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Unintended consequences of expanding Hungarian citizenship

November 17, 2013 31 comments

The Hungarian government has been actively recruiting new citizens from the neighboring countries, presumably to add to their vote total at the next national election. In order to be eligible for citizenship a person must have at least one ancestor who was a Hungarian citizen. He must also have some knowledge of the Hungarian language.

The first requirement is easy to fulfill. Everyone who lived in Greater Hungary was automatically a Hungarian citizens regardless of his ethnic background. The second requirement would seem to be a bit tougher. Learning a new language in a few months is a pretty hopeless task. However, as we will see, even that is no problem for those who are well schooled in the world of corruption. And the region’s citizens definitely are.

It seems that the hotbeds of corruption with respect to falsely acquiring citizenship are Serbia and Ukraine. For Serbian and Ukrainian citizens, getting Hungarian citizenship opens the door to the European Union’s job market. It allows people to visit the United States and Canada without a visa. It’s no wonder, then, that more than a third of Serbia’s Hungarian community, almost 92,000 out of  251,000 people, applied for and received Hungarian citizenship. Even Serbs who, although they may have had ancestors who were Hungarian citizens before 1918, don’t speak a word of Hungarian, are now bona fide Hungarians. Perhaps not even their ancestors, who lived in all Serbian-inhabited villages in the Bánát-Bácska region, knew any Hungarian.

After the government expanded the qualifications for Hungarian citizenship, several language schools opened in a great hurry in Serbia. These schools guarantee that in three months their students will be able to pass the Hungarian language exam. If someone cannot attend in person in Belgrade, Novi Sad or Subotica, he can always join the lessons via Skype. Apparently, the entrepreneurs who run these schools have friends in high places in the Hungarian administration who supply them with both questions and answers. The applicants have only to memorize a few sentences, and within a few months they are Hungarian citizens. Naturally, these people have no intention of either voting or staying in Hungary. At the first opportunity they will be somewhere in Germany or the United Kingdom. Recently a friend of mine encountered a Serbian woman at a party in New York. She came here as a new Hungarian citizen but spoke not a word of the language of her new country. But even those who are fluent in Hungarian are most likely interested in job opportunities somewhere west of Hungary.

Apparently the situation is no better in Ukraine. There businesses were set up to handle applications. Mind you, the price is steep–5,000 euros, but the result is guaranteed. If there are no ancestors with Hungarian citizenship, no problem. These outfits even manage to forge birth or christening certificates. Again, corrupt officials on the Hungarian side expedite matters. Although the applicants are supposed to appear in person for the swearing-in ceremony, these officials even allow others to stand in for them. These Ukrainian businesses openly advertise on the Internet. The most impressive is this particular site.

Ukrainian passport

Hungarian citizenship advertised

For more money–9,000 euros–even Russian citizens will have a chance to become Hungarian citizens. The people who are running this racket are so sure of themselves that they offer a “money back guarantee.”

They can also help those who want to acquire the Hungarian equivalent of a green card by investing 250,000 euros in Hungarian government bonds. The Orbán government is so eager to put its hands on cash that it welcomes wealthy investors who want to settle in the country. Apparently there are a fair number of takers. The Ukrainian companies that assist these people promise that they don’t have to pony up the whole amount. A 20,000 euro deposit will suffice. Naturally, the Hungarian government officials in charge of the program hotly dispute these questionable practices. They claim that out of the 430,000 applications, 11,000 were denied.

In Romania there is a very large Hungarian minority of 1.2 million, out of which about 300,000 asked for Hungarian citizenship. Hungarian leaders in Romania claim that “it is not Hungary that is so attractive but Hungarian citizenship” because with a Hungarian passport it is not only easier to get a job in Western Europe but Hungarians can migrate anywhere within the European Union. Citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are still subject to restrictions, for example, in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, France, Malta, and the United Kingdom.

I read several stories that highlight this trend among Hungarian Romanians. About a month ago a short article appeared with the title “Fidesz empties Transylvania.” It is about the quickening pace of emigration of Hungarians to western countries from Romania. The author tells stories about her acquaintances in Transylvania who spend a few days in Budapest to get a passport and in no time are on their way abroad in search of a job. So, the author concludes, Fidesz  might get a few thousand extra votes, but in the long run the size of the Hungarian minority in Romania will shrink due to emigration.

What if someone can’t come up with Hungarian ancestors and is incapable of learning some Hungarian? Especially if they are from Balkan countries south of Serbia. There is an agency that can handle this situation too. Men can “purchase” Hungarian, mostly Roma, wives for 150,000 forints. Well, that is what the women get. Those who arrange these marriages apparently receive millions. Enterprising Hungarians make preparation for the marriages between these women and men from Serbia or other countries in the Balkans. The “weddings” take place in Subotica and from there the grooms are off to Germany or some other western European country. A couple of months later the brides return “as if nothing happened,” says the Hungarian official. Although it happened in the past that the girl was left high and dry in Germany and the family had to scrape together the money to get her home. And don’t think that this is not a widespread practice. Just around Kiskunalas officials are aware of at least 100 cases.

So, these are some of the consequences of the Orbán government’s decision “to unify the nation.” As Attila Jakab, originally from Transylvania, wrote today in Galamus, the notions of nation, state, and citizenship have completely lost their meaning.

Political controversy over the role of Regent Miklós Horthy (1920-1944)

November 5, 2013 28 comments

Sunday marked the unveiling of a bronze bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy. The bust is located on the property of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest, but it is visible from the busy Szabadság tér. The minister of the church is Lóránt Hegedüs, whose wife is a Jobbik member of parliament. This is not the first time that Hegedüs has prompted controversy with his extremist political views and actions. A few years back there was already a more modest Horthy bust, but that one was by and large hidden from public view.

The main reason for Hegedüs’s admiration of Horthy is the governor’s alleged role in regaining some of the territories Hungary lost after World War I. We mustn’t forget that November 2 was the 75th anniversary of the First Vienna Award negotiated with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. As a result of the Award, Hungary regained a sizable portion of Slovakia. Less than two years later, on August 30, 1940, the Second Vienna Award, also arbitrated by Germany and Italy, granted Hungary some of the territories lost to Romania.

