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Archive for March, 2011

Szálasi memorial and the need for a Hungarian Ku Klux Klan

March 29, 2011 8 comments

Lately one can read a lot of “interesting” news items. Who would have thought twenty years ago that Hungarian youngsters in a provincial town in Tolna county are planning a “Szálasi concert”? I wrote so many times about Ferenc Szálasi that I don’t think I have to dwell on him here. He became the leader of the Hungarian Nazis who called themselves Hungarists; the Germans, even if reluctantly, decided to use him in the last few months of the war. He was executed in 1946 for war crimes.

A Szálasi concert on March 12? Oh, these youngsters are well versed in the history of the Hungarian Nazi movement because March 12 is the anniversary of the day when Szálasi was executed. My first question was rather mundane. What kind of music will be played in this concert? Some national rock that is popular in far-right circles or perhaps some songs from World War II? Naturally the former. A rock group called “Hunnia and the Accusing Gallows” was supposed to play nationalistically inspired pieces.

Well, I didn’t have the pleasure of finding out more about this Szálasi concert because the mayor of Szekszárd (Fidesz) intervened. He admitted that he knew about the concert since the organizers had approached him ahead of time, but “he didn’t know anything about the content of the posters that were plastered all over town.” From the brief report one has the feeling that if the organizers hadn’t advertised their concert commemorating Szálasi’s death, then most likely the concert would have been held. But since the city council undoubtedly received complaints, the mayor told the youngsters “to solve the problem.” An interesting way of putting it, but the organizers obliged.

Then a few days later I read about a “Szálasi memorial column” that was erected on private property in Mezőkövesd. The brave Hungarists released a picture on their website, but they made sure that they are unrecognizable.

The event was written up on March 14, though I suspect that the memorial column was unveiled two days earlier on the sixty-fifth anniversary of Szálasi’s death. Once the news reached the media, the reporters ran to the police to inquire what was going on. As usual, the police spokesman hadn’t a clue. “The police captaincy is studying the Criminal Code to ascertain whether or not a crime was committed in connection with the public display of forbidden symbols.” I have the feeling that they are still studying the matter.

As a result of subsequent discussions of the matter, the “legal question” is whether the Arrowcross symbol visible on the picture can be seen from the street. I guess that would make it a public display. The moral problem is not so much with the symbol but with the whole memorial column honoring a man responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent people. After all, the Hungarists were to the very last minute murdering Jewish Hungarians.

So, here are the Hungarists who seem to be getting along splendidly with the Hungarian Guard, lately called the Hungarian National Guard. One of the leaders of the Hungarian National Guard is a Jobbik parliamentary member, György Gyula Zagyva. I also wrote about him earlier. He is well known for his outrageous, brutish behavior. His latest is that at a demonstration of the Hungarian National Guard he made a speech which was reported by Magyar Nemzet. In it Zagyva said that “Hungary needs a Hungarian Ku Klux Klan just as the United States needed one in the past.” The American ambassador, Eleni Tsakoppulos Kounalakis, was swift to respond. She made the following statement on the very same day: “The comments attributed by press reports to a far right politician on March 21 calling for the emergence of a Hungarian Ku Klux Klan are despicable and represent the worst kind of incitement of racial intolerance and hatred. Both American and Hungarian societies are based on common values of free speech and freedom of expression. However, there is no place in civic political discourse for groups that foster a climate of fear and violence. In recent meetings with government officials, I have heard assurances that the government will not tolerate violence against its citizens or a climate of intimidation, and will take appropriate action to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected. We commend the government’s commitment to protect the rights of all Hungarians, no matter what their racial, cultural, or social heritage.  We stand together with Hungary ready to counter hatred wherever it should appear – either here or in the United States.”

MTV’s Híradó headlined its story: “The American ambassador condemns the alleged Ku Klux Klan remark of Jobbik.” At the end of the news item it published “a correction” by György Zagyva. He asked MTV to report that “he didn’t wish to see the Hungarian appearance of the Ku Klux Klan and that he didn’t praise the organization in his speech.”

Magyar Nemzet published the MTI’s Hungarian translation of Eleni Tsakoppulos Kounalakis’s statement under the headline: “The American ambassador sends a message and stands by Hungary.” Well, yes, on the surface, but we know what she was signaling.

Hungary and the Euro-Plus Pact

March 27, 2011 34 comments

This is not the first time that one hears from "reliable sources" that János Martonyi is leaving his post sometime after the end of Hungary's rotating presidency of the Europen Union. I personally heard from a private source that Martonyi was furious about the handling of the media law, that it was the straw that broke the camel's back. At the same time in good diplomatic fashion he defended the law in public.

In the last couple of weeks it has become evident that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister don't see eye to eye on many issues. One of the most obvious contradictions between the statements of the two men occurred on March 12 when Martonyi announced that a "military option" against Libya is practically unavoidable while the prime minister on the very same day said the opposite. Or when Martonyi announced after agreement was reached on the European Stability Mechanism, otherwise known as the Euro-Plus Pact, that it was a decision of historic importance while at the same time, most likely because of Viktor Orbán's insistence, Hungary refused to join.

Hungary is not alone in its refusal to join the pact, but it is in the minority among the non-eurozone countries. Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark have decided to join the Berlin-inspired project. The four that have opted not to join: the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Orbán said in Budapest that Hungary will not join the euro pact because it wants to retain its "tax independence" and build the "the most competitive tax system" in Europe. He also claimed that he had consulted with the opposition and found national unity on the issue.

