Month: May 2011

Romanian-Hungarian relations of late

You may recall that Traian Băsescu, president of Romania, and Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, are allegedly great friends. I will never forget an interview with Zsolt Németh at the time of the Romanian elections when it initially appeared that Băsescu would lose the elections. Németh looked devastated, as if Hungary’s whole future depended on Băsescu being president of Romania.

Fidesz leaders, who every summer make a pilgrimage to Transylvania for a week of lectures and speeches held for members of the Hungarian minority, were actually campaigning on behalf of Băsescu two summers ago. After Băsescu won and so did Orbán, Romanian-Hungarian friendship seemed to be thriving. I doubted that this honeymoon between the two countries would last long because the Orbán government’s intense nationalism sooner or later was bound to adversely affect the newly found cooperation.

I already talked about the sorry end of the Romanian Embassy’s effort to rent space for the celebration of the Romanian national holiday on December 1 in the National Theater. Jobbik raised hell and eventually Róbert Alföldi, the director, had to retreat. As I said, that was certainly not a friendly gesture toward such a supposedly great friend of the country.

A few months later the head of the Romanian social democratic party talked about “the danger” Băsescu’s and Orbán’s friendship posed for Romania. He called them “men of narrow vision who strive for absolute power.” Since then, thanks to Wikileaks, we know that the friendship between Băsescu and Orbán is only skin deep. Băsescu called Orbán “the last disgusting little nationalist of Europe” in the presence of the American ambassador to Bucharest.

Then there were all the speeches of Hungarian politicians on and around March 15, the Hungarian national holiday. László Kövér gave a speech in Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely) in which he championed for territorial autonomy of the area where the so-called Szeklers are in the majority. The Romanians fiercely oppose any suggestion of territorial autonomy on constitutional grounds. Kövér portrayed such demands as legitimate and modern and as “coinciding with the will of God.” Crin Antonescu, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL), retorted that Viktor Orbán “should occupy himself with governing Hungary and nothing else, and it would be a good idea to decide the will of God only on the territory of Hungary.”

Kövér’s speech was not unique in being unacceptable to Romania. The wife of the Hungarian ambassador to Bucharest added a few words of her own to the message Viktor Orbán sent to the Transylvanian Hungarians. The wife, quoting Albert Wass, finished her speech with “Be Transylvania again what it used to be!” Romanian politicians asked Orbán to distance himself from the speeches, but Orbán is not the kind of guy who distances himself from anyone or anything Fidesz.

A couple of months later, toward the end of May, the Hungarian ambassador was called in to the Romanian Foreign Ministry. The Romanians wanted to know what the offices of the Szekler Land (Székelyföld) where the Hungarians demand territorial autonomy are doing in the Magyar Régiók Háza (House of Hungarian Regions) in Brussels. The Romanians expressed their expectation that no official representative of the Hungarian government would be present at the opening of the offices. The Romanians called attention to “the strategic partnership” that supposedly exists between the two countries.

Well, if the Romanian Foreign Ministry calls in the Hungarian ambassador, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry must reciprocate. Ireny Comaroschi, the Romanian ambassador, was asked to have a chat with Zsolt Németh, the undersecretary. This time the cause of the friction was the newly restored statue of King Matthias in Cluj (Kolozsvár), birthplace of the famous fifteenth-century Hungarian king.

Every time I hear about another nationalistic upheaval over a statue I must think of the days when I was studying irredentist propaganda between the two world wars. I tried to put myself in the shoes of some British or American diplomat receiving yet another complaint from the Hungarian government that such and such famous Hungarian poet’s statue was removed in Czechoslovakia or Romania. By now one would think that the era of statues is over. But no, not long ago there was the controversy over the memorial for the thirteen generals executed in Arad in 1849 which was eventually re-erected. And now here is the statue of King Matthias.


As it turned out, an old plaque in Romanian was placed on the recently restored statue that carries a sentence by Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940), a famous Romanian historian. The sentence reads: “He was victorious in battle; he was defeated only by his own nation at Baia (Moldvabánya) when he attacked the invincible Moldavia.” The plaque was placed on the statue in 1932 and was removed by the Hungarians in 1940 when Hungary occupied Northern Transvylania. Gheorghe Funar, the anti-Hungarian mayor of Cluj, put it back in 1992. The debate continues between the Romanians and the Hungarians as to whether replacing the plaque either in 1992 or now, after the restoration, was legal or not.

