Csaba Hende

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

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The Orbán government’s latest “unorthodox solution”: A unique toll system

The Hungarian public is fixated on everything related to cars and driving, especially when it’s a question of money. Announcements about gasoline prices are daily fare in Hungary. If the price of gasoline goes up or down a couple of forints, it’s big news. Hungary is a poor country, we must not forget. Perhaps the most serious crisis since the change of regime occurred when it was announced that gasoline prices would have to be raised substantially. A blockade of all roads nationwide by taxi drivers paralyzed the country for three days and forced a government retreat.

Therefore it’s mighty strange that the Orbán government, already under considerable domestic and foreign pressure, decided to introduce a new toll system–and a badly designed one at that, which is bound to encounter serious opposition.

The system is geographically based. Each county, and there are nineteen of them in Hungary, is a separate toll unit. A driver who plans to drive on a toll road but strictly within the confines of his county need purchase only a single “matrica/vignette.” A few decades ago that might have been reasonable. A trip from Pécs to Harkány was considered to be quite a journey, and going to Hosszúhetény was an outright adventure. But these days, even with lower gasoline prices, people with cars are a lot more mobile.

The maps the government provided to make car owners’ lives easier are confusing. Some of them even had mistakes. If I figure it right, a person driving from Budapest to Pécs on the relatively new superhighway will need four matricas. Admittedly, the new county matricas are a great deal cheaper (5,000 Ft. each) than the former pass that was good for the whole country at 42,980 Ft/year. But what a hassle to figure out what counties you’re going through each time you plan a trip and which passes you’ll have to buy before you venture outside your own county. Even worse, think about those occasions when you have to get somewhere quickly–a family illness, a business emergency, the funeral of a colleague. You don’t just gas up the car and go. You also have to make sure you have the appropriate passes.

Let’s take a not too far-fetched example. A businessman who travels frequently from Pécs to Budapest will have to buy three or four matricas. And let’s say his family also wants to visit an aunt in Somogy or in Zala. The expenses start adding up.

The suspicion is that the government eventually wants to stop issuing those matricas that are good for a limited period of time. They are handy when the family goes on holiday to Lake Balaton or the Mátra Mountains. For ten days they pay only 2,975 Ft.; for a month, 4,789 Ft.

Drivers had to purchase their matricas by January 1, but as of December 29 no matricas were yet available. The new system was introduced in a great hurry without adequate preparation, as even Gergely Gulyás, the honey-tongued Fidesz politician, had to admit. By Friday (January 2) the computer system handling the issuance of matricas at gas stations crashed. There were long lines of people standing in the cold and rain in front of the headquarters of the office that takes care of the country’s roads. Purchasing passes online was not any easier because the site couldn’t handle the traffic.

And confusion reigns. Csaba Hende, the minister of defense and a member of parliament for Vas County, is furious. Based on the information he received, he promised his constituents that M86, a road between Szombathely and Vát, was going to be toll free. Came the surprise the following day: anyone using this new road will have to get a county matrica.

Utpalyak

There are bits and pieces of roads–because this is what we are talking about–where the introduction of tolls makes no sense. Perhaps the most egregious example is the road to the Budapest Airport. A single trip a year to and from the airport would require a Budapester to buy a county matrica.

The attached map gives some idea of what I’m talking about. As you can see, M1 and M0 serve a very important function: to save Budapest from heavy thru traffic, mainly the thousands and thousands of trucks that cross the country toward the north, the east, and the south. It is hard not to notice that certain parts of a single highway are free while other parts are toll roads. The reason is that those sections marked in green were built with EU support, for the specific purpose of ridding Budapest of the heavy truck traffic that is environmentally harmful. The European Union demanded that these roads remain toll free. Well, on the map they are marked free, but the roads leading to these free sections are toll roads, so, contrary to EU intentions, truckers don’t get a free ride around Budapest. You may ask what the orange-colored sections signify. These three short sections are still within the limits of Pest County, but if you drive onto them, you must have a county matrica for Fejér County in the case of M1 and M7 or Nógrád County in the case of M3. The distances are small. The trip from Törökbálint to Pusztazámor, for instance, is only 17.3 km or 10.7 miles.

A civic group that already blocked the M1 and M7 superhighways for a minute in December is threatening the government with an ultimatum. They now promise a total blockade of all roads if the government does not withdraw the new county toll system by the end of February. They will also demand the resignation of the Orbán government. The organizer is Zoltán Büki, a businessman and Együtt-PM activist in the county of Nógrád.

