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Happy 2010!

December 31, 2009 1 comment

BUEK
If you wonder what that funny "BUÉK!" means, here is the answer: "Boldog Újévet Kívánok!" In English, "I wish you a Happy New Year!" And, of course, the piggy is supposed to bring us luck!

With best wishes to all of my readers for the coming year. 

TV debate: Will there be one in Hungary next year?

December 30, 2009 3 comments

There have been TV debates in Hungary ever since 1998 when Viktor Orbán and Fidesz insisted on one. The Young Democrats imitated the American presidential debates. In general, Fidesz politicians learned a lot from the Americans when it came to campaign strategy and practice. In 1998 one could bet on the young vigorous Viktor Orbán winning the debate over Gyula Horn, an old MSZMP politician. Indeed, the polls conducted right after the event showed that Horn had lost and Orbán had won. Nonetheless MSZP still came out on top in the first round of the elections. In the end Orbán won only with the help of those Smallholders with whom Fidesz politicians said they would never form a coalition government. Of course, they did.

Orbán also won his debate with Péter Medgyessy. Polls taken after the debate indicated that 42% of the audience thought that Orbán was the winner and only 19% was convinced by Medgyessy. Yet Fidesz lost the elections. Obviously not because of the debate.

Those earlier encounters were real debates. The two candidate sat down face to face and with little prodding from the moderator actually had a conversation about issues. In 2004 Fidesz strategists, perhaps because they realized that Ferenc Gyurcsány was a more formidable opponent than either Gyula Horn or Péter Medgyessy, insisted on a much more American-style show that can hardly be called a debate. A very tight organizational structure was introduced and only a few minutes were allotted to each candidate to say a few words about the chosen topics. Let's face it, these debates are quite boring. George H. W. Bush even checked his watch during the debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

So when, in 2004, the American format was transplanted to Hungary it promised about the same level of excitement as its American counterpart. Each man was allowed to deliver some introductory remarks lasting two minutes and subsequently questions were directed to them which they could answer in three minutes followed by a one-minute rebuttal. Unexpectedly, it became a very exciting event, and not because of Viktor Orbán.

I watched the 2004 debate live and immediately afterwards decided that Gyurcsány had won that political duel hands down. It was, to shift metaphors, a knockout, I said to the group of people who watched the debate all over the world with me. I was not alone. Szonda Ipsos posed several questions concerning the debate to the listeners and the overall assessment was that 54% of the people considered Gyurcsány the winner and only 23% chose Orbán. It turned out that 26% of the Fidesz voters considered the hated Gyurcsány better than their own man.

Not long ago I read an interesting article about the linguistic aspects of this debate by Anna Szilágyi, a linguist whose analyses of the language of politics I find fascinating. Actually I wrote about one of her articles in three parts in May 2008 under the title "The Language of Fear: Fidesz communication." In the piece about the debate between Gyurcsány and Orbán she goes step by step and analyzes the two men's linguistic strategies and comes to the conclusion that Orbán's linguistic arsenal was inadequate.

Her first observation was that Orbán's spin doctors instructed him to practically ignore Gyurcsány's presence. Instead he was supposed to talk to the audience. And he did. He never looked at his opponent, never mentioned his name but steadfastly looked into the camera and talked to "the people." In fact, he even addressed them: "Tisztelt nézők!" (Dear audience!) Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that "he is above politics." That he doesn't sink to the level of verbal dueling. Gyurcsány, on the other hand, tried everything to free himself from the shackles of the format forced upon him. "He acted as if it were a real debate." In order to emphasize that it was a debate he kept addressing Orbán by name or by title.

Orbán made several other linguistic mistakes as well. Szilágyi especially found "the lack of a definite subject" counterproductive. Sentences like "they closed many kindergartens" or "although they promised that the price of medicine would decrease…" instead of "you" or "the government" weakened the weight of his message. Szilágyi also complained about the frequent use of impersonal subjects: "Everybody would like it if…." or "The young people say…." Szilágyi adds that this rhetorical instrument works very well in oratory when someone speaks to his own audience. Or perhaps Orbán thought that he was not really taking part in a debate but delivering an address to the nation. In any case, it was a very wrong strategy. 

While Orbán was vague, Gyurcsány tried to be specific: "We did this and this in…" and he mentioned cities, villages, or factories. Such a presentation suggested a command of facts and figures. Moreover, he always called attention to Orbán's inability to cite figures. He even made fun of him: "You seem to be afraid of numbers," or "if you please, come up with some figures, the talk is not enough." At times he voiced his expectation of a specific answer. For example: "When were more apartments built? During your tenure or during ours? I will help you. In your time 25,000 while in ours 40,000 in one year." Almost as if a teacher were talking to a student.

