Archive for January, 2010

Campaign in Hungary: Fidesz style

January 31, 2010 5 comments

I have the feeling that it is safer to talk about the present than the past. It is becoming quite obvious that one cannot have a rational discussion about events a hundred years ago. And when it comes to earlier times, the situation is even worse. Yesterday as I was trying to learn a little more about the history of the Voivodina I encountered an article on the Internet which began with the statement that the Serbs inhabited the area already in the seventh century. When I read something like that I immediately become suspicious that the piece is most likely a nationalistic harangue. On the other hand, a couple of sentences I read about the first mayors of Buda in the middle of the eighteenth century were revealing. German last names but Hungarian first names. One was called Farkas Posner. Surely he was originally Wolfgang but a certain Hungarianization was already creeping in. Buda was changing from a German to a Hungarian town. At the time of Farkas Posner it was about half way through the process.

I found another interesting tidbit years ago, also on the Internet–facsimiles of lists of taxpayers in certain Transdanubian towns right after the Turks were expelled at the end of the seventeenth century. In Pécs, although German settlers were already trickling in, the large taxpayers were neither Hungarians nor Germans but Bosnian Muslims!

Now, really, back to the present. President László Sólyom a few days ago announced that the first round of the elections will be held on Sunday, April 11. Nobody was terribly surprised. Sólyom likes short campaigns and, given the calendar restrictions, this was the first available Sunday to hold the elections. I don't think that I have to emphasize that campaigning, especially on the Fidesz side, has been going on at full tilt ever since they lost the elections in 2002. The second loss in 2004 put a few months' lull to Fidesz's campaign urges, but the leak of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech to the MSZP parliamentary delegation gave it new impetus. Since 2006 the campaign included insistent demands for the government's resignation.

Fidesz and MSZP didn't wait for the official opening of the campaign and put out huge posters. Although the word "campaign" wasn't mentioned, the messages weren't subtle. On one Fidesz poster Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány and Miklós Hagyó, former MSZP deputy mayor of Budapest in charge of BKV, are in the company of two MSZP politicians currently in jail, both in shackles. On the left there is György Hunvald, mayor of District VII in Budapest, who allegedly sold some property for less than fair value. He has been in jail for months but his case is nowhere. I saw an interview with him and I'm not at all sure that he is guilty. The young guy in jeans on the right is János Zuschlag, once upon a time a young shining light of MSZP who received about 70 million forints for various youth organizations that didn't exist. His trial is going on at the moment. So by putting Bajnai, Gyurcsány, and Hajó right next to these two guys in jail Fidesz is sending a clear message. The text says: "Resign! Do what you ought to do!" Well, not exactly a normal campaign poster but a fairly typical one for Fidesz.

Zuschlag-Gyurcsany-Bajnai plakat 
The MSZP came out with a large poster outlining the accomplishments of the Bajnai government. Not nearly so catchy as Fidesz's.

Fidesz's campaign strategy is to say nothing because there are fears, not unfounded, that the secret plans of Fidesz will leak out and, once people hear about these plans, their enthusiasm for the party might wane. There have already been mishaps. First was Mihály Varga's interview a couple of weeks ago in which he pretty well admitted that in party circles serious discussions have been taking place about some radical changes as far as pension distribution is concerned. Not surprisingly MSZP grabbed hold of the story and wouldn't let go. MSZP accused Fidesz of wanting to raise the retirement age to 70 while Fidesz said the same thing about MSZP's intention. Neither was true. The whole discussion became ridiculous and by now I'll bet that no present or future pensioner understands what on earth is going on. Although Mihály Varga is no longer allowed to appear in public, the pension debate is going on full force. The only real difference between the two positions as far as the current crop of pensioners is concerned is that while MSZP promises to raise pensions once there is growth in the GDP, Fidesz wants to maintain it at its real value. That is, taking into consideration only the rate of inflation. Clearly the MSZP position is more favorable to the pensioners, but I fear that the economically not too sophisticated Hungarian public hasn't got the foggiest idea what the difference is between the two positions.

Then two days ago came another "leak." This time the culprit, László Mádi, a real Fidesz old-timer, wasn't just shelved like Varga but after twenty years of being a Fidesz parliamentary representative was removed from the list. His political career is over. What I don't understand is why Fidesz is so nervous. Admittedly, MSZP is creeping up a bit in the polls and Fidesz's lead is decreasing somewhat, but the lead is still overwhelming. What are they worried about?

One thing is sure. Viktor Orbán will not debate anyone on television as he did four, eight, or twelve years ago. Four years ago he was so badly beaten by Ferenc Gyurcsány that he surely swore that he would ruin this man and never talk to him again. Everybody wants to have a debate with him, especially Lajos Bokros (MDF), but the Fidesz spokesman sent him to Attila Mesterházy. Orbán will not debate anyone and that's it.

The question is what will happen once Fidesz wins the elections and it becomes clear that Hungary has not been transformed into an earthly paradise. Perhaps they will try to divert people's attention by dragging to court every socialist politician in sight. In fact, István Balsai, formerly MDF and minister of justice in the Antall administration, was already appointed to be the "chief executor." He is a very unpleasant man and therefore perfect for the job. Balsai has already begun his activities. Fidesz is suing Ferenc Gyurcsány and János Veres, former minister of finance, accusing them of falsifying economic data just prior to the 2004 elections. Never mind that one court already decided that the charge was false and the data were readily available from month to month all the way to the date of the elections, that doesn't seem to deter Balsai. But let's face it, I don't think that they care what will happen. In the campaign it serves their purpose. Fidesz admirers will hear again that these two horrible men lied to the Hungarian people and that their favorite party lost the elections because of their brazen lies. Perhaps that will help Fidesz to climb up again a bit in the polls. But meanwhile Mádi must disappear and Varga must be forgotten.