At the heart of the controversy is King Matthias’s ethnic origin. He was the son of János Hunyadi and Erzsébet Szilágyi. On his mother’s side he certainly had Hungarian roots. His father, on the other hand, most likely had a Romanian background. The János Hunyadi family, the little we know of it, were modest Romanian nobility from Hátszeg/Haţeg in Hunyad County in Transylvania. His father’s name first appeared in documents as the recipient of Hunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad or today Hunedoara). However, both János Hunyadi and his son considered themselves Hungarians. After all, the multi-ethnic nobility of the Kingdom of Hungary in a generation or two became totally assimilated.

Matthias certainly didn’t know any Romanian because we have documentary evidence that when Romanian delegates arrived from Moldavia and he heard them speak, on the basis of his knowledge of Latin he discovered that Romanian belonged to the Latin branch of the Indo-European language family. On the other hand we know that he spoke Hungarian, German, Czech, and Latin.

So, in this latest controversy Romanians and Hungarians are fighting over King Matthias’s ethnicity. As for the Iorga quotation there is no question that Matthias was beaten at Baia (1467) by the troops of Moldavia’s Ştefan cel Mare (Steven the Great). In fact, the Hungarian king even got wounded in this battle. The disputed part is the allusion to his Romanian nationality.

The Hungarians were so upset over the Iorga quotation that Oszkár Füzes, the Hungarian ambassador to Bucharest, himself went to Cluj to join a group that called for covering the “objectionable” quotation with flowers. Policemen told the ambassador that he can place his flowers only next to the plaque, but Füzes refused to follow their advice and instead went to the statue of Áron Márton, Catholic bishop of Transylvania who died in 1981, and placed his flowers there.

But that’s not the end of the story. An older man today glued a ribbon depicting the colors of the Romanian national flag on the base of the statue. He did that in spite of police presence; the statue is guarded day and night. Two hours later the ribbon was removed.

While all this is going on in Cluj, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry is officially demanding the removal of the plaque.

It never ceases to amaze me how agitated nationalists can get over a question that is in actuality a non-issue. In fifteenth-century Europe nationality played no part in the social fabric of society. In the twenty-first century fighting over Matthias’s nationality shows the total ignorance of both sides about the historical realities of earlier times. Unfortunately these ridiculous fights over historical facts can ruin relations between the two countries.



Fears of Hungary’s neighbors

One of the first items I saw this morning was an opinion piece in Krónika, a Hungarian-language paper from Cluj (Kolozsvár). The author, Szabolcs Rostás, is bitterly complaining that “more than twenty years after the change of regime, after the fall of the national-bolshevik dictatorship we haven’t moved forward. Bucharest is still looking upon the demands for Hungarian national rights as before 1989.” He simply doesn’t understand why this is so.

A few minutes later I learned that Zsolt Semjén, the deputy prime minister in charge of minority affairs in the neighboring countries, delivered a speech from which it became clear that if it depended on the Hungarian government it would introduce a “unitary curriculum” in the Carpathian basin. In other words, in all Hungarian-language schools, be they in Hungary proper or in the neighboring countries, the same material should be taught.

First, of course, they have to “nationalize” the schools in Hungary within its Trianon borders. As it stands now, a teacher can pick his or her favorite textbook from an approved list. Rózsa Hoffmann, the undersecretary in charge of education, already hinted that she was in favor of returning to the Kádár regime when every student learned the required material from the same textbooks. It is possible that Hoffmann would make an exception for the parochial schools which receive special treatment as it is from the government. Including more money. Hoffmann was also willing to make exceptions when it came to Catholic and Protestant universities: her stringent requirements concerning the educational attainment of the faculty didn’t apply to them. So, one never knows. It might easily happen that the ever growing number of parochial schools will have a different set of textbooks. But only one set.

In any event, once this Christian Democratic agenda is accomplished can come the extension of Hoffmann’s educational ideas beyond the borders. Or at least this is what the Christian Democrat Zsolt Semjén was hinting at.

It is worth quoting a few choice sentences from Semjén’s speech delivered at the University of Óbuda. The occasion was a gathering of the leaders of Hungarian-language colleges and universities from Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. Semjén likes big words and some of his allusions can be puzzling. They certainly could be interpreted by Slovaks and Romanians as a threat to their countries. As usual he emphasized that “although over the centuries the nation was torn into pieces, linguistically, culturally, and intellectually we are one reality.” There are of course those who doubt the validity of this assertion. After all, soon enough those Hungarians (and their descendants) who found themselves outside the borders of Trianon Hungary will have lived in another country, in another culture for almost a hundred years. And we know from our own experiences that socialization in another country can have a powerful influence on our thinking. Just think about our attitudes toward cheating in school, something we discussed here a few days ago. Or, I was astonished to see the articles that appeared about Dominique Strauss-Kahn in French and Hungarian papers where he was portrayed as a victim instead of the maid whom he allegedly tried to rape.

