Gábor Demszky: Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process and freedom of the media

Gábor Demszky, one of the early Hungarian “dissidents,” played a central role in the admittedly small but influential “democratic opposition” to the Kádár regime in the decade prior to the regime change in 1989-1990. His main anti-government activities included organizing, printing, and publishing illegal books, periodicals, and newspapers collectively called samizdats. During this time he was constantly followed by the secret service and harassed by the authorities, and he clashed multiple times with the state police during demonstrations for a free press and multiparty democracy. He was deprived of his livelihood and was jobless all through the 1980s.

He was one of the founding members of Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ) or Association of Free Democrats, which was the second largest party at the 1990 elections. He first became a member of parliament and was then elected lord mayor of Budapest. He was reelected to the same office five times and hence became one of the longest serving mayors in the history of Budapest.

His lecture on Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process, and the 1986 and 2010 media laws was delivered yesterday in the Library of Congress.

* * *

My presentation today will cover three interrelated topics: (1) First, I will define, explain, and illustrate the meaning of the Russian word samizdat; (2) Next, I will describe the Helsinki process in order to give the historical background of this kind of press and subculture and (3) I will use the development of the Hungarian media law since 1986 as a case study for the current lack of freedom of the press in Hungary.

For historical reasons, 1968 is an appropriate and obvious date to begin with, because this date signaled the end of the hope for a “reformed” or “enlightened” communism in the Eastern bloc with the crushing of the Prague Spring and the banning of a theater piece of the nineteeth-century Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz from being performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw and the resulting anti-Semitic backlash.

Here is a joke from Warsaw from 1968 about the banning of Mickiewicz’s play. Brezhnev calls the Polish Interior Minister, Mieczysław Moczar, a hardliner, and asks him: “What’s this? What are these demonstrations going on in Poland?” To which Moczar replies: “Well, a play by Mickiewicz has been cancelled.” “Couldn’t you arrest this Mickiewicz?”  “But Comrade Brezhnev, Mickiewicz is dead!” “That why I like you, Comrade Moczar!”

Demszky Gabor2

Gábor Demszky

But let us return to our first topic: samizdat literature. In my opinion, samizdat and all forms of civil disobedience in Eastern Europe were strongly motivated by the Helsinki process and by the Polish opposition’s bravery and ideological split with the Soviet system.

In 1975, we knew that the Helsinki Final Act was only an international agreement to which countries were not legally bound. It was only a declaration of intention, and the obligations therein were only moral and political. But in spite of the document’s legal weakness it obviously reshaped East-West relations and led to the end of the Cold War. For us it was a “testament,”  a “creed,” and we wholeheartedly campaigned for its implementation.

In addition, Helsinki created bonds between East European dissidents and Western democrats. It started a controversial and ongoing dialogue about the implementation of the so-called “baskets”. (Baskets referred to different policy principles which the signatories accepted.) Naturally we, the “easterners,” have shown a great interest in the “basket-three” provisions because it contained basic human rights provisions. Why? Because we hoped that basket-three would ease our isolation. “The free flow of information, travel, and family reunification” were all magic words for us. We also knew that there was a growing pressure on our governments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. There was no doubt in our minds that the content of the “baskets” would be effective tools and frames of reference to advocate for the liberalization of Eastern Europe.

In addition, an effective follow-up process started to assess the progress of countries in fulfilling the terms. The follow-up meetings in Belgrade, Madrid, Vienna, etc. repeatedly created new opportunities. They became high level forums for our outcry and complaints.

In the framework of the “Helsinki process” a congressional commission called Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) was established in the Unites States, and in both the East and West several human rights groups were established in order to monitor the implementation of the agreement. It became more and more natural that East European citizens could meet and write letters and petitions about the human rights abuses to American and West European diplomats.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) became a strong advocate for United States activism on human rights, and it was an essential part of the transnational Helsinki network. The newly elected president, Jimmy Carter, was very concerned with the human rights issues, and with his leadership they received high priority within the OSCE and especially in the Belgrade follow-up meeting.

Meanwhile, the members of the Moscow Helsinki group were constantly harassed. Russian authorities considered the close cooperation between NGOs in Moscow and the Helsinki Commission in the United States a conspiracy against the Soviet regime. Orlov, the famous Russian human rights activist, was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp followed by five years of exile.

I already mentioned Jimmy Carter’s strong involvement in the Helsinki process, which I highly admired and respected. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the later National Security Advisor, who influenced him the most in his election campaign for the presidency. His commitment and arguments are reflected in a later letter written by Jimmy Carter to Andrej Sakharov, who was asking to help the Helsinki monitors in the Soviet Union. The president’s answer was very supportive: “Human Rights are a central concern of my administration. We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience.”

