Author: Eva S. Balogh

The lucrative citizenship business: Hungarian passports for Russians and Ukrainians

Today Index came out with the first of a two-part article on the mass fraud surrounding the acquisition of simplified Hungarian citizenship. The article claims that a group of Ukrainians with the active assistance of corrupt Hungarian officials has been procuring Hungarian citizenship for foreigners who are ineligible: they have no Hungarian ancestors and don’t know the language on even a rudimentary level. The article claims that their numbers might be in the tens of thousands.

The Index article made a real splash and MSZP, as is its wont, again demanded the resignation of Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, whose job is the recruitment of as many Fidesz voters from the neighboring countries as possible.

People have a short memory because the news is not all that new. More than two years ago Hungarian papers reported that “Hungarian citizenship is for sale in Ukraine.” It was discovered at that time that there was a website (Visa-Vengriya.com) that specializes in the Hungarian citizenship business. In fact, the website is still active and it still runs the ad: “Hungarian citizenship in 2 months! Payment upon receipt of the documents. Our company offers service assistance obtaining Hungarian citizenship within 2 months. Payment service occurs after you get your hands on the documents and become a citizen of Hungary. Contact us to learn more about the procedure and leave a request for more information.”

The website indicated that applicants need have no Hungarian ancestry, did not have to learn Hungarian, and did not even have to appear in person to have an interview or receive their citizenship. Of course, extra services like forging documents to invent a Hungarian grandpa or grandma will cost extra, anywhere between 6,000 and 25,000 euros depending on how complicated the task is. Grateful clients sang the praises of the organizers.

In May 2013, in an interview with  Átlátszó.hu, Miklós Kovács, president of the Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Szövetség (KMKSZ), openly talked about the corruption of Hungarian authorities who hand in hand with the “Ukrainian mafia” handed out citizenship to anyone who was ready to pay them off. Kovács most likely underestimated the price when he thought that for a mere 500-1,000 euros someone could be the happy owner of a Hungarian citizenship document. A Subcarpathian Hungarian-language site claimed to know at that time that a Ukrainian citizen could get Hungarian citizenship for 5,000 euros, but if the person is from another former Soviet republic the price is higher: 9,000 euros. Lawyers took care of missing Hungarian ancestors. All that was done through “legal” channels.

allampolgarsagIn November 2013 Nick Thorpe of BBC, reporting from Subotica, Serbia, described his encounter with a brand new Hungarian citizen who did not seem to know a word of Hungarian. Or at least he looked blank when Thorpe greeted him in Hungarian. “He does understand it—he just doesn’t speak it very well yet,” said the man’s female companion. Thorpe found 50 people working furiously to handle the demand for Hungarian citizenship. They were receiving 800 calls a day. And every day 100 new Hungarian citizens emerged from the consulate in Subotica. The BBC article is entitled “Hungary creating new mass of EU citizens.” To be more precise, Hungary is creating future citizens of Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden, the countries preferred by East European migrants.

Thus today’s revelations by Index are not new, but they are definitely the most thoroughly researched. According to Bálint Szalai, the journalist who investigated the case, Ukrainians and Russians gather around Deák tér in downtown Pest to negotiate with Ukrainian and Hungarian “businessmen” over the details of becoming Hungarian citizens. Most of them speak no language other than Ukrainian or Russian, but last year the journalist lucked out: he found an English speaker who revealed that his father had already received Hungarian citizenship and now works in Germany. The rest of the family is waiting for the swearing-in ceremony. They will be Hungarian citizens within a couple of hours. Then they will follow him.

The citizenship law enacted in a great hurry in 2010 demands only one ancestor who was a Hungarian citizen before 1920 or between 1940 and 1945 and some minimal knowledge of the language. The citizenship business began in earnest in Ukraine. Ukraine forbade dual citizenship, and therefore Ukrainian-Hungarians were afraid to ask for a visa to Hungary to handle their citizenship applications in person. Therefore, paid agents represented the applicants in some Hungarian village’s town hall where they paid off the local officials. The price of citizenship was between 5,000 and 30,000 euros. Szalai describes one case where, in a village near Kisvárda, the mayor received 200 applications at once. He demanded 1,000 euros for each, which he got. It took him 20 minutes to sign them.

