Eastern Europe

Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.

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Attila Ara-Kovács and Bálint Magyar: On the periphery of empires–a buffer zone of the EU?

Today the European Union is faced with conflicts it has never encountered before either within or beyond its borders. In 2004, when several Eastern European countries were admitted to the EU in the wake of the Drang nach Osten, the democracy deficit of the new member states was considered no more than a children’s disease which—given proper treatment—they would surely outgrow. However, as the post-communist mafia state took shape in Hungary between 2010 and 2014, this assumption proved utterly mistaken. Outside its borders—as in Ukraine for example—the hope that societies will necessarily come nearer to European “civilized” norms turned out to be an illusion.

Within the Borders of the EU

Hungary was once a pioneer of the region in expending efforts to dynamically modernize and democratize the country. Although the “central field” policy was described by Viktor Orbán well before 2010, it has been implemented since he came to power. The main aim of this policy is to prevent any change in the political setup and establish an autocratic regime, while stressing that stabilizing liberal democracy is just one alternative in our region. Eastern European post-communist societies today are under the threat of becoming autocratic regimes, thus stabilizing themselves. It is a moot point whether the EU has the clout to put these countries back on the trajectory of liberal democracy or—failing that—excommunicate them from the EU.

Eastern EuropeThe system of sanctions against democracy deficit as legitimized by Brussels is based on two premises. The first one posits that integration implies a system of values whose effectiveness is dependent on the coherence and homogeneity of these values. According to the second premise the fundamental principle of the policy followed by the member states is underpinned by the shared values of liberal democracies, and deviations from this policy should not be regarded as intentional only as occasional slips. The system of sanctions works only if both of these premises are accepted because—short of the second one—exclusion from the community would automatically come into force as a last resort. In other words, unless the shared values of the member states fail to be harmonized due to the reluctance of certain countries to eliminate those deviances, the community is bound to reject those countries in self-defence, lest for other reasons.

Since the perception of public opinion in Hungary denying the value system of the EU is not incidental but systematic, it is often assumed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-term goal is to lead Hungary out of the EU.

Challenging this view, we assert that neither the exclusion of Hungary nor a government attempt to quit the EU is a likely scenario.

Beyond the Borders of the EU

The recent brutal events in Ukraine reveals an increasingly fierce geopolitical competition between the European Union and the “Euro-Asian Union” being formed and led by Russia. This competition is rendered particularly intense owing to the fact that the battle of the great spheres of interest is reinforced in two more dimensions. On the one hand it can be interpreted as a fight between quasi-democratic and quasi-autocratic forces while on the other as a Russian-Ukrainian conflict tinged with a more and more obvious ethnic character. The latter problem also has some cultural undercurrents: after World War II the territory of Ukraine grew, extending its borders from the onion domes of Orthodoxy into the world of Gothic churches of Catholicism.

The lofty goals of fighting for a better value system are mixed with the down-to-earth goals of expanding the empire. This war is not waged with weapons though. Just the opposite, the big powers are trying to win the voters’ sympathy with offering “bonuses”. The Russians dangle the carrot of supplying cheap energy and opening an administratively controlled market in the former Soviet regions whereas the EU is giving the associated countries financial support and access to EU markets operating on a competitive basis. The imperialistic nature of this battle is revealed by attempts at mutually ruling out the possibility to avail of both channels of “bonus”.

If the requirements of homogeneity in value systems were imposed in strict terms, Ukraine would not at all stand a chance of joining the EU. At the same time however the geopolitical aims of the West seem to move towards a policy of increasingly close cooperation with Ukraine.

Value system versus geopolitics

The rationality of common values as declared by the EU on the one hand and the rationality of geopolitics with its pressure of circumstances on the other are mutually exlusive concepts, impossible to realize simultaneously. A move to admit or lure the former communist countries from the Balkans and Eastern Europe which are still outside the EU would lead to a catastrophic inflation of the system of common values. However, a flat rejection of these countries, let alone an expulsion of the quasi-autocratic regimes within the walls of the EU, would give the Russian Empire in the process of reincarnation the opportunity to expand towards the West. An EU decision to draw its geographical borders according to the system of common values would surely result in a reincarnation of Yalta, with the implication that the validity of political community would be overruled by the historical self-movement of value systems. Whereas the post-war Yalta agreement cut Europe into two along the North-South axis largely leaving out of consideration issues of cultural value systems, the axis now seems to move diagonally, from North-East to South-West. Such a move is supposed to irrevocably embed the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and possibly Slovakia into the EU but renders the place of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in this community ambiguous.

Even though Brussels declines to consider this option, it looks as if the contradiction between the dream of common values and the reality of geopolitics can be solved only by means of a two-speed EU, introduced under political duress. The euro-zone, a “westernized” form of multi-speed Europe has already been realized. The post-communist member states well entrenched in the EU either belong to the euro-zone already or are intent, irrespective of their ideological commitments on joining the euro-zone within a few years. Others however, including Hungary produce a national ideology to justify their resolve to stay permanently outside. The claim for preserving our autonomy hidden in the rhetoric of “national war of independence” is in fact the euphemistic demand that we be exempted from the norms of liberal democracy. Let there be no mistake: what these countries mean by “the Europe of nations” is an obvious claim to establish or maintain their quasi-autocratic regimes. No one but their own citizens can resist such demands effectively. If there is no resistance or if the resistence turns out to be unsuccessful, the stabilization attempts of “national autocracies” are sure to succeed. Whereas the geopolitical considerations of the EU should not allow the Russian Empire to reach out again as far as the River Leitha on the Western border of Hungary. The Western-European political elite—while giving up its romantic belief and original mission following the collapse of the Berlin Wall—is considering Eastern-Europe falling behind not as a companion in a cultural sense but only as an era to be influenced economically. In fact today’s Eastern-European elite –instead of trying to civilize– only wishes to strenghten its eastern scale of values with the help of national and social populism—in order to build up and preserve their autocratic power.

