Who would ever have thought that I would turn to Noam Chomsky for inspiration, but it seems that Viktor Orbán’s regime can do the strangest things to a human being. Someone on Facebook called my attention to a post on a Hungarian-language blog that recalled Chomsky’s “ten commandments” and effective strategies for manipulating a population through the media. Naturally I don’t believe Chomsky’s theory that democratic societies use subtle, non-violent means of control as opposed to the more brutal methods used by totalitarian systems. As Chomsky put it, “propaganda is to a democracy as the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
However, after three years of the Orbán regime, Hungarians discovered a 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, that Chomsky co-authored with Edward S. Herman. They found that his “ten commandments” have a suspicious resemblance to what they themselves are experiencing in Orbán’s Hungary.
So, let’s see what are these commandments are as applied to the Hungarian situation.
1. People’s minds and attention must be occupied by second or third-rate problems. The primary element of social control is the strategy of distraction, which is to divert public attention from important issues and changes determined by the political and economic elites by the technique of flooding the population with continual distractions and insignificant information.
2. The people must look upon the political leaders as the saviors of the nation. Create a problem and then offer a solution. For example, with the help of the media create false alarms, nonexistent dangers. People then begin to worry and later become anxious. When that stage is reached, offer a solution to these nonexistent problems. They will be grateful and ready to accept less freedom in exchange for normalcy.
3. The nation must always expect even worse times to come than the present one. The government constantly hammers at the dangers that are looming over the horizon and uses the media (friendly and unfriendly) to emphasize that the government is working hard to avert all these dangers. Austerity measures must be introduced gradually so that people will get accustomed to the bad. In fact, they will be happy that nothing worse happened.
4. The nation must be convinced that all the bad things that are happening to them now are for the sake of a better future later. If not for themselves, for their children. People are hopelessly idealistic and gullible and have been ready to accept this argument for centuries.
5. Break the people’s habit of thinking. Politicians must formulate their message in simple terms, sometimes even at an infantile level with a limited vocabulary and short sentences. This way people will get accustomed to superficiality; they will become naive and ready to receive false information without questioning.
6. At every possible occasion one must appeal to people’s emotions. Rational discourse should be avoided and encouragement given to all manifestations of emotions because emotions can be more easily manipulated than rational thinking.
7. People must be kept in the greatest ignorance and mediocrity. This way they will be easily manipulated. Make the school system a vehicle of indoctrination instead of promoting independent thinking. Such a school system will be an excellent instrument for the manipulation of public opinion.
8. People must be cut off from all sources of objective, correct and complete information. Therefore those media must be financed and promoted that are vehicles of government propaganda and that misinform the public. At the same time media organs that refuse to follow the government’s strategy should be punished financially.
9. Sheep mentality is a priority. One must awaken the feeling of shame and helplessness and at the same time one must suppress the idea of choice. People who are ready to be part of the crowd are easier to manipulate.
10. Everything must be done to get to know the individuals. Secret lists must be created about individual preferences, like taste, politics, ideology, behavior. Psychological profiles must be at the disposal of the authorities. One must learn more about the individual than the individual knows about himself. One must use the latest findings of the social sciences in order to achieve the goal of manipulation, and these steps must be kept secret.
Certainly worth pondering the list. At least it should be the basis for a good discussion.
Today I would like to concentrate on two topics: Fidesz’s relation to the European People’s Party, an umbrella organization of right of center parties in Europe, and the Orbán government’s current situation within the European Union. Let me state at the very beginning that I’m more upbeat about today’s hour-long discussion in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation than some of the people who commented right after the event on Hungarian Spectrum. Let me also add that I consider Fidesz’s status within “the family” of the European People’s Party less secure than most people are inclined to believe.
Let’s start with the parliamentary debate. György Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, predicted a couple of days ago that this debate would be “a third-rate affair” and therefore it was wise of Viktor Orbán not to do attend the session. Subsequently we learned that no invitation was extended to either Orbán or any member of his government. Enikő Győry, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present in observer status only.
Schöpflin seemed to know that neither the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, nor any of the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses would be present. Well, Schöpflin was wrong. Martin Schulz presided over the session, and for the most part the heads of the parliamentary delegations were present and delivered speeches. The notable exception was Joseph Daul of EPP, who only a year ago fiercely defended Viktor Orbán during the last grilling of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament. In his place Frank Engel, a member of the EPP caucus, spoke; his defense of the Orbán government was muted. He basically asked his fellow parliamentarians to delay their judgment until the legal analysis of the Hungarian constitution is completed by the European Commission.
Viviane Reding gave a brief talk in which she outlined the European Commission’s position on the issue of Hungarian compliance with EU law. At the very beginning she made it clear that she represents President Barroso and the opinion of the European Commission. She emphasized that the Commission has been closely monitoring developments related to the Hungarian Constitution ever since 2011. The Commission “has played a very active role as guardian of the Treaties” and “is currently conducting a detailed legal analysis of the amendments.”
But, continued Reding, the Hungarian constitution, quite aside from not being compatible with European laws, has serious flaws as far as the rule of law in general is concerned. And then she added: ” Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion.” In addition, there is the work of Rui Tavares (Portugal), an independent member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament who has been preparing a resolution “on the situation of Fundamental Rights in Hungary: standards and practices.” (I might add here that Frank Engel, who delivered the EPP’s message on the Hungarian situation today, is also a member of LIBE and, like Reding, a Luxembourgian.) Reding said that “the Commission expects the Hungarian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with this House.”
So, this is just the beginning. As things stand now, the legal experts of the European Commission are studying the Hungarian constitution and its amendments, as is the Venice Commission. And the LIBE resolution will be ready by early summer. So, it looks as if by June there will be a concerted effort on the part of organizations of the European Union and the Council of Europe to take up the issue of Hungarian non-compliance with European law and the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic principles and the rule of law in general.
The criticism from the socialists, the liberals, and the greens was naturally hard-hitting, but the general consensus was that ¶7, which could deprive Hungary of its voting rights, shouldn’t be the first step. Lucia Creighton of Ireland, the country currently serving as president of the Union, emphasized that Ireland supports the point of view of the Commission. Moreover, she thought that it might be worthwhile to discuss a possible “new mechanism” that would be entrusted with the enforcement of union law in member states. She suggested putting the topic on the agenda of the meeting of the foreign ministers next Monday.
All in all, I’m satisfied with the results. Since the final analyses of the Commission, the Venice Commission, and LIBE were not ready, nothing more could have been done.
