The other day I happened upon a very funny 10-minute video. In Hungary bakers must put a big, ugly paper sticker on every loaf of bread before it goes into the oven. But only bread; other baked goods don’t have to have the sticker. So, a journalist wanted to know why the distinction between bread and, let’s say, brioche. No one the journalist asked could give an answer. People in the industry just shrugged their shoulders. At the end, he asked an official of the Bakers’ Association who naturally had no rational explanation for this idiocy either but said that “there must be order in this world.”
Every bureaucracy tends to overregulate, but what has been going on since the Orbán government came into power defies imagination. Regulation on top of regulation in all aspects of life, which naturally makes not only the individual’s life ever more complicated but also negatively affects business activity and hence economic growth.
As we know, Hungarian education suffers from overcentralization and useless bureaucratic constraints. More and more paper work to satisfy the authorities at the top of the pyramid overburdens the teaching staff. Striving for absolute uniformity of teaching material kills the individual initiative of both teacher and pupil.
After “reforming” public education, the Ministry of Human Resources began work on a new law governing higher education. This project, however, was recently put on ice since the proposed bill that had been hammered out by István Klinghammer, the newly appointed undersecretary of higher education, was torpedoed by László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Parragh has peculiar ideas about the purpose of higher education–ideas, however, that Viktor Orbán finds attractive. Parragh’s “veto” meant that the entire draft had to be pitched.
Then there was the new law on adult education, a task that fell to the officials of the Ministry of Economics. This is the law, in effect since September 1, that prompted an outcry in the community of teachers of foreign languages. There are large language schools for which, it seems, the law is tailored because they are the only ones who can fulfill all the requirements stipulated in the law. The Ministry refuses to divulge the names of organizations that were consulted in connection with drafting this bill, but eventually it became clear that there were only three: the association that represents large language schools, Parragh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Chamber of Agriculture. There is an association that represents smaller language schools called Nyelvtudásért Egyesület (Association for the Knowledge of Foreign Languages) whose aim is to promote wider knowledge of foreign languages. No representatives of this association were invited to participate in the preparation of the bill. In addition, there are the thousands of private teachers who are either freelancers or who teach in high schools during the day and in the evening have a few pupils.
According to the law, no distinction is made among these groups. All of them must put up 1 million forints as insurance that they don’t run away with the money of their pupils. All of them must follow the same curriculum, the same books, the same lecture structure. All of them, even private teachers, must have separate toilet facilities for the students. All such teaching facilities must provide daily data on the number of students entering their courses as well as school attendance and the number dropping out. The rules even dictate that the teacher must have a copy machine and a printer, two separate pieces of equipment. As one private teacher pointed out, since he has a multifunction printer he is not eligible. The same teacher complained that there is not one word in the law about teaching online, which constitutes a good portion of his teaching activity.
There is one exception to all of these rules: those teachers who concentrate on specific language competencies. For example, special vocabulary for doctors, for mechanical engineers, computer scientists or for that matter pastry chefs or bricklayers. Here I see the hand of Parragh who has no appreciation of anything that is not practical.
If this law remains in its present form, Hungarian foreign language teaching will receive another blow. Only very large language schools will remain, where apparently the classes are too large. According to some teachers, as many as sixteen pupils make up an average class. I know from personal experience that one learns nothing useful in such surroundings. It is possible that smaller language schools operating with only a handful of teachers will not be able to fulfill all the requirements because, as it is, they are struggling to keep their heads above water. They might have to throw in the towel, and their teachers will most likely go to work for the few large schools. As for the private teachers, they will either stop teaching or go “underground.”
The incompetence of the people who have joined the ministries since Fidesz won the election in 2010 is really staggering. First of all, I don’t know why the Ministry of Economics was entrusted with drafting a law that deals primarily with education. Yes, one could argue that the knowledge of foreign languages has something to do with business, but teaching is teaching. Moreover, not only adults turn to language schools or private teachers. Many high school students find that what their high schools offer is simply not enough to pass the language exams necessary to acquire a university degree.
These incompetent bureaucrats feel so powerful and knowledgeable that they don’t ask experts in the field to help but instead listen to lobbyists and leaders of business or agricultural trade associations who surely are unfamiliar with the topic of foreign language teaching. Moreover, I even doubt that they understand what the professions they represent actually need. Let’s hope that the outcry that this law spawned will result in some changes. If not, its consequences will be dire, the profession predicts.
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.
It was sometime in May that a research institute attached to the Central Statistical Office (KSH) working on a project sponsored by the European Union came to the conclusion that at least 230,000 Hungarians live outside of the country. Since these are only the ones who officially announced their departure, I suspect that the 500,000 figure that’s bandied about is a more accurate estimate.
