Month: January 2008

Katalin Kondor: Was she an informer?

Not according to the Budapest Court of Appeals. For at least four years one court procedure after another has found her innocent of spying on her fellow citizens and reporting to the secret police of the Hungarian Ministry of Interior under the Kádár regime.

The story began in 2003 when Népszava published a document which according to the editors proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Katalin Kondor, then head of the Hungarian Public Radio, worked for the secret service between 1974 and 1983. She agreed to spy for the secret police not under duress but, according to the document, out of her patriotic duty. According to historians familiar with the archives of the secret service, the document bore all the marks of the genuine article. According to the document Kondor received a cover name, Vári, and an apartment was designated for her meetings with her "keeper," whose name was also known. During the court procedures Népszava had the best witnesses: historians who all swore that the dossier Népszava  published proved that Kondor used to be an agent. Her alleged keeper, who is still alive, denied it, and Népszava lost the case.

Shortly after this, Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist, wrote an article in the weekly, Élet és Irodalom, in which she criticized Kondor and alluded to her possible connection with the secret police. Kondor sued. (Kondor loves to sue and apparently she made the Hungarian Public Radio pay all her legal fees.) Miracle of miracles, Vásárhelyi won but Kondor appealed. Although Vásárhelyi’s witnesses Levente Sipos and László Vargha, both historians, claimed that documents clearly indicate Kondor’s connection with the secret police, Kondor’s appeal was successful. She brought in experts who claimed that the document that Népszava  originally published was insufficient to prove her involvement because her signature was not on the document and there was no report submitted by her accompanying the documents.

The interesting part of the case is that the judges of the court of appeals were Mrs. Kizman (neé Marianne Oszkó) and Mrs. Győri (neé Amália Maurer). Mária Vásárhelyi didn’t have a chance with these judges. Mrs. Győri is the wife of Tibor Győri who used to be the Fidesz’s legal council. Moroever, the same two women were the judges who brought the verdict in the case of Mrs. Orbán’s Tokaj vineyard. At that time they decided that the business meetings concerning the vineyard at which Viktor Orbán was present were not really business meetings. Just friendly little chats about the vineyard. So when Viktor Orbán claimed that he never took part in any business meetings, he told the truth! Is anyone surprised that the Hungarian people are beginning to have serious doubts about the impartiality and competence of the Hungarian judges? Moreover, any case involving the media and the press is handled exclusively by these two women. No liberal journalist, no publicist has a chance under the circumstances.


Hungarian Jurisprudence: The case of György Budaházy

By now I don’t even know what to think of Hungarian judges. The latest is that the case of the professional "revolutionary," György Budaházy, ended with a not guilty verdict. The charge was that Budaházy actively called for the forcible overthrow of a democratically elected government.

Budaházy first appeared on the scene as one of the leading members of the Hungarian far right when in 2002, shortly after the Fidesz lost the general elections, he organized a blockade of one the bridges between Buda and Pest. The inexperienced Hungarian police must have spent at least four hours before they managed to remove Budaházy and his handful of followers and the traffic, which had come to a standstill in the entire city, began to flow again. Nothing happened to Budaházy then . . . and the drumbeat goes on.

Budaházy had several brushes with the law. At one point when it looked as if he were going to be arrested, our hero disappeared. The police looked for him for months until he appeared with a ridiculous wig during the 2006 disturbances and was discovered. During his time in hiding he played games with the authorities. He sent thirteen letters, one more inflammatory than the next, to one of the most right-wing internet sites, the The prosecutor at the trial which began on January 23 and ended yesterday, read Budaházy’s epistles for over an hour. In them, he outlined how to build barricades and argued how important it is to have bullet-proof vests. He asserted that "a patriotic dictatorship is much better than a democracy which squanders the future," along with many other equally interesting slogans. He envisaged "commando units that will destroy the enemies," he urged people to blockade the capital, praised stones and Molotov cocktails that would ensure the patriots’ victory over the people’s enemies. He told the democratically elected politicians and officials "to vanish, if they want to save their lives." The parliament should be forcibly dispersed and, once the democratic regime collapsed, a "sacred leadership," whatever this means, would be established.