Viktor Orbán crashed the party: the hosts were not pleased

A few days ago some Hungarian newspaper reporters discovered that, according to an international Russian-language site called Birzhevoi Lider, Viktor Orbán turned up uninvited–and unwelcome–in Vilnius last Sunday on the last day of a joint NATO exercise called “Iron Sword 2014.”

The story was more than media gossip. The press secretary of Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitè confirmed that Orbán had not been invited to sit in the grandstand for the military parade marking the end of an almost two-week-long military exercise against a possible attack on Lithuania from the East. Moreover, the president had no intention of meeting him. According to the article, an unannounced visit by a leading politician on such an occasion is considered to be an affront to the host country. The journalists of Birzhevoi Lider asked Laurynas Kasčiūnas, a political scientist who apparently is normally not at all critical of Orbán, for a comment. Even he was taken aback by Orbán’s brazen behavior. He pointed out that we all know why Orbán is now so eager to show his loyalty to his NATO allies, but “the European community no longer falls for Orbán’s gimmicks because Europeans have not forgotten that it is Hungary which supports Putin in Europe and that it was Budapest that stopped supplying gas to Ukraine.”

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

NATO began preparing for the defense of the Baltic States as early as 2010, right after Russia invaded Georgia. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO decided to have a larger presence in the area. The first American paratroopers arrived in April and since then an international NATO battalion has been assembled in Lithuania. This task force includes 140 members of Hungary’s 5th István Bocskai Infantry Brigade.

It is a well-known fact that the leading politicians of Poland and the Baltic states have had serious differences of opinion with Viktor Orbán over his pro-Russian stand. Lithuanians were especially vocal in their condemnation of the Hungarian prime minister. You may recall Orbán’s opposition to the EU sanctions against Russia when he described the decision as a grave mistake, “shooting oneself in the foot.” In response, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevčius quipped that “it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head.”

The president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitè, called the Iron Lady at home, is said to be ready to fight the Russians gun in hand if necessary. She is no friend of Putin, whom she described as someone who “uses nationality as a pretext to conquer territory with military means. That’s exactly what Stalin and Hitler did.” She is also a confirmed believer in the European Union. After all, she served as commissioner of education and culture in the first Barroso Commission and later as commissioner for financial programming and the budget. She has been president of Lithuania since 2009. She ran as an independent but with conservative support. “She wants to put permanent boots on the ground in the Baltics to ward off any potential threat from their Soviet-era master.” And the Lithuanian people seem to be equally determined. Her willingness to take up arms has encouraged others to follow suit. There has been a sharp rise in paramilitary recruits. During the weekend civilians receive military training. Students, businessmen, civil servants, journalists, and even politicians have joined the government-sponsored Lithuania Riflemen’s Union. These people are determined. So, for Orbán to make an uninvited appearance there was a serious diplomatic faux pas.

Almost all of the above information comes from English-language sources. Hungarian reporting on the military contingent in Lithuania is practically nonexistent. On November 4 Válasz ran a brief, fairly meaningless article on the military exercises in which soldiers from nine NATO member states are participating. In it Bálint Ablonczy showed off his Google skills, explaining who Silvestras Žukauskas was and noting that the large military center close to the city of Pabrade, near the Belarus border, bears this general’s name. I guess it was safer to talk about Žukauskas’s role in the 1918-1919 Soviet-Lithuanian war than to say something meaningful about Hungary’s participation in these NATO exercises.

Otherwise, nothing. Except we learned from Csaba Hende, minister of defense, after his return from Vilnius that the small Hungarian contingent did fantastically well. Among the troops of the nine participating states the Hungarians were first “according to all indicators.” It is hard to know what kinds of “indicators” Hende is talking about. We don’t even know whether there was such a ranking. Sorry to be so skeptical, but for a long time now government statements have not been credible. Lacking outside verification, we cannot distinguish fact from fiction–and perhaps government officials can’t either.

