal case of the women folk of sixteen families who conspired and murdered the heads of their families in Tiszazúg in order to prevent the further subdivision of the families’ meager landholdings by inheritance.) As a consequence, in the words of the poet, “…staggered away to America a million and half of our men.” In any case, Hungary was called the “country of three million beggars.”

This process is repeated now, more or less, as the small farmer’s chances of survival are practically nil, as the produce is delivered daily to the local market, regardless of the local growing season, from Guatemala or from South Africa on airplanes: cheaper, better and fresher than the backward Hungarian farmer could possibly provide. It is very sad indeed, but nevertheless an intractable fact of life.

Further increasing the severity of the situation is the fact that the average Hungarian peasant is close to retirement age, their children having bailed out of the brutal work, poor living conditions and hopeless prospects many years ago, taking up residence in the cities. Those left behind are struggling on without capital, without markets and most of all without the necessary education that would possibly enable them to survive, if only by a miracle. It is no wonder that they themselves see how their fate is sealed and find the only escape in renting their lands to anybody willing to pay enough to live on in their waning years. This is what first  Fidesz and now also Jobbik want to torpedo.

The disintegration of production structure is well demonstrated by this example. The comparatively backward state and the trends of Hungarian agriculture are well demonstrated by these charts.

The “patriotic defense of Hungarian lands” is based on purely fallacious and emotional grounds. The defenders are most likely unversed in economics and probably in agriculture as well, not to mention their total ignorance of the numerous historic precedents of re-populating abandoned areas of the country. (To mention only a few, there were massive re-population efforts after the Turkish era of occupation. The city of Pest was settled by German speaking people, almost exclusively, who decided to learn the language of the country only in the late nineteenth century. Also, following the great cholera epidemics of the 1720s and 1750s, hundreds of villages were re-populated with German people, who are an integral part of the population now and slip by under the radar of the xenophobes.) They have no idea whatsoever what the conservation of the present state of affairs will lead to, or what would be the consequence of releasing the land from its bonds.

So, let us examine at least some of the possible consequences! First and most obvious is that by selling a piece of land only the name of the owner would change; the land itself would undoubtedly remain in Hungary, the new foreign owner could not take it away from where it was before: it would still be Hungarian land. The money paid for the purchase would be added to the positive side of the national balance of payments, therefore it would enrich the country not make it poorer. Although arable land is still cheaper in Hungary than elsewhere in Europe, the buyer would certainly be more able to muster capital necessary for production than the old local guy is, therefore would be able to finance the production better. At the moment this is only possible by the use of large state subsidies. The money wasted on subsidies now would be saved for other budgetary purposes.

By the way, should an elderly expatriate Hungarian return and buy a piece of land, that wouldn’t solve anything. In fact it would almost certainly withdraw that land from production, because this person will hardly have any capital, know-how and especially ambition to start farming, for the first time in his life, just to keep that land out of the hands of the hated foreigners.

If the tiller of the land were not an uneducated elderly peasant but a possibly university educated, professional farmer, the chances of success, the quality of produce and the economy of production would vastly improve. The natural endowment of the Hungarian land is very good. So, the better farming methods would probably yield a much more export-worthy product than what is now only suitable for domestic consumption at best. (There is hardly a year passing without the news of farmers preferring to destroy their crop than to sell it at prices lower than the cost of production.) The exports will certainly add to the balance of payments again.

Dare I say that the foreign farmers would probably have connections and experience in the marketing of the produce which the peasant doesn’t have, not to mention the language difficulties? I have never heard of a Hungarian peasant who could speak any language other than Hungarian. The minuscule size of the Hungarian family farms simply prevents economical production. The economies of scale might be achieved by better-financed, larger enterprises on larger farms. The peasant population, being old and poor, is tilling actually less and less area, the proportion of fallow land is increasing. The new arrivals could comfortably establish themselves without really displacing anyone who wishes to continue working the land.

Although the subsidies enabled some farmers to acquire more advanced equipment, the technological state of farms is inferior to the competition.  Hungary has a sometimes unwelcome and threatening surplus of water, much of the land is often water-logged, but the investment in drainage and irrigation is inadequate, the existing infrastructure, most of which is at least 60-70 years old, is neglected and in disrepair. Hungary is still susceptible to droughts. The improvement in irrigation is definitely necessary, but the requisite capital is in short supply.