Soon enough it became known that through the Ukrainian network a person could easily receive Hungarian citizenship without much scrutiny. Applications were pouring in with forged birth certificates of non-existent ancestors. Shortly afterward Russians became interested in this fantastic deal. First, the Russians had to acquire Ukrainian identity in order to claim Hungarian ancestors. It would be hard for a Russian to prove that his ancestors were Hungarians. Companies and lawyers specialized in making Russians first Ukrainians and then Hungarians. The citizenship business is apparently still thriving.

The reason that the news made greater waves this time around is because it appeared on a widely read internet site. According to opinion polls, something like 75% of the population are not keen on the citizenship law as it now exists: people don’t like the idea that their fate can be determined by votes coming from abroad. And in fact, in the last election, if we can believe the information given out by the government, the two-thirds majority was determined by the 100,000 mostly Transylvanian voters. Simply put, Viktor Orbán must thank the Hungarians in Romania for his practically unlimited power. Reading that tens of thousands of foreigners who have never had anything to do with Hungary are all over the world now with a Hungarian passport only adds to their anger. The government’s reaction? Tamás Wenczel, undersecretary in charge of “nation policy” (nemzetpolitika) under the watchful eye of Jámos Lázár, immediately threatened Index with a law suit. He did not deny that there have been “irregularities.” However, “lately several measures were adopted that would preclude the possibility of abuse.” Wenczel did not elaborate on the measures, but as long as every village town hall can grant citizenship to foreign nationals the abuse will continue and with it the thriving business on both sides of the border.

House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

* * *

September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

* * *

A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.

Rape at a freshman camp in Hungary

On August 30 an incoming freshman was raped at one of the many weekend camps organized by the student associations of ELTE. I have written several times about these students associations, or Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). They were organized right after the regime change when they received powers unheard of at universities west of Hungary. In many ways they resemble the former KISZ, the communist youth organization, since they have a very large budget and some of their leaders are paid employees of the university. These associations can spend money with little supervision. They can also decide on such important matters as the allocation of dormitory rooms. Most important, they have a say in faculty appointments since they have a 25% representation on the university senates. Corruption is apparently rampant in these HÖKs. In addition, they are breeding grounds for future leaders of Jobbik. Unfortunately, university administrators either don’t have the guts, the power, or the will to reform and curtail these associations.

Among other things, these student associations are responsible for the organization of “freshmen camps” prior to the opening of the fall term. I guess the original idea was to give freshmen an opportunity to get to know each other as well as to meet savvy upperclassmen. A recent headline, however, described these camps as “szesz és szex” (alcohol and sex).

The scene of the crime was Fonyódliget at Lake Balaton where the freshmen of ELTE’s teachers’ college were supposed to get acquainted. It turned out that the organizers, leaders of the school’s HÖK, hired a 38-year-old photographer who they knew had raped someone else earlier and had in fact spent five years behind bars. The rapist first beat the freshman and then tried to strangle her, all the while taking at least 100 pictures of the act.

The picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This time at least the university administrators acted immediately. They suspended the responsible HÖK leaders and promised a full investigation.

And this wasn’t the only problem the ELTE administration had to deal with, although it was by far the most serious. Reports also poured in about the law school’s freshman bash, although the activities there seemed to have been nothing new. For years the organizers have made the freshmen sing a particularly obscene ditty. Index found the text of the obscene song and published it. If you swear that you are over 18, you can have the pleasure of reading it.

It seems that a tragedy had to occur to prompt ELTE’s administration to act. They decided that from here on these freshman camps will be organized centrally and will take place under the university’s supervision. This should have been done much earlier.

While the news was full of the rape case, the three guys who shoot the breeze on Class FM’s Morning Show, a popular program, talked about the freshman camps in a rather light-hearted manner. They called the rape of the freshman “an unfortunate event,” chatted at length about the general licentious atmosphere of these camps, adding “let’s not be hypocritical, we know what’s going on there.” There was even some inappropriate reference to gay people. The media’s reaction was outrage and apologies followed. However, these three guys’ reaction at Class FM is not at all unique, even in media circles. There is a new television reporter at ATV who did not think that his fellow radio journalists said anything particularly objectionable. And a few days later when he was interviewing a representative of an association involved with sexual abuse and domestic violence, he first skirted the issue and, when he had to say something, he brought up violence against men as also being a problem. He added that the trouble is that “women don’t talk about the assaults.” Perhaps if they just talked more, these assaults could somehow be prevented.