I was most surprised to hear about this alleged consultation with the opposition. Viktor Orbán doesn't consult with anyone, especially not with the opposition. A day later we heard from members of the opposition that the so-called consultation consisted of an announcement of the decision. As far as "national unity on the issue" is concerned, that is also a fabrication. Mihály Varga, former finance minister in the first Orbán government, who has been shoved into the background of late, said at a meeting with factory owners that 85% of Hungarians agree with the provisions of the pact, but "we are not willing to give up our only competitive edge, our newly introduced tax system."

For some time now members of the opposition, economists, and tax experts have been saying that Viktor Orbán simply doesn't know what he is talking about. The harmonization is not about tax rates but about introducing common rules and regulations concerning the corporate tax base. As it now stands, what is being taxed and what kind of exemptions can be taken advantage of vary from country to country. Harmonization of the corporate tax base would make companies' lives a great deal easier. It would apply to foreign companies in Hungary as well as Hungarian companies within the European Union. The Czech opposition is not at all thrilled with the Euro-skeptic Czech government's decision. They claim that by staying out of the pact "the government is harming the interests of our country." They believe that such a move would shift the Czech Republic to the EU's periphery.

This is pretty much the opinion of eight Hungarian economists who made a statement in which they criticized the government for its decision not to join the pact. The eight economists are: Tamás Bauer, László Békesi, István Csillag, Péter Mihályfi, Balázs Muraközy, Mária Zita Petschnig, Károly Attila Soós, and Éva Várhegyi. The signatories called attention to the developments of the last two or three years that point to a division within the European Union. The countries in the first group show a willingness to follow a prudent economic course. Countries in the second group followed "an adventurist economic policy" and now have to face the consequences. These countries proved to be unreliable partners within the Union. Since they refuse to obey the rules of responsible fiscal policy, investors will avoid the countries in the second category. The economists called on the Hungarian government to change its mind and vote to join the pact this weekend.

I very much doubt that Orbán will change his mind. I'm not even sure whether his critics are correct in assuming that Orbán doesn't know the difference between the tax rate and the tax base. I think he purposely mixes up the two because in this way he can better justify his staying away from the pact. The reason that Orbán doesn't want to join is simple: if Hungary joins the pact it will not be able to levy extra taxes on unsuspecting firms. And although he keeps saying that these extra taxes will come to an end in a year or two, I suspect that in the back in his mind he knows that he will have to continue the bad practice in order to remain afloat.

Where will all this lead? Nowhere good.

 

 

“National consultation” in Miskolc

March 26, 2011 29 comments

Actually we would call these events “town meetings.” Usually a politician organizes a “lakossági fórum” which only the party faithful attend. Gergely Gulyás, one of the framers of the new constitution, began a series of town meetings, which he calls “national consultations.” Naturally, it doesn’t matter what you call these gatherings. Only those who are fundamentally in agreement with the party involved will show up.

This is what happened in Miskolc on Saturday evening when about 20-25 mostly elderly men gathered to “discuss” the important points of the new constitution. Gulyás was accompanied by a rookie member of parliament representing Miskolc, Katalin Csöbör (Fidesz), who at least seems to have some knowledge of the outside world. She spent a few years in France.

Gulyás gave a short introduction and then came the questions and observations from the audience. Some of the remarks were truly amazing. They testified to the total ignorance of democratic principles in Hungary. It must have been an eye opener for Gulyás himself when time and again he had to give lessons in the most elementary tenets of democracy.

The first man who rose to speak was the principal of a local school. It is not clear whether he was the principal of an elementary school or a high school. Let’s hope the former, but even then it shows the depth of the problems with Hungarian education. He thought that the new constitution was “too liberal.” He and his friends expected something “stricter.”  First of all, he would demand at least an eighth-grade education for someone to be able to vote. It is a disgrace that people who cannot read or write decide the fate of the country. In his opinion, not even eighteen-year-olds are mature enough to vote. He would raise the voting age. He also complained about the independence of the judges “who make mistakes right and left.”  And finally he complained about the severity of the law on gun control. “People must be able to defend themselves,” he said.

Then an older man got up and demanded a defense of the dignity of the president. “Even in the cabarets they’re making fun of him.” I guess he had something like the inviolability of the ruler in mind. Like it was during the monarchy. Anyone who makes fun of the president’s spelling errors should go directly to jail. He also complained about “the traitors within.” Good Hungarians must be defended against their slanders. “We don’t have our own Siberia where we can send them, but they should go back to their country of origin, let’s say, India.” He brought up as an example Ágnes Heller who has the gall to call attention to Hungarian anti-Semitism. This guy’s intelligence can perhaps best be gauged by his remark that to call the Supreme Court Kúria is a very bad idea because it reminds people of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech at Balatonőszöd, where he talked about “elkúrtuk.”  Well, Gyurcsány was talking about “f…ing up” while kúria comes from the Latin “curia” which was originally the meeting place of the senate in Rome. In Hungary, first the royal court was called kúria and later, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the name was transferred to the courts that were acting on behalf of the king, i.e. the royal court. He also didn’t understand why the new constitution changed the “megyék” (counties) to “vármegyék” when there are no longer “várak,” meaning fortresses. So, the level of the “national consultation” was that high. Or that low.

Gulyás, whom I don’t consider a model democrat, had to explain time and again that one must obey the law in a democratic state. That there are certain principles that cannot be discarded. He kept stressing that after all in 1989-90 a constitutional democracy was established in Hungary, and he even added that the democracy flourished in the last twenty years. This is definitely an improvement over what László Kövér had to say about the last twenty years, which according to him was no more than a dictatorship.

