The infamous neo-Nazi website Kuruc-info is in the news again. It was a year ago that I reported that Kuruc-info placed a blood bounty on everyone who participated in a flash mob demonstration at the time of the revelations about László Csatáry, a former police officer in charge of the Košice/Kassa Jewish ghetto in the summer of 1944. You may also recall that a man who lived in California at the time and who allegedly secured the American server Kuruc.info uses himself offered money to anyone who could provide information about the identity of the persons involved in the demonstration. Informers were offered 100,000 forints. Once some of the participants were identified, harassment via telephone and e-mail began. One of these messages read: “If I were you, I would take out life insurance.”
Eszter Garai-Édler, one of the organizers, filed a complaint on September 9, 2012 in connection with the case. After she was called in as a witness on January 18, 2013, the district prosecutor’s office ended its investigation. Garai-Édler filed another complaint, after which the case was reopened only to end on October 15 in a ruling that declared that the investigation was terminated. The reason was the same old story about why Kuruc.info cannot be shut down:
According to the information at our disposal, it can be determined that the Kuruc.info website operates on servers based in the United States of America. As such, it can be stated that the criminal act and the uploading of the web content in question occurred in the United States as well. Seeing that Kuruc.info operates off of a server found in the US, any determinations surrounding the site’s content fall outside the competence of the police. Due to differences between legal interpretations of the two countries, proceedings cannot begin in the US against the operators of the website.
Of course, this is nonsense. Uploading can occur anywhere in the world, and in the case of kuruc.info it is almost 100% certain that the editors are busily working on their computers in Hungary.
A few years back a former editor of Kuruc.info identified three men who are allegedly in charge of Kuruc.info. All three live in Budapest. The prosecutors claim to have investigated the role of a certain Balázs Molnár, one of the editors, but they said they couldn’t make their case. Another editor is apparently Előd Novák, a Jobbik member of parliament.
Kuruc.info obviously feels emboldened. A Hungarian journalist, András Dezső, discovered a huge billboard advertising Kuruc.info at a prominent place on the busy Budaörsi út.
Dezső immediately began his own investigation. He eventually tracked down the company that owns the billboard and inquired about the people who rented the advertising space. He was told to put his request in writing, which he did, foolishly adding his cell phone number. A few days later he was informed that the billboard will be taken down. And then came the surprise. Dezső discovered the contents of his e-mail to the company, including his e-mail address and telephone number, on kuruc.info. The poor guy’s life became sheer hell. Kuruc-info’s troll kept phoning him constantly and his e-mail box was overflowing. Dezső works for Index where this morning he published the story of his encounter with Kuruc-info.
The billboard company, Hungaroplakát, could certainly help the police and the prosecutors “solve” the mysterious case of Kuruc-info. That is, if they wanted to. Garai-Édler also came to the conclusion that “the Hungarian government has decided that it will protect Kuruc.info” for political reasons. Fidesz needs votes from the extreme right and doesn’t want to alienate the hundreds and thousands who are faithful readers of this neo-Nazi rag.
The real problem here is not so much what Kuruc.info trolls are doing to the journalist, because that is expected. What is really troublesome is that an employee of a bona fide company that has been in operation since 1998 is capable of giving official company correspondence to the neo-Nazis who publish Kuruc-info. HVG, the paper for which András Dezső used to work, inquired from Hungaroplakát about this latest outrage. They were told that the management of the firm is in the process of consulting with the company’s lawyers.
Enter Tamás Deutsch, the enfant terrible of Fidesz. He loves Facebook and Twitter and frequently uses these platforms to criticize the opposition, often with obscene language. But this time he attacked the Hungarian prosecutors for doing nothing about Kuruc-info which in his opinion operates illegally. He gave the Prosecutor’s Office 72 hours “to put an end to this Nazi website. No more evasion. No more on the one hand and on the other. Stand up on your hind legs and act.”
The spokesman of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, Géza Fazekas, announced that, although his office doesn’t normally respond to utterances of politicians, Deutsch’s statements are simply untrue. The prosecutors did investigate Kuruc.info. Moreover, they did it several times but they couldn’t bring charges against the editors of the site because the “United States during the fall of 2007 refused the seizure of the server referring to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
So we are back exactly where we were six years ago even though the physical location of the server has nothing to do with the case. I fear that even the billboard advertisement will not be enough for the prosecutors, who obviously believe that it is not in the interest of Fidesz, which practically runs the Hungarian prosecutor’s office, to put an end to Kuruc.info.
Gábor Demszky, one of the early Hungarian “dissidents,” played a central role in the admittedly small but influential “democratic opposition” to the Kádár regime in the decade prior to the regime change in 1989-1990. His main anti-government activities included organizing, printing, and publishing illegal books, periodicals, and newspapers collectively called samizdats. During this time he was constantly followed by the secret service and harassed by the authorities, and he clashed multiple times with the state police during demonstrations for a free press and multiparty democracy. He was deprived of his livelihood and was jobless all through the 1980s.
He was one of the founding members of Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ) or Association of Free Democrats, which was the second largest party at the 1990 elections. He first became a member of parliament and was then elected lord mayor of Budapest. He was reelected to the same office five times and hence became one of the longest serving mayors in the history of Budapest.
His lecture on Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process, and the 1986 and 2010 media laws was delivered yesterday in the Library of Congress.
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My presentation today will cover three interrelated topics: (1) First, I will define, explain, and illustrate the meaning of the Russian word samizdat; (2) Next, I will describe the Helsinki process in order to give the historical background of this kind of press and subculture and (3) I will use the development of the Hungarian media law since 1986 as a case study for the current lack of freedom of the press in Hungary.
For historical reasons, 1968 is an appropriate and obvious date to begin with, because this date signaled the end of the hope for a “reformed” or “enlightened” communism in the Eastern bloc with the crushing of the Prague Spring and the banning of a theater piece of the nineteeth-century Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz from being performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw and the resulting anti-Semitic backlash.
Here is a joke from Warsaw from 1968 about the banning of Mickiewicz’s play. Brezhnev calls the Polish Interior Minister, Mieczysław Moczar, a hardliner, and asks him: “What’s this? What are these demonstrations going on in Poland?” To which Moczar replies: “Well, a play by Mickiewicz has been cancelled.” “Couldn’t you arrest this Mickiewicz?” ”But Comrade Brezhnev, Mickiewicz is dead!” “That why I like you, Comrade Moczar!”
But let us return to our first topic: samizdat literature. In my opinion, samizdat and all forms of civil disobedience in Eastern Europe were strongly motivated by the Helsinki process and by the Polish opposition’s bravery and ideological split with the Soviet system.
In 1975, we knew that the Helsinki Final Act was only an international agreement to which countries were not legally bound. It was only a declaration of intention, and the obligations therein were only moral and political. But in spite of the document’s legal weakness it obviously reshaped East-West relations and led to the end of the Cold War. For us it was a “testament,” a “creed,” and we wholeheartedly campaigned for its implementation.
In addition, Helsinki created bonds between East European dissidents and Western democrats. It started a controversial and ongoing dialogue about the implementation of the so-called “baskets”. (Baskets referred to different policy principles which the signatories accepted.) Naturally we, the “easterners,” have shown a great interest in the “basket-three” provisions because it contained basic human rights provisions. Why? Because we hoped that basket-three would ease our isolation. “The free flow of information, travel, and family reunification” were all magic words for us. We also knew that there was a growing pressure on our governments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. There was no doubt in our minds that the content of the “baskets” would be effective tools and frames of reference to advocate for the liberalization of Eastern Europe.