Eventually the whole debate became so lopsided that Gyurcsány's superiority became overwhelming. As time went by Orbán himself became aware of his total defeat. He started to lose his composure, his voice cracked, his throat became dry and he had to drink water often. He was becoming more nervous and losing his self-confidence. And with all this his intonation became outright monotonous. Gyurcsány became more and more self-confident and "used the complete scale of intonation known in the Hungarian language."

Yes, this is how I remember the debate. It was a huge success for MSZP although later Gyurcsány told József Debreczeni that after leaving the television station and going back to his office he didn't quite understand the great ovation that awaited him there. By contrast, the debacle "burned into Orbán's soul,"  as József Debreczeni put it in Arcmás (p. 289). This defeat "determined the political history of the country for a long time to come."

When after September 2006 Viktor Orbán decided that the parliamentary Fidesz delegation would walk out every time Gyurcsány spoke in the House, I had the sneaking suspicion that this device was used in order to avoid another possible debate between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán. Because surely, Orbán would never again have a debate with that man. A refusal without some explanation would look like running away, being afraid, but this way Fidesz politicians could say that under no circumstances would they exchange one single word with a liar.

As it turned out there is no more Gyurcsány to reckon with, but I'm still not sure that Orbán will have a prime ministerial debate next April. It is simply beneath him to talk to people like Attila Mesterházy, and surely he wouldn't want to have a conversation about economics with Lajos Bokor. We'll see what he will come up with.

Reconsidering Hungarian welfare policy?

December 29, 2009 1 comment

After twenty years of ever growing dissatisfaction with the welfare system as it was developed at the time of the change of regime, a few tentative voices can be heard that question the current practice of doling out monthly cash welfare payments without knowing how much people actually need and how much they are getting from a variety of uncoordinated sources.

I wouldn't be surprised if the impetus for taking a second look at the current system came after Zsolt Szepessy, mayor of Monok, took things into his own hands and announced that as of January 1, 2010, sixty percent of the cash allotment to welfare recipients in the village of Monok will be given in form of a debit card (called "szociális kártya") which will be good only for the purchase of food.

The reaction to this announcement was immediate. The first objections were voiced by constitutional lawyers who were certain that the whole idea is unconstitutional and condemned the "discriminatory" nature of the introduction of such a card. I gave a fairly detailed account of the controversy on July 9, 2009, in a piece entitled "Government assistance and family support in Hungary." These legal experts were then joined by sociologists involved with the problems of people living in poverty (in Hungarian these people live in "mélyszegénység," or in "deep poverty.") The most influential person in this group is Zsuzsa Ferge, a sociologist and defender of the poor. If I understand her right, the only problem with the current welfare program is that not enough money is spent on the project.

On the other side there is Erzsébet Pusztai, a physician by training, who for a number of years has been involved in constructing a viable social policy for her party, MDF. She in theory doesn't object to the introduction of a "social card" that is very similar to the food stamp program that has been in existence for about forty years in the United States, but, Pusztai says, such a program cannot be introduced in individual localities. It must be universal and the "debit card" must be accepted in all stores in the country.

Not long ago I wrote an article in Hungarian supporting Pusztai's ideas. A few days later I had the opportunity to explain the American system in "Hetes Stúdió" (Weekly Studio), a Saturday afternoon political program on Klub Rádió. Yet I'm sure that those who objected to the plan were not convinced. In fact, Júlia Lévai, a fellow contributor to www.galamus.hu, made it quite clear that she thought my idea was unfair and unworkable.

However, I see some hopeful signs that influential people have begun to realize that something went very wrong with the whole concept of the Hungarian welfare system. Iván Vitányi, the wise old theoretician of MSZP, wrote a piece in the December issue of Mozgó Világ (unfortunately still not available on line). In it he quoted the famous Hungarian historian, Gyula Szekfű, who once described the Hungarian situation between the two world wars as "somewhere we lost our way." Yes, Vitányi said, something went very wrong with the Hungarian welfare system in the last twenty years.

György Csepeli, a social psychologist, continues on the same theme in the December 29 issue of Népszabadság. He agrees that yes, "somewhere we lost our way," although he is aware that there are many people who think that everything is okay as it is. One needs only more care, more instruction, and last but not least, more money; otherwise, everything is fine. Csepeli in the last few years came to the conclusion that the above described position is incorrect. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system.

Hungarian welfare payments are distributed through many channels, independently from each other, without any knowledge of what the other welfare agencies are doing. The result is total chaos. It is impossible even to guess who gets what from whom. Moreover, according to Csepeli who has been studying the problem for a number of years, often people receive assistance who aren't eligible. Most importantly, there is no central government concept about what the final goal of the assistance is. Surely assistance should be administered only for a limited time during which attempts should be made to reintegrate the individual into the work force. Of course, there are permanently disabled or totally unemployable people, but they should form an entirely different category. Recipients should not all be lumped together in one indistinguishable mass.

