Month: August 2012

Another St. Stephen’s Day in Hungary

It was twelve years ago, about this time of year, that the St. Stephen mania was at its height during the first Orbán government. Because of the celebrations of the millennium of Stephen’s coronation and thus the historically accepted date of the establishment of the Hungarian state Viktor Orbán had a fantastic opportunity for self-aggrandizement. On August 19, 2000, the prime minister visited the neighboring villages, Alcsútdoboz and Felcsút, where he grew up. It was here that he awaited the arrival of Hungarian pilgrims returning from Rome on foot. The pilgrims had taken a replica of the Holy Crown to the Vatican where the pope blessed it. When the pilgrims arrived with the fake crown with its papal blessing, the prime minister delivered a speech in which he recalled that St. Stephen offered his country to the Virgin Mary in the very place where he was standing: in Alcsútdoboz.

There are a couple of problems with Orbán’s claim. The first is that the earliest reference to Alcsútdoboz is from the fourteenth century. The second problem, and the more serious one, is that St. Stephen most likely never offered his country to the Virgin Mary. The first mention of this alleged offering was at the end of the eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII made all sorts of fiscal demands on the Hungarian kings who cleverly replied that unfortunately the country was already ruled by none other than the Virgin Mary herself.

At the beginning of his political career Orbán was known to profess no faith. Later the public learned that he was a devout Calvinist. People suspected that his sudden interest in Calvinism had something to do with his need to have the political assistance of István Csurka’s MIÉP.  The Hungarian Reformed Church happened to have good relations with that party. But if he was a good Calvinist, how could he take the Regnum Marianum cult seriously? After all, Calvinists don’t consider the Virgin Mary an important part of their religious beliefs. On the contrary, they reject anything that has to do with saints and post-biblical miracles.

St. Stephen’s portrait in the Képes Krónika / Chronicon Pictum, prior to 1360

This story from twelve years ago shows how far politicians are willing to go to use history and religion to their own political advantage. By now Viktor Orbán is being compared to St. Stephen himself . Lajos Kósa, deputy chairman of Fidesz and mayor of Debrecen, in his speech emphasized that Stephen used “unusual methods to convert his country from a pagan tribal society to a Christian state,” just as Viktor Orbán decided to use “unorthodox methods” to change Hungary. János Áder, the president, talked about a new foundation of Hungary, just as in Stephen’s time. János Lázár emphasized that the whole country must change radically, just as in Stephen’s time.

The saintly king’s methods were “unusual” in one sense: he was ruthless. He forcibly converted the people to Christianity and used every possible method to make sure that they followed the strictures of the new religion. He was equally ruthless with his relatives who threatened his position. One was drawn and quartered; his remains were displayed on the gates of four different cities. Another was blinded and his ears filled with hot lead.  Let’s hope that the Matolcsy-Orbán duo’s “unorthodox methods” will be less draconian.

Then came Péter Harrach (KDNP). From him we learned that Stephen was a man who wanted to introduce order but not dictatorship. Dictatorship in the early eleventh century?  The word didn’t even exist until the mid-sixteenth century. I guess this reference to Stephen’s desire for order but not dictatorship has something to do with the charge leveled against Orbán, that he’s a man of dictatorial tendencies. Another modern concept Harrach attributed to Stephen’s days is ” unity.” Stephen certainly managed to break down the power of other chieftains and expanded his own rule over their lands, but I’m afraid Harrach wasn’t talking about geographical unity but rather national unity which is of course a historical anomaly when we are talking about the eleventh century. According to Gyula Kristó, the foremost historian of the period, most likely the majority of the population of the Carpathian Basin was Slavic speaking and the Hungarians at that time were still in the minority. Stephen most likely didn’t give a hoot who spoke what language. The only thing that was important for him was that they were his faithful subjects.

Harrach, a Christian Democrat, could not leave out the usual idealized description of Stephen as a deeply religious and pious man. According to him, the key to his personality is his “Exhortations” to his son. The problem is that most medieval kings were illiterate; according to Kristó, that probably was the case with Stephen as well. The “Exhortations” were most likely written by Bishop Asrik-Anastas, the man who brought a crown (not the Holy Crown of today) to Stephen from Rome. It is therefore doubtful that this document is the key to Stephen’s personality.

Perhaps the most confusing speech was delivered by János Áder. According to the president, the old world is in crisis and “those nations will be successful in the twenty-first century that can lift their souls. We carry the knowledge in our blood that if the soul is rising, everything rises with it.” I’m not even going to try to figure out what he wanted to say. Perhaps the most intriguing part of these sentences was that “knowledge is in our blood.” I thought that knowledge had to be acquired, usually through hard work, but I guess the Hungarians are different. In their case, at least this particular piece of knowledge is in their blood.

By way of a footnote: the only reference I found to “Knowledge in the Blood” was a book by the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria. The subtitle of the book was: “Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past.”

Neo-Nazis in Cegléd, Hungary

I wanted to write about the national holiday, August 20, St. Stephen’s Day, but something else came up. Another incident of Gypsy-baiting. This time in Cegléd, a town not far from Kecskemét and Szolnok, about 70 km south of Budapest. It has a population of 38,000 with a fairly large Roma population that lives on the outskirts of the town.

The neo-Nazis have provoked two incidents within one month. The first took place in Devecser in Transdanubia, the site of the red sludge disaster two years ago. There two neighbors got into a fairly violent argument–neither side was exactly innocent–that prompted Jobbik to organize a demonstration against “Gypsy crime” that ended up being not at all peaceful. During the demonstration rocks were thrown at the houses of the Roma families while one of the “warriors” with singularly bad aim hurled a rock right at one of the onlooking Jobbik MPs.

This so-called demonstration was hardly over when a new incident took place. The first report I found about it was in kuruc.info: “Spontaneous demonstration in Cegléd against Gypsy crime.” The article claims that the “locals got fed up with the looting of the Gypsies and with the police that refuse to do anything against them.” According to the report, the population was outraged and “the people of Cegléd asked the New Hungarian Guard” to come to their rescue. (As you may recall, the Hungarian Guard was banned but then came the New Hungarian Guard, so everything goes on as before.) Late at night, the report continues, “one cannot see Gypsies anywhere but there are many police cars on the streets.” As it turned out, the police were not on the streets to shield the defenseless non-Roma population of Cegléd from the Gypsies but rather to defend the Gypsies from “the units of the New Hungarian Guard that remained in town.”

A “warrior” in Cegléd / MTI Photo János Bugány

But that wasn’t the end of the story. According to Szent Korona Rádió, on August 17 “the patriots [members of the New Hungarian Guard and other riff-raff] were trying to approach the houses of the Gypsies but the police stopped them.” A few football fans from the Újpest-Ferencváros match came to join the members of the New Hungarian Guard, the HVIM, and the Gendarmerie, another neo-Nazi group. The ones who remained in Budapest managed to ruin a few buses and streetcars after the game.

A day later the story got fancier. According to news published on hunhir.info, local members of the Szebb Jövőért Polgárőrök Egyesülete (Militia for a Better Future) were having an innocent picnic when they were attacked by armed Gypsies. Moreover, these Gypsies also turned on the police. Therefore SZJPE “ordered nationwide mobilization.”

Now let’s see how the police saw the same events. They reported that extremist groups had arrived in the city and practically occupied a part of the town where a lot of Roma lived. The police estimated that there were at least 500 extremists in town and that overnight on August 19 three Jobbik members of parliament also appeared on the scene. There was fear in the town, and the streets were empty with the exception of the Roma-inhabited section of town where Gypsies were waiting for the approaching extremists coming toward their houses through an open field.