On political grounds I do understand the affinity of the right to the peasantry. This mutual support was what elevated the Smallholders Party to its “exalted” position in 1998 to become a member of the coalition government. This party helped to nurture the early nazi organizations that grew up to be Jobbik, and this is the social underpinning that sustains their successes of late. There are large reserves of goodwill towards Jobbik amongst the rural population and they have good reason to cater in return to their fears and hatreds, no matter how ill-conceived and irrational they may be.

Again it seems that the false patriotic sloganeering makes great inroads against all rationality. The gullible, in feverish alliance with the dishonest, are plotting to do damage to others and inadvertently to themselves, without a ghost of a chance of gaining anything more than a few useless seats in the ineffectual parliament that they themselves are trying to abolish. They couldn’t see beyond their noses, they don’t care about the consequences either way.

I wonder: when will these people ever learn anything.

Hungarian “progressive” writers and World War I

Years ago there was a series of conferences jointly sponsored by Brooklyn College and The City University of New York on the Habsburg Monarchy and World War I. One of the lecturers was the late Robert A. Kann, a historian of the Habsburg Empire, who talked about the war hysteria that broke out among Austro-German writers during the war. The Hungarian historians in the audience came up with the idea that perhaps it would be worth taking a look at the Hungarian literary scene at the time. We remembered no war hysteria among Hungarian writers. On the contrary, we all recalled that our Hungarian teachers emphasized the anti-war sentiment of the "progressive" Hungarian writers. Béla Király, one of the organizers of the conference series, was especially enthusiastic and eventually I was asked to give a lecture on the subject. The study eventually appeared in print.

I was hesitant about accepting the job because I didn't know how well equipped Yale's Sterling Library was when it came to Hungarian literature. After all, no Hungarian language or literature courses were offered at the university. Columbia's library was much better in this respect, but I had no time to spend two or three weeks in New York only to peruse Hungarian literary pieces between 1914 and 1918. It turned out that my fear was unjustified. There was a surprising amount of material. Certainly enough to be able to write a short study on the subject. My readings helped me revise my high school impressions of Hungarian writers' attitudes toward the war. It wasn't as simple as our teachers claimed: in fact, all those progressive writers were quite enthusiastic about the war, at least until 1917. The tide turned after the losses were mounting, life at home became ever harder and when their last hope, Charles IV of Hungary, was unable to end the war as they all prayed he would.

How did I resuscitate this old topic? I was reorganizing my "favorites" on the computer when I rediscovered that Nyugat (West), the most prestigious literary periodical between 1908 and 1941, was available on line. Nyugat may have been prestigious and influential but it had a circulation of only a few hundred at the beginning and no more than a couple of thousand in its heyday. One thing is sure: no copy got to Sterling Library. So I decided to take a quick, if belated, look at it and found right off the bat two or three articles by Ignotus certainly worth pondering over. Ignotus was the pen name of Hugó Veigelsberg (1869-1949), one of the founders of Nyugat and during our period its editor-in-chief. For those whose Latin is either nonexistent or (in my case) rusty, "ignotus" means "unknown, obscure, ignorant, ignoble." Surely, the editor-in-chief of Nyugat used the word in its first sense. As far as I know, he officially changed his name to Ignotus in 1907 and his son Pál's official name was Pál (Paul) Ignotus (1901-1978 [London]). For at least three generations the Veigelsberg/Ignotus family was involved in the media. Leó Veigelsberg was the editor-in-chief of the famous German language daily of Budapest, Pester Loyd, between 1872 and 1907, and Paul Ignotus worked for the BBC during World War II. He spent the years between 1949 and 1956 in a Hungarian jail, which he later recounted in Political Prisoner: A Personal Account. I read this book in Canada when it first appeared in 1959. But back to the main thread.

Ignotus welcomed the war in his editorial entitled simply "Háború" (War) in the August 1914 issue of the periodical. He believed that in spite of the fact that Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia the war was a defensive one. If Austria-Hungary hadn't done something by way of a preemptive strike either Russia, Serbia or Romania would have attacked and destroyed it. Ignotus said: "If I ask myself and if we all ask ourselves not out of patriotism but out of cold calculation: do I want to be a Serb? A Romanian? Or a Russian? I look southward toward the Balkans or northward at Finland and I say, no." By November, Ignotus wrote a lengthy piece about how easily one can get used to war. And, he continued, one has to become used to it because it must have a victorious ending. A good war should last a long time, not just a few weeks. An interesting thought!

