Month: October 2011

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”: Hungarian college students and Rózsa Hoffmann

Let me state at the very beginning that I’m not against tightening requirements for college diplomas and introducing tuition fees accompanied by scholarships based on financial need. However, I’m against what the Fidesz government is doing to Hungarian higher education and the manner in which it is doing it.

As usual Fidesz politicians use the double talk that is so typical of Viktor Orbán and his entourage. The word “tuition” cannot be uttered. After all, earlier Fidesz forced a referendum to defeat a proposal to introduce a modest tuition fee at Hungarian colleges and universities. But then they were in opposition. Now that they are running the show it is obvious to them just as it was to their predecessors that there is not enough money for entirely free education. Moreover, let’s face it, half of the student population pays tuition already. What they are planning to do now is to widen the circles of those who must pay and to increase tuition fees. Naturally, these fees will not be called “tandíj” (tuition) but “önköltség” (cost of services rendered).

More injurious to Hungary is the government plan to reduce the number of entering university students. In the European Union the aim is to increase the number of university graduates but in Hungary the Orbán government is bucking the trend. Well, after all, we know that Hungarians have a “peculiar” way of doing things, as we often hear from the prime minister. I guess that’s why Hungary is doing so splendidly lately.

Another proposal which will be law very soon is that those lucky students who do not have to pay very high tuition fees must sign a “contract” in which they promise not to leave the country for a certain number of years. Not surprisingly Hungarian students are not exactly thrilled. Although the majority of students used to be Fidesz supporters, the love affair between them and the party is rapidly coming to an end.

The student leaders have been negotiating with Rózsa Hoffmann for a year and have gotten nowhere. A few days ago they decided to organize a nationwide demonstration. Students came to Budapest from all over the country until there were about 10,000 of them squeezed into a fairly narrow street where the offices of Rózsa Hoffmann and her staff are cooking up their latest ideas about educating the new “Hungarian men”–ideas that will be shaped by the principles close to this right-wing government’s heart.

A day before the demonstration the government decided to intervene in the hope of averting a large demonstration of young people whose support is really vital for the party. Orbán sent his honey-tongued deputy, Tibor Navracsics, to negotiate with the student leaders. And indeed the students liked Navracsics a great deal better than the sourpuss Rózsa Hoffmann. Their chief negotiator announced after the meeting that in a couple of hours they had achieved more than they had in over a year. But they were not impressed enough to give up the idea of the demonstration.

As far as I can see from the description and the videos that are available the students mistakenly think that the sole culprit is Ms Hoffmann. The typical misconception about the good king and his evil minister. As Hoffmann rightly pointed out after the students demanded her resignation, the students are mistaken. She is just the arm of the government.  Whatever she is doing is at the behest of the prime minister. And indeed, how often did we hear that Hoffmann reported to the cabinet and that she was bawled out by Orbán and sent back to rework the plan until he could approve it. Two days ago Orbán gave his blessing to the new law on higher education. After that the students can demonstrate till doomsday and curse or make fun of Rózsa Hoffmann. She is not the real culprit. Sure, she is an old, humorless, and far too pious lady whom one can make fun of easily, but she is only the messenger.

Here is a fairly typical picture of the demonstration that says a lot about the atmosphere:


Those who were burying Hungarian higher education were much more on target. Yesterday I wrote about a minister in the 1920s who spent incredible amounts of money on education. Although the ideology of his program is not to my liking, at least he realized the importance of education to Hungary’s future. The Orbán government’s attempt to save money on education is a grave mistake that will be an impediment to Hungary’s economic growth. Here is the coffin symbolizing higher education the students dragged out:


It’s unlikely that Rózsa Hoffmann will leave any time soon, but at this point whether she stays or not is really immaterial. The core problem is that this right-wing government is ruining Hungarian education. I’m just hoping that the Hungarian students will come to understand that and will do more than demand Rózsa’s departure.


Creating ideal Hungarians: The Fidesz-KDNP’s intellectual return to the 1930s

Yesterday I outlined the Orbán government’s attempt to return a few hundred square feet to its 1944 persona. The spot has symbolic significance for the politicians currently in power in Hungary because it is located in front of the House of the Homeland, as the parliament is known in Hungarian. The desire to stop the clock in one little segment of the world has an air of unreality to it. But that’s not all that seems to me to be doomed. An intellectual return to the 1930s through education seems just as much of a failing proposition.