The other topic I would like to cover, however briefly, is Fidesz’s position vis-à-vis the European People’s Party. The Romanian Hungarian-language paper isn’t backing down on its story of a discussion between Joseph Daul and Viviane Reding about the possible removal of Fidesz from the EPP caucus. First, the spokesman of the EPP caucus denied the “rumor,” but a day later Joseph Daul himself wrote a letter to the Új Magyar Szó. He claimed that the “articles in question are both distorted and without foundation.” I would suggest that it would have been wiser to say that they were either distorted or without foundation, not both. And if one wants to deny that the topic of the conversation was Fidesz, one doesn’t claim that “the main topic of the conversation was Croatia and not Hungary” because that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Hungary was discussed. In brief, it looks more and more as if Daul did initiate a talk with Reding in Dubrovnik and that the fate of Fidesz was discussed there. The spokeswoman of Redding didn’t deny the existence of a private conversation between the two politicians. She only said to Magyar Nemzet that she is not at liberty to reveal the contents of the conversation.
There are signs that Orbán’s appearance before the EPP caucus wasn’t as jolly as Viktor Orbán tried to make out. In his usual fashion he cast it as a huge victory. He claimed that “it was good to be Hungarian tonight.” It turned out, however, that after a fifteen-minute talk he received about twenty questions. Apparently, most of the questions came from German and Polish members of the delegation, which leads me to believe that Új Magyar Szó’s information that it was the Polish delegation that informed EPP about Fidesz’s exploratory talks with another caucus was most likely correct.
As for the exploratory talks, the EPP members of parliament asked Orbán about this rumor, but he refused to answer it directly. Instead, his answer was formulated as a question: “EPP is the best place, so why should [I] leave it?” And the 50-50 split within the EPP caucus also seems to be on target. Even József Szájer admitted that “not everybody supports Hungary” in the body. According to an EPP member, earlier there was a fairly large group of people within the caucus who tried to mediate between supporters and critics of Viktor Orbán. By now the EPP is much more divided on the issue. You are either for or against Orbán and his government. There is no longer a middle ground. I predict that EPP will not vote en bloc against whatever resolution the European Parliament adopts later this year.
I’m not exaggerating. I had to read about 150 articles before I managed to get a more or less accurate picture of what happened in Izsák, where on April 8 two policemen during an ordinary interrogation regarding the possible theft of a chainsaw beat a suspect to death.
The news hit the national media only late afternoon on April 10. The Izsák police force was not too eager to release the news. But such a sensational case cannot be “localized.” So, they first fired and eventually arrested the two policemen suspected of the murder and for good measure got rid of two of their superiors. But these were low-level officers. Higher up in the hierarchy no one was ready to take responsibility, although by that time it became clear that police brutality was fairly widespread in the County of Bács-Kiskun.
That a man is beaten to death by policemen is not an everyday occurrence in Hungary. In fact, Ferenc Krémer, who for years taught sociology at the Police Academy, can’t remember a single case in his lifetime.
According to critics of the government, it is no coincidence that the first shocking instance of police brutality took place in 2013 and not, let’s say, in 2009. Commentators called attention to the fact that the government majority in parliament passed legislation that allows the police to interrogate suspects without legal representation in the first twenty-four hours. Also, the current government’s approach to law and order is based on strict enforcement. “Let’s be tough on crime” is the slogan. Thus, members of the police force feel empowered to behave aggressively in the war against crime. The government set up a “Complaint Committee” (Panaszbizottság) to investigate unfair treatment by the police and almost 2,000 complaints reached the committee last year. Fewer than thirty were actually investigated.
So, what happened in this case? The victim’s name is József Bara (47). He lived with his partner of fifteen years, Andrea, in a well-kept but secluded house (tanya) at the end of a dirt road in the town next to Izsák, Orgovány. Bara was one of the many Romanian-Hungarians who settled in the area. So was his neighbor, who calls himself a proud Szekler. The two were on good terms a few years back but lately they had a lot of arguments. Moreover, Bara had a run-in with the police a few years back because he got into an argument with somebody that ended in a brawl.
It was about a year ago that the proud Szekler’s chainsaw was stolen. After months of investigation the police couldn’t come up with a suspect. At this point the Szekler neighbor started investigating the case himself . He came to the conclusion that his neighbor, József Bara, was the one who stole his chainsaw. How did he figure that out? His chainsaw had a faulty part, and he claimed that only he knew how to start the machine. He found out that Bara had gone to have a chainsaw repaired because he had difficulty starting it. The neighbor was sure that he had found the culprit. He went to the police.
Two young police officers arrived at Bara’s house to investigate. Bara and his partner were on their way home, walking on the dirt road leading to their house, when the police car caught up with them. In no time the two officers pushed him to the ground and buried his head in the sand. Andrea was worried that he might suffocate and asked him not to struggle. The policemen wanted to search the house, but it turned out that they didn’t have a warrant. Because the house was in Andrea’s name, she refused to let them in. She claimed that Bara had nothing to do with the chainsaw and that there was no chainsaw in their house.
So the two policemen put Bara into their car and drove him to the Izsák police station. By 11 p.m. Bara was dead.
Two policeman arrived at Andrea’s house at 1 a.m. and drove her to the police station. Without telling her that her partner was dead, they interrogated her, mostly about what kinds of medication Bara was taking. They were also interested in drug use. Clearly, the idea was to find some reason other than the beating for Bara’s death.
Eventually, around three o’clock in the morning, Andrea was told that Bara was no longer alive. The story she heard was that Bara just fell off the chair and to their surprise they found that he was dead! Luckily Andrea was no fool and called József’s brother to join her. He took a look at the body and reported that the man was so severely beaten from the waist up that he was practically unrecognizable. His face was described as “smashed flat.”
One of the two policemen has since testified that they acted in self-defense. It’s hard to believe that a 47-year -old man could beat up two armed policemen in their twenties! Four days after the event the policemen’s superiors charged the dead man with assaulting the interrogating policeman. Can one charge a dead man? Sure, I guess one can, but what’s the use?
What kind of men were these two policemen? Viktor B. had a reputation as a “tough guy” who was known to beat suspects before. He promised that he “would clean up the place” and behaved accordingly. The mayor of Izsák, however, expressed his surprise about stories allegingViktor B.’s cruel behavior because up to this point there was no complaint about him. The 24-member force was a good group of people. In fact, one of the suspects in the Bara murder case was already accepted into TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), which is often described as Viktor Orbán’s personal army. Naturally, the defense lawyer of Viktor B., Zsuzsanna Kiszely, also finds it impossible to imagine that this upright man who was such a devoted policeman would have acted against the rules and regulations of the Hungarian police. His whole adult life has been devoted to serving his country and its police force.
The latest turn of events might shed some light on what happened during the night of April 8 in the Izsák police station. A third policeman came forth and broke the old rule that a policeman doesn’t rat out a colleague. He felt that he had to tell the truth. He was an eyewitness. Apparently he tried to stop the beating but without success. But whether his man’s testimony will make any difference only time will tell. According to police regulations, a witness must come forth immediately, not four days later.