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy / Népszabadság, Photo Árpád Kurucz

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy
Népszabadság, Photo: Árpád Kurucz

Naturally, Horthy is only a symbol of these apparent successes of Hungarian diplomacy. The negotiations themselves were done by the Hungarian government, but Horthy was the one who as head of state rode on his white horse into the larger cities of the regained territories. It is this Horthy that the Hungarian extremists who gathered around the statue admire.

One often hears people who admire Horthy say that the admiral was responsible for Hungary’s relatively fast recovery after the war. These people don’t know that, although the whole interwar period is named after him, Horthy’s power was constitutionally extremely limited. Especially in his first ten or twelve years or so in office he had little say in the everyday running of the government. In the thirties, unfortunately for the country, he insisted on and received increased political power. Horthy knew practically nothing about politics before he became governor, and his skills didn’t improve greatly during his twenty years in office.

What these extremists admire most, his alleged skill in recovering former Hungarian territories, was actually his and the country’s undoing. For the good offices of Nazi Germany in November 1938 and August 1940 Hitler demanded loyalty from Horthy and Hungary. It was difficult to say no to the benevolent Führer who took Hungary’s side during the negotiations with Slovakia and Romania.

The other issue is the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and Horthy’s personal responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. It is undeniable that the interwar Hungarian governments actively helped the Christian middle classes achieve economic  and intellectual prominence to the detriment of the Jews. The numerus clausus (1920) that restricted the number of Jewish students at the universities was intended to further that aim of the government. Anti-Semites of those days talked about “the changing of the guard,” meaning altering the composition of the economic and intellectual elite. Most leading Hungarian politicians, including Horthy, would have liked to see a Jewish-free Hungary, but they knew that shipping out all the Jews would have terrible economic consequences. Yes, there was pressure from Germany, but many people in the government actually welcomed that pressure since it would facilitate the “changing of the guard” which hadn’t proceeded as rapidly as they would have liked.

As for Horthy’s personal responsibility for the expulsion of the Jews, I have to side with the majority of Hungarian historians who blame him for what happened. First of all, Horthy was not powerless even after the German occupation on March 19, 1944. He could have forbidden the Hungarian administration to make the necessary preparations to send about 600,000 Hungarians to Auschwitz. Because everything that was done was done by the Hungarian authorities. If he could stop the transports in July, he could have ordered the ministry of interior to refuse to cooperate with the Germans earlier on. The Germans simply didn’t  have the personnel or the know-how without Hungarian help to organize such a mass expulsion. Without the assistance of the Hungarian Railways, for example, no transport could have left the country. It was only when Horthy received threatening calls from all over the world in July 1944, including Great Britain and the United States, that he decided to act.

Finally, I would like to touch on the Orbán government’s position regarding the Horthy regime and Horthy himself. An unfolding Horthy cult is undeniable. It started with Jobbik, but eventually Fidesz decided not to try to stop the tide. Viktor Orbán himself didn’t promote the erection of Horthy statues or naming streets after Horthy, but he didn’t stand in their way either.  Just yesterday in parliament he quite openly admitted that what he wants are the votes of those who voted last time for Jobbik. And if that is your aim you don’t condemn the Horthy regime’s foreign policy or admit its responsibility for the deaths of Hungarian Jews.

Even today, after the unveiling of the statue and after outcries from the Hungarian and the international Jewish community, Fidesz refuses to take a stand. János Lázár already announced that it is the job of historians to determine Horthy’s role. As if historians hadn’t done their job already. Although no full-fledged biography of Horthy has yet been written in Hungary, Thomas Sakmyster’s book, Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy 1918-1944. appeared in English in 1992 in the United States. Since then we have even more information on that period, including archival material that indicates that Horthy most likely knew about Hitler’s plans for the extermination of the Jews much earlier than the summer of 1944.

An incredible number of documents have been published ever since the 1960s on German-Hungarian relations. Selected private papers of Horthy were published in English.  Documents from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry were also published in several volumes between 1962 and 1982. Hundreds of articles appeared on different aspects of the Horthy regime. So, those Fidesz politicians who urge historians to work harder should first sit down and read a few books and articles which are readily available. Then they can decide whether it is appropriate to embrace the Horthy regime or not.

The time has come, I think, for the Orbán government to announce unequivocally that it does not seek its forebear in the different governments of the Horthy period. Not even the Bethlen governments because Prime Minister István Bethlen was an arch-conservative whose ideas were behind the times even then, and in the twenty-first century they have no place in a country that belongs to the European Union.

It seems that the Hungarian Reformed Church at least has finally taken action. The church is beginning disciplinary action against Lóránt Hegedüs. I don’t know whether they will have the guts to defrock him, but in my opinion that man has no business whatsoever leading a spiritual community.

The Great March of the Szeklers

October 29, 2013 29 comments

In today’s post I’m relying heavily on an excellent article by Attila Ara-Kovács on the background of the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy in Romania. The Szeklers (in Hungarian székelyek) live primarily in the hills and valleys of the Eastern Carpathian mountains in three neighboring counties: Harghita (Hargita), Covasna (Kovászna), and in parts of Mureş (Maros). Although the exact circumstances of their settling and their precise ethnic origin are controversial, we know that today’s inhabitants of these three counties have been living there from time immemorial. According to the Hungarian Etymological Dictionary, the written word “székely” dates to at least 1092.

But back to the present. According to the latest census 612.043 Hungarians who call themselves Szeklers live in these three counties, which are perhaps the least developed and poorest regions in Transylvania. Their growing demand for autonomy was prompted by Romanian efforts to rethink the country’s administrative borders. The European Union urged member countries to create regions that would take into consideration a healthy economic mix. Such plans were also underway at one point in Hungary, but they died a slow death, mostly at the hands of the officials of the traditional county administration. Fidesz was also not about to give up the one-thousand-year-old tradition of the county system. After all, it was Saint Stephen who set it up.