After this exchange of letters between the President of the United States and the most well-known human rights activist, Andrej Sakharov, Leonid Brezhnev declared that Sakharov was a renegade and an enemy of the Soviet State. What happened to the Soviet dissidents after this exchange of letters is well known. The Soviet authorities punished the dissidents with forced labor camps, house arrests, and long imprisonments.

But let’s focus on the dissident movements in Eastern Europe from a Budapest perspective. In the middle of the seventies, the establishment of KOR, the Committee for the Protection of Workers in Poland, had a strong influence on the intellectuals of the opposition in Hungary. And not much later, taking a stand for the Charta ’77 movement of the Czechoslovak dissidents enabled the Hungarian democratic opposition to finally crystallize. In spite of the expected repression, its members took a stand for each other and for human rights in the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act.

By 1979, 270 of us signed a statement protesting the lawsuit in Prague brought against Václav Havel and his fellow dissidents and addressed it to the Hungarian leadership. These almost three hundred – mostly young – people provided the background and the foundation for our independent institutions, our press, and the flying university (seminars with well-known dissidents in private apartments) and the Fund for the Support of the Poor. We read, translated, and disseminated the writings of the theoreticians of the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition.

Adam Michnik’s 1976 study entitled New Evolutionism had the largest impact on us. Perhaps this short writing was the most important samizdat text ever translated into Hungarian. In his study, Michnik goes beyond the traditional dilemma of “reform or revolution” and recommends setting up structures parallel with the Communist power. According to him, the dissidents’ task is the establishment of independent public opinion, the creation of independent organizations: such movements that cannot be integrated. The objective was political emancipation and self-organization of the citizens, as well as control of the government. In the course of history few political concepts or projections have become self-fulfilling prophecies as those of Michnik. This was the foundation on which Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union, came into being.

The Solidarity movement had varied impacts on the different groups of Hungarian society. The political leadership at the top of the social pyramid continued its milder domestic policy course, while at the same time, instead of real structural economic reforms, it accelerated the financing policy to maintain living standards through Western loans in order to forestall the dissatisfaction of the workers and civil servants. Apparently, all this made it necessary to continue with a relatively friendlier foreign policy towards the West within the limited potential of the Soviet bloc.

But that also put a limitation on what measures could be taken against the opposition. The activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition got stronger by the beginning of the 1980s both with regard to the number of its members and the methods it used.

This was the time, however, when the typed samizdat was replaced by the samizdat duplicated by stencil, and the core of the opposition around János Kis, a philosopher, decided to launch an illegal political periodical openly publishing the name and title of the editors. The first issue of this periodical, called Beszélő, having the meaning both “speaker” and also “visiting hours” in jail, was published in December 1981.

When Solidarity came into being, I felt that it would utterly change the political situation of the region and I consciously prepared myself for the transposition of the Polish experiences. In 1981 I decided to launch an independent publishing house called AB; I bought a whole ton of paper and hid it in my parents’ cellar. As a reprisal, I was expelled from the editorial office where I used to work, and from that time on I had no job until the 1990s when I became an MP and then the mayor of Budapest.

In addition to the engagement of the opposition in politics and having the independent, illegal press in the strict sense of word, the independent, opposition-led literary and artistic life began to bloom again, mainly in Budapest. Alternative rock, mainly punk bands, had regular performances for audiences of several thousands, singing songs that were straightforwardly against the regime. One of the leading bands sang “polak-wenger dva bratanki” (Poles and Hungarians are brothers) in their most popular song

At the same time, the Hungarian political leadership, with János Kádár at the top, hardened for fear of losing power, and anticipating his own political death. Although their hands were tied by being heavily indebted to the West, the government still cracked down on the opposition time and again.

In October 1985, Budapest hosted the CSCE Cultural Forum, a six-week interim meeting, as part of the Helsinki review process, involving the 35 nations that signed the Helsinki Final Act. The independent literary symposium, held by the opposition on the occasion, was a breakthrough for the dissident movement.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), the predecessor of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental group linking citizens’ Helsinki groups in a number of Western countries, sponsored the independent literary symposium in Budapest from October 15–17 which coincided with the opening of the official Forum.

This “unofficial forum” marked the first time that private citizens from East and West met openly in a Warsaw Pact country to discuss violations of cultural freedom, including censorship, unofficial publishing and minority rights. The unofficial symposium included prominent writers from a number of countries, including Susan Sontag, Danilo Kis, Jiri Grusa, Amos Oz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash, as well as independent Hungarian writers such as George Konrád and Miklós Haraszti.