Viktor Orbán asserted, even during the period between 1998 and 2002, that one of his favorite politicians is Count István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931. Although Bethlen was considered to be a moderate by Hungarian standards of the 1920s and 1930s, he was a thoroughly conservative man who didn’t really believe in democracy. In addition to Bethlen, Fidesz politicians praise Bethlen’s minister of education, Count Kunó Klebersberg (1921-1931).

Klebersberg’s greatest achievement was that he managed to convince his fellow politicians and the prime minister that Hungary, reduced in size and population, could be great only through intellectual achievements. “It is not the sword that will make Hungary great again,” he said. Indeed, given the very limited resources of the time Hungary on average spent 9-10% of its budget on education and culture compared to the pre-1914 period’s modest sums (2-5.5% of the budget).


This money was well spent. Within ten years many new schools were built, several new high schools were established, illiteracy decreased substantially, educational reforms were introduced, and plenty of money was spent on research. On the basis of these facts, one should have only praise for Klebersberg’s activities. But his ideology and the practices he insisted on are disturbing. The worldview that was spread in Hungarian schools in the 1920s and 1930s greatly influenced the ideology of the “Christian upper middle class” (in Hungarian the “keresztény úri középosztály), traces of which are detectable even today.

What was the essence of this ideology?  Before the war Hungarian schools were not considered to be instruments of ideological orientation. After the war, under Klebersberg’s tutelage, ideological and political considerations took center stage. “National feelings” had to be nurtured and children were to be shielded from the harmful effects of internationalism. One of Klebersberg’s most important aims was the “re-Hungarization of the intelligentsia.” He made no secret of his view that re-Hungarization was necessary because the Hungarian intelligentsia had become “Judaized” in Hungary’s liberal period. Teaching became completely hungarocentric. The emphasis was on Hungarian literature, Hungarian history, and geography that included the study of the whole Carpathian Basin. The teaching of world history was greatly reduced in favor of “subjects of national knowledge” (nemzetismereti tárgyak).

As for worldview, schools were supposed to teach children to condemn the teaching of liberal democracy. They were taught a hatred of social democracy and the left in general. The denunciation of Mihály Károlyi was part and parcel of the curriculum. Teachers were supposed to educate children so they would grow up as model citizens and especially good Hungarians. Upright, hard working, resolute, morally upright with a “healthy Hungarian worldview.”

Although Klebersberg attended law school, he was interested in the humanities and the social sciences. When he became minister of education, he educated himself in the art of teaching and amassed a library of more than 3,000 volumes.

Kunó Klebersberg’s library


He spent considerable time developing the kind of educational system that would serve the needs of post-Trianon Hungary. He even came up with a new concept that he called “neo-nationalism.” In 1928 he published a volume of his speeches on the subject. What was neo-nationalism for Klebersberg? “The solidarity of positive, active, productive men. The holy collaboration of workers and creative men in the magnificent rebuilding of the ruined homeland. The conscious union against those who are overly critical and in general against those whose outlook is negative.” He quite openly admitted that his aim was to produce “a new Hungarian type.” Well, nothing is new under the sun. The communists in Russia wanted to produce a Soviet man who would be radically different from his predecessor and the Hungarian nationalists attempted the same, but in nationalist not internationalist garb.

Klebersberg’s ideal Hungarian is “a man who speaks and preaches little but who works hard and creates.” As Ervin Csizmadia, a Hungarian political scientist, points out, there are many similarities between Klebersberg’s and the current Hungarian government’s ideas. Orbán talks a lot about physical labor as the only real work. We hear from morning till night about the country that is in ruins and that must be rebuilt. Orbán and his fellow politicians are also very sensitive to criticism and have a few harsh words to say about “negative people” who are skeptical of their grandiose ideas about the glorious future that is just around the corner.

And naturally we mustn’t forget about Rózsa Hoffmann’s plans for educational reform. The stated aim is to develop “a national middle class.” What the authors of the new law on public education actually mean is that they want to produce a nationalistic middle class. They don’t dare add that they also want a “Christian” middle class because that would be considered anti-Semitic. But elsewhere they make it crystal clear that Christianity is an important ingredient of this Fidesz-KDNP ideology. All in all, if it depended on Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann Hungarian educational principles would be very close to those Klebersberg had in mind. But what they forget is that 80-90 years have gone by since. Then only 1.1% of the population finished university and 3.6% high school. And of course there are the dramatic changes that have taken place in Hungarian society and the western world as a whole. Good luck, Rózsa Hoffmann!

