Month: January 2011

The Hungarian Socialist Party and Ferenc Gyurcsány

As far as I can see, the conflict over the future of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) between the current leadership and Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and one time party chairman, is coming to a head. It has been obvious for a while that in Gyurcsány's opinion an effective opposition to the present government must be based on a wide coalition of democratic forces that would include not only the socialists but also the liberals currently without a party, the moderate conservatives for whom Viktor Orbán's populism is distasteful, and the independent civic organization. His own "platform" within the party, the Democratic Coalition–at the moment still not officially approved by the party leadership–also includes non-party members. However, the party's by-laws forbid non-party members from participating in the party's affairs on any level.

It seems that Gyurcsány hasn't been active in the party lately and hasn't attended a number of high-level meetings. One thing is certain: he wasn't at the meeting of the steering committee or board (take your pick for the Hungarian word "választmány") last Saturday. This meeting of the committee, according to party announcements, was meant to be an important occasion for "thinking together" about the future of the party. Out of curiosity I checked the size of this committee or board and was astonished to see that it is huge. I lost count, but it has at least 100 members. How a body of this size can discuss such an important matter as the future direction of the Hungarian left is beyond me. In any case, if this meeting was so important it is odd that the current party chairman, Attila Mesterházy, wasn't present because of his trip to the United States. Gyurcsány was invited but he was also absent. We will see why later.

It is hard to know whether the steering committee's "thinking together" had any tangible results, but I doubt it. The only MTI report I read about the event simply said that the committee decided on the party's 2011 budget. I belong to the group of analysts who don't expect much from MSZP with its current leadership. It seems to me that they are madly looking for their social democratic roots. If I understand it properly, at the moment they have gotten up to 1947! I believe that the present leadership should consider the idea of a wider based coalition instead of a socialist agenda that really can't defeat Fidesz.

While the steering committee huddled together in Budapest, Ferenc Gyurcsány met some of his followers in Ajka, not far from Veszprém. I learned about it from Figyelő, and the headline almost took my breath away. It read: Gyurcsány says "now is the time for the new party." At first glance that sounded as if Gyurcsány had given up on MSZP and was organizing a new party of his own. It was only after some thinking and some discussion about it with friends that I came to the conclusion that the meaning of Gyurcsány's announcement was not the organization of a new party but rather his decision to go ahead and try to reorganize MSZP in his own image. Thus, I expect quite an interesting time ahead within MSZP.

Zsófia Mihancsik of Galamus, who is a very thorough editor, went to the source of the news, the local paper, the Veszprémi Napló, and found that Figyelő was rather sloppy in reporting the news second hand. It turned out that Gyurcsány's announcement didn't take place during his speech as Figyelő reported but during the press conference that preceded it. She also objected to the words Figyelő chose when describing Gyurcsány's criticism of Viktor Orbán's domestic and foreign performance. Figyelő used the word "szapulni," which means something like "to vilify." She very rightly pointed out that the Orbán government's actions at home and abroad richly deserve criticism and therefore Figyelő's word was out of line. I'm a bit more charitable on this score because I came to the conclusion long ago that some Hungarian journalists simply don't know the true meaning of words. They madly look for synonyms and occasionally come up with some real doozies.

Gyurcsány's important announcement, as reported by the Veszprémi Napló, was that "MSZP must be reorganized…. In essence a new party must be created and the time for that is now." So, said Mihancsik, because MTI wasn't present at this meeting this important announcement became no-news. She added that if on Monday we find that there is a real upheaval within MSZP we will not know why.

Well, there is no upheaval yet. Only a modest announcement: "The secretariat of the former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány (MSZP), announced on Monday that the former prime minister and party chairman, the president of the Democratic Coalition platform of MSZP, will give a speech about the situation of the country and the government on February 18. In addition he will talk about the situation of MSZP and about his own political plans. The place of the event will be announced later." 

It is worth reading the news carefully. 

 

The Hungarian Academy and its institutes

The attack on the philosophers has been going on ever since January 8 when Magyar Nemzet claimed that "Heller and Co. researched away half a billion forints." The "political commentators" whom I would rather call "political hacks," with some help from the named philosophers' professional adversaries, showed such ignorance of the world of academe that it really boggles the mind. It soon became quite obvious that the newspapermen writing article after article have not the foggiest idea about what grants and grant applications are all about. I'm trying to imagine a situation in this country in which politicos would attack a group of scholars who received money for the study of the former Soviet Union. There are always people who consider money spent on this or that project a waste. But the academic world doesn't work that way. Although some people might object, there could be very good reasons for studying Persian literature or culture, not only as fascinating areas in and of themselves, but because it might enrich our understanding of today's Iran.

In Hungary grant applications were made and thirty-one were handed out by a jury whose members were unknown to the applicants. Of these thirty-one only six grants were questioned in Magyar Nemzet. What is behind this whole sordid affair? Part of the story might be found in the less than satisfactory situation that exists in the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

I hold strong opinions about the whole structure and functioning of the Academy that was reorganized in 1949 along Soviet lines. It became an institution granting academic degrees, maintaining innumerable research institutes, whose members had all sorts of privileges including monthly salaries. One of my former professors in the intervening years became an academician. When years later we met in the Academy's building, we were chauffeured in one of the many cars belonging to the Academy to the studio of a famous sculptor who was working on the bust of my former professor. And naturally, the driver came and drove us back to town.