A comparison of Gulyás’s remarks and László Kövér’s speech in parliament on Monday shows that Fidesz is not an ideologically homogeneous party. Kövér in my opinion is close to Jobbik as far as ideology is concerned. Gulyás is most of the time a reasonable man of right-of-center, conservative views. Mind you, Gulyás will certainly not express his misgivings, if he has any, about the opinions uttered by Kövér. In fact, yesterday he defended Kövér’s speech and “agreed with every word of it.” But having listened to Gulyás explain the principles of democracy to the ignorami of the “national consultation,” I cannot believe that he is telling us the truth. Because for a democrat Kövér’s speech was unacceptable. This speech, by the way, was transcribed in its entirety from the MTV video by Galamus.

Because MSZP and LMP aren’t participating in the discussion on the new constitution and because not even Fidesz-KDNP members are there in droves, the parliamentary chamber looks deserted. One of the Jobbik members noted that every time a Fidesz MP gets up to speak, his fellow members move from their assigned seats and sit down next to him or behind him. They know that the camera is on the man and they hope that in this way it will not be so obvious to those who are watching the proceedings on television that the House is practically empty. Naturally, Tibor Navracsics denied that there was any such scheme. Members can sit wherever they want except when voting is going on.

And finally, according Tárki, since December Fidesz-KDNP has lost one-third of its voters, but they moved over to the bloc of undecided voters. Something is very wrong in MSZP.

 

Fidesz and Orbán found wanting

March 25, 2011 34 comments

Viktor Orbán's political strategy in the last eight or nine years was based on two premises: everything the government in power did was wrong, life in general was terrible, people were getting poorer while the socialist politicians were corrupt and stole the country blind. But, just wait, when we come–the message went–everything but absolutely everything will be not just better but simply perfect. Practically overnight there will be law and order, unemployment will be eliminated, new jobs will be created, everybody's pay check will be a great deal bigger, the Fidesz politicians will be honest, and altogether a new era will dawn in the country. And the larger the electoral victory the better everything will be: "greater majority, greater changes." And the poor, naive Hungarians who are not very sophisticated politically and who know even less about economics believed all that. Or at least many of those millions who cast their votes for Fidesz did.

As usually happens, the new government was even more popular immediately after the election than before. More and more people remembered having voted for Fidesz when in fact they didn't even vote. This honeymoon lasted for quite a few months, especially since the opposition parties' presence in parliament is so insignificant that for all practical purposes Hungary's political scene bore a suspicious resemblance to a one-party system.

But sooner or later the bubble had to burst, and it did in the last three months. Between May 2010 and February 2011 Medián registered a 12%, Szonda Ipsos a 11%, and Tárki a 9% loss in popularity. That is considerable, but when we add the March data it seems that the trend is accelerating. At the end of March Tárki announced that between December and March Fidesz had lost one-third of its supporters. Szonda Ipsos shows similar trends. In the last two months Fidesz lost more than half a million voters. With the exception of voters in their twenties Fidesz lost in all categories, but especially among the seniors, the poorer strata, and the unemployed. In these groups Fidesz lost 18-20%. Interestingly, Fidesz couldn't even keep its voters in the countryside where the party is usually very strong. In villages and small towns Fidesz lost about 10-11% of its supporters.

Those who abandoned Fidesz in their disappointment didn't flock to other parties. They joined the ever-growing number of the "undecided" that at the moment is 46% and even higher among the poorer and older groups in the population (55-60%). As for people's expectations, the situation is no better from the government's point of view. Last month 61% of the people felt that things will be even worse in the future. This month that number is up: 68% of the people are pessimistic concerning the future. I might add that the percentage of those who categorically say that they would never again vote for Fidesz is also up: 35%.

Pessimism about the future is not unfounded. I am actually astonished how bad the second Orbán government is. The first time around was bad enough, but because they didn't have unlimited power as they do now they could make fewer blunders. Now they pile mistake on mistake.

When it comes to mistakes I would like to list a few. From day one the government, instead of tackling the problems of the economy, spent its energy on symbolic gestures toward their nationalistic followers. While these moves may have pleased the right wing of the party faithful, they alienated Slovakia and made the western powers suspicious of Hungarian intentions.

The second obvious mistake was that they didn't follow the Bajnai government's prudent handling of the economy but blindly followed a plan of economic recovery based on a higher deficit. When it became obvious that Brussels will not accept that scenario, the Matolcsy-Orbán duo were left high and dry. They couldn't go to the voters and admit that the promises they made couldn't be fulfilled, so they came up with all sorts of clever ways of acquiring more money. But the remedies–very high levies on banks, food chains, and telecommunication companies–actually slowed the economy and investment.

The third problem was that Orbán and his Fidesz friends felt that they had to change absolutely everything regardless of whether it worked in the past or not. The whole administration had to be reorganized, ministries were closed and new mega-ministries were created, but the only result seems to be total chaos. For months the government couldn't function.

Fourth, and this is a very important consideration, it seems that the flow of European Union subsidies came to an end. In the last eight months no EU money has been available. Why? Because the old socialist plan of how to spend the convergence money that was approved by Brussels was scrapped by the new government. They had to have a new plan, the New Széchenyi Plan, which must be approved by Brussels. But as far as I know, the Hungarian government hasn't even begun negotiations about the details. According to people in the know, it is very easily possible that no subsidies can be distributed until the fall. That is, if the European Union approves the Orbán plan.

