Month: December 2010

The Hungarian media law is passed

Naturally its passage was never in question. Yet Fidesz demanded that all members of parliament vote by name. I assume this was necessary to make sure that no one, but no one from the Fidesz and Christian Democratic caucuses dares push the "wrong button" by mistake. A fear that not all 256 members of the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses present would vote for this draconian law and there wouldn't be a perfectly unanimous decision.

This procedure takes a long time and it often happens nowadays that parliament votes on very important pieces of legislation in the wee small hours of the morning. MTI could report on the passage of the media law only at 5 o'clock in the morning. There were some protests during voting. Parliamentary members of LMP stuck orange-colored tape on their mouths while two of their members displayed a sign: "Hungarian freedom of the press–it lived twenty-one years." Tibor Szanyi (MSZP) held up a muzzle when it came to the vote.

The bill is 180 pages long and therefore I can mention only a few of the most important provisions here. First and foremost, the new Media Council, comprised entirely of Fidesz members or sympathizers, can fine all media (television, radio, internet) for inciting hatred against persons, nations, communities, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities or even majorities. In case you find the mention of this last group a bit odd, you're right, but from a nationalistic governing party its inclusion is not surprising. How often one could hear in the past, even from the mouth of Viktor Orbán himself, that the left "always turned against the nation." Or that, again a famous Orbán quotation, the "nation cannot be in opposition." Thus, if you criticize the government it will be easy in the future to interpret this criticism as an incitement against the majority. In addition, it will be enough to offend the sensitivity of any group. Well, I guess it all depends on how sensitive one is toward criticism.

Then come the details on the fines for "the transgressions." For media outlets with "significant influence" the fine can be 200 million forints or about 1 million dollars. I assume in this category one would find the two largest television stations: RTL Club and TV2. Others are luckier. They will have to pay only up to 50 million forints if the Media Council finds them guilty. Nationwide dailies, including internet newspapers, can be fined up to 25 million forints while weeklies and other periodicals can get away with 10 million. In addition, the editors of the offending media can be personally fined 2 million forints. All organs, including internet newspapers, must be registered with the authorities.

Originally the bill read that these fines will have to be paid immediately, prior to any appeal in the justice system. However, István Pálffy (KDNP), a former anchor at MTV, and László L. Simon (Fidesz), allegedly a writer turned politician, felt that perhaps this was too much to swallow, not so much at home but abroad. A revision to the bill lightened the severity of the law at this point. The fined media can ask for a suspension of the fine from the courts until a final decision is reached. However, the courts cannot decide on how "just" or "unjust" the "punishment" was, only on the appropriateness of the size of the fine. They can contemplate such weighty questions as whether this is a television station with "substantial influence" and thus whether the size of the fine is appropriate.

The authorities can also suspend the right to broadcast. The suspension might last only a few minutes but it could be as long as a whole week. In extreme cases the authorities even have the right to shut the organ down permanently.

As for content. The owner of a television channel or a radio station with a large audience (35% of the listeners) will be barred from acquiring another television or radio station, which is a reasonable provision. The programming of these stations is strictly circumscribed. Half of the programs of the television station must come from Europe, and Hungarian content must make up one third of its programming. In the case of public broadcasting (Magyar Televízió and Duna TV) the programming requirements are even stricter: 60% European and 50% Hungarian content is prescribed. As for radio stations, 35% of the music they broadcast must be Hungarian and 25% of this must have been recorded in the last five years. (It will be quite a feat to pick the right pieces and calculate the percentages!) It is somewhat reassuring that the stations, radio and television, will have the opportunity to discuss the details of the change with the Media Council and they will have three years to ease into the new requirements.

Now we come to news. Television stations "with significant influence" must spend at least fifteen minutes on news between 7 and 8:30 a.m. and at least 20 minutes between 6 and 9 p.m. Radio stations with a large audience will have to spend at least 15 minutes on the news between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. In the evening between 6 and 9 p.m. there must be news lasting at least 20 minutes. Reporting on crime that "doesn't serve the interest of the democratic public" must be restricted to 20% of the time devoted to news.

There is one provision I actually welcome: television stations must show at least 25% of foreign films broadcast between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m. in the original language with Hungarian subtitles. Actually, if it depended on me, I would demand all of them to be shown in the original language. A lot of people claim that Hungarians' knowledge of foreign languages might have been made easier with undubbed films on TV.

There are many provisions concerning the protection of children. For example, programs that shouldn't be watched by children under the age of 16 will have to be shown after 9:00 p.m. Moreover, programs which  are not suitable for those under 18 years of age can be shown only after ten. That in 2011 when many eighteen-year-olds have been sexually active for years. Or when teenagers surf the internet for juicy stories.

Put it this way, members of the Hungarian media are prepared for the worst. Although the supporters of the bill keep repeating that one ought not assume that the members of the Media Council are not well meaning people and let's wait until the new rules and regulations are actually enforced, critics of the bill are still worried. As József Debreczeni said today on ATV's Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk), the difference between dictatorship and democracy is that in the former we are dependent on the goodwill of the authorities whereas in a democracy the law stipulates what the authorities can and can't do. Right now the members of the media can only hope that the Media Council will be reasonable. But I wouldn't be too optimistic. What has happened in the last six months doesn't give rise to much hope.