By early 1915 Ignotus got to the point that he was certain that if Goethe, Schiller, Deák or Grillparzer had lived in 1915 they would have done exactly what the political leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary were doing, while Edward Gray was simply not fit to belong to the nation of Shakespeare or Raymond Poincaré that of Voltaire. And the interesting thing was that the Hungarian right thought that people around Nyugat were not good patriots. Ignotus was a devoted patriot and a great supporter of the Dual Monarchy and an admirer of Franz Joseph II. In his obituary of the emperor-king in the December 1916 issue of Nyugat Ignotus talks about him in glowing terms, remembering only the dear old king of a grateful nation. No wonder that modern publicists find an easy comparison between the career of Franz Joseph and that of János Kádár. Both started as hated leaders who occupied their positions with the assistance of foreign powers but who eventually became generally liked and admired.

Looking at the articles in Nyugat, my assessment about the enthusiasm for the war even in the most "progressive" literary circles didn't change. In fact, it has been reinforced. My look at the periodical was very cursory. It would deserve a much closer look.

Overconfident politician and lousy Hungarian journalists

Sorry to be so harsh, but after reading an interview with Viktor Orbán in Blikk (September 26) I don't feel too charitable. These two so-called journalists either don't know the first thing about their profession or they are in cohoots with Viktor Orbán and the interview they penned is no more than an opportunity to give him a platform. They obviously were not ashamed of their handiwork because they put their names at the bottom: Bori Fodor and Gábor Tibay.

First a few things about Blikk. It is considered to be a tabloid and perhaps because it is a tabloid it is very popular. It is published in 250,000 copies but media observers think that its readership is much greater than that. They guess about 1 million. The next most popular paper is Metró, one of those free papers given away at street corners. Népszabadság is third on the list by size of readership.

Lately Orbán has been very generous with his time when it comes to giving interviews to Blikk. After all, he manages to reach a lot of people by talking through that tabloid, and it seems that the journalists of the paper know what Viktor Orbán tolerates and what he doesn't. He doesn't tolerate much. When he was prime minister he was interviewed on Nap-kelte once a month, but he was willing to grant these interviews only to János Betlen, a member of the Fidesz "choir". Betlen never asked any hard questions. The situation was the same on Magyar Rádió: only one or two people were allowed to interview him. Both were willing to promote Orbán's image. It seems that Orbán has found his new willing accomplices at Blikk.

The so-called interview is not long and therefore I will translate most of it because otherwise the flavor of this slavish performance would be lost. Here and there I will interject my own observations about what the journalists should have asked as follow-ups.

The interview starts with a bang. It turned out that Blikk recently conducted a poll among a non-representative sample. The question was which politicians the paper's readers consider "most creditable." And who do you think came out on top?  None other than the subject of the interview. In response to the announcement of the results of this poll Orbán is modest and talks about politicians in general. Politicians who "promised success and produced failure" of course are not creditable. The best policy is "to be true to oneself." Perhaps it is possible to be successful in the short run if one is not showing one's true self, but he himself is "a long-distance runner." One can certainly ponder "the true self" of Viktor Orbán because he changed his color so many times that it was hard to keep track.

The next question concerns Orbán's future government. According to the journalists Tibor Navracsics said that "within a few days the Fidesz government will take concrete steps and produce a new budget." For Orbán "a few days" are too many. Election night there will be a celebration but the very next day "we have to act." A polite question follows: "What will happen the next day?" Orbán says that "there will be a load off our minds…. We will be free of the lack of public safety, irrational political decisions, BKV stories, or this budget and the problems connected to it." And that is not all: they will create new jobs. "Hungary will at last come up for air." Surely, this is going to be a very busy day because please note that the question was about the very first day and after all these generalities the journalists didn't inquire how on earth it was possible to achieve all that on the first day.

Next question. "If we come up for air, then what will happen?" Answer: they will create one million new jobs. They will change the tax code because taxes are too high and that's why employers can't hire more workers. There was, of course, no follow-up to this Fidesz mantra. Neither interviewer asked about the effect of lowering taxes on the deficit. Neither mentioned that hiring workers doesn't depend only on the level of taxation but also, and perhaps mainly, on consumer demand. But these questions would only have complicated the interview and compromised their future access to Orbán. They jumped to the next question.

