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Saint Stephen’s messages and plans

August 27, 2011 46 comments

Lately it is not only economists who are sending messages to the Hungarian government; even St. Stephen got into the act with Tibor Navracsics as his medium.

What message did Hungary’s first king send this time? He warned Viktor Orbán that Hungary had better not to look around for friends in the East. No good will come of it. His interpreter, Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister, delivered the saintly king’s message in Veszpém which in early Hungarian history was the city of the queen. According to Navracsics, Saint Stephen’s greatness was due not so much to his founding of a state but to “his brave decision to tie Hungary’s future to western Christendom and culture.”

“Many people told our first king that it would be better to turn toward the East because great opportunities await us there, but he knew that our future lies with western Christianity. King Stephen opted for Western Europe.”

Depiction of St. Stephen on the coronation robe (1031)

 

“Later in history there were several such moments when decisions concerning Hungary’s orientation had to be made. At the time of the Tatar invasion there may have been people who told Béla IV that the might of the East is irresistible. But he didn’t listen to them. During the Turkish occupation there were many people who felt that some kind of understanding with the Ottoman Empire was essential. The West is in decline, the future belongs to the East. Yet, all important Hungarian kings without any hesitation always opted for the western Christian world…. This is the heritage of St. Stephen.”

Well, I don’t know about St. Stephen’s messages in general but one thing is sure: it is Tibor Navracsics who is sending the message to Viktor Orbán, telling him through the not so saintly King Stephen that he is wrong when he buries the West and wants to set the sails of Hungary’s ship toward the East. This is a pretty clear message and indicates that there might be a few people within Fidesz and the government who don’t agree with the direction Viktor Orbán is leading the country.

Admittedly, there are very few signs of discontent, and even Navracsics’s complaints had to be hidden under the coronation mantle of King Stephen. Moreover, one doesn’t know whether the prime minister’s attention was even called to this particular news item. It is possible that his servile staff wouldn’t dare to mention it to him.

Some of my readers might think that I’m exaggerating when I suppose such fear in the prime minister’s office. But a few days ago an interesting and, I’m afraid, typical story came to light. The Pannon Philharmonic of Pécs was preparing a program that included a Kodály piece based on an Endre Ady poem entitled “The peacock flew onto the roof of the county hall.” The director of the Philharmonic forbade the performance of this particular piece because the mayor might get offended. After all, his family name is Páva, which means “peacock.” Zsolt Páva, the mayor, knew nothing about either the original or the changed program. It says a lot about the atmosphere of fear and servility that reign in Hungary in official circles.

St. Stephen is not satisfied with sending messages; he is now also in the credit card business. Csaba Böjte, a Franciscan monk from Déva, Romania, came up with a St. Stephen Plan which would involve issuing a Saint Stephen credit card. People who use the card would get 5% off the purchase price of items bought. Three percent would go into a St. Stephen Fund that would completely revamp the countryside as well as the cities of the Carpathian Basin–not just Hungary but the entire former Greater Hungary. Two percent would stay in the pocket of the cardholder. According to the good monk it would be a great deal all around. It would generate more sales for store owners who accept the St. Stephen card, it would save money for the cardholders, and it would make the Carpathian Basin a “fairyland” (tündérkert).

From the money collected the organizers would buy gardening equipment, and thousands and thousands of unemployed people would work to make a beautiful garden out of the country. There would be flowers not only in front of the houses but also along the highways. And naturally everything would be spic and span in the cities as well. Houses that are crumbling would be taken down while those that can be salvaged would be rebuilt. All this with the help of St. Stephen.

If this sounds utopian and unrealistic to you, it sure doesn’t to Csaba Hende, minister of defense. According to him “the St. Stephen Plan is an opportunity for the advancement of the country.” In fact, the Hungarians of today are continuing the work of St. Stephen. That is, according to Hende.

There are some people in Hungary who are sick and tired of all these messages from long dead rulers and politicians. As Péter Föld S. said in his blog, “Saint Stephen did not send any message to us. He died a long time ago and he doesn’t even know we exist. He was a man, a Hungarian king. He lived as well as he could. He ate, drank, and loved. And of course ruled. He enacted laws as is expected from a ruler. And what should be expected of us in the twenty-first century is that we shouldn’t say idiotic things on our national holidays.” Admittedly, politicians all over the world do this, but I don’t think that too many French politicians would come up with messages from Clovis the First. Or that the English would be expecting advice from King Egbert. Well, that is another world. Hungary got stuck on St. Stephen, especially once a right-wing government came into power.

* * *

By the way, if you don’t hear from me for awhile, it’s not that St. Stephen has stopped whispering into my ear. As a result of hurricane Irene, slowly making its way toward Connecticut, the power company is anticipating extensive outages, many lasting for several days. And as the company prioritizes the restoration of electricity, Hungarian Spectrum doesn’t quite rank up there with local hospitals and businesses.

 

Criticism from the right: The Orbán-Matolcsy economic policy is a failure

August 26, 2011 31 comments

Until now relatively few critical words could be heard from economists who are considered to be closer to Fidesz than to the socialists or liberals. László Csaba, who used to be a harsh critic of MSZP-SZDSZ governments' economic policy, was the first to raise his voice. It was in February that in an interview with Heti Válasz he had a few choice words to say about the lack of a coherent economic policy. What the Hungarian government does is a series of improvisations and ad hoc decisions, he claimed. He also criticized the government's partisan politics in which everything is subordinated to the desire to fill every post with party faithfuls. When he was asked whether he would accept a position on the Monetary Council of the Hungarian National Bank, he made it clear that he wouldn't. Those who are interested in László Csaba should take a look at his tasteful English-language website.

Today Csaba went further and expressed his belief that "raising taxes seems unavoidable." This goes against the present position of Viktor Orbán, who only a few days ago made it clear that his government has no intention of abandoning the new tax system based on a 16% flat tax. After all, a reduction in taxes was practically the only promise Fidesz came up with in the election campaign.