Opposition critics rightly point out that the new law introduced by the Orbán government that can deprive the accused of having a lawyer present in the first twenty-four hours gives an undue advantage to the investigators who can pressure the accused to confess to a crime he may not have committed. The tough rhetoric used by the Orbán government in general and the Ministry of Interior in particular under the leadership of Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, may permeate the atmosphere of the police force. The motto of the Hungarian Police is “We serve and defend!” but in the last few years the emphasis has been on “punishment.” Here is the result. Moreover, according to the investigative reports of some journalists, beatings at the police stations in the County of Bács-Kiskun are quite common. People are afraid to complain or, if they do, nothing happens.
A final comment. As I mentioned earlier, József Bara was a Romanian citizen. The Romanian foreign ministry is naturally interested to what happened to one of their own. The two policemen from Izsák surely didn’t think that the case would get as far as Bucharest.
I’m in trouble again. I don’t know where to start because in the last three days an incredible amount of news emerged from the turbulence of Hungarian political life.
But perhaps I should first say a few words about topics we’ve already covered but thanks to the Hungarian penchant for not letting sleeping dogs lie remain in the news. This compulsion on the part of the Hungarian government to answer every criticism usually works against them. To take but a single instance of how counterproductive these constant counterattacks can be, consider the case of the German children’s show on the Kinder Kanal (KiKa) about the Orbán government’s attitude toward democratic rights. There is no need to describe the details of the case, but the Orbán government took this “affront” so seriously that Viktor Orbán himself felt it necessary to tell the Germans off about “brainwashing” German children. The result? Another cartoon, this time showing Viktor Orbán dressed up as a clown stomping his feet and threatening his critics. Did Hungary need this? Certainly not. And did HírTV, a pro-government television station, have to respond with a primitive cartoon of its own about Angela Merkel who can do anything because Germany has a lot of money? Again, certainly not. In fact, it would have been best to have said nothing.
Well, something similar is going on at the moment but on a much more serious level. The Hungarian government has taken offense at criticisms from sources a bit higher up than a kiddie show in Germany.
In the first instance, the Hungarian National Bank’s new deputy governor decided to write a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal in connection with an opinion piece published in the newspaper by George (György) Kopits, former chairman of Hungary’s Fiscal Council between 2009 and 2011. I wrote about this hard-hitting letter in which Kopits called Viktor Orbán’s newly constructed regime “a constitutional mob rule.”
Newspapers normally give a government or important state institution the opportunity to answer any article it finds objectionable. So The Wall Street Journal had to publish at least part of Ádám Balog’s letter to the editor. Balog, a thirty-two-year-old with no banking experience, gained the favor of his boss in the Ministry of the Economy from where he followed György Matolcsy straight to the Hungarian National Bank. Now, it seems, he’s the bank’s “hit man.”
A very short letter appeared only in the European edition of the paper although Kopits’s piece appeared in the American edition as well. Let me quote the text that The Wall Street Journal decided to publish:
In his recent op-ed, George Kopits urges action against Hungary by international financial markets and the European Union (“Constitutional Mob Rule in Hungary,” March 28). Mr. Kopits criticizes the operations of Hungary’s central bank in particular.
The operation of the National Bank of Hungary is lawful and transparent, contrary to Mr. Kopits’s claims. Under the leadership of new governor Gyorgy Matolcsy, the central bank has replaced an essentially one-person management system with a system based on a broader foundation. During this transition, the turnover in the central bank’s staff, including managers and subordinates, was less than 4%. That means that essentially the same people work at the Hungarian central bank as before.
The real threat to the authority and professionalism of the central bank lies not in such changes to management, but rather in criticisms, like Mr. Kopits’s, that are not supported by facts.
Adam Balog / Deputy Governor / National Bank of Hungary
That was published on April 2. Obviously, the leadership of the Hungarian National Bank was dissatisfied with the excised version of Balog’s letter to the editor. They decided to make public the original, which was full of ad hominem attacks against Mr. Kopits.
Here is the original version:
Gyorgy Kopits’s outlash harmful for the interests of Hungary
A discredited person criticizes the Hungarian central bank in the international press
Gyorgy Kopits, a former member of the National Bank of Hungary’s Monetary Policy Council has urged action from international financial markets and the European Union against Hungary. Mr. Kopits heavily criticized Hungary, and the operations of the central bank in particular, in the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal on March 27.
American readers may not be familiar with Mr. Kopits’s career in Budapest. He was a member of the Monetary Policy Council of the National Bank of Hungary between 2004 and 2009. He received the request to fill that post from Zsigmond Jarai, who was finance minister in the first government of the current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who Mr. Kopits furiously criticized in his article, and then was appointed by the same government to the post of central bank governor.
Mr. Kopits held his position in the Monetary Policy Council, the top decision-making body of the central bank, in a period when lending in foreign currencies was on the rise. Foreign currency loans continue to place a major burden on tens of thousands of Hungarian families and firms to the very day. The National Bank of Hungary is among those that are now making efforts to mitigate the damages, to lower the impact.
Gyorgy Kopits’s criticism of the central bank—while it harms the prestige of the independent central bank—also lacks credibility. As the president of the Fiscal Council, Mr. Kopits approved Hungary’s 2010 budget, in which revenues were significantly over- and expenditures underestimated. Without immediate measures, the budget deficit of the 2010 budget would have been above 7% of gross domestic product as against the originally planned 3.8% of GDP viewed as attainable by Mr. Kopits.
The operations of the National Bank of Hungary are lawful and transparent. The new central bank’s management under the leadership of [new central bank governor] Gyorgy Matolcsy replaced the essentially one-person management system with a system based on a broader foundation in March. Turnover in the central bank’s staff, including managers and subordinates, was less than 4%. That means that essentially the same people work at the Hungarian central bank as before. Not the changes in central bank positions but rather the malicious writings similar to that of Mr. Kopits, which are not supported by facts but are unfounded, are posing a threat to the authority and the professionalism of the central bank.
Ádám Balog, Deputy Governor, Magyar Nemzeti Bank.
You will, I’m sure, notice that the English of the original version leaves a lot to be desired. And, instead of answering Kopits’s criticism, Balog hurls personal attacks on him. He is “a discredited person.” He is ungrateful because he received his post on the Monetary Council of the Hungarian National Bank thanks to Viktor Orbán whom he now “furiously” criticizes. During his tenure on the Monetary Council wrong decisions were made concerning “lending in foreign currencies,” so he is responsible for the current financial problems of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families and businesses. Kopits not only “harms the prestige of the independent central bank” but “also lacks credibility” because he was “president of the Fiscal Council” that approved the 2010 budget despite the fact that in that budget “revenues were significantly over- and expenditures underestimated.”
Similar personal attacks were launched against Professor Kim Lane Scheppele the other day by Gergely Gulyás, the great Hungarian “expert” on constitutional law. I am almost certain that the letter was not written by Gulyás. The language of the text and its reasoning points to someone who received his legal training in the United States. Moreover, the author of the letter is thoroughly familiar with laws of individual U.S. states which, with due respect to Gergely Gulyás’s wide ranging knowledge of the law, is probably outside the purview of someone who received his law degree at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest.