After the sacking of Mádi there must be real panic in Fidesz circles. If Mádi could be kicked out like that, what can happen if they say something that they shouldn't have? Just today I read an article about the ten women (out of 176!) who are on the Fidesz list. Not one of them was ready to say anything substantive. Maybe they will answer questions in writing. One did say that the half an hour she spent with Viktor Orbán was the most wonderful time of her life! I find the whole phenomenon more than worrisome.

German and other settlers in Hungary

January 30, 2010 13 comments

Because there was considerable interest in the ethnic composition of Greater Hungary I thought I would spend a little more time on the subject. You may recall that I included the famous ethnic map of pre-World War I Hungary (minus Croatia-Slavonia) based on the 1910 census. You also may recall that in English one could read the following caption underneath: “Ethnographic Map of Historical Hungary based on the 1910 census, showing the effects of the centuries of foreign colonization of Hungary which altered the ethnic composition of the previously homogenous Hungarian population of the Carpathian Basin.” I don’t know who attached this text to this particular map. I have an original copy published by the Magyar Földrajzi Intézet Rt. with no caption whatsoever. In any case, the caption is a bald-faced lie.

Most likely the Carpathian Basin never had a homogenous population. The ancestors of Slovaks were in the area before the Hungarians arrived. Most likely there were still some Avars, a Turkic people, who had survived the vicissitudes of centuries. A few years later we hear of böszörmények in Pest who were a Bulgarian Turkic group of Muslim faith. Apparently the Hungarian böszörmény comes from bisirman, the Turkish name for Muslim. Soon enough German settlers arrived at the invitation of Endre II, even before the Tartar invasion of 1241. Just to give one example of the ethnic mix, Pest (part of Budapest today) most likely received its name from the Bulgarian-Turkic group who might have been the original settlers of the town on the left bank of the Danube. “Pest” means “oven”; when the Germans arrived they translated the name of the town into German as “Ofen.” Throughout the Middle Ages both Buda and Pest were predominantly German towns. It was only in the 15th century that in Buda some Hungarians managed to get elected to the town council.

The three cities Óbuda, Buda, and Pest were completely ruined several times during the 16th and 17th centuries either by the Turks or by the liberating western armies (in 1686). Hardly any house remained intact in Buda and practically no one was left alive. The central areas that had been under Turkish rule for almost 150 years suffered the most, and that was the area inhabited mainly by Hungarians. As the Turkish troops were approaching a lot of the inhabitants escaped northward crossing the Danube, an area never under Turkish occupation, or toward the West where the population was mostly German. Those areas prospered infinitely better than the Turkish occupied center.

A new wave of settlers had to be brought in, mostly Germans from Bavaria, Swabia, Austria. The recruiters found ready takers because of the privileges offered to the settlers. Hungarian historians, even Domokos Kosáry, a moderate and not a nationalistic historian, called this settlement policy by the Habsburg kings “colonization” with an anti-Hungarian edge. I don’t believe this explanation because it is hard to imagine what else the kings could have done with a huge area that was practically barren of life. I assume perhaps one could have enticed people from the north to move southward and I really don’t know whether such an offer was ever made to them, but it is very possible that in the north called Royal Hungary people were comfortable enough to stay put. On the other hand, in the German provinces there were serious economic pressures that resulted in large migrations. For example, to the American colonies and even as far east as Russia.

Just south of Szeged that today is called Voivodina and or in Hungarian Bácska-Bánát that belongs today to Serbia, in addition to the German settlers there came a huge wave of escapees from Turkish occupied Serbia. The Serbian patriarch, Arsenije III Carnojevic, after taking the Austrian side against the Turks, feared the revenge of the Ottoman Empire and moved north to today’s Voivodina in the last decade of the 17th century with as many as 36,000 families. Carnojevic received nobility from the Habsburg king and became the patriarch of Szentendre, a Serb settlement just north of Budapest. Meanwhile Romanians began to migrate into the area from Transylvania. Thus, the Voivodina became a veritable patchwork of nationalities.

The German character of the Transdanubian countryside disappeared only after the German population was forcibly removed following World War II. It was a shameful move by the Hungarian government. These people were hard working village folks. As a child I remember seeing them with their horses and buggies going in long lines through the main thoroughfare of Pécs on their way to Germany. Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister of Germany, was the child of a couple who had to leave Hungary after the war. Why Joschka? Because Jóska is a nickname for the Hungarian József. Into the houses of the evicted Germans moved some Hungarians the Czechoslovak government had forced across the border and some Hungarian refugees from Romania and Serbia.

In brief, ethnic relocation (both by choice and by force) has been an ongoing phenomenon in this area. Now with the European Union, without real borders, there is every reason to assume that we will continue to see shifting ethnic demographics.

Property tax and the future of the pension fund in Hungary

January 29, 2010 2 comments

I know that I wrote about both topics in the last couple of weeks, but unfortunately they don't want to disappear from Hungarian politics. The latest reverberation occurred this morning when a Fidesz old-timer, László Mádi, was sacked. I know that this is a pretty strong word but Mádi is one of the five original Fidesz politicians who have been serving Fidesz in the Hungarian parliament since 1990. As Tamás Bauer (SZDSZ), a former colleague and adversary, said this morning, "Mádi has been a faithful workhorse serving his party in the last twenty years." Yet a sentence he uttered yesterday at the meeting of the Organization of Hungarian Real Estate Agents and Assessors sealed his fate. He said that although in the near future the introduction of property tax is not feasible, in the long run after thorough preparation it can be introduced. This morning the assistant spokesman of the party, András Cser-Palkovics, held a press conference and announced that Mádi, who in the last few years entered parliament from the territorial list of Szabolcs-Szatmár County, had been removed from the roster.

I'm not sure about the legality of such a move because, after all, the party list was put together by the Fidesz Steering Committee and it is not at all clear whether Mádi's removal was sanctioned by the same body. I suspect that it was the decision of Viktor Orbán and some of his closest associates.