I had hoped that with the change of regime these institutes would go back to where they belong, the universities, and that the Academy would once again become what it was before 1949. For one thing, teaching and research should go hand in hand. In addition, in Hungary a peculiar situation developed, especially in the arts and social sciences. After the 1956 revolution professors who took part in the events were fired from their university jobs and often found refuge in the research institutes. Since members of the institutes had no teaching duties, they had more time to devote to pure research. Thus a two-tier system developed in which the professors at the universities occupied a decidedly lower status, often with good reason.

Of course, the privileged group of academicians and the members of the research institutes had a vested interest in keeping the old Soviet-style structure and therefore put pressure on the Antall government to leave the system alone. Although it is a very expensive setup with very few tangible scientific results, the Academy's influence is considerable and its political weight is growing. In the last few years the Academy's leadership became closely associated with Fidesz and the political right. The current president of the academy, József Pálinkás, was prior to his election a Fidesz member of parliament and in the first Orbán government minister of education. Most likely the aged academicians, most of whom lean toward the right anyway, elected Pálinkás in 2008 because they were counting on a Fidesz victory at the 2010 elections. But even his predecessor, Szilveszter E. Vizy, was close to Fidesz and in his capacity assisted the party in all sorts of ways. By now the Academy is an established political tool of the government.

Among the many institutes there is the Philosophical Institute in which a few months ago profound changes took place. The custom until then was that the employees of the Institute recommended someone from among their ranks for the post of director. About a year ago the members picked one of their colleagues who for a number of years worked as deputy director: György Gábor, a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of religion. There was also an applicant from the outside, from the University of Pécs, János Boros, whom the others didn't consider qualified. Pálinkás intervened and, ignoring the wishes of the members of the Institute, appointed Boros who in no time began an ambitious plan of reorganizing the Institute which according to him didn't function well. He complained that the philosophers didn't spend enough time at the Institute, which was not at all surprising considering that the whole Institute consists of two small rooms for twenty-seven researchers. Moreover, the members of the institutes were not expected to work from eight to five on the premises even if there were ample space. People do research in libraries and usually work at home. Boros also complained that some of his colleagues didn't bother to repeat their postgraduate work and attain a Ph.D., introduced in Hungary not a terribly long time ago. Agnes Heller is not a member of the Institute, but it would be mighty strange if someone insisted on her enrolling again in graduate school and writing a Ph.D. dissertation. Then Boros complained that some of the colleagues didn't take formal language examinations. Again, the absurdity of this position is apparent in cases such as Miklós Gáspár Tamás, who speaks Hungarian, Romanian, English, and French fluently and who has lectured widely all over the world.

In brief, the atmosphere at the Institute was anything but amiable. Then on top of everything else a younger colleague and a supporter of Boros while intoxicated made some anti-semitic remarks about Gábor György, who related the incident to Népszava. The young philosopher sued the paper and it was only a few days ago that the courts found Népszava innocent.

Most likely János Boros and his friends in the Institute are behind the attack on "Heller and Co.," but surely without the support of people higher up it couldn't have been launched. Some people think that the witch hunt has Viktor Orbán's blessing. If so, I consider it another political mistake. The attack on the philosophers has reverberated outside of Hungary's borders, as I mentioned a few days ago.

I find it surprising that Viktor Orbán doesn't simply pick up the telephone and tell the media outlets close to Fidesz to cease and desist. But no! Just today Heti Válasz for all intents and purposes called Ágnes Heller a liar. Again with the assistance of a fellow academician, M. István Fehér, apparently a talented philosopher with right-wing leanings. At one point Heller in Magyar Narancs said that she was one of the people who suggested that Fehér become a member of the academy "despite the fact that his political views are far from [her own.]" And here comes Fehér in a letter to the editor of the weekly in which he announces that as far as he knows Heller didn't recommend him for membership. There were three recommendations but Heller's was not among them. Otherwise he received about 75% of the votes but the vote was secret.

How low can you go? And no one says: enough!

A new opinion poll about the media law

Those observers who claimed that the average Hungarian cares only about his pocketbook are wrong again. According to the latest opinion poll by Medián, only a minority of Hungarians support the media law in its present form.

Although most Hungarians by now are so sick and tired of politics that they barely follow the news, if at all, 88% of people asked had heard about the law and the controversy surrounding it. First and foremost, the pollsters wanted to know what the subjects knew about the specifics of the law without any probing on their part. The spontaneous answers clustered around the defense of the morality of youngsters; the increase of Hungarian content in programming; new appointees at the public media outlets; decrease in reporting of criminal cases in the news; the appointment of the head of Media Authority for nine years; the very high fines the Media Council can impose; the Media Council's supervision not only of all the domestic media but also of the Internet; the members of the Council being all government appointees; and the centralization of all news available on public television stations and radios. The spread in the descriptions was considerable. The restriction of crime reporting was most frequently mentioned, followed by the heavy fines that can be imposed on media outlets. Fewer people mentioned the centralization of the news or the duration of the tenure of Annamária Szalai for nine years.

The people who took part in the survey were asked to put down their preferences on a sliding scale from 0 to 100. It seems that the increase of Hungarian content (50) and the defense of youngsters' morality (53) were quite popular. All other questions received grades under 50. The lowest approval rating was for the centralized news service at public radios and television (34). The average enthusiasm for the law's provisions was 45.