In addition, an effective follow-up process started to assess the progress of countries in fulfilling the terms. The follow-up meetings in Belgrade, Madrid, Vienna, etc. repeatedly created new opportunities. They became high level forums for our outcry and complaints.
In the framework of the “Helsinki process” a congressional commission called Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) was established in the Unites States, and in both the East and West several human rights groups were established in order to monitor the implementation of the agreement. It became more and more natural that East European citizens could meet and write letters and petitions about the human rights abuses to American and West European diplomats.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) became a strong advocate for United States activism on human rights, and it was an essential part of the transnational Helsinki network. The newly elected president, Jimmy Carter, was very concerned with the human rights issues, and with his leadership they received high priority within the OSCE and especially in the Belgrade follow-up meeting.
Meanwhile, the members of the Moscow Helsinki group were constantly harassed. Russian authorities considered the close cooperation between NGOs in Moscow and the Helsinki Commission in the United States a conspiracy against the Soviet regime. Orlov, the famous Russian human rights activist, was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp followed by five years of exile.
I already mentioned Jimmy Carter’s strong involvement in the Helsinki process, which I highly admired and respected. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the later National Security Advisor, who influenced him the most in his election campaign for the presidency. His commitment and arguments are reflected in a later letter written by Jimmy Carter to Andrej Sakharov, who was asking to help the Helsinki monitors in the Soviet Union. The president’s answer was very supportive: “Human Rights are a central concern of my administration. We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience.”
After this exchange of letters between the President of the United States and the most well-known human rights activist, Andrej Sakharov, Leonid Brezhnev declared that Sakharov was a renegade and an enemy of the Soviet State. What happened to the Soviet dissidents after this exchange of letters is well known. The Soviet authorities punished the dissidents with forced labor camps, house arrests, and long imprisonments.
But let’s focus on the dissident movements in Eastern Europe from a Budapest perspective. In the middle of the seventies, the establishment of KOR, the Committee for the Protection of Workers in Poland, had a strong influence on the intellectuals of the opposition in Hungary. And not much later, taking a stand for the Charta ’77 movement of the Czechoslovak dissidents enabled the Hungarian democratic opposition to finally crystallize. In spite of the expected repression, its members took a stand for each other and for human rights in the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act.
By 1979, 270 of us signed a statement protesting the lawsuit in Prague brought against Václav Havel and his fellow dissidents and addressed it to the Hungarian leadership. These almost three hundred – mostly young – people provided the background and the foundation for our independent institutions, our press, and the flying university (seminars with well-known dissidents in private apartments) and the Fund for the Support of the Poor. We read, translated, and disseminated the writings of the theoreticians of the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition.
Adam Michnik’s 1976 study entitled New Evolutionism had the largest impact on us. Perhaps this short writing was the most important samizdat text ever translated into Hungarian. In his study, Michnik goes beyond the traditional dilemma of “reform or revolution” and recommends setting up structures parallel with the Communist power. According to him, the dissidents’ task is the establishment of independent public opinion, the creation of independent organizations: such movements that cannot be integrated. The objective was political emancipation and self-organization of the citizens, as well as control of the government. In the course of history few political concepts or projections have become self-fulfilling prophecies as those of Michnik. This was the foundation on which Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union, came into being.
The Solidarity movement had varied impacts on the different groups of Hungarian society. The political leadership at the top of the social pyramid continued its milder domestic policy course, while at the same time, instead of real structural economic reforms, it accelerated the financing policy to maintain living standards through Western loans in order to forestall the dissatisfaction of the workers and civil servants. Apparently, all this made it necessary to continue with a relatively friendlier foreign policy towards the West within the limited potential of the Soviet bloc.
But that also put a limitation on what measures could be taken against the opposition. The activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition got stronger by the beginning of the 1980s both with regard to the number of its members and the methods it used.
This was the time, however, when the typed samizdat was replaced by the samizdat duplicated by stencil, and the core of the opposition around János Kis, a philosopher, decided to launch an illegal political periodical openly publishing the name and title of the editors. The first issue of this periodical, called Beszélő, having the meaning both “speaker” and also “visiting hours” in jail, was published in December 1981.
When Solidarity came into being, I felt that it would utterly change the political situation of the region and I consciously prepared myself for the transposition of the Polish experiences. In 1981 I decided to launch an independent publishing house called AB; I bought a whole ton of paper and hid it in my parents’ cellar. As a reprisal, I was expelled from the editorial office where I used to work, and from that time on I had no job until the 1990s when I became an MP and then the mayor of Budapest.
In addition to the engagement of the opposition in politics and having the independent, illegal press in the strict sense of word, the independent, opposition-led literary and artistic life began to bloom again, mainly in Budapest. Alternative rock, mainly punk bands, had regular performances for audiences of several thousands, singing songs that were straightforwardly against the regime. One of the leading bands sang “polak-wenger dva bratanki” (Poles and Hungarians are brothers) in their most popular song
At the same time, the Hungarian political leadership, with János Kádár at the top, hardened for fear of losing power, and anticipating his own political death. Although their hands were tied by being heavily indebted to the West, the government still cracked down on the opposition time and again.
In October 1985, Budapest hosted the CSCE Cultural Forum, a six-week interim meeting, as part of the Helsinki review process, involving the 35 nations that signed the Helsinki Final Act. The independent literary symposium, held by the opposition on the occasion, was a breakthrough for the dissident movement.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), the predecessor of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental group linking citizens’ Helsinki groups in a number of Western countries, sponsored the independent literary symposium in Budapest from October 15–17 which coincided with the opening of the official Forum.
This “unofficial forum” marked the first time that private citizens from East and West met openly in a Warsaw Pact country to discuss violations of cultural freedom, including censorship, unofficial publishing and minority rights. The unofficial symposium included prominent writers from a number of countries, including Susan Sontag, Danilo Kis, Jiri Grusa, Amos Oz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash, as well as independent Hungarian writers such as George Konrád and Miklós Haraszti.
A few hours before the independent symposium was to begin, the Hungarian government forced the hotels to cancel the facilities that had been reserved for the meetings.With the help of Hungarian dissidents, the meetings were relocated to private apartments in Budapest and proceeded without further obstruction.
After the close of the European Cultural forum, however, the authorities stepped up their harassment of those involved in samizdat activities.These harassments were well documented in the report written in 1986 which belongs to a series entitled “Violations of the Helsinki Accords” prepared by Helsinki Watch for the Helsinki Review Conference in Vienna, Austria. According to the report, Helsinki groups that formed in the USSR had been effectively disbanded, and more than three dozen Soviet Helsinki monitors were still in prison or exile. Jeri Laber, Executive Director of the Helsinki Watch, said in 1986:
Human rights continue to be grossly violated by a number of Helsinki signatory countries. He highlighted the number one obstacle in the process of implementation of the Final Act: Although there are no legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Helsinki Accords, their moral force continues to grow. Despite the fact that violations continue – indeed, just because these violations continue – we believe that the Helsinki process must continue as well.