The ad hominem attacks on Professor Scheppele are similar in tone to those Ádám Balog leveled against Kopits, but they are considerably more sophisticated. The document is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few choice tidbits: “unfounded allegations,” “factual mistakes,” “academic freedom … does not equal freedom from facts,” “egregious mistakes ,” just to mention a few descriptions in the first couple of paragraphs of a fairly long letter. The author of the letter even accuses Professor Scheppele of misleading Paul Krugman who allowed her to use his blog in The New York Times, because if he knew about all the misinformation in her writing Krugman “would surely object to … using him in such ways.” Body blow after body blow.
I can only surmise that the Orbán government came to the conclusion that they crossed the line with the latest amendments to the constitution, which may have grave consequences for Hungary. Therefore, serious critics like Kopits and Scheppele must be discredited. I expect these attacks on critics of the Orbán government to continue unabated.
My suspicion that the Fidesz political elite fears serious countermeasures from the European Union was only reinforced when I heard Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió. According to him, Hungary’s economic performance doesn’t warrant the continuation of the excessive deficit procedure, but he expects no fairness in Brussels toward Hungary. The country must be prepared for the possibility that the European Union will not be satisfied with the current figures and the government’s predictions for 2013. Hungary will be punished unfairly.
Critics must be discredited one way or another. Just as the Austrian paper, Der Standard, said the other day: “Fidesz politicians are bloodthirsty, unscrupulous, and vindictive.”
About two weeks ago I published the English translation of Attila Mesterházy’s policy speech. Some of you complained about the number of “ladies and gentlemen” in Mesterházy’s speech. In DK circles everybody uses the familiar “te,” including the former prime minister, and supporters call him “Feri.” There is another difference. Unlike other politicians, including Viktor Orbán who is considered to be a good speaker, Gyurcsány has no written text. He talks with the assistance of some scribbled notes and doesn’t have to look at those notes very often. Perhaps you will gain a better understanding of his style by watching a few minutes of the video of his speech.
The speech is long and therefore I will publish it in three parts. I want to thank the editors of Free Hungary for allowing me to republish it here. By the way, you can find a link to Free Hungary on the “Blog Role.”
* * *
If we continue as now, the next prime minister will be called Orbán
“If we continue in the same way as now, the next prime minister will be called neither Gordon Bajnai nor Attila Mesterházi but will be called Viktor Orbán. Even though we would have every ground to put an end to Orbán’s governance and, theoretically, we have even the tools to defeat Orbán and his regime. Then, I’m repeating it again: if we go on in the same way as now, we will fail. A great lesson from the past year is that it was not Orbán’s government that caused a surprise. Frankly speaking, he cannot do that any more. The surprise is, if any, that the multitude of democratic people, including the voters, various movements, organisations, the media, a significant portion of intellectuals, who are still brave and committed enough to contravene Orbán, were not yet able to organize themselves, are not yet prepared for a fight ending with victory. But, if we have an influence on something at all, it is evidently the world of opposition. We are not so gullible to suppose that this government is interested in knowing what we are thinking about Hungary, it just does what it wants. We say what we are thinking, we try to show alternatives but, where we really have a great responsibility, where we really have tools, is to organize and train the democratic opposition for the fight, it is to show an alternative against Orbán. We need to do much more than we have done until now.”
The country is tired; there are too many hopeless people
“But still, let me begin with where the country is in the spring of 2013. I can’t say much new compared to the last year, at least not in quality. What we said about the country at that time and what we expected then, is true even today and our expectations have, unfortunately, not been fulfilled either. But we came to assess the state of the nation, we want to speak about the condition of the republic and therefore, let’s summarize, not in too much length, how we see Hungary. If I need to say it briefly, then I say that the country is tired, many, too many people have lost their hope and there is almost no field in the country’s life where we could say that it became a little bit better and more hopeful than was in 2010.”
This is no longer a constitutional state but an autocracy: the will of one single man replaces the constitution
“A debate has been going for a long time about, how to characterize this regime, whether this is still a democracy or already an autocracy, whether constitutionality is still alive. All that happened in the past few days is that this government is amending the fundamental law, said to be as hard as granite, for the fourth time now within one year by a huge package of 26 pages; this may convince even our rightist friends who have not lost their discernment yet that Hungary is no more a constitutional state. Namely, constitutional state means that we decide abidingly what the major frame, institutions and organizations of the state’s operation and the state’s structure are, what our relations to them are. This is what provides stability, the legal system is built on this and we go by this. By today, it has turned out that we do not have to go by the constitution because that may change, if necessary, every day even, but we have to go by the political will behind the permanent change of constitution, which is the will for power of one single person who is called Viktor Orbán. And where the constitution is not the rule but a person’s will, that system is called autocracy rather than democracy. Today, autocracy prevails in Hungary. However, those who want democracy, those who want republic, those who consider themselves democrats, such persons can only oppose this regime. We don’t want to have autocracy. We want to have a free republic with free citizens and those who want to have that, such persons shall require Orbán’s defeat. We are fighting for the defeat of this regime and for restoring the republic.
Decreasing real wages, decreasing consumption, decreasing investment, decreasing unemployment
“Three years ago, this government attained power by promising hope, by promising boom, by promising social justice. Today, the Hungarian economy is more vulnerable than it was in 2010. The shrinking of the Hungarian economy’s performance has been occurring for so many quarters and is becoming more and more serious. The country is in recession. The country’s common cake is decreasing continuously. Never before have so few jobs been established in the first month of the year than just in January 2013. Never before have so many, over 300 thousand people been unemployed without any provision than now. While, theoretically, there is no world crisis, not even in practice, while, of course, Europe has difficulties, but there is not a general crisis in Europe either, in Hungary real wages are decreasing, in Hungary consumption is decreasing and the level of investment is so low that there won’t be any growth in the forthcoming years either. So few homes are being built in this country, less than in 1944 when German troops marched in the streets of Budapest or Makó. We have to face a dark future. The country that obtains its living from investment, the country whose wealth or economy was driven by investment, by capital construction, is now one of the last ones among the investors’ target areas. There is neither investment, nor lending, nor jobs. This is a spiral from which we won’t be able to emerge still for many years.”
The rate of the decline of the Hungarian economic performance is six times higher than the European one: unimaginable depths of poverty and despondency
“The prime minister may say that it is caused by external effects. Partly, and only in lesser part, he is right. The rate of shrinkage of the Hungarian economy is six times higher than the European recession. In this respect, the Hungarian prime minister does not say the truth. Under such circumstances, while touring the country in the past months, we met such a depth of poverty and despondency that I have not seen even for a long time or have never imagined. Poverty has always existed in the history and I suppose it will always exist in the future as well. There will always be people or families, who live on the fringe of the normal human life. Who live from hand to mouth. If I needed to distinguish between poverty of today and that existing many years ago, then I would simply speak about the fact that today there are more poor people and poverty is deeper. I would rather say that earlier, there was at least the hope that you can emerge from it. If nothing else but the hope that it will be better for my children. Today, the hope is lost. Hungary became the country of despondency during Orbán’s governance.”
