Month: June 2012

New obstacles to negotiations with the IMF?

After studying the reports of the last few days on the impending IMF negotiations, I’m coming to the conclusion that the situation is not so simple as Mihály Varga, the man in charge of the negotiations, tried to convey. Varga claimed yesterday that the start of the negotiations depends only on “synchronizing the dates and plane schedules” among the negotiating partners. This announcement followed the receipt of the European Central Bank’s reactions to the amended law on the Hungarian National Bank that, according to Varga, gave the green light to the negotiations.

Varga had to admit, however, that during the course of the negotiations the European Central Bank may come up with further demands. Even without any additional demands the negotiations will not be easy. According to analysts in Budapest and London it may take many months to hammer out the differences in the negotiating partners’ positions.

One can start with the kind of  loan Hungary will get. Hungary would like to receive something called a “flexible credit line” (FCL), which is the financial safety net Viktor Orbán has been talking about. The problem is that according to the IMF “the FCL  was designed to meet the increased demand for crisis prevention and crisis-mitigation lending from countries with robust policy frameworks and very strong track records in economic performance.” Hungary does not have a very strong track record in economic performance. Instead of an FCL  most likely Hungary will be eligible for something called a “stand-by-arrangement”  (SBA) that is designed for countries in need of financial assistance, normally arising from a financial crisis. In return for aid, the economic program stipulates needed reforms in the recipient country aimed at bringing it back on a path of financial stability and economic sustainability. Well, this is exactly what Viktor Orbán would like to avoid.

Varga admitted that  Hungary might have to fulfill certain demands if the country is eligible only for an SBA loan. He specifically mentioned the issues of public transportation, financial assistance to local government, and certain issues concerning taxation. Especially problematic might be the bank levies, and by now we can add the transaction taxes, especially on the Hungarian National Bank and the treasury. As far as the flat tax is concerned, the Hungarians were not officially informed about the IMF’s position on the issue, but Varga said that “we do read the statements of the leaders of the IMF.” He admitted that they don’t know precisely what is awaiting them in the negotiations: “we are groping in the dark.” Varga is hoping that all will become clear once they sit down to negotiate. He is counting on impressing the IMF negotiators with the new healthcare bill, the new law on local governments, other administrative steps taken to reduce costs, and the promise that in 2014 the bank levy will come to an end.

Although Varga admitted to the reporter of Magyar Nemzet that the European Central Bank may come up with further demands, he added that, although the letter of the ECB is important, “the key actor of the negotiations is the IMF and therefore if no response is forthcoming before the last day of the parliamentary session” the Hungarian parliament will vote on the amendments to the law on the Hungarian National Bank without final approval by the ECB.

What do the London analysts have to say (not that I have great trust in their analyses in general)? According to Barclays Capital, because the loan will be the SBA type the economic program will have to be comprehensive and complicated. And that takes time. The same analysts wouldn’t be surprised if the negotiations lasted as long as the preparation for the start of the negotiations, seven months. Morgan Stanley is concerned about the transaction taxes, especially since the Hungarian Bank Association had very strong objections to them. It is most likely, claim the Morgan Stanley analysts, that the IMF will sympathize with the banks.

MSZP being an opposition party is taking the position that an agreement with the IMF is “in danger.” According to László Botka, the chairman of the party’s steering committee, the IMF and the European Central Bank will not accept “the extension of the transaction tax to the national bank.” The party’s financial experts are convinced that the budget under discussion in the house is specious and it is unlikely that the IMF will accept it as a valid prognosis of the Hungarian economy’s future. Tamás Katona, formerly undersecretary in the ministry of finance in the earlier administration, is certain that the decision to extend the transaction tax to the national bank and the treasury is designed to further postpone negotiations with the IMF.

And finally, Népszava seems to know the details of the letter of the European Central Bank concerning the amended bill on the Hungarian National Bank. If their information is correct, the ECB still has many reservations that it expects to be remedied. Apparently the “bureaucrats” in Frankfurt want further assurances on the issue of a third deputy-chairman and the appointment of new members of the Monetary Council. They still insist on a full salary for the chairman and his deputies, and they still want them to take an oath to the central bank and not to the Hungarian government.

This news has not been confirmed by others, but I got the impression that Népszava saw the document and that the report is based on the text. If that is the case, Varga’s fear that the ECB may come up with new demands wasn’t unfounded. At the moment one cannot say whether or not the negotiations will start soon in spite of the latest stunt of the Orbán government. In any case, Varga’s optimism seems premature.