Hungary and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Hungarian far right and Russia and mentioned the Russian accusation that Hungary has been supplying T-72 tanks to Ukraine. At that time the Hungarian government categorically denied the charge, but the case of the “missing” Russian-made tanks is still a subject of debate. First of all, the stories out of the Ministry of Defense were confused. The spokesman for the ministry first claimed that the tanks never left the country: they were just moved from one storage area to another. Then the story took a different turn. The ministry informed the media that T-72 tanks (70 in all) were actually sold to a company called Excalibur Defense Kft. of Székesfehérvár, which received permission from the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade to transport the tanks to Czech territory.

That deal and the transportation of the tanks to the Czech Republic is most likely for real:  Magyar Nemzet published a facsimile of the “International Import Certificate” attesting to the arrangement. On August 25 the government informed the media that the tanks had begun their j0urney to the Czech Republic. Yet the documents published by Magyar Nemzet did not convince anyone about the final destination of the tanks. Vice Magazine published an article which took it for granted that the T-72 tanks did or will end up in Ukraine. The deal with Excalibur is only a decoy. And this belief is shared by the Russians. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian political scientist and adviser to Vladimir Putin who also happens to be the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, in an interview on CNN accused Hungary of illegally selling military supplies to Ukraine.

Today several  newspapers reported that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, may leave his post sometime after the municipal elections. The exact reasons for his sudden departure are not known, but perhaps the clumsy handling of the T-72 tanks might be one of them. Given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s excellent relations with Vladimir Putin and his outright antagonism of any sanctions against Russia, providing Ukraine with illegal shipments of weaponry is more than strange. If true, Orbán’s relations with Putin might be greatly damaged and his tarnished reputation in the West is unlikely to improve.

This is not the only strange turn in Hungarian foreign policy. There is also the government’s sudden change of heart about its support for NATO’s anti-Russian moves. Already in his last radio talk Orbán hinted that there might be more willingness on his government’s part to spend 2% of the Hungarian GDP on defense. This figure is the minimum NATO members, including Hungary, agreed to. Since 2010 the government has spent less and less on the armed forces, with the current expenditure a mere 0.88% of the GDP. In that talk he admitted that the country is in noncompliance.

Indeed, two days ago Magyar Nemzet reported that Hungary will arrive in Newport, Wales for the NATO summit with several proposals concerning the Hungarian contribution to the common effort to contain Russian encroachment into Ukraine. The semi-official newspaper is usually very well informed, and therefore we can be pretty certain that the news is correct. Hungary will send a contingent of 100 men to the Baltics to join an international NATO force there. In addition, Hungary will develop the air force base near Pápa. Moreover, Hungary will spend more money to improve the Hungarian military.

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Yesterday HVG reported that several NATO member countries would like to see additional NATO troops in all countries that define the eastern borders of the organization. That would naturally also involve Hungary. According to an unnamed diplomatic source, if such a request is addressed to Hungary it will be almost impossible to refuse it.

Given all these developments one can only marvel at László Kövér’s performance yesterday. The occasion was a meeting of four prominent participants in the change of regime in Hungary–Sándor Lezsák, László Kövér, Mátyás Szűrös, and Péter Tölgyessy–with 20 young historians, journalists, and artists who travel through European countries following the footsteps of 1989. The project, called Freedom Express, was organized by the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity. The group arrived in Budapest yesterday from Gdańsk and Warsaw. Well, the young visitors were treated to quite a tirade from the third highest dignitary of the country. It was an extraordinary performance that revealed Kövér’s antagonism toward Ukraine and her aspirations.

First, Kövér got upset about some of the questions that had more to do with Hungary’s pro-Russian views than the fine points of regime change in Hungary twenty-five years ago. Then a Romanian participant in Freedom Express asked Kövér a question that included a reference to the Romanian occupation of Budapest in 1919. He indicated that the Romanian army came to Hungary to liberate it from the communists. That really set Kövér off. He began by saying that “there is no reason to bring up topics with which we only irritate each other.”  So, he was in a bad mood even before all the questions poured in about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and Hungary’s role in it.

Kövér gave his own version of the conflict. “What is going on in Ukraine is a manipulated affair in which the Ukrainians have the smallest role,” he claimed. “The goal of this circus is that it should forever separate Europe from Russia.” Although Kövér expressed his satisfaction with the NATO umbrella over Hungary and although he understands the Poles and the Baltic people who are worried about Russian expansion, Russia has its legitimate security needs. “Who was the American or European politician who asked what the Ukrainians want?” As far as Western media coverage of the conflict is concerned, “the western press lies just as much as Pravda did in the olden days.”

