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The Janus-faced Viktor Orbán

May 31, 2012 17 comments

More and more critics of the current Hungarian government claim that Viktor Orbán has completely lost his sense of reality. I don’t agree. No, in my opinion he is simply lying to the Hungarian people in the hope that perhaps the old political trick will work. The more you repeat certain slogans the more likely they will stick.

No, Orbán knows that he is in big trouble and that’s why he talks so much about “success,”  “victory,”  and the bright future that awaits Hungarians. One just has to wait a few more years and Hungary will be richer and happier than Denmark.

And I think that he does believe that his remedies will bring this earthly paradise to Hungary. One just has to wait a little longer and his and György Matolcsy’s “unorthodox” economic policies will produce tangible results. But in the meantime he and the Fidesz government must keep up the spirit of the population.

Orbán would be the happiest if Hungary were not part of the European Union because then there would be no one telling him what to do or not to do. However, he desperately needs the European subsidies without which Hungary by now would be bankrupt. So, he very reluctantly reduced the budget deficit to under 3%, but beyond that he doesn’t want to move an inch as he made it quite clear already on April 27 when in an interview he claimed that he had told José Manuel Barroso that ” we are not taking anything back, we are not suspending anything, we are not changing anything.”

Indeed. He was as good as his word. He refused to make the necessary changes in the bill on the central bank although he should have known that no IMF negotiations can begin without them. Although the European Commission was not satisfied with the media law, the law that parliament passed the other day didn’t address any of the objections of Brussels. So, even though the cohesion funds will be available to Hungary if next month Ecofin agrees with the recommendations of the European Commission, there is a long list of demands concerning other issues: education, taxation, public works, and monetary policy among others.

As I see it, Orbán is trying to show that Hungary is in compliance with EU rules while he is doing everything in his power to avoid compliance. This tight-rope act is a tricky business, and the jury is still out on whether Orbán can pull it off.

How well is Orbán performing? There are times when one must admire his cleverness at fooling others. There are other times, however, when one is amazed at his crudeness, his provincialism, and his lack of diplomacy. Today was one of those days.

It was two years ago that Fidesz-KDNP, led by Viktor Orbán, won the elections. To honor the half-way mark of their first term the government organized a conference which high government officials, businessmen, and foreign diplomats attended. About 300 in number. It was here that Orbán made a speech which will not be forgotten for a while in Brussels.

The speech covered a lot of ground, including laudatory words about his own performance and the economic policies of his administration. A lot of people would question his assertions, and I wonder how many people chuckled when they heard that Orbán and his team are actually a “humble”  lot!

What I found much more interesting was Viktor Orbán’s preoccupation with the insecurity of his own position. He seems to be convinced that outside forces are trying to remove him from his post.

This is not the first time that he has alluded to that possibility. Last December he mentioned a conspiracy aimed at his removal that he managed to avert. Now he again returned to this theme, twice in two days.

Last night he gave an interview on MTV’s “Az Este,” an evening program that airs interviews with leading politicians. During this interview, without any prompting, Orbán began talking about his belief in democracy. He wasn’t talking about democracy in the usual sense of the word but rather about democracy as the opposition to the alleged undemocratic ways of the European Union. Specifically, he blamed the current Greek crisis on the decision of the European Union leaders to force a government change in Athens. He posited himself as the embodiment of democracy as opposed to the evil undemocratic forces of the European Union.

Today he continued along the same theme. He managed Hungary’s stabilization in such a way that he said “no” to “the European temptation that would have pushed us toward giving up our democratic ways.”  What was this temptation? According to Orbán, the European Union encouraged the countries in economic trouble to get rid of their democratically elected leaders and to run their countries with technocrats. But the Hungarian people in their eternal wisdom “managed to throw together a two-thirds majority.”

No doubt, Orbán is preoccupied with his own survival. Whether his answer to this alleged threat is the best way of dealing with it, I doubt. In my opinion, it would be wiser to be more cooperative and then perhaps there would be less daydreaming in Brussels about the miraculous disappearance of the pesky Hungarian prime minister. However, Orbán didn’t follow that course. Just the opposite. If I understand him correctly, Orbán is planning a new confrontation with Brussels.

In his opinion Hungary must reject the European answers to the economic crisis because “the steps suggested by the bureaucrats of Brussels would be injurious to the country.”  However, Hungary cannot outright say “no” to the European Union’s demands. Hungary must follow “a series of complicated tactical operations.”  Hungary must present its rejection of the remedies of the European Union in such a way that ” it looks as we wanted to remain their friends.”  For example, if  the Union presented Hungary with seven demands, the Hungarian government would give the nod to two or three–issues that had already been adopted by the Hungarian government but Brussels didn’t notice yet–while the rest would be rejected. He added that this was a complicated game but obviously he is ready to play it.

I have no reason to doubt that this is exactly what the Hungarian prime minister is planning. It would fit well with his general political behavior, the center of which is intrigue. The only thing I don’t understand is why he is sharing his strategy with the European Union, whom he is planning to fool.

Fidesz and MSZP: neck and neck

May 30, 2012 45 comments

Since the middle of the month several polls measuring party preferences have appeared. Ipsos, the first to report among the pollsters, measured a downward trend for Fidesz and an upward one for MSZP. At that point, among the adult population eligible to vote Fidesz led with 16%, MSZP followed with 13% while the undecided moved up from 51% to 54%.

Ten days later Századvég, a team close to Fidesz, found that the government party had a substantial lead. According to them 24% of the adult population would vote Fidesz and only 15% for MSZP.

Today it was time for Tárki to come out with its latest results. Tárki’s data were collected between May 17 and 22, after Ipsos had already published its results. If Tárki’s data accurately reflect the situation, Fidesz has lost 5% of its support in one month. In April Tárki measured 21% Fidesz support in the population as a whole; a month later in May it was down to 16%. Over the same period the socialists gained 3%. In April Tárki reported 13% for MSZP; that number is now 16%. Thus, an entirely novel situation has occurred in these past two months: for the first time the two parties have exactly the same level of support. But what is truly amazing is that this also holds true for those who definitely plan to vote. Thirty-two percent of the voters would vote for Fidesz and 31% for MSZP. This is significant because normally Fidesz supporters are more determined voters than the socialists. I should also mention that, according to Ipsos, Viktor Orbán received only 28 points on a scale of 100 when it came to popularity this month. This is the lowest ever measured by Ipsos. Even Attila Mesterházy of MSZP received more points (30) than the prime minister.