By the way, if no change occurs in 2013 40% of the Hungarian GDP will be spent on taxes. This is highest since 1990. By comparison, in the United States the percentage of taxation on all levels is only 26.9% of the GDP. If we compare Hungary to the other former socialist countries, all countries with the exception of Slovenia have a lower rate. It is true that there are some European countries where the rates are higher: Sweden, Belgium, Iceland, Austria, and Germany. However, these countries provide more extensive social services to their citizens than does Hungary where the Orbán government spends very little on education and healthcare.

And lest I forget, Zimbabwe (as in so many other things financial) holds the record for the highest rate of taxation. It is 49.3% of the country’s GDP. Not exactly something to strive for.


Another “peacock dance”?

Every time either a Hungarian government official or a spokesman is asked about the reasons for the government’s sluggishness in fulfilling the requests of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, or the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe the answer goes something like this: “We immediately responded and fulfilled 99% of the requests, but then these organizations came up with a new set of demands. They are the ones who don’t want to settle these issues.”

Of course, the truth is quite different. It is the Hungarian government that answers letters in the very last moment, refuses to address key issues, and occasionally even enacts new laws that have an impact on earlier ones already approved by the Commission and the ECB. This is happening now with the extension of the transaction taxes.

It was last November that Hungary was forced to turn to the IMF for a loan. If all goes well, perhaps an agreement will be signed in October. That is, if the ever optimistic Mihály Varga, the new minister without portfolio in charge of the negotiations, is correct in his latest prediction. But we should keep in mind that Varga mentioned many dates before: June, August, September. So why not October?

There are many economists and political commentators in Hungary who are still convinced that the Orbán government doesn’t really want to have an agreement and that what’s going on with the central bank law is only part of what Viktor Orbán himself described as a “peacock dance.” It is, as he explained, a choreographed dance carefully executed which is intended to fool his negotiating partners. In the opinion of these commentators Orbán wants to avoid any kind of outside interference with his economic policies and therefore he feigns an eagerness to negotiate and thus hopes to keep the markets happy. As Kester Eddy said in the Financial Times, “if the current Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán ever entered an international strudel-making competition, it would surely win gold, judging by the time it is taking to meet the conditions set by the EU and the International Monetary Fund for a new line of credit.” One must know that in Hungarian to “drag one’s feet” is “nyújtja mint a rétestésztát,” meaning to roll out the dough for strudel, making it very thin.

Peacock Dance / Flickr

In any case, today the word came. The European Central Bank gave the nod to the latest changes in the bill on the Hungarian National Bank. Admittedly not all demands were met, but it looks as if the European Commission and the European Central Bank are sick and tired of  dealing with Viktor Orbán. According to the statement of the European Central Bank,”the draft amendments, alongside a commitment not to increase the size of the Monetary Council during the term of the current MNB Governor, are an indication that the Hungarian Government is now ready to respect the MNB’s institutional independence.” Why anyone would believe Viktor Orbán’s promises is beyond me. After all, he himself confessed quite openly how he was planning to fool the bureaucrats of the European Union.

But whatever the reason, the EU officials threw in the towel and yesterday, when the word was already out that negotiations can begin, it looked as if all were in order. But the Hungarian government is still rolling out the dough, it seems.

The new leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, Antal Rogán, announced a few days ago that the “members of the caucus are requesting that the government pay attention to job creation and make money available for that purpose.” I have my doubts that the members of the caucus had anything to do with this “request.” Fidesz doesn’t work that way. More likely the top brass looked at the opinion polls and decided that something must be done.

The request is all well and good, but one must keep in mind that in order to impress the European Commission with the excellent work they are doing at reducing the deficit Matolcsy and Orbán decided to submit the 2013 budget very early. The jobs bill is under discussion at the moment and it will be voted on in the next few days, before the summer recess. The budget prepared in the last couple of months naturally doesn’t not contain the stimulus package of 300 billion forints that Matolcsy announced yesterday. A bit of a problem, th0ugh not for a man like György Matolcsy, the author of “fairy tales.” Mind you, this latest brainchild of how to gather 300 billion forints from nowhere has been described by an LMP member of parliament as “shamanism.”

What did Matolcsy come up with? Naturally, new taxes but these taxes are truly unique. The economic minister plans to extend the financial transaction tax to the central bank and the treasury, with revenue from the levy expected at 380 billion forints ($1.66 billion). Absolutely brilliant, don’t you think? The government taxes itself. Money is being transferred from one pocket to another.