Only Orbán’s oligarchs are getting richer – the regime introduced the institutionalized corruption
“Those who are getting richer, belong to the world of Orbán’s oligarchs. Poverty has always existed in history and I suppose it will always exist everywhere in the future. But the situation that the political leader and his direct environment, the internal circle of Fidesz world is getting richer by corruption, this is a new phenomenon in Hungary. Such a thing has never happened earlier.”
School was taken away from children, parents and settlements, and only children of the wealthiest families can go to university
“Meanwhile, chaos prevails in the world of education, public education became the site of Christian conservative re-evangelization, the teachers do not know how long they will have their job and from whom they will receive their salary, who their employer is and what is expected from them. School was taken away from children, settlements and parents, they have nothing to do with it, this regime tries to force the free idea of free school to fit to a Procrustean bed, which, from this time on, will evidently not be free any more. While, when we speak about a free country, we naturally also take notice of the fact that there are thousands of different ideas and, since every family and every child is manifold, this manifoldness can be mediated only by manifold schools. That the university’s autonomy is taken away, that by today, universities are, basically, in the state of inoperability. They are not on the verge but in the state of inoperability. That the gates of universities are not opened but closed. That, except for the wealthiest families, almost nobody has the opportunity to acquire such diplomas, whilst the leading power, the intellectuals of the country, those who tailor shape to Hungary of the future will be recruited on the long run from the holders of these diplomas.
Despondency: More people go abroad than after 1956
“The reason for despondency is that more than half a million Hungarian citizens sought and found jobs abroad. More people go abroad than after 1956 and this is the sin of this government because they leave the country who are the most mobile, the bravest and the most venturesome. There are very many young people among them, who are really needed in this country but who do not find any opportunity and hope in Hungary.”
To the executors of the show trials: even bigger rogues than their supporters have collapsed in the past
Meanwhile, not even in a concealed manner, show trials are taking place in this country. I always said: “don’t worry about me, I can protect myself”. I have protected myself as well. The latest decision was made recently, which proved that it was a dirty, unfair calumniation in the autumn of 2006 that the politicians of my government, including me encouraged the police of the republic to use and apply illegitimate methods with the intent of intimidation or revenge. Not even the prosecution of Péter Polt was brave enough to, ultimately, fabricate a legally valid incrimination from this ignoble political accusation. This case was closed a few days ago. This is good. But they keep two of my former ministers, György Szilvásy and Pál Szabó under an unfair and false accusation. Miklós Tátrai is kept under an unfair and false accusation. It is the elementary duty of the democratic opposition to assume solidarity with those whom they want to assassinate in show trials. And I want to say silently and calmly to those who take part in this action that even bigger rogues than their support, Viktor Orbán collapse sooner or later. Their support will also fail and they will then face not a show trial but a great number of fair parliamentary and non-parliamentary proceedings where, after reviewing all papers and all letters, in my hope, it will be proved to the country that today, people are being damaged and bemired in an inhuman, unacceptable proceeding for, even unconcealed, political interests, just in order to smear their political rivals. Those who take part in this action do not simply break the law but are similar rogues as their support.
Hungary became isolated: it fawns upon Central-Asian despots
“Meanwhile, Hungary has become isolated. The country that was, erstwhile, the most European one in this region, today, has an eye to the East. It seeks friends in Baku rather than in Berlin or London. It unscrupulously allows an axe murderer to leave the country and fawns upon Central-Asian despots. Unfortunately, in this situation, in this world, an honest Hungarian democrat should be ashamed of his government rather than his country. We need to admit that we are ashamed of this government and our shame is strong enough that we do not want to live together with it. The country sank to knees, most of the Hungarian citizens lost all of their hopes and feel themselves in a hopeless situation”.
I have seen, how it is when the disappointed right-wing crowd rampages
“To conclude, it would be high time to defeat this government. In 2002 and 2006, I was among those who defeated Fidesz, defeated Viktor Orbán. Even under these experiences I have to say to you that, what we are doing now, where we are now, it will not be enough for the victory and what is at least similarly important, it will not be enough for successful governance. Let me start with the latter, in just 2 or 3 sentences. My friend, the evangelistic pastor Gábor Iványi said a few weeks ago that it was worth ridding ourselves of evil, if only for a moment. It was not an evangelical citation but referred to this government stating that it is worth winning even if the government to be set up as a result of this victory would not be able to govern for a long time. Such a sentence from a gospeller is nice. But from a politician, it is, in my opinion, unacceptable. However, every man shall stick to his trade. We must understand that, in case a multi-coloured coalition government, backed by a small majority, needs to govern within the current constitutional frames, surrounded by party soldiers appointed to the top of agencies that shall be independent from the government, while the country will be in an adverse condition, then we must worry about this government very much that it won’t be able to put in the forthcoming 4 years. I lead a stronger government than that after 2006. I have seen how it is when the disappointed right-wing crowd rampages. I have already seen how it is when, not the whole but part of the state apparatus acts against its government. I can imagine how it is, when everybody, from the president of the central bank to the public prosecutor, from the head of the competition authority to the president of the media authority – and now, I discontinue listing – endeavours to upset the government.”
(To be continued)
We often talk about the incompetence of the Orbán government. Top positions go to devoted party cadres. Expertise doesn’t matter much. Party loyalty, on the other hand, is paramount. Or, even better, loyalty to Viktor Orbán.
This incompetence, however, is not confined to the upper echelons; it permeates every level of the administration. It is enough to think of the painfully inadequate response by the government agency responsible for emergency services during the March 14-15 snowstorm. I understand that in the wake of all the winter snow the rivers are now rising and some roads are already under water. We’ll see how the Hungarian version of FEMA handles the next emergency situation. I’m sure that, whatever the case, the prime minister will once again think they are doing a “heck of a job.”
This government is particularly inept, but even better organized administrations have often failed to address national problems in a meaningful way. Consider, for instance, government efforts at tackling the plight of the Roma population. Over many years a lot of money has been poured into projects with very little to show for it. Yes, there are a few hopeful signs. More Gypsy boys and girls finish high school and the number of those who don’t even finish eight grades is on the decline. Yes, a few more Roma youth end up in college but not enough. The task is enormous and certainly one cannot expect overnight miracles, but it is becoming obvious that government alone is incapable of solving the problem.
In general, a highly centralized structure is the wrong venue in which to solve local problems. The reorganization of the firefighters is a good case in point. When I heard that thousands of fire departments will be centralized I was puzzled. How can you centralize fire departments? After all, fires are local. It was only after I saw an interview with the head of the firefighters’ union that I suddenly understood how it works or rather how the new system doesn’t work. If a fire breaks out, let’s say in Hévíz, the emergency call doesn’t go to the Héviz Fire Department but to the county seat of Zala County, Zalaegerszeg, which is 27 km away. The people in Zalaegerszeg then transmit instructions to the fire station closest to the scene of the fire. This is crazy.