When almost 27 years later I was reading the Helsinki Watch Report, the precise and careful analysis of Jeri Laber about the first media law in 1986, it gave me a very strange feeling. Maybe history is repeating itself? Were the Fidesz lawmakers with their super-majority in 2010 simply copying some paragraphs and rewriting others? A new press law passed in March 1986 was the first general press law in the history of Communist Hungary. Previously, the press and periodicals were regulated by decrees from various ministries. The new law defined the rights and duties of the press to provide “truthful, accurate and prompt dissemination of information,” and the public’s right to “an accurate picture of the political, economic, scientific and cultural life in the Hungarian People’s Republic.”
The first press law from 1986 also prevented the press from disseminating information that would hurt “the constitutional order of the People’s Republic and its international interests… and public morals.” This very general rule fosters censorship and other forms of state intervention. Surprisingly, the second part of the regulation was simply copied into the new media law in 2010 which stipulates that all media outlets must register with the newly established Media Council and that they may be fined for news reports that are “unbalanced”, insulting or in violation of “public morality.” The Media Council also has the power to deny registration and force journalists to disclose sources, particularly on the grounds of “national security” or “protection of public order.” (These regulations were later annulled by the Constitutional Court.)
The first press law which came into force in 1986 essentially codified the existing practice at that time, although it also included some new restrictions: according to the law, editors in charge became responsible for the execution of the principles of press policy and could be fired for failing to execute those principles.
I remember well that in the late Kádár regime, the president of the Tájékoztatási Hivatal (Information Office) Comrade Ernő Lakatos held weekly sessions for the editors-in-chief of the printed and electronic media about the press directives and policy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party. It was a one-way, unidirectional, military type “discussion” about which the editors-in-chief informed their colleagues. There were a lot of rumors in Budapest about Comrade Ernő Lakatos, who had personally ordered the dismissal and punishment of the dissidents, among them myself and my friends.
Since 2010, based on information collected by the former OSCE media freedom representative, Miklós Haraszti, members of the three basic content provider groups, the online media, the printed press, and the radio-television sector, have to sign special contracts with the Media Council. The contract stipulates that they would regulate themselves based on the content prohibitions in the media law, prohibitions that go far beyond the criminal and civil law. In this cooperative agreement they promise that any breach of the media law will be investigated and settled by themselves.
Why did they do so? Because by accepting the role of the executioner, they can escape the constant harassment by the Media Council for petty infractions. But for the same reason, the owners put pressure on the editors to refrain from any political challenge in their news service and their chat shows. This is the mechanism of self-censorship. This is the reason why politics simply disappeared from the commercial TV channels.
Those owners who would balk at accepting the “co-regulation” contracts would simply stigmatize themselves in the eyes of the almighty Media Council. They could be subject to frequent fines that would be grounds for severe punishment later, including being shut down. Despite the participation in co-regulation, the Media Council is still entitled to pull any matter into its purview. Guaranteed self-censorship is behind the fact that punishments for coverage, content, are not frequently meted out.
As a result of “cooperative regulation,” the media companies are toeing the line and the Media Council can claim: just look, the fines are less frequent; there is no sign of supervision over the media. Foreign owners, in their own countries, would never agree to participate in this kind of cooperation. At home they rely on the principles of a free press. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, which annulled the right to supervise content outside the broadcast media, they could have withdrawn from the co-regulation schemes, as they would have long done in their own countries. But they don’t do it. They prefer to be obedient. We are living in a “brave new world.”
There are other procedural similarities between the two press laws as well. Press restrictions that were announced in the winter of 1986 stipulated that anyone found with even one copy of samizdat may be subjected to heavy fines. These fines may be levied without any court proceedings, and appeals may only be addressed to the police officer who determined the fine.
Against the rulings of the Media Council there is no recourse to regular court. In such cases jurisdiction lies exclusively with the Administrative Court. In matters of substance, or merit, the administrative courts have no jurisdiction. They can only adjudicate on questions of procedure; whether the Media Council adhered to the media law during the process or not.
The media law has been criticized by a number of international organizations including the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and a number of European Union member countries and non-governmental organizations. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, stated that if misused, the media law “can silence critical media and public debate in the country.” According to a review by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the appointment procedures for Hungary’s Media Council fail to meet the Council of Europe’s standards for safeguarding media independence and pluralism.
But again, it seems to me that there are no effective legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Council of Europe and other EU standards. The historical similarity with the lack of legal means for enforcing the Helsinki accords in the seventies and eighties is obvious. This means that non-compliance can become a practice again.
Since the last election, Fidesz, the ruling party, justifies its diktat by pointing to its two-thirds legislative super-majority attained in the 2010 elections. But its actions fly in the face of the Copenhagen Criteria which established the EU’s basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. These criteria were established for new member states in the EU enlargement process in 2004.
As a response to non-compliance of the Hungarian government, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark recently wrote to the European Commission suggesting that new tools were needed to bring persistently deviating member states into line. Here you can read the essence of their statement:
At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially important that the fundamental values enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected. The EU must be extremely watchful whenever they are put at risk anywhere within its borders. And it must be able to react swiftly and effectively to ensure compliance with its most basic principles. We propose addressing this issue as a priority and believe that the Commission has a key role to play here.
In my opinion, the European Commission as the guardian of treaties has the obligation to ensure that the institutional structures and operating rules of the member states are brought in line with the moral commitment they made when they joined the EU. There is a lesson which we learned at the time of the Helsinki process: the enforcement of the principles of the Helsinki Final Act wouldn’t have been possible without international pressure exercised at the follow-up conferences.
But finally, only the voters of the East European countries could change the fundamental laws and their own constitutions in the years of the Velvet Revolution. Only “We the people” could have decided our own destiny, and we made the right choice ourselves. History is repeating itself. The upcoming election in 2014 may be Hungary’s next chance to return to a state with freedom of the press which allows well-informed citizens to make free choices, life without fear or apathy, and a collective desire for “a community of the rule of law.”
Anna Stumpf, political attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, was present and took strong exception to Gábor Demszky’s description of the situation of the media in Hungary after the lecture. She claimed that opposition radio, Klubrádió, opposition televison, ATV, freely criticize the government without any interference. Demszky explained that neither of these two media outlets has nationwide coverage and, in fact, Klubrádió by now can broadcast only in Budapest and Debrecen. Moreover, companies fearing reprisals dare not advertise on these media outlets, which makes their financial situation truly desperate. He added that in some ways the Hungarian media today is less free than it was in the Kádár regime. To which Anna Stumpf exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Naturally, Anna Stumpf is far too young to know anything about the Kádár regime first hand.
Today’s topic should resonate with readers of all political stripes. Any news about secret agents of the Kádár regime, especially because of the lack of full disclosure, always arouses a great deal of interest. In addition, tidbits about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s activities as KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs in the 1980s are highly sought after, especially in right-wing circles. Add to that a former “official/informal contact” between the university and the Ministry of Interior’s infamous secret service who happens to be today a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. Finally, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that finds the Hungarian Supreme Court’s finding and judgment in the case of Krisztián Ungváry v. László Kiss irreconcilable with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prescribes that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”
The story started in 2007 when Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) published an article by Krisztián Ungváry, a historian who is an authority on, among other things, the secret service and its agents during the Kádár period. The article was about an aborted student movement at the University of Pécs. In 1982 three young law students wanted to start a peace movement independent from the official Országos Béketanács. They never thought the authorities would find anything wrong with such a movement. After all, Kádár’s Hungary, like the whole Soviet bloc, made frequent references to peace as something desirable. The problem was that the inspiration for this particular movement came from Western Europe and wanted to banish nuclear arms from the whole of Europe, including Soviet arms that could also be found on Hungarian soil. Therefore, the authorities immediately reacted in order to squash the Dialógus program, as the movement was named by the students.