According to the official figures today, two and a half times more Hungarians now live abroad than in 2001, and in the last few years the numbers have been trending upward. In 2011 58,000 people left the country; in 2012, 72,000. The favorite destinations are Germany (35%), the United Kingdom (25%), and Austria (14%).
According to most analysts, Hungary has been losing its best and brightest in this new wave of emigration. They think that there are at least two reasons for the emigration. First, the sluggish Hungarian economy and high unemployment and, second, Hungary’s authoritarian turn. According to an IPS report, a lot of couples who are not officially married leave because they and their children are not considered to be a “genuine” family according to the Orbán government. Lesbians and gays also have a hard time in Hungary, and when they hear that by now even Austria allows gay marriages, they pack up and leave.
Until recently one heard mostly about the large number of doctors and nurses who were seeking employment abroad. In fact, there is a shortage of doctors and highly qualified nurses in several countries, including Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden, and they welcome skilled Hungarians. But by now other skilled professionals are also sought after, for example computer scientists in Germany.
Then there are those whose political views are such that they find Orbán’s Hungary suffocating. Not so long ago there was a report based on interviews with Hungarians living in Berlin (Oppositionelle Ungarn in Deutschland. Jenseits von Orbanistan). The Hungarians in that article complained about anti-Semitism, anti-Roma feelings, homophobia, and hate campaigns. They wanted out. A lot of writers and intellectuals have already left or are planning to leave, especially if Orbán wins the election next year.
Hungarian papers noted today that the German Statistical Office reported a 4.1% growth in immigration, which is something of a record in recent years. The number of Poles grew by 13.6% in one year, but that is nothing in comparison to the Hungarian figures. Just last year 24,638 Hungarians settled in Germany, a whopping 30% increase over 2011.
In addition to those who leave Hungary in search of work, greater opportunities, or a freer life, there is an increasing number of university students who study abroad. Their numbers will most likely grow substantially in the future as a result of the Orbán government’s introduction of very high tuition fees coupled with the government’s intention to force graduates who received a tuition-free education to remain in Hungary for a number of years. As it stands now, 29% of those who finished high school this or last year definitely want to continue their education abroad, and 60% of them would rather study abroad than at home. Only 11% definitely want to study at home. When these students were asked where they would like to go, most of them mentioned the United Kingdom, Austria, and Germany. Many would like to study in the United States, but that is problematic due to the very high tuition fees and lack of scholarships.
The best qualified students from elite schools with excellent language skills are the ones who are heading abroad to continue their education. And there is a good likelihood that they will not return after spending four or five years in western countries. Getting into one of the really competitive British or American universities is not easy, but there now exists a business venture in Budapest, the Milestone Institute, that preps applicants for entrance exams or the American SATs.
In five years the number of Hungarian students in the United Kingdom doubled. In 2008 only 310 students applied from Hungary and 192 were admitted. In 2012 there were 519 applicants; 329 began their studies in October 2012. There is a new record for 2013: 719 applicants and 433 Hungarian first-year students.
But students have other less expensive options that require no coaching in test taking. In Austria there are no tuition fees and no entrance exams. Mind you, more than half of the students enrolled in Austrian universities don’t graduate. In some of the more rigorous institutions the graduation rate is even lower. For example, in the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien, out of the 7,000 enrolled in the first year only 2,500 students actually finished their course of study. According to estimates, there are at least 2,000 Hungarian students just in Vienna. Based on interviews I read, they find Vienna and life there to their liking. Bureaucracy is practically nonexistent in comparison to the Hungarian universities. In Vienna it is easy to find part-time jobs and with a little luck they even manage to find modest and relatively inexpensive apartments they can share with others.
From the point of view of Hungary’s future, this exodus is not encouraging news. It is really ironic that this accelerated emigration, especially of young people, is occurring during the most nationalistic Hungarian government since 1944. The government has been trying to lure back the emigrants with little success. Even the liberal ATV television station, not exactly a favorite of the Orbán government, has a daily program that has the odd title Hazahuzó, literally meaning “drawing back home.” It is a kind of travelogue showcasing the beauties of various cities and regions of the country.
On the whole, people who decide to start a new life elsewhere belong to the younger generation and therefore, if this trend continues, the demographic problems of the country will be even greater in the future than they are now. The Orbán government’s methods aimed at encouraging people to have more babies are primitive and ineffectual. Their latest is that if a married university student decides to have a baby while still in school that student will not have to pay back his/her staggeringly high students loans.