The result, says Csepeli, is "right in front of our eyes." More than half of the people who theoretically could be employed have "no legal jobs." The number of those who live in poverty instead of decreasing is growing. "The culture of povery is reproduced from generation to generation." And he adds a very important observation, although it is possible that it is too obliquely put for most readers to comprehend, that "the societal solidarity is converging toward zero." In plain language, people who are producing the money that ends up in the welfare system are fed up.

As for those who live in poverty, no one has any idea about their numbers. There is no database on the basis of which assistance could be given in a rational manner. But all this is not enough, says Csepeli, and he comes up with an idea that I found very attractive. In giving assistance there must be a "contract" between the giver and the taker. This contract should spell out the rights and duties of the recipient.

At first glance this idea might seem strange, but in fact the American assistance program also contains a contractual arrangement although perhaps it is not spelled out fully. I checked Connecticut's Department of Social Services in search of cash and voucher assistance. Two categories are key. The first is "Temporary Family Assistance" which gives cash assistance for basic and special needs, designed to move recipients into employment and toward self-sufficency. They are also eligible to receive medical assistance, child care, and food stamp assistance. Temporary Assistance Program takes care of families for 21 months.

The second program is called "Safety Net." This program offers vouchers, not cash. It is for families who have exhausted their 21 months of Temporary Assistance and are not eligible for an extension because they have not made a good faith effort to obtain and maintain employment. Safety Net services provide the family with basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as offering counseling to help remove barriers to employment. Generally, Safety Net services are available for no more than 18 months.

Surely, although the Department of Social Servies doesn't make any mention of a contract, the contractual arrangement is present. If the recipient "has not made a good faith effort," then no more cash payments. The Department will try to do its best to assist the recipient to find employment or will remove obstacles but he will have to make an effort.

Nothing like that exists in Hungary and the result is devastating. It's time to sit down and think the whole thing through. Csepeli finishes his article by claiming that the idea of a "social card" wouldn't have surfaced "in a rational, logical, and practical welfare system." I don't understand his aversion, especially because it would have the added benefit of limiting the use of cash, which is a real problem in Hungary.

László Kövér’s analysis of the Hungarian political situation

December 28, 2009 2 comments

I wrote almost a year ago twice at length about László Kövér, the second or perhaps, according to some, the first man of Fidesz. First on January 15, 2009 when I gave some background about his family, his upbringing, and his political beliefs. A day later, on January 16, I summarized a speech he gave in Makó, a town in southern Hungary. It was a pretty outrageous speech but Kövér is known for making intemperate speeches. Often he doesn't stick to the "official" party line and, because of the high position he occupies in Fidesz, commentators are often confused about the meaning of his contrary opinions.

Just lately, there were two subjects where Kövér's opinions differed from the Orbán-Semjén-Navracsics line. One was the question of dual citizenship which the Fidesz parliamentary delegation presented for consideration in the House. Kövér thought that Fidesz shouldn't even touch the question. He later explained his opposition by claiming that there could have been only two kinds of MSZP responses to the proposition. Either the socialists embrace it and then it will be considered a plus for MSZP by showing the socialists' patriotic side or they will pose difficulties and then Fidesz might look bad as wanting dual citizenship only for political gain. In either case it would be disadvantageous to Fidesz, he concluded. 

The other is a much more forceful rejection of Jobbik and its ideology than Viktor Orbán has offered. It is true that a couple of weeks ago Orbán called Jobbik a "party of violence," but at the same time there are signs that Fidesz hasn't given up its quest to court potential Jobbik voters by using rhetoric to their liking. Kövér began his anti-Jobbik campaign much earlier and much more forcefully than others in his party.

Already in his infamous Makó speech he accused Jobbik of being the creation of MSZP, a suggestion Jobbik vehemently denied. The MSZP politicians just laughed and called the claim ridiculous. After all, they said, everybody knows that Viktor Orbán was Gábor Vona's patron and the promoter of Jobbik. But Kövér doesn't seem to be able to escape the conclusion that somehow these two parties are in cohoots. Together they want to destroy Fidesz. He is certain that there is a "latent division of labor" between the two. (See Magyar Nemzet, December 28). If one party is unable to ruin the Fidesz candidates and the party leadership then the other will be called upon to do the dirty work. The munition for this immoral game comes from MSZP, a party that realized that it is more credible if the slander comes from the right instead of from their own media.

As far as MSZP media is concerned, by now Fidesz rules the print and electronic media so MSZP doesn't have a prominent venue to propagate this "slander". As for MSZP's employing Jobbik in order to ruin Fidesz, it is too ridiculous even to contemplate. However, I'm sure that Kövér actually believes this fairy tale. If so, this may indicate that Fidesz is more worried about Jobbik than other leading members of his party would lead one to believe.