Tárki also published on its website a graphic summary of changes in popularity among Hungarian parties.

I was especially struck by the changes of the category (in blue) of those who either don’t have a party preference or who simply refuse to divulge it. You may notice that every time the percentage of Fidesz voters (orange) went up, the number of the undecided went down. See especially November 2010,  August 2011, and March 2012.  Now that the popularity of Fidesz is declining the number of undecided voters is going up again. Historically, among the undecided the majority usually end up with the socialist party.

As for the inordinate number of undecided voters, my feeling is that, although the numbers are high, they are perhaps not so high as the pollsters report. Concern over Fidesz’s intentions is most likely very real among people who will not vote for Fidesz. Fear is gripping those who are not behind the two-thirds majority. You have no idea how many letters I receive expressing real fear about the consequences of being openly critical of the government.

People hear about all sorts of data gathering by Fidesz and about lists that are being prepared of people who are known MSZP voters. People are convinced that the questionnaires periodically prepared and distributed to all voters on an assortment of bogus questions parading as “national consultations” are simply tools for information gathering. People are in a real quandary over what to do; the fourth such questionnaire was mailed just yesterday. After all, these questionnaires have bar codes that include all the necessary information about the recipients. If they don’t send the questionnaire back, the very fact of their refusal tells something about them to the government and the government party.

And finally here is another Tárki graph that shows party preferences in the last two months in the electorate as a whole:

While support for Jobbik, LMP, and DK has fluctuated in the last two months, Fidesz’s support is steadily declining while MSZP’s is steadily growing. That can safely be called a trend.

I might also mention here that Fidesz’s attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány in connection with his senior thesis might be responsible for DK’s decline. The standing  of Jobbik is fairly stagnant. Two years ago Ipsos registered 9% support and now the number is 10%. Tárki put their support at 11%. I find this interesting because one often hears about a fear of Jobbik’s incredible strength and that perhaps in two years time they can even win the elections. I have no such fear. What I worry about is a deal between Fidesz and Jobbik if Fidesz alone cannot form a government in 2014. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán is not finicky. He would make a deal with the devil if that would assure him the position of prime minister between 2014 and 2018.

War against the whole world?

May 29, 2012 39 comments

The growing Horthy cult and the associated rehabilitation of writers of anti-Semitic and/or Nazi sympathies have raised a few eyebrows, and not just in Romania where the circus surrounding the reburial of the remains of József Nyirő led to a diplomatic flare-up between Hungary and her former good friend, Romania. It seems that the Russian government is also watching the rehabilitation of the Horthy era with growing concern.

But first let’s visit Romania where the storm created by Hungary’s clumsy attempt at organizing a reburial of József Nyirő has been growing. First, the Romanian government refused to allow entry of a special railway carriage carrying Nyirő’s remains. Then the burial itself had to be postponed because its permission was revoked. The remains are apparently still in Budapest.

The latest is that there is a good possibility that the Romanian government will investigate local permits that allowed schools or streets to be named after József Nyirő. The Romanian government spokesman announced yesterday that in Romania ” law forbids any kind of appreciation or honoration of people of anti-Semitic and fascist views.” So, this is the end result of  László Kövér’s initiative on behalf of the Magyar Polgári Párt. However, Kövér didn’t seem to learn anything from this fiasco. He triumphantly announced in Székelyudvarhely where the burial was supposed to be held that the victory of Hungary is inevitable. After all, non-Hungarians are afraid even of the remains of a Hungarian who has been buried for sixty years. And, he added, the members of the Romanian government are barbarians.

The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime caused unease in Russia as well. Over the weekend there was a conference organized by the Russian Center of ELTE where Hungarian, Russian, and American historians gave lectures on historical topics. Among the invited guests was the Russian ambassador Aleksandr Tolkach, who sharply criticized the Hungarian government’s attempts at rewriting the history of World War II. He rejected the Orbán government’s efforts to equate nazism and communism and to treat the Soviet Union and her allies, on the one hand, and the Third Reich, on the other, as equally guilty.

Tolkach specifically mentioned the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution, which views the historical events between 1944 and 1990 as nonexistent. This in Russian opinion results in the denial of the role of the Red Army as liberators. Right-wing Hungarian historians are trying to reevaluate Hungary’s role in the events while they say nothing about Hungarian crimes in the Soviet Union. These same historians are also silent on Hungary’s active role in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry.

Considering that Viktor Orbán is allegedly a great friend of Vladimir Putin, Tolkach’s remarks are an indication that not all is well in Russian-Hungarian relations. The Hungarian government should be mindful of the forthcoming negotiations with Russia over the price of natural gas. This is what happens when the Fidesz government wants to please its extreme-right rival, Jobbik, by forcing an issue that causes serious diplomatic friction.

If creating friction between Romania and Hungary and Russia and Hungary weren’t enough, the Orbán  government moved on to an attack on the United States and the European Union.

The attack on the European Union began with Kövér lecturing Europe on its attitude toward Christianity. According to him, ” Europe lost its self-identity.”  Moreover, ” it looks at its own Christian roots with loathing.”  And to be sure that this message will get to those for whom it was intended, Kövér made these remarks to a reporter of Süddeutsche Zeitung, a liberal German paper. In the same interview Kövér labelled the European Union’s criticism of the extra levies “immoral” because EU politicians condoned the socialist governments’  economic policies that resulted in the country’s indebtedness.

And today in parliament János Lázár, in his farewell speech as head of the Fidesz caucus, indirectly attacked the United States by claiming that the Hungarian opposition is actually supported by Uncle Sam. Considering that the Orbán government initiated a charm campaign  in the United States and that Budapest hired a PR firm to influence the American attitude toward the present regime in Hungary, one can only marvel at the inconsistencies of the government’s policies.