Kövér is also convinced that no democratic developments can be expected from Ukraine because one of the first moves of the Ukrainian government was the suspension of minority rights. (Kövér failed to add that a day later that move was reversed.) As far as he is concerned, there can be no question about the outcome of a military encounter involving “the nonexistent army of the nonexistent Ukrainian state.” Instead, the real solution would be “normal cooperation between Europe and Russia,” but “the chance of that has been lost for the foreseeable future.”

If there is a circus anywhere, I’m afraid it is what Hungarian government politicians have managed to create in the field of diplomacy. And the clowns in this circus are not at all funny.

Jobbik-Fidesz cooperation: The case of the Western Hungarian Uprising of 1921

In a way I’m continuing the same topic as yesterday–the Orbán government’s appeasement of Jobbik and its supporters. Actually, it may be imprecise to talk about appeasement. There is a partially shared ideology that on quite a few occasions has brought the Orbán government and Jobbik together on the same platform, working hand in hand. Fidesz politicians would like to keep this cooperation quiet. Openly they refuse to associate themselves with Jobbik, but under cover they are more than ready to pick up and support Jobbik’s ideas.

One such endeavor seems to run into difficulties year after year. I’m talking about the restoration of the statue of a young man that adorns the grave of Tibor Vámossy, a nineteen-year-old engineering student who died in the so-called Western Hungarian Uprising of August 28 – October 13, 1921. Before 1920 Western Hungary was the official name of that part of Greater Hungary called Burgenland today.

Austria, in the name of self-determination of nations, laid claim to the territory, including the city of Sopron, on November 17, 1918. The Allied and Associated Powers approved the transfer of territories in the September 10, 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. The Hungarian government did not expect such an “unfriendly act” from the “in-laws,” as Hungarians often refer to their former Austrian partners, but the Austrian claim was well founded. The territory’s population according to the 1920 census was about 350,000. The vast majority were German-speaking (72.4%). Croatians (13.8%) and Hungarians (12.3%) made up the rest.

This territory–as opposed to those in the north, east, and south–remained under Hungarian administration after the military collapse, which gave the Hungarian government some hope of retaining it. Budapest tried to come to a separate understanding with Vienna, but these negotiations not surprisingly were unsuccessful. At this point “independent” armed groups decided to prevent the entry of Austrian gendarmes. Eventually 2,000-3,000 quite well armed men were involved on the Hungarian side; the Austrian policemen were no match for them. After a few people died on both sides, the Austrians withdrew. Eventually a peaceful solution was found at the Conference of Venice with Italian moderation. The Hungarians asked for a plebiscite in Sopron and in nine villages nearby. Although the plebiscite produced a Hungarian majority in only three villages, the inhabitants of Sopron voted for Hungary so overwhelmingly (72%) that eventually the whole area remained within Hungary. This was the only negotiated settlement between Hungary and her successors.

In the last few years the statue of Tibor Vámossy in the Farkasréti Cemetery has become a gathering place for Jobbik supporters who, flanked by members of Magyar Gárda, commemorate Vámossy’s death on October 6, 1921. Young Vámossy was the only son of  upper-middle class parents who were rich enough to hire a well-known artist to sculpt a statue of their son and who were patriotic enough to make sure that everybody would know that Tibor died for “Western Hungary.” The Latin words “Pro Integritate” were chiseled into the base of the statue. Vámossy, Jobbik contends, was a member of the so-called Rongyos Gárda (Ragged Guard), one of the many paramilitary organizations that took part in the uprising. Jobbik–and Magyar Gárda–consider it a precursor of sorts.

By the time members of Jobbik and Magyar Gárda discovered the grave site, it was neglected and crumbling. But it had not been completely ignored. Earlier, in 2004, a government organization looking after places and objects that have some national significance (Nemzeti Emlékhely és Kegyeleti Bizottság/NEKB) decided to include the grave on its roster. The president of this organization is Péter Boross, prime minister of Hungary for a few months after József Antall, who in my opinion is very much to the right on the Hungarian political spectrum. So when Jobbik came up with the idea of restoring the crumbling statue they had to turn to NEKB for permission. On September 12, 2012 the organization gave Jobbik permission to go ahead with the project.