According to Csaba there are two simple explanations for the disappointing economic data of late. One is that Hungary depends heavily on exports and thus is at the mercy of the world economy. The other reason for the bad economic news is that the necessary economic structural reforms did not take place in last four or five years. As we know, the Gyurcsány government's attempts at a structural reform of health care came to a screeching halt as a result of a Fidesz-inspired referendum. The Bajnai government didn't even try to introduce structural reforms. Its sole mission was to salvage the sinking Hungarian economy after the 2008 world financial and economic crisis. Viktor Orbán's government shirked away from any structural reforms from the beginning because when Hungarians hear the word "reform" they immediately think of austerity.

By now it is not only László Csaba who speaks up but economists who had high positions in the first Orbán government. One is Attila Chikán, a professor of economics, who was Viktor Orbán's first minister of economics (1998-99) to be replaced by György Matolcsy. Chikán had very close ties to some of the "Fidesz boys," especially those who attended Karl Marx University (today Corvinus University), because he was the founder and director of the László Rajk College where some of the top people in Fidesz and in the current government were his students. For example, Lajos Kósa and Zsolt Németh. After leaving the government, Chikán went back to teach at Corvinus and hasn't been politically active since. He rarely gave interviews, but now he decided to speak up. I guess these people feel that it is their professional and moral duty to express their concern. Perhaps Viktor Orbán will listen to them, even if he doesn't listen to economists who are closer to the opposition.

Chikán is convinced that Matolcsy's policies will fail because they go against the most basic economic principles. It will be "a textbook failure," as Chikán put it. Yet, as these conservative economists unanimously declared, no one from the government ever asked their opinion. Chikán's ideas certainly don't mesh with those of Viktor Orbán, who seems to be a believer in Matolcsy's "unusual economic solutions" as Matolcsy himself called the steps he has taken up to now.

According to Chikán it was a mistake "to promise too much." There were few promises but they were big ones. One million new jobs in ten years or an economic growth rate of at least 3% (and Matolcsy even mentioned the possibility of 6-7%). Chikán, like others, is surprised by how ill-prepared the Orbán team was although they had eight years to ready themselves for the task of governing. He also complained about ad hoc decisions and the lack of consistency. Attila Chikán's impression is that Viktor Orbán has a relatively clear vision of the Hungary he would like to see and perhaps even a final economic goal, but what is missing are the building blocks. As if "the government wouldn't consider the economy a significant part of the whole program." Moreover, "expertise has a very low prestige in this government. Political loyalty seems to be much more important." That reminds me an old bon mot of István Csurka, chairman of MIÉP, that "expertise is a communist trick." 

From the interview it became apparent that Chickán offered his "expertise" but no one was interested in what he had to say about the current situation and his possible solutions to the problems. As far as he knows, there are many right-wing economists both inside and outside of the government who are very unhappy with the current state of affairs. Economists in general, from both the right and the left, feel left out.

Today the third right-wing economist spoke out. Tamás Millár worked for the office of the prime minister during the Antall and Boross governments (1992-1994). Between 1997 and 2003 he was the head of the Central Statistical Office from which the Medgyessy government removed him.

Mellár wrote an article a couple of days ago which, to his surprise, was accepted by Magyar Nemzet and published today. Mellár didn't mince words. The Orbán government's economic policies have failed. Although the government tried to shift the blame for the sorry microeconomic data to the "euro crisis," Mellár argues that the real culprits are decisions made domestically in the last year and a half. Moreover, recent economic data coming from countries of the region also disprove the government's claim. According to him, the policies of the Ministry of Economics have been wrong from day one. He especially faults the tax policy that was supposed to spur economic growth but didn't.

Mellár suggests "a reconciliation with foreign capital, increase of money spent on research and development, a reform of education" in the long run. In short term he suggest decreasing government expenses. He suggests a return to the former tax rates of 0, 16, and 32% that would help people with average incomes as opposed to the current system that enriches the top 10-20% of the population.

These three people argue the same way as their colleagues on the liberal side. The only thing I can suggest to Viktor Orbán is to listen to some of his old friends. Otherwise he will not be prime minister of Hungary for twenty years as he once predicted.

 

Civic Control–One Million for a Democratic Society: A call for democracy!

August 25, 2011 14 comments

The leadership of Civic Control–One Million for Democratic Society is widening the group's political activities. On March 15 the group staged the largest street demonstration against the Fidesz government. At that point they demonstrated against the new media law and for freedom of the press. Today they feel that they have to fight for democracy itself.

* * *

As the memories of the 1989 regime change are fading fast, and while the ruling coalition treats that era as if it was an embarrassing stain on a family’s clean sheet of honor, those of us who had already been politically aware at that time will never forget the liberating thrill of the mass demonstrations and the collective chants: De-mo-cra-cy!

We may have had illusions about the road that lay ahead, about the way parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, pluralism would work.  Maybe few of us suspected that liberty was not a condition but rather an endless process whose everyday practice would be trying, tiresome, and filled with personal and collective risk-taking.  But one thing we surely did not expect: none of us thought that little more than twenty years after the regime change we would feel the absence of liberty so keenly that we would be back in the streets demanding “De-mo-cra-cy!”. Yet here we are again.

This time, however, we look around in astonishment. Where are our fellow protesters? As the Hungarian Republic’s days are running out, its citizens are apparently uninterested in such abstract ideas as democracy, freedom of the press, constitution, human rights, and the checks and balances that control the executive branch’s power. Granted, these issues are not easy to identify with, especially when one has to work day and night to save the house and the car from being repossessed by the bank or the state and so that food will be put on the table even beyond the 20th day of the month; when one has to be careful what is being said within the earshot of colleagues and the boss and when political views are better kept in secret. But wait a second. Where were we? Oh, right, democracy… indeed.

The coalition parties that govern Hungary today came into power on the strength of hazy promises. Now they are transforming our world at breakneck speed. They justify their actions with their magical “2/3 mandate” while in reality only 37% of all eligible voters’ ballots were cast in their favor. The administration intends to cement its power for decades not unlike the Horthy, Rákosi and Kádár regimes once did.  Would this be the “Hungarian model” that we keep reverting to? The reduction of pluralistic society to a “central field of force”?  A degenerate parliamentary system built on personal idolatry and dressed up with an opposition that serves at best for decorative shrubbery? A so-called “system of national co-operation” where only those who approve are accepted? An Orwellian Newspeak in which every utterance means its opposite. A "Retirement Fund Protection Plan" the essence of which is that the national budget swallows up our savings? "Independent" institutions led by the same party’s faithful soldiers? A new "value-based" culture where the famous "2/3 majority" – which is capable of pushing through any legislation that comes its way – decides what constitutes “value” and what does not, what should be tolerated, supported, or forbidden, the same way as Comrade Aczél once used to do, what religion is and what it is not, who is a good Hungarian, a good citizen and who is not.