In the Orbán administration centralization is a key concept, and I guess those who designed this system followed what they perceived to be the desired strategy. Whether it made sense or not.
And the new system turned out to be nonfunctional. The right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. Firefighters who were helping in the snowstorm were sent to locations where allegedly they were needed, but when they arrived the locals had no idea why they had come and what they were supposed to do.
Those who were stuck on the highways saw no policemen, no firefighters, no rescue workers for as long as twenty hours. The first people who reached them were local volunteers who put together money and food and supplied the people half frozen in their cars with some nourishment and hot tea. The locals were the ones who took stranded families to their own homes and gave them shelter and food. Local initiative worked while centralized state authority failed miserably.
But back to the Roma issue. I mentioned just yesterday that about 7% of the country’s population is of Roma ethnicity. Their poverty and lack of education is a serious social, economic, and political problem. And over the past twenty years successive governments had little success in reversing this trend. It doesn’t matter what glowing reports we hear from Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of Roma affairs, the situation is not getting any better. On the contrary, because of the racist anti-Roma propaganda of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party, discrimination against the Roma is growing. In the past I read about initiatives of NGOs, individuals, and some small churches in certain localities that managed to achieve measurable success in Roma villages, but there is need for many more such ventures.
The other day I read an article in Magyar Narancs by Péter Felcsuti, formerly head of the Hungarian Banking Association, about a case that shows the better side of Hungary. There is a village high school attended practically exclusively by Roma children in one of the poorest counties in northeastern Hungary. The education the children receive in this school is poor, and even if a few of the students make it to college they end up with teacher’s certificates or degrees not really useful in today’s economic climate. It is not clear from the article how it happened, but a department head of a good university–I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Corvinus University, which specializes in economics and business–found out about the plight of that village high school. And he came up with a plan. He got in touch with the principal of a Budapest “elite” high school and asked him whether the teachers in that school would be willing to volunteer their time to prepare promising students in the village high school for entrance examinations in subject matters necessary for admittance to the best universities in the country. A large number of the elite school’s teachers volunteered as did at least 25 students from the department where the idea of intensive mentoring was born. That means that about fifty people spend their weekends in the village mentoring promising students. The intensive weekend course will be followed by summer camp. The mentoring has already begun, and we will see whether it is more effective than the government efforts of the past.
One only wishes there were more volunteer programs: a united effort by universities, high schools, and concerned citizens to try to change things on the local level. Whatever they achieve will certainly be more useful than distributing chicks and seeds to people who have no corn for the chicks and no expertise in growing vegetables. Teaching Roma children the skills necessary to become entrepreneurs, professionals, even prime ministers offers some promise for the future.
I have a very long list of possible topics but I know that I will never get to the end of it because in the meantime newer topics keep emerging. So I decided to deal with several themes today.
Let’s start with the older ones. For a few days in January, the newspapers were full of historical reminiscences and debates about the role and fate of the Hungary’s Second Army in 1943. I myself wrote a post on January 15 which engendered a lively debate among the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. As usual, after a flurry of articles interest in the subject waned until two months later when a book of Soviet documents was published that revealed that some of the occupying Hungarian soldiers behaved abominably. One of the editors of the volume is Tamás Krausz, who for a while was also active in MSZP’s left wing.
The documents are based on eyewitness accounts that were collected immediately following the withdrawal of the German, Finnish, Latvian, Romanian, and Hungarian forces. According to Krausz, German historians consider these documents authentic. He emphasized that the Hungarians were no better or worse than the other occupying forces but that members of the Second Army committed “war crimes and genocide” alongside the others. Why didn’t these documents emerge earlier? According to Krausz, because during the socialist period neither side wanted to talk about the other side’s crimes. As long as the Hungarians didn’t mention the behavior of the Soviet troops in Hungary, the Soviets decided to be quiet about Hungarian atrocities. But now that former satellite countries are bringing up the sins of the Soviets, the Russians decided to release these documents. There are a couple of good summaries of an interview with Krausz and of a conversation between him and a couple of Russian historians on ATV.
It was inevitable that historians whose ideological views are at odds with those of Tamás Krausz would raise their voices. And indeed, there was a round-table discussion between the two sides that turned into a shouting match. The right-leaning historians doubted the very authenticity of the documents. The final word came from Krisztián Ungváry, who admitted that Hungarian soldiers, like all the others, were responsible for mass murders. But he added that this is “a sensitive topic” and therefore it is not surprising that there was deadly silence in historical circles after the documentary volume appeared. All this came as a shock in Hungary because it has long been accepted that the Hungarian soldiers, unlike the Soviets, behaved admirably in the occupied territories.
Another older story is also connected to history and historians. László Karsai, a historian of the Holocaust, in an interview on ATV called Jobbik a neo-Nazi party back in December. Jobbik sued because Karsai, by referring to them as a neo-Nazi party, damaged Jobbik’s good name. The trial was scheduled for January 10. As usual, no decision was rendered and the verdict was postponed until March. At last the verdict was announced on March 22. The judges decided that Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. In my opinion, the courts simply shouldn’t accept such cases because the ideological nature of a party cannot be decided by a court decision. Such historical debates have no place in a courtroom. In any case, Karsai was fined 66,000 forints and he must in a private letter apologize for his “mistake.” Jobbik can make the letter public. Karsai is appealing the verdict.
And finally, there was a fascinating interview a few days ago with Iván Sándor, a writer. The interview was conducted by Vera Lánczos, one of my favorite members of the Galamus Group. Although Lánczos was interested in the cultural and educational “reforms” introduced by the Orbán government, Sándor went back to the Horthy regime with the example of the Klebelsberg reforms and their consequences. In his opinion the new structures of the present government “will force the spirit of tyranny on the new generations.” After all, there is a return to the program of Kuno Klebelsberg. Yes, says Sándor, Klebelsberg did a lot of good things but “not much is said about the content of these educational reforms.” Even during Klebelsberg’s life one could feel the results, but after his death, especially during the premiership of Gyula Gömbös, the negative results of this educational program came to full bloom. The Hungarian youth were not taught to think, and therefore they could easily be manipulated. Many of them willingly served a regime that led the country into the abyss.
Klebelsberg’s cultural policies can also be criticized. Although he sent talented Christian youth to western countries to study, at the same time he tried to promote a kind of culture that turned against western European literature because that kind of literature “doesn’t serve” the spirit of the country and its culture; it is not patriotic enough. Present-day Kulturkampf in Hungary bears a strong resemblance to its 1920s variety.