Another mysterious sentence had something to do with “the heritage of Saint Stephen.” According to Semjén, the essence of that heritage is “founding a country” (actually literally “building a country” = országépítés). And then comes the most baffling of all: “every national community, smaller or larger, as little Saint Stephens, must build” a structure. Since he was talking earlier about Saint Stephen founding a country this could be interpreted to be a prod for the scattered minorities to embark on a second founding of Hungary.

Let’s try to imagine what would happen if the neighboring governments allowed the curriculum prevalent in Hungary proper to be taught in their own Hungarian-language schools. It is enough to think of the greatly divergent interpretations of history. The endless and futile discussions on the origin of Romanians. Or whether Máté Csák was simply a powerful lord carving out for himself a mini-kingdom during the reign of a very weak king or the forerunner of the idea of a separate Slovakia.

As long as Semjén and his fellow nationalists make extravagant claims of this sort, one cannot be terribly surprised about Romanian and Slovak suspicions. Surely, they will say with some justification, that the Hungarians know that by force they cannot get territories back but listen to Semjén. He wants to build little Hungarian countries like little Saint Stephens. We ought to be on our guard.

But one doesn’t have to listen to Zsolt Semjén’s confused stories about little Saint Stephens and country building. It’s enough to watch MTV, Hungary’s public television, when the weather man gives the forecast. The station is not satisfied with the weather in Hungary proper; it shows the whole Carpathian Basin, including the borders of Greater Hungary.


I thank one of our readers and contributors for this picture.

The truth of the matter is that Semjén’s peaceful country building is just as illusory as taking back territories by force. The general tendency is assimilation of the minority to the majority. One doesn’t even have to force the issue. People move from villages to larger cities with a Romanian, Slovak or Serbian majority and the assimilation through schools, friendships, marriages is inevitable. No little Saint Stephens can help. That is “reality” and not the unitary bond of all Hungarians.

Miklós Horthy: It is time to set things straight (II)

We left off yesterday when parliament chose Horthy as regent on March 1, 1920. I also mentioned that his soldier friends gave him plenty of advice as far as the desirable extent of his powers was concerned. The politicians who came up with the idea of a regency tried to adhere as closely as possible to the constitutional setup of the dual monarchy, but there were certain royal privileges a regent or governor couldn't exercise. For example, he couldn't bestow nobility on individuals. Before 1918 the emperor-king was in charge of foreign policy which now, after the dissolution of the dual monarchy, no longer made sense. So foreign policy was conducted by the government and declarations of war, treaties with foreign powers, etc., had to be approved by parliament. But Horthy insisted on all the powers the emperor-king had over the armed forces. He was the Supreme War Lord (Legfelsőbb Hadúr) to whom the troops swore loyalty. This almost unlimited power over the army turned out to be illusory. When Horthy in August 1944 needed the army, his beloved army chiefs abandoned him.

His powers in connection with actual legislation were relatively limited. He did not until 1937, when it was conferred upon him, enjoy the prerogative of the "preliminary sanction," i.e. the right to have a draft bill submitted to him for his personal approval before it was introduced in parliament. (I might add here that the current Hungarian government is planning to introduce this "preliminary sanction," but not by the president but by the constitutional court.) Horthy's power to influence legislation was limited to a suspensory veto. If he disapproved of a measure, he could return it to parliament for reconsideration. If parliament persisted, he had to promulgate the measure.

He took an oath to govern "in the sense of the Constitution and in agreement with parliament, through the prime minister." However, he had the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. Neither by law nor by custom was he obliged to choose the prime minister from the party forming the parliamentary majority.

But Horthy, especially in the 1920s, didn't exercise some of the authority he enjoyed by law. And he was very careful not to exceed his constitutional authority. He never once exercised his power of suspensory veto. In brief, he signed everything put in front of him, similar to Pál Schmitt. He simply did not wish to intervene in details of policy except as "Supreme War Lord"–a position he took extremely seriously. For more than a decade he confined his role in politics to appointing the prime minister, and in the early years of his regency he limited himself to acting in conformity with the general will of the leading politicians.

Unfortunately after Bethlen's departure in 1931 he began to exercise his will in many important respects. He started to intervene in political matters, usually showing little political sense. The last five prime ministers were his personal choices and not one of them was, when appointed, a member of the majority party. He also freely dismissed prime ministers although they had votes of confidence in the House. According to a sympathetic historian, C. A. Macartney, "it was through no growth in his own spirit of dictatorial ambition that he had arrived at this position …; he had been pushed into it, gradually and almost imperceptibly by developments and circumstances which were none of his making: the international position, and at home, in large, the moral vacuum which Bethlen had created."