"How many days of grace are you asking for?" Answer: none. In the past people talked about the first 100 days of grace but he will not need that. New question: "What will happen if there is less money in the till?" The interviewers were trying to be helpful to Orbán because he could then explain why he might not keep all his promises. After all, this is what he did in 1998. Since he doesn't want to dwell on those days he simply brushed the question aside. Fidesz is familiar with situations like that. After all, in 1998 the national debt was very high–58% of the GDP, but four years later it was only 53%. They know how to handle such problems. Naturally the question of indebtedness cannot be solved in one day. Again no follow-up question reminding him that in the first two years of his government after 1998 he introduced a veritable austerity program and didn't fulfill most of his campaign promises.

The journalists came up with another brilliant question: how long will it take to turn things around? Answer: it will all depend on how fast they can create jobs. In any case, whatever happens they are not thinking about taking up more loans. Under his government the country will rely only on itself. No question about the heavy reliance of Hungary on exports and that Hungary's economic well being largely depends on the world economy.

As for campaign promises. Orbán "never in his life made empty promises." (And the ceiling didn't fall on him!) He may have made "pledges" which he tried to fulfill to the best of his ability. In most cases he was "successful." He "will make serious, far-reaching pledges and will fulfill those pledges." Here is at last a follow-up of sorts: "What are these pledges?' Orbán: "I see great prospects in agriculture. More people could work in that sector than now." However, that's not enough. "Good cheer will return to Budapest too" after a few changes. What will these changes be? New bridges for example on River Ipoly (between Slovakia and Hungary) and a bridge in Budapest only for pedestrians. Again no follow-up. No one asks what the bridges across the Ipoly have to do with "cheer" in Budapest and why only a pedestrian bridge is planned when clearly that will not solve the traffic problems in Budapest. In addition he muttered something about developing Hungary as a transit hub but forgot to mention, and of course no one asked, why in that case he said not a long time ago that they would stop all highway construction.

Let's jump to public safety. Will there be more policemen? Orbán was well prepared here: 3,000 more. He added that actually Fidesz had already put in a suggestion to add 3,000 extra policemen and they even offered a financing solution but the government refused to even put it on the agenda. I don't have the time now to check this out but very often these so-called refusals to consider some excellent Fidesz ideas are not exactly historically accurate.

What about the composition of the government? According to Orbán there is a superabundance of excellent people. Moreover, he headed a government once already and therefore he has a keen sense of who will perform well. In any case, the structure of the government will have to change.

The final words were reserved for the current political leadership's "responsibility" and the fate that awaits them. There will be punishment for wrongdoing and there are "cases that need to be investigated involving the highest political leaders of the country." What a happy prospect for an ostensibly democratic country: past prime ministers, ministers, undersecretaries, police chiefs all in jail! Most of what he said about his government's plans were meaningless generalities. His vendetta against his political adversaries, on the other hand, is intense and focused. I'm sure he already has written up his hit list.

Beginning of a new Hungarian media war? Nap-kelte

Political parties, not without reason, consider the media a weapon that they want in their own arsenal. In the first few years after 1990 liberal journalists dominated the scene. József Antall and later Viktor Orbán made serious efforts to counterbalance this liberal hegemony. Antall didn't have enough time to change the political communications map. Moreover, at that point there were no financial "angels" to fund right-wing media ventures. Viktor Orbán was a bit more successful during his tenure as prime minister, but his real triumph came in the last few years. Today we can safely say that the Hungarian left-liberal media pale in comparison to right-wing newspapers, radio, and television stations.

If a public (that is, government funded) radio or television station wants to get rid of "undesirables," the usual method is to appeal to a shortage of funds. In theory these blood lettings are justifiable because both Magyar Rádíó and Magyar Televízió are bloated. But, interestingly enough, it is always those people or programs deemed to be too liberal that are eliminated. The latest victim seems to be "Nap-kelte" (Sunrise), launched in 1989. For twenty years (with the exception of the Orbán period) Hungarians could wake up to a political show which, I understand, was popular and profitable. Nap-kelte was not a product of the MTV studios but was independently produced by Tamás Gyárfás, originally a sports reporter. His right-hand man was Károly T. Lakat, also a sports reporter and the son of a well-known soccer coach. MTV signed a two-year contract guaranteeing Nap-kelte airtime until the end of 2010, or at least that is what the staff of Nap-kelte thought. Great was Gyárfás's surprise when this morning around 8 o'clock one of MTV's top men appeared in his office envelope in hand. Inside was a letter informing him that MTV had cancelled the contract. I find it surprising how often one hears about breaches of contract in Hungary. I remember one case that surprised me to no end, so I asked a partner in a prestigious New York law firm under what circumstances a contract can be unilaterally cancelled. I received a half an hour explanation, a good portion of which I didn't understand, but the upshot was that it can be done but it is very, very difficult in the U.S. Obviously much less difficult in Hungary.