The newest opinion poll: noticeable Fidesz loss

This is the third poll that shows a decrease in Fidesz's popularity. Perhaps because the data collection took place after the appearance of the other two, Medián and Tárki, the change is even more dramatic. In earlier months the decrease in support was gradual. In May and June 3.3-3.4 million people considered themselves Fidesz supporters. Between then and November, Fidesz lost 300,000 voters who didn't immediately declare themselves to be potential voters for other parties but simply went over to the large group of the undecided. But in November and early December (the poll was taken between December 8 and 15) another 300,000 left Fidesz, and this time all three opposition parties actually gained supporters.

Fidesz suffered its greatest loss among young voters and people with higher education. In these groups altogether 10% of the supporters disappeared while the average loss was 4%. Such a trend is not unexpected but what surprised me was the larger losses suffered in villages and in smaller towns where Fidesz has been very strong ever since its leadership decided to move from the left to the right of the political spectrum.

Public disappointment had to come after the heightened expectations that followed Viktor Orbán's sanguine announcements of a new era that would be radically different and naturally much, much better than what preceded it. "Monday morning you will wake up in a new Hungary," said Orbán on the eve of the elections. People woke up, looked around, and the world didn't look any different. Or if it was different, it was not a change for the better due to the mistakes made by the government. In fact, what surprised everybody was that disappointment didn't set in a great deal earlier.

The relative optimism lasted until about November when half of the population still thought that better days lay ahead and only 37% were critical of the government's handling of its affairs. By the end of November the mood had shifted: today 48% look upon the future with trepidation and only 40% support the government's policies.

MSZP's camp hasn't grown since the elections: around 800,000-1,000,000 voters. The difference is, and this might be significant, that they are more active. The percentage of MSZP supporters who claim that they would definitely go and vote reached the level of the usually much more eager Fidesz supporters. The public perception of MSZP is also changing for the better. In May 34% of those asked considered MSZP a party they would never vote for. In the fall there was a slight change: only 27-30% of the voters had a violently negative attitude toward the socialists. And finally in mid-December only 20% would definitely say no to MSZP in the voting booth.

During the fall both smaller parties, Jobbik and LMP, lost votes but according to this latest poll both parties have regained some of their lost voters. The graph shows the changes in party preferences in the voting population as a whole.Szonda Ipsos-10-12-20-1 Note the incredibly large group of people who have no preference. That means that unless Fidesz is capable of turning things around in a hurry–and I don't think that there is the likelihood of dramatic changes in the economy– the undecided voters might slowly move over to the opposition parties. My hunch is that most of them will return to MSZP, which was after all the other large party in the last two decades. Especially if MSZP manages to unite at last instead of continuing its infighting.

I was listening to György Bolgár's program this morning; today János Dési was conducting the interviews. He had a conversation with the humorist Tivadar Farkasházy, who is the editor-in-chief of a satirical journal called Hócipő (Galoshes). Why galoshes? Because there is a saying in Hungarian "my galoshes are full," meaning I'm really fed up. Farkasházy very rightly noted that as long as the opposition forces cannot get together, burying their differences, they will never be successful. For example, today university students organized a demonstration against the media law, but they pointedly told the public that anyone connected with a political party should remain at home.

Szonda Ipsos-10-12-20-2The graph on the right shows the party preferences of those who definitely would vote if elections were held this Sunday. One can see changes in the last three months. While the growth in support for Jobbik and LMP is very slight, the 6% loss in the case of Fidesz is fairly substantial. MSZP has done relatively well. This is the first time since the elections that over 20% of the voters would vote for the socialists. However, one must keep in mind that huge mass of undecided voters.

I received a letter from one of our readers who helped me out with the name of the chief-of-staff of Gábor Kuncze. His name is András Gyekiczky. He was also chief-of-staff of Mayor Gábor Demszky of Budapest.

I would like to call everybody's attention to a very helpful tool: Szonda Ipsos has something they call "Grafikon rajzoló." With it one can follow the fortunes of parties and politicians from June 1998 to date. Under the "party" rubric, one can choose between "population as a whole" and "definite voters."

And here is another piece of news about a new full-fledged internet newspaper in Hungarian published in New York: Amerikai Magyar Népszava. In the past, the paper appeared only weekly but today László Bartus, the editor-in-chief, came out with a new, expanded format. It became a daily. The date of the first appearance of the paper in this format is no coincidence. It was today that the Hungarian parliament voted for the introduction of the new media law. As Bartus proudly announces: the Hungarian rules and regulations don't apply to him and his paper. The coverage of U.S. news will be welcome to Hungarian readers without a knowledge of English. Take a look.


The second plan to put Ferenc Gyurcsány into jail just failed

Viktor Orbán, who is not terribly sure-footed when it comes to handling the economy, was only too well prepared to establish a regime in which all that happens depends on his will. One of his goals was to see Ferenc Gyurcsány in jail. The first attempt at finding him guilty of using the Hungarian police force for political purposes during the 2006 disturbances failed. I wrote about the rigged committee's efforts to find just one policeman who would admit that Gyurcsány in any way tried to give them instructions. The committee members found no one who would so testify.