Lázár also decided to lash out at international capital. According to him, MSZP has never been anything but a “front man” for multinational companies. This remark didn’t surprise me terribly because there has been a tendency lately to contrast the government’s pro-Hungarian policies with the opposition’s siding with foreign interests. After all, it wasn’t a long time ago that Viktor Orbán talked about his government’s “kuruc”  stance as opposed to the members of the opposition who belong to the ” labanc”  camp. These two words go back to the Rákóczi rebellion (1703-1711) when the rebels were called ” kuruc”  and those who sided with Vienna “labanc.” Thus, Orbán indicated that he represents Hungarian interests while the opposition represents the interests of foreign powers.

One against all? A losing proposition.

Far-right propaganda on Hungarian public television

May 28, 2012 67 comments

A few weeks ago an incredible “documentary” was shown on MTV entitled “War against the Hungarian nation.” The production is available on YouTube. I don’t know whether anyone will have the patience to listen to the entire hour and a half of nonsense, I certainly didn’t. But I heard enough to be horrified at the message that is being sent far and wide by Hungarian “public” television. What is especially frightening is that 43,357 people have already watched this far-right view of Hungary, past and present. Two-hundred and thirty people “liked it” and only eight expressed disagreement with the message conveyed.

I might mention right at the beginning that in Hungarian “public” as an adjective before “radio” and “television” can be translated verbatim as “public service” radio or television. It is supposed to serve the public, especially in the sense of transmitting accurate and impartial information for the edification of the public.

I don’t know whether the newly appointed editor in charge of cultural programs has anything to do with the noticeable shift to the right in this area, but it is becoming evident that the Hungarian far right is having a heyday on MTV and Duna TV, both directed from a government-controlled media center. The new man in charge of cultural matters is Zoltán Rockenbauer, who is allegedly an ethnographer and art historian. He most likely received the job not because of his great achievements in his chosen fields but because he was a Fidesz member of parliament between 1990 and 2006 and minister of national heritage, a defunct position, between 2000 and 2002. So, Rockenbauer is one of the “originals” in the party.

But let’s return to the “War against the Hungarian Nation.” It begins with some fairly incomprehensible ramblings by József V. Molnár, who describes himself as a researcher of the national psyche (néplélek kutató). He looks slightly mad. We hear about his little house, his bigger house, a collection of houses and the really big house, the nation, headed by the Holy Crown.

It doesn’t get any better. Izabella Bencze, a lawyer, talks about the role of the Carpathian Basin as the center of the world. Whoever rules this area rules the world. It is the “heart center” (szívközpont) of the world. It is also the strategic center of earth, and that is the reason for the constant war that has been waged against the Hungarians.

József Ángyán, until recently undersecretary of agriculture, talks about the nation as the depository of sacred qualities. The man who has lately been hailed for his stance against the oligarchs is launching a verbal attack against foreign capitalists who stole the nation’s wealth, which “must be taken back.”

From Lajos Papp, a cardiologist who in the last ten or fifteen years discovered his inner prophet, we hear about “the history of mankind that is the history of the Hungarian people.”

A lawyer who thinks that he is a linguist goes on and on about the origin of the word “Hungaria,” which naturally he thinks has something to do with the Huns. The accepted etymology of the word is that it comes from the name of the Turkic tribe Onugor (which means “ten arrows” or “ten tribes”).

Another “expert” talks about foreigners who “want to steal our souls.” Papp shows up again a few minutes later with the idea that “our genes contain the known knowledge” or, in other words, “the divine knowledge.” Other people are jealous of this sacred knowledge. Hence, the persecution of the Hungarians by others.

According to a far-right “economist,” the Habsburgs have been the greatest enemies of Hungarians, including György Habsburg, currently living with his family in Hungary. One of their sins was that they brought a “business spirit” to the country, until then untouched by greed. Certainly a major sin in the eyes of these fanatics. According to one of the “historians,” the real reason for the revolution and war of independence of 1848-49 was the question of who “will privatize the national wealth.” A unique interpretation of the events of 1848. Surely, goes the argument, the Austrian businessmen were ready to pounce on Hungary and rob the Hungarians blind. Of course, the truth was that Hungary was seriously underdeveloped in comparison to the western parts of the Habsburg Empire.

Runic writing from the Szekler region of Transylvania

While this nonsense was being aired on MTV, Duna TV was spreading the gospel of the far right with the help of “literary historian” Mihály Takaró and “experts” on the runic script, László Sipos and Gábor Hosszú. Sipos is the head of a foundation that promotes runic writing, a favorite hobbyhorse of the extreme right. Hosszú is an electrical engineer who decided that his real calling is the analysis of runic writings. The teachings of both of these men are, according to Klára Sándor of the University of Szeged, a real expert on Szekler runic writing, utterly unscientific.

Takaró’s “speciality” is the far-right literature of the interwar period. He is most likely the force behind the introduction of Cécile Tormay, Albert Wass, and József Nyirő into the Hungarian curriculum starting this September. Very recently he was a member of the editorial board of Trianoni Szemle, known to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. Thus, the above mentioned anti-Semitic writers most likely are close to his heart.

Takaró’s series is called  “Száműzött magyar irodalom” (Exiled Hungarian Literature). Videos of the program can be seen on the Duna TV website.  The program on runic writing could be seen a couple of days ago in a series called “Hagyaték” (Heritage).

According to the “experts” on runic writing, Hungarian children should be taught runic writing already in first grade instead of the Latin alphabet because it “would strengthen the children’s self-identity.” I couldn’t help but recall Bálint Ablonczy’s description of  “the fortress of the right,” a construction that has “its own myths, its own hymns, its own heroes” but which “becomes incomprehensible to the rest of the world.”

Thus the Fidesz government is propagating a worldview that has nothing to do with either science or rationality. Such notions about Hungary’s place in the world lead to political isolation and economic ruin.

Cultural isolation of the Hungarian right and Hungary’s political quarantine

May 27, 2012 12 comments

It was about a year ago that Bohut Pahor, prime minister of Slovenia, made a rather undiplomatic remark to reporters that after Hungary’s presidency of the European Union is over “Hungary will be isolated” as a result of Viktor Orbán’s behavior and policies. Pahor added that Orbán was ignored even before July 1, 2011, the end of Hungary’s six-month tenure.