What caused this upheaval? According to the police, Saturday night a caller reported that a group of people, maybe 20 or 30 in number, were behaving in a threatening manner while also disturbing the peace. By the time the police arrived there was no one to be found. There was either such an incident or not. Hard to tell. But the Fidesz mayor of Cegléd claimed that the “cause” was artificially exaggerated by the extremists so they could have an opportunity to stage another threatening demonstration against the Gypsies. The mayor also revealed that about three weeks ago there was a rumor that he wanted to move forty Roma families into a mixed Roma/non-Roma section of town. He figures that perhaps that rumor sparked consternation among some people in town. Also just last Sunday the town opened a park that is supposed to symbolize “Hungarian-Roma cooperation” and perhaps the cross that was erected there might not be to the liking of the town’s Jobbik contingent. One thing is sure, claimed the mayor: the fact that three Jobbik MPs immediately showed up indicated that Jobbik was behind the whole ugly affair. The mayor was also convinced that the attack on the Cegléd Roma population was timed to coincide with the national holiday.

As it turns out, there are no great problems with the Roma population of Cegléd. According to the mayor, there are occasional problems with some members of about twenty families but nothing that the local police and the local government cannot handle. Most likely the neo-Nazis are just waiting for a telephone call from someone who reports “Gypsy crime” in his or her locality. That is enough to scout out the place and begin recruitment.

Somehow the Hungarian authorities have to put an end to these organized gangs and their anti-Roma attacks. If they don’t, these incidents will only multiply and get uglier and uglier.

A Fidesz MP’s encounter with the Treaty of Trianon and revisionism

A couple of days ago there was an interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás, known as TGM in Hungary, who until 1978 lived in Romania. Hence he knows a great deal more about that country than the average Joe in Hungary.

TGM complained about the general ignorance in Hungary of the enormous political crisis that is brewing in Romania and added that out of solidarity Hungarian politicians shouldn’t threaten Romania with all sorts of ridiculous territorial demands.

What was he talking about? He was alluding to an incident caused by a more ignorant than average Fidesz member of parliament who indicated at a right-wing Hungarian youth camp held in Transylvania that if Hungary becomes economically and “in some other ways” stronger under the guidance of Fidesz it might be possible to bring up the issue of revision in international forums. Perhaps as soon as in eight years time. Why exactly eight years, I don’t know. Perhaps because the Treaty of Trianon was signed in 1920.

What happened exactly? First on the Internet a video appeared in which Hungarian-speaking youngsters were engaged in shooting exercises. Initial rumor had it that these exercises took place at a festival, studded with Hungarian nationalist speeches, held by an organization called Transylvanian Hungarian Youth (Erdélyi Magyar Ifjak or EMI). That turned out to be a hoax. Mircea Dusa, Romanian minister of interior, denied the existence of such a shooting range but expressed his dissatisfaction at  “Hungarian politicians coming here to talk about autonomy and the Land of the Szeklers.” As is known, Romania resists any Hungarian attempt to grant autonomy to the Szeklers living in the middle of Transylvania.

The video depicting the Hungarian sharpshooters was shown on Romanian television and the news was widely reported in the Romanian press. In Hungary not a word of the news that had Romanians riled up appeared. But then came a detailed description of the speeches at the festival by Zoltán Balczó (Jobbik’s deputy chairman and deputy speaker of the house), Gábor Vona (Jobbik’s chairman), and Zoltán Kőszegi (Fidesz). Please note that there are more and more joint appearances of Fidesz and Jobbik politicians, a rather frightening development. Especially when Gábor Vona in his speech emphasized his willingness to cooperate with Fidesz in order “to get rid of MSZP for good from Hungarian politics not because it is a leftist party but because it is ‘anti-nation.'”

According to Krónika someone from the audience inquired about the possibility of border revision. The Jobbik Balczó turned out to be more moderate than his Fidesz colleague, Zoltán Kőszegi. Balczó rightly pointed out that under the present circumstances there is no possibility whatsoever of any border change. Kőszegi thought otherwise.

Zoltán Kőszegi at the Forum of Hungarian MPs in the Carpathian Basin, MTI Photo Imre Földi

Who is this Kőszegi? Few people in journalist circles had ever heard the name. It is not surprising. He is a new illustrious addition to the Fidesz robots sitting in the Hungarian parliament. Until 2010 he was the mayor of Dabas, which has a population of 16,000. Although Dabas might be small, it has “Europe’s longest Main Street,” or at least this is what the good people of Dabas claim.

Kőszegi finished high school in the Pesti Barnabás Élelmiszeripari Szakközépiskola in Budapest, which seems to specialize in cooking, baking, and catering with a rather meager academic curriculum. For example, only two hours of history a week, which might explain Kőszegi’s scant knowledge of Hungary’s past. After high school he went to the Testnevelési Egyetem (University of Physical Education) and focused on coaching weight-lifters. I hope all the regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum will recall that Pál Schmitt received his “doctorate”  from the same university. Moreover, since then there was another outrage at the same institution. The dean granted a diploma to the son of a Fidesz politician who didn’t have the necessary number of credits to graduate.

Kőszegi capped his education with a diploma in something called “igazgatásszervezés” at the Államigazgatási Főiskola (College of State Administration). I had some difficulty finding out much about this mysterious degree in organization, but according to a list where students exchange thoughts on majors it is a low-level law school. In the original: “Szerintem ez a szak nem más, mint lebutított jog.”

If some of you thought that Gábor Borcsa-Turner’s prose left something to be desired, you should definitely take a look at Kőszegi’s autobiography that he submitted to the webmaster of the Hungarian parliament. It begins: 1964-wasn’t born in Dabas. And it goes downhill from there. Kőszegi can start a sentence in the third person singular and end it in the first person singular.

With this background Kőszegi was placed on several committees, including the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Education, Science and Research. Both perfect fits. But he is also active in the Committee on National Affinity, a new committee set up to deal with the unification of the nation over borders, a topic most likely closer to his heart.

Once Népszabadság and several other papers reported on Kőszegi’s “unfortunate”  statement Gabriella Selmeczi, spokeswoman for Fidesz, immediately announced that “Zoltán Kőszegi only voiced a presumably ill-considered private opinion” on the subject of revision. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry also issued a statement which made it clear that Kőszegi’s statement does not reflect the opinion of the Hungarian government. The statement emphasized that the Hungarian government strictly adheres to all the country’s international obligations and treaties signed with foreign powers. The statement did include, however, the Hungarian government’s insistence on the Szeklers receiving territorial autonomy in Romania.

Kőszegi certainly didn’t misspeak because he elaborated on his ideas to Indexa popular Internet paper. He told the reporter that revision was unavoidable but he has “his private theories about the solution. It would be best if Transylvania became a separate country.” This is not exactly an original idea. It was bandied about on and off between the two world wars, and if it was not a viable proposition then, today it has even less of a chance of ever materializing. The Hungarians were in the minority in Transylvania already in 1920, and since then the Romanian majority has become even larger.

But let’s not be terribly surprised about all this ignorance. Forty-four percent of the adult population more or less knows the size of the territorial losses; in the younger generation only fourteen percent can even approximate the proper figures. More than half of the people in their twenties are convinced that the lost territories were overwhelmingly populated by Hungarians. A couple of days ago a young man phoned György Bolgár on this topic. Obviously the idea of peaceful revision appealed to him. But when Bolgár began telling him the facts and figures there was stunned silence on the other end. It was obvious that this young man had no idea that there were only about 150,000 Hungarians on the other side of the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. Maybe Hungarian school teachers should spend a little time on this very important subject in order to set these youngsters straight. And perhaps then we wouldn’t have so many ill-informed people, including Zoltán Kőszegi, Fidesz MP.