Then came the second round. Orbán appointed Gyula Budai, a lawyer with not the best reputation, to investigate Gyurcsány's role in the so-called King's City affair. I wrote about the perils of being a foreign investor in Hungary on August 13, 2010. I suggest that for background my readers review that piece. Very briefly the situation was as follows. One of the investors, Joáv Blum, a Hungarian-Israeli citizen, had an orchard somewhere in Pest County which he offered in exchange for a piece of state-owned land in Sukoró, a village on the bank of a small lake near Székesfehérvár which would have been perfect for erecting an entertainment complex. The charge is that there was a huge difference between the value of the two pieces of land. According to the prosecutors 1.3 billion forints. The deal was forced through although even Ferenc Gyurcsány knew that the state was being fleeced by Blum.

Budai began to work on the case feverishly. Every second day he held a press conference where he triumphantly announced that the case is already won. He found evidence upon evidence that Ferenc Gyurcsány was guilty. He claimed that Joáv Blum conducted shady real estate deals not only in Hungary but also in Israel and demanded information concerning Blum from the Israeli Embassy in Budapest. He convinced the prosecutors to arrest Miklós Tátrai, the former CEO of Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő, the office that handles the sale of state properties, and Zsolt Császy, the head of its legal department. And when in Hungary someone, especially if that person had a job during the last eight years, is arrested it means that he will stay in jail for a while, perhaps years. No charges were brought against the two men, but the courts decided that there was the possibility that they might leave the country or try to influence witnesses. So, they spent good three months in jail.

Ferenc Gyurcsány does know that Orbán "wants his head" and even described an encounter with an old classmate of his wife who told him that he knows from a reliable source that since the prosecutors have absolutely nothing on him in connection with 2006 they will concentrate on the Sukoró land deal.

Well, it seems that this didn't work out either. On December 17 Miklós Tátrai, shackled and led in on a long chain, appeared at the Fejér County Court in Székesfehérvár as an accused in the case. He was under oath, unlike before when he testified as a witness. Gyula Budai was very hopeful. This will definitely clinch the case, he claimed in the morning. Then came the disappointment. Tátrai under oath testified that Ferenc Gyurcsány didn't force him to close the deal. The former prime minister simply told him about Blum's idea of the swap and asked him to look into the legal possibilities of an exchange. Tátrai also expanded on some of the details. Blum's orchard in Pest County was a good deal from the state's point of view because part of this particular orchard was necessary for the building of a new highway while the office had no plans for the land in Sukoró. Morover, Blum was willing to pay any difference in the value of the two pieces of land. Five independent estimates were received and four of them agreed that the difference was 300 million forints! And not 1.3 billion as the prosecutors today claim. A few hours later both men were released from jail.

By now, Orbán and his minions have struck out twice. I'm curious what will come next.



The newest outrage: Decision was made to destroy the archives of the secret service

Well, this will solve the problem. According to an announcement made yesterday, all the millions and millions of documents that were written by busy agents and informers reporting on their fellow citizens "will be made public." On the face of it, that might even seem a welcome piece of news. After twenty years of wrangling over the issue at last we will know the names of the informers and their victims. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and it is very true in this case.

"Made public" for the Orbán government actually means destroying the documents. But the government instead is giving the false impression that it is being both morally righteous and protective of the rights of the citizenry. The claim is that the rights of the victims are paramount and therefore the victims or their descendants will receive the original documents. Afterward these people can do anything they want with them. So, these documents will be gone. And the rest? I assume in defense of the innocent victims, the authorities will destroy them. Or at least some of them. They might save those that could be useful in the future for purposes of blackmailing their political opponents. And they can do anything they want because there will be no one to watch over them. The Kenedi Committee, composed of three independent historians and asked by the Bajnai government to oversee the selection of documents that can be released, was just told that their services are no longer needed.

The decision is absolutely outrageous. The government is planning to destroy an important part of Hungary's recent history. As it stands now, certain parts of the documents could be studied by historians. Moreover, people could go to the archives and receive copies of documents in which their names are mentioned. However, I talked to people who received practically blank pages: the authorities redacted everything that they considered to be "secret" information. Also, researchers could only guess the number of informers and often had difficulty ferreting out their real identities.

The national security authorities tried to hide the fact that the names of the informers and their code names had been stored on magnetic tapes. Apparently about 50,000 of them. First they denied the existence of these tapes, but when there was just too much evidence to the contrary they claimed that the tapes are no longer readable by existing technology. That turned out to be a lie as well. On December 6, 2009, the government spokesman finally announced that the data had been rescued and had been copied onto a more modern, I assume digitized medium.

In March 2010 János Kenedi, a historian of the period particularly knowledgeable about the activities of the secret service, accepted the job of heading a committee that would "analyze the data found on the tapes." Kenedi thought that it would take them a year to complete the job. In April Kenedi announced the names of two other historians and archivists who would make up the committee: Mária Palasik and Gergő Bendegúz Cseh. Kenedi also announced that "there is a chance that as a result of careful historical research we will be able to come up with the numbers, names and code names of informers between 1944 and 1990." Well, no longer!

Although the demise of the Kenedi Committee was announced only yesterday, Magyar Nemzet as usual knew about the decision a week before. On December 9 an article appeared under the headline "Will the informer lists become public?" The paper learned that the decision had already been made that "people who had been watched and reported on will be able to get to all the pertinent documents." Magyar Nemzet added that in this case there will be no need for the work of the Kenedi Committee.