In Gyárfás's office was a friend of his, János Bánáti, a laywer, who advised him not to accept the letter. I don't know what happened to the letter, whether the MTV man left it on Gyárfás's desk or took it back to MTV's new headquarters. Whatever the case, Nap-kelte is no more as far as MTV is concerned. Nap-kelte used to appear seven days a week. The weekend was the time for "lighter fare." István Verebes, a former theater director, talked with doctors, actors, and writers on Saturday while on Sunday Károly T. Lakat "entertained" us either with soccer stories or with his favorite pasttime, the theater. I'm the first to admit that these weekend shows were dreadful. Verebes was often embarrassingly unprepared. He was quite capable of interviewing an author whose book he hadn't read. Lakat's sugary, obsequious style was hard to take. The decor was awful. A few years ago it only looked primitive but once they "redecorated" it was cheap and tasteless.

Most liberal people stopped watching Nap-kelte two or three years ago. Fidesz decided back in 2006 that Nap-kelte was not politically balanced. It was biased in favor of the left. I must say that I didn't notice any such "deviation." In fact, I thought that in "Kereszttűz" (Crossfire), a constant feature of the program, the journalists in charge (a different one every day between Monday and Friday) were pretty thorough and asked difficult questions from all politicians. But Fidesz obviously didn't think so. My feeling is that for Viktor Orbán  "balanced" means devotedly  "pro-Fidesz." In October 2006 Fidesz decided to put pressure on Nap-kelte: they announced that their politicians will not appear on the program. I thought that this was a "cut off your nose to spite your face" move. After all, they deprived themselves of media exposure.

A year later when it became clear that Nap-kelte didn't break as a result of the Fidesz boycott, they decided to put pressure on the head of MTV to get rid of the journalists the party bigwigs found most objectionable: Endre Aczél and József Orosz. The president of MTV obliged in the hopes of receiving Fidesz votes when the time came for his reappointment. Aczél and Orosz left but there remained another "liberal" on the staff, András Bánó. While Orosz and Aczél were sacked because of an alleged conflict of interest Bánó was guilty of another offense: he wasn't polite with one of the MSZP MPs, the notorious József Karsai. Bánó too had to leave. The places vacated by Orosz, Aczél, and Bánó were filled with second-rates with a right-wing bent. One would have thought that under these new circumstances Fidesz politicians would have returned to Nap-kelte. But no! They continued their boycott. Gyárfás became desperate and started a segment in the show in which he essentially gave an unfiltered voice to Fidesz politics. It aired speeches of Fidesz politicians or snippets of press conferences by the inimitable Péter Szijjártó with no commentary.

Now it seems that this really is the end of Nap-kelte at MTV, effective immediately. Today was their last broadcast. Although MTV's new program "Ma reggel" (Today's Morning) will start only on Monday, even Verebes and Lakat can't show their "expertise" on Saturday and Sunday. MTV will broadcast kiddy shows instead.

And what is the rationale for this breach of contract? Once again, it purports to be financial. The government is unwilling and unable to give MTV as much money as they hoped for and therefore they will have to rethink their practice of using outsiders to provide programs. But they are also scrapping some internally produced shows. For example László Juszt's show called "Lawyer of the television." Juszt is also considered to be a liberal. The reason for this blood letting might be that the top brass of MTV is already thinking of the future. As a headline in Népszabadság said today: "Nap-kelte is going, Fidesz is coming?" Maybe.

Hungarian healthcare: Emergency service

One hears far too many horror stories about patients in need of urgent care who are being bounced from hospital to hospital. The staff in one hospital claims that for one reason or another they can't handle the case and recommends that the patient be transferred to another institution. To those of us who are not familiar with the workings of Hungarian hospitals these trips from hospital to hospital and often from city to city seem quite mysterious. The latest case, involving a 57-year-old man complaining about a bloody stool who a few hours later lost consciousness en route to a third hospital and subsequently died, prompted me to study the matter a bit.