Even the director of communications at ELTE, György Fábry, seemed ambivalent to me. Of course, he admitted that it was a terrible tragedy and there will be serious consequences. But he tried to minimize the atmosphere that prevails in these camps. In his conversation with Olga Kálmán he kept repeating that no one forced the participants to sing the obscene song and that, in fact, this year the song was not included in the repertoire. He kept saying that some of the stories are exaggerated. From an earlier conversation on Egyenes beszéd I gained the impression that he is a great defender of HÖK. Indeed, it turned out that he, as a student at ELTE’s faculty of arts, was one of the first HÖK leaders in the early 1990s. The faculty of arts’ HÖK has been solidly in the hands of Jobbik, whose leaders use these freshman camps to recruit members for the party. When probed about the Jobbik connection, Fábry defended the group and said that the problem was not as serious as the media made it out.

Although the commissioner in charge of education who works under the general ombudsman will be investigating freshman camps nationwide, the problem is not with the camps per se. The problem lies with the almost exclusively male composition of the HÖKs. At ELTE women make up 75% of the student body, yet they are barely represented in HÖKs. Ninety-four percent of the student body at the teachers’ college are women, one man heads the college’s HÖK. These fellows often use their prominence as organizers to intimidate freshmen women. Details of what’s going on right under the noses of the university administration are well described by a recent article in Index.  Of course, the problem is not restricted to rowdy university students letting off steam. What happens at these freshman camps is part and parcel of the Hungarian male attitude toward women.

Barroso in Budapest

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, spent a day and a night in Budapest on the way to Ukraine. During his stay he and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a “partnership agreement” that seals the European Union’s 35 billion euro financial support for Hungary for the period between 2014 and 2020. In addition, he received an honorary doctorate from Corvinus University.

In the last few weeks a debate has been going on between the government and the opposition: is the amount Budapest will receive in the next six years more or less than it got in the previous six years, support that was procured by the Gyurcsány government? Of course, the current government claims that it is more while almost everybody else, including financial experts, claims that it is less. Whatever the case, it is an enormous amount of money which, according to the critics of both the Orbán government and the European Union, enables Viktor Orbán to build his “illiberal state.” In brief, the European Union is the one that is supporting the destruction of democracy in Hungary.

People who oppose the current regime were dismayed when they heard that the official signing of the document will take place in Budapest. They argued that Barroso should not sanction Orbán’s autocratic regime with his presence in the Hungarian capital. Deep dissatisfaction set in, not just in political circles but also among ordinary people who watched what they considered to be overly friendly gestures by Barroso toward Orbán. It is true that the president of the commission did make a quip indicating his awareness of the Orbán government’s untrustworthiness when he remarked that he hoped the content of the Hungarian version of the document is what he expects. In the past it happened several times that the Hungarian government falsified translations of official texts.

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán: We can feel equal financially
Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

I don’t know whether Barroso was aware of what Orbán told journalists after the ceremony, but I hope that by now he is. Orbán explained to journalists why this enormous amount of money is not really extra help for Hungary. He claimed that foreign investors move approximately the same amount of money out of the country that Hungary receives from the European Union. If Hungary did not get these subsidies, the country’s financial equilibrium would be out of kilter. This reasoning is of course economically unsound, but his reference to equilibrium brought to mind a funny line from Nick Gogerty’s The Nature of Value: “The only economic systems found today that are truly at or close to equilibrium are nearly dead economies. A cow that achieves equilibrium is called a steak, and the economy closest to achieving equilibrium today is probably North Korea.”

Orbán proposed another equally unconvincing reason that Hungary needs these subsidies. They raise the self-esteem of Hungarians who can in this way feel like full-fledged members of the European community. It’s nice to know that Hungarians’ psychological well being depends on 34 billion euros. Considering that the mood of the Hungarian population is abysmal, perhaps the money is not so well spent.

Now that the Orbán government’s attacks on NGOs have been widely reported and almost all the articles compare the events of the last few months to what Vladimir Putin did in the last year and a half to Russia’s civic groups, a lot of people hoped that Barroso would have a few words to say about them. The COO of TASZ (Civil Liberties Union) told Der Spiegel that “Brussels no longer can be silent on the putinization of Hungary.” However, Barroso was silent on the issue until a question was addressed to him about whether the EU will get involved in the dispute between Norway and Hungary over the Norwegian Funds. Barroso expressed the opinion that this is “the business of Norway and Hungary, but they follow the developments.” The author of HVG‘s opinion piece seemed to be very unhappy with this answer, and I know many people who share his opinion. I, on the other hand, think this hands-off decision of the EU actually works in favor of those who would like to stop the Orbán government’s assault on democracy. From experience we know that the EU has not been a steadfast defender of Hungarian democracy, and in the past it overlooked Viktor Orbán’s transgressions more often than not. The Norwegians are less accommodating; ever since May they haven’t moved an inch in their insistence that the Hungarian government has no right to investigate the allocation of their civic funds. 140 million euros are at stake. If the EU agreed to arbitrate, most likely a compromise solution would be found that would again allow the Orbán government to play one of its tricks.