The presiding judge admitted that Budaházy overstepped the boundaries of what is acceptable as free speech but, after all, his calls for the overthrow of the government remained unanswered. That to me means that he is not guilty because he wasn’t successful. I guess if the commando units had blockaded the capital, dispersed the parliament and killed some uncooperative politicians, perhaps something could have been done in a court of law. However, I’m afraid by then it would be too late. The judges would be part of the "sacred leadership." (Maybe they are already; they’re certainly not part of the intellectual leadership.)

The prosecutors are appealing the case. And we just stand dumbfounded.

Orbán’s latest game

Yesterday Viktor Orbán, the leader of the Fidesz, began his party’s campaign for a successful referendum. Success would mean that all three questions of the referendum would be answered in the affirmative: yes, they don’t want to pay 300 Ft every time they visit a doctor; yes, they don’t want to pay 500 Ft every day they spend in the hospital; and, yes, they don’t want university students to pay partial tuition toward their education. As things stand now, the polls indicate that the referendum will most likely be valid and successful; that is, at least 25% of the registered voters will go and cast their ballots and more than two million people will say yes to these questions.

However, referendums are rarely valid in Hungary. Not enough people bother to visit the polling stations. It also seems that there is considerable political apathy at the moment in Hungary. Although the Fidesz is usually successful at mobilizing its followers, the by-election held in district XI in Budapest last Sunday might be a bit worrisome for the Fidesz. Although this particular part of Buda has voted for right-wing candidates ever since 1990 and therefore few doubted that a Fidesz-KDNP (the ghost party of the Christian Democrats) candidate would win, I don’t think that they predicted that the election would be invalid because not enough people bothered to vote. But that is exactly what happened. In order for an election to be valid at least fifty percent of the registered voters must cast their votes. Last Sunday only 38.29% showed up at polling stations. That doesn’t bode well for the Fidesz.

As usual, Orbán is trying to make a referendum on rather inconsequential questions a political turning point. Although his campaign manager, István Tarlós, keeps repeating that this is just a referendum and not a general election, the Fidesz party leader yesterday made it clear that he is certain that if his party is successful on March 9, the day of the referendum, the government will have to resign. But what if the referendum is not valid? What if not enough people vote or there are fewer than 2 million affirmative answers? That could be very embarrassing.

Surely, Orbán hopes that there will be a palace revolt within the MSZP if it loses the referendum. He could point to the European parliamentary elections of 2004 when the MSZP didn’t exactly shine: the Fidesz managed to send more delegates to Brussels than the MSZP. Soon after this fiasco, Medgyessy offered to resign and the party leadership accepted his resignation. In a similar scenario Orbán’s hated rival, Ferenc Gyurcsány, would be removed and one of the less than exciting members of the party leadership would be elevated to the prime minister’s position.

But if Orbán keeps repeating that this referendum, despite its primitive little questions, has such an enormous significance as far as the MSZP is concerned, this might mobilize MSZP sympathizers who will actually go out and vote "no" or will boycott the whole voting procedure. I don’t think that Orbán would be ousted from his position in case the referendum is a failure because I share the widely held opinion that without Orbán there is no Fidesz, but it is possible that his position within the party would be diminished. Yet of late Orbán has been preferring these games of chance even though, let’s face it, they have not been successful when it really mattered: at the time of the general elections.

A Hungarian law school in the late 1930s

A serendipitous Google search. Yesterday I wrote about judges of the Hungarian Supreme Court and a few hours later (when searching to see whether Dr. Tamás Dizseri had anything to do with the Rev. Sándor Dizseri, a Calvinist minister in Pécs), I happened upon an online copy of a book by Győző Csorba (1916-1995), a talented poet and translator and a native of Pécs. The book, entitled A város oldalában: Beszélgetések [On the slope of the city: Conversations; 1991], is a treasure trove of Hungarian literary life from the 1930s. By the way, as a teenager I was a great admirer of this kind and gentle man. Csorba worked in a library where I did volunteer work as a high school kid.

Csorba came from a miserably poor family with nine children. His father was employed by the railroads as a sign painter. Apparently a talented man but entirely uneducated. So was his mother, who finished perhaps six grades. His father died when he was ten. None of his siblings finished more than eight grades. He himself, on the other hand, went to the best high school in Pécs run by the Jesuits (although he was Calvinist) and finished law school in Pécs, receiving his D.J. in 1939. Most likely Csorba would have ended up like his brothers–working as a house painter or a locksmith–but he was born with a shriveled right arm which precluded any kind of manual labor.