Fifth, there was the public works program that had been put in place by former governments. That naturally had to be scrapped. The result was that in January there were another 100,000 people without work. According to the March statistics of the OECD, the Hungarian rate of unemployment in January 2011 was 1.6% higher than a year before. This is the worst figure among the countries belonging to OECD.

So, there is every reason to be pessimistic. Unfortunately for the time being I don't see any indication that the Orbán government plans to change course.

 

The far right is very active and the government is silent

March 24, 2011 30 comments

On March 3 I wrote about a self-appointed neo-Nazi militia that appeared in Gyöngyöspata, a village of 2,800 in the county of Heves. On that day, I certainly didn't think that the so-called "civilian guardists" would be spending three weeks in the village frightening the local Roma to death. After all, Viktor Orbán promised before he was elected that he will take care of these extremist groups. A couple of slaps on the face and they will go home, not be seen again.

The original Hungarian Guard, Jobbik's paramilitary organization, was banned at least a year ago but every month there was a new organization with a different name. They changed the uniform a bit, they changed their leaders, and they claimed that they have absolutely nothing to do with the original Hungarian Guard.

This latest group is called "For a Better Future Civilian Guard," and it is in some way connected to a splinter group of the Hungarian Guard. The guard was summoned to duty by Oszkár Juhász, who is the local chairman of Jobbik. According to the first version of the story, which turned out to be cock-eyed, an old non-Roma man committed suicide because a couple of Gypsy families wanted to move close to his house. By March 4 the story had changed considerably. Lately the number of crimes has multiplied in Gyöngyöspata where 450 Roma live. As it turned out later, this wasn't true either. The number of petty crimes wasn't any higher than earlier or than elsewhere in the county. The independent mayor of the village admitted that the local Jobbik chairman had called in the guardists, but he believed that their presence was justified due to the unsafe situation in the village.

When journalists inquired at the police headquarters of Heves County, they were told that For a Better Future Civilian Guard is a registered organization and that, although it wasn't really necessary for the leaders of the guard to inform the police of their plans to patrol the streets of Gyöngyöspata, they did. It remains unclear to me how it is possible to legally register a paramilitary organization when law enforcement is the prerogative of the police. And these guys had uniforms and brought pit bulls, axes, and whips along for good measure. The Roma population was petrified and the authorities did nothing.

By March 6 Gábor Vona decided that the events in Gyöngyöspata could be used to the benefit of his party. He decided to hold a mass demonstration in Gyöngyöspata that would not be anti-Roma but pro-Magyar. Vona reminded people that Fidesz had promised that there will be perfect law and order in the country within two weeks after the elections. And yet, he continued, the new government is unable to keep order after almost a year. The demonstration is a cry for government action. He argued that the guardists must stay because the Roma threatened the non-Roma with violence once they leave the village.

A day later MSZP reacted to the events in Gyöngyöspata. László Teleki, himself a Gypsy, wanted to know how long the government will allow the guardists to patrol the streets of the village. The government had been in no hurry to act. It allowed this situation to fester for about two weeks in spite of the constant harrassment of the Roma population. The members of the militia threatened not only the Gypsy population but even the non-Roma mayor, saying "we will cut your throat, you will all die."

The police of Heves County still did nothing. As the spokesman told the reporters of MTI, they can act only if there is an official complaint. And, although it seems rather strange to me, the police claimed that no complaint had come from Gyöngyöspata. Three more days went by and nothing happened. The Roma population was terrified. Some of them didn't dare leave their houses. They were afraid to let their children go to school.

Then came March 15 when legal advocates of minorities went to Gyöngyöspata to protest: Gypsies and non-Gypsies marched together to celebrate the national holiday. By that time there was a police escort. On the same day the Hungarian Democratic Charta called on the government to get rid of the illegally patrolling guardists. Even though the police had appeared in the village, the charge was that "they were silently assisting" the guardists.

On March 16, the local non-Roma held a town meeting where ten or twelve people rose to speak. They announced that the situation in the village had improved greatly since the arrival of the guardists and said that half of the local population had already signed a petition asking the guardists to stay.

However, it seems that the government finally decided to put an end to the situation in Gyöngyöspata and somehow they managed to convince the guardists to leave the village. Whatever method they used, the police and the guardists seemed to be on amicable terms to the very end. The spokesman of the police of Heves County reported that the leader of the guardists told the police that they are organizing a local chapter of For a Better Future Civil Guard whose members will patrol the streets of Gyöngyöspata in the future. It seems that the police didn't deem it necessary to tell them that organizing paramilitary organizations is illegal.

I put the above story together with the help of reports from MTI, which is by now under complete government control. I was therefore greatly surprised when I heard Viktor Orbán say that "it was the forceful deterrence shown by the police that prevented much greater trouble in Gyöngyöspata." According to the prime minister the police came into the village with great force and used all legal means to restore order.

Most observers have a different take on the events. For three weeks the Hungarian government didn't move a finger to put an end to the activities of an illegal paramilitary group. Although Fidesz politicians, for example George Schöpflin (MEP) only a couple of days ago, complain that the opposition blurs the distinction between Fidesz and the far right, Paul Lendvai to whom the accusation was addressed answered that the recent events in Gyöngyöspata prove that Fidesz doesn't stand up against the far right. In fact, at times it lends these extreme right groups a helping hand. The inaction of the police was outrageous and clearly the decision not to intervene has a great deal to do with Fidesz's relations with Jobbik, which seem to be quite cozy.