Orbán, Kövér, and the rest claim that Fidesz will never form a coalition with Jobbik in order to achieve the much desired two-thirds majority. I have the feeling that they are telling the truth because they will not need a formal arrangement. It will be enough to have Jobbik's outside support for introducing some basic changes that at the moment need the two-thirds majority. One is less sure of a possible coalition between Fidesz and Jobbik if it were necessary to form a government. However, it's impossible to predict the balance of forces in five or six months' time. One thing is sure: it would be very difficult for Orbán to have a formal arrangement with Jobbik because of Jobbik's reputation in Europe. If there is no clear Fidesz majority, Orbán's party will be in a bind. Perhaps this is what Kövér is talking about when he mentions the difficult situation of Fidesz in the next parliament. Being in the crossfire between the left and the extreme right.

Populism in Hungary

December 27, 2009 1 comment

I've been reading two books of late, cycling between them. I began with József Debreczeni's reinterpretation of his political portrait of Viktor Orbán, left that unfinished and moved on to Péter Kende's book on the trial of Attila Kulcsár, whose Ponzi scheme was fortunately not of Madoffian proportions. Once I finished Kende's book I returned to Debreczeni's Arcmás.

I've already devoted three pieces to this book, with the underlying motif of debunking the alleged transformation of the good guy into the bad guy. I don't believe in such fundamental personality changes. Most likely today's Viktor Orbán was already present in the "student revolutionary."

Of course, I'm picking and choosing among an array of themes in Debreczeni's book. Today I want to focus on populism which, according to Debreczeni, was Orbán's answer to the appearance of Ferenc Gyurcsány on the political scene.

Academic and scholarly definitions of populism vary widely and the term is often employed in loose, inconsistent ways. One recent definition that appealed to me comes from Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell. Populism according to the co-authors is "an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." That definition seems to fit with Orbán's strategy of defeating the arch-enemy, the current government and its supporters.

I was pleased to find a study by Emilia Palonen (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) on the topic of Hungarian populism that appeared in Parliamentary Affairs 62/2 (January 2009). Palonen in this article ("Political Polarisation of Populism in Contemporary Hungary") gives a succinct description of Orbán's political career: "Orbán as an innovative ideologist–to follow Quentin Skinner's terminology–has been transforming his party from the position of the anti-elitist anti-communist youth party in the early 1990s to the leading national centre-right party since 1993 to the European progressive nationally minded civic party in 1998-2002, to the etatist-conservative force from 2006…. Brought up in dissident Hungary and having made his first success by rapidly gaining a mass support for a student alternative initiative, turning it into a mass party, he chose to work outside the parliament [emphasis by EB)] The civic initiatives that were proposed were against the elite and the power-holders–where the elite he opposed could also be be understood as the inheritors of state socialism." So far so good but I can't quite understand Palonen's conclusion: "The populist leader promises solutions, but above all, clearly identifies the enemies (the scapegoats), attributes responsibilities and offers assurance. Both sides profess this rhetoric."

Not only I but József Debreczeni would violently disagree with Palonen's conclusion. In fact, Debreczeni spends a considerable amount of time arguing against the tendency in certain circles, including those of political scientists to which Palonen herself belongs, to blur the differences between the two sides. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Debreczeni draws a clear distinction: in his view that he supports with innumerable examples Orbán is the embodiment of the "populist alternative" while Ferenc Gyurcsány was/is the defender of parliamentary democracy. (p. 225)

Returning to the definition of populism, many political scientists and historians maintain that populist movements can be precursors of fascist/national socialist movements. According to this theory nationalist socialist populism interacted with and facilitated Nazism in interwar Germany. Debreczeni belongs to this group when he says that "today's radical right-wing populism in many respects shows a surprising affinity with the early manifestations of twentieth-century fascism and Nazism." And he lists the common features: (1) aggressive nationalism that includes the use of nationalistic rhetoric and symbols and is apt to label the political opponent as someone who doesn't belong to the nation, (2) stigmatization of the opponents and the creation of hate campaigns against them, (3) anti-parliamentary sentiments and constant reference to the people who are the only source of political will, taking politics to the streets, organizing mass demonstrations in often theatrical settings, (4) cult of the leader, (5) manipulation of the masses by professional spin doctors, skillful use of the modern media (in Hitler's time the use of the radio, today television) and instead of rational discourse, monotonous repetition of simple emotional messages, (6) the constant castigation of the political elite that happens to be in power, (7) anti-liberalism, elevating the community above the freedom of the individual, (8) promise of care from cradle to grave by the state, (9) unscrupulous promises and social demagoguery, (10) whipping up antipathy against international financial and business circles, and (11) xenophobia, rejection of minority views and groups, overt or covert anti-Semitism.

Debreczeni adds at the end of this list that of course some of these features can be found in other political regimes as well, but "all of them together can be found only in the populist ideologies between the two world wars and in its current version."

Debreczeni's inventory of Orbán's political arsenal is pretty accurate. The question is what on earth he will do if he wins the elections. Because surely his remedies, especially his economic ones, don't hold water. It would be impossible to implement them even under normal circumstances but especially not as the world tries to dig itself out of a financial and economic crisis. We can only hope, though without any empirical evidence to the contrary, that he doesn't turn to populist quick fixes to divert public attention away from the hard realities of, in the cliché of the day, the "new normal."