Stopping time: Back to the Horthy regime (Kossuth Square)

The Hungarian government which is supposed to be conservative and thus should espouse values based on historical continuity has somewhat odd notions about history. They think they can pick and choose periods they want to acknowledge and revere while others can simply be cast away. This worldview manifests itself in the preamble of the new constitution which declares: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” The present government in effect banishes the period between March 19, 1944 and May 2, 1990 from the history of the nation simply because in their view the country was not free. As we will see later, it is even doubtful whether Viktor Orbán’s government is ready to embrace the last twenty years or so as a legitimate part of Hungarian history.

There are more and more signs that a rehabilitation or even restoration of the Horthy regime (1920-1944) is under way. I will offer two examples. The first is the proposed restoration of Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian parliament which aims at a perfect recreation of the square as it stood in the last year of the Horthy regime. Everything that was added since will be removed. And everything that was removed after 1944 will be put back to its former place. The second example is the new law on education that seems to be modelled on the ideas of Count Kunó Klebersberg (1875-1932), minister of education between 1922 and 1932, about which I will talk tomorrow.

Let’s first take a look at the issue of Kossuth Square. Cityscapes change over time. As I was trying to find material on the sculptor whose Kossuth statue was erected on the square, then still called Országház tér, I discovered that János Horvay seems to have specialized in Kossuth statues. He was a native of Pécs, and therefore it is not at all surprising that the Kossuth statue of Pécs was also his creation. My research led me to a wonderful site where one can see the changes in Pécs’s Kossuth Square between 1890 and 2006 through old postcards and photos. Squares and streets also have a history, and history cannot be stopped. Or, it shouldn’t be stopped, but this is exactly what the present political leaders in the Hungarian parliament are attempting to do.

András Gerő, the historian of the Habsburg era, wrote a whole book about the history of Budapest’s Kossuth Square. The first time we encounter a name for the place is 1820 when it was called Stadtischer Auswind Platz (Unloading Square for Ships). In the middle of the nineteenth century it was called Tömő tér or Stadt Schopper Platz (Landfill Square; how pedestrian!) because it was a low-lying swampy area that had to be built up in order to utilize it. The square received its final shape after the construction of the current parliament building at the turn of the last century.

The Orbán government’s problem is not with the buildings but with the statues that were erected on the square itself. After 1948 a couple of statues were removed while others were installed. The original Kossuth statue erected in 1927 was considered to be “too pessimistic” by Mátyás Rákosi and another was put in its place, presumably more optimistic. The “pessimistic” statue of Kossuth and his fellow ministers was removed to Dombóvár, a smallish town in Transdanubia, where it was erected as separate statues. Here is the original Horvay statue:


And here is the “optimistic” Kossuth, the work of Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl:


So, according to plans the 1927 Kossuth statue will be coming back. That is, if Dombovár relinquishes it. At the moment the city fathers are resisting.

Then two statues that had been standing in 1944 were removed. One was of István Tisza, prime minister of Hungary during World War I who was assassinated in 1918. His statue was erected in 1934. He was considered to be the hero of Hungary by the Horthy regime and the new regime wasn’t too keen on having his statue on that square.


The other statue that was removed was that of Count Gyula Andrássy, Hungarian prime minister and foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy who was largely responsible for the alliance between Germany and the Dual Monarchy.


Since then, however, a few new statues were placed on the square. One especially irritates Jobbik, the neo-nazi party, because they wrongly assume that Count Mihály Károlyi, Hungary’s prime minister in 1918-1919, was responsible for Trianon. The party leaders staged several demonstrations in front of the statue and several times it was covered with red paint. I have the sneaking suspicion that the whole idea of recreating the pre-1944 look of the square is just an excuse for Fidesz to oblige Jobbik, removing the offensive statue which is, by the way, artistically the best among all the statues in front of parliament.


And there is another problem, and that is a big one. There is a statue erected in 1980 depicting Attila József (1905-1937), by many considered to be Hungary’s best poet. Removing his statue is unimaginable to lovers of his poetry. Mind you, József was not exactly a favorite of the Horthy regime. He was considered to be a “proletarian poet” and at one point he even joined the illegal communist party. His statue is appropriately placed here because one of his best known poems is “At the Danube,” describing his thoughts while sitting on the bank of the river.