 

Viktor Orbán is not a favorite of the West

March 23, 2011 17 comments

When on March 19 world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss the details of the Libyan project, the Associated Press introduced the topic with the headline: "Orban is missing, the rotating president, embarrassing." A month before, on February 17, the world found out that the 2011 summit on the Eastern Partnership that was considered an important event of Hungary's rotating presidency of the European Union had been postponed. Allegedly because of the crowded schedule of international meetings of world leaders.The summit will be held in Warsaw during the rotating presidency of Poland. The Eastern Partnership, by the way, is an organization aiming to improve the political and economic trade relations of six post-Soviet states of "strategic importance" (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) with the European Union.

The Hungarians were naturally disappointed but put on a good face. The Hungarian ambassador to the European Union emphasized that the schedule at the end of May was indeed crowded, especially since the G8 summit was scheduled for May 26 and 27 in Deauville, France. Moreover, the ambassador added, the original plan called for Poland and Hungary to be co-hosts of the event, and thus the postponement under joint sponsorship involved little substantive change. The spokeswoman for the Hungarian foreign ministry also tried to make light of the Hungarian government's disappointment, but perhaps inadvertedly admitted that the Hungarian government had tried to change the date from May 27 to May 25 but that date was not suitable either because commemoration ceremonies for the fiftieth anniversary of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development were scheduled for May 25. There's always a party somewhere!

According to commentators critical of the Orbán government, it is possible that the crowded schedule was actually created in order to prevent Viktor Orbán from having the summit in Hungary. I wouldn't go that far, but we do know that Orbán is considered to be an "unpleasant fellow" in Brussels. I think that the United States and Western Europe have been watching the new Hungarian government's increasingly nationalistic and undemocratic policies for some time and find them distasteful. One mustn't forget that the first critical editorial on Orbán and his government appeared in The Washington Post already in the summer of 2010, and since then the U.S. government has indicated on several occasions that unless there is a drastic change in attitude in Budapest, U.S.-Hungarian relations will not be cozy. Germany, Hungary's most important trading partner, has also been very critical. Both the German president and the chancellor recently sent a message via the Hungarian president Pál Schmitt that they are watching Hungarian political events carefully.

Although there were already reservations about the new Hungarian government's nationalistic policies during 2010, the real problems began in 2011 after the Hungarian parliament voted for the new media law in the last days of December. I have written a lot about this controversy; here I just want to note that although Viktor Orbán might be very proud of his performance in Brussels when he vehemently defended the honor of Hungary in the European Parliament, in fact right then and there he dug his own grave with respect to his standing in the international community. I don't think that Orbán had been a favorite among his fellow politicians in Brussels even before, but after that performance he was finished. They don't want to have much to do with him. Indeed, they seem to avoid him as much as possible. On photos taken at these EU gatherings one can often see Orbán standing alone, looking on as a circle of people talk to one another.

And yesterday came the unexpected news. On the very same day that the Eastern Partnership summit was supposed to take place but had to be postponed due to scheduling conflicts a similar summit will be held in Warsaw. And while the Hungarians had been unsuccessfully courting Hillary Clinton to attend their summit, this Warsaw meeting will be attended by American president himself! The eastern partners will also be there, but it will be a meeting of the presidents of the participating countries.

The news came like a bolt from the blue. Pál Schmitt, who happened to be in Warsaw yesterday on other business, was told on the spot about the summit and that he was invited. Although it is true that Poland is a much larger and more strategically important country than Hungary and although it is also true that the Polish population of the United States is considerable, one cannot quite shake the impression that the United States in a not too subtle way was making the point that it is having absolutely nothing to do with Viktor Orbán. And it seems to me that Poland was ready to oblige and cooperate with the United States in isolating Donald Tusk's allegedly great friend, Viktor Orbán.

You may recall that Orbán has been courting Poland and has stressed on every possible occasion that Poland is the cornerstone of Hungary's foreign policy. But it seems that Prime Minister Tusk realized that being too close to Viktor Orbán is not to his advantage. He sold his friend down the river, let's face it.

In today's Népszava two former Hungarian diplomats were asked about the unexpected change of venue. Péter Balázs, former foreign minister, considered the announcement about the summit in Warsaw "a double loss for Hungary." The original summit is being postponed while the hastily organized new one will also be held in Warsaw and not in Hungary. On the other hand, András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, emphasized that one mustn't confuse the original summit with this meeting. As far as he knows, "aside from the unpleasantness caused by the media law, the Hungary presidency is faultless." I guess it all depends on who's keeping score.

 

 

 

One doesn’t say “no” to the Hungarian government

March 22, 2011 69 comments

Or if he does, he will pay dearly for it. We know that philosophers are an endangered species in Hungary, but now we can add to the growing list of "enemies of the government" linguists and geographers as well. But let me start at the beginning.

A few weeks ago we learned that Ferihegy Airport will most likely be renamed. Two Fidesz politicians, János Fónagy and Pál Völner, came up with the brilliant idea of naming the airport after Franz Liszt (or Ferenc Liszt as he is known in Hungary). I thought at the time that the idea was ridiculous. What does a musician have to do with an airport? I was all set and ready to write something funny about it when I realized that, behold, Warsaw's airport is named after Frédéric Chopin (or Fryderyk Chopin as he is known in Poland). I figured the Hungarians got the idea from the Poles; moreover, the Rome airport is named for Leonardo da Vinci, so why not? At least, it's not a politically charged choice.