And in the middle of all this sits on his throne the infallible Oracle, the boss of all bosses.

In the heart of the European Union a unique autocratic system is taking shape. One might debate whether it is conservative-authoritarian or more Bolshevik in style. Whether it is modeled on the Chinese one-party system with its expansive state bureaucracy wading knee deep in corruption, offering a cheap, subjugated labor force disciplined by the threat of political and economic sanctions to domestic and foreign businesses. Or is it a replay of the Horthy regime? Some indications for that are historical revisionism, the creation of excuses for the racist and feudalistic mentality of its politicians, engagement in political revenge, the politics of ethnicity, and the introduction of educational and social reforms that create barriers preventing upward mobility. It is a waste of time to look too long for the most fitting historical analogy. But it needs to be stated that a dictatorship is under construction and its building blocks are rapidly falling into place.

“So if it is dictatorship, then let there be dictatorship” – some Hungarians may say – “just let us live a little better already!” But based on what this administration is doing, our lives will not be any easier.  Our income will be less, our summer vacation reduced, overtime will not be compensated, everybody will be easier to fire, there will be no career tracks to count on and no labor unions that could protect workers’ rights. There will not be (and there already hardly is) free media.  There will be, however, labor camps for the unemployed under the pretense of public works projects; there will be segregation, marginalization of certain segments of the society, labeling, a party-influenced investigative/prosecutorial system, governmental influence over the courts, and deepening conflicts with the neighboring states. A conspiratorial inaction vis à vis the increasingly threatening murderous far-right. The poor will be poorer, and the rich will be even better off.

In a crisis-ridden external economic environment, a fast-reacting economic policy is needed. Instead, the administration focuses on the opposite, on cementing its current economic policies for the long term, tying even the hands of future administrations for many years to come. Those policies include, for instance, the unfair and already failed tax system. The new system turns employer and worker against one another by restricting rights, hence artificially generating conflicts. 

Hungary’s hostile stance toward open market competition, the government’s granting of unpredictable politically motivated favors, its mysterious stock purchases all add to the country’s bad reputation in the world.

What kind of future does this regime offer to young people? We can see the trends, the caste-like social structure with its dated ideologies, the impermeable class structure which provides no possibility for upward mobility for the poor, the lack of assistance for talented young individuals all make the system unbearable for them. There has never been a time when so many considered leaving the country. And not only physicians take off. The country will be empty. All who are able to do so are fleeing.

The government is busy building its own sandbox rather than creating an equal playing field for the benefit of all the often mentioned “Hungarian people.” At the moment it seems that these politicians, who had well thought out plans for grabbing, extending and keeping power but who are merely drifting along when it comes to economic policy are in a winning position.

It seems as if the country were paralyzed, under a spell. There is no visible force that could stop the power mongers.

We, members of a civic organization established by some of the organizers and participants of the big press freedom demonstrations last spring have decided to take it upon ourselves to awaken the country from its daze and thereby prevent the ruling coalition from claiming ownership over the nation.  We cannot allow the various democratic forces to be governed by petty interests and not talk to one another.  We want co-operation. We want to unite everyone who desires genuine democracy, wishes for legal and economic security and a better, predictable future.  And all those who believe that this country must be a firm member of the European Union.

Let us think and act like democrats!

The authors are the co-chairpersons of the Civil Control–Let’s Become One Million for Democracy nonprofit organization.

Anna Vámos

Sándor Székely

Co-chairmen

Civic Control–One Million for a Democratic Society

 

Language can be tricky: A return to László Kövér’s speech

August 24, 2011 58 comments

Klára Sándor, a former SZDSZ member of parliament and a linguist by profession, has been writing a series of articles on language. She was most likely inspired by Pál Schmitt's efforts at becoming the guardian of Hungarian. Her latest article was on bilingualism, which she defines with reference to someone who lives in a different linguistic environment from his original language. The professional definition of bilingualism thus differs from our everyday notion of it. According to Sándor, a person in a bilingual environment doesn't even have to know his/her second language well for the second language to make its mark on the first regardless of the level of expertise in either language.

The usual examples, also cited by Sándor, are the speech patterns of early, uneducated Hungarian immigrants in the United States who ended up speaking a mixture of Hungarian and English, Hunglish. But the influence of one language on another doesn't have to be that blatant. Let me recount my own experience with the words uttered by László Kövér concerning those Hungarian politicians in the neighboring countries who collaborate with the majority political elite of the countries in which they live. Let me repeat what I had to say about this a few days ago: 

Hungary's task is to strengthen those connective tissues that have been weakened in the last ninety years or so. "The political elites of the successor states purposely want to break these connections." It is not only the Romanian and the Slovak politicians who want to weaken the Hungarian minority but "also those political forces that collaborate with the majority politicians. These people claim to be Hungarians but in reality they don't represent them in the political decision-making forums. In fact, they serve the interests of the majority political elite."

In brief, Hungarian politicians who take part in the political life of their countries are traitors to the Hungarian cause. Any kind of cooperation with majority parties is sinful in Kövér's eyes. But where would such an attitude lead?  Certainly not to peaceful coexistence! But to brutes this very concept is utterly alien.

It turned out that I really didn't grasp the seriousness of this statement because of a misunderstanding of the Hungarian word "kollaboráns" which Kövér used as an adjective. This construction could be translated only as those people who "collaborate with the majority politicians" In English. But  "to collaborate" can mean one of two things: (1) to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort, or (2) to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country. As it turned out, "kollaboráns," the word Kövér used, unlike the English "collaborator," has only one meaning: "a person who collaborates with the occupying forces" or "a traitor." The English usage overshadowed its Hungarian counterpart in my mind: the same international word is used differently in the two languages.

Thus Kövér looks upon the Slovak and Romanian politicians as representatives of an occupying force and the Hungarian politicians who cooperate with them as traitors.