After finding out how much and what the subjects knew about the law, the pollsters were interested in what the population, according to party preferences, think of the extremely wide powers of the Media Authority. There were three possible answers: (1) such wide powers are warranted in order to supervise the media properly; (2) it is worrisome when a body which is not independent from the government has such wide authority; and (3) the person doesn't know. Not surprisingly 54% of Fidesz voters thought that such wide powers are necessary, but 33% thought that it was worrisome while 13% had no opinion. MSZP voters overwhelmingly rejected the the current shape and form of the Media Authority (86%) while only 9% approved. 58% of Jobbik voters disapproved but 34% thought that it was fine and dandy. In the case of LMP only 6% approved, 82% disapproved, and a surprisingly high number (12%) had no opinion. Among those who claimed that they had no party preference only 22% approved and 18% didn't know what to think. There were some who voted for other parties (I assume SZDSZ, MDF) and these people also had a low opinion of the media law (18%). In total, 35% of the sample approved, while 51% found it unacceptable and 14% had no opinion. So it seems that not only the media workers and the foreign governments are less than enthusiastic; only a third of the Hungarian population supports the wide authority of the Media Council wholeheartedly.

When Medián asked about the way the bill was presented and passed by parliament, only 25% of those asked thought that speedy passage without any consultation was appropriate. At the same time in every group, including the Fidesz voters, the majority considered it important that such a significant piece of legislation go through careful planning and consultation with different interest groups. Sixty percent of those asked thought that the time for preparation was too short and thus the law suffered.

Medián also wanted to know what Hungarians think of the possible effect of foreign criticism. There were three possible answers: (1) it can adversely affect Hungary's position in the world; (2) it makes no difference; and (3) the current increased attention will help Hungary's international standing. Only 31% of Fidesz voters think that the increased attention will damage Hungary's standing while 42% are convinced that all this criticism will not make any difference one way or the other. However, those who think that this international upheaval will enhance Hungary's standing is only 16%. In the case of MSZP voters the situation is naturally radically different. Among them only 3% think that all this criticism is good for Hungary while 77% think that it is injurious to the country's reputation. But even 65% of Jobbik voters seem to have enough sense to think that the international reaction to the media law is not good for the country. Interestingly enough, the ratio of LMP voters is very similar to that of Jobbik. Among all voters 46% of the people think that the foreign reception of the law is bad for Hungary, 30% think that it makes no difference, and only 10% feel that it is actually good for the country's reputation.

On the basis of this poll I think it would be a good idea for Fidesz to rethink their attempt to muzzle the media. It is attacked abroad and not supported at home. And I think that in a month or two, as a result of the introduction of what looks like a very severe austerity program, the support for the government might drop considerably and with it society's tolerance for strong-man tactics that are so obvious in this bill.

 

 

Hungarian foreign policy in the wake of World War I

The war was lost but Hungary became independent. Yet even Mihály Károlyi, who was after all the head of the Party of Independence, admitted in his memoirs written in the early 1920s that they were somewhat shortsighted when they rejoiced over the collapse of the dual monarchy and greeted the severance of ties with Austria with great enthusiasm. Even before Austria became a republic, Hungary considered itself to be an independent state; in early November the Hungarian government began establishing its own foreign ministry.

The rejoicing didn't last long. Foreign armies immediately began occupying territories belonging to the Kingdom and later the Republic of Hungary. Initially without but later with the permission of the Great Powers, more and more territories were occupied by the Czech, Romanian, and Serbian armies. Prime Minister Károlyi was in an unenviable position. He had no direct access to the policy makers of the Entente and could complain only to low-level diplomatic and military officials residing in Vienna and later in Budapest. His complaints about the illegal occupations were not received sympathetically. Further and further demands were made and the Hungarian government obliged.

Lately Károlyi has been savagely attacked by the extreme right, which blames him for the severe territorial losses suffered in the Treaty of Trianon. If Károlyi can be criticized for anything, it was his trust in the Wilsonian principle of self-determination of nations. He mistakenly thought that the implementation of this principle would be done through a series of plebiscites. Theoretically such a solution sounded attractive, but implementing it would have posed almost insurmountable difficulties. Moreover when Woodrow Wilson came up with his idea about this new world order he himself most likely had no idea about how such a reorganization of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy would be implemented. Perhaps he didn't realize the very complicated ethnic patterns in the region.

Károlyi thought that as long as Hungary followed the "instructions" of the Great Powers, "justice" would prevail. Trying to stop the invading armies would have been difficult in the first place. Hungarian army units were made up of different nationalities, and it was unlikely that Romanian units would fight against the invading Romanians or Serbs against Serbs. Moreover, everybody was sick and tired of war, was happy to have survived, and had only one desire–to go home. Getting these people back in the army to fight again would have been a very difficult task though not impossible as we will see later.

The Károlyi period (October 31, 1918 to March 21, 1919) was spent in futile diplomatic efforts at stopping the onslaught, and therefore there wasn't very much time to come up with coherent ideas concerning a future foreign policy orientation. Károlyi himself was attracted to an understanding with Czechoslovakia because he considered the Czech politicians to be committed to democracy. However, he also sent out feelers to the Italians. There were people in his cabinet who suggested an understanding with the Serbs, mostly because there were territorial conflicts between Romania and Serbia by that time.

After the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic the idea of saving the country's territorial integrity remained alive. Béla Kun and his fellow communists thought that the solution to Hungary's problem lay in world revolution. Nation states would disappear and internationalism would triumph. Moreover, perhaps Soviet Russia would be able to come to Hungary's aid militarily. The communist leadership immediately began building the Hungarian Red Army. The military leadership came from old military personnel who for patriotic reasons were ready to lead even a Red Army. In early May 1919 the Hungarian Red Army began an offensive against the Czech forces. By the end of May Hungarians occupied Losonc (Lučenec) and Rimaszombat (Rimavská Sobota) and in June the Red Army occupied Kassa (Košice) and Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica).