Mádi must have been shocked, and he tried to explain himself away by saying that he "was misunderstood." He is dead against the property tax. His denial was placed on, but somehow I don't think that his explanation will wash. He violated party discipline. Apparently, even in more democratic parties discipline is of the utmost importance because, as Gábor Bruck, a former campaign manager of SZDSZ, said this evening on József Orosz's Kontra, an election campaign is like war. A party cannot allow any deviation from the party line. And that is what Mádi did. He couldn't even tentatively express his private opinion about possible future policy. This is true even though about six months ago in a book compiled by economists close to Fidesz there was an article by György Szapáry advocating the eventual introduction of property tax. Mind you, occasionally Szapáry says things he shouldn't, but with Mádi the situation is different. Mádi as a politician can be punished. Szapáry cannot. Or rather, Fidesz can say that an "independent" economist is not an official voice of the party. It cannot do the same with a member of parliament.

As for the Swedish pension model another Fidesz big gun, Mihály Varga (much bigger than Mádi), made a huge mistake. He indicated that Fidesz has been seriously thinking about introducing a pension plan that would be self-sufficient. The people who pay into that fund would get information about how much money had accrued in their accounts and thus they could gauge their future benefits. Of course, if the Hungarian government were to decide on the introduction of such a system it would have to be incremental. That is, the new system would be applicable only to those who are beginning their working careers now. Thus in no way would it affect the current pensioners. However, MSZP took advantage of the situation and muddied the waters by not making it clear that such a system would be fully implemented approximately forty years from now. Both parties began a huge campaign against the "Swedish model." Fidesz denied that it had ever even contemplated any change while MSZP tried to show that their current system is the very best and the pension fund as is can be maintained for at least forty years. Some people claim that this is most likely not the case and a reform of the pension system will probably be necessary. But Fidesz refuses to engage in any discussion of any reform in any field. Everything should be rolled back to the way it was before the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments introduced the austerity program.

Basically Fidesz says nothing about their plans. No party program, no government program, just mega-posters with simple slogans: Hope, Success, It's Time, and Change. According to Hungarian political scientists that's the right strategy from the party's point of view. They are leading mightily and the less that is revealed of their plans the better. Especially if their followers don't demand specifics. Most people predict a hugh disappointment among Fidesz followers after the elections, and some of them gloomily add that the beneficiary of this disappointment will not be MSZP but Jobbik.

A liberal commentator said today on Klub Rádió, "we just have to get it over with." Because her favorite perfect party, SZDSZ, died, she is so disenchanted with politics that she has decided either not to cast a vote at all or to purposely invalidate her ballot by way of protest. That kind of attitude to my mind can only be counterproductive. In 1920 the social democratic party urged its followers to boycott the elections. That was their way of expressing their dissatisfaction with Hungarian politics that was shifting to the right. As a result, in the first parliament the party was not represented. Two years later, when they took part in the elections, they managed to have a sixteen-member caucus. The number of seats then was 282. It wasn't a huge delegation but considering that they could campaign only in the cities, it wasn't a bad showing.

As for "we just have to get [the Jobbik-Fidesz era] over with," this is the worst possible reaction to the current situation. When one hears devoted SZDSZ members talking like this, it is not at all surprising that SZDSZ is dead.

Changing nationalities: A natural development in East-Central Europe

January 28, 2010 16 comments

A few days ago, the ombudsman who is supposed to defend the rights of minorities announced that the assimilation of non-Hungarians to the Hungarian majority has been so rapid that soon enough no minorities will be found within the borders of Hungary. Of course, he wasn't talking about the Roma population but Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Their numbers were small in the first place because, as I mentioned yesterday, territories with mixed populations were given to the successor states. Moreover, assimilation of small populations is pretty well inevitable, especially during periods of rapid modernization and with it accelerated mobility.

Historically, the best metric for measuring assimilation and shifting nationalities has been language. In pre-Trianon Hungary there were mixed patterns. In Transylvania, despite government efforts, the number of Romanian speakers actually grew. In ten years, between 1900 and 1910, the increase was almost 150,000. By contrast, the number of Germans and Slovaks decreased during that decade. The Germans were scattered throughout Transdanubia. They did not live in compact regions like the Transylvanians, so their assimilation was probably natural. The Slovaks' situation was slightly different. The northern regions inhabited mostly by Slovaks were poor, and Slovaks in great numbers either emigrated (the favorite destination was the United States) or moved to Budapest where within a generation they became Hungarian speaking. But there was also a less than natural assimilation fostered by Budapest: only Hungarian-language gymnasiums were allowed to exist, so if a Slovak boy (in those days few girls ever ended up in a gymnasium) wanted to enter high school and from there go on to university, he had to continue his studies in Hungarian. As one Hungarian politician somewhat cynically remarked, these Hungarian-language gymnasiums were like sausage-stuffers. Little Slovaks entered and not so little Hungarians emerged.

The elementary schools were almost exclusively in the hands of the churches, most often the Catholic Church. The churches were free to choose the language of instruction and usually they picked the local language. Because of immobility, poverty, and lack of education, the vast majority of the Ruthenian, Romanian, and Slovak village children never learned Hungarian. It was in 1907 during the tenure of Albert Apponyi as minister of education that a law was passed mandating that every non-Hungarian-speaking child must learn the language of the majority within four years. Of course, there was an outcry on the part of the nationality leaders as well as French and English commentators.

The fact is that the "Apponyi Law," as it became known, was a total flop. Imagine a Romanian or Slovak village with absolutely no Hungarian speakers. The central government sent a Hungarian teacher. The classes were huge, the kids had no opportunity to use their probably marginal language skills. In the Rákosi period there was a much favored Hungarian writer, Béla Illés, who was born in Kassa (Kosice) in today's Slovakia. Kassa in Illés's days was predominantly Hungarian, but the family moved to Beregszász (today Berehove in Ukrainian) that in those days was a town of 12,000. The language of instruction in his elementary school was Hungarian even though a number of children were Ukrainian-speaking. Illés recalls the total failure of the teacher to make himself understood by the non-Hungarians in the class. Of course, they learned nothing. Illés did their homework, and thus they were passed on from year to year. Most likely the teacher knew about the ruse but could do nothing to remedy the situation.