The Kenedi Committee was authorized to evaluate and select data found on the tapes but yesterday's decision, if I read it correctly, goes beyond the question of the tapes. Bence Rétvári (KDNP), undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, was talking about all documents pertaining to the activities of the secret service. According to him a "constitutional democratic state cannot keep personal information collected illegally by an immoral regime." The documents currently in the Historical Archives of the National Security Service (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára) will also be given to the victims or their descendants. Only documents pertaining to the activities of the informers will be stored there.

This is an absolute outrage. Orbán and Fidesz have scant appreciation of history. For example, alone in the history of the Hungarian parliamentary system the Orbán governments kept and are keeping no minutes of cabinet meetings. And now they are destroying the reports of the informers allegedly because of privacy issues.

It is hard not to suspect an entirely different reason for the mass destruction of documents: self preservation. I'm certain that already during the first Orbán government when László Kövér, the second most important man in the party, received the seemingly insignificant position of minister without portfolio in charge of the national security offices and archives, his real job was to collect and destroy documents that would implicate some of the ministers and party leaders. However, everybody who knows the documents claims that it is very difficult to catch everything because copies of the documents might crop up in some unexpected places. This way, the powers that be no longer have to worry. Moreover, they themselves, without any civil control, can pick and choose what to destroy and what to keep.

Below you find I letter I received a couple of hours ago from Christopher Adam, a lecturer in the History Department of Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.


In what serves as a very disturbing development for anyone with an interest in Hungary's Cold War history, the Hungarian government is preparing to enact a new law which may lead to the blatant, politically-motivated sanitization of the country's communist past. Allegedly out of a concern for privacy rights, citizens who were spied upon or observed by the previous regime's state security officers may now not only ask to view their files at the Archives of Hungarian State Security in Budapest, but may also remove these preserved archival documents from the reading room, take them home and have them destroyed.
According to Bence Rétvári, a secretary of state in Hungary's Ministry of Justice, "A constitutional system cannot preserve documents collected through anti-constitutional means, as these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime." The government decree makes it permissible to remove and destroy irreplaceable archival documents. Were Rétvári's warped logic also used by authorities in other countries, we could no longer produce histories of the world's most dictatorial and genocidal regimes.
Anyone who has worked with these state security documents knows just how difficult it is to define who did and who did not collaborate with the previous, communist regime. There were many forms of collaboration with the secret police, including people who were actually agents themselves, as well as "ordinary" citizens who served as so-called "community contacts;" who met with state security officers, in order to provide information on their neighbours. Others collaborated with communist authorities out of fear. Access to as much of the surviving record as possible allowed professional historians to produce histories of this period which took into account the various forms and levels of collaboration, whilst also showing just how deep cooperation with the former regime actually ran in society.
It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians. Such documents may even suggest that some of the most fervent anti-communist politicians today were of a rather different opinion only two decades ago.
I have been able to collect and copy a few hundred pages of now potentially endangered documents from the Archives of Hungarian State Security during my own research and I hope that historians will reproduce as much as possible of the preserved material, before it is lost forever. It is a very sad prospect that the Hungarian government–including a prime minister who spoke out strongly against dictatorship 20 years ago–may now make it impossible for historians to study and share their research on the country's communist past.

Two assessments of Hungarian politics and economics

My day was pretty hectic and I don't have time to write anything substantial today. However, I would like to say a few words about two articles that appeared in The Economist and The Financial Times. The former, entitled "Hungry for Power," is especially hard hitting. It made quite an impression in Hungary where it is making the rounds in the Hungarian media. Some newspapers simply took over the MTI version but others went to the original and did their own translation. The MTI version softened the message a bit by adding, for example, "according to critics," a turn of phrase that didn't appear in the original. The opinion was that of The Economist and not some unnamed critics. So, please read it.

The Financial Times article was written by Kester Eddy, and it is rather amusing. He makes fun of György Matolcsy, whose latest is that he will turn Budapest into an international financial center, the "Luxembourg of Eastern Europe." He said that a day after the Moody's downgrade.

And finally, a funny story from me. Just a little over a year ago I wrote about the new Fidesz mayor of Pécs and the French company, Suez Environment, that provided drinking water for the city. The post was entitled "Foreign investors in Hungary beware: Pécs and Suez Environment." It was a complicated story, but the upshot was that the city of Pécs forcibly took over the management of the company in which it had a minority stake. The new Fidesz mayor claimed, among other things, that in order to expand beyond the city limits the company charged too much for the water.

What did I hear yesterday? The new city-owned company is raising the rates by eight percent starting January 1, 2011. Isn't that interesting.

Something happened in Hungary: The latest opinion polls

After the elections–as often happens–the new government’s popularity soared. In fact, when asked, more people claimed that they voted for Fidesz than actually did. The government’s popularity remained high throughout the summer and received another boost after the municipal elections when practically all cities and towns were painted orange, the Fidesz color. About a month ago Szonda Ipsos reported that Fidesz had gained in popularity. At the end of October Medián’s poll indicated that optimism about the future was growing in Hungary.

