This was the title of an article that appeared in the Hungarian-language daily Erdélyi Krónika, published in Cluj/Kolozsvár. The author, Árpád Gazda, went into raptures talking about János Martonyi's visit to Bucharest. According to him it was unnecessary for Martonyi to emphasize that lately "new winds are blowing in Budapest" because it is obvious even to the casual observer that "Hungary has become an active player in the eastern-central European region" since the formation of the Orbán government. And this player is looking for partners. Gazda mentioned Viktor Orbán's trip to Warsaw except he, unlike me, thinks that Warsaw was enthusiastic about the idea of a Polish-Romanian-Hungarian axis cooked up in Budapest.
Gazda then went on and praised Martonyi to the skies. Martonyi's ideas are so compelling that even the Romanian news agency quoted him instead of Teodor Baconschi, the Romanian foreign minister. And Martonyi had only good news: soon there will be representation of the Romanian minority in the Hungarian parliament and the Romanian Orthodox Church will become one of the so-called "historically accepted churches/történelmi egyházak like the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Hungarian Reformed, and the Jewish." I might add that in Hungary one heard not a word about either parliamentary representation or the Romanian Orthodox Church's elevation to the highly coveted position of a "historical church." As far as the Romanian minority is concerned, their number in 1980 was about 9,000 and since then most likely it has shrunk even further.
Poor Baconschi had almost nothing original to say, according to Gazda. He was reduced to talking about the Hungarian presidency of the European Union next year. He didn't mention a word about the Day of Remembrance to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, and even the granting of Hungarian citizenship was only mentioned casually. Árpád Gazda felt that János Martonyi's unspoken message was: "If you want to achieve anything, you ought to be on good terms with us." But he added that Hungary also needs Romania because this friendship would be "a guarantee that Slovakia would be isolated as long as it conducts a nationalistic and anti-Hungarian policy."
The news I found in Romania Libra was considerably less enthusiastic and more factual. Teodor Baconschi announced that "he received assurances that Budapest would avoid discrimination on ethnic grounds when it comes to citizenship." That of course means that even Romanians whose ancestors were Hungarian citizens before 1918 are entitled to citizenship if they wish to take advantage of it. Martonyi emphasized that the law on citizenship has nothing to do with any kind of territorial issue, meaning territorial autonomy. He also mentioned–and we will see whether it turns out to be true–that "only those could vote at Hungarian elections who reside in Hungary."
The Hungarian news agency's description of the Martonyi-Baconschi talks is a bit more revealing. Here one can read that "Baconschi said that at the meeting they talked frankly about the citizenship law and the introduction of the Day of Remembrance." Anyone familiar with the language of diplomacy knows what frankly means in this context.
As for the isolation of Slovakia Erdélyi Krónika wasn't the only Hungarian-language paper in Romania that spent time on the idea of Romanian-Hungarian cooperation that would exclude and isolate Slovakia. In Új Magyar Szó an op-ed piece argued that perhaps the most important reason for Hungary's newly found friendship with Romania was the necessity to prove that Hungary gets along with everybody, even Romania with the largest Hungarian minority, and it is only Fico's Slovakia that created a conflict between the two countries. At the same time, said the author, Romania also needs a willing friend in Hungary because due to the presidency of Traian Basescu Romania found herself in isolation.
I can't pass judgment on Romania's alleged diplomatic isolation, but I'm almost certain that Slovakia doesn't have to worry about any isolation, especially not because of the Hungarian courting of Romania. My feeling is that the reception of the Slovak electoral results in Western Europe was enthusiastic. Most analysts consider the failure of Pál Csáky's KMP to get into parliament and MOST/HID's success a confirmation of the Slovak-Hungarians' rejection of the kind of Hungarian nationalism advocated by Viktor Orbán.
And one more thing. On June 24 the European Commission refused to pass judgment on the Hungarian complaint concerning the thwarted trip of László Sólyom to Slovakia on August 21, 2009. They threw it back, saying that the two countries should settle the issue between themselves. I thought at the time the complaint was filed that the Hungarian move was a waste of time and energy and I was surprised that Péter Balázs, foreign minister at the time, decided to pursue the matter. The Slovak reaction to the answer from Brussels was that perhaps this taught the Hungarians something and they would drop the case. But this new government is intent on going straight to the European Court of Justice in Strassbourg. I can predict right now that Hungary will lose and then who will be isolated? Certainly not Slovakia.
On April 28, 2010 I wrote an article entitled “The first signs of financial trouble.” This was three days after the second round of the Hungarian national elections that resulted in a stunning victory for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. As I noted, the initial international reaction to the two-thirds majority was positive. The Hungarian forint strengthened, reflecting the hope of investors that the new government’s overwhelming majority would translate into resolute efforts to set the country’s financial house in order.
However, I continued, Viktor Orbán’s first few utterances made the markets jittery again. In the euphoria that followed the victory, Orbán made some very stupid remarks. He attacked the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank and indicated that András Simor had to go and, if that weren’t enough, he defiantly announced that neither the European Union nor the International Monetary Fund is his boss.
At that time some people may still have thought that these were just initial missteps and that Orbán and his team would realize that the world is watching. Some people thought that surely Viktor Orbán wouldn’t make the same mistakes he committed between 1998 and 2002. He is older and wiser and presumably more experienced. As it turned out, they were wrong. Orbán basically hasn’t changed. He is the same headstrong, vain, power-hungry, vengeful man who is great at political intrigue but hopeless as a responsible leader of the country. He is especially dangerous when he has such strong parliamentary and, for the time being at least, public backing.