Let's start with some facts and figures. There are 51 hospitals in Budapest with a population of 1.7 million (2009). In New York City (population 8 million) there are just over 70. How is that possible? As far as I can see, most of the Budapest facilities are specialty hospitals. I found several children's hospitals and hospitals that specialize in cardiology, or internal medicine, or surgery. Of course, there are a few general hospitals as well. But even then, it can often happen that the hospital has several buildings located in different parts of the city. This system to my mind is anything but economical, efficient, or medically satisfactory. After an examination in one hospital, the doctors might come to the conclusion that the case needs further tests that are available only in some other hospital. Then, depending on the condition of the patient, an ambulance might have to transport him, and we know that this is not an inexpensive undertaking. In a more centralized hospital it would be a simple matter of wheeling him to another floor or another wing of the same building.

But that's not all. There are the "anomalies" of the emergency service. The Hungarian system is based on the old decentralized German system. First of all, not all hospitals have an ER, and those that do offer only certain kinds of emergency treatment on certain days. Cases that need surgical intervention on Sunday, let's say, must go to X hospital, while with some other ailment the patient must go to Y hospital where there is a team of doctors specializing in internal medicine. There is a central coordinator who organizes all this. But, of course, it's virtually impossible to know in advance just what is wrong with the patient. So the patient arrives at hospital Y. The internal medicine team at hospital Y decides after an examination that the patient should really be at hospital X, which specializes in surgery. So the patient is transported by ambulance to hospital X. But what if the team at hospital X decides that the patient really doesn't need surgery? Or that he needs surgery, but perhaps cardiac surgery that is not offered at hospital X? It's easy to see that this old method is flawed.

What the Hungarians should do is to introduce the so-called Anglo-Saxon method that offers "complete service" at one place–"one-stop shopping." This is not just my view, which might be attributed to my Anglo-Saxon bias. I heard the director of one of the hospitals involved in the latest case state that the Hungarians should adopt this "new" system.That is something of a conceptual breakthrough in Hungary. He claims, however, that the introduction of comprehensive emergency service would require additional money, not available to Hungarian healthcare at the moment. My feeling is that a total reorganization of the whole system of hospitals could save a great deal of money. Hungarian critics of the system claim that both "poverty and waste" are present in the Hungarian system.

Let's return to our 57-year-old man whose case vividly illustrates the problems with the system. A family doctor was called out who, based on the patient's bloody stool, decided that the man was suffering from gastric hemorrhaging. The doctor gave him a piece of paper that allowed him to go to the district hospital, which happened to be the Sándor Péterfy Street Hospital. The doctor on duty decided that the man must go to a surgical unit, but on that day there was no surgical emergency service in Péterfy. So he was sent over to the Szent István Hospital where three surgeons were on duty. The surgeon who examined him decided that after all the man's problem was not of surgical nature. So he ordered him sent back to Péterfy, but not by ambulance because the patient's condition didn't seem to warrant immediate attention. The patient was told that he might have to wait a few hours until a medically equipped car, not an ambulance, could pick him up. The relatives accompanying the man obviously decided that they had had enough and without saying a word to the medical team put the man into their car. Instead of going back to Péterfy, they decided to go the Szent Margit Hospital where they knew a doctor. On the way there the man lost consciousness and by the time an ambulance came to his rescue the man was practically dead. He died the next day in Péterfy.

The doctor at Szent István was suspended, the ministry ordered an investigation, and the staff of Szent István is very upset because they feel that the media handled the case unfairly and inaccurately. Today the result of the autopsy revealed that the man's death had nothing do with to gastric hemorrhaging. He died of an aneurism.

Most likely the man's death was inevitable, but the story is still not pretty. I believe that the doctor at Szent István followed the rules and regulations when he sent the patient back to Péterfy, but I can also understand the relatives who considered going back to the same place where they started worse than a waste of time.

Healthcare reform was aborted a year and a half ago, money today is even scarcer than then, and problems are on the rise. And on top of everything else the directors of hospitals, all 170 of them, are threatening a hunger strike if the government doesn't give them an additional 23 billion forints from the central budget. These same hospital directors did everything in their power to prevent the implementation of any kind of change. I find the whole thing distasteful.