And here we come to another word he used: "utódállamok," meaning "successor states." My first thought when reading it was that this word is no longer used in Hungary; then I decided that it most likely didn't belong in my linguistic analysis of his speech. After all, in English historical writings the phrase "successor states" in connection with the nation states formed out of the remnants of Hungary is used all the time. However, it seems that my initial gut feeling was correct. This word is avoided in Hungary and therefore Kövér's use of it caught the attention of some of the commentators. Some people came to the conclusion that Kövér's speech was a revisionist outburst given his use of the words "kollaboráns" and "utódállamok." I personally find the former more weighty, but perhaps that's because as a historian I'm very used to the latter.

All in all, I was far too kind to László Kövér, and I wonder how far the Hungarian government can go in this vein before there will be a very serious clash between Hungary and the "successor states." Of course, it is possible that Kövér's talk is simply not being taken seriously. Yesterday, for example, Béla Bugár, the chairman of the Hungarian-Slovak Híd-Most party, just laughed when he was interviewed on the subject by György Bolgár. He said that the whole thing is such nonsense that there is no need to waste time on it. On the other hand, "the occupying forces," that is the Romanian and Slovak governments, might not be so forgiving as the "collaborator" was.

Fourth Republic in Hungary?

August 23, 2011 15 comments

For those readers who are not familiar with how the attempts to establish a "republic" in Hungary are numbered, the period after the regime change in 1989 is called the Third Republic. The first republic was the short-lived democratic revolution of Mihály Károlyi in 1918 and the second, the years between 1946 and 1949 that ended with the communist takeover.

Zoltán Ripp wrote about a fourth republic that will follow the demise of the Orbán regime and will be "a modernized and expanded form of the 1989 democratic transformation." A few days later, Ferenc Krémer wrote an article entitled "The Fourth Republic. Considerations for an Unavoidable Debate. Part I. Preliminary Observations." In it the author applauds Ripp's attempt to outline the steps to be taken, without which the democratic opposition to the current regime doesn't have the slightest chance of succeeding in unseating the current autocratic and undemocratic regime that has been in the making ever since last May.

However, says Krémer, tinkering with the structure and some of the details of the regime as it came into being in 1989 is simply not enough, although it seems that the people who engaged in the extensive debate on the subject take it for granted that the "new regime" will not be radically different from the pre-Orbán Third Republic. But thinking in these terms is "a serious mistake" because it stops any further reflection on the subject and doesn't allow the participants to question the basic tenets of the regime change. Problems would remain hidden and the solution will be superficial. Krémer doesn't believe that those Hungarians who are thinking about such matters should be satisfied with a somewhat modified version of the 1989 efforts toward establishing democracy in Hungary.

Krémer proceeds to explain why he thinks that following the ideas of the majority of political commentators and thinkers is a "serious mistake." The reasons are both substantive and tactical. Tactical because in his opinion the electorate will not support a simple return to 1989 even if it is a slightly modified version of the regime that came into being more than twenty years go. Most people have a rather negative opinion of the politics of the Third Republic. It will be very difficult to convince the voters that "this regime can solve anything." The other reason that it would be a mistake to simply return to 1989 is "because we must clearly see that Orbánism is the product of that regime." Naturally, it was not an inevitable result but "a possibility." Yet "there was a more or less straight line from democrats infatuated with the Crown to the rule of dilettantes and the rebirth of Nazism." Here Krémer alludes to the MDF-Christian Democrats-Smallholders majority that in 1990 pushed through the use of the crown in the official coat of arms instead of the Kossuth coat of arms preferred by the liberals and the socialists. I may add that the same majority opted for August 20, St. Stephen's Day, a religious holiday, to be the paramount national holiday instead of March 15, which is the symbol of Hungary's entrance onto the democratic stage, leaving absolutism behind.

According to Krémer one must find the answer to a very difficult question: "what made dictators accepted and successful in the past two decades…. Without a critique of the regime of 1989 Hungarians will not be able to work out a credible program for the establishment of the Fourth Republic." This new regime must be built on such solid democratic foundations that "self-appointed messiahs wouldn't be able to lay waste to it as they did with the Third Republic." The Third Republic failed and as time went by it drifted farther and farther away from being a modern democracy.

This is pretty radical stuff and I am looking forward to the second and third installments. But in the meantime here is something that might explain, at least in part, the failure of the Third Republic.

György Bolgár wrote his weekly column in Népszava on the very harsh sentences meted out after the London riots to people who committed crimes. Even stealing a relatively small item was considered to be a serious enough offfense to merit a jail sentence of a year and a half. He compared that to the very few and very light sentences handed down to those hooligans who injured over a hundred policemen, set cars on fire, and caused considerable damage to the headquarters of the Hungarian Public Television building.

Gyula Hegyi, a former socialist MP and member of the European Parliament, in yesterday's Népszava continued the theme with a comparison between the Anglo-Saxon and Continental way at looking at individual freedom and punishment. In countries with a tradition of English jurisprudence society allows greater freedom to individuals than is the practice on the Continent, but at the same time the guilty are much more severely punished. Hegyi considers this phenomenon to be the "essence of Anglo-Saxon democracy." The individual can act freely, but he is fully responsible for his deeds. On the Continent punishment is far more lenient, but there the state is much more active in shielding its citizens. In Europe the individual's freedom is often restricted in the interest of the community's cohesion.

In Hungary after 1989–mostly at the insistence of the liberals–Anglo-Saxon freedom of the individual was coupled with the Continent's more lenient sentencing practices. As a result it was almost impossible to take steps against people who terrorized their communities, against ruffians who smashed everything in sight at soccer games, against petty thieves who stole their neighbors' crop or usurers who threatened the lives of poor people. 

Hegyi has been somewhat baffled that Hungarian liberals who admired the American system of extensive individual freedom acted as if they had never heard of the very harsh punishment meted out to those who break the rules.

The result was chaos, and people gained the impression that order had completely broken down in the country. "This is a country without consequences," went the saying. People wanted to have order. Orbán promised order. But, of course, the order he is introducing has nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxon practice of far-reaching individual freedom combined with harsh punishment for those who misuse it. Rather, he is restricting individual freedom, and punishment seems to be very selective and unfair.