And there is another problem with Orbán and crew. Their hopeless provincialism. In my earlier article I wrote that Fidesz leaders like to talk about their knowledge of the world. We were told that they will be the ones who will lead Hungary to the High Street of Europe as opposed to the provincial Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and Péter Oszkó, his finance minister. In April, after the first signs of problems created by Orbán’s careless remarks, I commented that the road to the High Street of Europe seems to be bumpy. By now I’m convinced that Orbán’s team is actually wandering around on some dirt road of a God-forsaken village somewhere in northeastern Hungary. Their clumsy games with which they hope to mislead the financial world become international news overnight.
Let’s first talk about English-language media coverage. Lately there is a growing tendency among leading financial papers and even press agencies to hire local reporters who know the language and are familiar with the local political scene. The times when an English or American reporter was sent to Budapest maybe twice a year, spent a few days there, talked to some people who knew English, and then wrote something that was neither profound nor terribly accurate are over. Something happens in Hungary on Monday and on the very same day all the important online papers give accurate reports. A day later the article appears in their print editions. And pressure mounts. As a result, at least on one occasion, Orbán’s busy sidekicks had to back down. I’m talking about the “media reform” bill that was almost a carbon copy of the media law of Putin’s Russia. Whether the withdrawal of the proposal is only temporary we don’t know, but foreign pressure certainly played a role in the postponement.
Although Orbán’s economic minister György Matolcsy, who once already led Hungary down the economic garden path between 2000 and 2002, after a lot of pressure from abroad announced that after all the Orbán government will continue its predecessor’s strict fiscal policies and will stick to the projected 3.8% deficit, this announcement didn’t calm foreign investors’ nerves. Simply because other announcements are constantly being made about hitherto unanticipated government spending. The government’s efforts to paper over their plans to overstep the boundaries of their promised 3.8% deficit fail time and again. The careful observers stationed in Budapest who know what’s up report faithfully.
Here is the latest effort at hiding the truth from the world. The government, using Antal Rogán, an ordinary member of parliament and mayor of a Budapest district, proposed a bill that would be “tantamount to window dressing the budget to meet creditor-approved deficit targets.” Yes, it came to light because the cunning plan was reported by Reuter’s Hungarian journalist from Budapest and because another Hungarian, a strategist at 4Cast Ltd in London, discovered it in no time. Gábor Ambrus in London was emphatic: “That’s the realm of pure window-dressing, not just a PR maneuver.” He added that “the risks of budget slippage remain high in Hungary.”
So, what is the proposed bill supposed to do that is advantageous to the Hungarian government’s agenda of surreptitiously adding to the Hungarian deficit? The planned measures include keeping the losses of state-owned companies off budget accounts and loosening requirements for passing supplementary budgets. In 2008, at IMF’s urging, a Budgetary Council, a kind of watchdog over the budget, was established. The Council is headed by György Kopits, a Hungarian-American citizen who received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. Politically he is close to Fidesz, but he is first and foremost a responsible man who is outraged. He immediately gave a press conference which was then dutifully reported by Reuters. According to Kopits, an easing of the rules would dilute transparency and “the proposed changes would essentially recreate the status quo before 2008, when the rules governing budget planning were tightened.” Kopits found the bill “a lamentable step backward.” Reuter’s assessment ends with the general impression that “analysts have warned there were implementation risks” in the government’s promise to stick to the 3.8% deficit.
While the government is engaging in financial shenanigans with the national budget, it is also making irresponsible promises. The latest is that it is thinking about setting up a new fund to help borrowers whose loans are in Swiss francs or in euros. Because of Hungary’s continued financial fumbling, the Hungarian forint is weakening rapidly. The forint has weakened against both the euro and the Swiss franc. Especially since the new government took over. Here are a couple of charts that show the seriousness of the problem.
Most of the loans are in Swiss francs. But the situation is not much better for those who took out loans in euros.
The Financial Times in an op ed piece gave some advice to the Hungarian government about the plan to set up a fund that would help troubled borrowers who find their monthly payments increasing. Chris Bryant, the author, wrote: “Under the plan, the government would set up a National Asset Management fund, which would purchase real estate put up as collateral from commercial banks, allowing mortage holders to rent the property.” Bryant describes it as the plan of a government that is “crowd-pleasing.” He adds that instead of setting up such a fund (for which in the first place there is no money at the moment) “the best thing [the government] can do to help foreign currency borrowers is to restore investors’ trust in Hungary.”
As far as I can see, the Orbán government in two short months managed to destroy the trust of the financial world in Hungary that the Bajnai-Oszkó duo managed to restore. Failure after failure, but they are not giving up on their games that are supposed to ensure their domestic popularity. But how long can these games be played before serious problems will beset the country? Not for long. Business Week reported on June 24 that “Hungary raised less than its target in a second straight auction of 12-month Treasury bills and the nation’s cost of borrowing increased as concern mounted that Europe’s debt crisis may escalate.” And yet Orbán and Co., seemingly unperturbed, continue with one financial scheme after the other.
Some people think so. Just today Ákos Tóth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, published an opinion piece entitled “The Tragedy of Sólyom.” Tóth’s thesis is although that Sólyom perhaps doesn’t realize it, soon he will encounter the most tragic fate of any politician of the post 1990 period. Because before his very eyes everything that he created will crumble, and the destruction will be committed by those on whom he wanted to bestow his blessing. The edifice that will be destroyed is the Hungarian constitution.
Tóth is certainly right when it comes to the destruction of the constitution that was mostly written by László Sólyom and Péter Tölgyessy, SZDSZ’s first chairman. But he is far too “understanding” in his brief account of László Sólyom’s tenure as president. Because, let’s face it, Sólyom was a disaster as a president.
Let me give a few reasons why I think so. The problems started with his election. The man who was so proud of his moral rectitude and his devotion to the constitution was elected to the post in an unconstitutional manner. His opponent was the socialist Katalin Szili and the race was too close to call. There was a real possibility that a few people from Fidesz and MDF, the two right-wing parties, might vote for Szili. So Fidesz decided to guarantee the final result. János Áder, then head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, checked the ballots of all Fidesz members of parliament that were ostensibly cast in secret. In fact, he sent one fellow back who “by mistake” voted for the wrong person. Yet Sólyom said nothing. He very badly wanted to be president.