A few hours before the independent symposium was to begin, the Hungarian government forced the hotels to cancel the facilities that had been reserved for the meetings.With the help of Hungarian dissidents, the meetings were relocated to private apartments in Budapest and proceeded without further obstruction.

After the close of the European Cultural forum, however, the authorities stepped up their harassment of those involved in samizdat activities.These harassments were well documented in the report written in 1986 which belongs to a series entitled “Violations of the Helsinki Accords” prepared by Helsinki Watch for the Helsinki Review Conference in Vienna, Austria. According to the report, Helsinki groups that formed in the USSR had been effectively disbanded, and more than three dozen Soviet Helsinki monitors were still in prison or exile. Jeri Laber, Executive Director of the Helsinki Watch, said in 1986:

Human rights continue to be grossly violated by a number of Helsinki signatory countries. He highlighted the number one obstacle in the process of implementation of the Final Act: Although there are no legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Helsinki Accords, their moral force continues to grow. Despite the fact that violations continue – indeed, just because these violations continue – we believe that the Helsinki process must continue as well.

When almost 27 years later I was reading the Helsinki Watch Report, the precise and careful analysis of Jeri Laber about the first media law in 1986, it gave me a very strange feeling. Maybe history is repeating itself? Were the Fidesz lawmakers with their super-majority in 2010 simply copying some paragraphs and rewriting others? A new press law passed in March 1986 was the first general press law in the history of Communist Hungary. Previously, the press and periodicals were regulated by decrees from various ministries. The new law defined the rights and duties of the press to provide “truthful, accurate and prompt dissemination of information,” and the public’s right to “an accurate picture of the political, economic, scientific and cultural life in the Hungarian People’s Republic.”

The first press law from 1986 also prevented the press from disseminating information that would hurt “the constitutional order of the People’s Republic and its international interests… and public morals.” This very general rule fosters censorship and other forms of state intervention. Surprisingly, the second part of the regulation was simply copied into the new media law in 2010 which stipulates that all media outlets must register with the newly established Media Council and that they may be fined for news reports that are “unbalanced”, insulting or in violation of “public morality.” The Media Council also has the power to deny registration and force journalists to disclose sources, particularly on the grounds of “national security” or “protection of public order.” (These regulations were later annulled by the Constitutional Court.)

The first press law which came into force in 1986 essentially codified the existing practice at that time, although it also included some new restrictions: according to the law, editors in charge became responsible for the execution of the principles of press policy and could be fired for failing to execute those principles.

I remember well that in the late Kádár regime, the president of the Tájékoztatási Hivatal (Information Office) Comrade Ernő Lakatos held weekly sessions for the editors-in-chief of the printed and electronic media about the press directives and policy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party. It was a one-way, unidirectional, military type “discussion” about which the editors-in-chief informed their colleagues. There were a lot of rumors in Budapest about Comrade Ernő Lakatos, who had personally ordered the dismissal and punishment of the dissidents, among them myself and my friends.

Since 2010, based on information collected by the former OSCE media freedom representative, Miklós Haraszti, members of the three basic content provider groups, the online media, the printed press, and the radio-television sector, have to sign special contracts with the Media Council. The contract stipulates that they would regulate themselves based on the content prohibitions in the media law, prohibitions that go far beyond the criminal and civil law. In this cooperative agreement they promise that any breach of the media law will be investigated and settled by themselves.

Why did they do so? Because by accepting the role of the executioner, they can escape the constant harassment by the Media Council for petty infractions. But for the same reason, the owners put pressure on the editors to refrain from any political challenge in their news service and their chat shows. This is the mechanism of self-censorship. This is the reason why politics simply disappeared from the commercial TV channels.

Those owners who would balk at accepting the “co-regulation” contracts would simply stigmatize themselves in the eyes of the almighty Media Council. They could be subject to frequent fines that would be grounds for severe punishment later, including being shut down. Despite the participation in co-regulation, the Media Council is still entitled to pull any matter into its purview. Guaranteed self-censorship is behind the fact that punishments for coverage, content, are not frequently meted out.

As a result of “cooperative regulation,” the media companies are toeing the line and the Media Council can claim: just look, the fines are less frequent; there is no sign of supervision over the media. Foreign owners, in their own countries, would never agree to participate in this kind of cooperation. At home they rely on the principles of a free press. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, which annulled the right to supervise content outside the broadcast media, they could have withdrawn from the co-regulation schemes, as they would have long done in their own countries. But they don’t do it. They prefer to be obedient. We are living in a “brave new world.”