A few days after the publication of a flurry of public opinion polls showing stability in Fidesz’s popularity, there were slight, very slight signs of an impending shift. The first article that appeared in HVG described a change in the “net mood.” NRC Market Research found “a significant effect of the raid of the private pension funds” on the mood of people who use the Internet. The NetMood Index fell from 36, about the same level as after the elections, to 29. This drop occurred in one month, November. This was the first instance since 2006 of such a precipitous drop. The details of the survey can be found in HVG.

Another piece of news that caught my eye was a Medián survey that became known on December 11 that specifically inquired about people’s attitudes toward curbing the authority of the constitutional court and levying extra taxes on banks and other mostly foreign companies. I wasn’t terribly surprised that over 70% of the people approved of the tax levies, but I found it encouraging that only 39% of those asked approved of the Orbán government’s attack on the constitutional court. Encouraging because one can read article after article about the uselessness of attacking the government for its undemocratic behavior. After all, the authors of these articles claim, people care only about their pocketbooks. It seems that this is not the case.

After these initial signs of a shift in public opinion, yesterday and today two polls appeared. The first one, Tárki, was the standard monthly survey asking people what they would do if elections were held this Sunday. Tárki’s conclusion is that Fidesz is still leading by a mile but the number of its supporters has shrunk from 49% to 43%. MSZP’s base didn’t change, but those who were unsure or refused to answer has grown from 31% to 35%. So, those who voted for Fidesz in April and most likely in October didn’t move over to MSZP but are sitting on the fence. These figures apply to the whole adult population. However, even among the decided voters Fidesz lost supporters. Last month 71% claimed that they would definitely vote and that they would vote for Fidesz. This month this number is only 67%, a drop that is considered to be statistically significant. MSZP’s devoted voters moved from 14% to 17%, a slight change.

Medián’s questions were perhaps more revealing. They asked people which party they definitely wouldn’t vote for. While six months ago 21% of those asked considered Fidesz the party they would under no circumstances vote for, today it is 32%. Also, it is the first time since the elections that a majority of the people consider the government’s performance weak. In November 51% were satisfied with the government, today only 45%.

Medián inquired about people’s expectations for the future. Two months ago 48% of the people were optimistic, today only 39%. These are very significant numbers and therefore it’s no wonder that Dow Jones Newswire gave the following title to the article reporting on the results: “Popularity of Hungary’s Ruling Party Plummets.”

According to analysts this trend is going to continue, especially when people receive their paychecks for January and it turns out that the “huge tax cuts” amount to practically nothing for about 50% of wage earners. They might be particularly furious if and when they see all the extra money going into the pockets of well-off politicians as a result of the 16% “flat” tax and, in some cases, the very generous deductions for dependents. I doubt that too many Hungarians will see anything close to the 45% monthly windfall that the prime minister is getting.

For those whose Hungarian is not swinging, “bruttó” is gross, “eltartottak száma” means number of dependents, “nettó összeg” is take home pay, and “különbség” is difference.

Viktor Orbán in Slovakia

The Hungarian prime minister has had a busy schedule since he decided to visit all twenty-seven capitals in the European Union. Wagging tongues claim that this "innovation" by the incoming "rotating president" of the Union came about because the new Hungarian prime minister didn't get too many invitations to visit the member states. In any case, it was about a month ago that Orbán came up with the idea of meeting all the prime ministers of the EU. Since then he has visited France, Portugal, Malta, Poland, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Slovakia, and, today, Great Britain. Do you remember the funny film about the worldwind European tour organized for Americans called  "If it's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium"? Well, even that tour was less frenetic; it was a nine-country, eighteen-day bus trip from London to Rome.

In any case, most of these trips are totally useless. Nothing important is discussed. Orbán spends an hour or even less with the prime minister and perhaps the president where he tells them about the ambitious Hungarian plans for the six months during which Hungary will be the center of important meetings of the member states and back he goes to the airport.

The Slovak trip was somewhat different because in Bratislava the discussion focused not on the rotating presidency but on the rather strained relations between Hungary and Slovakia. The last time I wrote at some length about Slovak-Hungarian relations was on the occasion of the Hungarian parliament passing the bill that would allow ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries to apply and receive Hungarian citizenship without actually moving to Hungary and living there on a permanent basis. The passage of the bill coincided with the Slovak elections, and the Hungarian parties of Slovakia–Magyar Koalició Pártja (MKP) and Híd/Most, a Slovak-Hungarian party–were anything but thrilled about the timing. They feared that the new Hungarian law on dual citizenship would strengthen the nationalist party of Ján Slota. As it apparently did.

Fidesz in the past, as at present, is constantly meddling in the affairs of the Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries, and it certainly has its favorites. Now that Fidesz is in power the Orbán government has the means to give financial support to favorite political groups and strip others of even minimal assistance. This is what's going on in Ukraine and in Romania where this policy can easily backfire. But the most interesting situation occurred in Slovakia.

Here the favorite of Fidesz was MKP, which was practically the Slovak arm of Fidesz. The "enemy" was Béla Bugár's Híd/Most. But then came the elections and MKP for the first time since Slovak independence didn't get enough votes to be represented in parliament. Híd/Most, on the other hand, is part of the ruling, although quite shaky, coalition government. Common sense would dictate that the Hungarian government should change its attitude toward Híd/Most but, no, Budapest decided that Híd/Most is a party that is ethnically mixed and therefore inevitably leads to assimilation. Hence, the Orbán government will not deal with them.