The details of this “storm in a teapot” are not interesting as far as our story is concerned, but the original article does shed light on many aspects of “gulyás communism” that were not evident to the passive majority of Hungarians. The thesis of the article is that very often it was not the secret agents who were the most important sources of information for the Ministry of Interior but the so-called “informal contacts.” In connection with the Dialógus affair Ungváry mentions eight people who served as “informal contacts,” most of whom he managed to identify. Among them was the party secretary of the law school, László Kiss, then associate professor and today a member of the Constitutional Court, a position he has held ever since 1998. At the same time Ungváry comes to the conclusion that, although Gyurcsány as a KISZ secretary was a link in the chain, his role was minimal and he was not one of the “official contacts” the Ministry of Interior relied on.
Ungváry had proof of Kiss’s reporting to the Ministry of Interior and therefore had no reason to believe that he might be the object of years of litigation in connection with this article. A few days after the appearance of his article, Kiss made an announcement that was published in ÉS in which he declared that he had never been an agent and “never worked with the persons of the secret service mentioned in the article. In fact, he didn’t even know them personally.” He threatened Ungváry with both civil and criminal legal proceedings and, as it turned out later, brought charges against ÉS as well.
Ungváry’s answer in the same issue pointed out that Kiss’s name appears in the folder dealing with the Dialógus affair as the source of information on the details of the case. That didn’t satisfy Judge Kiss, however, and he proceeded with the litigation that lasted over three years.
Ungváry was acquitted of the criminal charges, but he and ÉS lost the first round in the civil case. In March 2010, however, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ungváry and the weekly paper. Liberal groups were delighted, and SZEMA (Szabad Emberek Magyarországért, the party of Klára Ungár) called on Kiss to resign his post after the ruling. After all, Ungár argued, a man with such a past shouldn’t be a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court.
Naturally Kiss had not the slightest intention of resigning. Instead he appealed to the Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the appellate court’s decision. Again liberal groups were up in arms, especially since the court fined Ungváry 3 million forints and ÉS 2 million for publishing the piece. But even Mandiner, a group of young conservatives, stood by Ungváry; in fact, they collected money so he would be able to pay the stiff fine. But Ungváry is not the kind of man who gives up easily. Shortly after the ruling of the Supreme Court in June 2010 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 3 the Strasbourg court ruled against Hungary. Thus Hungary will have to pay 7,000 euros to Ungváry and, 3,000 to ÉS over and above the amount the paper had to pay in fines after the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court.
The decision was a narrow one and the Hungarian government has the right to appeal, which would initiate another round of legal proceedings at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Hungarian government hasn’t responded yet but László Kiss certainly has. He is planning to sue Ungváry for distorting the verdict of the court when he announced that the finding of the court “validated” his claims about Kiss’s activities. Kiss went so far as to claim that the Strasbourg court “announced that Ungváry was unable to prove his claims,” which were no more than “speculations” that lacked any corroborating evidence.
I checked the published judgment of “Case of Ungváry and Irodalom Kft. v. Hungary.” Since Kiss referenced the word “speculations,” I decided to check the text of the judgment. I found only one “speculations,” and not where I would have expected it to be if one believed László Kiss. No, the word was found in the description of the Hungarian Supreme Court’s judgment that the Strasbourg Court found wanting. Let me quote.
53. The Court notes the finding of the Supreme Court according to which the first applicant [i.e., Ungváry] was unable to prove that Mr K. had been in regular contact with the State security, often anticipating and exceeding its expectations. The Court finds that these expressions exceeded the limits of journalism, scholarship and public debate. In the present case, it is not the –arguably excessive – form of the expression but the defamatory content of these speculations, which the Court finds objectionable as being without sufficient factual support. …
The Court notes that the article intended to demonstrate that collaboration, that is, the activities of “official contacts” meant cooperation without specific, express operational instructions from the State security. Limiting its analysis to this kind of direct cooperation with the State security, the Supreme Court failed to consider that Mr K.’s reports had been in any case available to the authorities of the Communist regime, nor did it attribute any particular relevance to the fact that the first applicant’s undeniably offensive and exaggerated statements were made within the context of the broader presentation of the workings of the oppressive mechanism of a totalitarian regime. It did not consider relevant, either, that the first applicant had indicated the sense in which he had used the term informing (see paragraph 8 above). Indeed, the article was written in order to demonstrate how closely the Ministry of the Interior and the “social organisations” had worked together, and especially, how tight the relation had been between party functionaries and the Ministry of the Interior.
The Court notes that the Supreme Court interpreted the first applicant’s description of these officials as one portraying them “guilty by association” – which, in that court’s view, could not prove that Mr K. “actually cooperated” with the State security (see paragraph 19 above).
The Court cannot agree with the deduction of the Supreme Court.
The Court finds that although the first applicant did not prove that Mr K. and his reports had actually been commissioned by the State security, it was nevertheless an undisputed fact that he, as a party secretary, had produced reports on the Dialógus affair. (p. 15)
If I read the decision of the Strasbourg court correctly, I don’t think that Judge Kiss has a chance. Unless, of course, the Hungarian judges are intimidated by the almighty judge of the Constitutional Court.
The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum organized a conference on “Collaboration in Eastern Europe during World War II and the Holocaust.” The three-day conference took place in Vienna between December 5 and 7. The conference aimed at bringing together scholars from all disciplines working on complicity and collaboration in a number of European countries to share their research with each other and the public. Karl Pfeifer, a faithful reader of and contributor to Hungarian Spectrum, was present and arranged an interview with Paul A. Shapiro, Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. You may remember Mr. Shapiro’s testimony entitled “The Trajectory of Democracy: Why Hungary Matters,” which was delivered at the hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on March 20, 2013 and which could be read in its entirety on Hungarian Spectrum. Here is Karl’s interview with Mr. Shapiro.
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Karl Pfeifer: Mr. Shapiro, how do you view this symposium? What is your opinion about it and what are your thoughts on the situation in Eastern Europe? Paul A. Shapiro: The purpose of organizing this symposium together with the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute was to bring together a group of especially young researchers to talk about issues of collaboration during the Holocaust. As you could hear from the lectures, this subject is a very complicated one. It involves more than just the collaboration of states, it involves more than just the collaboration of people who might have joined SS units from among the local population or people who might have been in the local police unit that participated in the crimes of the Nazi era and the murder of the Jews during the era of Nazi domination of Europe. The questions go right to the involvement of bureaucrats, the involvement of professionals, the involvement of individuals who for one reason or another were willing to participate in mass murder or to acquiesce in mass murder or to stand aside thinking that they were playing no role. But, of course, when crimes are being committed, when governments are engaging in the persecution of one group or another, people who stand aside are empowering the persecutors, empowering the perpetrators. To be a so-called bystander is not a neutral act. In fact it is enabling the killers to commit their crimes.