A statistical analysis of individual voting districts by        Gordon Bajnai’s foundation

Gordon Bajnai, prime minister during one of the most challenging times in recent Hungarian history, established a foundation called “Haza és Haladás” (Homeland and Progress), which took its name from the title Lajos Kossuth gave to his proposal for a constitution. The goal of the foundation is to assist good governance in the interest of the public good. Twice a year they publish studies that may be useful for those who are engaged in or even just interested in politics. The study I’m going to look at describes and gives advice on how the democratic opposition may be able to win the elections in 2014.

The study is called “Átbillenteni, visszaszerezni, meghódítani” (To tip over, to win back, to gain support) and was written by Viktor Szigetvári and Balázs Vető. It is a very thorough examination of the voting behavior of 106 individual districts based on earlier elections.

The first thing we must keep in mind is that the new election law passed by the two-thirds majority of the governing party created entirely new districts primarily because the size of the Hungarian parliament was substantially reduced. Instead of 386 seats the parliament after the 2014 elections will have only 199 seats. The new districts were drawn with the interests of Fidesz in mind.

The second change is that from here on there will be only one round of voting; whoever gets the most votes will automatically win. Gone is the advantage of the second round that allowed parties to make deals among themselves. Those who trailed badly could drop out and endorse the candidate for another party, giving him a better chance of winning.

One also has to keep in mind that in addition to the 106 individual districts there will be 93 members of parliament who will receive mandates on the basis of party lists. That is, every voter will cast two ballots: one for an individual running in his district and another for his favorite party.

Before the authors begin their examination of the individual districts, they briefly describe their findings on party lists. A party would have to receive 38% of the votes in order to get 34-36 seats out of the 93. If that same party were to get 40-45% of the votes it would receive 39-43 seats and 50% would yield 46-47 seats. For a simple majority the party would have to win in 65-70 of the 106 individual districts.

According to the authors, for a democratic coalition to win the next elections is not an impossibility but it will not be an easy task. An absolute must is to reclaim the northeastern counties that were lost to Jobbik in 2010. To convince the disappointed people outside of Budapest that it is worth returning to the left. Plus, it is essential to get new voters, especially in the western parts of the country where MSZP has traditionally been weak. A tall order indeed.

Szigetvári and Vető make it clear that no party that doesn’t have approximately equal strength throughout the country can win the elections. At present, although Fidesz has lost about 1.5 million voters, the party’s support is fairly even across the country. In the southern part of the Great Plains it stands at 26%, in the northern Great Plains at 26%, in Northern Hungary at 25%, in southern Transdanubia at 19%, in western Transdanubia 24%, in middle Transdanubia 24%, and mid-Hungary at 26%. MSZP’s support is definitely not so geographically homogeneous. It has relatively high support in Northern Hungary (22%) but, for example, in western Transdanubia it has only 8% support. Thus, if MSZP is planning to be a serious contender it must somehow change these statistics. As for LMP, according to the authors, if the party ran on its own it would be able to garner maybe three to five seats.

Thus any political party under the present circumstances must think in terms of cooperation. Only one common candidate can run in any of the 106 individual districts. Otherwise, their chances are nil. That one candidate might come from a newly established party in which all democratic parties unite or form some kind of temporary alliance designed for the elections only. There are problems with this second arrangement, however, because according to the new House Rules no party can form a separate parliamentary delegation that didn’t run as an individual party at the elections.

The different types of individual electoral districts nationwide, Haza és Haladás

The authors describe seven different types of individual districts: (1) districts where voters are committed to the left (red); (2) districts the left should be able to tip over in its favor (yellow); (3) districts that could be won back in mid-size and larger cities (pink); (4) districts in which Jobbik, Fidesz, and the left are fairly equally represented (dark blue); (5) districts that should be won over from Fidesz (green); (6) districts that should be won over where both Fidesz and Jobbik are fairly strong (light blue); and finally (7) solidly and fairly permanently pro-Fidesz (orange).

And how many and what kinds of districts the opposition must win, Haza és Haladás

After a thorough study of the possible results of these 106 voting districts, the authors come to the conclusion that for a victory by a united left there need to be sixteen districts where voters are committed to the left (red); sixteen the left should be able to tip over in its favor (yellow); six that could be won back in mid-size and larger cities (pink); eleven in which Jobbik, Fidesz, and the left are fairly equally represented (dark blue); fifteen that should be won over from Fidesz (green); fourteen that should be won over where both Fidesz and Jobbik are strong (light blue), thus leaving Fidesz with 28 districts.

It is obvious that Bajnai’s think-tank published this study in order to nudge the parties and movements on the left. It is a clear signal to LMP that going it alone is not an option. It is also a warning to MSZP, which lately has been perhaps too self-confident, that without outside help it is unlikely to win the elections. Perhaps this hard-nosed study might make the party leaders and the anti-party civic movement rethink their current positions. Making a decision is a must and it should be done sooner rather than later.

A Hungarian neo-Nazi’s threat to democratically minded Hungarians abroad

A couple of days ago Christopher Adam, editor-in-chief of Kanadai Magyar Hírlap, received a letter signed by Gábor Barcsa-Turner. Barcsa-Turner is deputy chairman of Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HVIM) or, in English, Youth Movement of Sixty-four Counties, an allusion to the number of counties in Hungary prior to 1920.

HVIM is closely allied with Jobbik. The chairman of the movement is György Gyula Zagyva, a Jobbik member of parliament. Another prominent leader of HVIM is László Toroczkai Tóth, who is a Jobbik member of the Council of Csongrád County.

As for Barcsa-Turner, he is the editor of the extremist Szent Korona Rádió that is, despite its name, not a radio station but an Internet website.

What follows is Barcsa-Turner’s letter and the answer written by the founders and spokesmen for the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter. At the end of this post are some notes that might be helpful in understanding Barcsa-Turner’s references.

 * * *

Gábor Barcsa-Turner, fascist, Hungarist, Nazi, take your pick

Never come back here!  You are right: the neo-Nazis and fascists will hang you here for your disgusting articles. Here we are the masters, here we rampage and hate.  We are racists and behave as anti-Semites, we hate everybody, but most of all, we hate you!

 Please tell your comrades still in Hungary that life became unlivable because of the burgeoning nazism and invite Péter Dániel and Gyurcsány and all the other lice to leave the country.

 Forget our language; after all, only fascists and “deep-Magyars” speak it!

 Don’t use the adjective “Hungarian,” because that is the synonym of  Hungarist, Arrow Cross, ultra-right riff-raff who are busily building the Fourth Reich. Don’t call yourselves Hungarians  because everybody will think you are fascists.

 You can be Canadians, Americans, and Europeans, whatever you want, but nothing should cross your lips connected to Hungarians.

And Barcsa-Turner’s followers

And yes: I am an anti-Semite, if you call antisemitism telling the truth. I am a fascist if you criticize my law and order stance. I am a Nazi  because I don’t share the official dogma about the Second World War. I am a Hungarist when you besmirch Hungary’s heroic stand in the Second World War. I yearn for the White Terror every time that you praise Endre Ságvári! My ideal becomes Gyula Ostenburg-Morawek and his detachment,  and I  would be glad to be the murderer of Somogyi and Bacsó, a pair of scribblers!

 I am a racist when you defend the Gypsies and turn your eyes away from the terrorized weak and elderly. I am always the one whom you vilify: an anti-Semite, a racist, a fascist,  Hungarist, a member of a detachment and I could go on. I belong to the extreme right without any tolerance toward the left.

I’m the one you have to deal with. And believe me, there are a lot of us here. Don’t ever come back! Stay abroad  and die homeless, or while extolling the state of Israel, but let no more words about anything Hungarian pass your lips.