In Romania the debate began already in the early 1990s, but it was only in 1998 that a final decision was reached. Romanian officials introduced an administrative set-up consisting of 6 regions whose borders were drawn in such a way that the counties where the Szeklers are in the majority were attached to a larger unit made up of Alba (Fehér), Sibiu (Szeben), and Braşov counties. In this mix, the Szeklers were in the minority, just over 20% of the population. This arrangement was not only unfavorable to the Hungarian minority but also made no sense economically.

Eventually the Romanian government came up with a new arrangement which they are planning to introduce soon. The three Szekler counties will be attached to Braşov county, the second most developed and industrialized part of Romania after the Bucharest region. In this new region the Hungarians will make up 43.85% of the population, a considerable improvement over their present situation. As Ara-Kovács points out, one could carve out a unit consisting only of the three Szekler counties so that the Hungarians would have an absolute majority, but such an arrangement would leave these three counties without any outside, sorely needed financial resources.

The recent demonstrations are in part directed against this plan of forming a larger economic and administrative unit from Braşov, Covasna, Harghita, and Mureş counties. In addition, the Szekler National Council, the chief organization behind the demonstrations, has been demanding territorial autonomy quite independently of the controversial administrative remapping of the region. Let me stress that the present Romanian government is dead set against giving territorial autonomy to the Hungarians. The Romanian constitution specifically states that Romania is a unitary state, one and indivisible. No Romanian government in the foreseeable future will sit down with any group to discuss plans for territorial autonomy. The Romanian government claims with some justification that in the last fourteen years the Hungarians in Romania have had wide cultural autonomy, not only in the territory inhabited by the Szeklers but everywhere a certain percentage of the population consists of Hungarians. Hungarians in Romania have their own schools, they can use their own language, and on the whole their situation is better than at any other time in the last eighty years. Therefore, launching a worldwide propaganda campaign for territorial autonomy is ill-timed and most likely counterproductive.

Then there is the problem with the so-called Szekler National Council itself. It is enough to look at the organization’s website to see that the leadership has very strong ties with Jobbik. For example, on October 25, it was triumphantly announced that “Jobbik joins the Great March of the Szeklers.”

The Great March of the Szeklers

Yesterday I talked about the sympathy march that was organized by CÖF, the so-called civic organization that is in fact financed by the Hungarian government. But the really big event was a 55 km march between Ozun (Uzon) and Chichiș (Kökös) in Covasna county. It was called the Great March of the Szeklers. The organizers were expecting at least 100,000 marchers, some of them wearing the customary local folk costumes. Although we don’t have reliable numbers, by all accounts the crowd was enormous. Naturally there was also a Calvinist church service which was recorded by Duna TV, a state television station providing news for Hungarians in the neighboring countries. The Great March was broadcast by MTV, the public television station.

So the march drew thousands of Szeklers and got extensive media coverage. The problem is, however, as Ara-Kovács points out, that the organizers don’t have clear ideas about what kind of autonomy they really want. “The only thing that is clear is that they want to live their lives without the Romanians.” And surely this is neither desirable nor possible.

The Szekler National Council is actually the creation of Fidesz. It is being financed by the Hungarian government. Even the Great March was financed by Budapest. The Szekler National Council, in addition to its goal of territorial autonomy, has its own political agenda. It wants to dominate Hungarian politics in Romania, taking the reins away from RMDSZ (Romániai Magyar Szövetség or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România), the leading Hungarian party in Romania that has often participated in Romanian government coalitions. As opposed to RMDSZ, which promotes peaceful and cooperative coexistence between Romanians and Hungarians, the Szekler National Council is a radical nationalist party.

Meanwhile in Budapest a sizable crowd, organized by so-called civic organizations and Fidesz, had their not so great march from Heroes’ Square to the Romanian Embassy on Thököly út where the right-radical and anti-semitic Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz, was among the speakers. Some of the demonstrators sent a message to the Romanians inside of the embassy: “The land of the Szeklers doesn’t belong to Romania!” Well, it does and it will.

Recent Hungarian diplomatic blunders: Romania and the Czech Republic

August 12, 2013 108 comments

Let’s move from domestic to foreign affairs, not because there are no interesting topics at home in spite of the silly season (cucumber season in Hungarian or Saurgurkenzeit in German) but because Romanian President Traian Băsescu made headlines today with his caustic and, according to some, threatening remarks about the Orbán government’s behavior toward his country.

Traian Băsescu was Fidesz’s favorite Romanian politician a couple of years ago, and it seemed that Viktor Orbán and the Romanian president were kindred souls who understood each other and were ready to support each other. I vividly recall when back in 2009 Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s foreign policy expert, gave a television interview in which he emphasized the importance of Băsescu’s re-election. He considered it to be critical from Hungary’s point of view, especially after Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.  In 2011 Băsescu attended Fidesz’s summer camp in Tusnádfűrdő and in 2012 Orbán campaigned on Băsescu’s behalf among Transylvanian Hungarians. Well, the honeymoon is over.

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Basescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Băsescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

I have two versions of what Băsescu had to say this morning in Marosfő/Izvoru Mureșului in Hargita/Harghita county at another summer free university gathering. Marosfő is a village with a population of 800 which is completely balanced ethnically. The Hungarian version appeared in the Romanian Új Magyar Szó, according to which Băsescu said that “politicians of Hungary became so impertinent that it is likely that we will not approve their holding their Free University and student camp in Bálványos.” He added that “Romania is ready to accept a leading role in reprimanding Hungary because  it has recently become the center of tension in the region.” He announced that 2013 was the last year that “the whole political elite could loiter undisturbed in Harghita and Covasna.” This was the version that Hungarian papers republished without any changes.

The other version appeared in The Independent Balkan News Agency, which covers all the Balkan countries in addition to Slovenia and Cyprus. This version is more complete and explicit than the one that appeared in the Hungarian paper. Here Băsescu talks about Hungary as “a regional hotbed of instability” and warns that Bucharest could seek “to teach Hungary to know its place” and made it clear that in the future Hungarian politicians “will not be able to roam around Romania freely.” As it turns out, the Romanian original from Băsescu’s blog is “poate să se perinde” which is very close to the Hungarian “loitering” (lófrálni). * The news agency also notes that Băsescu’s outburst came only two days after Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, said (also in Romania) that “Hungary should engage in a conflict with Romania in order to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority. ” Moreover, László Tőkés’s suggestion that Hungary extend “protection” to the Hungarian minority in Romania is also mentioned.