You can see large participation here by scholars from countries of the former USSR where this subject is really new since the fall of communism and the disintegration of the USSR. You can see a large number of scholars from the countries of former communist countries of Eastern Europe where the subject of local collaboration could not be addressed in a forthright way in the past. So, our goal was to bring together a group of historians in Vienna. We decided on Vienna because it was easier to organize it physically here rather than in Washington. The idea was to encourage a working process between scholars from the East and the West, especially young people who will work on the subject matter for the next thirty or forty years. We wanted to bring them together to think about one of the most difficult issues from the Holocaust era which is the failure of everyone, of states, of professions, of local organizations, of churches and of individuals to protect people who were members of a society but found themselves with no protection whatsoever.
KP: Let’s go to the next question, about Hungary. You made a very concise and important contribution to the hearing of the American Congress on Hungary and I would like to have your opinion on how one can explain that the country that was the most advanced among the former communist countries after the change of the system became one of the most, I would say, the most dangerous country for the Jews not in the physical sense so much, but where hatred toward Jews is manifested openly and spread in the media close to the government party, Fidesz. Like Echo TV, Magyar Hirlap, a daily, and the weekly Demokrata. What is your opinion about that?
PS: So, you ask me to explain that. This is very complicated. There is a combination of ideology, of seeking to create a new national narrative in the aftermath of the communist era, of anti-Semitism of an old style that has combined to create this situation. Explaining it is very complicated. Understanding what one’s obligation is to do in such a situation is actually less complicated.
KP: Could you tell me?
PS: In this particular situation it would be essential that the Hungarian government, Hungarian society find a way to change the trajectory the country is on. The country is moving toward increasing hatred of Jews resulting in increasing danger for Jews and other national minorities. We believe that some of this is the result of a desire to obscure or to distort the history of the Holocaust. It is more difficult to promote anti-Semitism when one recognizes the degree of Hungarian participation in the destruction and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews just a few decades ago. It is difficult to justify a positive image, for instance, of Miklós Horthy or the propagandists of the fascist era and the cultural figures of the fascist era, like Nyirő.
KP: Wass, Tormay.
PS: And the result of their actions was mass murder. For our museum the link between contemporary anti-Semitism and distortion of the Holocaust is direct. This is what motivates us to address the historical issues in a direct way. And to encourage the Hungarian government to do the same. Not to simply say that this is a controversial issue. Calling it a controversial issue means that it hasn’t been explained well enough to the population at large. Because the facts are clear. The political motivations extend behind certain actions of the Hungarian government today. This is also clear. It is the government that wants to be reelected. There is strong popular, populist support for the Jobbik party and strong populist support for Fidesz as well, and the government is seeking to ensure its electoral victory in the coming year. This seems to work politically. On the other hand, there are long-term consequences of choosing the path of accepting manifestations of anti-Semitism, of not publicly criticizing in a powerful way members of the government and members of Fidesz who make anti-Semitic statements or who participate in actions to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy or who participate in the inclusion in textbooks of the works of fascist writers without explaining that these people were also killers. This is inexcusable because the long-term consequence of such policies is that the young people of Hungary will think that to be a killer, to be a fascist, was not something wrong. No democratic society will prosper if that is the lesson, if that is taught to young people.
KP: Perfect. Thank you very much, Mr. Shapiro. I appreciated it.
Viktor Orbán normally gives “interviews” on Magyar Rádió on Friday mornings. Why did I put the word interview in quotation marks? Because these weekly performances are not really interviews. I’m convinced that the questions posed are not new to the prime minister. I wouldn’t be surprised if his office supplied the radio station with the material ahead of time. So, the reporter’s questions simply serve as a vehicle for Orbán’s messages to the nation on any given week.
Some of these weekly orations are not worth spending time on. They are just rehashes of government propaganda. But there are always some that are worth dissecting. Yesterday’s was one of the more memorable ones because there were so many false numbers, illogical statements, and highly controversial word usage.
Let me start with the last item. Yesterday I must have gotten at least a dozen letters from my friends in Hungary and elsewhere expressing their dismay at Viktor Orbán’s reference to Hungarians as a special kind of people. And now I have to bore you with the meaning of a Hungarian word that Orbán used twice during this interview. The word is “fajta.” “Faj” means race or species and “fajta” is a subgroup within it. But it can also mean “kind” or “sort.” So, for example, you might ask at the farmers’ market “what kind of apples” the farmer is selling. Or, you might be curious about the kind of dogs the Obamas have. Some dictionaries also translate the word as “race.” You could also translate the word as “stock,” meaning blood relations or inherited characteristics. In any case, Orbán talked about the Hungarian “fajta” twice during his interview.
Pusztaranger, the foremost German-language blog on Hungarian politics, devoted two posts to the question. In the first article, the blogger used the word “Rasse” which later was changed to “Spezies.” In either case, as we can see, “race” and “species” can in certain instances be interchangeable, and Viktor Orbán is a master of this kind of double talk. On the one hand, using a word with an ambiguous meaning allows him to claim total innocence of the charge of racist motives while, on the other hand, he can please his right-wing followers by pointing out the special, superior attributes of Hungarians that distinguish them from the rest of mankind.
The topics Orbán covered Friday are wide-ranging and I can’t cover them all. Therefore I will concentrate on two related topics, the specific values that distinguish Hungarians from other nationalities and how these values translate into the alleged economic success of the Orbán government.
This subject came up at the very beginning of the interview after the reporter inquired about the secret of the “surprisingly good economic results” achieved in the third quarter of the year. Did they have something to do with increased agricultural yields thanks to the good weather or were they perhaps due to the economic policies of the government?
And here is the modest and totally illogical answer. No, the good numbers have nothing to do with either. We must thank “the people who want to work.” Four or five years ago “we were a country where many thought they would rather live on the dole than work…. It is a cultural change, a change in mentality, that is behind our achievement–what I mean, behind the country’s achievement.” I assume I don’t have to dwell on the absurdity of this claim. The first problem is that the economy is not better than it was four or five years ago; it is worse. And the explanation for economic growth as simply the willingness of people to work is total nonsense. The serious economic crises in the 1930s or in the 2008-20012 period had nothing to do with lazy people who refused to get out of bed.
I suspect, however, that Orbán truly believes this absurdity because later he returned to the theme: “There is growth in Hungary if the people want to work harder. And people want to work more if they see a reason to do so.” Here, of course, he is alluding to the very unjust flat tax introduced by the Orbán government, what Gordon Bajnai called Viktor Orbán’s “original sin.” As if people’s well-being depended solely on the number of hours they work or how hard they work. We know that, thanks to the flat tax, the rich have grown richer and the poor and middling sort are doing worse financially. Naturally, this income disparity is not a result of the rich working harder and the rest of society slacking off.
Yet Orbán repeats this nonsense ad nauseam and couples it with a paean to the virtues of Hungarians. “The Hungarian is an industrious kind [fajta]. There are groups of people where this is not so unequivocal, but in Hungary if an opportunity presents itself and if the people see that with more work one can prosper then they will be willing to work harder and longer hours…. In my opinion this is the engine of economic growth in Hungary. This new public spirit, this new mentality, the vital instinct, this Hungarian vital instinct.” One could ask which groups of people or nations Orbán had in mind when he alluded to societies whose members are slothful. Moreover, today there are almost half a million people who cannot find work in Hungary. Another half a million have already left Hungary to try their luck abroad. What are we talking about?