 Gábor T. Barcsa

* * * 

On August 13, 2012, Gábor Barcsa-Turner, vice-president of one of Hungary’s officially registered neo-fascist political organizations, the Youth Movement of Sixty-four Counties (HVIM), sent a letter to those Canadian Hungarians who are active in the defense of internationally recognized human rights and democratic principles. (HVIM’s president, György Gyula Zagyva is a Hungarian Member of Parliament. HVIM is in a close strategic alliance with Hungary’s largest far-right party, Jobbik).

Mr. Barcsa-Turner announced himself with the following words. “I am the one you need to deal with” and then, paradoxically, he immediately warns us not to set foot in Hungary, unless we wish to face him with murder weapons drawn, ready to counter our words: “Never come back here! Here … the neo-Nazis and fascists are going to hang you for your disgusting articles. Here we are the masters …. Stay out there and die homeless, or while extolling Israel but let no more words about anything Hungarian pass your lips! … Be Canadians, Americans, Europeans, whatever you want, but mouth nothing about Hungarianness!”

The purpose of the efforts of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter in defense of human rights and democracy is not to exchange words with the likes of Mr. Barcsa-Turner. Our target is the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, and his Fidesz Party. It is thanks to Fidesz and the current government  that neo-fascism in Hungary is growing and asserting itself ever more violently. It is common knowledge that Jobbik was fledged in Fidesz’s warm nest and that Jobbik then drew HVIM, the Outlaw Band, the Hungarian Guards and the other neo-fascist groups into its alliance. These are all now proliferating undisturbed under the protective wings of the Hungarian government, fouling the air for all decent Hungarians. It was as a cherished lark from Fidesz’s inner circle that the erstwhile Orbán disciple, Gábor Vona, flew aloft in Hungarian public life to become the leader of Jobbik. Nor is it with Mr. Vona’s anti-democratic spirit or his hate-mongering rhetoric that Fidesz now has a problem, but rather with the fact that he has drawn off several hundred thousand formerly faithful voters from Fidesz.

The primary target of the efforts of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter in defense of human rights and democracy is accordingly not HVIM’s Gábor Barcsa-Turner but the government of Viktor Orban, whose socially irresponsible leaders are steering Hungary out of Europe toward fanaticism, oppressive state control, and tyranny.

Signed: The founders and spokesmen of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter.

Notes

Péter Dániel is an anti-fascist activist who poured red pain over a newly unveiled statue of Regent Miklós Horthy.

Deep magyars is used to describe nationalist Hungarians.

Hungarism is the Hungarian version of Nazism and the ideology of Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party.

Endre Ságvári, a member of the illegal Communist Party, who was killed during an exchange of gunfire with the police on July 27, 1944, during the German occupation.

Gyula Ostenburg-Morawek, leader of one of the detachments of Miklós Horthy. It was members of his group who murdered Béla Somogyi and Béla Bacsó on February 17, 1920.  The victims were editors of Népszava, the official newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party.

Viktor Orbán: A collective portrait

As the months go by and it becomes increasingly evident that the Hungarian government’s performance by any objective standards is deplorable, people ask why Orbán is still considered to be a talented politician. These critics are not only political analysts and the educated elite who can hardly believe the destruction the second Orbán government has inflicted on the country. Ordinary people often have a better sense of reality than the “experts” who tend to complicate matters and get lost in the labyrinth of their own thoughts.

I frequently hear these ordinary people say on talk shows that in their opinion Orbán is a singularly bad politician. They don’t understand why commentators, when talking about Orbán, often add that he is a very talented man. Only a couple of days ago I read a comment by someone who is most likely a university student because he wrote his comment in response to the latest Orbán interview given to the student Internet paper called policity.hu. “Schaját” said: “In the very first paragraph [of the interview] it is evident that he became a law student because he was no good for anything else. Not even for becoming a football player. So, why does he think that he is good as a politician?”

The image of  the brilliant young man, the fantastic orator, the far-sighted politician is fading fast. I don’t think that Orbán can change the portrait that has emerged in the last two years at home and abroad. He may say with George W. Bush that history will do him justice, but I’m sure he is mistaken. In fact, history will treat him more harshly than his contemporaries because he still has a following that believes every piece of nonsense that leaves his lips. But even their numbers are shrinking because his speeches are becoming less and less coherent and believable. One doesn’t have to be a high-brow egghead to know that there is something very wrong with the sentence: “I’m against tuition [tandíj]. I would like to have a system in which every student can cover the costs of his studies [tanulás költségeit].” Orbán used to be the master of double talk, but by and large it no longer works.

Recently Erzsébet Strassenreiter, a historian, wrote an op/ed piece in which she noted that Orbán’s poor schooling has led him to “often incomprehensible, contradictory, and muddled speculation.” His poor intellectual preparation wouldn’t be so glaring if Orbán didn’t cast himself as a deep thinker on global issues. But unfortunately he does, and therefore his insufficient grounding in what we commonly call the liberal arts is only too obvious. There is nothing worse than a man of scant knowledge portraying himself as a visionary genius. I’m sorry for the comparison, but when I hear Orbán speak about his “great issues” I think of Hitler’s Table Talks that I read a long time ago. Here was a half educated man marketing himself as an expert on practically all subjects on the face of the earth while his dinner companions listened to him in total awe.

Perhaps the most penetrating analysis of Orbán’s “political talent” came from Ferenc Krémer, associate professor of sociology at the Police Academy, on Galamus. Or rather he was an associate professor when he wrote the article entitled “Thoughts on political talents.” Since then he lost his job; his firing most likely had something to do with this piece. To summarize his message very briefly: there are two reasons that Orbán is not a talented politician. “Talent” is actually only an early promise that may or may not be fulfilled in later life. Orbán may have been a promising talent in 1989-1990 but this promise has not been fulfilled. Or rather, Orbán has a talent only for “acquiring the technical instruments of political success” or power, if you wish. Once he reached his goal he had no intention of using this power for the common good. In fact, it is very possible that his only goal all along was the acquisition of power which he can use to his own and his friends’ benefit. He has used his power not for the betterment of his country and people but for the opposite: the ruination of a democratic society that would enable Hungarians to live a decent and free life.

Stop Political Crime / flckr

Another critic who made an impression on the anti-Orbán forces is András Bruck who wrote a long article in Élet és Irodalom. Since ÉS is available only to subscribers I read it in Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. Bruck first recalls the times of the first Orbán government and reminds his readers that the familiar Orbán methods were evident even then: calling people traitors, talking endlessly about the love of country, anti-Semitism (zsidózás), who is Hungarian and who isn’t, calling everybody he didn’t like communists. “All warmed up from the past; all shameful madness.” Orbán promised the past and not the future because catching up with the West, competing, modernizing is a slow and painstaking process that doesn’t bring immediate glory and fame. Most likely Orbán realized that his staff doesn’t have the know-how, he himself doesn’t have the perseverance, and perhaps the Hungarian labor force is not up to it either. Instead he turned to history and “became the cheerleader of national sorrow.” What a wonderful phrase.

After eight years of  stirring up political passions, turning people against one another, he is back and is continuing where he left off but with an even greater concentration of power in his hands. What is his real goal? The Hungarian economy, mostly thanks to the unorthodox policies of the Orbán government, is by now in recession without much hope of a fast recovery. The popularity of the government is steadily sinking, but the powers that be don’t seem to be worried. In the middle of a serious crisis they talk as if nothing were wrong. How can that be, asks Bruck? What is the plan? Bruck’s answer is that although in Hungary there is no dictatorship yet, only its “pre-classical” variety, the idea of a full-fledged dictatorship is most likely on the minds of the Fidesz leadership because it is unlikely that Orbán and his friends could win the next elections in a still democratic regime. Bruck argues that if they want to stay in power–and there is no question that Viktor Orbán desperately wants to–“they can escape only in the direction of dictatorship. There is no return. They must go along that route.” Bruck’s final conclusion is that this can be done only if Hungary leaves the European Union.