At this point members of the Vámossy family raised objections. They refused to have anything to do with Jobbik and its efforts at reconstructing their ancestor’s grave. They announced that, contrary to Jobbik’s claim, Tibor Vámossy was not a member of the Rongyos Gárda; he was a simple patriotic engineering student who decided to fight for his country. The Rongyos Gárda’s reputation is pretty bad in Hungary: it was a murderous anti-Semitic group. So, it is understandable that the Vámossy family refused to endorse the project.

The Vámossy relatives, most of whom live abroad, were right. Young Vámossy was not a member of this unsavory group. According to Andor Ladányi, who wrote a book on the role of university students in the first years of the counterrevolution, there were two recruiters at the engineering school: István Friederich, former prime minister between August 7 and November 25, 1919, and EKSZ (Etelközi Szövetség), an irredentist group active in universities. According to Ladányi, about 50 students were recruited from the engineering students by Friederich, some of whom were described by contemporaries as “all very stylish and well-educated boys.” They even had a “uniform” of sorts: green hunting caps and brown “sporty outfits.” Vámossy was one of these. He and a friend of his, Antal Lossonczy, died while writing postcards home along a roadside near Kismarton. An Austrian patrol opened fire on them.

So, Jobbik came up with an idea which was then approved by the Boross-led organization in charge of national monuments. When the family objected to the presence of Jobbik, the Ministry of Defense decided to take upon itself the cost of the restoration. That is what I meant when I said that Jobbik and the Orbán government often work hand in hand. As Előd Novák, vie-chairman of Jobbik, reported in August 2013, it was on Jobbik’s initiative that the project received the nod from Csaba Hende, who wrote to him that ” although Tibor Vámossy did not die as a soldier on October 6, 1921, he sacrificed his life in defense of the integrity of our country.” Apparently, Hende added that “naturally the government and the ministry acknowledge the merits of the Rongyos Gárda” as well.

The restored tomb and statue

The restored tomb and statue

In August 2013 the whole project was almost ready and Jobbik was preparing for the official unveiling of the statue sometime in October. Naturally, the Magyar Gárda and Jobbik wanted to be present. After all, it was their idea, and they would have been ready to pay for the restoration if the family hadn’t objected. But this was exactly what Csaba Hende, the minister of defense who planned to deliver the speech at the unveiling, did not want. So, according to Jobbik sources, the ministry decided to unveil “the statue of Tibor Vámossy who was a member of the Rongyos Gárda in secret” on October 11. As soon as the ministry discovered that Jobbik knew about the “secret” event and that they intended to participate, Hende’s ministry “postponed the ceremony” again.

Jobbik was outraged and began to attack both the ministry and the Vámossy family. In Novák’s opinion, the ministry is using the family as an excuse. They simply don’t want to be seen with Jobbik. Jobbik also began questioning the right of the Vámossys to speak on the issue at all. After all, they said, Tibor was unmarried and had no direct descendants. Yes and no. I happen to know that Tibor Vámossy had a sister who was married to someone whose family name was Mikecz. At the request of his father-in-law Mikecz changed his name to Vámossy in order to carry on the family name.

Another year has gone by and the anniversary of the uprising’s beginning, August 28,  is approaching. There is still no resolution to the unveiling even though by now the restored memorial is in place. According to Jobbik, the government must decide whether it recognizes the heroism of the Rongyos Gárda in the Western Hungarian Uprising that resulted in a negotiated settlement in Hungary’s favor or not. Előd Novák wants the government not to hide anymore and instead to come out openly and bravely. Hende cannot say one thing to Novák and another to the general public or the Vámossy family. The members of the Orbán government must choose. I agree with Novák.

The “ethics” of a car accident

Today’s topic, a car accident, is not the usual fare of this blog. Admittedly, one of the people injured in the accident was the Hungarian minister of defense, Csaba Hende, but that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to blog about it. (Fortunately no one died and the minister’s Audi wasn’t even a total loss.) I decided to write about it because I think it reveals more about Hungary and Hungarians than most scientific analyses of social conditions in the country. It offers anecdotal evidence of Hungarians’ general disregard of the law. It also says something about the arrogance of Hungarian politicians.

Csaba Hende, along with an adviser, was traveling to a meeting with local inhabitants where he was supposed to tell his audience about the blessings of lowering utility prices. Of course, the first question is: What on earth is a minister of defense doing at such a function? The short answer is that in Orbán’s Hungary all members of the cabinet are expected to spread Fidesz propaganda. Several ministers and undersecretaries have already spoken at such propaganda meetings. Viktor Orbán obviously considers lowering utility rates a key point in his election campaign and has enlisted members of his government to sing its praises and thus win over voters.