And finally. How will they explain the removal of the 1956 Memorial that was erected after 1990? It is an appropriate place for it. After all, it was here that the demonstrators waited for hours for Imre Nagy.


What will the excuse be? Perhaps that the revolution occurred while Hungary’s sovereignty was in question? According to at least one poster at the Sunday demonstration,”Viktor Orbán is the traitor of 1956.” And, let me add, he is betraying the spirit of 1989 as well.

The ugly side of MSZP, but will it win in the long run?

Before Sunday all those who wrote about the establishment of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) assumed that the ten MPs who left MSZP would be in parliamentary quarantine for six months. The quarantine in this case means that they will have to operate as independents with very limited opportunities to play much of a role in the debates. Moreover, the party cannot be represented on the parliamentary committees which under the present circumstances is not a huge handicap. On the other hand, not receiving any money from the budget to which every recognized party is entitled will be a big problem. It is a well known fact that no party can be maintained for any length of time from dues and voluntary contributions alone. The amount of money a party receives naturally depends on the size of its parliamentary representation and therefore DK would receive relatively little money, but it would still be better than nothing.

I think I already mentioned that the fate of DK depends on the speaker of the house, László Kövér, and one cannot expect much good will from him. In one of my posts 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. In addition to his brutishness he is also vindictive and full of hatred. From him Ferenc Gyurcsány and Csaba Molnár can't expect much sympathy. If Kövér has a way of interpreting parliamentary rules in a way injurious to the new party, he will find it.

And it seems that Kövér will have an easy time of it. Csaba Molnár argued that the situation is crystal clear. The ten MP's didn't "withdraw" and they were certainly not "expelled" from MSZP. They simply seceded as an already declared new party, just as MDNP (Magyar Demokrata Néppárt) seceded from Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) in 1996.

Although Kövér is still in South America and will not be back in Budapest until Sunday, there are signs that DK's quest to form a parliamentary caucus immediately might be a difficult if not impossible proposition.

György Rubovszky, chairman of the parliamentary committee on immunity and mandate questions, wrote a letter to Kövér in which he outlined his understanding of the situation. According to Rubovszky, Attila Mesterházy's letter to the House explicitly states that the ten members of parliament "withdrew" from the party's parliamentary delegation and according to house rules a member who withdraws or is expelled is considered an independent member for six months. According to Rubovszky the House didn't examine, as it shouldn't, whether the leader of a caucus is telling the truth or not.

Csaba Molnár was naturally perplexed and announced that there must be a misunderstanding which he will clear up with Attila Mesterházy. Their meeting will take place tomorrow. According to Molnár, if these ten people "withdrew," their withdrawal would have been accompanied by a formal notification, and they didn't sign such a declaration. Indeed, in English at least "to withdraw" among other things means "to give up a position especially by formal notification," but the Hungarian dictionary doesn't mention such a requirement. Moreover, here we have a difference of opinion about the circumstances under which the DK members left MSZP. Whether it seceded as an already organized party or whether the members of the new party withdrew individually.

Mesterházy's excuse is that he had no other choice. He had to specify "withdrawal" (kilépés) because MSZP rules have only two categories: "kilépés" and "kizárás" (expulsion). I'm pretty sure that this is the case, but at the same time with a little good will he could have phrased the letter in a way that wouldn't have made Kövér's job so easy. He could have said that the ten people left because the day before they joined another party. But he didn't. Why not?

While Ferenc Gyurcsány in his speech at the declaration of the new party emphasized that he and his fellow DK members of parliament will never utter a bad word about MSZP, it seems that politicians of MSZP are not reciprocating. Right after Gyurcsány's speech András Balogh, one of the deputy chairmen of the party and a representative of the party's left, said a few nasty things about DK. In making a speech on the anniversary of October Revolution in Kaposvár, birthplace of Imre Nagy, Balogh announced that his former comrades are establishing a new party that will be "some undefinable liberal party, a kind of new SZDSZ."