Today's Hungarians often complain about the shrinking number of Hungarians in the neighboring countries; they talk as if it were somehow the result of a planned, forcible assimilation. During the Ceausescu regime that was indeed the case, but even with a much more liberal minority policy there is natural assimilation. Mixed marriages, attending Romanian or Slovak language schools simply because parents decide that it might be more advantageous for their children's future career. And if a child goes to a Romanian- or Slovak-language school from grade one on, he or she will feel more comfortable using that language. Not long ago I spent an evening with a group of people from Transylvania. Their "mother-tongue" was Hungarian, but they had gone to Romanian schools. Although they spoke Hungarian well, I had the feeling that they were more comfortable speaking Romanian. So who are these people? Romanians or Hungarians?

At the time of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 politicians made the most outrageous pronouncements in support of their territorial claims. One especially stuck in my mind. When the Allies were less than enthusiastic about ceding large territories north of the Danube almost solidly inhabited by Hungarians to Czechoslovakia, Benes announced that in the nineteenth century about 300,000 Slovaks had moved to Budapest. Therefore the Hungarians living in Csallóköz (in Slovak: Žitný ostrov) were simply compensation for the Slovaks who had emigrated to Budapest. First of all, the 300,000 figure is most likely exaggerated, but even granting the number for the sake of argument, the two cases simply cannot be compared. The Slovaks moved to the capital on their own volition while the Hungarians of Csallóköz were forced to become inhabitants of Czechoslovakia. Benes had another brilliant idea: anyone with a Slovak family name must be considered Slovak. But life doesn't work that way.

I'm going to give two examples of how complicated these nationality questions can be. The great Hungarian Romantic poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849), was a chauvinistic Hungarian born of a Serb father and a Slovak mother (Maria Hruz) in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plains in the town of Kiskőrös. His original name was Petrovics (Hungarianized spelling). He was baptized Lutheran, which reflected his mother's nationality. Protestant Slovaks were Lutheran while Hungarian Protestants were Calvinist. Petőfi himself was so aware of that distinction that he changed not only his name but also his religion.

The other example is Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), a great Hungarian patriot. It is clear even from his name that the family was originally Slovak. Just think of all those Kohuts and Kosuts in today's Slovakia. Although Kossuth was born in Monok (today in Hungary), the family originated from the county of Turóc (Turiec in Slovak) in the north of Hungary. The Slovak ancestry of Kossuth never became the topic of political debate because the family became part of the Hungarian nobility at the time when ethnicity was not a paramount consideration. In any case, Kossuth considered himself an ethnic Hungarian and even stated that there was no such thing as a Slovak nationality. Yet the other branch of the family considered itself Slovak and as far as I know Kossuth had a cousin who became a minor Slovak poet.

But the change of nationality worked the other way around as well. Pavol Országh-Hviezdoslav, apparently the greatest Slovak poet, originally wrote in Hungarian and was a Hungarian patriot, but in the 1860s he switched both allegiance and the language of his poetry.

It is hard to predict how open borders and the tendency to develop regions spanning former borders will impact the nationality composition of the area. It seems to me that Romanians are less worried about the  rather large Hungarian minority because most of the Hungarians live in the middle of Transylvania surrounded by solidly Romanian areas. The Slovak situation is different because the Hungarians live closer to the Slovak-Hungarian border and therefore the proximity of Hungary might be a magnet that reinforces the Hungarian predominance in that region.

Yet, again, the open borders work the other way around as well. More and more Slovaks from Bratislava are buying houses on the Hungarian side where real estate prices in villages close to the border are a great deal lower than in Bratislava. These villages are only about 12 kilometers from the capital. It is an easy commute. The mixing of nationalities most likely will continue.

Today’s Hungary and Trianon

January 27, 2010 39 comments

A few weeks ago one of the Hungarian television stations, ATV, began a new program. Every Monday night there are discussions with politicians about topics that in one way or another are related to the elections and the election campaign. This week the topic was the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries. This is a very complex question. Although the Hungarian constitution mentions the government’s obligations toward Hungarians living outside the borders, just what these obligations are and how they are best met remain undefined.

At this week’s discussion all parliamentary parties were represented. There was general agreement on most of the issues among the politicians of MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF. The right wing represented by István Simicskó, currently sitting with the KDNP delegation, often stood apart.

There was absolute consensus that during the so-called socialist period the Treaty of Trianon and its consequences belonged to the list of forbidden topics. All national issues were considered to be secondary to internationalism and within that the “brotherhood of socialist countries” of the Soviet bloc. But this “brotherhood” was of a peculiar sort. At one point, for instance, travel being neighbors was restricted and in Romania a Hungarian visitor couldn’t stay with relatives or friends while traveling in the country.

A large, two-volume history of Hungary published in 1964 mentioned Trianon only in passing and even then merely as an excuse to turn the masses’ attention away from the difficult situation of the “working classes.” The “ruling classes” tried to portray Trianon as the cause of all social problems, but “although Trianon brought a significant change in the economic structure of the country it could have been remedied by correct economic policies.” End of story. It was only in the late 1970s that one could read a sentence or two about the general trauma that Trianon caused. It was only in the 1980s that historians admitted that it was not only the ruling classes who were affected by the loss of territories but the whole population.

Thus the topic wasn’t discussed, analyzed, digested. Then came the change of regime and suddenly one could talk about Trianon, but the ignorance of the topic was and still is staggering. For example, most people don’t know anything about the ethnic makeup of Greater Hungary. Here are some figures taken from my precious 1910 census. Hungary proper (not including Croatia-Slavonia) had a population of 18,264,533. Of these only 9,944,627 claimed that they spoke Hungarian most fluently. Thus, 54.5% of the population.