The book is very entertaining. Csorba has a good memory and his descriptions are colorful and detailed. Although he was discriminated against in the Catholic gymnasium because of his religion, he has only praise for the priests who taught him. They were, he claims, excellent teachers and the standards were very high. But then came law school. And I think it’s worth of our while to hear what was going on in a Hungarian law school in those days.

The faculty in Csorba’s law school days was a mixed lot: some of them hadn’t really finished law school but something called lycee of law because, prior to 1920, Pécs didn’t have a full-fledged law school. There were several professors who were refugees from Transylvania, specifically from the law school of Kolozsvár (Cluj). Out of the whole bunch he mentions only one who was well prepared with a solid academic background. He was the one who told Csorba that every time there is a graduation at the law school a black flag should be hoisted on the university’s flagpole!

Csorba mentions a professor who didn’t dare look at the class while he was lecturing. He looked out the window. Meanwhile incredible things were happening in the classroom. Some students played blackjack while others around them were kibitzing. The noise was so great that the professor couldn’t even hear his own voice. Not quite "The Paper Chase."

Then there were the "eternal law students," i.e. those who spent at least double the standard four years it took to get a law degree. One of these "eternal students" had a routine: when the lecture, according to his own watch, had filled the allotted time, he got up, started shaking a bunch of keys, opened the door, and yelled: "The lecture is over!" All the students got up and started toward the door regardless of what the professor was doing.

Contributing to the dubious academic integrity of the law school were the "professional prompters." In Csorba’s first year there were two such prompters who were willing to help out at exams. Of course, for a fee. Csorba helped his classmates gratis, and the professionals threatened to beat him. As for the level of these exams, here is an example: one of the professors asked the name of a landless peasant. The answer is "zsellér," and in my opinion any high school graduate should have known that. The professional prompter whispered "zsellér," but it didn’t ring a bell with one genius of a law student who announced: "Zsengellér." It turned out that there was a fairly well known Hungarian soccer player by that name!

By his third year Csorba himself became a professional prompter. He still helped his former classmates from high school without remuneration, but in return these students became his business agents. They looked up who was scheduled to take exams when and inquired from these students whether they needed a prompter or not. The price was quite high: 2 pengős for an easy exam, 3 pengős if the course was more difficult. Csorba tells a funny story. A new student joined the Pécs law school from Budapest. Csorba’s "agents" asked him whether he needed a prompter but he haughtily turned down the offer. He began his recitation while the professor paced back and forth. Then the professor stopped dead, looked at him and said: "What kind of nonsense are you reciting here to me?" Then came a new question: "How much does the soil contribute to agricultural production?" The Budapest student said something that was obviously not right as far as the professor was concerned, and at this point Csorba saw the fellow’s hand appear behind his back with two pengős. The proper answer was, believe it or not, that "in vain we put a grain of corn under the table and push it upward, it will not grow." Apparently one couldn’t change a word in this answer. Or, another favorite question: "Who exercises power in public administration?" The proper, the only answer was: "The people."

Csorba was a shining light in this environment. Every time he went to take an oral exam, a few minutes later the professor interrupted: "Enough, enough! You talk too much!" Apparently the important part of the answer was still nowhere. After graduating he wrote doctoral dissertations for others. For money, of course. For two years Csorba was unemployed, and he had to live on something. At the beginning he actually put a lot of work into these dissertations, but eventually he became lazy and brazen. He modified old dissertations ever so slightly. The professors wouldn’t have known the difference.

The professional prompters also wrote crib notes. One of them misheard Baruch Spinoza’s name and wrote "Baron Spinoza." For a number of years, all those students who used this prompter’s notes talked about Baron Spinoza. It seems that no one noticed the slip-up.

I don’t really think that the Pécs law school was so much worse than the others. It is enough to read Mihály Károlyi’s autobiography and his "diligent" studies at the Budapest law school quite a few years earlier. He hardly showed up at lectures. His examination was perfunctory. After all, a Count Károlyi is a Count Károlyi. (Csorba talks about a Count Szapáry who passed his exams regardless of what he knew or didn’t know because the professors were awe struck every time they heard a noble title.) And these ignorant people with law degrees and "Dr." in front of their names were running the Hungarian administration. Those who graduated with Csorba were in their early thirties in 1950. When another blow was struck against the legal profession. So I’m not at all surprised at the present situation.