Hende was heading toward Szécsény, a smallish town near the Slovak-Hungarian border between Balassagyarmat and Salgótarján. Although according to reports the minister’s car didn’t exceed the speed limit, it is likely that they were in a hurry because instead of taking the better road the driver, who also acts as Hende’s bodyguard, chose a sparsely traveled secondary road that shortened their travel time. It is a twisting, winding road. As it turned out, this road is a favorite of race car drivers who don’t have much opportunity to test their cars before rallies. The driver brings along two of his friends who act as flagmen. They ask other drivers to wait a bit until the practice is over. Naturally these guys don’t pay attention to speed limits. The driver of that particular race car was executing a serpentine curve at a speed of 100 km or 62 miles an hour. This practice is illegal but, as I found out from several articles I read on the subject, it is a common practice without much interference from the police.

strong manBut let’s not assume that the driver of Hende’s car was any more law abiding. He traveled with his emergency siren on and the blue light on the top of his vehicle flashing. Under normal circumstances the use of the siren and light is strictly forbidden. They can be used only in emergency situations. And surely going to a meeting to sell the idea of lowering utility prices is not one of those.

As for the events prior to the accident, they are not at all clear. According to some descriptions, the driver of Hende’s car simply ignored the flagman. According to others, he did exchange a few words with him but refused to wait until the race driver finished his run. In any case, a second later there was a fairly serious accident in which five people were injured.

Both sides disregarded the law. I was actually surprised to hear that Hende and his companion had used their seat belts. Not like Viktor Orbán who in the March snowstorm could be seen on the video ignoring the seat belt law that was supposed to be strictly enforced.

But that’s not all. There are also the reporters who offered up all sorts of fanciful explanations for why the driver of the minister’s car actually did the right thing when he ignored the flagman. Here is perhaps the most interesting one: “Origo learned from non-official sources that there was no physical barricade that could be construed as a road closure. Moreover, the driver of a person under special protection according to protocol cannot just stop because a person on the roadside waves at him.” Another “expert” advanced the following explanation: “Obviously the driver [of Hende’s car] had to suspect a trap and surely must have wondered what this man wanted.” Whatever the experts say, if a flagman warns of danger ahead, it’s a good idea to stop and inquire about the details. Or, as most people do, simply stop until your car is waved through.

Why didn’t the driver stop? Was he really afraid that on a secondary road in the middle of nowhere someone wanted to set a trap for that very important personage? Or is it perhaps the case that “those idiots on top,”  as a commenter described Hungarian politicians the other day, simply ignore ordinary mortals? I suspect it was the latter. After all, the driver had the blue light, the siren, and the almighty minister. These trump some guy waving on the roadside. The minister’s car will proceed. Unfortunately, hubris doesn’t always pay. In fact, it seldom pays, a lesson the Orbán government has yet to learn.

Snowstorm in Hungary: Government incompetence reigns

For over two days now I have been trying to explain the situation that developed in Hungary as a result of the blizzard to an American friend of mine. Her reaction has been: “OK, Eva, start over again. This doesn’t make any sense.” Then I begin my story again and the answer is: “Sorry, I still don’t understand. Why didn’t they close the roads as soon as it became obvious that there are 30-km traffic jams on very important roads in the country?” Or, “One doesn’t wait until that much snow falls but begins clearing the roads at intervals throughout the blizzard.” Well, indeed, at least in a well organized country prepared to handle all sorts of snow events. For example, the Burgenland, the eastern province of Austria adjacent to Hungary, was hit by exactly the same snowstorm but somehow within a relatively short time all the roads there were cleared.

Around here after a certain amount of snow falls (2″ in our town) the plows start working. I remember many a time that I was caught in a snowstorm on the Massachusetts Turnpike but, even as the snow fell, the plows were hard at work making sure that at least one lane was clear. During and after the last huge snowstorm there was a total ban on driving in Connecticut so that the 100 cm of snow that fell (at least in our town) could be cleared and transported off the roads. In comparison, in Hungary only 15 cm fell on March 14. So, why the chaos?