Once the Fidesz government decides on something, they don't dilly dally. They act and act fast. The bill was drafted, turned in, voted on, and a few days later they were already redoing all the signs outside and inside the airport. From here on the Budapest Ferihegy International Airport will be known as the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport.

But the government encountered an unexpected roadblock: the interdepartmental committee on geographic names. It is a body of twenty-one linguists and geographers who pass judgment on proposed names of places and objects. The members of the committee decided 20 to 1 that the new name was cumbersome and that the geographic name Ferihegy was "protected" and therefore must be included. They argued that there are too many proper nouns piled up (Budapest, Ferenc, Liszt) and therefore it will not exactly roll off the tongue. It will not stick.

And then there is the problem of "Ferihegy." The area was named after Ferenc Xavér Mayerffy (1766-1845), perhaps the richest citizen of Pest-Buda at the time and a friend of István Széchenyi. He was an early capitalist who owned a brewery and made a significant contribution to Hungarian wine-making. It was in the neighborhood of today's airport that he established his vineyard. Feri is the nickname for Ferenc and thus the place became known as Feri's Hill.

So, on linguistic and geographic grounds the "insolent" members of the committee suggested replacing Budapest Liszt Ferenc Nemzetközi Repülőtér with Liszt Ferenc Nemzetközi Repülőtér, Budapest-Ferihegy. An unforgivable sin. The chairman and the secretary of the committee were summarily dismissed. Two other members actually lost their livelihood as a result of this "misstep." One of them worked for an institute under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture (today called Ministry of the Development of the Countryside) and the other had the misfortune of actually being on the staff of the ministry. Considering that the bill was drafted by one of the undersecretaries of the ministry, it is not difficult to figure out who is behind these firings. At the same time the new leaders of the Ministry of Interior suddenly became interested in finding out whom they sent from their own ranks to the committee and naturally how he voted. Considering that almost everybody voted against the government's proposal, there might be another head rolling soon. This time in the Ministry of Interior.

And today's news. All members of the committee have been relieved of their duties and within fifteen days new members will be nominated. The 2007 law regulating the work of the committee has already been changed. From here on the members of the committee cannot decide on official geographic names of "special public interest." Case closed. Democracy in action.

 

János Lázár at crossroads

March 21, 2011 18 comments

A lot of people thought that János Lázár was a politician with a bright future. Even his political opponents. I remember rather distinctly when Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, called him a talented politician and a man to whom one should pay attention. Some analysts thought that Lázár was among the few in Fidesz who might one day occupy a very high position in the party. He even held independent views on occasion and came up with unique and progressive solutions for the integration of the Roma in his city of Hódmezővásárhely.

These are the positive opinions, but unfortunately I also remember a few occasions when Lázár was “carried away” to such an extent that one doubted the man’s fitness for higher office. One such occasion was when he delivered a speech in front of a partisan group of Fidesz supporters who gathered to protest the Gyurcsány government’s feeble attempt at the reorganization of Hungarian health care. It happened that a hopeless drunk was sent to the hospital in Hódmezővásárhely and that the doctor there refused to treat him and sent him off to another hospital in a nearby town. On the way to the second hospital the man died. Lázár announced that he was the first victim of the government’s health care reform; in the crowd a demonstrater held up a placard comparing the minister of health to Josef Menghele. I said to myself at the time: something is wrong here. This guy doesn’t know what to say when.

Arrogance was always noticeable every time he opened his mouth, but once he was chosen by Viktor Orbán to head the huge Fidesz delegation (225 men and women, mostly men) this innate arrogance was only strengthened. Being the leader of the caucus is a very important position because, after all, he is the one who speaks practically every day when parliament is in session. He is the voice of his party. All that, I think, went to the head of the thirty-six-year-old Lázár.

Yesterday I already mentioned that Lázár was always a little too greedy and that the media found out a few things about his financial dealings that couldn’t have pleased his boss, Viktor Orbán. After all, the party that for years attacked MSZP as a party of billionaires and their government as one led by bankers and capitalists must be very careful in avoiding even the appearance of financial impropriety. Orbán would love people to believe that Fidesz politicians are better than the socialists who are interested only in their own well being. Fidesz politicians, on the other hand, are there to serve the people.

And here is this business with Lázár. First I thought that it would blow over. Fidesz’s answer to such unfortunate incidents is usually silence. Or counterattack. This time they chose counterattack when Lajos Kósa, deputy chairman of Fidesz, tried to explain the whole thing away by claiming that it was a socialist forgery. Considering that the tape on which one can hear Lázár talk about poor people deserving their fate was released by kuruc.info, a far-right website, Kósa was sorely confused. Lázár himself began by attacking those who made the tape public. He claimed that it was falsified. He even threatened a law suit. But soon enough the transcript of the minutes of the whole meeting was released and it became evident that there was no falsification. He said what he said, although admittedly the words were uttered in the middle of a discussion about the salaries of politicians.

Then came the second stage of the salvaging operation. He announced that he had dropped the idea of legal action. He emphasized yesterday as well as today in parliament that although his words were misunderstood and misconstrued, he is apologizing. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.

This afternoon we arrived at a new stage in the rescue operation that might not be the final one either. This time he said on MTV that he might give up his post as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely in 2014. After all, he has won three local elections and perhaps after twelve years it is time to leave. And as an afterthought he added that he might even retire from politics altogether in 2014.