Gábor Simon, the chairman of MSZP's board, made it clear that DK is not a successor to MSZP because itt is not a socialist but a liberal formation. That's why this is "withdrawal," not "separation." Moreover, said Simon, the ten members should give up their parliamentary mandates and let MSZP fill their positions with others from the party list. The chairman of MSZP in Komárom-Esztergom County demanded the same. József Tóbiás, director of the MSZP delegation, triumphantly announced that with Gyurcsány's departure "gyurcsányism" also disappeared from the socialist party. So, it seems to me, MSZP is not taking "the separation" too well and the "peaceful divorce" will remain a pipe dream.

According to an article in HVG the debate within the MSZP leadership has been going on for weeks between those who want to get rid of Gyurcsány and his friends in such a way that they would not be able to set up a parliamentary delegation and those who were hoping for a friendly divorce. According to the article the letter Mesterházy wrote to the speaker of the house was written to reflect the views of the former group. The same article also mentions that the three latecomers to DK–István Kolber, Lajos Oláh, and Erika Szűcs–could have been talked out of joining Gyurcsány but "this wasn't the goal." The hard-liners wanted to get rid of them too because these three were considered to be too liberal. Apparently the pressure on Mesterházy to be really hard on the Gyurcsány faction was intense.

It is hard to tell who is Gyurcsány's greater enemy. The people within MSZP or Fidesz. He is being attacked from both the left and the right.

The first day of the Hungarian Parliament’s marathon session

However tempting it is to continue with my story of 1956, I have to return to the present for the time being. Parliament is in session and for eight days in a row the MPs will work furiously on all sorts of badly constructed new laws which slightly more than half of adult Hungarians reject. Normally, parliament is in session two days a week. The only exception to this custom was between 1998 and 2002 when the Orbán government decided that, although the Constitution specified weekly sessions, "weekly" could be interpreted to mean every three weeks. That illegal action gave the opposition less opportunity to voice its concerns. And at the time Viktor Orbán's party didn't even have a two-thirds majority.

There are two topics I would like to cover today. The first disappointing day in parliament for Ferenc Gyurcsány's new caucus and Viktor Orbán's speech before the House.

I don't think that the members of the new party that will be called Demokratikus Koalíció (Democratic Coalition) were terribly surprised when they found out that they were unable to sit together as a parliamentary caucus. Over the weekend both Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is the chairman of the new party, and Csaba Molnár, who was designated as the leader of the DK caucus, expressed their opinion that the members of the new political formation will not have to stay six months in quarantine as independents. They called attention to the precedent of a similar split when fifteen members of MDF left the party as a distinct group and formed a new party called Hungarian Democratic People's Party (MDP). This new party was allowed to form a caucus immediately.

Csaba Molnár wrote to László Kövér, the speaker of the house, but he is abroad and will not return from South America until Sunday. One of the several deputy speakers couldn't make a decision in his absence. When the members of DK arrived in parliament they were identified as MSZP members. Therefore they walked out. I have the feeling that the establishment of a separate DK caucus will not be such an easy affair as Csaba Molnár at least pretends to think.

As for Viktor Orbán's speech, he had to make it sound fairly dramatic. After all, he was in Brussels on Saturday to attend the summit dealing with the Greek crisis and in his absence the Fidesz mass rally, designed to minimize the impact of an anti-government demonstration, was scrapped. The demonstration, by the way, turned out to be impressive. According to people who attended, there were at least 100,000 people who filled all 700 meters of a four-lane street from the Elizabeth Bridge to the Astoria Hotel. It almost seems that the leading Fidesz politicians purposely left the country, or at least the capital, for the national holiday. Zsolt Semjén, one of the deputy prime ministers, went as far as Australia while the other, Tibor Navracsics, spoke in front of an audience in Balatonberény (population 1200). Csaba Hende, minister of defense, attended a Liszt concert in Paris. László Kövér visited several South American countries to celebrate with Hungarians living there. Very suspicious.

Orbán naturally wants to make sure that the Hungarian people believe that all the economic trouble Hungary is experiencing is due solely to the crisis in the European Union. According to Orbán "something is very wrong" with the whole concept. It was established at a time of plenty and now that the economic situation is bad "it simply can't function." He came up with a creative explanation for the weak Hungarian forint. It is due to the weakness of the euro! (Well, it is of course weak against the euro, and the Swiss franc and the euro are now trading pretty well in sync.) Hungary's "dependence on the Eurozone today," he continued, "is a disadvantage." In order to avoid the fate of Greece Hungary must reduce the country's sovereign debt, but this is not enough by itself. The Hungarian government must "save Hungarian families from collapsing under the weight of their indebtedness in foreign currencies." 