I read all the reports I could lay my hands on and came to the conclusion that the so-called Országos Katasztrófavédelmi Főigazgatóság (National Catastrophe Agency), a newly created organization, failed miserably. They reacted far too late to the storm that was very accurately predicted way ahead of time.

But that wasn’t the only problem. Officials of the Orbán government did what they do all the time. They lied in order to convince the Hungarian people that they had the situation well in hand. “Success” propaganda was spread far and wide with the disastrous consequence that people were misled and thought that the roads were clear, just as they had been told. Of course, they were not and therefore some people who thought that driving was safe ended up spending as many as 20 hours in their cars without provisions. Total chaos resulted but the government still had time to make a video in which the “dear leader” and his minister of interior just happened to pick up a young couple from Transylvania of all places and give them a lift to their truck. Interestingly, the couple didn’t seem to know that the driver was Viktor Orbán and that next to him sat Sándor Pintér. They also seemed oblivious to the cameras. Mátyás Eörsi, formerly SZDSZ now DK politician, called the video “stomach turning.”

The blizzard began early in the afternoon of March 14, but Sándor Pintér announced a snow alert only around 9 a.m. on the 15th. By that time tens of thousands were stuck on the highways. Some people talk about 30 km, others 100 km traffic jams. A couple of hours later the army was called out and a few hours after that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, proudly announced what a great job his soldiers were doing. Meanwhile the people half frozen in cars couldn’t get any information. Either the lines were jammed or the websites were unreachable because of traffic overload. If (rarely) they saw a policeman and asked what was going on, they were told that he is the last little link in the command chain and he has no idea what’s going on a few kilometers ahead. If the people managed to get through on their cell phones, different sources gave them contradictory information.

The nationwide alert system the National Catastrophe Agency instituted only a few months ago that would have informed the population of the serious situation that had developed was never used. When asked why not, Pintér’s answer was that the situation wasn’t nationwide and therefore there was no need to activate the system. Pintér, just like Hende, was extremely satisfied with the work of the police and the Catastrophe Agency. The people are to blame for starting off in the first place. Never mind that they didn’t receive any information about the severity of the situation.

Many critics point out that one of the problems is the extreme centralization of the whole system, including the police force. The only person who could have declared a state of emergency was Sándor Pintér, but as we learned he was busy at an event that celebrated the promotion of twelve officers of the National Catastrophe Agency. The gathering took place on the evening of March 14 when the crisis on the road had already been under way for hours.

Officers of the National Catastrophe Agency are very satisfied with their performance, March 14, 2013

Officers of the National Catastrophe Agency are very satisfied with their performance, March 14, 2013

György Bakondi, the new head of the Agency (far right), apparently has absolutely no experience in handling emergency situations. He is a lawyer with a dubious past. There was talk about investigating his financial affairs after 2002. More recently he was involved with the notorious UD Zrt. that was suspected of illegal spying on behalf of Fidesz. So, he was paid off with an important job and a fancy uniform and title. The reorganization of the system also meant getting rid of 800 experienced people and replacing them with Fidesz loyalists. In November 2012 the firefighters addressed an open letter to Viktor Orbán and Sándor Pintér in which they expressed their belief that Bakondi was unfit for the job.

I just heard an interview with Bakondi and my impression was that not only does he know nothing about what to do in case of an emergency, he is also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. When asked why they didn’t forbid trucks from entering the country, his answer was that it is impossible to tell people that they cannot enter Hungary. To the question why they let Hungarian passenger cars on the roads this bright shining light of the Fidesz administration announced that every Hungarian can go anywhere he wants! The government cannot prevent their free movement!  These kind of people run Hungary nowadays and therefore one mustn’t be terribly surprised that everything is done in a totally incompetent manner. Because people are not hired for their expertise but for their loyalty to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

And here is snow removal Hungarian style. Surely attacking a massive snow storm with shovels is a hopeless task.

Snow storm / Reuters

Snow storm / Reuters

We can now wait for another rewriting of history Fidesz style. The question is how the Orbán propaganda can make a success story out of this sorry affair. Those people who read only government papers or who listen only to Magyar Rádió or watch only Magyar Televízió have already been treated to self-congratulatory stories. How fast and with what great efficiency the police, the army, and the National Catastrophe Authority did their jobs. I just heard Pintér say that Hungary handled the snowstorm much better than any other country in Europe. But how long can such success propaganda be maintained? I hope not for long.