Andy Vajna

House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

Two Hungarian films about homosexuality: Falsehood and the truth

While researching an entirely different topic, I encountered by chance a description of a Hungarian-made film called “Coming Out.” On closer observation, it turns out that the film is about “how to come out of being gay”–that is, how to “cure oneself” of being gay. Shortly after the film appeared in November, a reviewer claimed that it “is the most harmful Hungarian film ever made.” He came to that conclusion on the basis of the comments that appeared under a review of the film in Index, which were full of venom, hatred, and anti-Semitic remarks.

I, on the other hand, see it somewhat differently. Yes, it is most likely a harmful film, but not because commenters make ugly remarks about gays, liberals, and Jews. It is harmful because it is a falsification of medical facts. Instead of enlightening the terribly ignorant Hungarian public on the phenomenon of homosexuality, it leads them farther down the road of ignorance.

Some twenty years ago, in the infancy of the Internet, I signed up for two discussion groups dealing with Hungary. One was in English, the other in Hungarian. By now I don’t remember on which one we had a Hungarian psychiatrist who one day came out with the brilliant observation that “homosexuality is like smoking. One can get hooked but one can also quit.” It seems that even twenty years later many Hungarians haven’t changed their attitudes.

The story of the movie is as follows. Erik, an openly gay radio personality, is planning to marry his partner, Balázs. Then comes a motorcycle accident, as a result of which he slowly discovers that he is “in truth” attracted to the opposite sex. Who is the object of his newly found heterosexual desires? His own physician, Linda.

The producer of this film is Gábor Kálomista, a man known for his right-wing sympathies. It received 280 million forints from the fund established by the Orbán government under the supervision of Andy Vajnai, formerly a producer of such serial Hollywood blockbusters as Rambo and Terminator. Vajnai is a practical guy for whom box office numbers are the measure of success. When he arrived as Viktor Orbán’s man in charge of film production, he decided to change the direction of Hungarian filmmakers’ activities. Hungary was known for winning all sorts of international prizes but, Orbán and Vajnai pointed out, nobody went to see these films. They didn’t make any money.

The result of the total reorganization of the Hungarian film industry was that for three solid years no Hungarian film was produced. But then “Coming Out” appeared. Since the money for the production came from the Christian, family oriented Orbán government, one couldn’t expect to see a real “coming out.” Moreover, since the newly organized film industry wanted high ticket sales, the plot had to appeal to the majority, conservative audience. Apparently it worked. By the end of January 110,000 people went to see the movie.

It seems that this pseudo-science is what the Hungarian public wants to believe. They can go home after the movie and discuss with friends and family the “fact” that homosexuality is an illness which can be cured, if necessary by a knock on the head. They can go on and talk in the style of Zsolt Semjén about “bearded liberals” who lead innocent children into sin by luring them into sexual deviance.

This film is a reflection of the generally phony world of Orbán’s Hungary. Falsifying history, falsifying science: all is well as long as the government’s propaganda machine, assisted by the churches, satisfies the needs of the population. Moreover, this is film is just a drop in the bucket. For instance, Péter Róska, a theologian, explains on Magyar Rádió that “homosexual tendencies” are acquired traits because “they haven’t found the homosexual gene.” The whole western world, he continues, is in danger because of the “gender ideology” that is directed by gays and feminists. This kind of pap is being fed to the Hungarian public.

SturmlandIn sharp contrast, a Hungarian-German film, naturally not supported by Andy Vajna’s fund, won top honors in the “first film” category at the Berlin Film Festival. The film, entitled Sturmland/Viharsarok (Land of Storms), is about three gay men wrestling with their sexuality in an unaccommodating environment.  A review I read of the film describes the background as something that “belongs to a forgotten Europe.” A Hungarian football player returns from Germany and gets romantically involved with a local man. Both men endure separate experiences of violence as word gets out about them. In the end the football player is murdered. Berliner Zeitung wrote a very favorable review of the film in which the reviewer emphasized that the movie is about “the dreadful logic of repressed homosexuality and the deadly hatred of homosexuals.”

Two films, two worlds. One is reality, the other reflects the awful emptiness of a mendacious world created by Viktor Orbán and his Christian Democratic allies who have a free rein in matters of education, culture, and film production.

Viktor Orbán’s revolution devours its own children: the case of László L. Simon

Culture and the Orbán regime. It’s a real oxymoron. Culture is the last thing that interests either Viktor Orbán or his football buddies. He rarely appears at cultural events and, if he does (he and his wife attended the production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman a few days ago),  it is not because of his burning desire to hear Wagner’s music but because he wanted to demonstrate his support for Szilveszter Ókovács, his controversial choice to be the new director of the Hungarian State Opera.