Viktor Orbán is certain (and here leading economists concur) that there will be no rapid economic growth in the European Union. Therefore, "Hungary must follow its own path. … Hungarians must use their own common sense, must insist on their own answers, must come up with new recipes." One mustn't be afraid of new solutions, and one shouldn't worry about what people, "especially the ones who made the Union insolvent," think.

Orbán further showed his ignorance of basic economic principles when he announced that in order to create one million new jobs "one must raise the minimum wage." This would be too funny if it weren't so sad that the prime minister comes up with such nonsense.

The eurozone is a crisis region from which Hungary must "push off." Naturally, he didn't even try to explain what this could possibly mean. If it indicates some kind of economic independence from the West it is an almost impossible proposition. Hungary's greatest export market is the European Union.

The proper answer to all that nonsensical talk came from László Kovács, former foreign minister, chairman of MSZP, and European tax commissioner. According to Kovács, in a time of economic stagnation the answer lies "not in less but in more European Union," meaning deeper and more effective integration. Kovács suggested that instead of "pushing off" Hungary should join the "Europe plus" countries which would open the door to greater foreign investment in the Hungarian economy.

I'm certain that Kovács's words fell on deaf ears not just because Orbán is a Hungarian nationalist who is mighty annoyed that the European Union is putting all sorts of obstacles in his way but because the Hungarian extreme right's position is outright antagonism toward the European Union. Gábor Vona of Jobbik, for example, claimed that Hungary lost money in the last seven years of being a member of the Union. Of course, this is utter nonsense, but I'm sure that most right wingers in Hungary are convinced that the best thing for Hungary would be to pack up and leave. And we know that Orbán doesn't want to alienate the extreme right. Of course, he knows that what Vona says is idiotic (at least I hope he does), but at the same time he will not stop verbally abusing the European Union, especially at home. As if people living abroad didn't know every word he utters even without knowing a word of Hungarian. The world has become very, very small, only Orbán doesn't want to notice the fact. Or, perhaps he does recognize it but doesn't care that by now no one believes a word he utters.

An eyewitness account: October 23, 1956, Part I

It will be quite a challenge to give a succinct yet sufficiently detailed summary of the events of those days. As I mentioned already on this blog, I was a third-year university student in the Faculty of Arts of ELTE in 1956. I lived in the university’s dormitory for women located at the corner of Rákóczi út and Múzeum körút right across from the Astoria Hotel.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 knows that one of the hottest spots in Pest was exactly that corner where the Soviet tanks appeared at 5:00 a.m. on October 24. We were also very close to the building that housed Magyar Rádió where the actual armed conflict between the security forces and the demonstrators began.

I was the first democratically elected student leader of the dormitory. Prior to the spring of 1956 the party had appointed someone, but by then the students were becoming restless and voiced all sorts of demands, including the democratic election of student leaders. The authorities tried to appease us and agreed. Thus I was actively involved in the organization of the planned demonstration. The day before I went from room to room inviting people to attend the gathering that was supposed to be a sympathy demonstration for the Poles who were trying to loosen their ties to Moscow.

In typical Hungarian fashion, not even the students of different universities could agree on a common plan. We wanted to have a demonstration with slogans and posters while the engineers were afraid to voice their demands. Instead, they marched in silence on the practically deserted Buda bank of the Danube. We went through busy downtown Pest. I have to laugh every time I hear that the brave engineering students started the revolution. Oh no, they walked from the Technical University to Bem tér. That’s all they did on October 23.

After some hesitation we got the okay from the Ministry of Interior and began walking ten in a row arm-in-arm so no strangers could join us. By the time we got to Nagykörút it was close to impossible to keep our neat rows. Ordinary passers-by joined and the crowd became enormous. By the time we crossed the Danube (at Margit híd) flags appeared in windows with the Rákosi coat-of-arms cut out. Our destination was Bem tér where there was a military barracks full of soldiers hanging out of the windows. The crowd started shouting and demanding that they take off the Russian-type top called “gimnastiorka.” And they gladly obliged. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about here is picture of the Russian military shirt.