The reaction to Lázár’s tape was more vehement than I would have ever thought. People feel personally insulted. I read a comment in which the writer tells the story of his seventy-year-old mother who brought up three children. She was an elementary school teacher in a village. Her husband died and today she has a small house with only one room besides the kitchen and bath. She has about one million forints in the bank. And “according to Mr. Lázár she is a nobody.” As for Lázár’s possible retirement in 2014 the reactions are what one would expect: “Why wait so long?” or “Don’t wait so long, leave now in a hurry!”

And the possible last stage is indeed that he leaves the political scene. Perhaps it will even be demanded of him. It all depends on how much damage Lázár inflicted on his party and on Viktor Orbán’s government. Gábor Török, the political commentator, suggested that he resign from at least one of his positions. After all, running Hódmezővásárhely and a 225-person parliamentary delegation is far too much for one person. Perhaps the suggestion has already been made because in Magyar Nemzet Gergely Gulyás, who is becoming more and more important in Fidesz, announced today that Fidesz is seriously thinking of changing the law that currently allows politicians to be mayors and members of parliament at the same time.

I can only applaud that decision if it is serious. I was outraged when the MSZP-SZDSZ government of Gyula Horn with its two-thirds majority changed the law because too many MSZP and SZDSZ mayors also received mandates in parliament. If Fidesz revokes that change it will be a step in the right direction. One of course wonders whether Gulyás’s mention of this possibility is really a signal for Lázár to relinquish one of his posts or it was just a coincidence. I somehow doubt the latter.

 

Dark clouds on the Hungarian sky

March 20, 2011 6 comments

József Debreczeni, who has been the most severe critic of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz, was dejected after the elections that delivered a two-thirds majority to Orbán's party. What he feared became reality, and he feared the worst. For a few months he practically disappeared from the Hungarian media, but then about three or four months ago he started publishing again. He came to the conclusion that Orbán is making so many mistakes that the "end" will come sooner than anyone expects. In 2002 Fidesz campaigned (unsuccessfully) with the slogan: "The future has begun." Debreczeni entitled his piece (Népszabadság, March 13, 2011) "The future has begun again."

Others are also noticing the change in public opinion and action. Adam LeBor entitled his article in The Economist (March 17, 2011) "Budapest's liberal awakening?" He talks about the "ruthless speed and determination to remake the country in its own image, centralising power, abolishing or taking over formerly independent institutions." The ruthlessness that has always been the hallmark of Fidesz is taking its toll on the popularity of the party.

Viktor Orbán's coterie of men and women who stuck out eight hard years with him in opposition in the hope of reward once Fidesz is in power are very, very hungry. One can hear daily about relatives of members of the government who are getting important jobs in the administration. Or millions being dropped here and there into the laps of "advisors" to the new office holders. Naturally these advisors are well known Fidesz supporters. Orbán was always very generous with the taxpayers' money when it came to paying off his supporters for services rendered.

And then there is János Lázár, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation. He is a relatively young man who has always taken advantage of his position, even when he was an ordinary MP in opposition. He knew how to milk the system and soon became the highest paid member of parliament. So, you can imagine his financial fantasies now that he is really, really important. First came his car, a top-of-the-line Audi with a price tag of close to $100,000. Of course, he didn't pay for it; the monthly 600,000 forint lease came out of the taxpayers' pockets. And naturally he didn't intend to drive the car himself; he had a chauffeur. Once this news came to light Lázár at first made some lame excuses as to why he needed such an expensive luxury car but in the end, most likely on his boss's urging, he relinquished the car and bought one of his own. However, the damage was done.

Even more uncomfortable is a tape that became public yesterday that contains parts of a speech of Lázár from 2008. In a meeting of the city council of Hódmezővásárhely Lázár made some unfortunate remarks about people who hadn't achieved anything in life in material terms and who in his opinion were therefore not worth anything. As it turned out, these remarks were taken out of context, but I must say that even in context they sound pretty outrageous. And people were outraged. Both MSZP and LMP demanded that Lázár leave politics, and about 350 people gathered in front of Fidesz headquarters to call for his resignation.

I wrote earlier about the hired college students who stood in front of Viktor Orbán while he delivered his speech on March 15th. Their job was to orchestrate audience applause at appropriate times during the speech. The taxpayers paid the students a total of 1.2 million forints, handed out in cash as the students filed by after the speech.

Then there is the case of Pál Schmitt, president of the country, who is quickly becoming a laughing stock. He wrote a few words in the guest book of a restaurant, and it turned out that in one sentence he made "two howling mistakes." Well, they are howling all right, especially since the two words are "state" and "president." The defender of the Hungarian language seems to have very serious problems with Hungarian spelling.

But his spelling problems are nothing in comparison to the suspicions about his past that have cropped up lately. In the late 1970s Schmitt was deputy director of the Astoria Hotel. According to historians of the secret police and counter intelligence, the Astoria was one of those hotels where some of the rooms were wired for the purpose of bugging foreign visitors' conversations. Historians argue that Schmitt had to know about these operations, he even had to cooperate with the secret police, because he was in charge of room assignment.

But that's not all. It was discovered that a year is missing from Schmitt's official biography. He left the Astoria in 1981, and his next listed job is director of the football stadium today called Puskás Ferenc Stadium. Yet, in fact, after leaving the Astoria Schmitt had another job, with the Fórum Szálló Szervező Iroda, which was responsible for negotiating deals with foreign investors who were erecting the Hotel Duna Interkontinentál.