Perhaps in that Fourth Republic legal experts should reconsider the lawlessness that can be produced by a lopsided application of crime and punishment. I think Hungarian voters would applaud such a move.

Liberal intellectuals and exploring possibilities after Orbán

August 22, 2011 21 comments

In the last month or so several thought provoking articles appeared in Hungary, not about the analysis of the present political situation but about "life after Viktor Orbán." Some people would say that the appearance of such articles is premature. After all, Fidesz still has a sizeable following and unless the apathetic one-third of the population wakes up before 2014 another Fidesz victory is a very real possibility.

However, I would argue that it is not too early to think in terms of a Hungary after the "counterrevolution." A bit of an explanation is due here. Some people might ask what kind of a counterrevolution we are talking about. Mária Ludassy, professor of philosophy and a student of the French enlightenment, wrote a short essay about revolution and counterrevolution on the occasion of the 222th anniversary of the French Revolution. The article in the strict sense of the word concentrates on the French revolution and some of the ideas of eighteenth-century philosophers, but if we dig a little deeper it is clear that Ludassy wants to call our attention to the meaning of the word "revolution."

As historian Zoltán Ripp points out in an article that appeared in Mozgó Világ (August 2011), the word "revolution" resonates well in Hungary. In my opinion, this positive association with revolutions is due to a misunderstanding of Hungarian history. Because the 1848 "revolution" wasn't what we think of when we talk about the French Revolution. It was simply a peaceful and lawful change of regime. It is another matter that eventually because of differences of opinion about the real meaning of these changes between the Hungarian government and the king a war of independence followed. Even 1956 wasn't really a revolution, although we ourselves always referred to it that way. Rather it was an uprising, mostly in Budapest, with relatively few active participants although with large mass support.

If "revolution" sounds good to Hungarian ears, "counterrevolution" has a very bad billing. The last group of people who proudly declared their movement a "counterrevolution" was the bunch of counterrevolutionaries who in Vienna and Szeged tried to gain support from the Great Powers not just to quell the Bolshevik coup d'état of the Hungarian communists but also to prevent the reestablishment of the liberal democratic regime of Mihály Károlyi. 

Ludassy quotes Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) who defined revolution as "an event whose goal is the increase of freedom." In this sense it can be agreed that Viktor Orbán's revolution in the voting booths was anything but a revolutionary development. On the contrary, more and more people by now call it a "counterrevolution."

But how can that "counterrevolution" be ended once Viktor Orbán is no longer the prime minister of Hungary? What kind of legitimate and constitutional instruments will a possible opposition have at its disposal? This is a real dilemma which many legal and political experts are pondering over lately. Most of the participants in the discussion about the future wrote articles on the subject in such publications as Magyar Narancs, ÉS, and Galamus.

One could ask whether these early discussions are futile. I think not because it takes time for theory to have a chance of being transformed into successful practice. In these writings we find innumerable solutions, from the simple answer of "let's achieve a two-thirds majority" to initiating a referendum which may not be legal but could make the new constitution null and void. However, says Ripp, one doesn't have to complicate the situation by getting lost in legal details. If we declare the new Orbán regime counterrevolutionary and the government's many unconstitutional acts illegal, then the new constitution that is supposed to fix the accomplishments of this counterrevolution is also illegitimate. Especially since this constitution was approved only by the parliamentary delegation of the governing party. That's why, says Ripp, it was so important that the two democratic parties didn't participate in its composition and its passage. (I may add here that it was Ferenc Gyurcsány who first declared that taking part in the subcommittee's work on the constitution would be a terrible mistake.)

Zoltán Ripp makes a contribution to the growing literature on the subject of "what there will be after Orbán" by outlining a scenario for the re-democratization process. (1) Cooperation and collaboration of all democratic forces is a must. (2) All democratic forces must take part in this work–not just parties but also trade union leaders and civic associations who create a "common forum." (3) And I think that this is perhaps the most important point Ripp makes, all these groups should define themselves not just as an opposition to a party (Fidesz) but as an opposition that totally rejects the Fidesz-created regime. They all must look upon the new constitution and the cardinal laws as illegitimate, serving despotism. Because the right of resistance against despotism supersedes the recognition of legislation that disregards the constitution. (4) At the very beginning the different groups must agree on the theoretical foundations of their cooperation. (5) One cannot simply wipe the slate clean and return to the pre-Fidesz conditions. The goal is the preparation of the legitimate creation of the Fourth Republic which will be a modernized and expanded form of the 1989 democratic transformation. (6) The opposition forces must get rid of the "Fidesz shadow state" (árnyékállam) and restore the de facto impartiality and autonomy of independent institutions. The participants must agree about the techniques and details of this operation. (7) The most sensitive question is the fate of Fidesz after the hoped-for fall of the Orbán regime. According to Ripp a democratic center-right's participation in this process is of paramount importance. Without a moderate right one cannot create a consensual and legitimate new constitutional order.

All this is intriguing. Especially the question of the Fourth Republic, about which one hears more and more. Tomorrow I will continue with a couple of more interesting thoughts on the subject.

A new incredible speech by László Kövér

August 21, 2011 67 comments

The first time I set eyes on László Kövér and heard him speak I called him a "dúvad," a Hungarian word with a dual meaning. It can mean "beast of prey," but in ordinary speech people use it to describe a brutish fellow. A person who is somewhat animal-like, uncouth, hard to handle, unpleasant, aggressive and surly.There was a Hungarian film made in 1961 that was entitled "Dúvad" and it was translated into English as "The Brute." So, you get the picture. Just to show you what I mean, here is a recent picture of Kövér.

Kover

And this fellow is the speaker of the house, which he runs like a nineteenth-century schoolmaster, cane in hand, delivering stern warnings to any member of the opposition. He is a great deal more understanding with his own kind or even with Jobbik. On the basis of his past utterances I suspect that Kövér's political views are fairly close to the ideology of Jobbik and other extreme right-wing groups. For example, he agreed with Jobbik about the necessity of removing Mihály Károlyi's statue from the square in front of the parliament building. He, as a man who studied some history while attending law school, should know that Károlyi was not responsible for Trianon, yet he talks as if he were a total ignoramus when it comes to history. His speeches, especially those delivered in Transylvania, are tainted with ultra-nationalist sentiments. And his anti-communism is legendary. A rather odd position to take for a man who in 1985 still saw himself as one of the future leaders of the country–a country led by János Kádár.