There is a body called Magyar Állandó Értekezlet (Máért/Permanent Hungarian Council) which as far as I'm concerned is one of those pointless organizations that gets together perhaps once a year. The delegates of various Hungarian civic and political bodies from the Carpathian basin listen to boring speeches. Ferenc Gyurcsány became so tired of the anti-government propaganda of Máért that he simply suspended its activities. Of course, the Orbán government immediately announced that Máért will convene again and because Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén is in charge of national and church affairs, the conference was to be held under his leadership. Already in June, Semjén made it clear that Híd/Most is unlikely to be able to participate because each organization must declare that its membership is ethnically Hungarian. Surely, Híd/Most was not welcome there.

Máért held its ninth congress in early November and Új Szó (Bratislava) wrote: "This new congress didn't prove that Máért is indispensable." In brief, nobody missed it in the last few years.

Meanwhile Fidesz politicians were paying visits to Slovakia, had friendly encounters with MKP, and acted as if Híd/Most didn't exist. Viktor Orbán followed suit. Yesterday when he had a brief meeting with Prime Minister Iveta Radičová and with the leadership of MKP, he refused to meet with Béla Bugár, head of Híd/Most. Considering that Híd/Most received 180,000 votes from the Hungarian minority, the prime minister's tactic seems to me more than odd. I would say insulting. Meanwhile, according to the liberal Slovak paper, Sme, MKP is in trouble because the closer it moves to the "leftist and nationalist Fidesz" the less chance it has to be able to form any kind of coalition with other Slovak parties. And in this case MKP will not be very useful for the Hungarian minority. The commentator thinks that, knowing Fidesz, money will still pour into the coffers of MKP, but it will be throwing good money after bad.

A truly devastating editorial appeared today in the same Sme with the title "Ria, ria, Argentina." The author, Peter Schutz, described the trip as utterly insignificant even though in the last nine years no Hungarian prime minister paid an official visit to Bratislava. In his opinion, Hungary's rotating presidency is a gift from heaven because with it Orbán can turn attention away from all the horrors he is creating at home with the assistance of the two-thirds majority. According to Schutz, Radičová shouldn't even try to find common ground with Orbán. Sure, the relationship between "the two countries should be correct, but not at the price of ignoring that Slovakia's neighbor is moving away from Europe and heading toward Argentina, Venezuela, or perhaps Russia."

In another comment that also appeared in Sme Peter Morvay practically warns Radičová not to try too hard to find common ground with Viktor Orbán because of the devastating foreign opinion of the Hungarian prime minister and his regime. He predicts that there will be no possibility of coming to an understanding on the question of dual citizenship: Orbán will not back down because he has nothing to lose and Radičová hasn't got the foggiest idea what to do about it.

The cold war between the two countries continues and may become even frostier as time goes by.

Stiffening attitudes in the Hungarian media

Yesterday an unusual article appeared in Népszabadság entitled “Helyreigazításnak nincs helye,” loosely translated as “Correction denied.” As it turned out, the newspaper published an article on December 10 in which two reporters, Imre Bednárik and Máté Nyusztay, wrote about the structural reorganization of the state-owned media.

Before I get to the real bones of contention, I should describe one change. MTI will reduce the number of employees to 100-150 people while only 49 people will be employed at each of the two television stations (MTV and Duna) and at Magyar Rádió (MR). One doesn’t have to know much about the structure of these public media providers to become suspicious: Why 49 people? Isn’t that an odd number? What is behind the move? Soon enough the answer came: according to Hungarian labor laws an organization with 50 or more employees must allow the workers to have something called “üzemi tanács,” a council with an elected head who represents the interests of the employees vis-à-vis the employer. With a staff of 49 people no representative council. Isn’t it clever! And what will happen to the rest of the people? They will be employed by the Műsorszolgáltatás Támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap, a fund that will assist in programming and will also handle the assets of the public media providers.

Back to the main story. The new Media Council headed by Annamária Szalai last Friday demanded that a correction be published by the Népszabadság because according to the members of the council the article made several erroneous statements about Annamária Szalai. There were three complaints. The article stated that (1) Annamária Szalai, the chairman of the Council, will be the new “chief-chief” of more than a thousand employees; (2) the assets of the public media providers from here on “will be part of a Fund” supervised by Annamária Szalai; and (3) Annamária Szalai has complete control over the Fund.

The Media Council objected to the description of Szalai as “chief-chief” because “the media tsarina,” as some people have already taken to calling her, has no direct say in the affairs of the Fund. According to the letter the Media Council sent to Népszabadság, Szalai has only the right to name the Fund’s chairman and vice-chairman. Népszabadság, in its answer that was also published, inquired whether Viktor Orbán is not the “chief-chief” of Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary of education, even though between them there is the minister, Miklós Rétváry.

As for the second complaint, the Media Council stated that the Fund is a legal entity that is supervised not by Annamária Szalai but by the Media Council. And who is the head of the Media Council?  Annamária Szalai! Népszabadság draws again on a government example. It is not the state led by Viktor Orbán that expropriated the assets of the private pension funds but the state that is being run by the government whose prime minister is Viktor Orbán. Third, the Media Council strenuously objected to the statement that Szalai has control over the Fund. That is wrong: the Media Council has control over the Fund! Yes? And who is the head of the Media Council? None other than Annamária Szalai.