Whether he was pushed into the position or whether he found the post-Bethlen political vacuum to his liking is debatable. The problem was that he was ill suited for the job in which he found himself. He was easily misled by so-called advisors. He especially had a weak spot for his military advisors who more often than not led him astray. He could easily be influenced. He made a decision on the advice of X but could be talked out of the same a few days later by Y. As the same C. A. Macartney remarked, "at the best, the method of suggestion and counter-suggestion did not make for stability of policy." He was also totally irresponsible when it came to keeping secrets. Not a very good thing when the person is privy to very important pieces of information that ought to remain private. It is unlikely that he was stupid because after all his career prior to 1918 was quite spectacular despite his lower gentry origin and his Calvinist upbringing. But he certainly wasn't well educated. He was unread in literature, even more so in history, political science, and economics. Which is rather unfortunate for a man eventually responsible for the future of his country.

His worldview got stuck somewhere in the late nineteenth century. He wanted to recreate Greater Hungary, including an outlet to the sea. Ethnic frontiers seemed to him simply perverse. He had deep-seated prejudices against people in the region. Apparently he considered the Czechs puffed-up frogs, he believed Slovaks were misled Hungarians, and he called the Romanians "a race of pimps and cocottes." His views on domestic problems were also simplistic. The country should be ruled by the traditional ruling class. There should be rulers and the ruled. Democracy, meaning government of the people by the people, was a concept alien to him. Socialism was a Jewish heresy. Communism was an evil power and it was a moral duty to root it out at all cost, including shedding blood for its elimination.

In brief, he was ill-suited for the job. As long as he was under István Bethlen's thumb he couldn't cause a lot of trouble, but when he was on his own surrounded by far-right army officers with German sympathies he was a disaster.

A few days ago an article appeared in HVG addressing the question of why Horthy was not brought to trial after the war. In it the author repeats the old explanation that it was Stalin who intervened on his behalf because after all Horthy did try to end the war between the Soviet Union and Hungary in August 1944. This was the opinion of Ferenc Nagy, prime minister of Hungary, who detailed all this in his memoirs. I would like to add another consideration: it was Tito who demanded Horthy's release to the Yugoslav authorities in 1945-46. Perhaps the Stalin-Tito rift also had something to do with Stalin's benevolence.

Finally, I would like to straighten out people like Johnny Boy who talk about the interwar years as some kind of paradise that was destroyed by the events of 1945 and after. Not only was it not a democracy, but the majority of the population lived in abject poverty. Just the other day I saw a few old pictures of Moszkva tér, renamed Széll Kálmán tér. At some point in the 1930s it seems that there was a tennis court there. In this particular picture four well dressed young men and women were standing, rackets in hand, and next to them were three ball chasers. All three boys were barefoot. So much for the good old days under the great statesman (sic) Miklós Horthy.

Miklós Horthy: It is time to set things straight (I)

Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was not a politician and thus he couldn't have been a statesman either. His education certainly didn't prepare him for a political career. At the age of fourteen he entered the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy's naval academy in Fiume (today Rijeka). It was a fairly unusual career choice for the son of a Calvinist family because Hungarian Calvinists usually voted for the Party of Independence and were no friends of the dual monarchy as it emerged in 1867, just a year before he was born. The official language of the academy was naturally German as was that of the entire Austro-Hungarian army. As a result Horthy spoke with a slight but distinct German accent all his life.

Horthy was good looking and personable but he didn't excel at the academy except in horseback riding and fencing. On the other hand, he was good in languages and thus served for many years at various Austro-Hungarian embassies as military attaché. At one point he was aide-de-camp of Emperor-King Franz Joseph whom he greatly admired.

How did he end up in politics? That is one of the mysteries of his life. After the war ended and there was no longer either a dual monarchy or an Austro-Hungarian navy, he retired to his modest family estate in Kenderes where he was born. However, after the Hungarian Soviet Republic was declared on March 21, 1919, he left Kenderes and went first to Arad (today in Romania) and later to Szeged where a counterrevolutionary government in exile had been formed under reluctant French tutelage. Since he was the only military man in the group he was made minister of defense.

Horthy is usually described as "a conservative who was distinctly inclined toward the right of the political spectrum." But the real problem was that he was a man who could be easily influenced. As a Hungarian diplomat observed, Horthy's political views could change within hours. It depended on who talked to him last. His other weakness was his great attachment to military men who especially after 1918 were steadily drifting toward the extreme right. Right-wing army officers left the Hungarian Republic in droves and gathered in Vienna or later in Szeged. The so-called National Army was made up exclusively of officers. These officers, unlike Horthy, were savvy when it came to politics and they decided that if they wanted to have a say in the politics of the future they should promote Horthy, who could represent their views against the politicians whom they detested.