As one would expect from a brutish fellow, he always exaggerates. For example, he began his speech yesterday with the following dramatic introduction: "Today our task is to rebuild a country that was just run down by the Tatars." The reference is to the attack by Batu Khan's Mongol hordes in 1241-1242. Of course, the comparison is ridiculous because the Tatars physically destroyed most of the country; even the king had to escape abroad. From the Tatars Kövér moved on to the "modern wild Tatars of the Gyurcsány kind." According to Kövér "Gyurcsány and Company ravaged and methodically plundered the country." In addition, "they simply destroyed the state itself."

After this incredible destruction "it will be more difficult to return to the nation's one-thousand-year-old road… but we must follow our own path." What is happening now, according to Kövér, is "the second foundation of the state" which also involves "the construction of a new economic system." Here it is worth stopping for a moment to try to analyze Kövér's words. First of all, it seems that he believes in a uniquely Hungarian road that must be followed. But how will this "Hungarian road" be reconciled with the fact that Hungary is a member of the European Union? One has a fair idea about what Kövér must think of the European Union and Hungary's membership. And I hate to think what he means by "a new economic system." These words were uttered in a country that a few months ago was carrying on with the duties of the EU presidency.

What Kövér had to say about the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries is also revealing. Hungary's task is to strengthen those connective tissues that have been weakened in the last ninety years or so. "The political elites of the successor states purposely want to break these connections." It is not only the Romanian and the Slovak politicians who want to weaken the Hungarian minority but "also those political forces that collaborate with the majority politicians. These people claim to be Hungarians but in reality they don't represent them in the political decision-making forums. In fact, they serve the interests of the majority political elite."

In brief, Hungarian politicians who take part in the political life of their countries are traitors to the Hungarian cause. Any kind of cooperation with majority parties is sinful in Kövér's eyes. But where would such an attitude lead?  Certainly not to peaceful coexistence! But to brutes this very concept is utterly alien.

And finally, Kövér mentioned emigration that seems to have ramped up since "the second foundation of the Hungarian state." By now, Hungarians can leave and work anywhere within the European Union if they find a job. Certainly for a Hungarian nationalist like Kövér this is a tragedy. But Fidesz cannot bring back the iron curtain, and thus Kövér and his friends cannot stop the steady flow of people moving westward in the hope of a better life. The only thing Kövér can suggest is to put pressure on the youngsters to stay at home. The pressure should come from "parents, teachers, and intellectuals." If they cannot awaken in the young people a sense of responsibility toward the community then "there will be very big trouble." 

My feeling is that the outflow of people from all walks of life, not just doctors and nurses, is less troublesome than the complete dilettantism exhibited by the Fidesz politicians in charge of the economy. If I were Kövér I would convince my old friend Viktor Orbán to sack György Matolcsy. 

About the Hungarian military and its role

August 20, 2011 10 comments

Csaba Hende, Viktor Orbán's surprise choice as minister of defense, has been super active ever since the cabinet was formed. If one were to judge the state of the Hungarian army from Hende's verbiage one would think that an incredible amount of money is going for the defense of the country. There was talk about buying new tanks, setting up an army reserve, and giving more duties to the present army of about 20-30,000 men. They created a special unit to guard the barracks, another to guard the Holy Crown. There will be another just to guard the president's office. In addition, there was talk about setting up new military high schools and completely reorganizing Hungary's military academy.

As I was reading about all these alleged new developments I kept wondering about their cost. Where is the money coming from? The truth seems to be that talk comes cheap because Hungary has never spent less on defense than it does today. Less than 1% of the GDP! Lately it was even reported that the Gripen fighter planes were grounded because of a lack of fuel.

But then why all this talk about "defending the country, even if singlehandedly, against hostile action"? For that "one needs heavy artillery: tanks, guns, and men." Chief of the general staff Tibor Benkő was convinced last September that for that kind of preparedness the army would need to double its budget. Instead, the defense budget was cut.

Benkő, talking on Duna TV, expressed his firm belief that "without a reserve army one cannot speak of a military force." If we take him at his word, in the chief of staff's opinion Hungary doesn't even have an army. When he was asked whether compulsory military service should be reinstated, he hesitated a bit and answered: "I don't think that we should talk about compulsory military service. On the other hand, we must not close the door in front of those youngsters who would like to play soldier a bit." In the original, the last part of the sentence was: "akik szeretnének egy kicsit katonáskodni." How charming. Here is a caricature of all this boasting about a strong Hungarian army.

Army

"Csabi, the whole world will be frightened to death of this new Hungarian military force." Actually, the wording is a tad less polite.

The reference to the reserve as the backbone of any armed forces shows that a fair number of Hungarian military men are not entirely happy about the 2004 decision to abolish compulsory military service and set up a professional army.

In May 2011 a plan for a new law on military affairs was leaked. It caused quite a stir because it contained a reference to reintroducing military service for men between the ages of 18 and 40 in extraordinary defense situations (rendkívüli védelmi helyzetben). In the last few years the alleged problems of abolishing compulsory service came to the surface: "the supplementation of the personnel of the Hungarian Army is no longer ensured because of the decrease of trained reservists."

On the face of it this doesn't make much sense, as the author of progressziv.blog noted. A professional army can certainly have a supply of trained reservists to draw on–just think of the U.S. "weekend warriors" who ended up in Iraq. Perhaps the Fidesz government wants to reintroduce some kind of military service separate from the professional army. Let's say six to nine months of initial training in order to set up a reserve force like the National Guard in the United States. In fact, for years Undersecretary of Defense István Simicska's hobbyhorse has been the introduction of such a force in Hungary. Recruitment for the National Guard would be on a voluntary basis, and I have a fair idea who would be interested in taking advantage of such an opportunity. Perhaps the fellow who wrote a comment to an article entitled "Perhaps they will reintroduce compulsory military service in Hungary" that appeared in Napi Gazdaság on May 17, 2011. He stated that "Hungary must be strong enough to be able to defend the country alone against an attack by any of its neighbors." I'm sure that this man would be ready to join the reserves for the day when such an attack occurs.