András Simor, chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, immediately fired off a letter to László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian parliament, and to the chairman of the parliament’s audit and budget committee. Simor didn’t consider the content of the proposal a breach of the pertinent laws. He only reminded parliament that “bills pertaining to the role of the National Bank of Hungary require prior consultation with the NBH and the European Central Bank, respectively.” And such mandatory consultation did not take place.

Although Simor complained only about the lack of consultation with the Hungarian National Bank and the European Central Bank, I suspect that this latest move of the Orbán government will again slow down the already snail-pace preparations for the negotiations for the 15 billion euros Hungary allegedly needs so badly. Or doesn’t need at all, depending on whom one is listening to.

I truly feel sorry for the “bureaucrats” of the European Central Bank. They thought that at last they got rid of this pesky little fellow and now he is back. And what if the bureaucrats in Frankfurt find that a government taxing its own national bank’s financial transactions is illegal? I have the sneaking suspicion that this is a first in the world of finance and therefore might be problematic. Of course, it is possible that the bureaucrats will just shake their heads and let Orbán and Matolcsy run with it.

“National bonding” the Hungarian way

Until yesterday I didn’t even know that the Hungarian parliament has a twelve-member committee  that busies itself with something called “nemzeti összetartozás” (national belonging/bonding). So, I decided to find out what this committee is all about. It wasn’t a great surprise to learn that it was the brainchild of the Fidesz parliamentary majority. It was on December 23, 2010, the last session of  parliament that year, that the decision was made to set up a committee to deal with issues concerning the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

The chairman of the committee is Árpád János Potápi, a Fidesz member of parliament since 1998 and in civilian life a history teacher. Fidesz and KDNP members have an absolute majority (66.7%) on the committee, and if you add István Szávay (Jobbik) the right-wingers make up 74% of the membership. The committee has one independent member, Katalin Szili (formerly MSZP), who in spite of her leftist leaning is quite a nationalist. At the time of the referendum on dual citizenship in 2004 she, then still a member of MSZP and speaker of the house,  admitted that she had voted to  grant citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, a position the party opposed. In addition, there is one member from LMP and one from MSZP. As far as I know, the MSZP member rarely attends.

During the last year and a half the committee dealt with 32 topics, including granting the title of “Civitas Invicta” (The invincible city) to Szigetvár. The Latin “civitas invicta” was translated into Hungarian as the “unconquerable city,” which is really funny considering that the Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the fortress in 1566. The committee also spent a considerable amount of time talking about the requirements of  “the national curriculum.” The Christian Democrats insisted on discussing the use of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and the flag.  Here and there the opposition suggested that the committee take up some more serious topics.  For example, three MSZP members suggested working out a long-range strategy for an integrated economic area in the Carpathian Basin, but the committee refused even to discuss the matter. All in all, this committee doesn’t really have a function.

The “Committee on National Belonging” may have no reason to exist, but it sure can cause trouble, even create an international incident. Árpád Petápi, the committee chairman, decided to hold one of the committee’s regular meetings in Komárno, Slovakia, just across from the Hungarian Komárom, on the left bank of the Danube. The meeting was held at the János Selye University, a fairly recently established Hungarian university in Slovakia, on June 27. This regular meeting was also used as an occasion to talk with József Berényi, chairman of the Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP), the Hungarian party in Slovakia Fidesz supports. Béla Bugár, the chairman of Most-Híd, a Slovak-Hungarian party, wasn’t invited.

Univerzita J. Selyeho / Selye János Egyetem

It turned out from the MTI report that this is the fifth time that the Committee on National Belonging has held its meeting outside the Hungarian parliament. During these trips the members of the committee meet with church leaders as well as chairmen of civic and youth organizations. This was the situation this time also. The Hungarian MPs visited several villages nearby. I’m pretty sure that it was an enjoyable day. But what ensued was less pleasant.

Soon after the outing was over the Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák expressed his displeasure over the way the Hungarians had handled this trip. Hungary has the right to hold one of its regular meetings in Komárno. After all, both countries are within the Schengen borders.  But it would have been “basic courtesy” to inform the Slovak parliament about such a visit. Instead, according to the spokeswoman of the Slovak foreign ministry,  the Slovaks learned about the meeting of the committee in Komárno from the webpage of the Hungarian parliament.

Not so, says Árpád Potápi, the chairman of the Committee on National Belonging. The Hungarians informed the Slovak foreign ministry. Once again, who is telling the truth?

Lajčák was not the only one to complain. By late evening  Pavol Paška, speaker of the Slovak parliament, complained about the use of the word “Felvidék” (Uplands) to refer to Slovakia. Paška called this usage “bad manners” and “offensive to the Slovaks.” Paška also expressed his misgivings to the Hungarian ambassador in Bratislava. During the conversation Paška complained that all the topics discussed in Komárno concerned Slovak citizens, and as far as he knew “the Schengen Agreement did not abolish borders, only the barriers to border crossings.”