At this point the Czech politicians asked for military help from the Great Powers, but instead the Entente leaders sent a communique to Budapest in which they offered a deal: if Hungary withdraws from the north, they will force the Romanian forces that had already reached the Tisza River to withdraw. Kun agreed; the Hungarians withdrew but the Romanians didn't.

The Soviet regime was quite popular when it showed a willingness to fight, but its support dwindled after the military withdrawal from the north. The final blow was that, although an attempt was made to fight the Romanian forces, it wasn't as successful as the campaign against the Czechoslovak forces. The Romanians crossed the Tisza River and began their march toward the Hungarian capital. Béla Kun and his fellow communist leaders fled to Austria. By August 1, 1919, the communist experiment in Hungary was over.

The rest of 1919 is so complicated a story that I will not even try to say anything about it. It was a time when the Entente Powers refused to recognize a government that was not a coalition of all political forces. And negotiations for such a government stalled for months. Budapest by that time was under Romanian occupation, and the Romanian government indirectly put out feelers for some kind of political understanding between Romania and Hungary. There was a small group of Hungarian politicians, mostly from Transylvania, who were in favor of rapprochement. After all, the greatest number of Hungarians lived in territories that would most likely end up on the Romanian side. Perhaps as many as two million. However, there was another group that wouldn't hear of any kind of negotiations with Romania or any of the neighbors. They were certain that Hungary's fate depended on the good will of the Great Powers. Every time there were secret negotiations with high-level Romanian diplomats sent to Budapest for the purpose of coming to some kind of understanding with the Hungarian government, the anti-Romanian forces ran to the local representatives of the Great Powers in Budapest. Especially the American military representative, General Harry Hill Bandholtz, who despised the Romanians.

Another group of people, including Márton Lovászi, foreign minister for a short while, was in favor of a Yugoslav orientation. In fact he even sent a representative to Belgrade to negotiate. In these new right-wing governments there was no one who would have opted for a rapprochement with Czechoslovakia. Actually, the feeling was mutual. Edvard Beneš didn't want anything to do with Hungary either and in fact as early as January 1920 was endeavoring to create a circle of hostile countries, later called the Little Entente, against Hungary. At this point neither Yugoslavia nor Romania was ready to join him. Beneš was moved to action by his discovery that the French had initiated secret negotiations with Hungary because certain people in the French foreign ministry came to the conclusion that the creation of Czechoslovakia was a mistake.

Thus there were two choices for Hungary: either try to make a deal with Romania or Yugoslavia or rely on the good will of one of the Great Powers. Since British foreign policy had pretty well decided that Great Britain wouldn't get involved in the region and the United States withdrew into splendid isolation, only France remained as a possible ally. But the French dalliance with Hungary was short lived and in the end Hungary remained abandoned and isolated. Hungary's most natural ally in my opinion would have been Romania, but the opportunity was missed.

 

The road to Trianon, 1848-1918

A professor of mine once told me that his worst lectures were on topics he knew most about. He got lost in the details. He gave his most successful lectures when, as a young assistant professor, he was assigned to teach European history from the fall of the Roman Empire to 1945! That's by way of a caveat. I'm afraid that I will be less than lucid because I know too much about this period, but I'll try my best. 

The multi-national character of the Kingdom of Hungary didn't pose serious problems until the early nineteenth century when modern nationalism reached the area. The first nationality group to get the bug was the Hungarian. The leading politicians of the Era of Reform, besides demanding modernization and striving for democratic changes, also pushed for more and more rights for the Hungarian nation within the Habsburg Empire. Although the 1848-49 revolution didn't start off as a war of independence, it ended as such.

Within the Kingdom of Hungary other national groups–Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians–although lagging somewhat chronologically, were also affected by nationalism. Hungarian nationalism was directed against Austria, while the non-Hungarians' demands could only have been satisfied at the expense of the Hungarians who believed that they were the sole group within the country with the ability for "state building." And if it depended on them, the Hungarian political elite would have preferred an independent Hungary territorially intact.

The problem with these goals was that independence and territorial integrity were incompatible. This was something most Hungarians refused to acknowledge, although the problem became quite apparent already during the 1848-49 revolutionary period when nationality conflicts within the country came to the surface. It is very possible that if Hungary had managed to win against the Austrian and Russian forces in 1849 and had thus been able to achieve the much desired goal of independence, soon enough it would have fallen apart under its own weight. At this point the Hungarians were a minority in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Compromise of 1867 (the dual monarchy in which Hungary achieved home rule) was the best deal Hungary could have gotten from Vienna. But over the next fifty years Hungarian politics still centered around Hungary's relations with Vienna. In fact, there was even a Party of Independence that at least on paper strove for total independence. While the constitutional struggle between the Hungarians and the Crown was taking place, the nationality situation was becoming a serious issue. In 1868 the Hungarian parliament enacted a very enlightened nationality law; the problem was that in practice it was blissfully ignored. Meanwhile the number of Hungarian speakers was growing steadily. The magic 50% level was reached by 1900; in 1910, at the time of the last census on the basis of which decisions in Paris were reached, it was 54.4%. 