Of course, at the moment it is hard to imagine that one of Hungary's neighbors would attack her. After all, most of them are members of NATO just as Hungary is. Austria is neutral. Serbia and Ukraine would like to belong to NATO. So, such an attack under the present circumstances is highly unlikely. On the other hand, all this nationalist talk encourages non-Hungarian nationalists to talk about bringing back compulsory service as well. For example, the Slovak Ján Slota who claimed that Hungary was planning a war against Slovakia. Slota’s claim is based on the fact that compulsory military service might be reintroduced in Hungary, something that he says proves it is “getting ready for war”! Slota's arguments sound very much like those of the Hungarian military. According to him "it is high time for Slovakia to get its military capabilities into shape and get young men back into some kind of compulsory military training … whether compulsory military service is reintroduced or whether young men just undergo some kind of basic training" is really up to the politicians to decide.

The Ministry of Defense is vigorously denying the government's intention to reintroduce compulsory military service, and most likely the military establishment is telling the truth. There is simply no money for it. But I'm convinced that if there were sufficient funds they would establish some kind of military force, perhaps a kind of home defense force (Heimwehr). It seems the League Against Compulsory Military Service which ceased its activities on November 13, 2004–that is, after compulsory military service was abolished–also thinks that the reintroduction of mandatory military service might be in the offing. The League reconstituted itself only a few days ago.

The controversy over the role of the Hungarian military came to my mind because it is on August 20 that the graduates of the Hungarian Military Academy take their formal oath. President Pál Schmitt addressed the graduates. In his speech he said that "Soldiers have a new mission today. They are the ones who must change the country's attitude toward patriotism." And what I considered to be truly frightening was Schmitt's reference to the duties of soldiers which, according to him, consist not only of the defense of the country with weapons in hand; "it is the duty of the soldiers to defend the country from all kinds of danger that can be injurious to its well being, which wastes its strength, and which weakens it." Thus, the army's duties are all embracing. It can, according to this formula, intervene every time it feels that the country's interests are threatened, even by an internal force. And, of course, the army will decide what the true interests of the country are.

I really wonder whether this man knows what he is talking about. Because if he does and his "boss" has approved it, then the country is in bigger trouble than we think.

 

The language of the Hungarian political right

August 19, 2011 16 comments

Unfortunately, political culture in Hungary is sadly lacking, but when we talk about really extreme aggressiveness and unacceptable language we normally think of the far right. Just lately it came to light that at Magyar Sziget (Hungarian Island) some extremists who, in spite of the protestation of the leadership of Jobbik, are in close contact with Gábor Vona's party were making threatening references to killing politicians not to their liking. László Toroczkai, leader of the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties) made no secret of his thoughts of assassinating Ferenc Gyurcsány and even Viktor Orbán. Toroczkai made these remarks while he was flanked by two Jobbik members of parliament, Sándor Pörzse and Dániel Z. Kárpát.

I briefly mentioned the incident a few days ago. Here I will expand on this unsavory story because unfortunately it is not an isolated case as we will see later. Toroczkai was making a speech in which the following words were uttered: "I know that this doesn't sound very humane, but that's me…. How often did we hear from each other here at Magyar Sziget that 'I would shoot, let's say, Gyurcsány with a Kalasnikov'? Who among us didn't utter these words at least once? Who didn't say 'I would love to shoot that rotten Gyurcsány or lately Viktor Orbán'? In my opinion, everybody said such things, let's be honest. And I will say the same to the reporters of The Sun and Népszabadság who are lurking among us and who record my words, please write them down. I take responsibility for them but I myself said many times that I would 'kill Ferenc Gyurcsány'…. In fact, we would have done a great favor to the Hungarian nation if we had killed him as a teenager at a KISZ camp."

Whoever was lurking at Magyar Sziget, the story was out in no time and the Orbán government decided to "investigate" the situation. Moreover, when Ágnes Vadai (MSZP), chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, called for an extraordinary meeting in connection with the case Fidesz decided to attend. Surely, the government party feels that ignoring this latest incident wouldn't be wise.

Meanwhile Jobbik is trying to draw a sharp line in the sand between the party and the extremists at Magyar Sziget, but the task is a rather difficult one. Toroczkai, for example, is a member of a municipal council as a representative of Jobbik. Lajos Pősze, a politician who has been a member of many parties, including Jobbik lately, knows that "the leadership of Sixty-four Counties, the Outlaws and Jobbik is one and the same: László Toroczkai (Sixty-four Counties), Előd Novák (Jobbik), Gábor Vona (Jobbik), Zsolt Tyirityán (Outlaws), and Gyula Zagyva (Jobbik). They are identical twins."

Yesterday a new video emerged from a few years back. Mária Stadler, a member of Fidesz and a political activist who seems to have good connections with the top leaders of the party, had a short encounter with György Budaházy in a building set up by Fidesz for the Civic Cells, a brainchild of Viktor Orbán to widen the base of his party. György Budaházy is currently in jail awaiting trial in connection with a charge of terrorism. I wrote about Budaházy and his organization, Arrows of Hungarians, several times but perhaps the best summary of Budaházy's activities can be found here.

On the video Stadler tells Budaházy that he is not really a radical because if he were he would have shot "that rotten Gyurcsány." And she repeats it: "Why don't you go and shoot him?" The video is available in yesterday's Népszabadság. Although Stadler does not hold any formal position in Fidesz, she is quite well known in political circles. Her bête noire is György Bolgár, whose popular call-in program especially irritated her. She wanted to get funding for an organization whose sole purpose would have been to disrupt Bolgár's program. Apparently, the V. District Fidesz organization didn't vote any money to fund the project.

She may have not received any money for this particular project, but according to Index she has received money several times since 2007 from one of the Fidesz foundations. According to Stadler, who talked to Bolgár yesterday, she spent 400,000 Ft. of her own money to recruit right-wing pensioners to phone Bolgár's program to spread Fidesz messages on the air. There were even rumors that some of these callers actually received money from Fidesz.