Finally, I received from several sources an unpublished article of the late Péter Popper, a psychiatrist, entitled “I forgive, but I don’t forget,” apparently a quotation from Viktor Orbán. Popper recalls that way back in 1989 and 1990 he was a Fidesz supporter, but then he realized that he had bet on the wrong horse. A friend of his told him at that time: “‘Be careful, these are criminals!’ I didn’t believe him. Today I know they are. Viktor Orbán’s name became a symbol for me. The symbol of the final political depravity of a country that has been depraved for at least the last eighty years.” Harsh words. But there is a lot of truth in them.

Popper at the end of his essay wonders how Orbán will weather his inevitable fall. Well, if we are to believe Bruck, he doesn’t have to worry about such an outcome for a while.

István Csurka’s anti-Semitic play in the Új Színház

Do you remember Mayor István Tarlós’s decision last October to turn over the job of theater director of Budapest’s Új Színház (New Theater) to György Dörner and István Csurka? It was described as “the scandal of the decade'” because Dörner and Csurka were not only supporters of the Hungarian far right but were planning to create a theater catering to people with far-right if not Nazi views. It was especially worrisome that Csurka’s influence would most likely make Új Színház a gathering place for anti-Semites. Background material for the latest developments can be found in an earlier post on this blog.

A lot of pressure was put on Tarlós, but the mayor is a stubborn guy and in general convinced of the soundness of all his decisions. He refused the budge. He promised, however, that if the Dörner-Csurka duo actually use the theater to expound and promote far-right, anti-democratic ideas he will act. But not until then.

Meanwhile, István Csurka died on February 2. Soon afterward there was some talk about renaming Új Színház after him, but that idea seems to have been stillborn. His hitherto unperformed last drama entitled “The Sixth Coffin,” however, was included in this year’s repertoire. Csurka’s play is in illustrious right-wing company because Dörner is also planning to perform a József Nyirő play and an Albert Wass’s work “The Witch of Funtinel”  in “modern musical form, performed in the movement theater version (mozgásszínház),” whatever that may be.

“The Sixth Coffin” is an allusion to Imre Nagy’s reburial. Beside the remains of five people executed in 1958 a sixth coffin was placed to symbolize the hundreds of people who died in or were killed after the 1956 revolution. As it turns out, this last drama is not about 1956. Csurka’s aim was to reinterpret twentieth-century Hungarian history with the Treaty of Trianon in the center of it all.

As soon as it was announced that “The Sixth Coffin” will soon be performed in Új Színház people predicted that it doesn’t matter what either Dörner or Tarlós says, this theater will specialize in performing works by writers who have been tainted by anti-Semitism and/or fascist ideas. In any case, “The Sixth Coffin” is definitely an anti-Semitic play. The man who will direct the play claims that “Csurka simply treated a historical event in its historical reality.” So, Csurka’s interpretation is a truthful reflection of Hungarian history. When he was specifically asked whether there is an anti-Semitic overtone to the whole play, he answered in the negative. But if they find something that “offends certain interests” they will handle it.

If we can believe Ádám Fischer, conductor and brother of Iván Fischer, the attempt to remove certain small offending parts will be a difficult task because “the whole play is about a secret Jewish conspiracy that plans, provokes, and directs from the  background all the tragedies of the past one hundred years, including the holocaust. Moreover, just as Csurka blamed 9/11 on the Americans and indicated that they actually deserved what they got, in ‘The Sixth Coffin’ he claims that the Jews are responsible for the fate that befell them.”

Népszava also inquired from some well known intellectuals who read the play what they thought of it. The opinion of Sándor Radnóti, a philosopher and literary critic, is not very different from that of Fischer.  According to him, Csurka’s play is about “an international conspiracy led by American Jewish bankers that was behind the Treaty of Trianon.” Why? Because their goal was the dismemberment of Hungary which under the able guidance of the Hungarian historical class, meaning the nobility, would have become within twenty years a large country of forty million inhabitants. Such a Hungary would have been one of the strongest countries in Europe.

That’s not quite enough. Csurka goes further. “World history is determined by the deadly hostility between Hungarians and Jews.” Everything was carefully planned by these evil American Jewish conspirators: the Entente victory after World War I was arranged ahead of time, and the Jews planned the Russian Revolution of 1917. The sufferings of the Hungarian Jews after the dismemberment of the country was also their doing in the name of Jewish power over the whole world. If all this doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense it doesn’t seem to bother Csurka’s Nazi admirers who were so taken with the play that they could hardly speak after a reading of it in a small right-wing theater.

Népszava also asked Márton Karinthy, grandson of Frigyes and son of Ferenc, a theater director himself, what he thought of Csurka’s play. A year ago Karinthy’s theater actually performed one of Csurka’s earlier plays. Karinthy considers “The Sixth Coffin” a mediocre play with a questionable message. According to him, Csurka’s historical interpretation is biased with a strong anti-Semitic strain.

Judit Csáki, a theater critic, considers the performance of this play “a political and cultural scandal.” Csáki thinks even less of the artistic merit of the play than Karinthy. She found nothing in the play except a questionable historical message that is basically designed  to arouse hatred. The play is “full of lies and falsifications.”

What? Lies and falsifications? On the contrary, Hunor Bucz of Magyar Fórum, Csurka’s paper, finds the play “a work designed to resurrect the collective memory and to unveil the falsification of history.” So, instead of falsifying history it uncovers the truth. And as far as the play’s artistic merits are concerned, “it is a masterpiece.”

The question is whether the play will be performed. I think it will. Foreign criticism, as we have seen in the last couple of months, doesn’t seem to have an effect on the Hungarian government. Ádám Fischer’s letter to György Schöpflin, Fidesz EP member, about this very issue was answered with a lecture on “different narratives.” I think “The Sixth Coffin” will be performed and the theater will be full of admiring anti-Semites and chauvinistic neo-Nazis. And the mayor of Budapest will refuse to say anything pro or con.

Hungary’s new school system: A built-in failure

We’d better learn the name of another Hungarian historical figure: Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. His odd given name, Kuno, is a nickname for Konrad. Klebelsberg, like the majority of Hungarian politicians between the two world wars, had a title–he was a count–but judging from his short biography money didn’t come with it. His father was a professional soldier who died early and he was brought up in the upper middle class milieu of his mother’s family.

Almost his entire adult life was spent in government service. In 1914 he became undersecretary in the Ministry of  Religion and Education. As an admirer of Prime Minister István Tisza he was certainly no friend of Mihály Károlyi, and in January 1919 together with István Bethlen he began organizing a Christian national opposition party. As a close political ally of Bethlen, he received an invitation to join the new prime minister’s cabinet in 1921. For a short while Klebelsberg was Minister of Interior, but then he moved on to head the Ministry of Religion and Education (Vallás- és Közoktatatásügyi Minisztérium).

Klebelsberg was a man of vision, but without the Bethlen government’s decision to spend a considerable amount of money on education Klebelsberg could have done nothing. His ministry received sufficient funds–funds that couldn’t be spent on defense–to expand and improve Hungarian education across the board, from elementary schools to universities.

Kuno Klebelsberg, first on the left, 1927
Historical Photo Collection of the Hungarian National Museum

I find it ironic that the Orbán government, which at the moment is busily restricting educational opportunities, decided to use the Klebelsberg name to set up a monster of a government office that is supposed oversee the running of the newly nationalized school system.

After 1990 schools, elementary as well as high schools, became the property and responsibility of localities. At the same time, especially during the liberal Bálint Magyar’s tenure as minister, teachers’ freedom to choose textbooks and methods of teaching was greatly expanded, and newer educational ideas were introduced to replace some of the nineteenth-century Prussian methods adopted by Hungary about 150 years ago.