As a result of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary proper was reduced to less than one-third (32.6%) of her pre-war area and a little over two-fifths (41.6%) of her population. In the areas that ended up on the Czechoslovak side, there were 893,586 Magyar speakers according to the 1910 census. The Czechoslovak census of 1921, presumably in an attempt to minimize the Hungarian head count, counted Jews, practically all Hungarian speaking, separately. In 1921 Czechoslovakia claimed only 634,827 Hungarians and 70,522 Jews. In Ruthenia, currently belonging to Ukraine but between the two wars part of Czechoslovakia, there were 319,361 Ruthenians speaking a couple of dialects of Ukrainian and 169,434 Hungarians in 1910.

The territories ceded to Romania had 2,800,073 Romanians, 1,704,851 Hungarians, and 559,824 Germans. Even in Transylvania proper the Romanians outnumbered the Hungarians: almost 1,500,000 Romanians and slightly over 900,000 Hungarians.

Voivodina, given to Yugoslavia, was extremely mixed: there were 454,906 Serbs, 441,787 Hungarians, 311,162 Germans, and 71,788 Romanians. Here is the famous ethnic map of Hungary created to back up Hungary’s claims at the Paris Peace Conference.

As one can see from this map the borders could have been drawn much more “justly,” meaning more closely along ethnic lines, especially in the north and to some extent on the east. As far as the south was concerned the ethnic mix was such that one could simply have split the area in half. Some Serbs and Germans would have remained in Hungary while some Hungarians and Germans would have become citizens of Yugoslavia.

Most Hungarians, and not just the younger generation, have no idea about the ethnic composition of Greater Hungary. Between the two world wars the irrendentist propaganda was based on the mistaken notion that the only solution to Trianon was the complete restoration of Greater Hungary. The Hungarian people, surely terribly hurt and disappointed, should have been told that only certain territories might be regained and even then only under the most auspicious international circumstances. Because revisionism was the cornerstone of Hungarian foreign policy it was almosts inevitable that Hungary would end up on the side of Germany, the country dissatisfied with the status quo.

I might add here that there were moments when not all looked that bleak. Great Britain, for example, eventually became aware of the pitfalls of the draconian peace treaty of Trianon and urged the Hungarians in 1938 to be patient. The Soviet Union also promised favorable consideration after the war if Hungary didn’t join Germany’s war against the Soviet Union.

But how long could the country’s neutrality have been maintained if the Hungarians had listened to the Allies? Sooner or later, I think, it was inevitable that Germany would have invaded the country. In that case the only way to salvage the situation would have been to set up a government-in-exile that would have been able to remain free of any charge of collaboration. In that case it is possible that Hungary would have regained some of her lost territories inhabited mostly by Hungarians.

Of course, these are just fanciful speculations. The fact is that the situation was extremely difficult because of Hungary’s geopolitical position. The other day when I was reading Jobbik’s campaign program in which the authors stated that Hungary’s geopolitical situation is excellent, I wondered what on earth they are talking about. Hungary is surrounded by seven countries. I don’t know whether this is a record or not, but it must be up there somewhere. In any event, I don’t think that there were too many choices in those days, but the road Hungary took from 1933 on was perhaps one of the worst.

For the time being no property tax in Hungary

January 26, 2010 5 comments

The Constitutional Court rendered its decision on the property tax the central government introduced a couple of months ago. Originally the idea was to introduce property tax on all real estate. In the course of public discussion about the feasibility of such a tax it became obvious that official real estate records were so poor that it would be almost impossible to introduce such a tax any time soon. And that wasn't the only problem. MSZP, being a leftist party, was extremely reluctant to lend its name to a law that would tax every piece of property from hut to palace. Thus a very strange system emerged and was given parliament's blessing.

This hybrid of a law planned to tax real estate with a market value over 30 million forints. If the estimated value was 29,999,999 forints one didn't pay a penny. Moreover, the same person could own four or five pieces of real estate but if none of them was valued over 30 million forints, he didn't pay any property tax. And the strangest provision to my mind was that the assessment, with the assistance of some guidelines, was left to the owner himself. He was supposed to estimate the market value of his own property. Moreover, the onus for estimating correctly was on the property owner; if he was off by more than 10% in the opinion of the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service (APEH) he would be fined. To my mind the whole system  was more than questionable.

Obviously the judges of the Constitutional Court came to the same conclusion. What they said today was that property tax on real estate is not unconstitutional per se, only in the form the Hungarian government envisaged it. In fact, the same law provided for taxation on such luxury items as pleasure boats, private planes, and very valuable cars; this personal property tax was not questioned by the Constitutional Court.

Fidesz and KDNP politicians claim that they are delighted because they were always against the introduction of this particular tax. In fact, they kept saying that as soon as they form a government their very first act will be to abolish it. People would get their money back with interest. My feeling is that Fidesz might not be as happy as they claim because with the court's decision a possible Orbán government is deprived of the gesture of repealing one of the laws of its predecessor.

Sooner or later property tax will come to Hungary but I agree with MDF that it should be introduced by local governments and used for their own financing. And, indeed, it should be universal and paid on all real estate, including land. But serious work must precede the introduction of such legislation. First and foremost, the chaotic state of the land offices must be remedied once and for all. Local governments must have detailed information on each piece of property within their jurisdiction. Firms specializing in assessing the value of the property must be formed, and sensible legislation must be created that would provide for the possibility of appeal. But not the kind that in existence now in Hungarian courts where a simple case can drag on for years.

Meanwhile the government must find 50 billion forints in a great hurry to make up the loss the Constitutional Court's decision inflicted on the 2010 budget by throwing the property tax out the window. 