Although there were attempts to forcibly assimilate non-Hungarians, my opinion is that most of the increase in Hungarian speakers came as a result of economic growth and, with it, urbanization. For example, about 300,000 Slovaks moved to Budapest seeking work in the bustling capital. But one didn't have to go that far in order to become assimilated in a generation or so. Bigger cities in today's Slovakia (then called the Uplands) were also places where a change of nationality took place on a massive scale. The assimilation of Romanians was sluggish, partly because of religious differences and a very high birth rate.

So, what could the Hungarian ruling classes do under these circumstances if they wanted to keep their country intact? The majority of the people simply refused to face the problem. Moreover, they were convinced that the nationalities had no legitimate grounds for complaint. They refused to consider the existence of any discrimination against non-Hungarians. According to these people everything was just fine as it was. They figured that with the passing of time more and more non-Hungarians would have a burning desire to become Hungarians because, after all, being a Hungarian was decidedly better than being a Slovak or a Romanian. Sooner or later the Hungarians would have a large majority and all would be well.

There were very few people, really just a handful, like Oszkár Jászi, who thought that some kind of understanding with the nationalities was necessary. What he had in mind was "cultural autonomy" for the nationalities, very much along the lines of Otto Bauer's ideas. The Hungarian ruling class condemned Jászi. He was considered to be a traitor who was enabling the demise of historic Hungary. Jászi, of course, was sure that his ideas, once implemented, would help to preserve the country's territorial integrity.

I hate to be skeptical, but in my opinion neither the conservatives' assimilation policy nor Jászi's ideas of cultural autonomy could have saved historic Hungary. Sooner or later the desire of the nationalities to have their own independent states or join their fellow Romanians or Serbs outside of Hungary's borders would have resulted in some kind of Trianon. Perhaps a peaceful Trianon, but it would have been the end of Greater Hungary. There are examples elsewhere in the region. For instance, in the last few years we have witnessed the dissolution of the neighboring multi-national Yugoslavia where it seemed that the nationalities lived side by side in harmony for fifty years. Or consider the states that were formed after the collapse of the Russian/Soviet empires.

Of course, it would have been better from the Hungarian point of view if the collapse had come as late as possible and not after a lost war. If it had been a negotiated settlement between Hungarians and their non-Hungarian-speaking fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the end came after a lost war and the terms were not negotiated.

But once it happened, what would have been the best tactic for a much smaller Hungary with large Hungarian minorities in three countries: Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia? This is the question we have to pose and perhaps try to answer tomorrow.

Council of Europe: Debate on the functioning of democracy in Hungary

The discussion just ended. One could follow it live on the Internet at the website of the Council of Europe. I assume that eventually the debate in the Parliamentary Assembly will also be available on video.

Let me jot down my first impressions. First and foremost, I would be most surprised if Björn von Sydow, a Swedish socialist member of the Parliamentary Assembly, were right that the Council of Europe would initiate a "monitoring procedure" against Hungary because of human rights violations. Most of the speakers took the Orbán government's side. There were fierce Hungarian supporters of the government while no Hungarian socialist was present. Apparently, the two Hungarian socialist members of the body were unable to attend. One of them is visiting India while the other is in the United States. Considering that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council Europe meets only four times a year it is beyond me why the socialists decided to make travel plans during the first session of the year.

Although it is true that at least one conservative member, Lord Tim Boswell of Great Britain, condemned the Orbán government's nationalism and severely criticized the media law, most of the right-of-center speakers were a great deal more charitable. The Hungarian speakers simply spouted the usual Hungarian propaganda about building democracy instead of violating its rules.

The socialist Andreas Gross of Switzerland and the Swedish Kerstin Lundgren (liberal) were among the few critics. As "friends of Hungary" they felt that they have to speak out because otherwise they would fail the Hungarian people. Lundgren said that "the whistleblowers" must be listened to. She very much hoped that the Hungarian government will be good to its word and will make the necessary changes in the law. Another socialist from Moldavia, Grigore Petrenco, was also deeply concerned, especially because the board overseeing the media consists of people delegated by only one party. He mentioned the attack on the constitutional court. Just because a government has a two-thirds majority in parliament it mustn't behave as the leader of "a one-party system." According to him "monitoring procedures should be introduced."

Well, that was about the last criticism of the Hungarian government. Christos Pourgourides, a Cypriot Christian Democrat, launched the defense. The government has a two-thirds majority in parliament and therefore whatever the government does is "the will of the people." If there is something wrong with government actions there are courts. The Hungarian government is in consultation with the European Union and he hopes that the law will be changed before the question ends up on the table of the European Court. Monitoring is not necessary.

The Italian Luca Volonte, who is described as a leading social conservative, criticized the proceedings against Hungary because of "a lack of facts."  Any criticism of the government inside of Hungary comes from "people who are unhappy that they were not reelected." Holger Haibach (a German Christian Democrat) went on and on about the Hungarian socialists who ruined the country. He cited the corruption of the earlier governments but deemed Viktor Orbán's Hungary "a genuine European regime."

Then came the Hungarian contingent. Márton Braun (Fidesz), one of the deputy speakers of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, announced that they are not worried because "Hungary is a solid democracy." The European Union's criticism of the law doesn't touch on substantive points. They are "only technical issues," he said. Imre Vejkey (Christian Democrat) started with Gyurcsány and his alleged lies, as if they had anything to do with the current state of democracy in Hungary. He repeated the old story that the criticism leveled against the media law is based on "ignorance." He "categorically rejected" any such "attacks" on the Hungarian government.