Official Hungarian reaction was slow in coming. First it was Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ/UDMR, the major Hungarian right-of-center party in Romania, who described Băsescu’s “recent reaction to Hungary [as] over the top.” The language Băsescu used was too strong even in connection with Gábor Vona’s remarks, but “Hungary’s leaders did not warrant such a reaction from President Traian Băsescu.” Kelemen found it “unacceptable for a head of state to threaten a neighboring country with isolation.”

It was only around 7:00 p.m. that Balázs Hidvéghi, a novice Fidesz member of parliament who since 2010 hasn’t done anything notable judging from his parliamentary record, was picked to answer the Romanian president. This choice I think reflects Viktor Orbán’s  attempt to make the event seem insignificant, undeserving of a high level answer. Hidvéghi was both understanding and friendly; he emphasized that the summer camps at Tusnádfűrdő were always held with a view to furthering Romanian-Hungarian dialogue and friendship.

Magyar Nemzet looked for a Romanian politician who had condemned Băsescu and found him in Mircea Geoană, the former Romanian foreign minister. He considered Băsescu’s attack on Hungary and the Hungarian politicians part of the Romanian president’s “desperate pursuit of popularity.” Geoană expressed his fear that after such an extremist statement “there will be the danger that the world will consider Romania to be the center of instability in Europe” instead of Hungary. What Magyar Nemzet neglected to mention was that the socialist Mircea Geoană was the candidate for the post of presidency in 2009 against Trajan Băsescu. But even Magyar Nemzet had to admit that another socialist politician, Mircea Dusa, a member of parliament from Hargita/Harghita, welcomed Băsescu’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s political activities in Romania.

If that weren’t enough, Viktor Orbán made another diplomatic faux pas, this time involving the Czech Republic and the Visegrád Four. The Visegrád Four (V4), an alliance of four Central European states–the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, was established both to further cooperation and to promote the European integration of these countries. The name of the alliance is derived from the place where Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarians rulers met in 1335. The three kings agreed in Visegrád to create new commercial routes to bypass the port of Vienna and obtain easier access to other European markets.

The Visegrád Four still exists and this year the prime minister of Hungary serves as chairman. The next summit of the four countries was scheduled to be held on August 24 in the fabulous Esterházy Palace located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border. On August 8 the Office of the Prime Minister announced that Viktor Orbán had decided to postpone the summit due to the Czech government crisis. It was clear from the text of the announcement that the idea had originated with Viktor Orbán and that the postponement was not requested by the Czechs.

The Czech reaction was swift. Jan Hrubes, the Czech government spokesman, announced that there was no need to postpone the summit. Moreover, the Czech government learned about the change of plans only from the media. Jirí Rusnok, the current prime minister, was ready to participate in the summit. The spokesman of the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister expressed his surprise since, according to him, the Poles and Slovaks received Orbán’s announcement. Whether the Czechs did or not is a moot point. The fact is that it is not customary in diplomacy to postpone a meeting on account of instability in one of the countries without the request of the country in question. A typical Viktor Orbán move; he behaves in international circles like a bull in a china shop.

According to observers, the real reason behind Orbán’s move can be traced to his political sympathies. The former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Nečas, was a member of the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party and was an admirer of Orbán. In fact, he stood by the Orbán government at the time the European Parliament accepted the Tavares Report. He expressed his “deep disappointment” and forewarned of the grave consequences of the report for the future of the European Union. By contrast, President Miloš Zeman is a socialist and so is Jirí Rusnok, who will most likely remain at the head of the government at least until October when elections will probably be held. Tamás Rónay of Népszava suspects that Orbán’s decision to postpone the summit is a gesture to and an expression of solidarity with Nečas, who had to resign in the wake of a huge sex and corruption scandal. Just another case of diplomacy Orbán style.

*Thanks to my friends originally from Transylvania who provided me with the Romanian original.

Some citizens are more equal than others

August 9, 2013 52 comments

I simply can’t understand the Hungarian opposition’s lack of initiative and its sluggish reactions to unacceptable actions that are being taken day in and day out by Fidesz and the Fidesz-ruled parliament. Often, opposition politicians wake up only when a government official reveals by a slip of the tongue the real intention of a piece of legislation. A good example of this kind of opposition lethargy is its recent discovery that the government is up to no good with its laws governing the voting rights of new Hungarian citizens who were born and lived all their lives in one of the neighboring countries. No opposition politicians raised the possibility of electoral fraud until the head of the National Election Commission made the mistake of revealing some of the details of the voting procedures contemplated by the government. Then suddenly the politicians of the democratic opposition woke up. But, for Pete’s sake, the particulars of the electoral law have been known for months. Where were these people when the proposal was duly voted into law sometime in December?

I wrote about some possible problems with the absentee ballots on July 29 after Ilona Pálffy, the government official in question, made the mistake of outlining the procedure in terms that made it clear that the safety of the ballots cannot be guaranteed. It will be extremely easy to manipulate the ballots of dual citizens. It took another two weeks for the opposition to discover that there are serious problems with the voting rights of Hungarian citizens living abroad.

Currently perhaps as many as half a million Hungarian citizens work abroad. This number is a guesstimate, but the true number is surely more than 300,000, the number of dual citizens in the neighboring countries. And while these dual citizens can vote via absentee ballot, Hungarians working abroad must vote in person either in Hungary or at a Hungarian embassy or consulate. Let’s take, for example, Great Britain since it has a large Hungarian presence. In the United Kingdom both the Hungarian embassy and the consulate are in London. There are no consulates anywhere else.  So if a Hungarian lives in Glasgow and would like to vote he would have to travel to London, more than a six-hour trip by rail. And we’d better not mention Northern Ireland.