In Hungary, for the time being, there are more immigrants than emigrants, contrary to the situation in Poland, Romania, or Albania. But a few more outrageous political and economic decisions by this government and the balance may tilt. By contrast, in Germany not only is immigration up but there is also a natural increase in the population. Alas, Viktor is no Angela.
It’s time to talk again about one of my hobby horses, foreign language teaching in Hungary. Faithful readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall how often we talked about the shortcomings of the system. Everybody has horror stories about learning a foreign language in Hungary. Although there are some schools that excel in teaching foreign languages, most students leave grade 12 without a working knowledge of a foreign language.
The Ministry of Human Resources is planning to introduce new “language strategies.” These strategies, hatched by the two undersecretaries in charge of education, Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, are not designed to improve language teaching. Instead, they are designed to make Hungary’s dismal statistics look better.
Let’s start with Rózsa Hoffmann. It was about two years ago that the former high school teacher of Russian and French kept insisting that not one but two foreign languages should be taught in the schools and that graduating seniors should take their official state examinations prior to entering college. If they didn’t get that piece of paper they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. At that point critics of Hoffmann, who were numerous, argued that foreign language teaching in the public schools is not up to the task of preparing students to pass the Hungarian statewide exams.
Hoffmann had other fanciful ideas as well. Perhaps inspired by Viktor Orbán, who regretted learning English first because it was “too easy,” she wanted to shift the current emphasis on English to German or French.
Now, in a seeming about-face, this woman is supporting a system under which trade schools will offer a foreign language two 45-minute periods a week, down from three hours a week. With 90 minutes of classes a week there’s no way the student will be able to pass even the lowest level of the statewide foreign language examination called B1. And let’s assume that this student is actually learning a trade connected to tourism where knowing foreign languages is a must. For these students Hoffmann came up with a new, lower-level A1 examination which, according to most experts, might be enough to ask where the train station is but not enough to understand the answer.
It seems that it would be relatively easy to pass this A1-type of exam which, I understand, is no longer offered in other countries of the European Union. Its introduction would certainly not help foreign language fluency in Hungary. But, as commentators point out, the introduction of such a low-level exam would give a boost to the current dismal statistics. A site that gives a sense of the situation in Europe can be found here. Hungarian statistics are bad even in comparison to other countries in the region. If Hoffmann managed to introduce a new lower-level exam, perhaps the statistics would improve somewhat.
The other problem occurs at the university level. As things stand now, one needs to pass a B2-type exam in order to receive a diploma. Between 20 and 22 percent of students who completed all other requirements for a degree cannot receive their diploma because they are unable to pass their foreign language exam. István Klinghammer, who is in charge of higher education, came up with a solution “to rationalize the irrational requirements.” His solution would increase the number of graduates by 15 to 18 percent. In his opinion there are certain fields that simply don’t require the knowledge of a foreign language. Well, that’s an easy fix.
Indeed, one way or another Hungary needs more university graduates. According to the educational strategy of the European Union, by 2020 the percentage of university graduates in the 30- to 34-year-old group should reach 40%. Currently, the EU average is 34.6%; Hungary’s is far behind at 21.1%. Considering that the number of students entering university has dropped considerably since the introduction of very high tuition fees, achieving the desired number of university graduates by 2020 is most unlikely. But getting rid of language requirements in certain fields would improve the statistics in one fell swoop.
Here again ideas on foreign language requirements have changed radically since 2011 when the ministry wanted to demand that university students pass not B2 but C1 (advanced) language examinations from 2016 on. The usual chaos.
The inability of college graduating classes to pass their language exams is acute in all but the best universities. Top Budapest universities fare well: at the Budapest Technological Institute only 4.5% of the students leave without a diploma; at the Corvinus University of Economics it’s 11%. But elsewhere in the capital the numbers are grim. At the University of Óbuda 35% of the students don’t pass their language exams. At the National Közszolgálati Egyetem, the brainchild of the Orbán government where army and police officers as well as future civil servants are supposed to be trained, 35.5% of the students cannot get their diplomas. In the provinces the situation is even worse. In Kaposvár 50% of the students end up without a diploma; in Nyíregyháza 45% don’t graduate.
The reaction to the lowering of standards was immediate. Both the Association of Schools Teaching Foreign Languages and the Association for Language Knowledge protested. The problem is, according to the spokesman of the Association for Language Knowledge, that students are not required to use foreign-language materials during the course of their studies. Moreover, how can the quality of Hungarian higher education improve if students are unable to read the latest academic publications that appear mostly in English and German? It is a vicious circle. The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.