There are other procedural similarities between the two press laws as well. Press restrictions that were announced in the winter of 1986 stipulated that anyone found with even one copy of samizdat may be subjected to heavy fines. These fines may be levied without any court proceedings, and appeals may only be addressed to the police officer who determined the fine.

Against the rulings of the Media Council there is no recourse to regular court. In such cases jurisdiction lies exclusively with the Administrative Court. In matters of substance, or merit, the administrative courts have no jurisdiction. They can only adjudicate on questions of procedure; whether the Media Council adhered to the media law during the process or not.

The media law has been criticized by a number of international organizations including the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and a number of European Union member countries and non-governmental organizations. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, stated that if misused, the media law “can silence critical media and public debate in the country.” According to a review by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the appointment procedures for Hungary’s Media Council fail to meet the Council of Europe’s standards for safeguarding media independence and pluralism.

But again, it seems to me that there are no effective legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Council of Europe and other EU standards. The historical similarity with the lack of legal means for enforcing the Helsinki accords in the seventies and eighties is obvious. This means that non-compliance can become a practice again.

Since the last election, Fidesz, the ruling party, justifies its diktat by pointing to its two-thirds legislative super-majority attained in the 2010 elections. But its actions fly in the face of the Copenhagen Criteria which established the EU’s basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. These criteria were established for new member states in the EU enlargement process in 2004.

As a response to non-compliance of the Hungarian government, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark recently wrote to the European Commission suggesting that new tools were needed to bring persistently deviating member states into line. Here you can read the essence of their statement:

At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially  important that the fundamental values enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected. The EU must be extremely watchful whenever they are put at risk anywhere within its borders. And it must be able to react swiftly and effectively to ensure compliance with its most basic principles. We propose addressing this issue as a priority and believe that the Commission has a key role to play here.

In my opinion, the European Commission as the guardian of treaties has the obligation to ensure that the institutional structures and operating rules of the member states are brought in line with the moral commitment they made when they joined the EU. There is a lesson which we learned at the time of the Helsinki process: the enforcement of the principles of the Helsinki Final Act wouldn’t have been possible without international pressure exercised at the follow-up conferences.

But finally, only the voters of the East European countries could change the fundamental laws and their own constitutions in the years of the Velvet Revolution. Only “We the people” could have decided our own destiny, and we made the right choice ourselves. History is repeating itself. The upcoming election in 2014 may be Hungary’s next chance to return to a state with freedom of the press which allows well-informed citizens to make free choices, life without fear or apathy, and a collective desire for “a community of the rule of law.”


Anna Stumpf, political attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, was present and took strong exception to Gábor Demszky’s description of the situation of the media in Hungary after the lecture. She claimed that opposition radio, Klubrádió, opposition televison, ATV, freely criticize the government without any interference. Demszky explained that neither of these two media outlets has nationwide coverage and, in fact, Klubrádió by now can broadcast only in Budapest and Debrecen. Moreover, companies fearing reprisals dare not advertise on these media outlets, which makes their financial situation truly desperate. He added that in some ways the Hungarian media today is less free than it was in the Kádár regime. To which Anna Stumpf exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Naturally, Anna Stumpf is far too young to know anything about the Kádár regime first hand.


  1. It’s really interesting that the Fidesz people (who claimed to be liberal once, many years ago) seem to hate Demszky and others from SZDSZ really bad.
    On politics.hu and other sites they are usaually called “Szadeszcretins” or similar – obviously something is very rotten in the state of Fidesz …

  2. Even these clear facts will be denied by the Anna Stumpfs. She is not ashamed to distribute her fake reports on Hungary to the willing takers among the conservative Hungarian immigrants in USA.
    She would qualify for a job of an assistant to Brezhnev easily. AB.

  3. Wolfi, it obvious why the Fidesz leadership has such a hate of SZDSZ: within the SZDSZ membership, actual dissidents and public opponents of the Socialist/East Block system had a significant representation, which exposed Fidesz’s claims to the mantle of anti communism as completely unfounded, as it was and is dominated by a small cadre of men who were mostly compliant comrades prior to 1989. The presence of SZDSZ and liberals in general, removed Fidesz’s fig leaf. There were, in contrast, within SZDSZ, people who had sacrificed property, position, and any sort of favor for their ideals (indeed, it was the SZDSZ parliamentary fraction that included someone like Imre Mecs, who had been sentenced to death following 1956.) I predict that, when the definitive history of Hungary in the late 20th and early 21st century is written, one of the major tragic stories (among many) will be that of the demonization of the democratics, yes the liberals, who had given all to bring Hungary into the mainstream of western Europe.