The Hungarian foreign ministry didn’t want to comment on Pavol Paška’s diplomatic protest. The ministry’s statement simply read that “keeping up the connection between the committee and the Hungarians in Slovakia is natural.”

Potápi was more talkative. We found out from him that in the past the committee visited Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Kárpátalja), Lendava (Lendva) in Slovenia, Salonta (Nagyszalonta) in Romania, and Kecskemét (Hungary). Why Kecskemét? A mystery. There were no problems with any of these visits to neighboring countries, he claimed.

Slovak-Hungarian politician József Berényi (MKP) is convinced that with the return of Robert Fico as Slovak prime minister Hungarian-Slovak relations will again be strained, just as they were when László Sólyom couldn’t visit Slovakia to unveil a statue of St. Stephen, also in Komárno. Béla Bugár (Most-Híd), who wasn’t invited because the Orbán government doesn’t consider his party truly Hungarian, thinks that this latest unannounced official visit to Slovakia is very much like the Sólyom visit in 2008–“a diplomatic faux-pas” that further divides the two nations.

After a “malheur diplomatique” now we have a “diplomatic faux-pas.” There must be something seriously wrong with the upbringing of the members of the Orbán government and Fidesz. A few more of these and everybody will be offended or perhaps popping mad at the creators of the Hungarian “national bonding.” And not just at those committee members who are holding regular meetings in the neighboring countries.

“The trap of silence or the aftermath of the Nyirő affair”

Today I began my day by reading Attila Ara-Kovács’s latest article in Magyar Narancs where he has a column, “Diplomáciai jegyzetek” (Diplomatic notes). Ara-Kovács is originally from Transylvania. He was born in Nagyvárad/Oradea and graduated from the Babeş-Bólyai University in Kolozsvár/Cluj. He was among those who began the first Hungarian-Romanian samizdat publication entitled Ellenpontok (Counterpoints). He has been living in Hungary since 1983 where he joined the handful of dissidents who voiced their opposition to the one-party system. It was this group that eventually established SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). Ara-Kovács became the party’s foreign policy expert.

Ara-Kovács latest article, “The trap of silence or the aftermath of the Nyirő affair,” deals with the Nyirő affair but not in the sense that most people approach the subject. He is hunting for the underlying issues that  inevitably led to this embarrassing affair that was politely described by President János Áder as a “malheur diplomatique.”

Well, this diplomatic misfortune stirred up, at least abroad, some history that Hungarians would like to forget: Miklós Horthy as Hitler’s ally, Hungary as the country that stood by Nazi Germany to the bitter end, Hungarian antisemitism, the unbelievably speedy elimination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews. And all this “dirty laundry” is now being dragged out and spread around on the pages of German, French, and English newspapers. This is the last thing either the country or Viktor Orbán’s government needed.

How did János Kövér and others, including the poet Géza Szőcs, himself a Transylvanian, end up taking part in an affair which with a little more knowledge of József Nyirő’s literary qualities and his politics could have easily been avoided? Ara-Kovács finds the answer in the “directed cultural policy” of the post 1945 period.  The leadership, especially during the Kádár period, found it embarrassing to talk honestly about the Hungarian far right’s misdeeds. They were also incapable of making a distinction between value and worthlessness, and they were incapable of admitting that even among the best literary talents there were some who made horrible mistakes. There were indeed Hungarian writers active during the Kádár regime whose past was not exactly spotless: László Németh, Lőrinc Szabó, János Kodolányi, for example. In their cases the regime simply forbade any mention of their political activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Others were labelled not quite normal, like Dezső Szabó or József Erdélyi, or were ignored, like Kálmán Sértő and István Sinka (who posthumously received the Kossuth Prize in 1990 and now Hungarian Jewish organizations demand his removal from the curriculum). József Nyirő belonged to the forgotten category. And now all this, because of László Kövér’s attempt to rebury Nyirő, came out of the “national cesspool.”

Twentieth-century Hungarian history may have taught people that forgetting is the best remedy for sleepless nights, but such silence has its pitfalls. The skeleton of Nyirő fell out of the closet and that skeleton reminds us that for such silence one sooner or later will have to pay. If the literary historians had assigned Nyirő his proper place in the history of Hungarian literature and if the politicians in charge of cultural policy didn’t look upon his past as nonexistent, then the right radicals and neo-Nazis of today couldn’t have made “first a martyr and later a clown” out of him.