And finally, a few words about the B1, B2 and C1 exams. I tried a couple of sample tests and found that a few of the answers I gave were wrong. I asked an American friend of mine to take a look at a “fill in the blank” exam. This highly educated native speaker said that the test was “a mess.” I do hope that we just happened on an exception, not the rule.
It was about a week ago that I wrote a post about “the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.” In that post I mentioned that both the Church itself and Catholic lay organizations had acquired schools in Hungary. For example, the Kolping International has taken over at least three schools.
No one knew at that time that a school acquired several months ago by Kolping International in Szászberek (pop. 987) would soon be the focus of a huge controversy as it expanded its “campus” to take over part of the segregated public school of nearby Jászladány.
Jászladány has been in the news off and on since 2000 when the “independent” mayor of the town (pop. 6,000) decided that the single eight-grade elementary school was not big enough for both Gypsy and non-Gypsy children. I might add that according to the official statistics 11% of Jászladány’s population is Roma. So came the ingenious plan of establishing a private school, to be housed in part of the enlarged school building, where students had to pay tuition. The bulk of the expenses, however, were covered by the municipality. For example, the newer half of the school building was given free of charge to the private foundation that ran the school. The town also allowed the new school to use all of the equipment that had earlier belonged to the public school. There was a door between the two wings of the school building, but it was locked for six solid years.
Those children whose parents could afford the tuition fees went to the good school; the rest, like the Roma, went to the inferior school. The “private school” children received all sorts of privileges. For example, a free lunch regardless of need. They were the first ones to receive free textbooks; the children in the “Gypsy” school got them only once everybody was served in the “private school.” At one point the Open Society Institute offered to pay the fees for those children who wanted to attend the private school. The Institute was told that it had missed the deadline.
The head of the local Roma organization is an energetic man who soon enough called the attention of Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyermekekért Alapítvány (Foundation for Equal Opportunity of Underprivileged Children), popularly known as CFCF, to the situation in Jászladány. For ten years CFCF fought against the barely disguised segregation in Jászladány, losing one case after the other, until June 2011 when at last the Supreme Court (today the Kúria) ruled in favor of CFCF and Jászsági Roma Polgárjogi Szervezet (JRPSZ), a Roma organization in the area. The court ordered the town to work out a plan to integrate the two schools.
The new mayor, Katalin Drávucz (Fidesz), whose own child attends the “private school,” ostensibly complied with the court order. She began negotiations with the plaintiffs’ representatives to work out the details of the integration of the two schools. But behind their back she also began negotiations with the county’s “government office,” a newfangled institution that is supposed to be the arm of the central government in every county. Her real goal was to avoid the integration of the school in Jászladány.
They came up with a splendid solution: they decided to pass the private school over to Kolping International, which functions under the authority of the Archbishopric of Eger. The idea was to automatically transfer the pupils of the “private school” to the new Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola. Although negotiations between the town and the “government office” began more than a year ago, the deal materialized only on August 30. Since Szászberek is only 10 km from Jászladány, the deal stipulated that the Szászberek Kolping school will simply “expand” and take over the former “private school” of Jászladány.
This new-old school will not charge tuition, but the Roma parents were not notified of this rather important change. By the time, practically on the day that school opened, the CFCF learned about it, it was far too late. They managed to get in touch with about twenty families, and a handful of children enrolled. The new Catholic school has no more places. As the spokesman for Kolping International said, their first obligation is to the children of the “private school.” Segregation remains intact in Jászladány. With the active participation of the Catholic Church.
And now let’s move back in time to the first months of the Orbán administration. Zoltán Balog, a Protestant minister and now the head of the mega-Ministry of Human Resources, was in charge of Roma integration in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. He often expounded on the plight of the Gypsies and promised all sorts of remedies. These remedies did not, however, include school integration. In his opinion, segregation works to the advantage of the underprivileged, most of whom are Roma. They need special attention to catch up with the other students. Of course, we know that this is a myth. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court declared when rendering its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And, indeed, the special classes into which Roma children were herded in the past almost guaranteed failure. Balog, however, remains unrepentant. Only recently he repeated this mistaken notion when he sided with the Greek Catholic Church in a suit brought against it by the same CFCF that handled the Jászladány case.
What happened in this instance? In Nyíregyháza there was a school in a largely Roma inhabited section of town that was closed in 2007 because of its blatant segregation. In 2011, however, the new Fidesz administration in town reopened the school and it was given to the Greek Catholic Church. CFCF pointed out that only a couple of bus stops from this segregated school there was another school that is also run by the same Greek Catholic Church. It is a newly refurbished modern school. The Roma children could certainly attend that school. Balog offered himself as a witness on behalf of the Greek Catholic Church which refused to close the segregated school and refused to integrate the Roma children into their modern facilities.