In my opinion, quite independently from the outrageous circumstances of his election, he should never even have been nominated in the first place because of his former position as chief justice of the constitutional court. If Sólyom sent a piece of legislation to the court for control, one could bet that it would be deemed unconstitutional. After all, the not so bright and subservient judges figured that if Sólyom thinks that it is unconstitutional, it must be. A former member of parliament told me that he considered Sólyom’s position untenable and that his earlier job should have precluded him from consideration.
My other problem with Sólyom is that he refused to consider himself an official representative of Hungary and thus thought that he could behave as a private citizen. He sided with the environmentalists and opposed setting up a radar station mandated by NATO when in his official capacity he was the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian armed forces. He announced that he would never visit the United States because he is against the U.S. policy of fingerprinting. A private person can do that. The president of a country can’t. He refused to shake hands with a man who received a medal from the Hungarian government because he didn’t like his past activities as one of the deputy chairmen of the Hungarian National Bank in the Kádár regime. He vetoed bestowing a decoration on former prime minister Gyula Horn, who had been decorated by every possible country for his role in the unification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet empire. He objected to Horn’s activities in the 1956 revolution on the wrong side. And to Sólyom’s list of sins one can add his frequent trips to neighboring countries to visit the Hungarian communities there. To his mind he was making these trips as a private person, but in fact he performed official duties even though he was not invited by the government of the country.
Throughout his tenure he made no secret of the fact that he prefered Fidesz and hated Ferenc Gyurcsány. The “nonpolitical” president in fact demanded Gyurcsány’s resignation on moral grounds. He did everything in his power to ruin Gyurcsány and even recently expressed his opinion that he would have preferred early elections and thus an earlier Fidesz win.
And he was hopeful until the very end that the grateful Viktor Orbán would support his reelection. In fact, he was sure of it as late as the eve of the first round of elections on April 11. He didn’t make a secret of his feelings. He talked about the “rebuilding of Hungary.” As if it were in ruins. My strong suspicion is that it was on April 28, the day when he asked Viktor Orbán to form a government, that he learned the bad news. No five more years. It’s enough to look at the picture that was taken on the occasion.
It is worth comparing the above picture to another one taken exactly a month later, on May 28. On that day Sólyom received Gordon Bajnai, who paid his last courtesy call to Sándor Palota. I might add that by all accounts Sólyom got along just fine with Bajnai.
It is clear that suddenly Sólyom’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán, with whom once he sat in 1989 at the Round Table discussion that hammered out the new democratic regime, changed and changed fundamentally. Perhaps László Sólyom is not a very perceptive man and it took him almost twenty years to figure out who Viktor Orbán is. Or, even worse. He is so ambitious that he was willing to close his eyes and cover his ears and move not a finger in defense of the constitution until recently when he found out that he had been set aside. Whatever the case, Sólyom’s sudden recognition that democracy is in danger doesn’t sound genuine to me.
As for his constitution, a couple of days ago György Schöpflin, a former professor of political science at the London School of Economics and in the last six years a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, called Sólyom’s handiwork a “communist constitution,” which I guess means that Sólyom himself is a communist stooge. And, by the way, Schöpflin is one of the six men who was asked by Orbán to come up with appropriate guidelines for the new constitution to be ready by 2012.
I don’t have much sympathy for Sólyom in this predicament because he contributed over the course of the last five years to Fidesz’s overwhelming victory. I don’t think that he will ever admit that he had a hand in the outcome that is so disadvantageous to him and to the country. He served the interests of Orbán and hoped that his services would be appreciated. But Orbán wasn’t grateful. As some Hungarian politician said, gratefulness is not a political category.
The former Fidesz appointed president, Ferenc Mádl, was invited to every Fidesz gathering. I’ll bet that Sólyom will not be sitting in the front row with his wife and will not addressed by Viktor Orbán as “The Honorable Mr. President,” as happens when Mádl is present. It is very possible that they will never again meet face to face.
I know that I said something about continuing to summarize Pál Schmitt's career, but after two articles I think we need a little breather. Sooner or later I will return to his years on the International Olympic Committee and how he ended up as a politician of sorts in the Fidesz camp.
But let's get back to the present. I mentioned earlier that the Fidesz super majority has dictated a very brisk legislative pace at the expense of thoroughness and detailed discussion. The opposition has practically no opportunity to study the proposals, and I don't think that the ordinary Fidesz backbenchers are in any better position. They just provide the necessary numbers, and most likely they don't have a clue what they are voting for. Not long ago János Lázár, head of the Fidesz delegation, announced that anyone who is absent when a very important vote (meaning legislative acts that need a two-thirds majority) takes place will have to pay a fine of 150,000 Ft (about $650). Quite steep by Hungarian standards.
A lot of analysts and commentators are wondering what this hurry is all about. There might be two explanations. One is that the Fidesz government wants to show their voters that they are a resolute lot. They promised action. So, here is action! In the past people complained that nothing was achieved in parliament (mind you, mostly because of Fidesz's obstructionism), but now! An amazing feat. These guys really work for their money as opposed to the socialists who did nothing except steal the country blind. The other explanation is that early in a four-year term, when the government is still popular, it is easier to pass those pieces of legislation that build the foundation for a regime in which the government will have no difficulty whatsoever governing without any hindrance. If the members of the constitutional court are their men, if the president comes from their ranks, if the head of the accounting office is a Fidesz wheeler and dealer who is accused of some shady business himself, then their years in power should be clear sailing.