The situation is slightly better in Germany but not much. There a Hungarian citizen can vote either in Berlin or in Munich. In the United States there are three places you can vote: Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.  If you happen to live in Kansas City you can look forward to a 2,000 km trip to New York City. You are even worse off in Canada where there are a lot of Hungarians. There you can vote only in Ottawa; the distance between Vancouver and Ottawa is 3,538 km. For sake of comparison the Hungarian government maintains four consulates in Romania: in Bucharest, Cluj/Kolozsvár, Miercurea-Ciuc/Csíkszereda, and Constanta. Of course, this comparison doesn’t really speak to the issue since Hungarian dual citizens in Romania don’t have to show up in person at one of these consulates.

Fidesz obviously doesn’t want Hungarian citizens living in the West to vote in the forthcoming elections. I don’t think they’re focused on votes coming from Canada and the U.S. What worries them is those recent emigrants to Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. who left the Orbán government behind. Their connection to Hungary, family and friends is much more intense and direct than that of earlier emigrants to North America. Moreover, most of them left Hungary recently because of economic hardship, and most of them seem to be satisfied with their new circumstances. They find life in Great Britain and Germany much more pleasant and career opportunities more merit-based. There is a good likelihood that a great majority of these people would not vote for Fidesz.

And there’s another reason to discourage these potentially anti-Fidesz Hungarians in the West from voting. A Romanian-Hungarian dual citizen can vote only for party lists while Hungarians living in the West but with a valid address in Hungary can theoretically vote for both individual candidates who represent a district and for party lists.

All citizens are equal / www.presseurope.eu

All citizens are equal / http://www.presseurope.eu

This blatant discrimination against Hungarian emigrants in the West was introduced as an amendment to the electoral law. It was an afterthought. I suspect that Fidesz figured out that the number of Hungarians seeking employment abroad was growing by leaps and bounds and that if these people can vote as easily as the by-and-large pro-Fidesz crowd in Romania and Serbia their actions might counterbalance the gains coming from the Romanian-Hungarian vote. In that case, the whole exercise of giving the vote to Hungarians in the neighboring countries would have been for naught.

The opposition was asleep at the switch when the Fidesz amendment was approved. It was only today that Gergely Karácsony on behalf of Együtt 2014-PM announced that he is planning to submit an amendment to the electoral law that would put an end to this discrimination against Hungarians temporarily living in countries of the European Union.

The answer from the other side came in no time. Gergely Gulyás, who is deeply involved with constitutional and electoral issues, said that he considers Karácsony’s proposed amendment a desperate move on the part of the opposition forces. The opposition already knows that they will lose the election so they are now trying to convince the world that their loss is the sole result of electoral fraud. He claimed that the Hungarian electoral law ensures equal opportunity to all Hungarian citizens. Well, you can judge for yourself whether a Hungarian citizen living in Great Britain has the same opportunity to cast his vote as his counterpart in Romania.

I highly doubt that Fidesz will be willing to change the existing law that clearly favors them. At least this is how I interpreted Gulyás’s words.

Hungarian domestic attitudes toward voting rights of outsiders

July 30, 2013 60 comments

The forthcoming election will be a hot topic in the next few months, and the voting rights of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries will be a continuing subtext. So today let’s look at how the citizens of Hungary feel about non-residents by the tens of thousands voting and perhaps deciding the outcome of the election.

We can safely say that the overwhelming majority of the electorate disapproves of the idea, and that even includes a large portion of Fidesz voters. And, as we will see later, people’s negative sentiments have not changed in the last two years.

The politically naive might ask why on earth Fidesz-KDNP insisted on granting voting rights to dual citizens. The answer is simple. Party strategists consider the pro-Fidesz votes coming from abroad, especially from Romania, important, perhaps even vital, to the party’s success in the 2014 elections. At the same time they most likely ascertained through their own polls that Fidesz supporters won’t defect over the voting rights issue.

In light of these findings it is more difficult to understand Együtt-MP’s opposition to abolishing the voting rights of dual citizens without domicile and steady employment in Hungary in the event they are victorious in 2014. One would think that Gordon Bajnai’s party would take advantage of their potential supporters’ strong dislike of the Fidesz-introduced piece of legislation that serves only Fidesz’s political interests.

In any event, let’s see the results of three polls measuring the electorate’s attitude toward voting rights. All three were conducted by Medián. The first was conducted between May 7 and 11, 2010, that is before the enactment of the electoral law.  The next Medián poll was done in July 2012 and the third in November 2012. I’m very much hoping that Medián will follow up with another poll after Hungarians hear more about the possibility of electoral fraud as a result of a (perhaps intentionally) sloppily written law. But given the results of the past three polls it is unlikely that Hungarians’ enthusiasm for the voting rights of non-residents would suddenly soar.

In May 2010 19% of Fidesz voters disapproved of granting both citizenship and voting rights to Hungarians in the neighboring countries and only 30% approved of both. The rest, 46%, supported dual citizenship but without voting rights. So, 65% of Fidesz voters surveyed were against granting voting rights to Hungarians outside the borders. 62% of MSZP voters opposed both citizenship and voting rights and only 5% approved of the Fidesz plan. Jobbik voters were split on the issue: 35% of them wouldn’t grant outsiders anything but 35% of them were happy with Fidesz’s plan. Those without party preference also overwhelmingly opposed voting rights. Only 13% supported the government’s plan. All in all, 71% of the adult population were against granting voting rights and 33% even opposed granting citizenship. Only 23% supported the proposed law that included both.

The July 2012 poll inquired about other aspects of Hungary’s relations with the neighboring countries, especially the Hungarian government’s involvement with party politics in countries in the Carpathian Basin. As soon as Fidesz won the elections the government unabashedly supported certain Hungarian minority parties and ignored or actively worked against others. This particular poll concentrated on Romanian-Hungarian affairs and specifically the Hungarian government’s support of small parties that are politically closer to Fidesz than the largest Hungarian Party, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ) or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (UDMR). Medián wanted to know what Hungarians think of direct Hungarian involvement in political campaigns outside of Hungary’s borders. In addition, Medián inquired about people’s opinion of the government’s support of insignificant political groups in Romania as opposed to the largest Hungarian party, RMDSZ. And while Medián was at it, they included a question testing whether their May 2010 findings about Hungarians’ opinion on the voting rights of people of foreign domicile had changed at all.