The latest atrocity of the Hungarian Supreme Court

There has been a fierce open debate for well over a year between historians and liberal-minded intellectuals on the one hand and the presiding judge at a rather bizarre case on the other hand. The story goes back to July 27, 1944. By that time Hungary was under German occupation and a young man, Endre Ságvári, a member of the illegal communist party and one of the leading, if not too numerous, anti-fascists got into an armed conflict with the three gendarmes who came to arrest him. The gendarmes arrived with loaded weapons, Ságvári also had a pistol: he killed one man and wounded two. One of the wounded one was László Kristóf. Ságvári himself died in the scuffle. László Kristóf managed to hide for a fairly long time. He was caught in 1957 and sentenced to death two years later.

In 2006, the descendants of Kristóf appealed to the Supreme Court asking for the annulment of this sentence. Five judges of the Supreme Court, headed by István Kónya, decided that Kristóf was innocent and that the proceedings against him in 1959 were merely a show trial. The justifications for the verdict were the usual ones: the gendarmes were simply following orders, they only defended the order of the state and society according to a law of 1921, the German occupation had nothing to do with the case, and the gendarmes acted against both left and right extremists and Ságvári, after all, was a left extremist.

Most of these justifications are spurious. Since Nuremberg a defendant cannot claim that he was simply following orders. Moreover, what kind of societal order were the gendarmes defending in July 1944? Was it justified to fight against a regime that was responsible for terrible crimes against humanity? Kristóf may not have been directly responsible for Ságvári’s death but at the very least he was an accomplice. Moreover, Kristóf served in the detective unit of the gendarmes and in this capacity took an active role in torturing people whom the authorities considered to be enemies of the state. Four witnesses appeared at the 1959 trial to describe the brutal treatment they received at his hands: cigarette burns, electric shocks, beatings on the soles of their feet. However, Kónya and his fellow judges announced that it was impossible to determine the seriousness of the torture committed by Kristóf. Kristóf was not guilty of anything according to the verdict of Kónya and his fellow judges.

The people who were outraged at the Supreme Court’s decision appealed and brought forth an eighty-eight-year-old woman, Marianne Pintér, another antifascist, who was apparently also tortured by László Kristóf. The appeal was turned down, and a letter of explanation was sent to Miss Pintér. Part of the letter reads: "historians, archivists, filing clerks, hat-check boys, newspapermen and other quasi authors to this day are not satisfied with the historical fact: László Kristóf–as opposed to Endre Ságvári–didn’t kill anyone." And for good measure the letter states that Marianne Píntér "must be satisfied with the fact that the accused who didn’t commit a crime deserving a death sentence was executed forty-nine years ago by the plaintiff’s comrades."

Well, this was too much for the Hungarian Helsinki Committe. One of lawers working for the Committee wrote a letter to the Chief Justice, Zoltán Lomnici. Lomnici immediately answered and stated that this kind of behavior is unworthy of the Supreme Court and that he is launching an investigation.

Investigations usually don’t get anywhere in Hungary, but this one may have legs. The political  atmosphere that must permeate the Hungarian Supreme Court is frightening. The ferocious anti-communism among the older judges who were the most trusted supporters of the dictatorship is hard to fathom. Or perhaps not.

Hungarian universities

A few days ago I saw a headline that read something like this: "Five Hungarian universities among the best schools in the world." That headline aroused my curiosity because until now I have heard only about the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Among the top 200 universities in the world not one was Hungarian. So I decided to look behind the headline and found the following. First of all, the survey was not about universities but business schools. And "among the best" meant "among the best 1,000." The survey covered 150 countries and in European countries they found 331 best business schools. So, in brief, the headline greatly exaggerated the importance of this piece of news.