Therefore, Népszabadság refused the Media Council’s request for a printed correction. For good measure they wrote that if the chairman of the Media Council doesn’t like the answer she can go to court. At least this is what the current law stipulates. The new media law, if it passes–and it will, will not allow Népszabadság to appeal to the courts. If Annamária Szalai doesn’t like the wording of an article, the Media Council can immediately fine Népszabadság 25 million forints in addition to the 2 million forints the editor-in-chief would have to pay personally for allowing such terrible slander to appear in the paper.

It is quite clear that the article didn’t contain any untrue facts. The Media Council simply didn’t like the way they were presented. They came up with some legalistic objections which from here on they themselves could apply without the assistance of the legal profession. Népszabadság added that if the new media law passes they will go to the Constitutional Court, but until then with “the greatest respect” they refuse the request for a correction.

Off topic, but you might be interested in a picture of the Orbán family visiting Pope Benedict XVI. I must say that black is not the best color, especially on children:


Why do Hungarians tolerate the anti-democratic measures of the current government?

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on written by Zoltán Fleck, head of the department of legal sociology at the Law School in Budapest. After reading it, I decided that the topic was worth investigating a little more thoroughly. Fleck's question is: "Why don't most Hungarians stand up and protest the Orbán government's clearly undemocratic measures?" Most likely there are many possible answers to this question and Fleck doesn't try to go into all of them. He gives the most obvious answer: Hungarian society's commitment to democracy is very weak. Weaker than other East European countries that received their freedom and independence after the fall of communism.

Many international sociological polls attest to this fact. The Hungarian society's value system and norms are closer to those of the former Soviet republics than to Slovenia, the Czech Republic, or Poland. Most sociologists, political scientists, and historians who have studied the problem came to the conclusion that the culprit might be the relative freedom Hungarians enjoyed, especially in the last decade of the Kádár regime. Overwhelmingly, people were more or less satisfied with their lot. They didn't feel that they were being deprived of their political rights because they didn't have political ambitions in the first place. There was an unspoken understanding between rulers and ruled: the rulers will provide an acceptable level of well being as long as the ruled don't make waves. And they didn't want to make waves. They were satisfied.

Even the creative elite didn't complain. Just yesterday I heard a well-known playwright who had a weekly column in Magyar Nemzet (then a very different paper from what it is today) say that he never felt that he couldn't write about something. Of course, it is possible that today, 20-25 years later, he no longer remembers his state of mind in those days. Perhaps his inner censor worked unnoticed even by himself. However, the fact remains that there was relative freedom with a few taboo topics, but for the average person it was a fairly pleasant existence. And the stores were more or less full. If one compares that situation with life in the much harsher regimes everywhere else in the Soviet bloc it's no wonder that Hungary was considered to be "happiest barracks" among the satellites. Today's nostalgia is most likely connected to those days of "gulyás communism." Strong leadership and security went hand in hand. In some ways, this relative prosperity and freedom is the curse of Hungary today. The dividing line between "socialism" and democracy in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania was real and dramatic. In Hungary it wasn't.

The result is rather sad. Nothing seems to wake the population to the danger that might await democratic institutions today. The nationalization of private pension funds, changing the constitution right and left, attempts to restrict free speech are taken in stride by the population because Viktor Orbán promises law and order. Because there is the promise to free them from the hard choice between alternatives and from responsibility.

Hungarian society is, according to Fleck, "a society running away from freedom." He brings up as an example TÁRKI's World Value Survey which shows a great deal of confusion as far as societal norms are concerned. In addition, Hungarian society's lack of trust in institutions and in each other is substantial. They lack self-confidence, they refuse to stand on their own two feet, and they welcome the presence of a paternalistic authority. The picture that emerged from the survey was so disappointing that the researchers considered Hungary ill suited for "the development of democracy and the market economy."

A similar picture emerged from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes project as well. It showed that reservations about democratic institutions and the market economy have in fact grown compared to the early years of the 1990s. When asked, 73% of Hungarians considered "a strong economy" more important than democracy. In the other three Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia) only 50% of the population held that opinion. Offered a choice between a strong leader and democracy, 48% chose the strong leader and only 42% democracy. The data show the Hungarians' attitude to be closer to that of Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians. The situation is the same when the question was about the acceptance of capitalism. In Hungary 42% of the population viewed the change from socialism to capitalism unfavorably while in Poland and in the Czech Republic it was only 15%. Even in Slovakia only 24% preferred the socialist economy over capitalism.

All that is pretty discouraging, but the situation is even worse if we consider another rather disappointing data point. Eurostat conducted research concerning the willingness of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 to pursue "life-long learning." The average in the member states was 42%. In Austria and Slovenia, countries close to Hungary, 80% of adults decided to learn something new. In Hungary, believe or not, only 12%! Hungary is the worst in the whole EU. Second from the bottom is Greece, with 17%. It is especially worrisome that among highly skilled white collar workers the percentage is only 10%, a third of the European average. Among people with college degrees the situation is slightly better: 17%. Yet Hungary is the very last in this group as well. The European average is 55%!

Fleck inquires at the end of his article: "What can we expect under these circumstances? Openness toward the world, toward knowledge is a prerequisite of democracy, especially in those countries where people are now learning the basics of democracy."