Among the first legislative proposals was one which two Fidesz politicians brought to the floor (András Cseh-Palkovics, former associate spokesman of Fidesz and Antal Rogán, mayor of District V of Budapest): the media law. Or, as the Cseh-Palkovics-Rogán duo called it, "the media constitution." I already wrote about the media law, mostly about domestic opposition to it. We know that the Hungarian opposition is so weak that members of parliament can talk about their opposition to the bill until they are blue in the face but it will go through, period.
However, it is not a good strategy to alienate the media. Admittedly, the right-wing journalists close to Fidesz have been eating out of Viktor Orbán's hand until now, but even from these circles an opinion piece appeared that surprised the ever shrinking camp of left-liberal newspaper people. It was written by Szabolcs Szerető, one of the editors of the very loyal Magyar Nemzet. The title of his piece that appeared on June 21 was "The Great Democracy Debate" in which naturally he stood by the government that, in his opinion, in no way threatens Hungarian democracy. However, when it came to the media law he suggested caution. Perhaps, according to him, it wouldn't hurt to sleep on it for a day or two before the suggestions concerning "the right of answer" and the "duty to inform" are voted on. The adoption of such measures would be a big mistake because they "limit editorial freedom." He warned that the voters will consider such behavior a sign of "arrogance of power." And he warned that "in a democracy the last word is always theirs."
So, politicians can step on the toes of even those journalists who in the last eight years could hardly wait for the day when their favorites would be running the country. But, obviously, not in such a way that it would restrict their own freedom.
Although there are several associations created by right-wing journalists, the really important ones are still in the hands of the liberals, and these liberal journalists have connections with fellow journalists abroad. Also, as I mentioned earlier, some of the foreign news agencies and papers employ Hungarian-speaking journalists who are able to report on the daily political happenings much more effectively than those foreign journalists who spend a few days in Budapest and then report on whatever they managed to pick up from people who happen to know a foreign language. Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal all have local reporters. Thus the news about the proposed media law spread far and wide, and awfully fast.
As a result, the domestic outcry was followed by protests from international organizations. First came an announcement from the European Federation of Journalists condemning the proposed media law. The organization claimed that the new Hungarian government was planning "to turn back the clock" by "limiting freedom of opinion and freedom of speech." Aiden White, the secretary general of EFJ, expressed his opinion that "the new media law doesn't comply with norms of pluralism and reminds one of the time when Hungary was under Communist rule and in the shadow of the governmental supervision of the media." The Federation, together with the International Federation of Journalists, called upon the Hungarian government to withdraw the proposal in its entirety.
The next day came another demand for withdrawal of the proposal. This time from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE). Dunja Mijatovic, head of the organization's section on the freedom of the press, wrote a letter to Foreign Minister János Martonyi in which she emphasized that the proposed media law threatened the freedom of expression. Moreover, this legislation would be a violation of the obligations Hungary took upon herself when she joined the Organization. At the end, she kindly offered the OSCE's assistance in drafting an appropriate media law.
Two days later the International Press Institute's The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) issued a press release with the following title: "Hungary Parliament Due to Vote on Media Reform Package Threatening Press Freedom." According to Anthony Mills, press freedom and communications manager, "the proposed media reform legislation … constituted a throwback to the dark days of free media repression in the former Soviet satellite state."
He complained that the proposed Media Council would be headed by a person who "would be appointed by the prime minister." In addition four other members are to be appointed by a parliamentary committee, through a two-thirds majority vote in the absence of consensus, "paving the way for ruling party control of the body." Mr. Mills was well informed. He knew that under the new legislation officials "would have an automatic right of response to reporting they didn't like." He also mentioned another objectionable part of the proposed legislation that is supposed "to guarantee balanced reporting" and envisages the inclusion of "mandatory news items considered important for society."
Indeed, the worries expressed by domestic and foreign critics are not without foundation. It seems that the two parliamentary members who came up with the proposal, seeing the problems and the solid opposition of the Hungarian and foreign organizations representing journalists, have retreated somewhat. They took out the automatic right of response. They also excised the part about the mandatory publication of news deemed important for society by the government.
But while all this was happening in Budapest János Martonyi from Washington felt compelled to say a few wise words on the media law. He announced that "there is a fundamental misunderstanding" concerning the media package. The object of the new law is the "depolitization of the media." It seems that Martonyi knew neither the details of the legislation nor the international outcry except for the letter he received from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe. It also seems that he knew nothing about the changes Fidesz was forced to make since. And yet Martonyi went on promising that he would look into the matter and "naturally [he] will answer the letter appropriately." He then went on and explained to the Hungarian journalists present that he didn't think that "the media should be the object of bargaining among parties." It is always dangerous to talk without being fully informed.
As I'm listening to the radio and reading Internet comments on articles about Pál Schmitt's nomination for the post of president of Hungary I have the distinct feeling that even those who sympathize with Fidesz and more or less approve of the Orbán government's activities in the last two months are not exactly thrilled with Orbán's choice. The most frequently voiced criticism is that Schmitt is spineless, servile, and not really suited for the job. One also hears often enough that he loyally served the Kádár regime but now takes every opportunity to present himself as a man who was, if not actually persecuted, disadvantaged because of his family background.
One enterprising guy expressed his opinion in a video entitled "Caligula lova, Schmitt Pál, Incitatus for President." That is, he compares Schmitt to Caligula's horse. I also spotted two panegyric books. The first was entitled "Schmitt, the teamworker"; the publication date (2002) indicates that it was written in connection with Schmitt's running for lord mayor of Budapest. What I find especially amusing is that although he was an "independent" candidate, the book was published by Heti Válasz Publishing House, financed by a foundation established in the last months of the first Orbán administration. Nice independence! The second book was published in 2005 when Pál Schmitt was heading the Fidesz list for the European parliamentary elections. The title was "Being a guest of Pál Schmitt" and it was co-authored by two sports writers. From the description it sounds like a coffee table book with lots of photos.