And that leads me to one of today’s news items: Western artists called on Hungarians to rebel against Orbán’s regime. They claim that with the usual kinds of protests one cannot achieve anything in Hungary anymore and therefore they call on the intelligentsia of Europe to intervene. Everybody must work together–writers, scientists, philosophers, film and theater directors, musicians, poets, Greenpeace activists. Everybody who wants a democratic Hungary. “Hungary must be liberated.”
That’s all for today.
Statement of Brent Hartley
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State
Hearing before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
March 19, 2013, 3:00 P.M.
Thank you, Chairman Cardin and members of the Commission, for inviting me to join you today. Mr. Chairman, I am well aware of – and appreciate – your continued interest in events in Hungary. I believe your interest is warranted. Hungary remains a strong ally of the United States. Hungary is a member of two bedrock transatlantic organizations – the OSCE and NATO – which define and defend democracy in Europe and beyond. However, in the last two years we have been open about our concerns regarding the state of checks and balances, and independence of key institutions, in Hungary. The United States has not been alone in this regard, as the Council of Europe, the European Commission, other friends and allies of Hungary, and civil society organizations have expressed similar views. If the Government of Hungary does not address these concerns, not only will the lives of Hungarian citizens be affected, but it will also set a bad precedent for OSCE participating States and new members and aspirants to NATO.
Last year marked the 90th anniversary of U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations: relations which remain strong, based on a common security architecture as NATO allies, a deep economic partnership, and what we believe are fundamental values shared by the American and Hungarian people. Hungary plays an active and positive role in international fora, leading the way towards goals compatible with ours on a wide range of issues.
U.S.-Hungarian security cooperation, especially with respect to military, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism issues, is exceptionally robust. We have enjoyed warm relations with each and every Hungarian government since the transition from Communism over 20 years ago. This underscores a point that we always stress with our Hungarian friends: our expressions of concern over the last two years should be taken in the proper spirit because they come from a strong friend of Hungary, and friends should be able to speak truth to friends. Our concerns do not arise from any hostility toward Hungary, ignorance of the specifics of the laws, or from a partisan slant against its current leadership. They are a sincere expression of what we and other friends of Hungary in Europe see as troubling trends in laws passed in the last few years.
Before former Secretary Clinton visited Hungary in June 2011, we took notice of Hungary’s controversial media law and a new constitution – which in Hungarian is called the Fundamental Law – portions of which also raised concerns among impartial observers. In both cases, we had concerns about the content as well as the process by which they were passed. Due to the mechanics of the electoral system, the current government gained a two-thirds majority of Parliament based on winning 52 percent of the vote in free and fair elections in 2010. This gave it the authority to pass new laws, and indeed a new constitution. As we have often said, Hungarian laws should be for Hungarians to decide. But for something as fundamental as a constitution or a law impacting freedom of the press, the process must lead to a consensus built from a broad cross-section of society, rather than reflect only the opinions of the ruling coalition. The speed with which these laws were drafted and then passed, and the lack of serious consultation with different sectors of society, did not honor the democratic spirit that the people of Hungary have long embraced.
That is why when Secretary Clinton visited Budapest in 2011, she called for Hungary to show “a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency.”
Since then, the Hungarian parliament has passed scores of laws at an accelerated pace. Most of these laws were unobjectionable and aimed at addressing issues that had not been addressed in the early days after Hungary’s democratic transitions in 1989. But more than a few of these laws posed threats to systemic checks and balances and the independence of key institutions that are the bedrock of mature democracies. Privately and publicly, we expressed our concern to the Government of Hungary, as did several European institutions and governments. Our message to our Hungarian allies is that all democracies have a duty to safeguard institutional checks and balances. Unfortunately, in many respects our message went unheeded.
My colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia, whose experience in Hungary goes back to 1989, has described the root of our concerns with key Hungarian laws as the concentration of too much power into too few hands.
When Hungary’s Constitutional Court struck down a law on fiscal issues, the parliament swiftly passed another law taking away the Court’s competency to decide cases based on fiscal matters. The government also expanded the Constitutional Court from 11 to 15 members, allowing the current administration to select the additional justices and thereby alter the Court’s juridical balance. The new laws created a Media Council and gave it significant powers to oversee broadcast media, including the right to fine media for “unbalanced coverage,” an unsettlingly vague term. Unlike similar media bodies in other democracies, such as our Federal Communications Commission, no opposition parties are represented on Hungary’s new Media Council. The Council members have nine-year terms, and cannot be removed without a two-thirds vote of parliament. The long length of these terms ensures that these political appointees will remain in place well past the next planned parliamentary elections in 2014. This would tie the hands of the next government should it have anything less than a two-thirds majority.
The new laws also created a National Judicial Office and gave it a powerful, politically-appointed President with a nine-year term and the authority to assign cases to any court she sees fit. This enables the office-holder to engage in “venue shopping” by steering specific cases to specific judges – a recipe for potential abuse.
Another new law stripped over three hundred religious congregations or communities of their official recognition. To be clear, non-recognized religious groups are still free to practice their faith in Hungary. However, they do not enjoy certain tax benefits and subsidies that recognized religious groups do. In order to regain recognition, religions will have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of parliament, an onerous and unnecessarily politicized mechanism. While we understand that the new religion law was adopted to stop fraud, we have urged the Hungarian Government to seek a less onerous and less politicized procedure to weed out malfeasance.
In mid-2012, as expressions of concern from the United States and Europeans mounted, the Hungarian Government began responding in constructive ways. The government voluntarily submitted many laws for review by the legal experts of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. In some cases, though by no means all, the government modified laws to take into account specific concerns expressed by the Commission. While some important issues remained unresolved, we were heartened that Hungary was engaging in dialogue, recognizing the merits of concerns expressed by the United States and others, and taking steps to address them.
We were further heartened when, early this year, Hungary’s Constitutional Court issued several rulings striking down controversial legislation. This demonstrated that the Court could serve as an effective check on government. Unfortunately, the reaction by the Hungarian government again called into question its commitment to checks and balances and institutional independence. The government drafted and swiftly passed a new constitutional amendment, parts of which reinstated laws that had just been struck down by the Court. Again, the process was rushed and lacking in broad societal consultation. Moreover, the Hungarian Government ignored pleas from the State Department, European Commission, and Council of Europe – as well as several respected, non-partisan Hungarian NGOs – to engage in a more careful, deliberative process and allow for the Venice Commission’s experts to review the amendment. This has prompted renewed expressions of concern from the Council of Europe, the President of the European Commission, and other allied governments, including the United States. While the Government of Hungary has now submitted the amendment to the Venice Commission, this is the opposite of the normal procedure, whereby the Commission reviews laws before they are passed, not after passage.
I would like to address one other area that has provoked much concern: the rise of extremism in Hungary. This phenomenon is, sadly, not unique to Hungary. The rise in Hungary of the extremist Jobbik party as one of the largest opposition groups in parliament, and Jobbik’s affiliated paramilitary groups that incite violence, are clear challenges to tolerance.