Fidesz is embarrassed, and not without reason. In a rather unusual and speedy fashion the announcement was made that Stadler's behavior is unacceptable and "there will be consequences." Naturally, Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP, protested and demanded Stadler's resignation or removal from the party. LMP did the same.

I found András Schiffer's diagnosis of the situation most apt. According to Schiffer the conversation between Mária Stadler and György Budaházy "gives a perfect example of how the kind of language that was used at Magyar Sziget could receive acceptance" in political dicourse. It all started in Fidesz, said Schiffer, and it is very nice that now Fidesz turns against hate speech, aggressive or racist acts, "but the party has an enormous responsibility for the fact that such sentences can be heard, sometimes even in parliament." Schiffer would like to know "how many Mária Stadlers can be found within Fidesz."

Unfortunately, Schiffer is right. Fidesz bears a large share of the blame for these verbal assaults that roll off the tongues so easily in right-wing circles. The problem is that words are often followed by deeds. As for the Stadlers in Fidesz, there are too many. One can't really sharply divide the Hungarian right into moderates and radicals. And that is a real problem.

Learning that very easy English language: Personal experiences

August 18, 2011 26 comments

When someone of authority says a very stupid thing, the news immediately travels far and wide given our globalized world. The remark that appeared in a proposal to "revamp" Hungarian education is by now in The Wall Street Journal in that super-easy English language that doesn't take much effort to learn, at least in the initial phases.

While I was copying over my old articles to save them for the time when Hungarian Spectrum moves to a more robust site, I came across one entitled "Learning a language in Hungary." It was about my own trials and tribulations trying to learn a foreign language in Hungary. If you want to have a good laugh, read it.

Here I would like to continue the story about what happened once I left Hungary and had to learn English, the supposedly super easy language. If Rózsa Hoffmann's staff reads my blog, which of course I very much doubt, those "learned" ladies and gentlemen who are busying themselves with all sorts of nonsensical proposals might learn a thing or two from someone else's real-life experiences.

From my first article on the subject it is clear that when I left Hungary I didn't speak any of the languages I had studied. After arriving in Montreal, there was a certain competition between French and English Canadian academic circles to acquire the more promising Hungarian students. The French were the first to look over the candidates, and I was part of the group chosen to proceed to Montreal. We were housed in a former convent. The teacher they hired was a French Canadian who in the morning taught French and in the afternoon English. I became somewhat suspicious about the efficacy of all that when the gentleman made us pronounce initial h's over and over–a well known problem for French speakers but not for Hungarians. Since I wanted to learn English and not French I decided to move on to the English colony that handled Hungarian students.

In the English camp language teaching was even more  primitive than at Rue Saint-Antoine, and thus I was pleased to be able to move on with 24 other Hungarian students to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The university hired a high school teacher who had no experience whatsoever teaching English as a foreign language. Moreover, all twenty-five of us were herded into one classroom. There was no opportunity to do more than repeat individual words after the teacher. In plain English, it was useless.

We were supposed to find a day job and attend English classes in the evenings. Finding a job certainly wasn't easy, but I managed to find a job working in a restaurant at the golf course. But there was a problem: I was supposed to wait tables in the evening. Thus, I couldn't have attended the classes. I went to the professor who was in charge of the Hungarian students and in very broken English told him about my predicament. The verdict was: no, I can't take that job. I must attend the high school teacher's totally useless classes. Stupidly, I obliged. Today, of course, I know that I would have learned fifty times more English in the restaurant than in the classroom.

After this so-called "formal" language training there was no more opportunity, even if I had wanted it, to attend any kind of class. We were on our own. And perhaps that was the very best form of learning. Eight months after our arrival I landed an office job at the Canadian Library Association in Ottawa where I learned more English from my fellow workers in one month than I had in the previous eight. A young woman, only a few years older than I, took me under her wing and in the early days on the job when I didn't understand the word "apologize," she suggested that I bring an English-Hungarian dictionary to work which she kept on her desk. About a week later she pretty well forced me to phone a company to pick up some parcels from the office. I was petrified. But she told me what to say and, behold, the people at the other end understood me: in due course someone appeared to pick up our parcels.

Slowly but surely I felt more and more confident, but the real test came when a year and a half after my arrival I decided to try my luck at taking an evening course at the local university. After a lot of bureaucratic hassles they finally believed that I had a bona fide matriculation certificate. The man at the university in charge of the curriculum must have been a sadist. He suggested that I take as my first course English 100–English Literature from Chaucer to Eliot.

I duly enrolled in English 100 and didn't understand one single word from the first lecture. So, I decided to let the lecturer know that I was there. I will never forget his reaction: "Are you enrolled in this class? Oh, my Lord!" It turned out that in the class there was another Hungarian called Ferenc/Frank. This was his second attempt at learning something about Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, and Eliot, just to mention a few of the authors we studied that year. He failed the first time around and was back for a second try.

Frank was far from stupid, but when we couldn't understand even the introduction to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written of course in modern English, you can imagine the problems we encountered with Chaucer's Middle English. I gave up on it and purchased a modern translation of the Tales. That didn't help either. Eventually I decided to give up on Chaucer altogether. After all, I had read The Canterbury Tales in Hungarian translation and I still remembered the plots. And there might not even be an exam question on Chaucer. Great relief, Chaucer is over, let's move on with to Milton. Should I relate the sad story of Milton? I guess I don't have to. Milton was a wipeout too. Oh, but then comes Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Surely that will be easier. It wasn't. Moreover, I hadn't read that particular Shakespearean play in Hungarian, which made things worse.

It was under these circumstances that we took our first exam half way through the year. What do I see? The very first compulsory question on the exam was a fairly lengthy quotation from Chaucer! I almost fainted, but then I called up all my brain power and, behold, I translated the whole passage. Next I had to identify the tale the passage came from and write something very clever about it. Here I needed a lot of imagination, but I guessed right. It was from the Prioress's Tale. So, after all, I had learned something during those four months.

Well, I didn't exactly get an A for my effort, but I managed a respectable C. Frank the second time around got a D, and a third Hungarian student sat through the two hours without writing a word.

I came to the conclusion later that to achieve a sufficient command of the English language to pass exams with flying colors one needs five years, starting from zero. At least that was my experience. But then I'm no Rózsa Hoffmann.

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