In a long article (Mozgó Világ, May 2005) József Nagy compares the self-portraits in the two books and finds that the stories don't always jibe. For instance, in one book he claims that his parents lived on Bérkocsis utca and in the other Gyorskocsi utca. The latter is an elegant address, the former certainly not. In the first book he claims that his high-society parents and he as a small child were expelled from Budapest for political reasons in the early 1950s to some godforsaken village where they lived in a small hut at the end of a courtyard. In the second book he corrects the story: reality and unreality get mixed up in his head. After all, the family wasn't expelled from Budapest. Instead, it turns out that after the war when food was scarce in Budapest, the family moved to a small village twice during the summer months. There are similar lapses in his recollections of what he did or didn't do in 1956 when he was 14 years old. In the first book he claims that he and his friends went to a nearby police station and, although there were weapons all over the place, he didn't dare to take any. In the second book there are excerpts from his diary at the time when it turned out that they took not only weapons and ammunition but also a compass, running shoes, and a jersey.
When he was on the national fencing team Schmitt travelled a lot. Famous athletes had many privileges in those days. For example, they could bring into the country duty free certain items that were either scarce in Hungary or because of their superior quality could be sold for a small fortune. Of course, there was a certain limit on these items but the custom officers closed their eyes when it came to these youngsters. Schmitt apparently was always cautious. His "speciality" was fabric that was suitable for making neckties. If the limit was 5 meters, he didn't smuggle in 10 but only 7. This way he minimized the risk of getting into serious trouble.
From the 2002 book one learns that "domestic trade" at Karl Marx University wasn't an elegant major. He thought that he could be accepted as an international trade major because of his knowledge of languages, but he had only a B average in high school, so that was out of the question. In my opinion, in those days very few people were accepted to university at all without an A average unless the student came from a working class or peasant background. However, Schmitt claims that his parents were middle class, though he doesn't specify what his father and mother did for a living.
His career in the hotel business ended in 1981 when he became the head of the "People's Stadium and Its Kindred Institutions." I must say that I did't realize what an important job this was. The conglomerate employed 1,300 men and women who operated several sports centers. In 1982 the company also acquired the right to manage the new Budapest Sports Arena. Schmitt kept this job until 1983, when he became the deputy director of the National Office of Physical Education and Sports. He also became president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and the Hungarian member of the International Olympic Committee when Árpád Csanádi, who served in both capacities, died that year.
Comments on Pál Schmitt often speak of his "interesting" role in the Hungarian Olympic Committee's decision to follow the Soviet lead and boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. The party leaders called in Schmitt one evening and told him to hold off on the swearing-in ceremony for the country's athletes. A few weeks later the Hungarian Olympic Committee voted unanimously with one abstention to follow the ukase. The brave man wasn't Pál Schmitt because he happened to be in Bulgaria on some very important mission. What a coincidence! Thus, Schmitt didn't vote for the boycott but he "couldn't be called a resistance fighter either," as Schmitt himself admitted in the 2002 book. Schmitt himself, by the way, didn't miss the Los Angeles games because he attended as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
So, one can safely say that Schmitt was part of the establishment and his position as deputy head of "Állami Ifjúsági- és Sporthivatal" was a very important one. This organization before 1990 was basically the sports ministry of the regime, and it disappeared with the change of regime. The affairs of youth and sports were taken over by the Prime Minister's Office and Schmitt's position was eliminated. But, of course, he was still head of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee.
It was in 1993 that Schmitt began his diplomatic career. Apparently he lobbied vigorously for an ambassadorship and was offered one of three capitals: London, Ottawa, or Madrid. Surely, out of these three the most prestigious post would have been London, but he chose Madrid for reasons I mentioned yesterday. It is clear from the accounts I read that Schmitt very badly wanted to be president of the International Olympic Committee and he tried to adjust his whole diplomatic career in the service of this goal. But that is another story that is too complicated to recount here. Maybe tomorrow.
It was no great surprise that Viktor Orbán nominated Pál Schmitt, who has been occupying the position of speaker of the house for less than two months and will continue to do so until August 5. Rumors were circulating even before the elections that Orbán's favorite man is Pál Schmitt, whose life should be an example for people who want to make a spectacular career by any means.
He was born in 1942 and at the age of 13, just about the right age for a future fencer, he started to learn the art of épée. Épée is similar to foil but it has a stiffer blade, a larger bell guard, and is heavier. The technique is also somewhat different because, as opposed to fencing with foil, in épée the entire body is a valid target area. Opinions vary about how good a fencer he was. According to some accounts his fellow fencers had a low opinion of his abilities and they claim that in the two Olympics (1968 and 1972) he attended as a member of the gold-winning Hungarian épée team he played no important role. As one blogger said, he mostly sat and was the least valuable player on the team. However, he couldn't have been a total slouch because he won an individual gold at the world championships in 1971.
According to the same blogger he and a fellow fencer, both eighteen years old, while at a meet at Duisburg in 1961 wanted to ask for political asylum because they were not admitted to medical school. In the end nothing came of their plan but apparently Béla Bay, the famous fencing master, told the story to János Kádár and György Aczél, Kádár's right-hand man and architect of the regime's cultural policies, and asked them whether they could do something for these youngsters. According to this version, this is how Schmitt ended up as a student of economics. These rumors may have some truth to them, but the fact is that Schmitt was admitted to the Karl Marx University of Economics in 1960, not 1961 or after. He graduated in 1965.
As soon as he graduated he began working in the hotel industry where he made quite a career for himself. He ended up being deputy director of two important hotels of the day: the Astoria and the Fórum.
In 1981 he left the hotel business and moved on to sports management. By 1983 he was the deputy director of the National Office of Physical Education and Sports, a very high position with deputy ministerial rank. That's why the Slovak liberal paper Sme pointed out that this is the first time that a man who held a high government post in the Kádár regime will be the president of the republic.