After the meeting at Bem tér the crowd moved on to the parliament. What we wanted to accomplish at the parliament most likely no one knew. A tremendous crowd gathered there. We just waited and waited demanding Imre Nagy while the people inside didn’t know what on earth to do. At one point they turned off the street lights hoping that the total darkness would discourage the demonstrators. It didn’t. People set their Szabad Nép, the party paper, on fire. It was quite a sight. After perhaps an hour or even more Imre Nagy appeared and began “Comrades!” Then came the since famous answer from the crowd: “we are not comrades.” After a few soothing words the crowd was ready to leave. Obviously, Imre Nagy had a tremendous reputation.

As we were walking back to the university on Váci utca a motorcyclist was coming from the other direction who shouted: “They are shooting at the Radio Station.” We didn’t believe it. One of us, László Márton, today one of the people who established the Magyar Demokratikus Charta, yelled back: “Provocation!” Well, it wasn’t.

Until I got back to the dormitory I didn’t have any idea that armed conflict was already under way. I was in the building when I first heard a gun being fired not terribly far away. From the local radio you couldn’t learn anything. In the whole dormitory there was only one radio which was good enough to listen to foreign broadcasts and suddenly we were all listening to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and BBC trying to find out what was going on. I must say that they were pretty accurate when they reported that the Soviet troops had left their barracks somewhere outside of Budapest and that they were expected to arrive in the capital around 5 a.m.

Indeed, they arrived in the middle of the intersection facing Rákóczi út and every time a faint gunshot could be heard nearby they began to fire. I have no idea idea at whom or what they were shooting. I have the feeling that they themselves didn’t know it either. They shot aimlessly. Often not exactly straight and in such cases our building, the first on the right, was hit. The Soviets managed to shoot out the whole second floor of the building facing Rákóczi út. The noise was so incredible that one didn’t know whether it was our building that was hit or not. We could be sure only when plaster was falling all over. Meanwhile we managed to empty the front rooms and set up mattreses on the floor in the safe corridors facing the adjacent building. Eventually we had no electricity and we just sat in the dark corridor fearing for our lives.

I might add that the dormitory had no eating facilities and therefore we had no food for about three or four days, not until the fighting subsided somewhat and some of us managed to get to the university’s cafeteria where the staff was feeding all comers. I will never forget. They served cabbage and tomato (paradicsomos káposzta) without any meat, of course, but I can assure everybody that it was one of the best meals of my life, before or since.

The dormitory was full of all sorts of people who were caught in the crossfire and were unable to get home. We even had some wounded people whom we dragged into the building. And there were quite a few dead people right in front of our building. We were in total shock partly because of our own precarious situation and partly because we felt responsible for the consequences of the peaceful demonstration we had started. We were worried sick about the outcome of what was going on in front of our eyes while we knew very little about what was going on in the rest of the country.

This went on until October 28, Sunday, when it was safe enough to look around in the city. This was when my active political participation began. But that story is for another day.

What did the U.S. Ambassador tell Viktor Orbán?

Of course, we don’t know. We know from Al Kamen’s article published in The Washington Post on October 13 that U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis requested a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sometime in the middle of August. However, the busy Hungarian politician had no time for her.

The request was most likely forwarded to the Prime Minister’s Office after there was no reaction to the ambassador’s article in Magyar Nemzet (August 3) entitled “A Values Based Alliance.” In this article Kounalakis reminded the Hungarian government that Hillary Clinton had expressed concern over “the many changes that the government is making with its historic two-thirds majority” that may not “stay true to [the country’s] democratic traditions.” The ambassador reminded the Hungarian government that the Secretary of State “called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” She called on the Fidesz government “to be more vigilant and respectful of its democratic institutions.”

These were pretty strong words not too often uttered in the world of diplomacy, especially among allied countries. Everybody’s expectation after this article was that once the American ambassador has a chance to meet with Viktor Orbán she will deliver a strongly worded message from Washington.

Of course, it is possible that a strong message was indeed delivered when at last Eleni Kounalakis had the opportunity to meet with Viktor Orbán on October 18. Her arrival was shown on all the TV newscasts that day.

U.S. Ambassador arrives at the Parliament building


The meeting lasted long enough, an hour and a half, to cover a lot of topics, including the one that causes the most concern inside and outside of Hungary: the decidedly antidemocratic governance in Budapest.