New paganism in Hungary

December 26, 2009 8 comments

It's not exactly a brand new story but it still reverberates in the Hungarian media. The last time it came up was on "Ma Reggel," MTV's early morning program, the day before Christmas. I guess this discussion, if you can call it that, seemed appropriate for the holidays. Two priests and Dr. Lajos Papp, a former cardiac surgeon and a spokesman for the Hungarian far right, were invited to talk with Kriszta Jegyes-Tóth, a former anchorwoman of the now defunct "Napkelte."

I guess originally the idea was to talk about the "new paganism" that seems to be spreading like wildfire in far-right circles. The Catholic Church didn't pay much attention to the far right until recently, when most likely after the European Parliamentary elections the church leaders came to the realization that Jobbik might pose a serious threat to Fidesz, a party the Catholic Church has been steadfastly supporting for years. The results of these elections sounded the alarm in church circles: perhaps it was time to raise their voices against a phenomenon that, though not at all new, challenged the tenets of Christianity. I found an article already from 2000 in Hetek(Assembly of God's weekly publication) that called attention to certain quack "linguists and historians" who are spreading unscientific information about Christianity. Among other things, they claim that Mary, mother of Jesus, was a Parthian princess called Maria of Adiabene and that Jesus was "the Jesus of the Hungarians." From here it was an easy step to claim that Hungarian was the original language of Europe and that all other Western languages derive from it. A whole book was written about the close relationship between English and Hungarian entitled Az angol szókincs magyar szemmel (English vocabulary through Hungarian eyes). If you want to have a really good laugh take a look at it. Here are a couple of examples: "Mary is mere muck/Mari az merő mocsk! Peter is languid/Péter az lankadt. Does Peter sing? He does/Tesz Péter zeng?/(H)ő tesz." And this is just the beginning!

But let's go back to the "discussion" about the new paganism. The Catholic Church suddenly felt that it should come to Fidesz's rescue and at last condemn Jobbik's patronage of the new paganism and the whacky history of the origin of Hungarians. On September 20 in every Hungarian Catholic church a circular had to be read in which the Conference of Bishops said, in part, "today, just as after the death of Saint Stephen, [paganism] is attacking Christianity." They raised their voices against "ancient Hungarian syncretism" which is defined as a mixture of the sacred and the pagan. The bishops found this especially dangerous because these new pagans use a language that on the surface resembles the language of Christianity and therefore it may lead people astray. The circular pays special attention to the Parthian prince theory of Christ and the revival of real or assumed pagan practices of early Hungarians.

The reaction from the far right was immediate. A man who calls himself "Cságoly Péterfia Béla" (Béla, son of Péter Cságoly) lashed out at the bishops who fell for "theories" imposed on the Hungarians by the Habsburgs. According to Péterfia Béla since the time of Joseph II the Hungarians have not been able to learn about their real past. And that the Catholic clergy is talking about "Judeo-Christianity" is outright absurd. Another far-right reaction came from András Siklósiin an article that appeared in internetfigyelo.wordpress.com. He claims that most of the bishops are actually of Jewish origin. Well, that's not very new either. According to the Hungarian far right everybody who doesn't agree with them is Jewish.

In return, Heti Válasz, a weekly established by Fidesz in the last few months of the Orbán administration, came out with a series of interviews and articles in which they condemned the new paganism and didn't spare the pseudo-scientists of the "alternative" Hungarian history. For instance, journalists interviewed real historians and linguists who pointed out that the "sources" these pseudo-historians/scientists are referring to cannot be traced. Or that the "proofs" are nonexistent. But the hardest hitting article came from Balázs Ablonczay, also in Heti Válasz, entitled "The shamans are coming, the shamans are coming." Here names were named and their unscientific theories ridiculed. It is obvious that Fidesz was very happy to receive assistance from the Catholic Church against Jobbik and the far-right in general.

And into this fray enters Dr. Lajos Papp who thinks that he is himself a shaman though he claims to be a devout Catholic. A few weeks after the appearance of the circular he wrote a letter to the bishops. In it he called the circular counterproductive. He claimed that the people who appear at these pagan gatherings are God-fearing people who might feel after the appearance of this circular that the church has begun a war against them in the name of the inquisition. Basically, he asked the bishops to join these people who might want to worship God not in a church but in nature. "I'm asking you to come to the flock! Help us! I'm asking you to love that flock. I'm asking you to love the Hungarian Nation!" Well, that's quite something. Papp basically accuses the Catholic Church of not loving the Hungarian nation.