The organization, as we have recently learned, was small. There were only five employees including Schmitt, Csaba Fenyvessy, another fencer, and Ferenc Csiba. Csiba and Fenyvessy used their positions to enrich themselves. It is a fairly complicated story of illegal currency exchange: Austrian schillings to Hungarian forints. In any case, the prosecutors went after them and eventually both were sentenced. Csiba spent five years in jail while Fenyvessy got a suspended sentence of a year and a half. Schmitt was a friend of both Csiba and Fenyvessy, yet historians studying the material could find absolutely no documents indicating that the authorities even questioned him. The suspicion is that someone removed the archival material.

The government has enough political problems, especially unfulfilled promises, and now it is being besieged by all sorts of scandals. It's hard for a government to maintain its support for long under such circumstances. Meanwhile the opposition is growing. Right now it is organizationally amorphous, but I suspect that we won't have to wait too long before the Facebook crowd finds its leader or leaders.

Memories of the summer of 1944

March 19, 2011 40 comments

A few weeks ago in a comment I mentioned that the overwhelming majority of my kindergarten class perished in the holocaust. Both Tom and Adam urged me to write about what I remember of those days, and Adam even suggested a day for publication: March 19th. After all, that was the day when the Germans occupied the country.

Hitler’s occupation of Hungary met no real resistance and unfortunately–at least in my opinion–the governor, Miklós Horthy, didn’t resign. Thus he became an accomplice. Although he refused to take an active part in governing, he appointed a new Hungarian government which soon after began the deportation of Hungarians of Jewish origin. The transportation of close to 600,000 people was entirely in the hands of the Hungarian authorities.

Although I was only eight years old at the time, I knew a lot about what was going on around me because my parents were keenly interested in politics and therefore politics was discussed at length in the house. Being an only child, I was always around adults and I picked up a lot from them. As my father later remarked, “Eva was saying such clever things about the outcome of the war, but of course she was just repeating what she heard at home.”

On March 19th I was sick with the measles and my father was in the army. My father was too young to serve in World War I, and Hungary after the war was severely restricted in maintaining a large army based on conscription. Therefore after 1938-39 when my father was almost forty years old he was dragged into basic training. He was a singularly non-military personality, and all that “soldiering” was an awful bother to me. As far as I can figure out today, he was called up every time Hungary decided to expand Trianon Hungary, starting with the occupation of the Bánát-Bácska region, continuing with the Carpatho-Ukraine, and then on to Transylvania.

On March 19th father was off supervising the digging of trenches somewhere; he was in the engineering corps, being a mechnical engineer by training. Before he left, my parents discussed all eventualities and the decision was made that “if anything unusual happens” mother and I were supposed to move to Bálics. Bálics is an area of the Mecsek mountain north of Pécs where my grandparents had purchased a vineyard with a house that was completely renovated and winterized. My mother decided that the occupation of Hungary by Germany was “an unusual thing” and therefore we ought to move. My aunt, whose husband was also in the army, was consulted and the decision was made that although I had the measles and her daughter didn’t, we would all move out to Bálics: the two sisters and the two cousins.

There was the “little problem” of the measles and the quarantine, but mother bundled me up and off we went for the twenty-minute ride in a taxi. Luckily the house was built in such a way that I could be isolated and my cousin never caught the measles.

A couple of months later both my father and my uncle by marriage were released from the army and they returned to run their small business making shoe lasts. The little factory was on a road running parallel to the railroad tracks. The street today is called Street of the Martyrs because it was there that a couple of gendarmes herded Pécs’s Jewish population toward the railway station only a block or so away from our buildings.

Because we were not living in our normal apartment in downtown Pécs I didn’t witness the emptying of our apartment house. We lived in a fairly new apartment building in which the majority of the inhabitants happened to be Jewish. The authorities had to create a “ghetto,” and the decision was made that the Jews would be moved into a block of apartment houses owned by the Hungarian Railways for their own employees. So, the owners of the apartments in our house were moved to the ghetto while the employees of the railroad were moved into their apartments. Thus when in January 1945 we returned, a new world was waiting for me. With the exception of one family everybody was a stranger.

One day during the summer (later I learned that it was July 4) my father phoned: “They emptied the ghetto and about 3-4,000 people accompanied by a couple of gendarmes are going toward the railway station.” My cousin who was only five years old started crying and kept repeating “Doj néni, Doj néni.” When she was very little she abbreviated the word “doktor” to “doj.” Father announced that he and my uncle would immediately go to the railroad station. Later I learned that the station was completely empty. Only my father and my uncle were running from freight car to freight car looking for friends and acquaintances. Almost nobody returned.

And now about my kindergarten class. It was a private Montessori kindergarten where we were also supposed to learn some German. The kindergarten teacher and owner was Márta néni (Aunt Martha) who was Jewish. She was married to a doctor in town; I believe that their family name was Frankel. Both perished. I spent two happy years there although at the beginning I wasn’t too thrilled about going to kindergarten. However, in a couple of weeks I felt at home and when a crying Gyuri Pollák was escorted by his mother I was called out to make him feel at home.


Gyuri on the attached picture is sitting on Márta néni’s left. Gyuri’s father owned a bakery in town. They delivered warm croissants every morning before breakfast to their customers. The Polláks lived in a nice house not very far from us, and they also purchased the apartment right across from our own when the apartment house was built in 1940-41. Behind Gyuri stands Zsuzsi Bürger whose father owned a shoe store. She also vanished. I’m second on the left in the first row and next to me sits a red-headed boy called Miki. He also died. Out of all these children, I believe only Éva, standing behind Miki, survived. She was an adopted child.

I heard that just last year the Jewish community in Pécs erected a memorial specifically for the children who perished in the holocaust. This is my modest memorial for some of them.

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