There was a small demonstration in front of Corvinus University. Népszabadság noted that Barroso as a seasoned politician knows how to handle situations like that. He acted as if he did not see them at all and marched straight into the building. Whether he read a letter addressed to him by the Oktatási Hálózat (Net of University Lecturers) or not I have no idea. It is an excellent description of what has been going on in Hungary in the field of education. To sum up: In the last five years government spending on higher education decreased by half. Hungary currently spends only 0.43% of GDP on it as opposed to the 1% that is recommended by the European Union. The autonomy of the universities will be curtailed when state appointed supervisors are placed above the presidents. It is now the fifth year that the government has no clearly stated higher-education strategy. Financial resources are distributed in an ad hoc manner, mostly to institutions preferred by the government. For example, 90% of the money received as part of the Horizon 2020 program subsidized by the European Union went to the newly established National Civil Service University. Just lately it became known that the Hungarian National Bank is spending 200 billion forints, which is one and a half times more than the government spends a year in higher education, to train people in “unorthodox economics.” Because of the high tuition fees the number of students entering college or university has decreased by 30%.  Moving away from higher education, the letter mentions the lowering of the compulsory school age to 16 from 18 and the government’s endorsement of segregated Roma schools.

It is too bad that this was the only letter addressed to Barroso. Where were the other groups? Where were the members of the opposition? Not that these letters achieve that much, but when only one group protests in front of Corvinus University and only one letter is written by a small group of university lecturers, it is difficult to stir the European Union.

After ten years Barroso is leaving his post and Jean-Claude Juncker is taking over. Hopes are high that a new era will begin, but for that to happen the Hungarian opposition must lend him a helping hand.

Gusztáv Zoltai, former COO of Mazsihisz, is now János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish affairs

In the last couple of days the Hungarian Jewish community has been up in arms. Magyar Hírlap came out with the startling news that Gusztáv Zoltai, the former chief operating officer of Mazsihisz, had been named János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish matters. Members of the Jewish community were stunned.

(A few words of clarification in passing: when we refer to the Jewish community in Hungary we are talking about people living in Budapest because, as we often discussed, the Jewish population of the provinces almost completely perished in Auschwitz and other death camps. By and large we are not talking about a religious community but about people who are keenly aware of their Jewish heritage although some of them might be the offspring of mixed marriages. Mazsihisz officially represents practicing Jews but lately, especially under the leadership of the new president, András Heisler, more and more secular Jews stand behind the organization in its struggle with the Orbán government over issues connected to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.)

Gusztáv Zoltai’s name was practically synonymous with Mazsihisz in the last twenty years.  After all, he ran the show between 1992 and April 2014. His political past was not exactly exemplary. After 1956 he joined MSZMP and became a member of the Workers’ Guard (Munkásőrség), a group of hardcore supporters of the regime even during its most oppressive phase right after the revolution. Yet the new political leadership didn’t seem to be bothered by his past. In 1999 he received the freedom of District VII of Budapest, in 2005 a high decoration from the Medgyessy government, and in 2009 the freedom of Budapest. Perhaps the most interesting decoration he received came from the 1956 Alliance for his devoted cultivation of the spirit of the revolution. Zoltai has always landed on his feet.

As it turned out, under Zoltai’s watch Mazsihisz’s finances were in shambles. Worse, some transactions involving Mazsihisz might have been criminal in nature. I could write reams about the questionable deals linked to Zoltai. Anyone who would like to know more should read an article about the goings on in one of Budapest’s Jewish cemeteries in Szombat, a Jewish weekly. At that time the revelations were so serious that Zoltai could not prevent the new Mazsihisz leadership from hiring an outside firm to audit the past and present financial affairs of the organization. The result was Zoltai’s resignation as COO of Mazsihisz. Heti Válasz learned from a reliable source that the leadership of the organization placed two envelopes in front of him. One contained a letter indicating that Mazsihisz will press charges against him; the other, a letter of resignation. He could choose.