Schmitt's official biography is short and sweet and forgets to mention certain events, some admittedly at the level of rumor, that Schmitt doesn't like to remember. For example, apparently Schmitt wanted to become president of the International Olympic Committee. So he asked for the post of ambassador to Madrid to be close to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the seventh president of the IOC. Five years later, in 1999, he made sure that he was transferred to Bern because he wanted to be close to the headquarters of the IOC. In fact, in 2001 he ran for the post but ended up fourth in the race.
Apparently at this point he offered his services to MSZP, although this is not how Schmitt himself remembers it. According to his version, which appeared in Magyar Nemzet (June 18, 2002), Ildikó Lendvai, who then was party chief of Budapest, and Tibor Bakony, deputy party chief, approached him to be the MSZP candidate for lord mayor of Budapest. When Ildikó Lendvai was asked about this offer, her answer was "asked him the hangman/kérte a hóhér"–meaning it was a brazen lie.
Rebuffed by MSZP, he then decided to run as an "independent" with Fidesz backing. He lost pretty badly, but for one reason or another Orbán decided that Schmitt might be useful later on. Shortly after the 2002 elections he "gave up his independence, joined Fidesz and immediately became deputy party chief. A year later at the first European parliamentary elections he headed the Fidesz list. Five years later, after a not particularly distinguished career as a member of the Fidesz team, he no longer headed the list, but he nonetheless became one of the deputy speakers of the European parliament. In 2010 he became a member of the Hungarian parliament and was catapulted into the seat of speaker of the house. It didn't take long before he was nominated by Viktor Orbán for the job of president.
Friends and foes alike point out that Schmitt is a pliable fellow (someone called him "a man made out of rubber") and is quite ready to serve anyone if that serves his purpose. He is right now very grateful and already assured the Fidesz parliamentary delegation that "he will not be an obstacle to the legislative momentum of the parliament." In fact, he will be "its motor." In brief, he will sign anything they put in front of his nose.
Meanwhile I have the feeling that enemies of Pál Schmitt are busily gathering incriminating evidence from his past. At least that was my impression after reading a few blogs.
Right after the Slovak elections I wrote an article about Viktor Orbán's Slovak fiasco which, even after more than a week, strikes me as a fairly sound assessment of the events leading up to the elections. I think it is now time to assess the situation that has developed since.
First, the background. Although Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer received the most votes, in fact more than four years ago, his coalition partner Ján Slota fared very poorly. His Slovak National Party barely surpassed the 5% level necessary to be represented in parliament. Thus the combined forces of Smer and the Slovak National Party weren't enough to form a government. On the other side, the big surprise was that the Fidesz-supported MKP (Magyar Koalicíó Partja) for the first time in the existence of Slovakia failed to get enough votes to qualify for parliamentary representation. On the other hand, Most/Híd (meaning Bridge in both languages) organized just over a year ago by Béla Bugár, formerly chairman of MKP, did fabulously well. It received over 8% of the votes. After more than a week of negotiations it became clear that none of the opposition parties was willing to help Fico out of his predicament. By now it is certain that there will be a coalition government, most likely headed by Iveta Radičová of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union. Most/Híd will be part of this coalition government.
Although Pál Csáky of MKP initially tried to convince the Budapest government to postpone legislation on dual citizenship, in the final analysis he gave in. The argument was that Robert Fico's shrill anti-Hungarian rhetoric would arouse the Hungarians of Slovakia who would flock to vote for MKP. Therefore the legislation on dual citizenship would actually weaken Fico and Slota and strengthen the opposition.
Béla Bugár had a different opinion. He considered the Fidesz government's forcing the issue before the Slovak elections "a political crime." He also said that "anyone who didn't think that Slovak reprisals would be forthcoming shouldn't be a politician." Surely, he had Viktor Orbán in mind. Although the prime minister had helpmates in the persons of János Martonyi, Zsolt Németh, and Zsolt Semjén.
MKP's Pál Csáky resigned and, as one Slovak-Hungarian organ charged, is currently hiding from journalists. Miklós Duray, who is one of the most ardent nationalists in MKP, is sulking and is questioning Most/Híd's commitment to the Hungarian community. I recently learned that Duray has been sitting in parliament for about twenty years and never once rose to deliver a speech. I suspect because he refuses to speak Slovak. Surely, in the European Union this kind of attitude can no longer lead to success.
Most/Híd won over sixty percent of the votes even in solidly Hungarian towns like Komárno (Komárom) and Dunájska Streda (Dunaszerdahely) which were considered to be MKP strongholds. As a result of this election, it became evident that the Hungarian minorities cannot be "governed" from Budapest. Commentators also emphasized that Budapest really doesn't understand the mentality of the Hungarians living outside of Hungary proper. They completely misjudged public sentiment and didn't realize that the Hungarians of Slovakia have an attachment to Slovakia, which is after all their country. (I might add here that the Romanian-Hungarian minority is currently studying the Slovak case and trying to learn from it.)
What is the reaction inside of MKP? Some of the leaders blame Fidesz without admitting that perhaps they also had a role to play in the party's failure. After all, they were willing partners of Budapest. In fact, a commentator called their relationship to Fidesz outright "servile." MKP party leaders now hope that "Fidesz will not be ungrateful" and will help out the party which will soon be in dire financial straights. Some of them consider Fidesz one of the gravediggers of the party "although now they are washing their hands, like Zsolt Németh saying that they are totally innocent in this whole affair."
Another Slovak-Hungarian commentator, Szabolcs Mózes, thinks that if Bugár plays his cards well, "MKP's only hope remains Viktor Orbán. If the chairman of Fidesz has a confrontational relationship with the future Slovak government and if they ignore Híd then perhaps MKP will survive. But if Orbán decides to have a working relationship with the new Slovak government, MKP is finished."