  4. At the moment I am reading Demszky book entitled Elveszett Szabadság: Láthatatlan történelem (Lost Freedom: Invisible History). It was published last year. Fascinating reading about their activities in the Kádár regime. I can highly recommend it.

  5. The verbal exchange between Stumpf and Demszky is telling: her self-righteous outburst, “You’re not serious!” might often be believed by bystanders were it not for the perfect retort by Demszky, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” In other words, against your empty opinionation, I was actually there.

    Now someone might well ask Ms Stumpf: from whence does your certainty come from?

  6. petofi :

    Now someone might well ask Ms Stumpf: from whence does your certainty come from?

    Especially since Ms Stumpf’s grandfather was the minister of interior whose henchmen were making the lives of Demszky and his fellow collaborators living hell! Yes, indeed. István Stumpf, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office during the first Orbán administration, married well. She was the daughter of István Horváth, minister of the interior twice. Once between 1980-1985. Exactly at the time when the agents followed Demszky everywhere he went and his apartment was bugged. He became minister of the interior again in 1988-89 but he had to resign On January 5, 1990 because it turned out that his secret service men were still keeping files on men and women whom the old regime found politically suspicious which was by then illegal..

  7. In the individual electoral districts, Fidesz fields only 6 women and 100 men !

    As far as the opposition goes, I am sure the ratio is better, but I was not able
    find the full MSzP-E14-PM joint list online !!

    This shows the lack of leadership and the lack of communication skills in the opposition.
    They should have started advertising their candidates by now.

    One more reason to integrate DK & Gyurcsany is to invigorate the opposition campaign.

  8. According to Victor the O. aren’t Hungarians the same as the Chinese with that tell-tale
    blue mark on their assets? If so, here is something for every professor at a Hungarian university to emulate: (from today’s NY Times)

    “Zhang Xuezhong, who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said administrators notified him on Monday that he would be dismissed after he refused to apologize for writings that championed the protections guaranteed by China’s Constitution. Professor Zhang’s teaching privileges were temporarily suspended in August after the publication of an article detailing the Communist Party’s growing hostility toward the nation’s legal system.”

  9. This is a fascinating tour of the bourgeois counterrevolution in Eastern Europe and its leading lights from the inside. Having waded through the hackneyed mediocrity of Michnik’s writings – this account confirms to me the lopsided economic, cultural and financial balance that always heavily favored the imperialist powers against the USSR and the deformed workers states.

    The triumph of capitalist restoration certainly looks far more probable in retrospect than it seemed to anyone (except the most discerning observers) at the time.

  10. Wolfi, Tappanch and GW, I think you are all mistaken. This hatred has nothing to do with ideology at all.

    Fidesz hates, well hated, SZDSZ for many reasons, but not for what you think.

    Most importantly, many in SZDSZ actually understood Fidesz’ aggressiveness and were much smarter negotiators of their (SZDSZ’/the liberals’/ the left’s) interests, than MSZP has ever been. That said, SZDSZ was still naive, as Demszky realizes it in his book. Of course, SZDSZ was small, but Fidesz always felt that it could have defeated MSZP much earlier because the leadership of MSZP had been traditionally divided, clueless and without vision and of course the leadership had no idea about how legal minds (as all top Fideszniks are lawyers) think. Fidesz will never ever forgive SZDSZ for being too smart and understanding Fidesz.

    Moreover, many people at Fidesz from the rural areas just hated SZDSZ’ intellectual and urban ways. A Lajos Simicska with his smelly sausages was never gonna make it at the literary circles of the urban liberals and Orbán and co. understood that early, but he also understood that liberals are hopelessly weak and are doomed to fail. (See the interviews with the HaHa student guys one year after the university student demonstrations.)

    Other than that, people just love to hate something, to went their anger, create a community by hating the same enemy. It is just cool to hate the small guy, after all SZDSZ duly disappeared and in the last 10 years of its existence it never had more than 5-6%. So hating SZDSZ is an opportunity for schadenfreude and bullying and a self-celebration of a great victory, pretty universally human.

    Now Fidesz only has to compete with its favored and chosen opponent MSZP, it is not surprising that Fidesz targeted Együtt/Bajnai and not MSZP as the paramount rule of any war is to choose your enemy. Fidesz’ favored enemy is MSZP, because MSZP cannot really win, they are too dumb, Fidesz knows that there are 100 ways how it can win over MSZP even from opposition.

  11. One more thing. In both 2002 and 2006 it was the existence of SZDSZ that denied Fidesz’ electoral victory. MSZP alone or the left alone could not have defeated Fidesz either in 2002 or in 2006.

    MSZP both times needed the help of SZDSZ. Thus until SZDSZ was in the Parliament there was a chance that Fidesz might lose again.