And finally about half way through the interview Orbán again used the controversial word “fajta.” “We are an endangered species. Our numbers continually decrease. There are more burials than christenings. Consequently, as long as we don’t turn this tendency around, it doesn’t matter how well we might live; in reality, the Hungarian nation, individually and collectively, cannot feel secure. In fact, we will be in a serious life threatening situation.”
Since when do we talk about burials and christenings instead of the birth rate and mortality rate? I guess since Orbán discovered his religious soul. First of all, not all inhabitants of Hungary are Christians. Second, I know that a lot of parents don’t bother to have their children baptized, especially since the churches are unwilling to baptize a child whose parents themselves were not baptized or whose marriage was not blessed by the church. As for having a church wedding, the “pagan” couple must undergo extensive religious education prior to the wedding ceremony. Not too many people will go to all that trouble. So, I suspect that there are many children who never get baptized, especially since about 25% of the adult population describe themselves as atheists. As for the burials. More and more people dispense with burials and opt for scattering the ashes of their loved ones in their favorite forests or in the Danube.
Viktor Orbán sees a Hungary that doesn’t exist; it is a figment of his imagination. I’m convinced that by now he cannot distinguish between the imagined and the real. But yes, I agree with him that Hungarians are in grave danger–as long as they are led by someone like Viktor Orbán.
There was great excitement in government circles yesterday in the wake of the news that the third quarter Hungarian GDP grew by 1.8%. Observers who look around the country couldn’t quite believe that number and skeptics immediately questioned the figures of the Central Statistical Office.
No, the numbers are not falsified, but if they are not put into context they are misleading. What the ordinary citizen, even the one who more or less follows the news, doesn’t realize is that a year ago during the same period there was a decrease in the GDP of 1.7% compared to 2011. Thus, this single figure simply indicates that we are where we were two years ago. Moreover, economic growth during the first three quarters of 2013 didn’t herald a robust recovery. It was a modest 0.5%.
Prospects for the future are not especially bright because investment is still very low and comes mostly in the form of large government projects financed by the European Union. Since the Orbán government stopped all convergence projects that were under way in 2010, only a fraction of the available subsidies was used as late as the summer of this year. Then János Lázár took over the office handling EU projects and promised to begin large and hitherto postponed projects in a great hurry. According to critics, the government has been spending money with very little thought for utility. I for one find it outrageous that billions of euros given to Hungary by the citizens of better-off countries in the European Union go for projects that have nothing to do with convergence.
Let’s focus on the most objectionable: football stadiums. As of August 2013 a total of 123 billion forints was set aside for stadiums whose construction was already under way. And announcements over the last few months indicated that the Hungarian government will spend an additional 110-130 billion forints refurbishing existing stadiums or building new ones. These new stadiums, taken together, will be able to seat about 110,000 football fans. In the fall of 2012 the average number of spectators at the matches of Division I was 2,807; this number decreased to 2,728 during the 2012/13 season. Attendance varied widely by club. Ferencváros averaged 6,174; Diósgyőr, 5,669; Debrecen, 4,400; and Szombathely, 3,433. Then there was Mezőkövesd with an average attendance of 800 and the famed Felcsút with a mere 300-500 spectators.
Some 80% of the population object to spending public money for building or refurbishing stadiums. As far as Felcsút is concerned, even the majority of Fidesz voters disapprove of Viktor Orbán’s pet project. Yet voter dislike of this stadium building frenzy didn’t dampen Viktor Orbán’s zeal. In the 2014 budget the government allocated an additional 82.8 billion forints for stadiums.
Two days ago Népszabadság learned that the cabinet had discussed refurbishing and/or expanding twenty-six existing stadiums. The cost will be 21 billion forints. Most of the money will go to Honvéd (Army) in Budapest. In addition, Pécs, Paks, Kaposvár, Nyíregyháza, Zalaegerszeg, Vasas, Cegléd, Gyimót, Kisvárda, Szigetszentmiklós and several others will all have stadiums. Soon there will scarcely be any larger than average size town in Hungary without a spanky new stadium. Someone wittily remarked that if sometime in the distant future archaeologists undertake extensive excavations in the Carpathian Basin they will wonder what all those oval-shaped foundations were used for by the people who lived here thousands of years before.
It seems that the football stadium mania is infectious. The Szeged-Csanádi Diocese started a business venture, Szeged 2011 Labdarugó Sportszolgáltató Kft. The bishop, László Kiss-Rigó, is keenly interested in football. He put half a million forints of his own money into the Grosics Football Academy in Gyula. He also put money into Profi Futball Kft. Now Kiss-Rigó wants to rebuild one of the two abandoned football stadiums in Szeged. Never mind that Szeged doesn’t even have a team. The diocese’s company will build a stadium–and maybe “they will come.”
The reconstruction of the stadium will cost about 2-3 billion forints, and the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) already promised the diocese-owned company 700 million forints toward the cost. The company itself hasn’t been doing well. In fact, just last year it lost 95 million forints. However, the bishop is optimistic that his business venture will receive a few billions from private donations–donations that can be written off on the donors’ taxes. Just as Felcsút managed to get 4-5 billion, Kiss-Rigó, a great Fidesz supporter, will most likely get generous support thanks to his connection to Viktor Orbán. As far permission from the city of Szeged is concerned, one doesn’t have to worry. Although the mayor is a socialist, the majority of the city fathers are members of Fidesz. They already gave their blessing to the bishop’s project.
But not all is in order in the Szeged-Csanád Diocese. The Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service (NAV) is investigating possible tax fraud and other unspecified felonious acts. And that leads me to the surprising fact that businesses owned by church organizations have all sorts of privileges granted by the Orbán government that other businesses don’t receive. For example, lower corporate taxes, no taxes on company vehicles, and lower personal income tax rates for ministers and priests. The Democratic Coalition included repeal of these perks among the party’s sixteen points.
The investigation of the Szeged-Csanád Diocese is still under way. An earlier investigation into the crooked business practices of the Pécs Diocese ended the career of the bishop of Pécs.
It would be interesting to know the extent to which churches are engaged in business ventures and how much the Hungarian government is helping them along. In the Szeged case, the Hungarian Football Association’s 700 million donation to Kiss-Rigó’s business venture comes from the Hungarian taxpayers, who are most likely not terribly keen on a church-built stadium in Szeged.
Fidesz politicians have a penchant for creating situations that call attention time and again to the fact that something is very wrong with democracy in Hungary. We have discussed on numerous occasions the many unconstitutional laws enacted by the Hungarian government that have been criticized by both foreign and domestic legal bodies. I don’t think we have to repeat what Kim Lane Scheppele has so eloquently told us over the years about these issues. Instead I would like to talk about a much less complicated case, one understandable even by those who have no knowledge of constitutional law or the intricacies of the legal systems of Hungary and the European Union. I’m talking about the Rezešová case.
Eva Rezešová is a very rich woman of Hungarian extraction from Slovakia. Driving while intoxicated, she had a very serious car accident in Hungary on August 23, 2012. Her BMW ran into another car carrying four people. All were killed. The public outcry was immediate and widespread.