To Viktor Orbán all that sounded like chaos. He found the whole concept alien and could envisage only a school system where there was such a thing as “a national minimum.” National minimum in this context means that there is a core curriculum that is compulsory for everyone. Same textbooks, same curriculum, same methods of teaching. And that can be achieved only by re-nationalizing public schools. First, Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), undersecretary in charge of education in the Ministry of Human Resources, laid out plans to nationalize schools that were until now under the jurisdiction of the counties. One of her first decisions was to force all current principals to resign. They had to reapply and they either got rehired or nor. Mostly not.

In the second stage of the operation 4,169 schools will be taken over by the state by January 1, 2013. The method of nationalization is peculiar because the real estate and the maintenance of the physical plants will remain with the localities. So, while they will have to bear a considerable financial burden, the management of the educational process within the schools, including decisions on hiring and firing, will be moved over to the state. The local governments will suffer all of the pain and reap none of the gain.

Critics of nationalization just couldn’t imagine how this new system will work. How can the minister in Budapest decide who would be the best choice for principal in a village school somewhere in the provinces?

At the end of June all became clear. As Rózsa Hoffmann announced at a press conference, the government is not nationalizing schools. This is an entirely unfair description of what’s happening. According to the undersecretary, the real aim is “the harmonization of the goals of the central authority that is responsible for education with the needs of the local authorities.” How will that harmonization be achieved? By setting up an office to serve as a liaison between the ministry and the school administrations.

The new office will be called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Center, KIK), which may be the largest state-run organization in the history of Hungary. Over 4,000 schools, 1.2 million students, and 120,000 teachers. The Center will have 200 regional offices. Why 200? Because the Orbán government just restored a century-old administrative unit called járás (in German Bezirk) that was abolished in 1983. The restoration of this administrative unit was the idea of Lajos Bokros, one of the authors of the 2010 campaign program of MDF. Obviously, the idea appealed to the Fidesz politicians and the Orbán government created 200 járások. So, it seems, every járás will have a regional KIK office.

The Center will have 2,300 employees, but Rózsa Hoffmann assured everybody that it will not involve further government expansion, which is hard to imagine. KIK is supposed to open its doors on September 1, 2012.  So far the local governments are in the dark about their relationship with KIK’s regional offices. And most educational experts are skeptical about the viability of this whole highly centralized educational system.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, is among the skeptics. He can’t quite imagine a huge enterprise whose management consists of several thousand people, with 160,000 employees, and a 700-800 billion forint budget. MÁV, the largest Hungarian company, has 35,000-38,000 employees, so KIK will be four times larger than MÁV. I might add that MÁV is perhaps the worst run company in the country. Pokorni, by the way, considers the fate of Hungarian public education to be extremely important from the point of view of the current government. According to him, the success or failure of the new system may decide the outcome of the 2014 elections.

Well, I think Pokorni is naive. The fate of the 2014 elections is in the hands of those who have been busily changing the electoral laws. The state of Hungarian education is irrelevant from the point of view of Fidesz. In fact, the more ignorant and the more lethargic the voters the better.

David Baer: The fate of Hungary’s deregistered churches

H. David Baer is associate professor of theology and philosophy and chairman of  Texan Lutheran University’s Department of Theology, Philosophy, & Classical Languages. He received his doctorate from the University of Notre Dame in 1999, a master of theological studies from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1992, and a bachelor of arts from Oberlin College in 1990. He has spent a considerable amount of time in Hungary and speaks the language fluently. He is also the author of  a book on a Hungarian topic: The Struggle of Hungarian Lutherans under Communism (2006). An exchange of letters that was published between David Baer and the Archbishop of Veszprém Gyula Márfi created quite a stir in Hungary. The letters can be read on Hungarian Spectrum.

* * *

One of the Hungarian government’s central arguments justifying the new religion law was that the previous law had created a situation of abuse, where businesses could register themselves as churches in order to receive tax benefits and state subsidy. According to the government there were more than 300 churches operating in Hungary in 2011.

The Venice Commission opinion on Hungary’s religion law refers to 300 previously registered churches repeatedly, and states that “according to the Hungarian authorities, the previous regulation had created an ‘untenable situation’ in which more than 300 churches were registered.” (par. 13); also “one of the main justifications for this new Act is the need to prevent the so-called ‘business churches’ from abusing the possibility of receiving public funding” (par. 17).

Three hundred churches does seem like a high number in a European country of ten million people, at least if measured in comparison with other European countries. A list of registered churches provided by Hungary’s constitutional court identifies 366 churches. Looking at the list more closely, however, one discovers that many of the “churches” are really religious institutions belonging to the same church. For example, in addition to the Magyar Katolikus Egyház (Hungarian Catholic Church) one finds Magyar Kurir Szerkesztősége (Editorial Board of Magyar Kurir, which is a Catholic newspaper), Magyar Katolikus Püspöki Konferencia (Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference), and Magyar Katolikus Püspöki Konferencia Titkársága (Secretariat of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference). A synod of the Reformed Church is also listed (the American equivalent of a Hungarian synod would be the national general assembly of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in America), as well as a nursing home that appears to be operated by the Reformed Church.

Numerous Catholic religious orders are listed separately. Although I don’t know the reason religious institutions are listed separately as churches in the list provided by the constitutional court, the answer probably has to do either with tax purposes (perhaps each of these institution had a separate tax number that could be identified on income tax forms to receive the 1%), or with state subsidy (perhaps the list identifies institutions receiving state subsidy). I was able to get a hold of a registry of churches published in 2007 by the Ministry of Education and Culture (Oktatási és Kulturális Minisztérium). This registry lists 159 distinct churches/religious communities, and then has additional sections identifying schools, religious orders, and other institutions operated by those churches/religious communities. Clearly there were not 300+ distinct and separate churches in Hungary prior to the new law, but only about half that number. I suspect the repeated references to 300+ were part of a disinformation campaign intended to bolster the claim that the previous registration law was too lax and being abused by “business churches.”

Church steeple / flickr

The Venice Commission opinion also reports that deregistered churches, “will be qualified as ‘associations’ as of 1 January 2012. They will have to declare their intention to continue or discontinue their activity by 29 February 2012 and initiate a registration process as ‘religious associations’ by 30 June 2012. The failure to meet this deadline will result in forfeiture of their right to register” (par. 87). This information is not accurate. In fact the situation is much worse than described in the Venice Commission opinion.

Sixty-seven churches had their applications to be registered as churches rejected without explanation by Parliament. During a recent visit to Hungary I was able personally to visit representatives of a number of these communities and establish contact with others via email (although I did not manage to speak with all 67 communities). The legal situation of deregistered communities is extremely unclear and it was difficult for me to get a complete picture. The groups I met with were themselves uncertain about their legal status. A lot of the things I have heard would need to be checked with Hungarian lawyers, and unfortunately, as of yet I haven’t been able to find a Hungarian lawyer familiar with the relevant laws who could answer all my questions. Even with these caveats, however, I am confident in stating that many religious groups in Hungary are being denied basic aspects of the right to religious freedom. Almost all of the groups I met with are preparing for the possibility of “going underground” and functioning illegally. Representatives of a number of different communities stated to me that as far as they were concerned things are as bad as the Kádár era.

All of the laws regarding civil associations have been rewritten. As one person told me, the new laws are not completely compatible with each other, and in the absence of legal precedent, neither the lawyers nor the judges are certain what the state of the law actually is. One thing, however, seems clear: there is no provision in Hungarian law for religious associations per se. Contrary to what was presented to the Venice Commission, deregistered churches were not qualified as “associations” and then given the opportunity to qualify as “religious associations.” Deregistered churches were stripped of all legal standing and told to apply for recognition as associations. Moreover, failure to meet the deadline for registration would not merely result in “forfeiture of their right to register,” but in liquidation of the religious community’s assets (végelszámolás) without legal successor. In effect, this means the state will appropriate the community’s property. Also, if the court rejects a deregistered church’s application to be an association, the property of the community is to be liquidated without legal successor. In one instance, the court has already ordered a church’s liquidation. I know of only one case where the court has accepted a community’s application for association; in all other cases I know about the court has asked that the applications be supplemented with further material (hiánypótlás).