A few months later HVG noted that the Slovenian prime minister seemed to know what he was talking about. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received practically no invitation from other political leaders in the European Union.  By the end of September, Orbán’s only invitation came from the Bavarian premier.

A few days ago HVG returned to the subject after doing a thorough search of Orbán’s foreign trips since he took office. On the basis of information received from the Prime Minister’s Office, they concluded that the number of bilateral meetings with western European leaders became rarer and rarer as time went by. In the first six months after taking office Viktor Orbán met either the presidents or the prime ministers of western European countries ten times. One ought to add, however, that most of these meetings were arranged at the request of the Hungarian government. Orbán used the forthcoming Hungarian presidency of the European Union as an excuse to request an invitation. In comparison, now that no such rationale can be used to force an invitation, in the last year there were all told five meetings, four of which occurred during summits, which cannot be compared to a high-level state visit. In fact, according to the information received by HVG Orbán tried to arrange meetings with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel but both were busy.

As for the United States, although the Prime Minister’s Office acted as if Viktor Orbán had no interest in sitting down with Barack Obama, the fact is that an invitation was not forthcoming. A few days ago at the NATO summit in Chicago there was a brief meeting and the exchange of a few words between Orbán and Obama, but it was no more than a photo op. As far as I know, Obama shook hands with all the prime ministers of the NATO countries.

In the last few months Orbán managed to meet the prime ministers of Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And as a result of the thrust toward the East he met the Chinese prime minister, the president of Kazakhstan, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. He is planning trips to China and India.

It is not only the critics of the Orbán government who notice that Hungary is becoming increasingly isolated. Bálint Ablonczy, a reporter for Heti Válasz and one of the few moderate right-wingers, warned the government in an article that appeared in Mandiner of the growing political isolation that the Orbán government is experiencing of late. The government’s “aggressive economic policies and its attitude toward constitutional issues caused deep disappointment” abroad. Although the government parties are still riding high, mostly due to the weakness of the opposition, it is time to take stock. A substantial portion of the Hungarian right-wing camp wishes to be back in 1937 or even 837. This means total isolation from today’s world and even from the traditions of Hungarian history.

In right-wing circles the thinking is that if during the communist period a historical or literary figure was maligned or neglected that person must be reevaluated in a positive way. Such thinking “can lead to grave mistakes, meaning that it elevates such politicians and writers who are not deserving. Yes, I think of Miklós Horthy and Albert Wass.”

Ablonczy wants a balanced picture of these men. Horthy is not necessarily a mass murderer or Wass a war criminal but one mustn’t forget Horthy’s role in the deportation of 600,000 Hungarian citizens or Wass’s anti-Semitism and support of a fascist organization.

The Wass cult defies rational explanation. As of now Wass has 53 statues and plaques in Hungary which would be  excessive even if his works were all masterpieces. In any case, for the Hungarian right Wass is celebrated not as a writer but rather as the embodiment of an age. But one could learn more about Hungary in the twentieth century from the works of Miklós Bánffy, Jenő Dsida, Gyula Illyés, Áron Tamási, Mihály Babits, Zsigmond Móricz, Endre Ady, András Sűtő, and István Szilágyi. Enclosing oneself in a single segment of Hungarian intellectual history, especially since it is extremist, Ablonczy argues, can only lead to “the deformation of Hungarian self-knowledge.”

The Hungarian right looks upon the history of the interwar period as “a perfect world that the communists wanted to conceal from us.” The cult of József Nyirő can be understood only in this light. And Fidesz plays into the hand of this crowd “in the interest of vote getting.” Thus, there is an official sanction of a worldview that “further builds the fort of the right.” But such construction has a price: “its own myths, its own hymns, its own heroes become incomprehensible to the rest of the world.” People of diverse beliefs who loathe shallowness even within the country will move far away from a small sect with a narrow view of the past.

Cultural isolation will sooner or later turn into political isolation. It can happen any time.

János Kádár (May 26, 1912 – July 6, 1989)

May 26, 2012 25 comments

It was one hundred years ago today that János Kádár (originally János József Csermanek) was born as the illegitimate child of Borbála Csermanek, a chambermaid in the fashionable seaside resort of Fiume, today Rijeka. He died at the age of 77 on July 6, 1989, the same day the Hungarian Supreme Court announced the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and his closest collaborators during the 1956 revolution.  His burial was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, whose grief seemed genuine.

A few days later Imre Nagy, the victim of Kádár, was reburied. It is estimated that Kádár’s funeral was just as well attended as those of the martyrs of 1956.

Yes, János Kádár was popular, and his popularity has only grown since his death. By 2010 two-thirds of Hungary’s adult population considered the Kádár era the golden age of the twentieth century. The majority of Hungarians who lived under the rule of János Kádár remember those years as an era when they were left alone to build their lives (however modest), when there was relatively little difference between rich and poor, and when they didn’t have to worry about what will happen to their jobs the next day.

Of course, many of the better educated people wanted to have more than relative material well being. They yearned for democracy in which they would have unlimited possibilities for self-fulfillment, including freedom of speech and travel. But let’s face it, they were in the minority. The vast majority would have been quite happy to live in the Kádár regime as long as their standard of living kept going up.

Politicians like to rewrite history, especially recent political events, and the Orbán government’s favorite pastime is talking about the last eight years in a way that makes them barely recognizable. Only recently we heard that Hungary was in worse shape in 2010 than Greece is today.

The rewriting of the “eight years” when Fidesz was in opposition is understandable, but a wholesale rewriting of history is also under way. The history of the entire twentieth century is being rewritten and those who have more than an average knowledge of history are watching what’s going on with growing trepidation.  At the moment the Horthy regime is being rehabilitated, along with Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. The post-1945 period is viewed as one gelatinous mass.

We are talking abut 45 years of varied history yet everything is described as a communist dictatorship, pure and simple. Even within the Kádár regime it is customary to distinguish between the period of retribution for 1956 and the later period of consolidation after 1963. But according to the official Fidesz interpretation of history, the whole period between 1945 and 1989 is  “a criminal period.” Consequently, anyone who played a substantial part in the maintenance of that regime is a criminal and should be punished, including the current Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) as a successor to Kádár’s MSZMP.