Gusztáv Zoltai, the boss of Mazsihisz

Gusztáv Zoltai as boss of Mazsihisz

I guess Zoltai’s new job really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, still everybody is stunned. Heisler was “in shock” and announced that, if this piece of news is correct, Gusztáv Zoltai “destroyed his life work that was not immaculate in the first place.” A few hours later Zoltai sat next to János Lázár at the Jewish Round Table. Lázár claimed that he was the one who approached Zoltai, whom he described as an independent man “who does not belong to our toadies (szekértolók).” I must say this is an odd way to describe one’s supporters and followers, and I wonder whether Lázár is actually familiar with the meaning of the word.

Lázár might think highly of his new “independent” adviser on Jewish affairs, but the people Heisler talked with had a strikingly different opinion of their earlier leader. “I received unbelievably sharp reactions from members of the Jewish community. In general people consider him a traitor,” said Heisler.  Péter Tordai, vice president of Mazsihisz, described Zoltai’s decision to work for the government as “selling not only himself but the whole Hungarian community to the government.”

Today György Vári of Népszabadság wrote a short opinion piece with the title: “Two men who found each other.” Vári briefly describes Zoltai’s past and notes that, despite many efforts to oust him in the last twenty years or so, it was an impossible task. He outfoxed everybody, including Heisler who while still vice president tried to send him into retirement. Vári points out the similarities between the practices of the Orbán government and those of Mazsihisz under the reign of Zoltai. People often say that Orbán and his minions have no compunctions. They know no limits. The same kind of attitude prevailed in Mazsihisz. Anyone who criticizes the Orbán government is called an anti-Hungarian who slanders the nation from abroad.  The situation was the same in Mazsihisz. If someone tried to criticize Zoltai, he/she was accused of anti-Semitism. “God created Lázár and Zoltai for each other. This marriage was made in heaven.”

All that happened only two days ago, but the Zoltai affair already seems to have created fissures in the Jewish community. Mazsihisz is not the only, although it is perhaps the most important, Jewish organization. Another one called Mazsök (Magyarországi Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány) has taken the opposing view. It welcomed Zoltai’s becoming a government adviser. György Szabó, head of Mazsök’s board, hopes that with Zoltai’s help Mazsök will be able “to acquire more real estate.” Straightforward honest talk at least. According to Szabó, “Mazsök represents the interests of the whole Jewish community,” implying that Mazsihisz does not. Szabó also found it shameful “to call an eighty-year-old Holocaust surviving Hungarian Jew a traitor.”

And the controversy is spreading. On Facebook there is a group called “Tolerancia Csoport” in which Zoltai’s daughter Andrea is very active. She has also been a visible member of the small group of people who have been holding vigil at the monument that was erected in commemoration of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Here she wrote a long story about her father’s travails, which did not convince some members of the group. In response, the not so tolerant administrator of the page deleted the comments that criticized Zoltai’s behavior. Since then Kanadai Magyar Hírlap republished her story, where the comments to the piece are overwhelmingly negative.

The Mazsihisz leadership is acting as if this unexpected turn of events will have no bearing on the organization’s forthcoming negotiations with the government. From what I’ve learned so far about Zoltai, they may be surprised by this “marriage made in heaven.”

An unexpected turn of events: Tibor Navracsics has to be satisfied with the post of education, culture, and youth

Today around noon Jean-Claude Juncker, future president of the European Commission, made his final decision on his “cabinet” or, in EU speak, the “college.” EurActiv published an excellent and telling infographic that depicts the structure of the cabinet as well as the relative importance of the commissioner-designates. Juncker will have seven deputies, the most important of whom is Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands who will be “first vice-president.” He will be in charge of “better regulation, inter-institutional relations, rule of law and charter of fundamental rights.” The other six come from Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Finland. So, as you can see, the new member states are well represented. One must also keep in mind that the future president of the European Council will be the Polish Donald Tusk.