However, even if these religious communities are accepted as associations, they will be subjected to regulations that violate the right of religious freedom. First, civil associations are required to have a certain administrative structure. They must have a presidency (elnökség) and all members must have the right to vote on decisions made by the association. Clearly this violates the internal autonomy of religious groups. If the Catholic Church had somehow failed to be registered as a church, it would now be required to do away with its bishops and submit all organizational decisions to a vote by its members. The Reformed and Lutheran Churches would have to do away with their presbyteries and legislative synods.

Second, the membership of civil associations must be made public – although I am not clear about how strictly and broadly this must be done. In any case, when I asked people whether the members of their community were afraid of having their membership become public, I was repeatedly told, yes. In cases where members of deregistered churches hold jobs as civil servants, they are afraid of government retaliation for being associated with a rejected church. Also, Hungary’s right-wing extremist political party, Jobbik, is relatively strong and could conceivably end up in a coalition with Fidesz. Many of the deregistered churches work with Roma or are comprised largely of Roma. Other communities are perceived as friendly toward Jews. The members of such communities have reasonable grounds to be afraid of targeted violence against them should their identities become public.

Third, my understanding is that associations are subject to a different set of accounting laws. Unlike churches, they need to keep a public record of where their money comes from. Thus, they are not permitted to collect donations. Most Christian churches have a public offering during worship services where those attending can put money in a basket. This sort of collection is not permitted for associations, because there is no record of who donated the money.

Fourth, my understanding is that only certain types of civil associations are permitted to maintain schools and charity organizations. I’ve been told that the law distinguishes between civil associations and non-profit associations (közhasznú egyesület). Only non-profit associations are allowed to maintain public service institutions (e.g., schools, homeless shelters, etc.). Many deregistered churches run such public service institutions, thus if they are to continue their work, they will need to be recognized as non-profit associations. The leader of one religious group told me that they decided to shut down a small school they operated for children with disabilities as well as a Roma mission, because they feared their application for non-profit association might be rejected, in which case the court would order the liquidation of all their property. They decided it was safer to apply simply to be a civil association in the hope of at least retaining their places of worship. One of the most prominent deregistered churches is headed by the Methodist pastor Gábor Iványi. Iványi’s church operates approximately 15 schools throughout Hungary dedicated to educating Roma. His church also maintains a large homeless shelter in Budapest. If the court should reject his church’s application to be a non-profit association, my understanding is that all of these institutions will be liquidated, i.e, appropriated by the state.

Fifth, civil associations are not allowed to own agricultural land (termőföld). This has relevance mostly for religious groups that want to maintain monastic communities or retreat centers. Hungary’s Hare Krishna community owns a sizeable amount of agricultural land on which they raise sacred cows. Although originally denied church status, Parliament registered them as a church in a second round of voting in late February 2012. If the Hare Krishna had been denied church status, all of their land would have been appropriated by the state. One representative of a non-recognized religious community told me that he had been hoping to purchase a small piece of agricultural land for retreat purposes at some point. That possibility is now denied to his community.

The above information, if accurate, clearly points to gross violations of religious freedom. Even the Hungarian government seems aware that the present situation contravenes European norms, and it has taken steps to create the impression that the situation is not as severe as it appears. The Ministry of Public Administration and Justice (Közigazgatási és Igazságügyi Minisztérium) posted on its web page an unsigned letter, dated February 1, 2012, which explained what deregistered churches needed to do to register as associations. The letter also indicated that civil associations conducting religious activities would have special protections, including a right to internal autonomy, special treatment of information concerning the organization’s membership, a right to collect donations, legal exemption from the need to establish their character as a non-profit association, the freedom to maintain schools and charity organizations, and permission to retain any agricultural land already in their possession. However, my understanding is that none of these special protections are provided for in the law. Indeed, the fact that the letter was posted unsigned on a webpage seems peculiar, suggesting, perhaps, that no one in the ministry wanted to take responsibility for its contents. The representative of one religious group told me he had been advised by his lawyers that he could not rely on the promises in this letter when applying for recognition as a non-profit association. Promises made in an unsigned letter posted on the webpage of a government ministry do not constitute a legal guarantee.

The new legal situation also has financial implications for the deregistered churches. Hungarian taxpayers are able to designate 1% of their income tax as a contribution to a church or civil association of their choice. In the case of money designated for churches, the state matches the 1% designated by taxpayers; in the case of money designated for associations, the state doesn’t match the 1%, which means associations receive proportionally less than churches. But as far as the deregistered churches are concerned, this question is moot, because at the moment they are neither churches nor associations. The state is retaining the money taxpayers designated to these associations on their income tax forms and will only give it to them if the communities are recognized as associations. These churches were deregistered first in June 2011 and then, after the first law was struck down by the constitutional court, deregistered again in January 2012. Now it is August. When will they receive the money explicitly designated to them by Hungarian taxpayers?

Deregistered churches have also lost various sorts of tax exemptions. The most significant of these, perhaps, concerns clergy. Churches are exempted from paying the social security taxes, etc., attached to their clergy’s salary; associations are not so exempt. Paying those taxes doubles the cost of supporting a minister. I was told by several religious groups that they had been forced to lay off ministers in order to absorb the higher salaried cost of clergy.

One might think the most significant issues concern state subsidy. Registered churches receive significant state subsidies. In 1997 Hungary and the Vatican reached an agreement on the terms of public support of Catholic institutions. Although that agreement only concerned the Catholic Church, it established the framework for relations between the Hungarian state and all registered churches. According to this framework the Hungarian state agrees to support church schools by matching the financial support it offers to public schools. The state has also agreed to subsidize other institutions run by the churches. Thus loss of church status might appear to have significant financial implications for deregistered churches. However, non-profit associations also receive significant state subsidy to operate public service institutions. Thus, deregistered churches which maintain such institutions would continue to receive state subsidies, should they be recognized as non-profit associations.

This leaves a confusing picture. The public rationale for the new religion law was to eliminate financial abuses by so-called “business churches.” However, if the process of church deregistration and re-registration as a civil association were to go as smoothly as indicated, for example, in the unsigned letter posted on the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice webpage, the financial implications of the switch would appear relatively minor. On the other hand, if the purpose of the new church law was to enable the state to, in effect, nationalize the assets of deregistered churches, the financial implications of the new law will be much greater.

Indeed, one must reckon with the possibility that a number of deregistered churches will have their property confiscated. A court has already ordered the liquidation of one religious community under a set of circumstances that are deeply troubling. The community in question is Isten Gyülekezete Egyesült Pünkösdi Egyház (Assembly of God United Pentecostal Church). This church has been operating in Hungary since 1926. It has a membership of between one to two thousand, the majority of whom are Roma. The church is also affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International, based in the United States. The circumstances surrounding the court ordered liquidation of Isten Gyülekezete Egyesült Pünkösdi Egyház are as follows:

The unsigned letter of February 1 posted on the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice webpage informed deregistered churches that they would have until February 29 to submit their applications for association to the court, and in the event a deregistered church missed the deadline, it would be liquidated without legal successor. In the meantime, however, perhaps because of international pressure, the deregistered churches were given an opportunity to apply for church status. Parliament voted on these applications on February 27, 2012, registering another 13 churches alongside the initial 14. Given that this vote took place two days before the February 29 deadline, the government extended the deadline for deregistered churches to apply for recognition as associations until April 30. Isten Gyülekezete was officially informed of this new deadline in a letter from the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice dated April 13. The community submitted its application via registered mail on April 22. The package was received by the court on April 23. On May 25 the court ordered the liquidation of Isten Gyülekezete Egyesült Pünkösdi Egyház on the grounds that it had submitted its application after the February 29 deadline – a deadline which had been extended in light of the February 27 vote in Parliament.