János Kádár at the May 1, 1957 celebrations

The Institute of Political History organized a two-day conference on Kádár’s heritage this weekend. The speakers included Iván Szelényi (currently teaching at Yale University); György Földes, the director of the Institute; Ignác Romsics, professor of history at ELTE;  Zoltán Ripp, researcher at the Institute; M. János Rainer of the 56-Institute; and István Feitl, deputy director of the Institute. These scholars tried to place Kádár in a historical context and to come to grips with his heritage.

On the first day most of the speakers talked about Kádár’s successful period, especially the era between 1963 and the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s and especially by the 1980s János Kádár became inflexible and increasingly conservative. He fiercely resisted any attempt to loosen the economic shackles of the planned economy, so by that time only foreign loans could maintain the steady rise in living standards that was essential to keeping up the Hungarian gulash communism.

While sociologists and historians are trying to find Kádár’s place in history, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció categorically rejects the view that the relative mildness of the Kádár regime was János Kádár’s doing. According Péter Niedermüller, deputy chairman of DK, it was the result of 1956. Kádár knew how far he could go. So, the debate continues.

Meanwhile, the real communists unveiled János Kádár’s bust in the cemetery next to Kádár’s grave. The unveiling was done by the writer György Moldova, a devotee of Kádár. Moldova called the former general secretary of MSZMP “a proletarian saint.” He added that “this country is not worthy of the memory of János Kádár” because it abandoned the regime Kádár built.

One thing is sure: the Kádár era left an undeniable imprint on Hungarian society. How often we read about “the people of Kádár” (Kádár népe). It is a disparaging way of describing people who are not ready to stand up for their own rights, who follow the leaders blindly, who want to have the state care for them. In brief, they behave like sheep.

Just as Miklós Horthy’s twenty-five years left a strong imprint on the Hungarian psyche so did Kádár’s thirty-three. Fidesz’s effort to find the guilty ones who propped up the Kádár regime is a waste of time. Kádár is in the very fabric of Hungarian society even today.

Removal of another thorn in the Orbán government’s side: The Lex Éger

May 25, 2012 13 comments

I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons, perhaps the most important one, for the demise of the Gyurcsány government was its failed attempt at health care reform. The struggle between reformers and those who opposed the changes introduced by Lajos Molnár (SZDSZ), minister of health, in the fall of 2006 was intensified by the fierce opposition to the reforms by the Hungarian Medical Association (Magyar Orvosi Kamara/MOK) led by István Éger.

István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association

Fidesz and MOK worked hand in hand to prevent the introduction of reforms. And they were successful. Although the health care bill was passed in December 2007, Éger began to sound like a guerrilla warrior. His most memorable line was uttered on December 18, 2007 when he announced that “we will trip them up everywhere we can.” (In the original: “Ott fogunk betartani, ahol tudunk.”) This slang expression is close to the meaning of the word “sabotage.” And indeed, Éger tried his best to make the Gyurcsány and later the Bajnai government’s life miserable.

People assumed that with the victory of Fidesz in 2010 Éger and the medical community would be rewarded for services rendered. The Medical Association headed by Éger had several demands. Membership in MOK had been compulsory prior to 2006 when the Gyurcsány government abolished this rule. This was a blow to Éger because a large number of the reluctant members left MOK. Fewer members, less money, less prestige, and perhaps lessened infuence.

So, one of Éger’s demands was the restoration of compulsory membership in the Association. His other demand was to have the right to torpedo health care legislation not to the Association’s liking. Orbán was ready to grant the demand for compulsory membership, which was nothing off his skin, but giving real power to MOK was something else.

Some people who know Éger claim that the president of MOK was certain that he would be rewarded with a high government position after the Fidesz victory. But Orbán had no intention of being generous, perhaps sensing that Éger is hard to deal with. So, after a few months of waiting, Éger decided to attack. He announced that the doctors’ patience was running out. He complained about the lack of consultation with the Ministry of National Resources on health issues that concern the Medical Association. He also had personal gripes. His official salary set by the Ministry was 750,000 forints. He wanted 2 million. He was a prickly fellow who most likely irritated not only Miklós Szócska, the undersecretary in charge of health care, but also Viktor Orbán himself.

Miklós Szócska, Undersecretary of Human Resources

At first, the government hoped that István Éger would not be reelected at the forthcoming election of the Association. They thought that Éger had lost a lot of support because of his problems over the size of his pay check that he kept–as it turned out illegally–a secret. Moreover, he was pretty ruthless about collecting past dues from those members who were forced to rejoin the Association.

The government had to be disappointed. On December 10, 2011 Éger triumphantly announced the result of the elections. Seventy percent of the membership reelected him to head MOK for another four years. The Ministry tried its best not to accept the results of the elections due to some unfinished investigation of a territorial subdivision of MOK. The Ministry also complained about the electoral procedure that was not quite according to the rules and regulations governing MOK and similar associations.

It seems, however, that these objections of the Ministry didn’t achieve the desired results, so the Orbán government had to resort to another stratagem  to get rid of Éger. It took them a few months to figure out what to do, but yesterday a new amendment emerged that seems aimed at the removal of István Éger from his position as head of the Hungarian Medical Association. The Hungarian media immediately nicknamed it Lex Éger.

On May 22 an amendment was submitted to a bill that contained several new regulations concerning health issues. The amendment would change the agreement that had been worked out between the government and the associations. The upshot of the change is that someone who had served for two terms as president of an association couldn’t serve a third time. This new law would also apply to any of the office holders in the associations connected to the health care community. Since Éger was first elected in 2003 and again in 2007, the results of the 2011 December election results would therefore be null and void. The amendment would give the Hungarian Medical Association the opportunity to hold another election in October. Naturally, Éger cannot run. He can say goodbye to his lucrative and influential position. Most importantly, he can no longer make the Orbán government’s life miserable.

Éger, who is currently on an official trip in Germany, is taken aback. In his opinion this proposal is “a crude intervention in the functioning of a professional organization which is unacceptable in a democracy.” He blamed Miklós Szócska for the submission of this amendment. Éger hopes for international support. Apparently he talked to the secretary-general of the International Medical Association, who was apparently “stunned.” He announced that he is planning to get in touch with the president of the Association of European Doctors. As it turned out, beginning next year he would be one of the vice presidents of the organization, unless “he is kicked out” of his position.