    Obviously, it is much easier to get rid of a small enemy than of a bigger one.

    Fidesz knew that once SZDSZ disappears, MSZP (of the left) alone just does not have enough votes — not even under the previous election system, especially not now.

    Fidesz’ leadership could not, in addition to what was written before, forgive that extra 1-2% of voters who made sure that SZDSZ was above 5%.

    Fidesz thus concentrated their ideological power againt SZDSZ and againt liberalism, againt urbanism, and paralelly helped any kind of ideology (media) that was the enemy of those potential voters of SZDSZ.

    Related to that is that the existence of smaller parties like LMP made sure that that formerly unified 5-6% of votes will now be redistributed and get withered away and made unavailable to MSZP. It’s a kind of check-mate. The left’s current strategy is to get 1/3s together in aggregate (sans LMP) to make sure Fidesz and Jobbik could not really govern in the current setup, although for them it would not be too difficult to do so.

    The Bolshevik and Menshevik divide or the historical divide between the communists and ‘bourgeois’ social democrats is now being played beteen LMP (the true representative of the left according to itself) and MSZP/Együtt (the bourgeois socdems who betrayed the left and thus are a biggest enemies of the true left). You may even remember that Palmiro Togliatti had to exercise self criticism because he dared to say that Mussolini was perhaps a bigger enemy than the socdems. I guess the Hungarians left will forever play that game which was the history of the left in the West.

  12. my suggestion:Demsky Gabor for Minister President:He can maybe unify the opposition:coming out of the shadow.Good ideas and a fighter!But to be honest:i don’t know to much about the
    political history in Hungary.Just after 2006 i’m involved.

  13. “He was deprived of his livelihood and was jobless all through the 1980s.”

    Several hundred thousand Hungarians today fear that they will be deprived of their livelihood if they utter any reservation about the Fidesz government’s policies – let alone publish it – and it is not a groundless fear. Those who harbour that fear may wonder how it was possible to survive a decade without job in the late Kadar years. Would it be possible today?

  14. HofferM and terka – interesting posts. Not an aspect of Hungarian politics I’d given much thought to before, as I’d tended to dismiss the Liberals as fairly irrelevant, but I think there’s a lot in what you say.

    One thing you don’t mention specifically though is the Jewish angle. My experience with both Fidesz supporters and saner people, is that the terms ‘liberals’ and ‘Jews’ are virtually synonymous for many Hungarians.

    Did Fidesz hate the Liberals because they were Jewish (in their eyes), or did they emphasise the Jewish ‘connection’ because it was an easy and effective way to attack the Liberals?

  15. @Hoffer M, just one correction. SZDSZ got over 20% in 1990 and in 1994. It was only from 1998 on that their voter base became very small, just little over the 5% minimum for parliamentary representation.

  16. The most important reason why SZDSZ went from over 20% to around 5% was that when it won its great percentages, it was a strongly anti-communist party. For example SZDSZ was great in Western-Hungary, which is now solidly conservative/right wing. In a way, voters did not realize what they have voted for, ie what liberalism meant. They were, as they are now and as they were in 1930’s, conservative socially and leftist economically (ie against capitalism, industry, entrepreneurs, foreign investors etc.). After a while, these voters realized, as much of Hungary did, what SZDSZ really meant: socially liberal and supporting capitalism and then SZDSZ duly went down to about 5-6%. I guess there were other trends too, but the point is: since the late 90’s/2000’s SZDSZ was already a small party, hovering around the 5% limit.

    Paul: it is actually worse. Everything that comes from the West is deemed “liberal” and thereby automatically Jewish. This was, I think, only a tool in pushing SZDSZ below 5% as Fidesz made sure, as it does now, that kuruc.info existed, that Jobbik and Fidesz seamlessly worked together in municipalities etc. Fidesz used any means necessary to eliminate SZDSZ and one was obviously letting anti-semitic/anti-liberal/anti-EU/anti-US ideology loose, not that it was restricted much before.

    By the way, kuruc.info has almost certainly been under government surveillance by the Hungarian intelligence, it is impossible that it is not, given that technically it is very easy to do it and Orban makes sure that he has intel on his competition, plus legally it is explicitly allowed in the name of defending the constitution (the competent organization was even renamed like the similar German agency). Yet, Fidesz does nothing against kuruc.info and it continues its disgusting trollism. The latest is that kuruc.info obatined the private cell number of an index,hu journalist and let the trolls loose on him.