The overwhelming majority (78%) disapproved of the government’s involvement in the politics of its neighbors. As for Fidesz’s support of smaller Romanian-Hungarian parties that are closer to the Fidesz leadership’s heart, even Fidesz voters were split on the issue, with 50% supporting the Fidesz strategy but 37% disapproving. In the population as a whole only 24% thought that supporting small political groupings was a capital idea while 52% thought such a strategy was self-defeating. A rather large number of those surveyed (24%) had no opinion.

As to the issue of citizenship and voting rights, more than two years went by and nothing really changed. In May 2010 71% disapproved and only 23% approved, in July 2012 70% still disliked the idea but the supporters went up a bit, from 23% to 26%. Not really significant.

In November 2012 Medián conducted another poll. The overwhelming majority of MSZP, LMP, DK, MSZP, Együtt 2014, and undecided voters rejected that section of the electoral law that grants voting rights to dual citizens. Although a relative majority of Fidesz (55%) and Jobbik (53%) voters supported it, in the population as a whole those who opposed it were still slightly over 70%.

The November 2012 Medián poll on the issue of voting of outsiders on national elections

The November 2012 Medián poll on the issue of voting by outsiders in national elections
blue = approval, red = disapproval, gray = doesn’t know

DK is the only party that openly declares its opposition to voting rights. MSZP’s program indicates that they sympathize with DK’s position. But Együtt 2014-PM insists that they will not touch the status quo created by Fidesz for its own political gain. I fear that this issue might be one of the thorniest between MSZP and Együtt 2014-MP during the negotiations.

Given public opinion in Hungary, I think it would be an unnecessary gesture to leave this part of the law on citizenship intact. Moreover, flying in the face of overwhelming public opinion against this legislation might irritate some of Együtt 2014′s supporters who by the largest margin (87%) among any of the parties rejected the idea of voting rights.

Absentee ballots from Romania may give rise to electoral fraud

July 29, 2013 35 comments

We are witnessing a mad dash to register the largest possible pool of voters in Hungary’s neighbors, especially Romania. Currently 4,000-5,000 applications for citizenship reach the office handling the cases. The hope is to get at least 300,000 dual citizens living outside of Hungary to register, a task that can be done as late as 15 days before the actual election. Three-quarters of these votes will most likely come from Romania. In fact, the Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad extravaganza was also used to solicit more registered voters for Fidesz. The allegedly independent National Elections Committee’s chief, Ilona Pálffy, was on hand to make a pitch for voting in the Hungarian elections. In order to make the proposition attractive she minimized the bureaucratic hassles. In fact, she simplified the procedure to such an extent that the new investigative online website, 444.hu, immediately figured out that something was not quite cricket with the process by which a dual citizen votes.

Ilona Pálffy, formerly one of Viktor Orbán’s chief advisers, told the HírTV reporter who was present in Tusnádfürdő: “There will be many ways a dual citizen will be able to vote. He can mail his ballot in the country of his domicile to the National Election Committee; he can send it to the embassy or go to one of the consulates where there will be a box in which a person can even place all the ballots coming from the same village. He will not even need an ID. The registered voter can also bring his ballot to Hungary and mail it there. And finally, he can place his ballot in a box set up for this purpose in every voting district on the day of the elections.” Easy, isn’t it?

One’s very first question is how the authorities know that the person who arrives with a few hundred ballots is actually entrusted with the task by the voters.

Ilona Pálffy found herself in an uncomfortable position, especially after Együtt-PM cried foul and asked the obvious question. How can someone without any identification cast a ballot in the name of another person or persons? She tried to explain her earlier statement. Electoral fraud is out of the question. Hungary is simply following the practice of other countries. The voter will first place his ballot in an unmarked sealed envelope and will then put it in a second envelope with the name and the address of the voter. In one of the ways described above, these envelopes will reach the National Election Committee. There the outer envelopes will be opened and the unmarked envelopes “will be piled in a heap.” The ballots will be counted by the members of the National Election Committee.

electoral fraud

I checked the absentee ballot provisions of a few American states; several use this two-envelope solution. The inner envelope is called “secrecy envelope” and the second the “affidavit envelope” because on it there is a written declaration made under oath before a notary public or other authorized person. So far I haven’t heard anything about a declaration made under oath that would ascertain the identity of the voter. In fact, there is not word of it in the law concerning electoral procedures.

But there are other potential problems as well. Ilona Pálffy mentioned that representatives of other parties “can be present” when the outer envelopes are removed but said nothing about there being representatives of other parties at the actual counting of the ballots in the offices of the National Electoral Committee, a body whose members are all Fidesz appointees.

Then this morning I heard an interview with Zoltán Tóth, the foremost authority on elections in Hungary and abroad. He called attention to an odd distinction between “cím, lakcím” and “értesítési cím,” both meaning address. The latter is a roundabout way of saying that it is an address where a person can be notified.  (See  The Act on  Electoral Proceedings (2013. évi XXXVI. törvény a választás eljárásról). After all, aren’t the two the same? One immediately becomes suspicious: what is this all about?

Well, here at least is Tóth’s explanation. Currently “paid agents” of Fidesz (the government?) go from house to house, from village to village in Romania urging people to request a registration form. Once a request is forwarded by one of these agents, the National Electoral Commission compares the applicant’s data with the list of new citizens and decides on eligibility. After the eligibility decision is made, the registration form must be sent immediately to “the ‘értesítési cím’ of the given central register unless the citizen otherwise instructs.” In brief, it will be sent to the  central collecting center’s representative who solicited the registration.

These details are dealt with extensively in the law but nothing is said about who has to fill out the ballot and how the details of the person’s identity are ascertained. Presumably, the voter could simply tell someone else his party preference. Moreover, if there are Fidesz lists prepared in Romania as in Hungary, and apparently such lists already exist, someone could actually fill out ballots on the basis of that list. Tóth called attention to the 2010 postal voting fraud in the U.K., in Oldham, North Manchester, Richdale, and Bolton. A resident complained that he filled out the forms for his family but they were taken from his house by a party worker. Another voter complained that one of the parties got his details from the “postal voting list.”