For some members of the EU to stop this process might seem all the more hopeless since to create a stable democracy is utterly impossible without an autonomous citizenship and a wide middle class.  What’s more, the financial crisis of 2008 even cast light upon the fact how vulnerable EU member South-European societies may be in this respect.

EU buffer zone – the playing field of autocrats

It follows from the above that we are moving towards a buffer zone, an area permanently outside the euro-zone, where unprincipled concessions in EU norms may be made. The new imperial logic defends itself not with the tactic of “scorched earth” but with a policy of giving support in well-proportioned doses while acquiescing in democracy deficits—in the past such behaviour was tolerated only exceptionally.

Why on earth would autocrats like Orbán wish to leave the EU once they can live in this buffer zone by “milking two empires”: regular support arrives through structural and cohesion funds from the EU whereas cheap energy through agreements with the Russian empire? While the former is made to pay for a semblance of showing good manners in politics and espousing the ideals of freedom, the latter for our submission into an Eastern system of dependency.

Attila Ara-Kovács, ex-diplomat

Bálint Magyar, ex-minister of culture and education

Russia and the European Union on a collision course over the South Stream pipeline

It was a week ago that the European commission told Russia that the “South Stream” pipeline, already under construction, and the contracts between Gazprom and six members of the European Union, including Hungary, violate European Union law. Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director for energy markets at the European Commission, told the European Parliament on December 4 that the “intergovernmental agreements are not in compliance with EU laws.” The EU countries that signed agreements with Gazprom were told that “they have to ask for re-negotiations with Russia, to bring the intergovernmental agreements in line with EU laws.” The countries in question are Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria, as well as Serbia, which is a member of the Energy Community, an EU-backed international agreement covering former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Deli Aramlat

The European Commission identified three major problems with the South Stream. First, Gazprom is in violation of the so-called ownership “unbundling” rules, according to which a company cannot be both a producer and a supplier of gas. It cannot own production facilities and transmission networks. Clearly, Gazprom does. Second, according to EU law, non-discriminatory access of third parties to the pipeline must be ensured. In other words, Gazprom cannot have the exclusive right to supply gas through the pipeline. Finally, the Commission found problems with the tariff structure.

If these treaties must be renegotiated, there will be a delay of not months but, according to Borchardt, at least two years. Bulgaria has already protested. Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin, who used to be a member of the European Parliament, made it clear that his country is not happy with Brussels’ decision. “It is not a nice move to slow the construction, because the parties to the track area are already in readiness to kick off.” He emphasized that “this is a very important project” for Bulgaria and expressed his hope that the European Union will not “stop the South Stream project.” Bulgaria already began construction of the South Stream at the end of October.

Brussels, however, seems to mean business. Borchardt said “in all openness and frankness that the South Stream pipeline will not operate on the territory of the EU if it is not in compliance with our energy law.” The Russians seem to be as resolute as the European officials are. A representative of Gazprom who was present at Borchardt’s announcement stressed that “nothing can prevent the construction of South Stream.” Russia’s position is similar to that of Viktor Orbán: EU law cannot prevail in EU-Russian relations, which are governed only by international law.

The Hungarian media covered the news coming out of Brussels, but the Hungarian government offered no response to the rather harsh verdict of the European Commission on the bilateral treaties that had been negotiated with Russia. Although here and there one could read about visits of Gazprom officials, nothing was known about the actual state of the negotiations and their particulars. Only yesterday Világgazdaság, a normally well informed paper dealing with economics and finance, reported that perhaps in the next week or so Orbán and Vladimir Putin will talk about the EU objections. Apparently Mrs. László Németh, the minister in charge of national development, was charged with preparing the prime minister’s visit to Moscow. I’m not sure, however, whether this meeting will actually take place. Because, as we just found out today, an agreement has already been signed.

As usual, details of Hungary’s negotiations with foreign powers came from the other side. The Hungarian public learned today that Aleksei Miller, president of Gazprom, paid a visit to Budapest yesterday and signed an agreement concerning the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Journalists immediately bombarded the head of Orbán’s press department for details. They were told that the prime minister and the head of Gazprom didn’t sign any agreement. He added that negotiations between Mrs. László Németh and Gazprom will proceed according to plans.

So we had two versions of the story. Someone was not telling the truth. At least this was the conclusion journalists of opposition papers came to. Stop, an online site, asked its readers whom they believed, the Hungarian government or the head of Gazprom. A relatively new online paper whose political views seem to me to be close to the Demokratikus Koalíció talked about the “selective memory” of the officials of the Orbán government.

It turned out that the spokesman for Viktor Orbán didn’t lie outright. It is true that Orbán himself didn’t sign anything. But something was signed all right: an agreement between Gazprom and MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd.), a state-owned company. As I understand it, MVM and Gazprom established a joint company called Déli Áramlat Zrt (South Stream Corporation), each with a 50% ownership. It is a large, expensive project that might pose serious financial risks to MVM, especially if the EU stands fast.

Experts figure that the Hungarian part of the project will cost around 300 billion forints, for which MVM will be responsible. Today’s Népszabadság points out, however, that MVM will be able to borrow such a large amount of money only if the project has the European Union’s blessing and financiers feel safe lending so much money to the Hungarian company.

I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of an extended imbroglio. Viktor Orbán is ready for his next battle with the EU, Hungary’s enemy.

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.”

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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.

PISA 2012: No gold star for Hungarian education

For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”

Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.

Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000!  Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.

PISA2

The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.

I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.

So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the  website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)

And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.

Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020.  Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.

Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.