Their job was made easy by the total lack of political understanding among the counterrevolutionary politicians after the fall of the Soviet Republic in August 1919. The Entente Powers demanded a "coalition government" that represented all segments of society. That included the Social Democrats. But the Social Democrats, who held all the cards, demanded a major share in the government which the politicians on the right were unwilling to grant. Almost five months went by and there was still no government that the Great Powers would recognize. And as long as there was no officially recognized government, no peace treaty could be signed.

As it turned out, in this chaos the only man who had any power behind him was Miklós Horthy. He had the National Army, and at one point the officers were ready to arrest all the politicians and establish a military dictatorship. Eventually a representative of the Great Powers was sent to Budapest to assess the situation and assist the Hungarians in the formation of a viable coalition government. The representative, Sir George Clerk, recognized that Horthy was the man who was capable of keeping order because he was the only one with an army behind him. Clerk therefore suggested him as the man the Entente could trust. From there on, with Clerk's and the officer detachments' help, Horthy marched toward eventually being "governor" of the country.

Hungary was declared to be a republic in 1918, a status the counterrevolutionaries who came to the fore after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic couldn't imagine. But the Habsburg king in exile couldn't occupy the Hungarian throne because neither the neighbors nor the Great Powers would allow Charles IV's return. Moreover, the Hungarian ruling class was split on the person of the king. Not everybody was a fan of the Habsburg connection. One could actually say that the "loyalists" were in the minority and the majority (the free electors) would have opted for a national king. The best thing was to postpone the whole issue by appointing a governor who would rule while there was no king on the Hungarian throne. Thus Hungary again became a kingdom but without a king.

Because Horthy was the only man who had power there was no question that the new parliament that came into being after elections in the western part of the country (the eastern part was still under Romanian occupation) would vote for Miklós Horthy, the darling of the National Army and the far-right. The parliament itself was mostly made up of men of fairly extreme views. Before the actual vote long and difficult negotiations took place between Horthy and the new Hungarian government. As one of the politicians openly admitted, they had to agree to Horthy's demands because otherwise Horthy's army would have taken over power forcibly.

Horthy was advised by men such as Gyula Gömbös who later as prime minister was hard at work trying to introduce a fascist type regime in Hungary. Only his sudden death prevented him from doing so. I wrote about Gömbös several times in the last couple of years since upon studying Gömbös's politics, historians find more and more resemblances between Gömbös and Viktor Orbán.

One more thing about this early Horthy. Horthy has never been found to have personally engaged in White Terror atrocities, but  he "tacitly supported the right wing officer detachments" who carried out the terror. Horthy himself declined to apologize for the savagery of his officer detachments, writing later: "I have no reason to gloss over deeds of injustice and atrocities committed when an iron broom alone could sweep the country clean." And he endorsed Edgar von Schmidt-Pauli's poetic justification of the White reprisals ("Hell let loose on earth cannot be subdued by the beating of angels' wings") remarking, "the Communists in Hungary, willing disciples of the Russian Bolshvists, had indeed let hell loose."

Tomorrow I will show that the Horthy of White Terror notoriety was tamed by 1922, in large part by Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921-1931). The statesman was not Horthy, whose duties were mostly ceremonial, but Bethlen, who managed to achieve considerable economic progress and succeeded in convincing Europe and the United States that Hungary's murky past was no more. 


Corruption in Hungary is on the rise

A few days ago Ernst & Young made public its latest survey on corruption in Europe and came up with the startling result that Hungary is the most corrupt country within the European Union. It can be compared only to Russia. Transparency International last October released its Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2010, and it turned out that Hungary instead of improving its standing on the corruption scale is actually sliding backward. The drop is substantial: 4.7 points. With this change for the first time since surveys have been conducted Poland and Latvia are doing better than Hungary.

Of course, it is possible that Gyula Budai's steadfast witch hunt against political opponents may have helped to give the impression that Hungary is a corruption-ridden country, and in that respect the Fidesz government's zealous search for corrupt officials may have backfired. Fidesz, which portrayed itself as the guardian of honesty and the greatest enemy of corruption, ended up in the inglorious situation that in the first year of the new government corruption grew in Hungary.