I must say that I didn’t follow the Rezešová trial because I didn’t think that it could possibly have political ramifications. After all, it was an ordinary, if tragic, car accident. But Fidesz politicians manage to muddy (or, better, taint) the legal waters even in seemingly straightforward cases.
Rezešová was brought to trial, found guilty, sentenced to six years, and placed under house arrest until the appeals court re-hears her case. The prosecutor filed the appeal since he believed the verdict was too lenient.
Public outrage followed the announcement of the house arrest. The Internet was full of condemnations of the decision. After all, this woman who caused four deaths while driving under the influence didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable apartment in Budapest. News spread that her two children, who are currently in Slovakia, will join her and will attend school in Budapest while she is awaiting her second trial.
Antal Rogán decided to join the outcry. He took along a cameraman and delivered a short message in front of Rezešová’s residence, which he placed on his Facebook page. He expressed his disgust and, in the name of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called on the parliamentary committee dealing with legal matters and on the minister of justice to investigate the outrageous decision that Rezešová could spend her time between the two trials in the comfort of her home. That happened around 10 a.m. on December 4. A few hours later the announcement came from the court, which had originally ordered the house arrest, that they had changed their minds. Rezešová must return to jail because there is a danger of her escape. Observers were certain that there was a direct connection between Rogán’s demand for an investigation and the court’s change of heart.
This may not be the case. The prosecutor appealed the case and also asked the court to reverse its decision on the issue of the house arrest. So, it is entirely possible that Rogán’s instructions to the parliament and the ministry just happened to coincide with the court’s announcement. Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good. It looks as if in Hungary politicians give instructions to the judiciary and these instructions are promptly obeyed.
Why did Rogán try to influence the court’s decision? Is he that ignorant of the notion of the separation of powers in a democracy? It’s hard to imagine. People consider Rogán one of the brighter politicians around Viktor Orbán. Perhaps as the national election approaches the Orbán government is ready to ignore the “fine points” of democracy as long as a gesture like Rogán’s is appreciated by the majority of the people. And, believe me, it is appreciated. On Facebook one can read hundreds and hundreds of comments thanking Rogán for “doing the right thing.” After all, if the judges don’t know what decency is, here is a man who does and who instructs them to make the right and just decision.
The Association of Judges reacted immediately and pointed out that Rogán’s statement may give the impression of undue influence on the judiciary. The Association felt it necessary to defend the judges against any such interference. It announced that the Association cannot tolerate “expectations expressed by politicians in cases still pending.” The president of the Hungarian Bar Association found it “unacceptable that a politician expresses his opinion on a case before the final verdict.” He called Rogán’s action ”without precedent.” And today even the chief justice of the Kúria (Supreme Court) alluded to the case without mentioning Rogán’s name or the Rezešová case. The issue came up in a speech by Chief Justice Péter Darák welcoming the new clerks and judges. He warned them never to fall prey to outside influences.
It is possible that Rogán’s ill-considered move may have serious practical consequences. For example, what if Rezešová’s lawyer eventually decides to turn to the European Court of Justice claiming political influence in the verdict of the appellate court? It will be very difficult to prove that the two events occurring on the same day had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.
And there are other clouds looming over the Hungarian government with regard to its constant interference with the judiciary. Two days ago the Constitutional Court found the practice the Orbán government introduced of transferring cases from one court to another unconstitutional. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court ruled on the issue, but every time it found the law unconstitutional the government smuggled the same provision into either the constitution or some other law. Meanwhile the head of the National Judiciary Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, kept transferring practically all political cases at will to the far corners of the country to courts that she most likely considered to be partial to the government’s position. In 2011 thirteen and 2012 forty-two such cases were assigned to non-Budapest courts. These cases are still pending.
There are two possibilities now. One is to stop all the proceedings and start the cases over again, this time in the courts to which they by law belong. The second possibility is to proceed as if the Constitutional Court never spoke and have the courts hand down verdicts that will most likely be found null and void by the European Court of Justice. If I were the Hungarian government, I would opt for the former.
For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”
Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.
Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.
Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000! Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.
The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.
I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.
So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)
And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.
Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020. Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.
Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.
We are getting closer and closer to the national election, which most likely will be held sometime in early April. Therefore I think we ought to ponder what happened at the municipal election in Fót on and after November 24. Fót may well be an omen of what can be expected at next year’s national election.
Someone who is supported by the three opposition parties wins the election, but a week later, after the local election commission finds everything to be in order and gives its blessing to the results, on the basis of unproven election irregularities a court decision renders the results null and void. Moreover, it not only orders the election to be repeated but forces participants to start the whole procedure over from the beginning, including getting endorsements. The new election will be held in February. Yes, February because the procedure takes that long. Meanwhile Fót’s municipal government is in disarray. In the Fidesz-run town the city fathers, all belonging to Fidesz, have managed to get rid of three mayors in three years.
What happened in Fót is a serious situation and doesn’t bode well for next year’s national election. I will try to provide a timeline of the events.
The first complaint came from Jobbik’s county organization. They claimed that someone reported that a Volkswagen minibus allegedly transported voters from outlying districts. They claimed to know who the owner of the minibus was. It turned out that the man “with MSZP sympathies” sold his Volkswagen years ago. And although they produced a picture of the white bus, it was impossible to ascertain how many people were inside the vehicle or where the photo was taken. So, here the situation was entirely different from the Baja case where there was proof of regular transports by a single man with a single car.
Then came another complaint. Some people found in their mailboxes a handmade poster without a logo and without the name of any organization which advertised that there would be extra bus runs on the day of the election for easier access to the polling station. As it turned out, the bus schedule was not changed in any way, but it looks as if the three-man panel at the courthouse didn’t find it necessary to ascertain whether the intent had been followed by action. For them the picture of a minibus and a piece of paper promising extra bus runs was enough.
These learned judges rendered their verdict on the basis of §47 of the old electoral law that still regulates election procedures. It says that free transportation service provided by the candidate or the organization he represents is considered to be electoral misconduct. But the verdict in the Fót case says not a word about the candidate or his party or organization that allegedly was behind this dastardly deed. So, from here on every time someone doesn’t like the outcome of an election he can produce a picture of a minibus or come forth with a handwritten crumbled piece of paper announcing extra bus runs and, voila, the election will be declared null and void.
The verdict was so bizarre that the notary of Fót asked twice what the judges actually meant. And the town notary is normally someone with a law degree.
Almost all electoral commissions–local, territorial, and national–are in Fidesz hands, and yet the territorial election committee last Wednesday decided that all was in order. They claimed that even if there had been irregularities such actions couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the election. But then came an appeal from a “private person representing a law firm” who objected. The person asked the court to re-examine the bus route case and, in addition, he called attention to two women who “had in their possession some MSZP-DK-E14 leaflets” and who urged people to vote because “the number of voters is low.” Apparently, they didn’t dispense the leaflets. All in all, we are talking about minor infractions, some of which are unproven.
Was the decision an example of judicial incompetence or were the judges influenced either by their own political views or, even worse, were they subject to some outside influence? It’s hard to tell, but the message is: if an opposition candidate wins, the results will not be allowed to stand. I don’t think too many people remember the 2010 Felcsút municipal election when the man elected mayor was not Viktor Orbán’s favorite Lőrinc Mészáros. The election had to be repeated because it was decided that the winner owed a small fee to the local authorities. He was apparently a Fidesz supporter but not quite the right man.