I’m not at all surprised that the opposition parties are suspicious. Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to lose another election. His 2002 experience had a devastating effect on his psyche. The dual citizenship scheme was designed first and foremost to bolster Fidesz’s chances at the ballot box. István Mikola, minister of health in the first Orbán government, spilled the beans in 2006 when at a large Fidesz gathering he announced that “if we make voting from the neighboring countries possible at national elections we can cement our power for the next twenty years.”

I think Mikola was far too optimistic. Right now Fidesz hopes to have 300,000 registration applications. Of course, not all will actually vote, but I’m sure that the “paid agents” will make sure that most will. But even if 300,000 new voters all cast their votes for Fidesz apparently the impact on the outcome will be moderate, a difference of only about 3-4 seats. Of course, in a very close election these seats could make all the difference.

The experiences of the last three years show that Viktor Orbán and his minions are ready to use all legal and sometimes even semi-illegal instruments to make sure that they come out on top. They will do almost anything to win this election. And naturally money is no object. With this kind of preparatory work among the Romanian-Hungarian electorate the size of the Fidesz vote will be overwhelming in Romania.

A short history lesson about 1918-1919 in Hungary

June 3, 2013 146 comments

I’ve written several times about András Nyerges’s excellent column, “Color Separation,” that compares today’s right wing to their interwar counterparts. His articles–originally published in Magyar Hírlap when it was a liberal paper and, after Gábor Széles made it a mouthpiece of the far right, in Élet és Irodalom–were reprinted in a two-volume collection. Inspired by some recent topics of discussion, I went back to these books. Today I’ll focus on two articles that are especially on target. One deals with the Romanian occupation of Budapest in August 1919 and even mentions Cécile Tormay by name. The other, published in 2002, is about Fidesz’s “reinterpretation” of Mihály Károlyi and the First Republic.

First to Tormay and the Romanians. I took a look at the last few pages of Cécile Tormay’s second volume in which she discusses the events between August 1 and August 8, 1919. During this time Tormay was hiding from the Budapest terrorists in a border town between Slovakia and Hungary, Balassagyarmat. It turned out to be a bad choice: Balassagyarmat was swarming with local terrorists who planned to kill practically all the better-off people in town even after the fall of Béla Kun. At least according to Tormay.

It is here that Tormay learned that the Romanians had occupied Budapest. She immediately came up with a conspiracy theory. That’s why the Entente representative refused to negotiate with “us, Hungarians” and instead turned to “William Böhm, Kunfi and with Károlyi’s henchman, Garami.” I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that all three happened to be of Jewish origin. The Entente didn’t allow the Hungarian troops stationed in French-occupied Szeged to liberate Hungary because “the occupation of Budapest was reserved by the Great Powers for the Rumanians so that the city might become their prey and they might still act the role of deliverers.”

Well, it seems from Nyerges’s article that there were alternative theories about the arrival of the Romanian troops. One of the very few liberal members of parliament in 1922 inquired from István Bethlen, by then prime minister, whether he was planning to set up a committee to investigate “who those traitors were who, against the expressed wishes of the Entente, asked the Romanians to occupy the capital city.”  The committee was indeed set up and those members of parliament who in one way or the other were involved in the coup d’état against the social democratic government that took over after the fall of Béla Kun loudly protested, although no one accused them of anything. They all denied complicity. As usual with investigative committees in Hungary then or now, no one became any the wiser as a result of the hearings.

Outside the House, however, rumors didn’t die down. A Romanian politician, Ioan Erdeli (in Hungarian sources he is referred to as Erdélyi János) who was involved in the secret Hungarian-Romanian negotiations during September-October 1919, gave an interview in a Cluj (Kolozsvár) paper in 1922 in which he said that there were indeed several delegations to the Romanian army asking for the occupation of Budapest. He was not at liberty to disclose names, “but they were mostly aristocrats and important representatives of industry.” But a journalist close to government circles had already mentioned in late 1919 two important people who were allegedly involved: István Friedrich, prime minister in 1919, and General Ferenc Schnetzer, his minister of defense. There is no real proof of their complicity, but what we can say for sure is that the fall of Béla Kun and the arrival of the Romanians was greeted with relief. In fact, the Romanians’ reception in Budapest was more than cordial; the disillusioned Hungarians welcomed the soldiers with a shower of late summer flowers. Tormay was “longingly waiting for the arrival of the occupiers” because communism meant the death of the nation. Foreign occupation was only humiliating.

And since we were just talking about the White Terror, mostly conducted by Miklós Horthy’s officers stationed in Siófok at Lake Balaton, here is Tormay’s account. “In Western Hungary the peasants are arresting the hiding butchers of the dictatorship and delivering them up to the justice of the crowd. They are executed by those whose father, mother, husband or child they have murdered.” This is how people rewrite history according to their own political views. Surely, true Hungarian officers couldn’t possibly murder the Jews and riff-raff whom Tormay loathed; this task had to fall to the aggrieved peasant masses.

Róbert Berényi's famous poster for recruiting volunteers for the Red Army

Róbert Berény’s famous poster to recruit volunteers for the Red Army

Nyerges’s second article deals with the reevaluation of the 1918-1919 period. Nyerges wrote it in 2002 after reading a work by a historian of decidedly right-wing views. This work as well as many other studies of the period try to portray the period in black and white. All the good men were on the right; those who supported Mihály Károlyi, and especially the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were “the garbage of Hungarian society.” This is still the case, says the unnamed historian, “even if some well known intellectuals enthusiastically spoke of the communist system and the arrival of the Red God and for a while served the regime. That was only their error or rather their shame.”