In today's Galamus there is a very interesting article by Ferenc Krémer about the causes of corruption. He reminds his readers that in the last few years the socialist-liberal governments set up all sorts of committees that were supposed to battle corruption but there were no tangible results of their activities. Thus, Fidesz came to the conclusion that the government shouldn't bother with committees but "following the Bolshevik tradition" should attack the problem by "launching a total war" against corruption. They tightened the criminal code, they use entrapment methods to uncover corruption in the police force. They believe that fear will put an end to corruption among individuals.

But, Krémer continues, Fidesz politicians are dead wrong. Corruption is not necessarily the result of human failing. The most dangerous form of corruption crops up as a result of rigid, overly regulated relations between public and private institutions. In simple language, the more difficult it is to conduct business because of a burdensome, complicated, over-regulated bureaucracy the more likely is widepsread corruption. Centralization within the public sector further feeds corruption. When a decision depends on very few people the tendency toward corrupt business practices grow. Thus, the Orbán government that swore to stamp out corruption will most likely fail in this endeavor. In fact, it is possible that corruption will grow because of Fidesz's belief in centralization. As Krémer puts it: "Fidesz wants to fight corruption with the institutionalization of corruption."

Centralization is certainly one of the chief aims of the new administration. Everywhere one looks the central government's power is expanded. There was a telling interview with one of the new undersecretaries who is in charge of local governments. As far as one can see, the independence of the local governments is in jeopardy and there is the likelihood of the nationalization of schools currently under the jurisdiction of the cities and towns. The reporter expressed her doubt that by nationalizing schools one can save money. Our undersecretary couldn't convince either the reporter or me that indeed running schools from Budapest would be a money saver, but his answer which was beside the point was telling. He used to be the mayor of a smaller city and then he had to deal with six or seven school principals. One wanted this, the other that, the third something else. It was a cumbersome and irritating affair. But once there will be only one person in charge, everything will go smoothly. Brave new world or back to the Kádár regime.

Thus it will be impossible to handle business locally and most likely for every little thing one will have to go to Budapest and all the way to the minister. A friend of mine whose family was originally from Transylvania was telling me about the infamous corruption in interwar Romania. Her older sister and her family remained in Romania; the rest of the family in Budapest visited them during the summer. The Romanian authorities gave a visa only for a short period of time and if one wanted to renew the visa one had to go all the way to the minister of the interior in Bucharest. And pay him for the privilege.

The Hungarian situation soon might be even worse than that. The trade unions of the firemen, policemen, and army have been negotiating with the minister of interior for at least two weeks. Until it became clear to the trade union leaders that the minister has no decisionmaking power. Eventually, they demanded to speak with the only man who can decide: Viktor Orbán.

A couple of days ago a man tried to hang himself in front of the parliament building. They cut him down and he is fine. He has been battling in court for something or other for over a decade. At the end he had enough. Things are not bad enough yet that he could pay off the judges. But let's just wait.



The Hungarian right and artistic taste

I mentioned earlier that there seems to be a definite dividing line in literary and artistic taste when it comes to ideological commitments. Conservatives or right-wingers are normally traditionalists while liberals on the whole are more open to modernity.

In countries with an established democratic tradition politicians usually don't try to dictate artistic taste. But in Hungary such meddling is nothing new. I just read an opinion piece in today's Népszabadság in which the author quotes a politician from the late 1920s who felt compelled to get up in parliament and complain that the director of the National Theater was about to commit a national crime: he wanted to make some slight changes in wording in the play Bánk bán, written by József Katona (1791-1830). Sometime later another politician objected to a play by Dezső Szomory (1869-1944) at the same National Theater. The real reason for these attacks by far-right politicians was that the director of the National Theater at the time was a Jew, Sándor Hevesi. As one of the far-right papers pointed out: the first Jewish director of the National Theater. And not unimportant, Szomory was also Jewish. The politicians' complaints went as far as the minister of education and culture who was supposed to sack Hevesi. But the minister, Kunó Klebersberg, was a very wise man. He announced that it was not the business of politicians to get involved with art and literature.

I have no idea whether Róbert Alföldi, the current director of the National Theater, is Jewish or not but he definitely has other problems. He is gay, and that is more than enough for Jobbik and the Christian Democrats to try to get rid of him. Also, he has another strike against him: he was appointed to his post during the socialist-liberal regime.

Alfoldi Alföldi is a talented actor and an imaginative director who has been in demand internationally. Just lately he directed Aristophanes's Lysistrata in Rijeka, Croatia. Well, Alföldi always seems to run into trouble. This time because of a poster advertising the production. It was "a scandalous poster" depicting a phallic symbol. INA, the Croatian oil company that was the original sponsor, withdrew its financial assistance for the production. All that was detailed in a fairly lengthy article yesterday in Heti Válasz. I'm sure that the placement of this news item in yesterday's paper was not a coincidence. Alföldi has been under vicious attack lately because of his production of The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách (1823-1864), which is considered to be one of the greats of Hungarian literature.