Of course, from my peaceful rural suburb in Connecticut all this sounds crazy. Why couldn’t I ask my neighbor to take me to vote if my car broke down the day before? What is wrong with someone urging me to go to the polls because participation is low? Of course, nothing. But this is, thank God, not Hungary where for a few bucks you can buy the votes of downtrodden Romas. And then there are the crooked local election committees and the incompetent/crooked judges. As a very bitter opinion piece in HVG said: “there is a brutally misleading electoral procedure. A media that makes equal chances of all parties illusory. A population misled by the state, municipal authorities and even by owners of private companies. There are all sorts of lists. And a wacky opposition that hopes it can get justice from the independent investigative and judicial authorities. Keep hoping!”
Considering that yesterday was Sunday, the Hungarian political scene was anything but quiet. First of all, there was the court decision mandating a repeat of the mayoral election in Fót, which was won by the candidate jointly supported by MSZP, Együtt 2014-PM, and DK. The reasons for the decision are flimsy and the alleged misconduct was committed in a district where it couldn’t possibly influence the outcome. But I guess the court figured that if an election won by Fidesz had to be repeated so should one won by the democratic opposition.
I don’t remember whether we discussed the decision of Gábor Fodor, who was the last chairman of SZDSZ and who established a new liberal party, to run a separate candidate in the Fót election. Fodor obviously picked a good candidate, someone who is well known and well liked in the town of 20,000 inhabitants. She received 500 votes, half of what the candidate of the other opposition parties received. Still she ended up last because, in addition to the front runner and herself, there were three other candidates: two independents, one of whom was supported by Fidesz, and a representative of Jobbik.
I was greatly surprised by the liberal candidate’s showing, especially since Fót is apparently a conservative town where I assume the word “liberal” is despised by the majority of the inhabitants. However, I wonder whether given this new turn of events, it wouldn’t be smart for the liberal candidate to support the candidate of MSZP-Együtt 2014-PM-DK in order to increase the chances of the joint candidate of the three parties. After all, Fodor wanted to test the strength of his party. He proved his point.
The other event of the day was the announcement of the main points of the Democratic Coalition’s campaign platform. Apparently, the final program that will cover about 70 or 80 topics will be ready by next February. Yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány announced sixteen important points of DK’s program. Here I will briefly summarize these points.
1. European future: We want a European Hungary and we want to pay with euros. By 2018 we will prepare the way to be eligible for the introduction of the euro in Hungary in 2020.
2. Franchise for only those who live here: We will stop granting citizenship to those without an established residence in Hungary because it is unfair that people who don’t have to bear the consequences of their decision can determine the results of an election. Therefore only those will be able to vote who are either born Hungarian citizens or naturalized citizens who have a permanent residence in the country.
3. Separation of church and state: We will abrogate the Concordat with the Vatican and restore the complete separation of church and state in all its aspects. We will abolish the privileges of the churches and terminate subsidies for their strictly religious activities.
4. Elimination of usury: We will establish the Bank of Solidarity that will enable the truly poor to receive quick short-term loans at a reasonable interest rate.
5. Assistance to underdeveloped regions: We will create special economic zones in the most backward regions. We will stimulate the economy in these regions with tax breaks, with the expansion of public transportation, and with government investments.
6. Sustainable agrarian policy: We will re-examine the land leases hitherto granted. We will allow corporations to acquire agricultural land and emphasize animal husbandry, vegetable farming, and viticulture.
7. Tax breaks for small and medium-size companies: Depending on the number of employees, we will decrease the social security contributions of employers, which will considerably lower the burden of small and medium-size companies. It will also help to decrease the number of salaries paid under the table.
8. Fair child support: We will change the current system of tax breaks given to families with dependent children to cash support for every child. This way no children will be discriminated against. As it is now, the government gives more to those who are better off while it gives nothing to very poor families who have no taxable income.
9. New nursery schools and kindergartens: We will start a program aiming at building more nursery schools and kindergartens where payment will be a certain percentage of the family’s income.
10. English bilingual education: We will transform all elementary and high schools to bilingual institutions. From 2018 on more and more subjects will be taught in a foreign language in all schools.
11. Computers for all students: We will put a computer on every desk. Until 2018 in all schools at least part of all subjects will be taught digitally.
12. Open and accessible higher education: The first year of college or university will be open to all who pass their matriculation examination. We will give generous scholarships to those who do well and who come from financially disadvantaged families. However, everybody will pay reasonable tuition fees. The tuition fees will remain with the institution the student attends.
13. A pension system without coercion: We will abolish the compulsory retirement age and introduce a universal state pension plan based on individual accounts in which we will include the money taken away by the Orbán government from individual private pension plans. Anyone can theoretically retire after the age of 55, but naturally his/her pension will be low. Persons can retire when they think the amount of their pension reaches a point that would satisfy their needs. We will also redress the wrongdoings meted out to the disabled.
14. Modernization of half a million dwellings: We will help with considerable subsidies to all those who would like to invest in heating systems fueled by sun or wind. In addition, we will help homeowners insulate their houses and change their windows and doors. In four years we plan to assist the owners of 500,000 dwellings to change to the most modern energy systems.
15. More opportunities for women: From 2016 on one-third of the top management of state companies and companies listed on the stock exchange must be women. From 2018 on one-third of those placed on the party lists both locally and nationally must be women.
16. Instead of public television, culture: We will stop public television broadcasting. From the billions spent right now on Magyar Televízió we will support good news and cultural programs on commercial stations. Some of that money can also be used for television movies and cultural programs.
I will not comment on the program because I’d rather hear what the readers of Hungarian Spectrum think of it. But I will tell you what the Hungarian right seems to object to most: getting rid of Magyar Televízió. Although there are sixteen points, the headlines in both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap bemoaned the outrageous idea of getting rid of MTV. Perfectly understandable. It has been for at least ten years the foremost source of Fidesz propaganda. If the present opposition by some miracle wins the next election, MTV would still remain firmly in Fidesz hands. The loss of this propaganda machine would be a serious blow to Fidesz.
And finally, one or two words about the allegations of András Horváth, former tax official, of the massive VAT fraud with the assistance of the Hungarian Tax and Customs Office. As we discussed, LMP began to collect signatures for the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate, but MSZP members refused to sign the petition because neo-Nazi Jobbik members also signed it. But without Jobbik members there will not be enough signatures to demand the establishment of such a committee.
Initially DK’s leadership shared MSZP’s view, but then it became evident that the party membership was divided on the issue. DK has about 10,000 active members and several thousands more supporters. It was decided that the membership should vote. The yeas were in the majority and therefore this morning Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that the ten DK parliamentary members will join LMP and will sign the document. They have only one demand: József Balogh’s signature cannot be on the petition. He is the former Fidesz, now independent, member of parliament who beat his wife and claimed that Terike’s fall was due solely to her unfortunate encounter with a blind komondor. So, it seems that pragmatism triumphed. Anyone who would like to know more about the split within the party on the issue should look at some of the articles that appeared on Galamus in the last three days or so. Especially the two articles by Tamás Bauer, vice chairman of DK, and Mihály Andor’s two contributions. Andor was for joining LMP regardless of Jobbik signatures and Bauer dead against it.