    Anyway, SZDSZ and liberalism have an extremely useful roles. They are the focal points of the hatred, which constitutes Fidesz’ fan base. People are anxious but it is not a focused feeling, such anxiety has to be transformed into hatred and it needs a subject. It’s a bit like with Hegel’s slave/master, SZDSZ and liberals almost must exist in order for Fidesz to firmly establish itself as a true anti-liberal. In fact, because Fidesz ideology is less clear than that of Jobbik which is clearly national socialistic (extremely conservative socially and extermely leftist econically), Fidesz needs liberals/Jews etc. much more, but since their media reach is more sophisticated they do not have to always resort to overt hatred like Jobbik does.

  17. For those who speak Hungarian. There is a very interesting conversation with Jan-Werner Muller (Princeton) on Krisztina Bombera’s weekly program called Newsroom. The topic is “populism.” Muller has written many articles on Hungarian politics and Hungary’s place within the European Union. He is the one who suggested the establishment of permanent body to monitor member states’ adherence to democratic principles.


  18. Eva, you may want to edit Mieckiewicz to Mickiewicz early on. There are a couple of instances of it. Cheers, Michael

  19. As to Demszky’s statement re freedom of press.

    It is a mistake to see freedom of speech only as an abstract legal right. Treating it as a right, it can be reviewed without regard to the factual reality as the EU did (which gave the stamp of approval given its limited jurisdiction).

    And this is the way where Fidesz pushes the discourse.

    It is because Fidesz controls media through not only the all-powerful Media Authority, Fidesz’ circle of friends own a lot of media and effectively control electronic media, especially how they represent politics, by other, trickier means. For example, the private TV2 (until now owned by a German-American private equity fund, it will be sold in the coming weeks) was actually more Fidesz-leaning (showing more Fidesz politicians and being uncritical about the government and denying presence for the opposition) than the state media (if that is possible).

    Fidesz has, in a way the Hungarian left never had, a focused media strategy for segments of media consumers, as well as for types of media (print, TV, radio, internet etc.).

    Even if the media law was amended and the Media Authority was abolished somehow Fidesz would still control Hungarian media, as it will control the state media where its loyalists are entrenched by law and Fideszniks own a huge majority of the rest of the market.

    Remember Berlusconi. Western observers may have laughed him out, but for 20 years he was the most important politician in Italy, regulary re-eleceted by popular will. After all, he owned/controlled all electronic media. Fidesz does the same, although it has a plausible denial before foreigners (like in the TV2 case). Hungarians know the reality all too well.

  20. Kacika explained the position of hate against the Liberals (aka the Jews …) very well – but still there should be more than 5 % of liberal voters in the larger cities e g.
    All the developed Western nations have a strong liberal group – in Germany the Greens could also be called liberal or “Freiheitlich” in the original sense – why are they so weak in Hungary ?

  21. That Demszky/Stumpf interaction at the end reminded me of a surreal conversation I had with somebody I just met yesterday for the first time. Somehow we got on the topic of the evening news, and he said to me, “I like to watch all the news on all the channels so I get a balanced view and not just one side! For example, I watch the news on Hír TV, Echo TV,…” and he couldn’t think of another news programme besides those two (right-wing) stations….

    It reminded me of that scene in The Blues Brothers when Jake is talking to the barmaid in the honky-tonk bar.

    Jake: What kind of music do you have here, ma’am?
    Barmaid: Oh, we have both kinds. Country AND Western!

    I guess today’s Hungary offers a choice of both kinds of news: right-wing and extreme right wing.

  22. buddy, you made my day!

    Now for something totally OT (or not …): For a long time there was a “conservative” commenter on politics.hu who called himself “bobscountrybunker” – and he represented exactly that right wing and extremely right wing!


    The right wing commenters there have been on a downhill path since then – it’s unbelievable:
    Conspiration theories, Horthy cult, “we saved a lot of Jews during WW2”, we fight against the big bad banks, “Hungarians are the best inventors in the world”, our Christian policies are a bastion against the Muslim invasion, etc – the whole gamut …

    To think that this is not just a bunch of loonies but represents today’s Hungarian political reality, oh my …

  23. First thanks to Eva for posting Gábor Demszky’s lecture it certainly was interesting to read and brought back many memories of a time of optimism in relation to the transformation of Hungary from what poster ” Lumpy Lang” using Trotsky’s terminology called deformed workers state. Having been involved in the western new socialist movement following my own experiences as a combat veteran in Vietnam I like Demszky was optimistic about a democratic Hungary and even a democratic USSR outside the total economic control of western monopoly capitalism. Whose devastation of Vietnam I unfortunately witnessed firsthand as a young Army officer. We more recently have done equally fine work in both Iraq and Afghanistan, all in the name of democracy and economic development, i.e. opening countries to the wonders of the world market.