Silence /

In his article Ara-Kovács brings up the story of Hitler’s Mein Kampf  in Hungary. The book was translated into Hungarian in the 1930s but it was an expurgated version. The editors left out everything that even “the not so delicate political taste” of the Horthy regime couldn’t tolerate. After 1945 this edited version was banned. In the 1990s Hungarian right radicals illegally republished that old translation of Mein Kampf. So today, if a young person is interested in reading Hitler’s famous book, he will be reading only an edited version that gives a much more favorable picture of the dictator than the original German. It would be time to publish a critical edition of Mein Kampf. 

A writer who has done a lot to bring to light the political past of some of the Hungarian writers is András Nyerges, who for years wrote a column called “Színrebontás” (Color Separation) in various dailies and eventually in ÉS. Nyerges has a phenomenal knowledge of the right-wing or outright Nazi press between the two world wars. And while he was diligently reading these old newspapers in the Széchenyi Library he found names of contributors that surprised him greatly. People who followed Nyerges’s revelations learned about the ugly spots on some of the most famous Hungarian writers, even those who were loyal followers of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. For example, Péter Veres. But Nyerges wrote about József Nyirő as well. The article was eventually published in a collected volume, Rendes ország, kétféle történelem. 113 színrebontás (Decent country, two kinds of history. 113 color separations).  From the article we learn that there was a debate over Nyirő’s political role already in 1989 on the occasion of the centennial of the writer’s birth. The argument of Nyirő’s supporters sounds familiar: Nyirő “didn’t serve national socialism with his pen, only with his mere presence.” But this presence was steadfast. According to György Oláh, editor-in-chief of Egyedül Vagyunk, a far-right newspaper, among the radical writers many of them got “”burned by democratic-Marxist ideas.” The only exceptions were Albert Wass and József Nyirő in addition to Antal Práger, the actor.

It is time to face facts, and therefore I was pleased to hear that a conference was held on the role of Horthy and the nature of the Horthy regime today. But conferences are not enough. A balanced and truthful history of the recent past must start in the schools. In the last twenty-two years the Hungarian school system was incapable of fulfilling this duty and I very much doubt that the Orbán government has any intention of righting this wrong. On the contrary, they are doing their best to falsify history.

Church and state: public versus parochial schools

I would like to spend a little time on the sorry state of Hungarian education, which is in the midst of a complete make-over.

I don’t want to go into the details of this so-called educational reform. Suffice it to say that critics claim that Hungarian education is heading backwards, to the time prior to the 1984 educational reform. In that year the rigid Hungarian educational system was loosened and teachers received quite a bit of freedom to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the pupils. The current reform will force teachers to follow a rigid curriculum, making it more inflexible than education was in the last years of the Kádár regime. The choice of textbooks will be reduced. Occasionally one hears that in fact there will be only one official textbook per course that all students will have to use. Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal is a “national minimum of knowledge” that all Hungarian citizens will be expected to acquire. Such uniformity can be obtained only if teachers use the same official texts.

Another worrisome development is the nationalization of all schools that are not already in the hands of the churches. Until now public schools were run by the localities and supervised by elected school boards. After nationalization, which is already in the works, schools will be run from the ministry. Even the appointments of principals and teachers will be determined in Budapest.

But here I would like to concentrate on another development that has been gradual but lately has greatly accelerated: the acquisition of public schools by the churches. Prior to 1948, the year of the nationalization of schools, most schools were parochial and most of the parochial schools were Catholic. Prior to World War I 80% of elementary schools, 64% of gymnasiums, and 59% of middle schools were in the hands of the churches. After the war, because of border changes, the churches’ role in education only increased. By 1920 86% of elementary schools were parochial. Despite the government’s efforts to establish new state schools, the situation barely changed. There were cities where there was no choice: all the high schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church. If the Orbán government is around for another six years, the situation might be similar to the state of affairs before 1948.

Calvinist church and school, Geszteréd / panoramio

It was wrong before 1948 and it would be wrong in 2012 or 2016. A secular state can’t allow the education of its citizens to be taken over by the churches. The education the Catholic Church provided before 1948 was inadequate for the needs of the modern world. These schools might have produced graduates with some classical knowledge, but they also produced citizens who had been steeped in conservatism. If that was the case between the two world wars it is especially true today.

After the change of regime in 1990 there was an agreement between the churches and the state that a certain number of their schools would be gradually returned to them. My former high school is slated to be one of them. I spent six years of my life there. Four fairly happy and two miserable ones. I’m sorry to say that I passed the two miserable ones under the watchful eyes of Notre Dame nuns. Thus, the very idea that this school will again be in the hands of the Catholic Church doesn’t fill me with joy.