The most positive construal on this sequence of events is that the judge who rendered the decision was simply unaware of the events in Parliament and the extension of the deadline. At the same time, it is difficult to fathom a court functioning at such a high level of incompetence. Other peculiar circumstances also surround the case. Isten Gyülekezete is headquartered in the city of Pécs. Accordingly, the application for civil association was submitted to the county court (megyei bíróság) in Pécs. The judgment to liquidate Isten Gyülekezete, however, was issued by a court in the city of Veszprém. Moreover, the church has been told that it must appeal the decision of the Veszprém court in the city of Győr. Why is the case being passed around different circuits in this way? Does this have something to do with Hungary’s new judicial laws? Should we assume the National Judicial Office is actively involved in the handling of this case? Can a deregistered church treated in this fashion have any confidence in the rule of law?

Without a doubt, religious life for deregistered churches in Hungary has become extraordinary difficult and highly attenuated. They are uncertain about their present legal status and they are afraid of liquidation. They live without legal guarantees. The government itself has been moving very slowly to address the situation. There are good reasons to be deeply concerned about the state of religious freedom in Hungary.

The right and the left on Hungarian achievements in London

I managed to avoid commenting on the Olympics for two solid weeks, but perhaps on the last day I ought to say something about the games in general, the Hungarians’ performance in particular, and the political sparring between left and right over the Olympics and its significance.

A couple of decades ago I was an avid follower of Olympic events but eventually I became disillusioned. I wasn’t sure any longer about the rationale of it all. I’m sure that Baron Pierre de Coubertin would be greatly surprised if he could see what happened to his original idea. It is becoming clear that individual achievement often fades in favor of national glory. It is considered to be practically a tragedy if a long favored “national” sport is lost to others.

I also worry about those people who spend ten or twelve hours a day doing whatever they must be doing. Personally, I would prefer spending money on encouraging healthful exercise in moderation for as many people as possible as opposed to giving it to clubs training athletes who devote their young lives to competing at international meets.

Anyway, here are the statistics. Hungary is in fourteenth place with eight gold, four silver, and five bronze medals. That is a much better result than even the most optimistic fans predicted. It is especially good when we consider that the populations of the first thirteen countries are much larger than Hungary’s.

So, let’s move over to the political aspects of this year’s Olympic games. The “war” between the Hungarian right and left broke out on the fifth day of the games. Right after Dániel Gyurta won the gold medal and set a new world record in the 200 meter breaststroke.

It all began with an article by Endre Aczél published in his sixteen-part series entitled “My Olympics.” Aczél is a veteran  journalist who for many years worked as a foreign correspondent for MTI, the Hungarian news agency, first in Beijing and later in the 1980s in London. He also worked for MTV and regularly writes for Népszabadság. He is quite knowledgeable about sports and has a radio program on Klubrádió on sports events of bygone years.

Endre Aczél on August 2, on his fifth day of reporting his impressions, made a remark about Dániel Gyurta’s 200m breaststroke victory. He had predicted that Gyurta would do very well in the 200m after seeing him perform in the 100m breaststroke, which is not the swimmer’s forte. However, Aczél was “rightly” worried about Michael Jamieson. He reminded his readers that Gyurta normally swims in the middle of the pack in the first 100, moves up at 150, and in the last 50 meters becomes unbeatable. This time the “choreography” was not followed. Jamieson in the last 20 meters performed the way Gyurta normally does. Aczél added, “if there had been another ten meters to swim Jamieson most likely would have won.” But, he added, “thank God it was only 200 meters and not 210.”

That remark sent the Hungarian nationalists into a frenzy even though the Associated Press, a presumably neutral source, appeared to concur with Aczél’s analysis in its report on the final seconds of that 200m competition: “Making the final turn, Gyurta seemed to be in control. Then, as he popped up and down in the water, heading for home, Gyurta suddenly felt Jamieson surging up on his right shoulder. The Olympics Aquatics Centre was in a frenzy as the two approached the wall, but Gyurta stretched out first and touched in 2 minutes, 7.28 seconds. That shaved 0.03 off the previous mark set by Christian Sprenger of Australia at the 2009 world championships in a now-banned bodysuit. Jamieson nearly broke the old mark, too, settling for silver in 2:07.43, while Ryo Tateishi of Japan took bronze in 2:08.29.”

In any case, it seems that one cannot make an objective observation about a swimming meet without being accused of not being a good enough Hungarian patriot. The right-wing media was suddenly full of critical articles about Endre Aczél.

Soon enough he had a co-traitor, Zsolt Gréczy, a close ally of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who on his blog criticized Attila Czene, a  former Olympic champion who is now a member of the Orbán government. He is undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources responsible for sports. In 1996 in Atlanta Czene unexpectedly received the gold medal in the 400m individual medley. In London, Czene was apparently sitting next to the commentator and kept making political comments on the side. For example, “the Orbán government made sure that athletes were prepared to be the very best.” Gréczy in my opinion rightly pointed out that when a Hungarian swimmer didn’t do well in Munich or in Montreal was it because the Kádár government didn’t give enough money to the swim clubs? Or did Czene have the Horn government to thank for his win in Atlanta? Surely, Czene’s win depended on his own talent. And Gyurta was not thinking about Viktor Orbán in the last few meters (as Czene intimated) but, as he himself admitted, about his mother. A fair criticism.

The Internet and right-wing circles were full of complaints. The first time I heard about the controversy was from an older woman, at least judging from her voice, who decided to share her outrage with the listeners of Klubrádió. By that time I had read Aczél’s article but I didn’t know anything about Gréczy’s blog. The woman made it clear that Hungary is divided into two camps:  “us” and those who are against “us.” Aczél and Gréczy certainly fall into the latter category. While she was at it, she added Klubrádió to the enemy list as well. Finally, she suggested that “if Klubrádió would make peace with us perhaps it could get a frequency.” How telling and how true.

The third controversy around Gyurta was an interview he gave to Magyar Rádió in which he declared: “I dedicate this gold medal to all my 15 million compatriots!” A right-wing English blog edited in Budapest considered Gyurta’s comment “a very nice dedication.” So did Gábor Vona, who was sending a message to those who cannot be truly happy (actually fanyalgók) .  He cried when Gyurta won the gold. What he did in London was fantastic “but what he said afterward on Magyar Rádió surpassed the gold medal. … Today a superstar was born.” Thus his nationalistic remark about the 15 million Hungarians was more important than his gold medal. There were a few who corrected the number because the truth is that the figure is closer to 13 million. But what can one expect from poor Gyurta who hears this magic 15 million day in and day out?

Finally, an opinion piece appeared in the so-called moderate right-wing magazine Heti Válasz by Bálint Ablonczy. The message of “Dániel Gyurta is a hero: Old-fashioned and ours” is that in our modern world there are no heroes. The media world turns us into nihilists. However, there is a desire to have heroes again and therefore there is “Gyurta fever” in Hungary today. Here is a young man who talks about “the simplest concepts in the whole world: hard work, effort, success, responsibility, coaches, family, and nation.” Ablonczy continues: “we wouldn’t be living in a world without heroes if  the skeptics, the attackers, the political rubberneckers, the ones who talk disparagingly about the 15 million wouldn’t be sending spume up to the surface from the morass of the Internet and the op/ed pages of the great papers.”

Yes, one could live without the Olympics very well. At least in my opinion.