    I found it also interesting that Demszky noted in passing Miklós Haraszti author of “A Worker in a Worker’s State” that had a deep impact on me and who now is also in the USA. I find it very unfortunate that Demszky was not more reflective on the reality of the economic domination of Hungary by western capital since the fall of the Kadar regime and his total avoidance of linking the Fidesz press law with the reality of the failure of any democratic economic transformation of Hungary. The privatization of Matáv, the national oil and gas conglomerate MOL Group are only very small examples of the lack of any democratic transformation in the economic sector, unless one believes shareholders of Deutsche Telekom, Ameritech International, and E.On Ruhrgas International equated to democratic decision makers in a society as a whole. Both Demszky and Orban are part of the problem.

    What is happening in the Ukraine now, moving closer and closer to open civil strife in a pointless debate over which master the Ukraine prefers. Yes, I still dream of a third path, but the dream is becoming obscured with time.

  24. One more aspect egarding the relationship between Orbán’s Fidesz and liberals and liberalism: the traitors/cheaters usually never forgive to the others. Apparently this is true even in the ideological sense.
    The one who betrayed the other – like in this case Orbán the liberalism – hold an eternal hatred toward the liberals, particularly his own former comrades, and as we know well, he gives the tune.
    It may be indicated by a sense of guilt – in the subliminal level, suppressed, but has a lasting effect for sure.
    If you look around, you’ll see similarities on daily basis: the cheaters blame the cheated for their own unfair actions, just to name one obvious example.

  25. Istvan #28 – You are a good person full of liberal ideas, but who is readily blaming our America as the imperialist Satan.

    A sane American thinks a little differently. More subtle.

    Let us not explain the world with the theories of Noam Chomsky.

    Iraq and Afghanistan were the capitals of the worldwide terror, and together with the rulers of Iran, these forces killed countless innocent people, and created a chaos from Morocco to Indonesia.

    So when our army rolled into Afghanistan and Iraq, there were plenty of targets to be eliminated.

    Just like in Vietnam, not the ordinary people conducted a civil war, but the rulers of Hanoi with the material support of Moscow. They wanted to take over the world. America including.

    Good that their victory was limited to Vietnam.

    I hope that the best liberal minds will lead Hungary one day. Demszky, Haraszti, Halmai,,,,,,

  26. NotNoam: The US is not better or worse than Putin’s Russia, which is no exerting its own form of economic domination, as is China attempting to do in relation to mineral and oil rights in parts of the Pacific. The invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan have been devastating to those societies, in fact on the scale of WWII for Hungary. These wars have also deviated thousands of US combat veterans, just like WWII did to Hungarian combat veterans who were lucky enough to survive the war and Soviet interment. A soldier’s lot is not to question why, but to fight and die.

    Since April of this year the level of bloodshed has soared to heights unseen since Iraq stood on the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007. Yes the US troops are out, but we have left that society in total chaos.

    Yesterday in the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee a Republican Congressman Rohrabacker , no liberal by the way, asked James F. Dobbins, US State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan this simple question: “How much are we spending annually in Afghanistan? How much is the cost to the American taxpayer?” Dobbins and his staff could not answer the question. Then Rohrabacker said “Nobody knows the total budget, what we’re spending in Afghanistan. It’s a hearing on Afghanistan. Can I have an estimate? “I’m sorry, congressman,” Mr. Dobbins said.

    Let’s be clear here the issues I have raised in relation to the costs of empire, cross ideological grounds in the US and after the Russian experience in Afghanistan and more recently in Abkhazia and South Ossetia there is even a cost of empire for Russia. It is delusional for Hungarians such as Demszky to sing the praises of Zbigniew Brzezinski in relation to the Helsinki process when Brzezinski was part of a very aggressive US foreign policy agenda on a global scale.

    The USA is a good friend of the USA’s self interest, or at least what is perceived within the halls of power to be in our nation’s self interest. Today the USA might criticize Orban’s policies, but tomorrow depending on the geopolitical situation those policies might be over looked in the name of security and economic interests. All of the eastern european nations once under the control of the USSR need to find there own pathways to the future and not jump on the ship of the EU which is militarily dependent on the USA for survival or line up with Russia’s gangster capitalism. That by the way is far easier said than done.

  27. Istvan #32
    Thank you for your reply. We should have faith in our America. The wide planes of this land are filled with mostly wonderful people.
    This is not the land of the Putins.
    We joined a nation that has saved the world a few times, and will do it again.
    Just one example. The immense uranium storages of Russia are empty now.
    The USA paid for it and bought it to keep this planet safe.
    We all paid for it.

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