Let me be clear: the ruling Fidesz party is not Jobbik. Fidesz’ ideology is within the mainstream of center-right politics, and its platform is devoid of anti-Semitism or racism. In 2012, the Government of Hungary used the centenary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth to promote tolerance. Moreover, we have seen a growing willingness by Hungarian government leaders to condemn anti-Semitic and racist acts and expressions. However, such condemnation is not always swift or resolute. The Hungarian Government can and must do more to foster tirelessly a climate of tolerance. One concern is that some local governments in Hungary have, with little objection from the governing party, erected statues and memorials to tainted figures from Hungary’s past. And some of these figures have been re-introduced into the national educational curriculum. As the Department’s former Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism said last year, “the recent rehabilitation of figures from Hungary’s past who are tainted by their support for Fascism and anti-Semitism contributes to a climate of acceptance of extremist ideology in which racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance can thrive.”
We also call upon Hungarian leaders to do more to defend Romani Hungarians, who – like Romani in many other European countries – face discrimination, racist speech and violence that too often goes unanswered, just as in the United States leaders from both parties routinely speak out against racism. We urge that perpetrators of violent attacks against Roma – in Hungary as well as elsewhere in Europe – will be arrested and prosecuted as swiftly as those who commit anti-Semitic attacks.
In conclusion, the United States has long enjoyed and benefitted from its strong alliance with Hungary and its people. Just as we continue to do hard work together in Afghanistan and other danger spots around the world, so too will we continue to have a sincere – and at times difficult – dialogue on the importance of resolutely upholding the fundamental values that bind us.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for allowing me to express the State Department’s views on these important issues.
For over two days now I have been trying to explain the situation that developed in Hungary as a result of the blizzard to an American friend of mine. Her reaction has been: “OK, Eva, start over again. This doesn’t make any sense.” Then I begin my story again and the answer is: “Sorry, I still don’t understand. Why didn’t they close the roads as soon as it became obvious that there are 30-km traffic jams on very important roads in the country?” Or, “One doesn’t wait until that much snow falls but begins clearing the roads at intervals throughout the blizzard.” Well, indeed, at least in a well organized country prepared to handle all sorts of snow events. For example, the Burgenland, the eastern province of Austria adjacent to Hungary, was hit by exactly the same snowstorm but somehow within a relatively short time all the roads there were cleared.
Around here after a certain amount of snow falls (2″ in our town) the plows start working. I remember many a time that I was caught in a snowstorm on the Massachusetts Turnpike but, even as the snow fell, the plows were hard at work making sure that at least one lane was clear. During and after the last huge snowstorm there was a total ban on driving in Connecticut so that the 100 cm of snow that fell (at least in our town) could be cleared and transported off the roads. In comparison, in Hungary only 15 cm fell on March 14. So, why the chaos?
I read all the reports I could lay my hands on and came to the conclusion that the so-called Országos Katasztrófavédelmi Főigazgatóság (National Catastrophe Agency), a newly created organization, failed miserably. They reacted far too late to the storm that was very accurately predicted way ahead of time.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Officials of the Orbán government did what they do all the time. They lied in order to convince the Hungarian people that they had the situation well in hand. “Success” propaganda was spread far and wide with the disastrous consequence that people were misled and thought that the roads were clear, just as they had been told. Of course, they were not and therefore some people who thought that driving was safe ended up spending as many as 20 hours in their cars without provisions. Total chaos resulted but the government still had time to make a video in which the “dear leader” and his minister of interior just happened to pick up a young couple from Transylvania of all places and give them a lift to their truck. Interestingly, the couple didn’t seem to know that the driver was Viktor Orbán and that next to him sat Sándor Pintér. They also seemed oblivious to the cameras. Mátyás Eörsi, formerly SZDSZ now DK politician, called the video “stomach turning.”
The blizzard began early in the afternoon of March 14, but Sándor Pintér announced a snow alert only around 9 a.m. on the 15th. By that time tens of thousands were stuck on the highways. Some people talk about 30 km, others 100 km traffic jams. A couple of hours later the army was called out and a few hours after that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, proudly announced what a great job his soldiers were doing. Meanwhile the people half frozen in cars couldn’t get any information. Either the lines were jammed or the websites were unreachable because of traffic overload. If (rarely) they saw a policeman and asked what was going on, they were told that he is the last little link in the command chain and he has no idea what’s going on a few kilometers ahead. If the people managed to get through on their cell phones, different sources gave them contradictory information.
The nationwide alert system the National Catastrophe Agency instituted only a few months ago that would have informed the population of the serious situation that had developed was never used. When asked why not, Pintér’s answer was that the situation wasn’t nationwide and therefore there was no need to activate the system. Pintér, just like Hende, was extremely satisfied with the work of the police and the Catastrophe Agency. The people are to blame for starting off in the first place. Never mind that they didn’t receive any information about the severity of the situation.
Many critics point out that one of the problems is the extreme centralization of the whole system, including the police force. The only person who could have declared a state of emergency was Sándor Pintér, but as we learned he was busy at an event that celebrated the promotion of twelve officers of the National Catastrophe Agency. The gathering took place on the evening of March 14 when the crisis on the road had already been under way for hours.
György Bakondi, the new head of the Agency (far right), apparently has absolutely no experience in handling emergency situations. He is a lawyer with a dubious past. There was talk about investigating his financial affairs after 2002. More recently he was involved with the notorious UD Zrt. that was suspected of illegal spying on behalf of Fidesz. So, he was paid off with an important job and a fancy uniform and title. The reorganization of the system also meant getting rid of 800 experienced people and replacing them with Fidesz loyalists. In November 2012 the firefighters addressed an open letter to Viktor Orbán and Sándor Pintér in which they expressed their belief that Bakondi was unfit for the job.
I just heard an interview with Bakondi and my impression was that not only does he know nothing about what to do in case of an emergency, he is also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. When asked why they didn’t forbid trucks from entering the country, his answer was that it is impossible to tell people that they cannot enter Hungary. To the question why they let Hungarian passenger cars on the roads this bright shining light of the Fidesz administration announced that every Hungarian can go anywhere he wants! The government cannot prevent their free movement! These kind of people run Hungary nowadays and therefore one mustn’t be terribly surprised that everything is done in a totally incompetent manner. Because people are not hired for their expertise but for their loyalty to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.
And here is snow removal Hungarian style. Surely attacking a massive snow storm with shovels is a hopeless task.
We can now wait for another rewriting of history Fidesz style. The question is how the Orbán propaganda can make a success story out of this sorry affair. Those people who read only government papers or who listen only to Magyar Rádió or watch only Magyar Televízió have already been treated to self-congratulatory stories. How fast and with what great efficiency the police, the army, and the National Catastrophe Authority did their jobs. I just heard Pintér say that Hungary handled the snowstorm much better than any other country in Europe. But how long can such success propaganda be maintained? I hope not for long.