Next came Tamás Gaudi-Nagy (Jobbik) who was also chosen by the Hungarian government to defend its actions. He went on about the unfair treatment of the Council of Europe when it never criticized "eight years of awful dictatorship." Attila Gruber (Fidesz) addressed the situation of the civil servants who as a result of a new law can be fired without any explanation. This was necessary only because of the economic straits the country finds herself in at the moment. It has absolutely nothing to do with "political spring cleaning." As for the new constitution, he claimed that the old one was "Stalinist." The new one will be truly European with an eye on "national traditions." Melinda Széky (Fidesz) praised Hungary's twenty-year-old democracy which the government is now rebuilding and strengthening. All criticism against the Fidesz government is based on erroneous information. And for good measure György Frunda, a Hungarian politician from Romania, came to the rescue of the Orbán government. He wasn't satisfied with only twenty years of Hungarian democracy. He talked about "centuries of democracy"!  Although he admitted that perhaps Fidesz made a mistake in appointing only people close to the party to oversee the state of the Hungarian media, on the whole the government is on the right track. Hungary is a democracy and therefore "Hungary must be respected."

Fidesz was well prepared and I think that they achieved what they wanted.

 

The Hungarian government under siege from many quarters

For quite a few days I have been waiting for a good opportunity to use a cover of Magyar Narancs, an opposition weekly of high quality. The name is a reference to the communist-era attempt to cultivate oranges in Hungary. Of course, the climate was unsuitable for oranges and the home-grown product more closely resembled lemons. This was parodied in the movie A tanú (The Witness, 1969) where the so-called home-grown orange–in this case so small that it was even a poor excuse for a lemon–is replaced with a lemon. The big party chief while eating it says, “It’s small, yellow, bitter, but it’s OURS!” Since then “Hungarian orange” has become a metaphor, similar to “goulash communism.”

On the first day of the new democratic parliament in 1990, Fidesz members came with hundreds of oranges and distributed them to the MPs; the orange was used as Fidesz’s logo. But the parting of ways between Magyar Narancs and Fidesz was inevitable. First, Fidesz tried to deprive the magazine of its name, to no avail. Meanwhile the magazine changed its color: from orange to yellow.

Orban csillagokat lat, Magyar Narancs

Well, in any case, this is the cover that I was hoping to use one day. I think the time has come because Viktor Orbán is really under siege. I will  list here some of his problems.

We all know about the media law and Orbán’s reception in Strasbourg. But this is just one of his problems, and I’m not even sure whether it is the most serious one. There is the the Zsolt Bayer problem. The unspeakable article written by him. It was inevitable that sooner or later people would read about it not only in Hungary but also in the foreign press. As far as I could ascertain, the first article about Bayer’s article appeared in Tagesanzeiger, a Swiss paper with this title: “Viktor Orbans Freund diffamiert die Juden.” It’s bad enough that such an article appears at all in a democratic country, but that the author is one of the founders of Fidesz and a good friend of Orbán is really too much.

A few days later Die Welt, a conservative German paper, widened the scope. It wrote about the populist-nationalist campaign in Hungary with “more and more anti-Semitic undertones.” The article mentioned the attack on the pianist András Schiff, writer György Konrád, conductor Ádám Fischer, philosopher Ágnes Heller, and actor Róbert Alföldi.

Today in Die Presse Karl Pfeifer’s article appeared under the headline “Fecal Anti-Semite Honored.” Die Presse is also a conservative paper partly owned by the Austrian Catholic Church. Honored? Oh, yes, adding insult to injury local Fidesz politicians in Nógrád County bestowed the Madách-Prize on Bayer. The prize was named after Imre Madách (1823-1864) whose major work, The Tragedy of Man (1861), is a dramatic poem about 4,000 lines long that elaborates on ideas similar to Goethe’s Faust.  Poor Madách would be appalled if he heard that this foul-mouthed nobody received a prize bearing his name. The newspaper picked this illustration to accompany Karl Pfeifer’s article:


Orbán Cube. Well, this is quite something. Therefore it is not at all surprising that Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, announced yesterday that “he will warn European leaders that ‘extremist forces’ are once again emerging from Europe.” He spoke about the problem today on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Earlier in the day Kantor met Viktor Orbán. Kantor is obviously a diplomat. Here is a quotation from him: “We know how devoted Hungary and Prime Minister Orban are to democracy and we will call on him to quell any anti-Semitism in his nation and to press for a reinforcement of existing legislation to fight anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia at the European level.”

Three Austrian writers–the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Turrini and Michael Scharang–rose to defend András Schiff, who announced earlier that he had received so many threatening letters from his homeland that he feared for his life. In any case, he has no intention of going to Hungary to give a concert and or visit his friends for a while.

Viktor Orbán is feeling the pinch and he reacted immediately. According to MTI Orbán met Kantor and assured him of his best intentions. He claimed that since he became prime minister the situation has changed for the better as far as anti-Semitism is concerned. Moreover, he asserted that “Hungarian political experience tells us that a central political force is the best to deal with extremism.” I’ll refrain from commenting on this one!

Then there is a manifesto in defense of the Hungarian philosophers by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Julian Nida-Rümelin, president of the German Philosophical Society. They call the witch hunt of the Hungarian philosophers “the scandal of scandals.” Again, this particular attack by Magyar Nemzet and Gyula Budai, who is supposed to be in charge of “political retribution” leveled against those who are not considered to be friends of Fidesz, has anti-Semitic overtones. Although over thirty grants were made during the period in question (between 2004 and 2007) only six people were singled out, all of whom happened to be Jews or were suspected of being Jewish.