The tanks are coming, the tanks are coming: not Russian but Hungarian

Nothing that comes out of the Ministry of Defense surprises me anymore. Earlier we heard about the establishment of an entirely new reserve army of 6,000, soldiers defending the crown in the parliamentary building, the creation of a large civilian force that would be mobilized in case of emergency, and a great deal more money for defense, which is primarily for defending Hungary's borders.

But this tops it all. Last night an Austrian tabloid (Kronen Zeitung) with a very large circulation reported that the Austrian government wants to get rid of half of the 1,000 armored tanks it currently has and that Hungary is showing an interest in the used tanks and other weapons offered for sale. The reason for the sale is fairly obvious. The country owns far too many tanks, especially since it is "unlikely that foreign troops would penetrate the territory of Austria necessitating the employment of tanks." Moreover, said the Austrian minister of defense, Norbert Darabos, twenty years have gone by since the end of the cold war and the European Union offers a great deal of security. Keep in mind that Austria is not even a member of NATO.

A few minutes after this news broke the diligent reporters at MTI got in touch with the Hungarian Ministry of Defense where the answer was "no comment." We know what that means: "Yes, the news is true." But why on earth does Hungary need armored tanks if her western neighbor thinks that they are pretty useless military instruments in the modern world? And Hungary, unlike Austria, is a member of NATO and therefore her security is on a sound foundation. If Austria doesn't need them, why does Hungary want to buy them?

One has to assume that Viktor Orbán's new minister of defense, Csaba Hende, is not a madman who merely likes to see tanks rolling by during military parades. Surely, he has some concepts. Moreover, one must assume that Hende is not acting on his own but that he has Viktor Orbán's blessing. I would venture to say that in fact he has instructions from above. Surely, the larger budget the ministry will receive, the enlargement of the military force, the introduction of a reserve army, and now the buying of armored tanks must have some purpose, at least in the minds of Viktor Orbán and Csaba Hende. They feel threatened. Or at least they think that in the future Hungary's security might be at risk.

Which country do they have in mind? It is highly unlikely that they can seriously think that one of the neighbors will attack Hungary. Surely they cannot think that Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, or Austria–all members of the European Union–will send invading armies to Hungary one day. Croatia will soon be a member of the Union. Moreover, Croatian-Hungarian relations have been most friendly. Can you imagine what would happen if any of these countries got it into their heads to attack one of their neighbors? There is Serbia that is not an EU member yet, but Hungary is working very hard to assist her in that quest. Ukraine is also hoping to join and Hungary's relations with Ukraine are quite good. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Viktor Orbán paid a visit to Kiev.

My hunch is that it is Russia they worry about. It was on September 7, 2008, in Kötcse, a picturesque village near Lake Balaton where Fidesz yearly holds a "civic picnic," that Orbán explained his views on Russia. These gatherings provide a platform for Orbán to make often startling political announcements. Last year he expounded on his theory of one central power, naturally Fidesz, that would exclude any strong and meaningful opposition for a long time to come. Right now he is working assiduously to make that a reality. Two years ago the picnic was devoted to the importance of national interest and national security. Here he expressed his strong opposition to a sphere of interest or a security zone mentioned by Vladimir Putin in connection with the Russian-Georgian conflict. Orbán found any reference to a sphere of influence or security zone unacceptable. After all, Hungarians remember what it meant to belong to a Soviet security zone for over forty years.

It was about this time that Orbán with the help of Zsolt Németh, today undersecretary of foreign affairs, and János Martonyi, today foreign minister, worked out a scheme by which Hungary would build a cordon sanitaire against Russian expansion. He certainly didn't hide his apprehension over Russia's intentions. In early 2009 Orbán gave a lecture about European security matters in Erfurt where he talked about this East European cooperation. "Our instincts dictate cooperation [among East European countries] because a strong Russia always affected us differently" from others farther away from Russia's borders. "If these states don't cooperate, they will not be able to defend themselves." Well, that is pretty clear. These countries must unite against a potential enemy, Russia.

A few days after his speech in Erfurt he delivered another speech in Vienna at a conference organized by Euromoney, an investment and business magazine. He was even more explicit here: "The East will not hesitate to turn its economic might into military power." At the same time he expressed his concern at West European attempts to develop a strategic partnership with Russia.

This strategic partnership will soon be a reality, helped along by the U.S. policy shift regarding Russia after the presidential election. Orbán talked about all this quite openly on February 9, 2010, on "Ma Reggel," a political early morning show of MTV. "The world has gone through such changes in the last year–the increase of Russian power and the change in American foreign policy–which made us think of working together with the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats, and perhaps even the Romanians to develop a strong Central European cooperation that is more than exchanging mutual political gestures but has real content: economic questions, transportation, infrastructure, etc. In my mind this is the starting point of our foreign policy."

If I'm right and Hungary is buying tanks because the government is afraid of Russia, I think they are wasting their money. If war breaks out, it will not be fought with tanks. Moreover, it doesn't matter how many tanks Hungary has, it will never be enough to stop the Russian army if it decided to march into Eastern Europe. Which is unlikely.

It is really a shame that these schemes are eating up the money taken from private pension accounts and the tax levies on banks and foreign companies. A real waste of money that in no way helps stimulate economic growth.