A new Hungarian campaign program: MDF’s plans

January 25, 2010 3 comments

MDF came out with its program (actually, "Material for Discussion") with the catchy title "Munka és méltóság = Modern Magyarország (Work and Dignity = Modern Hungary), a nice alliteration in mathematical form. As one of the commentators said, it could just as well have been called "Critical Mass of Reforms," but that title was already taken by Lajos Bokros when he introduced his lengthy plan for necessary economic and social reforms in Élet és Irodalom (January 23, 2009). In any case, Bokros's name often appears in the footnotes.

The authors of the twenty-seven-page document don't promise anything. Instead they declare their intentions which, as Lajos Bokros admitted at his press conference yesterday, "not everybody will like." I would venture to say that very few people will like it, especially since the document clearly states that the party's aim is "the strengthening of the entrepreneurs, the middle classes, and employees with skills."

According to the MDF program "government expenses must be substantially reduced." At present there are 3,200 functioning local governments, each with a mayor and a staff. Instead, MDF is suggesting 240-280 "járási" government bodies. Járás (district or in German Bezirk) was the name of smaller units within the counties, and they existed for centuries until 1983. The origin of the word most likely has something to do with the verb "járni" meaning "to walk." Prior to 1919-1920 there were 442 járások, after that their number was around 150. These districts could encompass seventy or more villages that share a common council that would include representatives from each village situated within the járás. A reduction in the inordinate number of self-governing units has been talked about a lot, but because changing the current system required a two-thirds majority in the House nothing could be done.

MDF would restore the Ministry of Interior that would handle only matters of public order and public administration. The prosecutor's office would be subordinated to the Ministry of Justice. Both suggestions would be a welcome move, at least from my vantage point. There would be a ministry that would be called the Ministry of Education and Labor whose responsibility would be to devise a school system that would serve the needs of the labor market.

Fidesz's hobby horse is the maintenance of every village school even if the number of students is very small; the education in these schools is low level and expensive. MDF has different ideas much closer to the plans of the government, especially during the tenure of Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) as minister of education. MDF would not maintain schools where the number of children doesn't reach at least 160 to 220; each class would also have to enroll at least 25 students.

Currently, people earning minimal wages pay no income tax. The result is that there are most likely many people who actually earn more than that under the counter but officially they receive minimal wage required by law. MDF would tax minimal wages as well. It wouldn't be very high, only ten percent, but it would not be worth hiding income for the sake of a tax-free status.

VAT at the moment on most items is 25% which according to the ideas of MDF is too high: the highest VAT should be no more than 20%, but the minimum 5% VAT put on a few selected items should be raised to 10%.

Child support, as MDF's Erzsébet Pusztai already announced, should no longer go to the families but to the schools that would provide all-day care for children. I wrote about her ideas extensively in "Government assistance and family support" on July 29, 2009.

According to MDF the rate of employment which is very low at the moment (55% of people of working age) should be raised by 10%. We learn nothing about how this is going to be accomplished from the document, but the authors mention that the creation of jobs shouldn't be done by direct state intervention because "jobs created by the state don't create growth, they retard it."

As far as economic growth is concerned, MDF would like to see a steady growth in the GDP of 3% per annum. The deficit should be lower than 3%, but a deadline to achieve this level is not given. As far as the national debt is concerned, MDF wants to decrease it to 40% of the GDP. At present it is 80%. MDF would like to create an economic situation such that Hungary could join the eurozone as soon as possible.

At the moment there are 77 institutions of higher learning in the country. That is far too high and in many of them the level of instruction is very low. Their diplomas are useless on the market place. According to MDF 20-25 universities and and half a dozen independent colleges would be plenty. I agree, but can you imagine the resistance of staff and students?

MDF openly and without hesitation, unlike Fidesz, stands by the Swedish model of pensions. MDF supports a property tax but not in its present form, which was hammered out as a compromise measure and makes very little sense. As of January 1, people with real estate valued at less than 30 million forints pay nothing. If the property, according to its owner's assessment, is worth more than 30 million then he has to pay property tax. There are so many things wrong with this system that they cannot be detailed here. In any case, MDF prefers a system that taxes all property, buildings as well as land; these taxes would be collected by the local governments for their own benefit. Considering that Hungarians think that property tax is outrageous as is, I assume that the outcry would be considerable.

As far as healthcare is concerned, the program doesn't go into any detail but brings back SZDSZ's old idea of establishing private insurance funds. The program advocates a reorganization of the healthcare system. MDF wants to reform the police force and free it from political influence. The number of policemen should be increased in such a way that every hamlet should have its own police force.

MDF "accepts modern capitalism … as the only economic system that ensures continuous growth and the well being of the population." Assistance given to the needy can come only from accumulated wealth, and therefore MDF is convinced that the best social policy is the kind that goes hand in hand with economic growth. In MDF's opinion that economic growth is generated by people who are actively engaged in production. Such continuous growth will produce "a smoothly working, peaceful democracy.

This is all very rational but I don't think that one can win an election with it.

The Hungarian right: The affairs of Fidesz and Jobbik

January 24, 2010 Comments off

This is not exactly brand new news but while I was busy dissecting Jobbik's election program there were a couple of interesting developments within Fidesz. About ten days ago there was a "board meeting" or perhaps better translated a "steering committee meeting" of Fidesz where apparently Viktor Orbán was unduly sharp-tongued and critical. Some people suspect that the reason for his bad mood was that shortly before the meeting he had found out that although there was no change in the polls as far as the chances of Fidesz and MSZP are concerned, Jobbik had become stronger again and that strength came at the expense of Fidesz.