The right-wingers with conservative taste consider the National Theater something special. It is more for them than one theater of the more than one hundred in Budapest. It is supposed to be the temple of Hungarian theatrical production. I have the feeling that some of the critics of Alföldi would like to see original Hungarian productions from the classical repertoire and nothing more. Moreover, according to their conservative taste the productions themselves must be traditional. They should be the kind of Tragedy of Man that was staged fifty years ago. Any kind of innovation is looked upon as sacrilege. But complaining about his production didn't get them very far. So, they tried to attack him politically.

One of the many attacks came in mid-November 2010 when it turned out that Alföldi had rented out certain parts of the National Theater for an event celebrating Romania's national holiday. The date commemorates the gathering of Transylvania's Romanians on December 1, 1918, to declare the province's union with Romania. I guess I don't have to describe what happened when the news hit the papers. The Christian Democrats immediately demanded an investigation and made no secret of the party's desire to get rid of Alföldi, who "caused moral damage." The spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, formerly an anchorman at MTV but today a member of parliament, announced that the theater director by renting out the premises to the Romanian Embassy "offended the sensibilities of many Hungarians." Very soon Fidesz joined the Christian Democrats and announced that Alföldi simply doesn't understand the gravity of the affair. Considering that Viktor Orbán's government views Băsescu's Romania as one the country's staunch allies, the whole affair with its strong anti-Romanian flavor didn't strike me as a friendly gesture. In the end, Alföldi had to retreat. He broke the contract with the Romanian Embassy.

Since then both Jobbik and Christian Democratic MPs have criticized Alföldi's production. István Pállfy, who was so worried about the sensibilities of Hungarians in November, and István Szávay (Jobbik) claimed that in Magyar ünnep (Hungarian Holiday) by the contemporary  Pál Závoda "Hungarian soldiers are masturbating in their joy over the return of Northern Transylvania to Hungary." As it turned out, Szávay hadn't even seen the play. In fact, he didn't even know Alföldi's given name. Pálffy criticized The Tragedy of Man, although he had to admit that he hadn't seen it. At this point Miklós Réthelyi, minister in charge of cultural affairs, defended the play and Alföldi: he saw it and he liked it. It was an innovative performance.

So, this didn't work either and therefore a new attack was launched. A reporter from an Internet television station N1TV (N = Nemzeti = National) asked a few provocative questions of Alföldi at a press conference. I ought to mention that this is a the same far-right television station that celebrated Hitler's birthday on April 20. The female reporter asked Alföldi whether he shouldn't resign because he is showing Hungarian classics in a "provocative and divisive fashion." It turned out that the reporter hadn't seen the production. At this point Alföldi expressed his astonishment: "Then what are we talking about?"–he asked. At this point the woman changed her story and claimed that she "did see the oral sex scene which…." There was no oral sex in the production, and if one compares this current production of the Roman orgy to the 1887 illustrations of the play by Mihály Zichy, the Alföldi version was outright tame. In any case, Alföldi lost his cool and wished the woman "the same kind of oral sex from here on for the rest of her life." 

This was a whimsical answer but still unfortunate. It opened the door to a new Jobbik and Christian Democratic attack. Another request to fire Alföldi went to Miklós Réthelyi, who reluctantly asked for a meeting with the theater director. He didn't fire him as the far-right demanded. Alföldi received only a written reprimand. Too bad that Réthelyi doesn't have the integrity of Kunó Klebersberg and didn't have the guts to tell them that a theatrical production or an off-the-cuff remark to an ignorant reporter is not good enough reason for the minister to interfere in the affairs of the National Theater. 

Hungarian state’s stake in MOL (Hungarian Oil and Gas Company)

I think I ought to emphasize that MOL is not truly a Hungarian company, at least not in the sense that the Orbán government is trying to make the population believe. The announcements portrayed the Hungarian government’s purchase of a 21.2% stake in MOL as a tremendous coup by which Hungary managed to wrestle a big chunk of MOL’s stock out of the Russian bear’s paws. I’ll bet that most Hungarians still think that MOL is a state enterprise, which of course it isn’t. MOL is listed on the New York, Budapest, and Warsaw stock exchanges where it is freely traded. It is a company with a diverse and ever-changing ownership. Until now a bit less than 80% of its shares were owned by various investors, Hungarians as well as foreigners. However, the owner of 21.2% of MOL shares was Surgutneftegas, a Russian company that purchased the stake from OMV, the Austrian oil company, in 2009.