The TV discussion between Papp on the one hand and István Jelenits, the biblical scholar, and Botond Bátor, the head of the Paulist Order in Hungary, on the other moved quickly from the theme of the new paganism to a comical "lecture" by Papp on early Hungarian history. According to him Saint Stephen, in forcing Latin on the population, "forbade" the use of the vernacular and thereby destroyed "the use of written Hungarian." One doesn't have to know a lot about the eleventh century to know that there was no "use of written Hungarian." Most people didn't know how to read or write. Latin was in those days the universal written language and even in Italy or France literature in the local dialects appeared only centuries later. It soon became clear that our doctor also has peculiar ideas about "schools" in the eleventh century. He imagined village schools where Hungarian children were learning Hungarian language and literature in addition to mathematics in their mother tongue. By that time Jelenits was practically falling off his chair.

Dr. Papp also "scientifically" proved, and no one could argue with him because they were not familiar with his source, that Hungarians have been living in the Carpathian Basin for at least 35,000-40,000 years. Proof? A Science magazine article from 2000 in which, according to Papp, scientists proved that the "Ur-gene" of the earliest Europeans appears in 95% of Hungarians. I took a look at the article and found no such conclusion. The only thing the scientists, on the basis of the DNA of very small samples, claim is that European migration took place from East to West about 35,000-40,000 years ago. The Hungarian data didn't differ much from the Polish or the Ukrainian.

Dr. Papp offered more historical gems. The Hungarians' early history "was based on the culture of love." That's why, again according to him, conversion of Hungarians to Christianity went so smoothly and easily. "There was no resistance in their heart." Of course, this is nonsense. There was huge resistance and we know that St. Stephen had to use considerable force to convert his people to the new faith. Enough to think of the pagan uprisings after his death. One can learn about this "culture of love" by reading the story of the fate of Saint Gellért, bishop of Csanád, who was put in a cart and thrown down the steep hill named after him today in Buda. Apparently, he wasn't quite dead yet when he reached the Danube, but those guys who were nurtured on the "culture of love" beat him to death.

I start even to be skeptical about Dr. Papp's knowledge of his own profession, medicine. He finished his "sermon" by saying that "our food is excellent. Our genes are also very good." And yet an unusually high number of circulatory problems can be found in the population. Well, I'm no doctor but I could give a couple hints: unhealthy diet and too much of it, not enough exercise, too much alcohol, and too many people smoke. Including Dr. Papp, the cardiac surgeon.

Happy holidays! A Christmas tree and food blogs in Hungary

December 24, 2009 4 comments

Christmas tree-Kossuth ter
A rather handsome tree on Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament Building.

This time of the year families get together and celebrate. Mostly by eating. And that inspired me to look around on the Internet for blogs by enterprising Hungarian cooks. Not professional chefs but ordinary mortals who like to cook. Here is, for example, Limara's bakery that specializes in bread making. The author tells us that she is a mother of two who became a housewife out of necessity. A couple of years ago she received a breadmaker and since then has become an avid baker. Her site seems to be very popular.

I for one like to cook and frequently want to try something new. So I often turn to the websites of Food Network or Epicurious. But these are commercial sites. The Hungarian blogs I'm talking about here are not. They are called gastroblogs and apparently are becoming very popular. I read an article from which I learned that there are at least fifteen successful gastroblogs in Hungarian. One of the older ones is Chili & Vanilia. If anyone's interested in a genuine gulyás soup recipe in English he/she can find at Chili & Vanilia. I also looked at Fűszer és Lélek, a blog that specializes in Jewish cuisine. Nice recipes and good writing.

Dolce Vita is a very popular blog for those looking for Italian recipes: 80,000 pages are dowloaded from the site every month. Another favorite is Lila Füge. Don't ask me why it is called "purple fig." For those interested in a wider selection, on this "Gastro miner" I even found a blog specializing in Turkish food.

Happy holidays and good browsing in gastroblogs.

An optimistic assessment from a Hungarian liberal and the trends

December 23, 2009 Comments off

János Kis, the first chairman of the liberal SZDSZ (Association of Free Democrats), is considered to be an emblematic figure in Hungary although he withdrew from politics a long time ago. He is a philosopher, originally a student of György Lukács. One doesn't often see his name in the Hungarian media, so I was happy to discover that he had written a fairly lengthy piece in HVG (December 22, 2009). The title of the piece is "The Crisis of the Republic." It is a thoughtful and, I think, by and large accurate description of what has happened to Hungary in the last twenty years. Kis's conclusion is optimistic, unlike that of József Debreczeni who is certain that with Fidesz's electoral victory, especially if it is a landslide, we can start writing the obituary of Hungarian democracy. Kis's two final sentences are: "The crisis is not the end, only a condition. A time when it becomes clear whether the patient dies or begins on the road to recovery. It is not the time for a final farewell but for an assessment of possibilities and action."