The schools the churches are acquiring nowadays were not necessarily in church hands prior to 1948. The local governments willingly give away their schools for two reasons. One is the high cost of running a school and the relatively little money they receive from the central government for this purpose. A second reason is that at least some mayors and town councils want to escape the nationalization of their schools. Instead they sign over the running of their schools for a certain number of years to a church.

The Orbán government that a couple of years ago seemed to have looked on these transfers approvingly apparently now finds this trend worrisome. Lately there have been signs that the government would like to put an end to this development. Why?

First of all, one must understand that it doesn’t cost a church anything to run a school.  All schools, including parochial ones, receive a certain amount of money from the central government depending on the size of the student body. So, the churches are in a wonderful position. They can decide on the spirit of the school, including its religious orientation, school uniform, and so on, without these privileges costing them a penny. I should add here that in the past twenty years or so the churches managed to get a higher per capita subsidy than non-parochial schools.  It was Fidesz-KDNP that was loudest in demanding more and more money; the socialist-liberal government, in fear of further alienating the churches, gave in.

But now Fidesz-KDNP is no longer in opposition. Today they are the ones who have to pay the bills that result from the churches’ successful financial negotiations of the past. If this process continues, the state’s burden of running a school system in which parochial schools have a greater and greater share will be higher than before. And  given the state of the national coffers, the Orbán government can ill afford such a luxury.

Perhaps this is the reason for a surprise amendment to the education bill. Today a Fidesz MP who in private life is an elementary school teacher said that he would like to include a paragraph about the circumstances under which a church can take over a public school. His amendment stipulates that before such a transfer takes place at least half of the parents and students over the age of 18 would have to agree to the change.

Sounds like something a decent democratic government would propose. But I’m afraid it is not Fidesz’s democratic impulses that dictated this amendment but financial necessity. Whatever the reason, I for one would be very happy if the amendment were approved.

Israeli-Hungarian rift: Is someone lying?

I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to dwell any further on the Horthy cult and the inclusion of antisemitic writers in the core curriculum of Hungarian high schools. There are many other subjects that need attention or are interesting, but the controversy over the rehabilitation of the three or four writers with right-radical or Nazi views simply doesn’t want to go away. In fact, the upheaval surrounding the case is growing; by now it has brought about a serious diplomatic rift.

First there was only a protest on the part of the association of teachers of Hungarian over the inclusion of Dezső Szabó, Albert Wass, and József Nyirő in the curriculum. This professional debate by the end of February reached the larger public and caused an outcry on the liberal side of the political spectrum. Outcry or not, Rózsa Hoffmann’s staff decided in favor of those right-wingers who inundated the ministry with their suggestion to “balance” the teaching of Hungarian literature by including far-right, antisemitic writers.

On top of this original controversy came another one that involved one of these controversial writers, József Nyirő. The Hungarian public learned in late April that the Hungarian government had a hand in the planned reburial of Nyirő in Odorheiu Secuiesc / Székelyudvarhely in Romania. For some time now I have been trying to imagine what must have gone behind the scenes before László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian parliament, decided to officially sponsor the transport of Nyirő’s remains from Portugal and their reburial in Romania. I suspect that it was Kövér’s favorite Romanian-Hungarian politician, Jenő Szász, chairman of the Fidesz-assisted Magyar Polgári Párt (MPP), who came up with the idea and that Kövér, whose political views are perhaps the farthest to the right among the leading Fidesz politicians, gladly obliged.

But then all hell broke loose, starting with Romania’s refusal to allow the reburial of Nyirő. The reburial was supposed to take place on Pentecost, which fell this year on May 27-28. Since then the incident has became a cause célèbre, especially since the reburial was part and parcel, it seems, of a general rehabilitation of the whole Horthy regime. In addition, some antisemitic incidents occurred lately both in Budapest and elsewhere in the country.

In the last three weeks or so came a press release from the Holocaust Museum in Washington followed by a letter signed by fifty representatives of the U.S. Congress to Viktor Orbán protesting the growing antisemitism fed by the neo-Nazi party, Jobbik. Two days after the Holocaust Museum press release came Elie Wiesel’s letter to László Kövér in which he indicated his resolve to return the high honor he received from the Hungarian government earlier. Kövér in his answer to Wiesel claimed that Nyirő was neither a Nazi nor an anti-Semite. As for the charge about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime Kövér had nothing to say. Wiesel not surprisingly wasn’t satisfied with Kövér’s answer.