Adding to Orbán’s woes, a Swedish Christian Democratic member of the Council of Europe requested an urgent debate on “the functioning of democracy in Hungary.” The Council of Europe is different from the European Union. It represents all forty-seven states of Europe. It doesn’t deal with economic matters but concentrates on questions of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Member states choose delegates to the Council of Europe for four years; the Council convenes four times a year for a week each time. We will see what will happen on that front.

All in all, it wouldn’t be surprising if Viktor Orbán were seeing stars already. Mind you, he is largely responsible for this state of affairs.

 

 

 

Filtering the news in Hungary?

Well, it looks as if there are attempts to conceal some of the bad news–bad that is from the point of view of the government–from the Hungarian public. This is especially true about the reporting of news of foreign media organs by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), the official Hungarian news agency. There are more and more examples of "wrong translations" or simply omissions of adjectives or whole sentences from foreign media reporting.

Hungarian journalists and political activists who can handle foreign languages well immediately moved into action. Attila Ara-Kovács, a well-known figure of the original democratic opposition, is busily collecting German-, French- and English-language items about Hungary and sending them around to journalists and others who have anything to do with the media. However, it can easily happen that the journalist receiving the articles may not be able to read them. It is here that Galamus Csoport (www.galamus.hu) comes into the picture. Members of the Group who know a foreign language well volunteer their services so that the Hungarian public can be better informed. On the site one can read accurate translations of articles that appeared abroad about Hungary.

But of course this is just a drop in the bucket because MTI reaches all those who subscribe to its services. That means practically all media outlets. And soon enough these services will be entirely free. By making the service free the government wants to make sure that everybody will use MTI instead of other sources. And, by the way, another source might be on the horizon. Róbert Braun, a communications expert and former advisor to Ferenc Gyurcsány, bought a little-known agency called Független Hírügynökség. We will see whether this news agency can compete with the well-established MTI.

What is MTI doing? I myself discovered two instances in which MTI most likely purposely altered the news. One was in late December when MTI gave a summary of an article that appeared in the Financial Times on December 24, 2010. In it the journalist reported that Neelie Kroes "has asked the Hungarian government to defend its controversial press law, ratcheting up a potentially fraught EU investigation into the measure." Moreover, "according to people who have seen the letter, Ms Kroes details EU protections regarding press freedoms, adding she has heard concerns that the 'act risks jeopardising these rights.' It also says Ms Kroes has received complaints that the language governing the new media council 'does not seem to guarantee its independence.'" In addition, the article mentions that "Ms Kroes’ action could have more serious repercussions. The EU has already opened a so-called 'infringement action' against Hungary for its failure to live up to the EU’s media regulations, and Ms Kroes could take the case to the European Court of Justice to force Budapest’s hand."

Most of this important information was left out of the MTI "translation." MTI didn't even find it necessary to mention which "British" paper published the article. The summary simply states that Neelie Kroes wrote a letter to Tibor Navracsics in which she asked him to send the complete text of the media law in order for her to decide whether the Hungarian law is in accord with Union laws. The MTI version mentions that some people who saw the letter claim that Kroes brought up the question of the independence of the Media Authorities. Period.

Another mistranslation was MTI's reporting of the description of Viktor Orbán by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. According to the document, obtained through Wikileaks by Der Spiegel, the following description went to Washington:  "With the recent release of a lengthy report on the fall demonstrations which highlights FIDESZ's links to the violent protestors (ref b), their latest act of 'civil disobedience' will likely underscore questions regarding their commitment to the rule of law. Much as we saw Viktor Orban at his best in a recent meeting with Ambassadors (ref a), this escapade shows that he is still equally liable to play with fire." This time MTI summarized the Spiegel article but from the above description found only one short sentence worthy of quotation: "In the secret American diplomatic documents that came to light not long ago, Viktor Orbán is characterized as someone who likes to play with fire."

Zsófia Mihancsik found several other "mistranslations" by MTI in the French-language reports. It turned out that the Catholic daily La Croix spent three whole pages on Hungary which were summarized in one report by MTI. In one of the articles Mihancsik found an interesting sentence: «Toute cette hystérie à propos de la loi sur les médias est excessive et incompréhensible», répond Peter Csermely, 44 ans, rédacteur en chef adjoint de Magyar Nemzet, le quotidien conservateur concurrent, pourfendeur virulent des «juif » et des «communistes». Well, these adjectives were left out of the Hungarian "translation." How can one call Magyar Nemzet a virulently antisemitic and anticommunist paper? (Mihancsik, a professional translator of French books, translated it as "zsidó és kommunistafaló" konzervatív napilap.)

Thus one has plenty to worry about. One will have to be a great deal more careful when reading MTI summaries of foreign news.

 

 

About the Association of Young Christian Democrats

Because one of our readers was so taken with my piece in Hungarian about the similarities between the ideas of the socialist period on culture and those of the Young Christian Democrats (“Rákosi és Kádár kultúrpolitikusainak legjobb tanítványai: Az ifjú kereszténydemokratákról”) I decided that it would be a crime to deprive non-Hungarian speakers of the pleasure of reading it. Just to be certain that everybody understands what I’m talking about, this reader of Hungarian Spectrum announced that it was the worst piece I have ever written. And that must be quite something, considering the source of the criticism. So prepare yourselves.