Orbán's ire was directed against the party's youth group, Fidelitas, because the young Turks were openly bragging about all the important positions they would receive in the new administration. One of their leaders, Péter Ágh, actually said that the leadership of Fidelitas would be decimated after the elections. The issue of Fidelitas came up when Orbán was reading the names of those he had picked to run in the 176 individual electoral districts. When he came to the second district of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County he stopped and said that Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, one of the vice-chairmen of the party and Orbán's great discovery four years ago, would not be the Fidesz candidate in that district. Instead, a young hopeful, Marcell Zsiga, is Orbán's choice. Apparently it is a well known fact in party circles that Mrs. Pelcz "didn't work out" and therefore instead of being a member of parliament she will receive "other important positions" in the party.

Orbán didn't talk about his reasons for dropping Mrs. Pelcz but rather about why he picked the young Zsiga. He explained that Zsiga was chosen not because he has had important positions in Fidelitas but "in spite of it."  He added that the young Turks' attitude toward the "values of the party" is unsatisfactory.

After he finished with Fidelitas he moved on to Fidesz's situation in Csongrád County. According to Orbán Csongrád is the weak link in the Fidesz network. Apparently in Szeged, in-fighting among Fidesz politicians became so petty and distasteful that even right-wing families are supporting MSZP, led by Mayor László Botka. And while he was on the subject of Csongrád, he expressed his dissatisfaction with János Lázár, member of parliament and mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, who has never bothered to show up at these steering committee meetings. "It is unacceptabe," said Orbán that during the past several years not once did Lázár attend, and therefore he wasn't even able to certify his acceptance of his nomination to run in one of the 176 electoral districts. Lázár is obviously not afraid of the boss. When Index, the internet paper, got in touch with him about the matter, Lázár announced that he "didn't attend, doesn't attend, and has no intention of ever attending the steering committee meetings." He doesn't get involved in national politics.

So, Orbán was already nervous some ten days ago about Jobbik and with good reason. Jobbik is furiously campaigning. Where do they get their campaign funds? The party is supposed to give a yearly account of their finances to the National Accounting Office but for years nothing was submitted. Eventually the Office threatened the party with an investigation by the Prosecutor's Office. Jobbik, realizing that it cannot indefinitely postpone showing its cards, at last came up with some figures. The budget they turned in looks more like fiction than reality. They claim that the party received 2 million 94 thousand forints in 2009 and that "their expenses were only three thousand forints more." Let's convert these figures into U.S. dollars to appreciate their absurdity. They claim that for the whole year they received only $10,919.40 from private donations and they overspent by a mere $15.64! There is the suspicion that Jobbik receives funds from Russia and Iran, but of course one cannot prove anything. Some people suspect rich far-right wingers within the country. For example, Gábor Széles, multi-millionaire and owner of Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV.

In any case, I think Orbán realizes that Jobbik might be a real danger. And now here is this very "unfortunate" slip of Mihály Varga about Fidesz's plans for a self-sufficient pension system. No more 500 billion forints a year from the central budget to supplement the pension fund. Pensioners would get as much as they paid in. This would certainly be good from the point of view of the central government but, given the Hungarian situation, it might mean a 15-20% reduction in benefits for the pensioners. Mihály Varga was sent into "exile" immediately, but not before he outright denied his own words.

Not surprisingly the other side is taking advantage of the situation. Not a day goes by without a reference, press conference, newspaper article, or interview with MSZP politicians about Fidesz's attempt to save money at the expense of the old folks. Fidesz's answer was a letter signed by Pál Schmitt, EP member and head of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, that tried to reassure current and future pensioners. Of course, everybody is asking: why Schmitt? Why not Orbán? Because Orbán doesn't want to commit himself in writing to a promise he has no intention of keeping?

Well, if Fidesz sends out 1,600,000 leaflets asking a number of questions and requesting that respondents sign their names, MSZP cannot do stand by idly. They also sent out questionnaires. I was talking to an MSZP supporter from Hungary today who told me that the questions posed are almost identical as far as she can ascertain and that she was certain that people will be confused.

As for Mihály Varga's future. I wouldn't bet on his being minister of finance again, especially if Fidesz does less well at the elections than was projected before his careless slip.

The future of Hungarian democracy

January 23, 2010 5 comments

By now my readers know only too well that József Debreczeni is the foremost proponent of the theory that an overwhelming victory by Fidesz at the next elections will lead to the death of Hungarian democracy. He bases this conclusion on the utterances of Viktor Orbán in the last eight years. He believes it is Orbán's personal traits that destine him to lead the country toward an authoritarian form of government, a kind of pseudo-democracy, something which, if the country is lucky enough, would resemble Miklós Horthy's Hungary. However, there were certain writings of Debreczeni in which he compared Orbán to Gyula Gömbös and Béla Imrédy, two Hungarian prime ministers of the Horthy era who were decidedly to the right of Horthy. Gömbös had the good fortune of dying in 1936, but Imrédy was executed for war crimes in 1946. Debreczeni supports his thesis by extensive quotations from Orbán's writings and speeches.

However, there might be a different take on this whole question. According to this opinion Orbán has already inflicted terrible damage on the country or, more precisely, on the country's democratic institutions over the course of the last eight years. This view is promulgated by József Bayer, a political philosopher and corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2002 when Orbán unexpectedly lost the elections he launched an all-out war against the victorious parties and against those who voted for them. He questioned the results of the elections and hinted at electoral fraud. Subsequently, he not only criticized the government's decisions but worked furiously on its "de-legitimization." The result was the ruin not only of MSZP and SZDSZ but of practically all the democratic institutions. The Hungarian public lost faith not only in MSZP and SZDSZ politicians but in all politicians. When the president of the country is the most popular politician with 47%, followed by Viktor Orbán with 45%, then it is clear that Orbán managed to shake people's faith in democratic politics in general. And in a country where democratic impulses are still very weak, this is playing with fire. As Bayer says, "if one doesn't accept the results of an election [that is the foundation of democratic regimes] then democracy itself can be overthrown."