In the infographic the seven vice-presidents are followed by the rest, not in alphabetical order but by what seems to me a ranking of the importance of the posts. Hungary’s nominee, Tibor Navracsics, who to everybody’s surprise got the post of commissioner of education, culture, youth & citizenship, is in the penultimate place, just before Cyprus’s Christos Stylianides (humanitarian aid & crisis management).  Most papers published in Brussels dealing with European affairs describe the post as lightweight. According to Euobserver, “the least weighty dossiers have gone to Belgium’s Marianne Thyssen (employment) and Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics (citizenship). ” The paper added that “the latter may face difficulties in the EP, which has to hear all commissioners, because he belongs to the increasingly authoritarian government of Viktor Orban.” The Hungarian-language Bruxinfo also pointed out that “the portfolio does not belong to the most heavyweight ones” but notes that Navracsics’s staff is huge, the second largest within the commission. As for his possible difficulties in the European Parliament, Benedek Jávor, the Együtt-PM EP member, reported on his Facebook page that, according to rumors in Brussels, Navracsics might be drilled hard at his hearing and there is a possibility that he will not be confirmed.

Navracsics himself was also surprised, and most likely disappointed, with the post because he was hoping for a job that has something to do with foreign affairs. But he put on a good face. Naturally, for Fidesz the position was elevated to one of the utmost importance. As a Fidesz official statement said, the future of Europe depends on Navracsics’s work in the next five years. Indeed, education is very important and it is true that many European countries could do a great deal better in that department. The problem is that education is the domain of the member states, and therefore Navracsics will not be able to make a substantial difference in educational policies across the EU.

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Juncker initiated a major structural change, whereby the vice-presidents will be the overseers of the rest of the commissioners. In his letter to Tibor Navracsics he described the new system this way:

I will entrust a number of well defined priority projects to the Vice-Presidents and ask them to steer and coordinate work across the Commission in the key areas of the Political Guidelines.  This will allow for a better focus and a much stronger cooperation amongst Members of the College, with several Commissioners working closely together as a team, led by the Vice-Presidents, in compositions that may change according to need and as new projects develop over time.

In Navracsics’s case this will entail close cooperation with  the Finnish Jyrki Katainen, vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness; with Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president for euro and social dialogue; and with Estonia’s Andrus Ansip, vice-president for digital single market. Keep in mind that under Navracsics’s short tenure as foreign minister Hungary closed its embassy in Tallinn. Juncker emphasized in the letter than the vice-presidents have his total trust and their decisions on certain projects are final. They speak in his name. The success of the Juncker Commission will largely depend on these “über-commissioners,” as Eurobserver called them.

Navracsics gave a press conference for Hungarian journalists where he admitted that “it is possible that education in comparison to the portfolio of internal market is considered to be less weighty but every job is worth as much as we manage to make of it,” which is certainly true. The commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship & SMEs is the Polish Elźbieta Bieńkowska, and the fact that Navracsics mentioned this particular post I think says something about the frustration of the Hungarians. There are all those others in the region who did much better.

According to the new government spokesman, Éva Kurucz, Navracsics’s post is about the future and his nomination to the post is an “outstanding success.” Fidesz’s EP delegation agrees. The youth of Europe is of the utmost importance and Navracsics has twenty years of academic experience behind him. Of course, there is nothing surprising about Fidesz and the government extolling the importance of Navracsics’s new job, but the enthusiasm of LMP’s András Schiffer is hard to understand. Perhaps he would like to get a few more brownie points from Viktor Orbán and a few more invitations to Fidesz and government functions. According to him, the education portfolio is strategically more important than any of the others that had been mentioned in the last few weeks, which is patently not true.

The opposition parties’ opinion of the post was predictable. Jobbik blamed the Orbán government for not lobbying harder for a more important post. MSZP’s József Tóbiás blamed the Orbán government and Viktor Orbán himself for getting this lowly portfolio. According to him, the fault lies not with the Hungarian people but with Viktor Orbán and his regime. “It is a slap in the face for Orbán but it is we Hungarians who feel the pain.” DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, called this particular portfolio the weakest of the twenty-eight. After all, the EU has no common educational or cultural program. He added that DK will not support Navracsics’s candidacy. That means that DK’s two delegates in EP’s socialist delegation will vote against him. MSZP, as far as I know, hasn’t decided yet.  Benedek Jávor, the sole representative of Együtt-PM, rightly pointed out that it will be difficult for Navracsics “to promote cultural diversity while at home his government dictates what real culture is, how youth should be educated, and wants to make self-organization of the citizenry impossible.” All very true.

Final approval of the Juncker Commission will take place in October at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I agree with some of the commentators: there might still be surprises concerning Navracsics’s appointment. If I were Viktor Orbán I would hold my tongue for a couple of more months. Otherwise, “the slap in the face” might be even harder and more painful than it is now.