First, one must understand that although there is a 37-member Christian Democratic parliamentary caucus there is no such thing as a Christian Democratic Party in Hungary. For years pollsters have been working hard to come up with any signs of measurable support but no luck! The nonexistent party not only has a parliamentary delegation but it also has an Association of Young Christian Democrats.

In the past one didn’t hear much about them, but since Bence Stágel (MP) took over the leadership one finds IKSZ (Ifjúsági Kereszténydemokrata Szövetség) in the news quite frequently. He is a very busy boy. Or rather no longer a boy. He is thirty-three years old and a father. His predecessor, Bence Rétvári, is about the same age–the other Bence. Moreover, their backgrounds are also very similar. I guess in order to become somebody in IKSZ it is a good idea to attend the Jesuit High School of Budapest and move on to get a law degree from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. I might add here that Bence Rétvári is the man who came up with the brilliant idea of dismantling the archives of the state security apparatus of the old regime and allowing everybody to pack up the originals and take them home. Why? Because it was an immoral system. On this basis we should destroy a lot of archives in the world, but Rétvári’s intelligence level doesn’t allow him to think so far ahead.

The second Bence every other day comes up with a new idea. The one that attracted the most attention was his request to the newly established Media Authority to sanction RTL Klub’s Való Világ (The Real World) reality show. At the same time he asked people to bombard the Authority with complaints about the program, and the good Christians obliged. Within two weeks 64 complaints arrived in the Authority’s mailbox.

György Bolgár, who has eagle eyes when it comes to interesting bits of daily news, immediately spotted Stágel’s call for sanctions and asked for an interview with the new leader of IKSZ. During the conversation it became clear that Stágel wants more than sanctions against RTL Klub; he wants to put an end to the reality show’s broadcast. Moreover, he would like to see “family friendly” television across the board. Programming wouldn’t have to be boring, but it should be such that the whole family could watch all programs from morning till night together. As it turns out, this reality show is the most popular television program in Hungary. It became clear that Stágel would like to introduce a kind of officially sanctioned programming based on Christian Democratic ideas on morality and taste.

Upon further questioning Stáger outlined the kinds of high-brow programs that might interest a very small segment of society but in his scheme would be forced on the whole population. No more “junk” but real “value.” Bolgár at this point interjected: “I don’t know whether you have ever heard of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. In those days that party had a Central Committee with all sorts of committees and subcommittees. Among them there was a cultural committee. The Central Committee decided on the programming for the Hungarian Television, how it should strengthen the traditional family, socialist and other kinds of values. I hear practically the same thing from you.” Stáger didn’t see any similarity. A sharp mind.

And here I chimed in and added that I would go even farther back. To the Rákosi regime and naturally not to television programming because in those days Hungary had no television broadcasting. Instead I mentioned what happened to public libraries after 1948. Doctrinaire cultural purists got rid of not only all politically suspicious material but also all light reading. What remained were Hungarian and foreign classics and the mostly unreadable books written in the socialist realist style. Whether people liked them or not didn’t matter. They set out to change public taste. They wanted to create a new socialist man. Never mind that in those days the educational attainment of the country was very low and most adults had only a sixth-grade education, they filled the village libraries with classics or happy stories of Soviet collective farms. I guess the assumption was that if these people just tried hard enough eventually they would be avid readers of War and Peace. As we know, neither Rákosi nor Kádár succeeded. As soon as there was greater choice, most of the people returned to “junk.”

A few days ago I happened upon an article about reading habits nowadays. The journalist asked the owner of a bookstore about the reading habits of her customers. The answer was: “People still read but ‘other stuff’.” Meaning not the same as she was accustomed to in the past.

Then I recalled that during my high school days I was a volunteer in the County Library in Pécs. In those days the collection was meager, especially since we were forced to cull an incredible number of volumes. All light reading was banished. The older ladies wanted to read those bestsellers from the 1930s they were accustomed to: Renée Erdős or Lola Réz née Kosáry. One of our librarians tried to satisfy them with Maupassant and Zola. Older men escaped to travelogues: “I hunted tigers in Africa” type of books.

All this effort came to naught. It might have been that there were scores and scores of classics in Hungarian homes, but I doubt that they were read very much. Books were very inexpensive because the pricing structure was also designed to help create a new, well educated socialist society. It was a total bust. And now the Christian Democrats want to change the Hungarian public. Instead of a communist mold they want to force people into a Christian one. But if Rákosi and Kádár were not successful, the Christian Democrats will fail too.

Just to give an example of how little these people understand what we are talking about here. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read a headline in Magyar Nemzet. “Soon Való Világ will receive serious competition.” And what is this competition? The University of All Knowledge! A series of university-level lectures on various disciplines! An excellent program otherwise that I can heartily recommend to everybody. But it is highly unlikely that the viewers of Való Világ will rush to watch “Mindentudás Egyeteme.”

And finally I recalled an old story, also from Pécs. The university library grew out of the late eighteenth-century collection of György Klimó, bishop of Pécs. The original collection is kept separately in a series of lovely chambers with high baroque bookshelves.

Sometime in the early 1950s the library got a new party secretary who looked around and noticed those carved busts on the top of the shelves. He was outraged. Saints in a library! A socialist library! They must go, and he was ready to order workers to saw off the busts. People tried to explain to him that they are not saints but ancient philosophers. It took some persuasion, the fate of the philosophers hung in the balance for a few days. But there is nothing new under the sun. Today certain people don’t want to saw off the busts of philosophers; they only attack their integrity.