This is where we stood yesterday when the Jerusalem Post reported that the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, had informed László Kövér, his Hungarian counterpart, that he was no longer welcome in the Israeli parliament after his participation in a memorial ceremony for a pro-Nazi author. Kövér was scheduled to visit the Knesset in July when he was in Israel for a conference honoring the 100th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth.

According to the Israeli paper, Rivlin wrote to Kövér that “you chose to participate in [the Nyirő memorial service] and openly declare your solidarity with a person whose party, within the Government of Hungary, cooperated with the German Nazi murderers in realizing their program to annihilate the Jewish People.” He added that “anyone who participates in such an event cannot possibly then take part in an event to honor a man like Raoul Wallenberg, a beacon of humanity, who saved Jews, who is a symbol of the struggle against Nazi Germany and its collaborators, one of whom you chose to identify with and pay homage to.”

Tough language. MTI didn’t pick up the news. Instead ATV, a television station often critical of the government, made the news public yesterday. Naturally, all the media outlets approached László Kövér’s office to find out what was up.

By now one is accustomed to the widespread government habit of dissembling, and therefore I read the following piece of news with great suspicion. When MTI asked the spokesman of the Speaker’s office, László Veress, about the Jerusalem Post‘s article, he denied that László Kövér had received any such letter from Rivlin. He expressed his astonishment that the speaker of the Knesset would send messages to his Hungarian counterpart via the media.

Veress went even further in his denial. If such a letter had actually been written, it was written in vain because days before Kövér cancelled his trip to Jerusalem due to scheduling difficulties. In his place President János Áder will attend the memorial conference on Wallenberg’s role in saving Jewish lives in Hungary.

Lies / Flckr

But the reporters of ATV are resourceful. Within hours they approached Yotam Yakir, the spokesman of the Israeli Knesset, who informed the ATV reporter that Rivlin’s letter to Kövér had been sent on June 20th–that is, four days before the Jerusalem Post reported the news. It was a day after the receipt of this letter, on June 21, that the Israeli authorities received the information via diplomatic channels that, in place of Kövér, Áder will attend the conference. In that letter no mention was made of the objections to the Kövér visit listed by Rivlin.

Every time that a member of the Hungarian government is caught lying I always wonder what on earth must be going on in the minds of these people. They truly think that the truth will never surface? Maybe. But it is also possible that this crew is simply incompetent. They don’t know how to get out of a sticky situation like the one they got themselves into with the Nyirő reburial. Because surely, one doesn’t have to resort to outright lies in order to sidestep an uncomfortable situation.

Who is this László Veress? He has a fairly common name, which makes research a bit difficult, but I managed to find a somewhat unsavory piece of news about Dr. Veress from a year ago.

I wouldn’t be surprised if László Veress has Transylvanian roots. On Facebook most of his friends are from Romania. The incident below, widely reported in the media, also has Romanian connections. In 2010 a Hungarian photographer living in the Netherlands exhibited a black and white photo taken at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad where every summer the Fidesz top brass deliver speeches and mingle with Hungarian youngsters sympathizing with Fidesz. Dr. Veress liked the photo and asked the artist whether he could get a copy of it. The artist was asking 70,000 forints for his work. Eventually he heard from Veress that because of budgetary restraints he was unable to purchase the photo he wanted to display in his office. So, great was the photographer’s surprise when he learned that Veress had ordered two illegal copies of his photo. He wrote a letter in which complained about the piracy and heard nothing in reply for some time.

Eventually an answer came from the press corps of the Hungarian parliament in which the office claimed that the Hungarian parliament had an agreement with the organizers of the exhibition that allowed parliament to make free use of the material exhibited. Why then did Veress ask the photographer to make a copy for him? According to the explanation, László Veress was unaware of the agreement between parliament and the organizers of the exhibit. The story was reported in Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York under the  headline “Who lies also cheats, who lies also steals.”

A murky story. Who knows who is telling the truth. I doubt that the photographer ever got a cent for his work from Veress or anyone else. Unfortunately, the story of Rivlin’s letter to Kövér is also shrouded in mystery or, if you prefer, in lies. The Israelis claim that the letter was sent to Kövér on the 20th while Veress claims that his office didn’t get the letter until today, that is June 25th. Whom do you believe? Given the track record of the current Hungarian government, I’m inclined to believe the Israelis.