There is more and more criticism of the churches lately because they seem singularly insensitive to social issues. Criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church has grown especially harsh since the installation of Pope Francis, who has been a spokesperson for the downtrodden. Critics complain about the extreme conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy and point out that their involvement with charity work is minimal. It is quite clear from these two cases that the churches are reluctant to deal with disadvantaged children, Roma or not. And the good minister, Zoltán Balog, advocates keeping the disadvantaged separate from “mainstream” Hungarian children. The state and the churches are working hand in hand to keep segregation alive in the Hungarian public school system.
Yesterday I wrote that Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign trade, has been working to develop close political and economic partnerships with three former Soviet Republics–Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The prime minister’s office, a huge administrative unit with hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats, is not exactly diligent about informing the public of Szijjártó’s doings. In fact, the first bit of news I discovered appeared in a paper dealing with sports.
The president of the International Weightlifting Federation is a Hungarian, Tamás Aján, who is also secretary-general of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee. He was visiting Tashkent on the occasion of the world championship of youth weightlifters that was held in the Uzbek capital. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, invited Aján for a private audience. After a long talk it became evident that the Uzbek dictator would like an arrangement whereby Uzbek athletes could train in Hungary. One of Karimov’s daughters is especially active in promoting education and sports for youngsters. Hence, I guess, the interest.
As for Karimov himself, he is an outright dictator who wins elections with 90-95% of the votes after he makes sure that no other party can participate in the elections. During the Soviet period he was a party apparatchik who eventually became the party’s first secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989. After Uzbekistan became an independent nation, he won the first presidential election in 1991 and has been in that position ever since.
A month after the weightlifting story Magyar Nemzet described the “Eastern Opening” as a “rumbling” while ” we flirt with Uzbekistan.” It turned out that Vladimir Norov, the first deputy foreign minister of Uzbekistan, came to Hungary to confer with Péter Szijjártó. According to Szijjártó’s press secretary, the Hungarian side emphasized that Budapest wants to have “close cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries.” Hungary will extend a loan to Uzbekistan that would enable Hungarian firms to modernize the lighting of Uzbek cities. In addition, the Hungarian government would financially assist the export of Hungarian medical equipment. There will also be student exchanges and stipends to go with them. And Hungary will supply irrigation systems for the Uzbek agricultural sector.
Uzbekistan is a politically isolated country. At the moment Hungary has no embassy, consulate, or even honorary consul in Tashkent. But I have the feeling that it will not be long before Hungary joins the odd assortment of countries with embassies in Uzbekistan.
There has been even less news on Turkmenistan in the Hungarian media. I found that at the end of March Gulsat Mammedowa, minister of education, was in Budapest and conferred with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources. The topic was cooperation on higher education. Balog emphasized that Hungary is ready to engage in joint projects in education and in the field of science. They agreed that a bilateral agreement will be signed to that effect. The Turkmen minister of education also had conversations with Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, two of the undersecretaries in charge of education within the ministry of human resources.
The history of Turkmenistan since the early 1990s is very similar to that of Uzbekistan. It is a single party state that was ruled by president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006. Niyazov was a former bureaucrat of the Soviet communist party who in 1985 became the head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. He retained absolute control over the country even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow followed him in 2007. Although he is also a dictator, he’s made tentative steps toward establishing more contacts with the West. The former communist party is now known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and is the only one effectively permitted to operate. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned. Hungary has no diplomatic relations in Ashgabat. But, once again, I assume there will be if Orbán is around for another four years.
To give you an idea of the kind of country Turkmenistan is, consider this story. The president is crazy about horses and horsemanship. On May 1 there was a horse show where he himself also rode. In the finish Berdimuhamedow fell off his horse. The television station was forbidden to show his fall and pictures taken on the spot by reporters were confiscated. Even ordinary spectators had to hand over their pictures. Security men came and took him away. For half an hour there was deadly silence in the stadium. There were some who cried. However, forty minutes later, as if nothing had happened, Berdimuhamedow showed up dressed in a national costume. Amid great applause he took the top prize money of $11 million as the winner of the race. (By way of comparison, the owners of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb took home $1.4 million.) I can’t ascertain whether he fell before the horse crossed the finish line or after.
Despite the Turkmen officials’ best efforts, the video ended up on YouTube.