He expressed his hope that Zoltán Balog, Szócska’s superior in the Ministry of Human Resources, will not risk an international scandal over his removal. Éger seems to have an ally on the parliamentary committee on health issues in the person of Géza Gyenes, former secretary-general of the Hungarian Medical Assocation and now a Jobbik member of parliament. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the amendment will pass.

In such cases the Orbán government usually wins but, knowing Éger, I would take his threat seriously. There will be an international scandal prior to his departure. Éger will make sure of that.

The honeymoon is over: Romanian-Hungarian relations

May 24, 2012 13 comments

About a year ago I wrote an article about the slowly fermenting trouble in the relations between Romania and Hungary. I recalled in that article that Fidesz was keeping fingers crossed for Traian Băsescu, president of Romania, at the time when he was running for re-election in the spring of 2010. Fidesz leaders, who every summer make a pilgrimage to Transylvania, were actually campaigning on behalf of  Băsescu during the summer of 2009.

Băsescu, with some difficulty, won the election and so, more dramatically, did Viktor Orbán. On the surface Romanian-Hungarian friendship seemed to be thriving. However, I was pretty sure even then that this honeymoon between the two countries would not last long because the Fidesz leader’s intense nationalism would sooner or later irritate the Romanians.

One didn’t need to be a Cassandra to predict a sorry end to the newly found friendship because this is exactly what happened during the tenure of Orbán Viktor between 1998 and 2002. Relations soured not only with Romania but with practically all the neighboring countries with the possible exception of Croatia, at least until the nationalist Franjo Tuđman was president of the country.

By the summer of 2011 cracks in the Hungarian-Romanian friendship seemed to be deepening. In the first place, the personal “friendship” between Băsescu and Orbán was one-sided because we know from WikiLeaks documents that Băsescu called Orbán “the last disgusting little nationalist of Europe” in the presence of the American ambassador to Bucharest. A year ago there were more and more incidents that involved Hungarian politicians and officials that irritated Romania mightily. For instance, Kövér in a speech said that Hungarian territorial autonomy in Romania would be “the will of God.” The Romanians told Kövér to pay attention to the business of Hungary and confine the will of God to his own country.

This Kövér speech was followed by other irritating incidents until it got to the highest levels of Romanian politics. By June 2011 Băsescu refused to attend a reception at the Hungarian Embassy in Bucharest marking the end of Hungary’s presidency of the European Union. A month later in July Băsescu refused to participate in the yearly “open university” week that is organized by Fidesz every year and attended by the top brass of the party. In the previous few years Băsescu did attend. At that meeting Orbán told his audience that “the time of Hungarian territorial autonomy hasn’t arrived yet.” Băsescu retorted that “there will never be any time when Hungary can intervene in the internal affairs of Romania. Hungary has her own problems which are not small. He [Orbán] should try to solve those.”

During the earlier administration the two governments held joint cabinet meetings but neither in 2010 nor in 2011 was there such a gesture. It turned out that Viktor Orbán personally stopped the practice.

After the summer of 2011 flareups between the two countries there was relative calm until a couple of months ago. Trying not to get lost in the details of the stormy Romanian politics of late, I must mention a few important facts. On February 5 the Romanian government of Emil Boc (Liberal Democratic Party) resigned and his place was taken by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, whose tenure was short lived. In April 2012 his cabinet was dismissed following a no-confidence vote. In these governments RMDSZ, the main Hungarian party in Romania, was a coalition partner. RMDSZ insisted on the establishment of a Hungarian-English section of the medical school in Tîrgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely) as its price for participating in the Ungureanu government.

After the fall of Ungureanu, Băsescu asked Vitor Ponta, a social democrat, to form a government, and it seems that he is no friend of the Hungarians. According to Népszava Ponta’s government enacted a number of bills that are unfavorable to the Hungarian minority.

Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), the center of controversy
where József Nyirő might be reburied

It is in this context that, most likely on László Kövér’s insistence, the Hungarian government financed the reburial of József Nyirő, the Transylvanian writer of decidedly far-right sympathies, in Romania.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Nyirő’s remains were supposed to be transported in a special coach attached to a train going to Șumuleu Ciuc (Csíksomlyó), where apparently more than 100,000 pilgrims gather every year at Pentecost. It was reported in the Hungarian press, however, that the Romanian State Railways didn’t get permission for this coach to be attached to the train. Unfazed, the Office of the Speaker of the House (László Kövér) decided that the remains will be transported to Romania in some other way.

Not only is the Romanian government unhappy about this reburial. The politicians of RMDSZ are also upset because they consider it an act of interference in the affairs of the Hungarian community in Romania. RMDSZ is a right-of-center party but obviously not right enough. Fidesz’s favorite is the Magyar Polgári Párt (Hungarian Civic Party), a party organized in the image of Fidesz in the Szekler region of Transylvania. The RMDSZ mayor of Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuies) considers the whole Nyirő affair a campaign ploy on behalf of the Magyar Polgári Párt, thus an act of interference in the forthcoming elections. According to the latest news, Romanian authorities are bent on not allowing Nyirő’s remains to reach Romanian soil. They are searching cars at the borders.

The Hungarian government is assuming the role of  the injured party in this conflict. Although only yesterday Mircea Dusa, the new minister for liaison with parliament, announced that at the beginning of June the two prime ministers, Victor Ponta and Viktor Orbán, will meet, Péter Szijjártó, spokesman for Orbán, announced that “the meeting is not on the agenda.” And that’s not all. There will be a meeting in Bucharest soon at which the prime ministers of new members of the European Union will discuss “the future of the cohesion funds.” A meeting between the Romanian and Hungarian prime ministers is not scheduled.

László Kövér, despite requests by RMDSZ not to attend the reburial and thereby get involved in the Romanian campaign, plans to go to the reburial of Nyirő’s remains if  they ever arrive. Meanwhile Romanian and Romanian-Hungarian politicians point out that Nyirő was “a fascist.” The Hungarian government might find this fact immaterial, but Romanian public opinion hasn’t “forgiven” Nyirő  for his involvement in the fascist Hungarist Arrow Cross movement. Fidesz is not moved, and its leading politicians don’t seem to be terribly bothered by MSZP’s claim that Fidesz has moved to the far right of the political spectrum, right where Jobbik is.