Sure, they could talk about the wonderful service the Hungarian military is providing in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but one cannot spend an hour and a half on that. So, Kounalakis must have brought up the concerns Hillary Clinton voiced in person in Budapest and what she herself wrote about in Magyar Nemzet. However, one has the distinct feeling that the conversation was one-sided. It was Viktor Orbán who explained to the U.S. ambassador that she doesn’t see things right. And there is the fear that perhaps Kounalakis even believed what she heard.

On what do I base this opinion? On the press release issued by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. The encounter with Viktor Orbán was described as “a very warm and productive meeting.” Kounalakis “acknowledged and appreciates the challenges faced by the Hungarian government in restructuring the economy.” Admittedly, “they also discussed developments in Hungary, including the concerns mentioned by Secretary Clinton during her visit to Budapest in June.” The press release added that “these issues were raised as a friend with the understanding that Hungary is a democracy with an elected government that has been given a rare two-thirds mandate by the people of Hungary. With this unique opportunity and rapid pace of change, the United States has a strong interest in seeing Hungary succeed and emerge an even stronger ally.”

Unfortunately that sounds as if Kounalakis swallowed everything Viktor Orbán told her hook, line, and sinker. In one of my earlier articles about the current ambassador of the United States in Budapest I indicated that she always seems to go overboard. When Wikileaks released some negative comments about the Hungarian contingent in Afghanistan, she came to Hungary’s rescue with a vehemence that was unnecessary. Here again, why does she have to emphasize that the meeting was “very warm”? I think “warm” would have been more than enough. Why did she have to say after the meeting that it was “an excellent meeting as always”?

Al Kamen returned to the topic on October 18, concluding that “the Tuesday meeting went swimmingly … [and] apparently she was convinced Orban will mend his ways.” Kamen added that it would be a good idea to follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust but verify.”

The Hungarian reaction was also skeptical. Just as one of Spectrum’s commenters wrote, his wife’s family was delighted after reading about the meeting between Orbán and Kounalakis. His wife got off the phone with her mother and said ‘Good news! The Americans have publicly backed what OV is doing in Hungary!'” Well, well, Ambassador Kounalakis. One must be a little more circumspect and careful, especially in delicate situations when a lot of people are worried about the survival of democracy in Hungary.

A blogger complained about the lack of transparency in this case. I guess what he wanted to hear was: did she or didn’t she say something and, if she didn’t, she is letting the Hungarian people down who are getting increasingly disillusioned about the “rare two-thirds mandate” of this democratically “elected government.” Yes, the Hungarians made a mistake and the majority knows it by now, but they would have been happier if the U.S. ambassador didn’t ooze with delight after her meeting with Viktor Orbán. Népszava‘s cartoon is also telling, though perhaps Orbán didn’t have to sweat so profusely as Gábor Pápai, the cartoonist of the paper, imagined:


There is one ray of hope that the State Department is not entirely satisfied with the answers Kounalakis received on October 18. Gergely Prőhle, Hungarian undersecretary of foreign affairs, is on a visit to Washington at this very moment. He had the opportunity to speak with Philip Reeker, assistant undersecretary in charge of the Balkan region, and Thomas O. Melia, assistant undersecretary involved with human rights. One must keep in mind that Reeker is thoroughly familiar with Hungary because he served as deputy chief of mission in Budapest between 2004 and 2007. In fact, many of the cables one finds among the Wikileaks documents were signed by him. Melia is the man who at a congressional hearing had a few harsh things to say about Hungary’s new law on the churches, which caused a stir in Budapest.

MTI reported today on these meetings. As usual, the description is short but still telling. First, it seems that the “concerns” mentioned by Hillary Clinton and the U.S. ambassador to Hungary were also brought up during Prőhle’s conversations in Washington. Because otherwise why would it be necessary to emphasize that “Hungary is ready to make the process of enacting cardinal laws transparent.” It is also clear from the MTI report that the question of the new electoral law came up because Prőhle mentioned that a “recent conference in Hungary was devoted to this subject which was very much appreciated by the U.S. diplomats stationed in Hungary.” Prőhle also told the U.S. diplomats that “Hungary is ready to consult with international experts.” He specifically mentioned the secretary-general of the Venice Commission that was extremely critical of the new Hungarian constitution. So, there were criticisms that had to be addressed somehow.

After reading this report one wonders how much the State Department actually listens to Ambassador Eleni Tsakoulos Kounalakis. Of course, it is possible that in private cables she gives a more realistic assessment of the Hungarian situation than her public statements would indicate. Let’s hope so.