Introducing László L. Simon, poet, politician, viticulturist

I never cease to be amazed at Hungarian politicians’ capacity for multitasking. They are capable of amazing feats. For example, there is Lajos Kósa, the mayor of Debrecen (population over 200,000), who is a full time mayor, a full time member of parliament, and who holds an important position in the Fidesz party apparatus. And, in his spare time, he managed to create a worldwide financial panic (mind you, a mini one). Recall what happened in the summer of 2010 when he announced the imminent collapse of the Hungarian economy.

Antal Rogán is also a busy fellow. Full time mayor of Budapest’s District V and a full time member of parliament. But he’s not just an ordinary back bencher. He single-handedly turned out scores of bills. An amazing feat, especially considering that he had no legal training.

But at least one could say that these two and their colleagues of many talents specialize in politics. The real multitasker in the Hungarian parliament is László L. Simon, the new undersecretary for cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources. He is a politician, a poet, a publisher, an editor, a photographer, an artist, a typographer, a university lecturer, a viticulturist, a hotel manager, and a fruit grower. One must indeed be awed reading this list. He also knows how to take advantage of his position when it comes to his and his family’s benefit. His political career, although short, has been spectacularly successful.

Who is this man? Although he is much younger than Viktor Orbán, it probably helped his career that he graduated from the same high school in Székesfehérvár as the prime minister did. Originally, his aspirations must have been fairly modest. His university studies qualified him as a high school teacher of Hungarian literature and history. But then he began writing poetry and prose. In his autobiography he claims to be the author of ten books on widely varied subjects: poetry, essays, monographs, viticulture, typography and art.  And on the side he has a Ph.D. in literature and did all the course work for a degree at an agricultural college.

L. Simon is also a co-owner of Simon Guesthouse and Winery, a family business situated in the picturesque village of Agárd near Lake Velence. Both the guest house and the cellar look impressive.

The Simon Guesthouse, Agárd

The 13-room guesthouse is located 800 meters from a thermal spa. Business meetings and exhibitions are organized there. Wine tasting and dinner events are held in their wine cellar. The guesthouse is pretty nice but the wine cellar is truly impressive.

The Simon Wine Cellar, Agárd

The winery is part of the Lake Velence wine tour, which naturally helps the traffic at the Simon Estate.

László L. Simon doesn’t fit our mental image of a poet. He looks more like a boxer whose face has seen some rough times. If his poetry that I managed to read is any indication of his work in general, it is not exactly genteel. Someone already quoted parts of an unspeakable line about the “Jewish whores,” but the line that says “I don’t even smell the stench of shit” perhaps more fittingingly describes some of these guys’ attitudes nowadays in Hungarian politics. Anyone who would like to get acquainted with this great poet can find samples here.

So, one poet (Géza Szőcs) left and another poet came as undersecretary in charge of culture. I do hope that Szőcs’s poetry is better than his successor’s, but I doubt that the state of cultural affairs will be in any better hands after his departure. Quite aside from Szőcs’s unacceptable role in the Nyirő reburial affair, the Orbán government’s attitude toward culture is far less generous than Viktor Orbán’s devotion to football.  Everything was cut to the bones when the Fidesz ideologues began their Kulturkampf. Fidesz supporters in  literature and in the arts don’t even hide their determination to take over the the field. Those who felt in the past that their talents were not truly appreciated are standing by waiting for rewards they feel they are entitled to. And I’m sure that L. Simon will be most obliging. He pretty well agreed to one of the principal demands of Jobbik, the departure of Róbert Alföldi from the post of director of the National Theater.

The hope in certain circles is that L. Simon will have an easier time getting the much needed funds that Szőcs was unable to obtain. One thing is sure: his relationship with Viktor Orbán seems to be extremely friendly. In addition to the geographical ties there are social ones. L. Simon and his wife–a German teacher originally but a fitness instructor of late–have four children. The Orbáns have five. And I’ll bet L. Simon loves football. I have the sneaking suspicion that Szőcs’s interest in football is minimal.

In fact, the two men are on such good terms that the prime minister visited L. Simon’s Guesthouse and Winery the day before yesterday. He looked around the orchards and talked to the workers, who happen to be the inmates of the jail in Baracska nearby. I’m all for inmates doing something useful, but the place of employment gives me pause. I’ll bet not everybody can arrange a ready work force, most likely on the cheap, like L. Simon managed.

L. Simon’s political career is also on a fast track. He became a member of parliament only in 2010 but he is already one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz caucus. In addition, he is the chairman of the parliamentary committee on cultural affairs. And now he is also a member of the government.

In the past one could see meteoric rises in Fidesz when for one reason or other someone caught Viktor Orbán’s eye. Then a couple of years later the person was dropped or shoved aside. I wonder how long L. Simon will be one of the favorites.