The abortion pill in Hungary

May 23, 2012 51 comments

It is truly amazing how much power and influence a nonexistent party can assert on its coalition partner. I’m talking about the Christian Democratic People’s Party or KDNP (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt). This non-party, which is not even considered to be a full-fledged coalition party by Fidesz, has enormous influence, for example, on education.

The Christian Democrats worked hard to elevate the Catholic Church in Hungary to its current privileged position. As the political arm of that church, one of KDNP’s serious concerns is the sanctity of life, and that life, according to the teachings of the church, begins with conception. This issue caused quite a bit of friction between Fidesz and the Christian Democrats at the time the new constitution was being drafted. If it had depended on the most radical members of the KDNP caucus, Hungary today would have a constitution that  forbids abortions altogether.

But here Viktor Orbán drew the line because he considered such a move political suicide. He left the door open, however, for further changes in the law.  As the BBC’s Nick Thorpe remarked at the time, the  new constitution “paves the way to limit abortion because of the paragraph that states that the life of the fetus will be protected from the moment of conception.”

Although the number of abortions in Hungary is far too high, the remedy is not prohibition. Unfortunately, the baby-loving government is not a promoter of contraception: “the pill” is not subsidized by the government.

In the last year or so we didn’t hear much on the subject of abortion. A notable exception was the clash between Brussels and Budapest in June 2011. As it turned out, Hungary received 16,000 euros for some project or other but the money was actually spent on an anti-abortion campaign. In charge of the project was Miklós Soltész, undersecretary for family and youth in the Ministry of National Resources (now more logically called the Ministry of Human Resources). And to which party does Soltész belong? You got it! KDNP. On the EU side of the controversy was Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, who has lately been a thorn in Viktor Orbán’s side. Reding demanded the return of the misspent money.

The current upheaval concerns the “abortion pill,” widely known as RU-486. The trade name of the drug to be distributed in Hungary, Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Romania, Sweden, and Slovakia is Medabon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the abortion pill in 2000. The World Health Organization believes that RU-486 is a safe and effective treatment for terminating pregnancy. The pill is widely used all over the world and in France, for example, more than one-third of all abortions are done chemically.

So what happened in Hungary in the last few days? On May 19 a short article appeared in Magyar Nemzet informing its readers that the “abortion pill” had been approved by the Hungarian equivalent of the FDA. The newspaper actually lauded the procedure as easy and safe and it almost sounded as if they welcomed its appearance. The Christian Democratic politicians, however, took the other side of the argument. The KDNP caucus had a meeting on Monday morning  where the decision was made to oppose the introduction of the drug in Hungary.

In medical matters the KDNP spokesman is Kálmán Nagy, an ordinary GP who speaks with such authority that it boggles the mind. He emphasized that his party is against all forms of abortion, but he and his colleagues have specific problems with the abortion pill. According to our expert, taking a pill has a greater negative psychological effect on the woman than surgical intervention. “At its early application it turned out to be fatal,” he misleadingly added.

Miklós Szócska, undersecretary in charge of health issues, had to answer Nagy. From his answer it was clear that he will not stand up to the latest attack of KDNP. He explained that “approval” of a drug doesn’t mean that it will be available and therefore used. He also explained that the Hungarian FDA had no choice: in 2009, when fourteen European countries approved it, the EU demanded that the rest of the EU countries follow suit. So, Szócska gave the impression that  approval was unavoidable but that he can actually stop the sale of the drug in Hungary.

This, it seems, is not true. In fact, the formula that is in the abortion pill is already being used in Hungary if a doctor finds chemical preferable to surgical treatment. Only the registration of the drug was missing. As far as I can ascertain, Szócska can only decide whether the state insurance plan will pay for the the procedure. Looking at the price of the pill and its administration in other European countries, the cost should be around 40,000 Ft.

Of course, the leading lights of KDNP, Kálmán Nagy and Péter Harrach, are certain that “there will be no abortion pill in Hungary.” István Pálffy (KDNP), former TV personality, is also certain that the abortion pill will never be introduced in Hungary. According to him, the opinion of the World Health Organization and the medical profession is “rubbish” (marhaság). The marketing of Medabon is the result of lobbying on behalf of the manufacturers. This interview with Pálffy is available on video and is certainly worth watching.  According to Nagy, “Miklós Szócska promised that this method of abortion will not be introduced in Hungary.” How will Szócska get out of this situation? I guess he will figure something out. These guys are inventive.

Both MSZP and DK immediately objected to the KDNP demand and the seeming agreement of Szócska with the Christian Democrats. Csaba Molnár, the deputy chairman of DK, announced that his party can’t accept any “disguised tightening of the abortion law.” MSZP “stands up against the limitation of women’s rights.”

On the other side, the pro-life groups organized a demonstration. Even according to MTI it was a tiny one of “about two dozen men and women,” including some politicians. Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democratic party and deputy prime minister, demonstrated alongside Előd Novák and his wife Dóra Dúró, important leaders in Jobbik. In fact, Novák is rumored to be behind the notorious Nazi Internet publication, kuruc.info.

While the Christian Democrats argue about the abortion pill, more and more women are already going to Vienna to receive treatment there. In Austria 50-70% of all women seeking abortion opt for the pill. The Austrian gynecologist who was interviewed by Magyar Rádió talked about the growing number of women visiting his hospital.  And this is exactly what Csaba Molnár (DK) focused on today. The Orbán government’s policies hurt the poor. Any tightening of abortion options hurts those who cannot get into the car, drive to Vienna, and pay 500 euros for the procedure. If Medabon is not available in Hungary, people in the higher income brackets will be able to use the less dangerous and more comfortable method of terminating pregnancy. The rest will be treated surgically.

I’m curious what the last word on this will be. If I had to guess, the “compromise” will be that the procedure will not be covered by national health insurance. That would save money and favor the well-to-do. It would be a typical Fidesz solution.