On the very same day that this headline appeared in the Hungarian media Sándor Friderikusz’s guest was Géza Komoróczy, professor of oriental studies, who is deeply dissatisfied with the current state of Hungarian higher education. In Hungary the number of students in colleges and universities has grown enormously while the number of professors has remained practically the same. Many new institutions with low standards have opened their doors. According to Komoróczy, they are at the level of an American community college. And that is pretty low!  Komoróczy mentioned that students arrive at ELTE, where he teaches and which is one of the better universities in Hungary, with incredible deficiencies. A few years ago Professor Komoróczy didn’t have to flunk anyone, but now at one of the exams he gave forty students failed.

Meanwhile I saw a YouTube video on which Ferenc Gyurcsány in Davos emphasized the importance of learning. A learned population is the key to success in global competition. If that is the case, and I believe Gyurcsány is right, Hungary is in big trouble. Half a million people barely finished eight grades and have no skills. And according to experts on educational matters, the existence of the kind of elite Professor Komoróczy finds lacking in Hungary is simply not enough in today’s world. There ought to be those who are not necessarily students of oriental studies but who have learned to think and who are able to work on sophisticated machinery, manage a business, run a supermarket, and so on.

University professors cry over the disappearance of the former elitist educational system, but a new, broadly based educational system has not yet been developed. So the situation is rather grim.

The upcoming referendum, yet another jaded look

I must have written at least four or five blogs on the forthcoming referendum and its questionable constitutional underpinnings. According to most respectable constitutional experts the questions posed by the Fidesz should never have been the subject of a referendum for at least three reasons. First and foremost, according to the Hungarian constitution no referendum can be held on any topic that can have an influence on the budget. In this case all three questions have direct relevance to the financing of health care and higher education. If the referendum is valid and successful from the point of view of the Fidesz the missing income of family doctors, hospitals and universities cannot be replaced from the central budget. This would be unconstitutional. Second, most experts consider a nationwide referendum a constitutional tool that should be used only rarely to decide questions of critical importance to the country. For example, the country’s membership in NATO or the European Union. Petty questions concerning a co-payment of $1.50 for medical care or a modest contribution by students toward their own education surely don’t qualify. Third, the questions themselves are ridiculous: no one in his right mind would want to pay money for something that until now was free. A fairer way of putting the questions would have been, for example, to ask "Do you prefer to pay 300 Ft as co-payment for a medical visit and 500 Ft for a hospital stay or would you rather have your social security contributions raised by X amount?" One has the feeling that the voters in this case would opt for the small co-payment. However, the geniuses of the Hungarian Constitutional Court decided otherwise.

Well, the reason I’m writing again about the referendum (however boring a subject) is that at last we know the date when the referendum will be held. It’s amazing how fast President Sólyom can decide when he wants to. The Constitutional Court gave its final okay on Tuesday and on Wednesday Sólyom spoke. He had fifteen days to decide, but he was in an awful hurry. Other times he waits until the very last day: for example, when he sends something back to parliament for reconsideration. According to the law he could choose a date between March 9 and April 20. And which one did he pick? March 9. His spokesman claims that he picked the date in order to save money and to have the whole thing over with before the national holiday, March 15. However, many people think that this early date helps the Fidesz. After all, the Fidesz has been actively campaigning for months while the other side has waited until the word came from the Constitutional Court and the President. Some people also worry that in case the referendum is not valid (i.e. fewer than 2 million people vote) those who sympathize with the opposition might express their disappointment in a less than peaceful way on the holiday. That would not be a first.

As for the predictions of the outcome: not surprisingly the majority would vote "yes" to all three questions. According to the latest poll 48% of the people now say that they would vote. This number is very high, though most pollsters claim that this early enthusiasm usually doesn’t pan out on the day of the actual referendum. (Of course, this time it’s a pocketbook issue. Just think how much you could save if you spent a few minutes voting.) Another consideration is that the government parties haven’t really started their campaign which will be a mostly "common sense" approach to the necessities of the reforms. Whether this will be enough to convince Hungarians that $1.50 co-pay will not ruin them and upset the whole economic future of their families, no one knows. Also, there seem to be cracks of late within the medical community. Perhaps the family doctors who stand to lose quite a bit of money if the co-payment question passes will no longer campaign against the reforms and will convince their patients to say "no" to that ridiculous question.

A lot will depend on the effectiveness of the government propaganda and the medical profession’s attitude. There are after all almost six more weeks to turn things around. In any case, it is too early to predict one way or the other.