From the beginning the Hungarians didn’t like the fact that a Russian company owned a sizable stake in MOL because they claimed that the ownership of Surgut wasn’t clear. They suspected the Russian state of being behind Surgut. The Gyurcsány government made serious efforts to curb any possible influence of Surgut on MOL’s affairs. The Hungarian parliament actually passed a piece of legislation (jokingly called the Lex MOL) according to which Surgut was deprived of its shareholder right to vote on matters pertaining to MOL’s business. Surgut sued several times and the Hungarian courts always ruled in the government’s favor. The latest ruling, again against Surgut, was on April 7. I didn’t agree with Gyurcsány’s decision concerning Surgut and MOL because I didn’t think that the Hungarian government had the right to deprive Surgut or anyone else for that matter of its shareholder rights in a publicly traded company.

During the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments there were vague talks about trying to purchase Surgut’s stake in MOL, but no serious attempt was made. The government wasn’t exactly flush with cash; indeed, it needed IMF assistance in order to survive. Shortly after the new government was installed in Budapest, however, it was becoming clear that extensive negotiations were taking place between Moscow and Budapest that included the possible purchase of the Surgut stake. It was on November 30, 2010, after Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow, that the Russians announced that Putin and Orbán had indeed talked about the Surgut stake in MOL and that negotiations would continue. Only a month earlier Putin was actually asking the European Union to help because MOL was violating accepted rules when it prevented Surgut’s participation in business decisions. My feeling is that Putin had had enough and decided to convince Surgut to sell.

In the last six months or so one heard practically nothing about the continuing conversations between Russia and Hungary concerning MOL. But then came yesterday’s announcement that Hungary had purchased Surgut’s 21.2% stake for 1.88 billion euros ($2.7 billion) or about 500 billion Hungarian forints. The deal was definitely good for Surgut: it got a 40% return on its 2009 investment. On the Budapest stock exchange, after an initial pop, MOL sold off. Right now MOL is trading at 22,660 forints, less than what Hungary paid Surgut.

Here is the current breakdown of MOL ownership:

Some help with the Hungarian: Külföldi befektetők = foreign investors; Magyar állam = Hungarian state; Hazai intézményi befektetők = domestic institutional investors; Hazai magánbefektetők = domestic individual investors; Mol sajátrészvény = MOL’s own stake. The rest are clear. As you can see, as a result of the deal, the Hungarian state became the largest single owner of MOL shares.

The deal was originally announced by Viktor Orbán, but about an hour later Tamás Fellegi gave a press conference where he was asked how the Hungarian government will pay for these MOL shares. To everybody’s astonishment the answer was that the money will come from that portion of the IMF loan that has not been used by either the Bajnai or the Orbán governments. The first reaction was disbelief. Surely, the IMF didn’t give Hungary the loan to “play with it on the stock market.” This must be a misunderstanding. But no, the IMF after all is not such a harsh lender as some people would like to portray it. Iryna Ivaschenko, resident representative of the IMF in Budapest, confirmed Fellegi’s announcement: Hungary is free to use that money in any way it wishes.

Viktor Orbán tried to convince the population that Hungary’s energy security is strengthened by this purchase. This is not true. MOL is an oil refiner and distributor of mostly Russian natural gas. “Someone” put it well: “It is like buying the tap, when you have no control over the water-pipe.” The decision to buy these MOL shares in my opinion is more a political than a sound financial move. In fact, it is most likely financially disadvantageous to the taxpayers. But politically it sounds good: “We saved a good old Hungarian company from the Russians.” Some pro-Fidesz analysts act as if these 500 billion forints really didn’t add to the Hungarian national debt. But surely, this is not so. The IMF loan will have to be repaid sometime fairly soon, and new bond issuances carry much higher interest rates.

LMP criticized the deal. Its economic expert, Benedek Jávor, mentioned the real possibility that given Surgut’s reluctance to sell, Hungary perhaps offered something else to the Russians by way of an enticement. LMP, being a green party, is especially worried about commitments to the expansion of the Paks Atomic Power Plant.

According to MSZP buying the stake is “a mindless waste of money, bordering on a criminal act.” An MSZP member of parliament also noted that in 2012 there is a planned saving of 550 billion forints as a result of the very severe austerity program thrust upon the population. And now the government spends almost the same amount of money to buy shares in a publicly-traded company. According to some analysts investors on the whole are not keen to see a large government stake in a company. Therefore MOL shares may drop in value, especially if it turns out that the Hungarian government is too involved in the everyday running of MOL, which is not outside the realm of possibilities. The CEO of MOL is a close friend of Viktor Orbán and a great supporter of Fidesz.