At practically the same time that János Kis was writing his article Medián, one of the many companies that publish monthly polls on the popularity of political parties, came out with its December figures. The usual question is: "For which party would you vote if elections were held this coming Sunday?" According to their latest poll Fidesz's support continues to shrink. Support for the party has been declining for the last four months. In the first three months the voters who abandoned Fidesz simply moved over to the "undecided" column, but in the last month the number of MSZP supporters actually grew at the expense of Fidesz. The gap between the two parties narrowed by 5%, which is significant. MSZP's gain is not spectacular, but the party's electorate has grown two months in a row. At the same time, Jobbik's popularity is withering. Medián measured only 9%, considerably under the figure of a couple of months ago. One must also keep in mind when looking at the current situation that 32% of the voters are still unsure about which party they would support. Most pollsters claim that in that 32% there are more hidden MSZP than Fidesz voters.

The lower figures for Jobbik certainly will inspire its leadership to redouble its efforts to entice Fidesz voters to move over to Jobbik's camp. According to Kis, 10-15% of the traditional Fidesz voters are already contemplating switching their votes to Jobbik. That is, if they receive the right messages. Jobbik a couple of days ago announced that their candidate for prime minister is Gábor Vona. So far so good; after all, MDF, MSZP, and Fidesz have their own men for the job. What was different in the case of Jobbik was that the party also announced their choice for the post of president. Who else? Krisztina Morvai.

Vona is now trying to outdo Viktor Orbán's rhetoric. If Orbán wants to introduce "accountability" of politicians for their political mistakes, Vona must trump him. As Népszabadság said, "A new expression in the Jobbik vocabulary, 'Soon complete accountability.'" The "complete" signifies Jobbik's determination to get rid of the right of immunity of parliamentary members. That would mean that a member of parliament would be absolutely defenseless against politically motivated prosecution. After that, is it worth it for Viktor Orbán to pursue this line? I doubt it.

Vona also announced that he will walk into parliament next spring in the uniform of the Hungarian Guard. Let's assume that Fidesz wins the elections. What will Viktor Orbán do in this case? Have Gábor Vona led out of the chamber? Or let him wear a forbidden uniform? In any case, Fidesz is in a bind. Squeezed between MSZP and Jobbik. And the official campaign hasn't even started.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences and politics

December 22, 2009 Comments off

I don't find it surprising that politicians want to spread their influence into the arenas of culture, media, arts, and science. In brief, all facets of life. I already wrote at some length about how Fidesz managed to build a media empire while the socialist-liberal side made no attempt even to hang onto some of the properties they inherited from the Kádár regime. Because, let's face it, the reform-minded journalists of the old regime became the leading spokesmen of the media after 1990.

Although building a sympathetic media was the first order of business, there were other fields Fidesz wanted to influence. For example, art and architecture. In 1998 a new national theater had been designed and the foundations dug. But Viktor Orbán's government decided that both the modern architecture and the location were wrong. Politically conservative people like old-fashioned things. So came this atrocity: http://www.hirextra.hu/data/Image/kultura/2007/09/02/Nemzeti%20Szinhaz.jpg  (Sorry, Typepad still doesn't want to recognize that there are serious problems with its latest tinkering.) The same thing happened when it came to the memorial erected for the 1956 Revolution: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2061/1800130163_bfd9729c50.jpg The right-wingers didn't like it. They erected, with government help mind you, another one that resembles Michelangelo's Pietà.

After the Fidesz sweep at the local elections in 2006 came the firing and hiring of theater directors in those larger cities that could boast a theater. Very often, against the wishes of the staff, directors were named who were close to Fidesz. Most likely the winners submitted proposals that were more to the liking of the local conservatives who were familiar with the established repertoire and had an aversion to all that modern stuff.

Next came the arts and sciences, especially the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In the last twenty years there have been four presidents: two historians and two scientists. The historians were on the liberal side: Domokos Kosáry and Ferenc Glátz. Kosáry died a couple of years ago at the ripe old age of 94, lucid to the very end. I had the privilege of meeting him when he visited Yale University as part of his American itinerary. He was an impressive man and an impressive historian. Kosáry's only involvement with politics was in 1956 when he became president of the revolutionary council of the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. After the failed revolution he spent two years in jail. His successor, Ferenc Glatz, on the other hand, was deeply involved in politics. In 1989-1990 he accepted the post of minister of education in the government of Miklós Németh. Since then his name has often been mentioned as a possible MSZP candidate for the post of president. He lost out in 2005 to Katalin Szili; as we know, SZDSZ subsequently opposed Szili's candidacy and László Sólyom was elected.

With Glatz's departure the liberal era at the Academy came to an end. Szilveszter E. Vizi, his successor, was sympathetic to the right, though he wasn't directly involved in politics. The same thing cannot be said about the current president, József Pálinkás, a physicist. He started his political career in MDF and initially his views tended toward liberalism. When MDF split in 1996 into a liberal and a more conservative wing, he joined the former. However, four years later, in 2000, he joined Fidesz and his rise within the party was rapid. A year later he became minister of education. A post he filled for only one year because Fidesz lost the elections in 2002. However, in 2006 Fidesz put him on a county list (Hajdú-Bihar) and he became a member of parliament.