Orbán surely thinks that with an impressive win the trust in politicians and in democratic institutions will return. Bayer doubts that. Because Fidesz politicians are promising all sorts of things that they will not be able to deliver, disappointment will follow. Hungarians will be even more convinced that all politicians are liars and that democracy is for the birds because it doesn't really matter which party is in power, their lives are not getting any better. And there will be Jobbik ready to attack the politicians of the past, including Viktor Orbán, and its politicians will offer themselves as the saviors of the country. And then what will Orbán do?

The other problem is the weakness of the democratic institutions, starting with the Constitutional Court. Here one can also mention the prosecutors as well as judges of lower and higher courts. But one can even cite political influence when it comes to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences where a former Fidesz member of parliament was democratically elected to head the institution. Surely, political gain was uppermost in the minds of the Hungarian academicians. Then there's a mayor who with the help of a slim Fidesz majority forbids the opposition members of the city government to speak at council meetings between now and the elections. No discussion, no counter-arguments because the mayor considers their voices campaign propaganda against his run for parliament. It turns out that the judicial system is so cumbersome and so slow that most likely nothing can be done to remedy such situations. The result is that people find democracy's answers inadequate. What one fears is that because of the weakness of the democratic institutions the only "satisfactory" answer will be, quite independently from Orbán's personal traits, an authoritarian system that will strengthen those institutions, but not exactly in the way democratically inclined people would like to see.

Hungarian liberals and conservatives together?

January 22, 2010 Comments off

Hungarian analysts don't quite know what to make of the intense negotiations that have been taking place lately between MDF and SZDSZ, whose official name nowadays seems to be "SZDSZ, A magyar liberális párt." I'm not at all surprised about the puzzlement over these negotiations because these two parties were arch enemies in the past. After all, one is/was proudly conservative while the other is/was a very liberal organization. Mind you, both parties have moved away from their original ideologies. MDF picked a man as their European Parliament member, Lajos Bokros, whose ideas on the economy are labelled as liberal and who was once a card carrying member of MSZP. Moreover, in 1995 he was the socialist Gyula Horn's choice for minister of finance. And if MDF made it clear that the party wanted absolutely nothing to do with the liberals they were equally adamant about their absolute rejection of the socialists.

MDF's changing political strategy became apparent when they picked Bokros to head their EP list. The MDF top leadership that had suffered quite a few setbacks even before Bokros's appearance on the scene was shrinking with every new move of Ibolya Dávid and Károly Herényi, her most faithful follower. First, there were those who felt that MDF should make some kind of deal with Fidesz because otherwise they have no chance of survival. When Bokros was chosen, another two or three in the top echelon left the party. People both inside and outside of MDF simply didn't know what to make of an EP list where Lajos Bokros was followed by George Habsburg. (I might mention here that if MDF gets enough votes to be represented in the Hungarian parliament then George Habsburg will most likely be MDF's delegate in Brussels.)

The eminence grise is or rather was Zoltán Somogyi, until recently a political commentator and co-owner of a successful political consulting firm, Political Capital. Apparently, it was his idea to solicit Bokros as MDF's candidate for the EP job. Somogyi has now retired from active participation in the firm and is devoting himself completely to conducting the affairs of MDF. According to the latest news Somogyi will be the party's campaign manager.

It is almost certain that it was Somogyi's idea for MDF to shift toward the center and get together with Attila Retkes's "new" SZDSZ. This "new" SZDSZ was also changing its position on the political spectrum. Retkes and some others in the party felt that SZDSZ was not successful because it neglected the "national issue" and was concentrating on questions that are not popular among Hungarians.  After all, they argued, raising their voice in defense of homosexuals, Gypsies, and women and against anti-Semitism does't bring in a lot of votes. On the contrary.

So while MDF was moving to the left, Retkes's SZDSZ was moving toward the right. It's no wonder that eventually they met. One might question the wisdom of two parties getting together whose individual popularity is very low at the moment. According to Szonda Ipsos MDF stands at 2% and SZDSZ at 1%. But one must keep in mind that MDF traditionally does much better than the public opinion polls indicate. SZDSZ, though currently in bad shape, might still have considerable strength in Budapest where MDF normally does rather poorly. Just last night it seems that an agreement was reached between the two parties on the Budapest list that would be headed by a joint candidate while the rest would be divied up between the two parties. The problem is that their first choice for the top spot, András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, turned the job down.

Before the negotiations with SZDSZ, MDF began recruiting old, disaffected MDF members from twenty years ago. The first name that cropped up was József Debreczeni who ever since 2003 has been the greatest critic of Viktor Orbán and his party. He is the one who predicts that if Fidesz manages to get two-thirds of the seats Hungarian democracy will be a thing of the past. Dávid, perhaps again on the advice of Somogyi, recruited two other people, Gábor Roszik and Tamás Katona. Having these two and Debreczeni next to one other on an MDF list is jarring. Katona and Roszik announced in a television interview that a coalition with Fidesz was imaginable as far as they were concerned. No wonder, by the way, that Katona feels that way. After all, it was during the Orbán government that he was named ambassador to Poland against the wishes of the majority of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations. But he became ambassador anyway. Hard to imagine these three people together in the same parliamentary caucus. And all analysts say that a political party can be successful in parliament only if there is absolute unity. This list as it is shaping up doesn't look too promising as far as unity is concerned.

A few people simply don't trust Ibolya Dávid and call attention to the fact that she was an important cabinet member in the Orbán government and as such was a faithful follower of the Orbán program. I for one don't consider that a great sin because after all there was a coalition agreement which she had to support. What is perhaps less understandable is that after four years of coalition MDF ran together with Fidesz again in 2002. Of course, we don't know whether Dávid made that decision against her own better judgment in the face of the rather large majority of the MDF caucus already committed to Fidesz.

Somogyi is certain that this Democratic Center, formed as a result of some kind of understanding between MDF and the new SZDSZ, will get at least 8-10% of the votes in April at the national elections. Somogyi's guesses until now have been quite accurate.


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