The war of the statues

May 22, 2012 33 comments

The war is on. Each side has its favorite. On the right it is Miklós Horthy and on the left, János Kádár.  The first life-size Horthy statue stood for only a few hours in Kereki, a village of 567 inhabitants, seven kilometers south of Lake Balaton. As for the bust of János Kádár, although it will be unveiled it will immediately be removed from public view. Those who wanted to honor the former secretary-general of MSZMP, Hungary’s communist party, didn’t receive permission to set up the sculpture in the famous Hungarian cemetery on Fiume (Rijeka) Street. So, as one newspaper remarked, it will be “a mobile statue.”

First, a few words about Kereki. The town council is made up exclusively of “independents,” as is customary in smaller towns and villages all over Hungary. Of course, they are not really independents, as is abundantly clear from newspaper stories documenting the five-member town council’s fascination with Miklós Horthy. The wooden statue was paid for by a businessman living in the village and the deputy mayor of Kereki. The mayor himself didn’t support the idea but accepted the decision of the majority. According to the mayor, the inhabitants of the village are divided on the issue, and only about 10% supported the erection of a Horthy statue. Someone in the village, however, is very keen on Horthy because already last year the town council named a square after him. So, came Sunday, May 13,  and the Horthy statue was unveiled.

The organizers were hoping for 4,000-5,000 visitors but only about 400 people gathered, including the notorious Goy Bikers. The deputy mayor is ambitious. He eventually wants to have a number of statues of “the greats of Hungarian history.” That decision was already reached two years ago. I assume after the victory of Fidesz-KDNP in the spring of 2010.

The unveiling of the statue was not the end of the story. The leader of the Goy Bikers read a letter he had received from Péter Dániel, a lawyer known for his unusual ways of protesting the Orbán regime and the demonstrations of the Hungarian right radicals. Dániel became famous/infamous when he smeared deviled eggs on the Declaration of National Unity that every office had to display at the order of Viktor Orbán. Dániel told the Goy Bikers that he will pour red paint on the statue. “If that occurs, you can count on the Goy Bikers. We will certainly take care of the matter faster than the courts.” The audience applauded vigorously.

Dániel acted soon enough. In the dead of night he poured red paint all over the statue and hung a sign on Horthy’s neck: “Mass murderer, war criminal.”

Dániel didn’t try to hide his action. As soon as the deed was done he posted his “crime” on Facebook. He took a picture of the statue and gave an explanation of why he decided to act. He did it “in the name of all Hungarian and non-Hungarian victims and martyrs. In the name of every intelligent and decent man. In the name of the victims of Orgovány. In the name of Béla Bacsó and Miklós Radnóti. In the name of my maternal grandfather who managed to survive the war but spent years in Siberia. In the name of my fraternal great grandparents who were killed by the Arrow Cross men in Budapest and their bodies thrown into the Danube. In the name of thousands and thousands of innocent civilians. In the name of deported children and women who ended up in gas chambers. In the name of those massacred in Novi Sad.”

A few explanatory notes. At Orgovány hundreds of people were killed by members of the National Army under Horthy’s command in 1920. Béla Bacsó was a journalist of Népszava, the social democratic paper, who was killed by the white terrorists in early spring of the same year.  Miklós Radnóti, the great poet, was killed  by German and Arrow Cross soldiers. Novi Sad, a town in Serbia today, was the site of a massacre of  about 2,000 Serbs and Jews by Hungarian officers.

 Magyar Nemzet‘s article accused Dániel of cowardice. After all, said the journalist of the paper, Dániel bravely announced what he was going to do it and yet he didn’t dare do it in broad daylight. The president of the Miklós Horthy Society accused the mayor of not guarding the statue as he promised;  he demanded the mayor’s resignation. The Goy Bikers said they would go to the police and accuse Dániel of “terrorism.” Jobbik also moved against Dániel by going to the chief prosecutor’s office. In addition, they demanded a psychiatric examination. They also called on the “Jewish organizations that are so loud at other times to condemn Dániel’s act.” If they did, I  didn’t hear about it.

The national organization of anti-fascists also condemned Dániel’s night visit to Kereki. But he was defiant. He told ATV that even if they kill him or cripple him he proudly accepts responsibility for what happened. According to him, one mustn’t wait until “we have to wear the Star of David again.”

On Sunday, May 20, about 200 Jobbik supporters and Goy Bikers stood ready to beat Péter Dániel to a pulp. They also threatened his liberal friends who had gathered to discuss the events at Kereki. The police came to the rescue of the liberals and prevented bloodshed.

The liberal activists were very much divided on the issue and, if I had to guess, I would say that the overwhelming majority of the people who are against the government didn’t support Dániel’s actions. Yet they were faced with about 200 guys who were prepared for physical violence. I heard Dániel himself, who is burly man, recall the affair as frightening. They were not sure whether they could get out of the building alive. I also heard a woman who was present describe the scene in almost identical terms. Of course, there were many completely unacceptable words flying about: “traitor of the nation,” “filthy Jew,” “queer,” and “stooge of the Jews” (zsidóbérenc).

And now we can turn to János Kádár. As I just learned from the Hungarian media, it was 100 years ago that János Kádár was born in Fiume/Rijeka, then part of Hungary. He was the illegitimate son of a chambermaid working in one of the plush seaside hotels on the Adriatic.

The bust was ordered by the Friends of János Kádár (Kádár János Baráti Kör). It is made of limestone, and the sculptor is András Várhelyi. The idea was to set up the bust next to the grave of János Kádár and his wife. First they approached the director of the cemetery who wouldn’t take  responsibility for the decision. Because the cemetery belongs to the Hungarian state the request went to the office handling state properties, but so far they haven’t received an answer. So, on May 26, after the bust is unveiled, it will immediately be removed and will be kept for the time being at least in the offices of the Workers’ Party of Hungary. The president of the Friends of János Kádár told the reporter of Index that even if permission had been granted by the Hungarian government, in the present political atmosphere it wouldn’t make any sense to display the statue outside.

If there are all sorts of misconceptions about Miklós Horthy, the admirers of János Kádár can also come up with interpretations of his political career that are not based on facts. Today I heard György Moldova, a prolific and popular writer of the Kádár period, who sang his praises and called him a great historical figure. By the way, Moldova will make the speech and do the unveiling on Sunday. Moldova even denies  Kádár’s responsibility for Imre Nagy’s death.

There are always true believers, right and left.

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