As far as I can see, the Budapest government's future relations with Slovakia are still undecided. On the one hand, János Martonyi and Zsolt Németh keep repeating their willingness for a dialogue as soon as the new Slovak government is formed. Zsolt Semjén, it seems, has other ideas. On June 21 he was interviewed on Krónika (Chronicle), an extended early morning news program of Magyar Rádió, and when he was asked whether Most/Híd of Béla Bugár would receive an invitation to the meetings of Hungarian politicians of the Carpathian Basin he is organizing during the summer, he answered that it depends on whether Híd considers itself a Hungarian party. Because he certainly does not. In his opinion "Híd at the moment is a Slovak party in which there are token Hungarian politicians." He continued that "the future Hungarian-Slovak relationship will fundamentally depend on Bratislava." Not too promising a beginning.
I've written a lot about the frantic pace at which Fidesz lawmakers are moving in parliament. According to the latest count fifty proposals were submitted by the Fidesz-KDNP majority. Out of these fifty only one was initiated by the government and even that was just the suspension of an earlier law that set the date for the introduction of the new civil code for July 1. All others were submitted by individual members. In a month and a half twenty-six proposals were discussed, voted on, and passed. Quite a record, I would say. How well these laws will stand the test of time we will see. Opposition members naturally claim that they will not.
The new foreign minister has also been very busy. Earlier I wrote about a rather ambitious Fidesz plan of long standing that envisaged a north-south axis of states that would work together and form a regional alliance within the European Union. They would allegedly coordinate policy to defend the interests of the countries that fall within this axis. In addition, there would be closer political and economic cooperation among them. A few years ago Fidesz was thinking in terms of the following countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia. But time went by and Slovak-Hungarian relations became rather strained. At the same time, in the last two years or so, Viktor Orbán has worked assiduously to build closer cooperation with the right of center Romanian government. In fact, last summer Orbán more or less campaigned for Traian Basescu, the president of Romania.
So the geography of the axis started to shift. The notion of a north-south axis that would include Poland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Croatia was bandied about. In light of this, it wasn't terribly surprising that the new prime minister's first foreign trip was to Poland. However, after reading the reports on Orbán's meeting with Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland, I had the distinct feeling that the Polish politician was less than enthusiastic about this north-south axis concocted by the Fidesz leadership.
Most likely my instinct about Orbán's visit to Warsaw was correct because just this morning János Martonyi in an interview talked about a Hungarian policy that will orient itself toward the south. He no longer envisaged a north-south axis that would include Poland. The reporter wanted to know specifics, and it turned out that Martonyi is thinking in terms of Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and possibly even countries farther south in the Balkans.
Martonyi's first foreign trip was to Sarajevo where the foreign ministers of the western Balkans gathered for a conference. A few days later he visited Belgrade and negotiated with the Serbian prime minister and the foreign minister. He emphasized at the press conference that Hungary will be the first one to ratify Serbia's accession to the European Union. He also promised a joint Serbian-Hungarian cabinet meeting in the near future.
A few days ago Martonyi also met with Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, in Budapest and they signed a document about "strategic cooperation between the two countries."
While Martonyi was paying special attention to the Balkans and Italy, Zsolt Semjén decided to court Romania. He spent two days in the Romanian capital and in Transylvania and praised Romania for its enlightened minority policies. He informed Basescu that the Hungarian government actually based its law on dual citizenship on the Romanian model. And in his conversation with Emil Boc, the prime minister, he drew comparisons between Viktor Orbán's 29 points and the economic decisions of the Romanian government. Naturally he talked with the Hungarian politicians of RMDSZ, the coalition partner of the Boc government. The other more nationalistic Hungarian party that was formed a couple of years ago with Fidesz's encouragement was ignored.
Among potential members of this truncated axis Serbia is very obliging because at the moment it needs Hungarian support. So is Croatia. I'm not sure about the Romanian government's the real feelings toward the government in Budapest.
As for Slovakia, well, one ought to devote a whole separate chapter to that mess, but right now Budapest doesn't seem to be of one mind on what to do with the new situation. Martonyi this morning told the reporter that the Hungarian government is definitely planning to negotiate with the new Slovak government and with Béla Bugár's Most/Híd. However, a few hours later Semjén expressed his doubts about Most/Híd's representing the interests of the Hungarian minority. He wants to know how Hungarian Bugár and his party really are.
Tomorrow János Martonyi is going to Washington to talk with Hillary Clinton, but when he was asked about a possible date for an Obama-Orbán meeting the answer was fuzzy. He first said something about the fall, but when the reporter asked specifically whether it would be in the White House he drifted into a mental cloud. The confusing answer was something about a meeting at some event, for example, a conference. My feeling is that this much coveted White House invitation will not be issued any time soon. Especially since the State Department is most likely well informed about what's going on in the Hungarian parliament.
Since I mentioned Romanian affairs I should call your attention to a new feature of a well known Romanian daily called Gandul (Thought). Lately it has translations of some of its articles in English, German, and Hungarian. I checked it out, and I think it will be useful to those who don't read Romanian.
A few days ago I wrote: " Fidesz will announce its pick for Sólyom's successor on June 28 and by the next day the House will vote on the nomination. Sólyom will then have a couple of months in office to take revenge." In fact, I was wrong in connecting Sólyom's change of heart to a specific date. I should have asked: when will László Sólyom realize that he has no chance whatsoever of being reappointed to a post that by all appearances he very much liked?
I'm almost certain that after the first round of the national elections he was still hopeful. Otherwise, he wouldn't have gushed about the happy moment that had arrived with Fidesz's spectacular showing. He may have had some doubts about Fidesz's plans for the future by May 14 when he delivered a speech at the opening of the new session of parliament. He kept emphasizing the gravity of the situation and the enormous tasks ahead that require the support of the whole country. The message directed to Fidesz was that the party in its new position shouldn't try to govern without paying attention to the different civil organizations and the opposition parties and those whom these parties represent. Obviously, Fidesz paid no attention because they had already decided that "Sólyom must go." And Sólyom by then must have known that his fate was sealed.