Viktor Orbán hasn’t been very lucky with his picks for undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs. His first choice was a Transylvanian poet, Géza Szőcs. According to people who apparently have some knowledge of the connection between Szőcs and Orbán, Szőcs was a favorite of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife. Szőcs had no administrative or political experience and gave the impression of a blunderer with grandiose plans in a time of austerity. Viktor Orbán had cut back on state subsidies for culture; football stadiums took priority over theaters and concert halls. Moreover, if he spends money, let’s say on ballet, that money is allocated only to his political lackeys.

Szőcs simply didn’t work out, but he also had to be frustrated because he had less and less of a say in formulating cultural policies. Hungarian film making was taken out of his hands and given to Andy Vajna, an American-Hungarian producer of blockbuster movies, including the Rambo series, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and the multiple Terminator movies. The result? In the last two years no Hungarian movie was produced and for the first time in living memory there was no Budapest Film Festival this year.

Szőcs had to leave; instead, he was named a trusted adviser to Viktor Orbán. When a few months later he was asked what kind of advice he was giving the prime minister, Szőcs admitted that Orbán hadn’t yet availed himself of his wise council. I do hope that he will get a few dollars because, as far as I know, Szőcs is a poor man with nothing to fall back on financially.

Szőcs was replaced by another poet, László L. Simon. According to people who know the works of both Szőcs and L. Simon, the former is a truly talented man while L. Simon is not exactly a literary giant. However, L. Simon apparently does care about the state of Hungarian culture and was deeply saddened by the lost state subsidies in the field of culture. He began his activities by announcing to everyone that he will be able to represent the interests of the cultural institutions more forcefully than his predecessor.

Yesterday, eight months after L. Simon began his new career as undersecretary for cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, he was dismissed. Lately there have been rumors to the effect that L. Simon and Zoltán Balog don’t see eye to eye on many issues. One of these issues was the role of György Fekete as the head of the Hungarian Academy of the Arts. You may recall the controversy surrounding this new official institution that seems to serve as a spearhead of the Orbán government’s growing efforts to force liberal elements out of the cultural sphere and place cultural institutions in the service of the government.

In spite of strenuous objections Zoltán Balog decided to appoint György Fekete to head the Academy of Arts, and it seems that this was too much for L. Simon, who objected to his appointment. But L. Simon lost time and again to his minister. Balog, who never liked the ever active L. Simon, eventually lost his patience and decided to fire his undersecretary. The problem was that he had neglected to inform L. Simon of his decision before the media (Népszava, Magyar Nemzet) got hold of the story. And L. Simon simply couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He kept saying that he didn’t criticize Fekete and he swore that he would not resign. He was baffled. Only yesterday he appeared at a cultural event held at the House of Terror in his capacity as undersecretary in charge of culture while the media reported his dismissal as a fact.

During the event the dismissal was actually mentioned by the participants. Gergely Karácsony (PMP) told L. Simon, “Let’s face it, Laci, you lost this game,” meaning  the fight over the the Hungarian Academy of Arts. L. Simon haughtily answered that Karácsony was merely a parliamentary member without party affiliation and that his remark was shameful.

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

And finally, let me translate a few sentences by Árpád W. Tóta, one of the best young commentators on Hungarian politics, on the fate of L. Simon. “One cannot be just a little Bolshevik.  It is not worth trying even at Heti Válasz.” What does Tóta want to say here? L. Simon tried to mitigate the harshness of the Orbán Kulturkampf, but the regime doesn’t tolerate half-hearted efforts. Yes, this is clear even for those who are not intimately familiar with the Hungarian political scene. But what about this dig about Heti Válasz? This weekly is supposed to be “the moderate” voice of Fidesz, but Tóta warns us that even there one shouldn’t try to stray from the official party line.

“Yes, one cannot be just a little ‘bolsi’ because there is in the waiting room of the big boss a 100% loyal man who is more ‘bolsi’ than he is, someone who will state in writing that he will not think, he will only serve.” Tóta doesn’t feel sorry for L. Simon. After all, it was less than a month ago that he was telling us that the problem with Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater, was that Alföldi doesn’t have faith in the divine order and that his artistry is characterized by chaos and dilemma. So, it is understandable that the government wants to pick a director whose thinking is closer to its own ideology.

The government found someone whose ideology is closer to its own than that of L. Simon, the little “bolsi.” “How do you like it?” Tóta asks. Perhaps L. Simon should recognize that this is the logic of the regime. The party worked that way even in opposition and will work that way as long as it exists. What is going on in Hungary is “the triumphal procession of  unfit brown nosers.” We know who is responsible for all that: “the guffawing dwarf who is staggering in the middle of the circle with absolute power…. To be a little ‘bolsi,’ as it became clear, is not really worth the try.”