So when the members of the Academy chose him, a full member since 2004, to head the Academy they were well aware that they were putting an active politician at the helm. Most likely they chose him because he was a politician. Perhaps, they figured, if MSZP loses the elections and by 2008 that eventuality seemed likely, having Pálinkás, a Fidesz politician, at the head of the Academy will come in handy. A direct link to the governing party, indeed to the prime minister himself, might bring benefits to the Academy. What the Academy needs is money. Lots of money because the Hungarian Academy, unlike other western academies, functions very much like the old Soviet Academy of Sciences. A lot of money is spent not only on the "salaries" of the academicians (yes, salaries!), but running the several institutes employing hundreds of researchers is also costly. Just a few figures. The Research Institute of Philosphy has thirty-four employees and receives 201 million forints per annum. The Institute of Literary History has 66 employees and gets 438 million forints. The Institute of Political Science, with 52 employees, gets 276 million forints. The psychologists get 294 million, the sociologists 273 million and last comes the real biggy: The Institute of Historical Sciences has 105 employees and the government helps them out to the tune of 474 million.

This year there were several institutes that needed new chairmen. Earlier advisory councils had recommended names for these posts. Pálinkás decided to ignore these recommendations and instead he consulted with the Council of Research Institutes, a body made up mainly of scientists. They were the ones who decided who should fill, for example, the position of chairman of the Research Institute of Philosophy. The philosophy advisory council complained when Pálinkás appointed János Boros (I admit I have never heard of him) instead of György Gábor with whose name I am familiar. Pál Tamás, chairman of the Institute of Sociology, was applying for another term but received only a one-year extension which he declined.

The biggest upheaval followed the appointment of János Boros instead of the recommended György Gábor. Gábor is a well-known liberal whose interest is the philosophy of religion and church history. He often writes about church-state relations in dailies and weeklies. Pálinkás objected to these activities although he claimed that he hadn't read any of them because he doesn't read such things! Pál Tamás's reputation is also that of a liberal sociologist. The third institute where a change in leadership occurred is the Institute of Political Science. Instead of József Bayer Pálinkás named András Körösényi. I don't know much about Körösényi but I became a bit suspicious when I heard that the new chairman wants to put an emphasis on such questions as "the evaluation of the performance of a government" or "the accountability of politicians." That sounds ominous to me.

János Boros wants to focus the Research Institute of Philosophy on issues of the day. According to him "philosophy should be actualized." He wants to have closer working relationships with other institutes and to develop dialogues on such topics as global warming and gene technology. He would like to get answers to such questions as "whether the government may do everything that science allows" and other uplifting topics.

By the way, József Pálinkás was well within his rights to act as he did. When he became president of the Academy he immediately embarked on the creation of a new "law governing the activities of the academy." That law came into force on April 6 of this year. The researchers busy with their own subjects never paid the slightest attention to the provisions of this new law. If they had read it and thought about it, they might have had a few words to say on the subject. Pálinkás widened the authority of the president. He could ignore all recommendations and make appointments as he saw fit. A brave new world at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Especially in the world of the social sciences.

A new Hungarian site: Galamus.hu

December 21, 2009 6 comments

You may have noticed that I managed, with the help of Galamus.hu's webmaster László Kelemen, to put up the banner of this new website among my links; it's an easy, inviting click-through. Galamus's editor-in-chief, Zsófia Mihancsik, described it as a place where daily reflections appear [in Hungarian] by a group of people who are interested in politics and everything else around them. The contributors' bios appear on the Galamus site under the heading "A csoporttagokról" (About the members of the group).

Why is the site named Galamus? Go to "A nevünkről" (About our name). In case some of you are not familiar with the Galamus Gorge, it is situated in southern France close to the Spanish border. The gorge is awe inspiring; it was carved into the cliffs by the fast flowing Agly Rier which has eroded ravines of up to 1,000 feet. Unfortunately, I'm still unable to place any pictures into the text, but a quick Internet search will offer up a wide array of images. I assume that Mihancsik picked the name because she spends her summer vacations nearby in France. By the way, she is, among other things, a translator from French to Hungarian with twenty titles to her name.

As for the articles. Of course I'm biased, but I think they're insightful. It is worth reading not only the current ones but also those that people wrote while our webmaster was working on the site. These are sharp-eyed people who immediately zero in on topics that merit commentary. Most focus on current events, but Zsófia Mihancsik also introduced a column on happenings from eight years ago under the title "Voltak, lesznek" (They were, they will be). I especially enjoyed a lengthy text from the the parliamentary debates on December 18, 2001. At that time János Áder was the speaker of the house. Áder's way of running the debates was more than peculiar. One could call it tyrannical.

Galamus.hu is new and needs all the help it can get. The beginnings are promising, but if you can read Hungarian I suggest that you take a look. I don't think you will be disappointed.

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