If he didn't know it before, he certainly must have known by the end of April that he can start packing. On April 17, Zoltán Pokorni, deputy chairman of Fidesz, made the mistake of telling the whole world that the party had decided already: Hungary can be grateful to the president and he personally thinks very highly of László Sólyom but if someone asked him whether in the next few years Sólyom will be the president or not he would answer "no, he will not be." That was clear talk.
I don't know when Sólyom decided on the title for his book that appeared in bookstores on June 14, but the title is telling: Settling Accounts/Elszámolás. The book is actually a collection of his speeches and writings during his presidency. Only someone who knows that the end is near would opt for such a book title.
On May 31 Sólyom signed the first legislative act of the new parliament, which didn't surprise me. After all it was about granting citizenship to Hungarians living outside the country. Sólyom was always a champion of the "unification of the nation" policy of Fidesz and managed to make quite a few enemies in Romania and Slovakia as a result. However, on June 4 he refused to sign the law that allowed civil servants to be dismissed without any justification. He sent the proposed legislation back to parliament with an explanation. He told the legislators that the law as it stands is not in conformity with the laws of the European Union. That was clear enough talk, and I really didn't think that Fidesz would have the temerity to send it back to Sólyom without any modifications. He is now obliged to sign it. I wonder whether the great legal minds of Fidesz considered that this case can be taken to the European Court of Justice where I'm almost certain the verdict would go against the Hungarian government.
Today Sólyom sent back to parliament another piece of legislation concerning the nomination of the members of the constitutional court. As Sólyom explained, he couldn't send it for control to the constitutional court because past decisions of the court indicate that the judges don't consider a change in the constitution to be either constitutional or unconstitutional. Sólyom further explained that although the current practice of picking judges proved to be unworkable, the proposed one is not an improvement. On the contrary, it will make things worse. In his opinion one cannot determine the composition of such an important body as the constitutional court on the basis of a house rule. He thinks that neither the current practice nor the proposed one is in conformity with European practice. In his opinion the composition of the nominating committee should be fixed in the constitution itself, and he expressed his belief that the committee should include the president and the chief justice of the supreme court ex officio. Well, we will see what will happen this time.
Or at least this is what Sándor Pintér, the new minister of interior and former police chief, promised the country. On May 3 Pintér announced: "We have arrived. There will be order and public safety in the whole country. In two weeks people will feel a noticeable change. They will no longer be afraid."
Pintér started his quick fix by concentrating on the northeast corner of the country and announced that 300 policemen would be sent immediately to the area and thus every village will have a resident policeman. Of course, that meant that these 300 men were missing elsewhere. Moreover, this reassignment had to be very temporary because it is impossible to permanently transfer men to new locations without providing housing and building police stations in places where there were none before.
There was another problem with policing the countryside. Because of the immense flood that hit certain parts of the country, policemen were sent to help with the rescue effort and therefore, I assume, there were even fewer men to pay attention to major or minor crimes.
But immediate action is usually welcome by the public because it shows forcefulness and resoluteness. Of course, people who know anything about the Hungarian police force are aware that there are very serious structural and personnel problems that cannot be fixed in two weeks by temporarily transferring 300 people to other locations. According to some estimates 3,000 new policemen would be needed, but first they have to graduate from a police academy and Hungarian training is a fairly long affair. There have been attempts to entice retired but still young policemen to return to work, but their pensions are generous and in addition they are usually employed by security companies at much higher salaries.
More than two weeks went by and journalists went to villages in Borsod County asking the mayors whether the police presence was any greater now than before. As it turned out, almost all of them reported no additional personnel. In one or two places there were some inquiries about the possibility of providing housing for the family of a policeman sometime in the future. In one place the deputy mayor reported that the only change that occurred was the appointment of a district police supervisor who will regularly visit the village from a town that is 40-50 kilometers away. Effective supervision from such a distance is hard to imagine.
In Nyíregyháza the number of policemen on duty was even smaller than before because of the flood that threatened other localities. According to the police chief it is unlikely that there will be a substantial increase in the numbers of the police force in the foreseeable future.
The other question the reporters posed was whether the people living in Borsod are actually concerned with the high rate of crime in the area. The surprising answer from several hamlets was that crime wasn't a great problem in the past and that the situation hasn't changed one way or the other in the last two weeks.
But since the deadline for noticeable change expired Sándor Pintér felt he had to give a report on the state of affairs. And I assume no one will be surprised to hear that the action he initiated was a great success. He achieved his goal. Because, and now listen carefully, he "expected a decrease in the number of criminal cases." Of course, this is not what he said and such a decrease doesn't mean much. After all, for years now there has been a decrease in the number of violent crimes as well as robberies.
More important to Fidesz's law and order campaign is managing the psychology of fear. One heard often enough that people are afraid to leave their houses. That in fact they are afraid even inside of their houses. The statistics clearly show that there are fewer crimes year after year, but the fearfulness lingers. My feeling is that a great deal of this fear was actually generated by Fidesz politicians who remember only too well that one reason for MSZP's loss in 1998 was a wave of explosions close to the houses of opposition politicians. Naturally, the minister of interior, Gábor Kunze (SZDSZ), was blamed for this outbreak of criminal activities. It certainly didn't help the MSZP-SZDSZ government's chances at the elections. And then came the change of government and behold, the explosions came to an abrupt end.
At the time that Pintér promised that in two weeks the whole country would feel secure again György Bolgár on his talk show expressed his doubts about the possibility of such an abrupt change. A very wise man phoned in who said that in fact he is almost sure that the atmosphere will change. Because if politicians managed to convince people that their lives are threatened it will surely be possible to convince them of the opposite. I suspect, indeed despite all sorts of theoretical reservations I even hope, that the gentleman will be proved right.