But life is never that simple. Combing through the contemporary conservative press Nyerges found plenty from the other side who enthusiastically supported the Károlyi regime. Here is an editorial (December 24, 1918) from Alkotmány (Constitution), the official paper of the Katolikus Néppárt (Catholic People’s Party). “We can take it for granted, based on Mihály Károlyi’s political past, and he himself certainly has the right to claim that every word of his comes from inner conviction. We don’t believe that the ship of state would be heading in better direction than in his hands.” The militantly conservative Budapesti Hírlap on February 25, 1919 wrote in connection with the land reform that “regardless of how it will end, it is leading toward true democratization. …  As the Romans said: Quod bonum, faustum, felix fortunatumque sit (May the outcome be good, propitious, lucky and successful.)” But this very same newspaper on October 7, 1919 wrote: “Károlyi and his conniving accomplices killed Hungary!”  A few weeks later the Budapesti Hírlap thought that the stupefied people didn’t realize that the October 1918 revolution  “was not national but a Bolshevik revolution. Every thinking man in the very first week, at the time Barna Buza announced the land reform, should have seen that.”  But if that was the case, why did the same newspaper say on February 22, 1919 that Buza “clearly stated that the land reform means not only a right but a responsibility.” The conservative Élet (Life), a literary magazine, wrote: “Károlyi is a martyr. A well meaning man who is ready to negotiate with the enemy and who received real promises.” In another article, the literary weekly admitted that under the circumstances the socialists became the backbone of society. Moreover, they are real patriots because “the socialists fought for the integrity of Greater Hungary” at the meeting of the Bern International in February 1919.”We were reading their speeches with great excitement at home. We applauded and cheered.” And the very last example, which is really telling: the Alkotmány (Catholic People’s Party) wrote on March 23, two days after the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, that “when pacifism and the pro-Entente politics failed, the hand of the proletariat was raised. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in order to save the integrity of Hungary.”  “During the war years the enemy called the Hungarian soldier ‘the red devil.’ The enemy will certainly hear in the future about the Red Army.” So, not only duped, ill-informed, naive people were enthusiastic about the revolutionary events of 1918-1919.

After the arrival of the counterrevolutionaries the history of these years was rewritten.  And today the rewriting of history is again proceeding apace. Black (or red) and white, evil and good, non-Christian and Christian, international (and by implication treasonous) and national. But a binary history is a false history, whichever side writes it.

General government retreat in Hungary? I doubt it

March 25, 2013 22 comments

A couple of interesting political developments surfaced this morning, but I think it is too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about their import. The first is that parliament will not discuss an amendment to the electoral law. About a week ago a Fidesz backbencher, Árpád János Potápi, submitted the amendment that should have been debated today. However, Magyar Nemzet learned (they always manage to learn things from government sources) that the amendment will not be on today’s agenda.

What was this amendment that Potápi, it seems, withdrew? According to his amendment, statistical details about the new citizens residing abroad must be kept “secret” for national security reasons. We wouldn’t even know how many people are eligible to vote from the neighboring countries and therefore wouldn’t be able to check whether the final results that the government releases are accurate or not.

This plot has been on the drawing board for a very long time because, let’s face it, granting citizenship to Hungarian nationals in the neighboring countries serves only the governing party’s interests. An incredible amount of time and money were  spent registering as many new citizens as possible. There  was a bit of a problem in Slovakia, a country that responded to the Hungarian attempt at dual citizenship for about half a million Slovak citizens with a counterattack. No dual citizenship is allowed in Slovakia with the exception of Czech-Slovak citizens. Ukraine forbids dual citizenship, period. Most Hungarians in Serbia became Hungarian citizens not so much for voting rights but for a Hungarian passport that allows them to move to western European countries where they are, as Hungarian citizens, permitted to work. The bulk of the new citizens come from Romania, where Fidesz politicians think Fidesz has a significant edge over MSZP or other left-wing parties.

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000  living in Moldavia  receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000 living in Moldavia, receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

In January of this year HVG asked the government for the statistics it had gathered on voters residing abroad, but its request was denied. HVG promptly sued the Ministry of Administration and Justice. The case is still pending. Not much was heard about the case until  March 12 when Petápi’s amendment showed up on the Hungarian parliament’s website. The government, it seems, was answering HVG‘s suit with a change in the law. By now this is a customary ploy of the Orbán government. If they don’t want to do something, they simply change the law.

Although the reaction of the opposition was slow in coming, by March 19 all groups joined in the outcry, including Jobbik.  Discussion on the amendment began in the middle of the night, as normally happens when the topic is important and/or sensitive. The government’s justification of the move was that countries like Slovakia might harass or even expel Hungarian nationals if they find out that their citizens, after all, took out Hungarian citizenship. But, of course, this is not the reason. In fact, eligible voters abroad will be notified by mail that they are on the election list. So, one way or the other the Slovak government will know who became a Hungarian citizen. Moreover, Viktor Orbán already sent out 60,000 letters to Hungarian nationals in Romania urging them to vote at the next election. The story is circulating in Romania that Romanian authorities scan all letters coming from Orbán and therefore they already have a nice long list of 60,000 names.

The list of eligible voters living in Hungary is available. Everybody can go to city or town hall and check whether he/she is on the list. We know exactly the number of eligible voters and thus we know what percentage of them actually voted and who they were. But if such details in the case of voters from the neighboring countries are not revealed, we have absolutely no way of determining the veracity of the statistics the government releases after the election. The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) rightly cried foul and reminded people of the so-called “blue slip” election of 1947 which the communists rigged by insisting that people could vote anywhere in the country as long as they had a blue slip in hand. Naturally, many voters had several blue slips in their pockets. I actually knew someone who as a young communist enthusiast participated in this fraud and was carried by truck from city to city to vote many times over.

The Orbán government was all set and ready to vote on the amendment. Less than a week later, however, they changed their minds. Perhaps someone in the high party leadership came to the conclusion that if that amendment is tacked onto the electoral law the rest of the democratic world will question of very validity of the 2014 election and with it the legitimacy of  a new elected Orbán government. Perhaps someone remembered that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was in Budapest in June 2011, emphasized during her meeting with the opposition leaders that one cannot speak of democracy if the election is not free and unfettered. That’s why, she added, one must pay attention to the election law the Orbán government was working on at the time. In brief, if there is any question about the validity of the election, the consequences might be dire for the Orbán government.

The other development is also noteworthy. Magyar Hírlap learned from unnamed sources that “there will be modifications” to the Law on Religions. As of this afternoon I read nothing about the nature of the modifications. But there seems to be a retreat on the part of the Orbán government. Knowing how this government operates, however, one must not let one’s guard down. They will try to find some other way to achieve their original goals. We can only hope that the European Union and the United States will not be fooled.

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