Élet és Irodalom

Mária Vásárhelyi: The Renaissance of Homo Kádáricus

Today I will summarize an article by sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi that appeared a couple of days ago in Élet és Irodalom. The article is another attempt at defining the political order that has developed in Hungary in the last three and a half years.

There are at least three good reasons for making the gist of the article available on Hungarian Spectrum. First, because relatively few people can read it in the original. Second, because even those who can handle Hungarian might not be able to peruse it because ÉS is nowadays available only to subscribers. And third, because I hold Mária Vásárhelyi’s work in high regard. The media is the focus of her research, but in this article she talks about the pervasive influence of János Kádár’s regime. We must keep in mind that the Kádár era lasted more than a generation, to be precise 33 years.

She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, a close associate of Imre Nagy who became the spokesman of the second Nagy government on November 1, 1956. When the Soviet troops began their offensive against the rebels on November 4, Vásárhelyi and his family, including his children, joined Imre Nagy and others in the Yugoslav Embassy and after November 23 in Romania. Eventually Vásárhelyi was sentenced to five years in jail.

So, Mária Vásárhelyi’s democratic credentials cannot be questioned. One can’t argue that she or her family was in any way associated with the Kádár regime and that thus she tries to minimize its responsibilities. I heard an interview with her some years back in which she described what it was like to be the daughter of “that Vásárhelyi.”

The article’s title is “The Renaissance of Homo Kadaricus.” It is thus clear from the beginning that Vásárhelyi seeks the roots of the present political system in the Kádár era. She begins on an optimistic note. She is sure that Orbán’s system will collapse because “it is not viable economically, in social terms it is terribly unjust and morally depraved.”

Many analysts have tried to describe and explain the phenomenon of Orbanism. How it was possible that within three short years Orbán and his minions managed to undo the democratic achievements of the regime change that occurred between 1989 and 2010. Explanations naturally vary: the lack of a democratic tradition, centuries of foreign domination, or the lack of a robust middle class. Others argue that in Hungary right-wing influences, especially strong during the Horthy regime, made such an impression on the Hungarian psyche that a large, if not predominant, portion of Hungarian society sympathizes with the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán.

Mária Vásárhelyi, without doubting that all of these influences are important, sees “the largest role in Orbán’s successes in the reminiscences of the Kádár era and the anomalies of the regime change.”

Those who have studied the Kádár regime or who experienced it first hand know that on the surface the period between 1963 and 1985 was considered by many to be the golden age of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Most people were totally satisfied with their lot and expected that every year they and their families would live better. There was a kind of unspoken arrangement by which the people didn’t poke their noses into politics and, in exchange, the party and the government made sure that their material yearnings would be more or less satisfied. Most people had no idea about the serious economic problems that existed already in the 1980s and, even if they did know about them, they didn’t think it was their business to get involved in any way. János Kádár and the others would take care of everything.

The overwhelming concern of most people was material, to which all else was subordinated: morals, compassion, democracy, freedom, human intercourse. They had little sympathy for the practically starving Poles or the oppressed Hungarians in Ceaușescu’s Romania. If they heard about the democratic opposition’s activities, they condemned them because, in their opinion, “they endangered the peace and order of Hungary” or because “they served the interests of the Great Powers.” Today’s Hungarians are to a great extent the products of this age and outlook.

Kadar 1959

János Kádár among his own, 1959

Vásárhelyi thinks that the Orbán regime’s Horthy cult is only an “eyewash” to keep those right-wingers whose vote is necessary to remain in power. Vásárhelyi is convinced that for the great majority of Hungarians the Horthy era means nothing. Some of them can’t even place it in time. Orbán’s real popularity lies in his success at being able to speak the language of the Everyman of the Kádár regime and his appeal to the selfishness of the middle classes that dread their loss of standing. Even “the nationalist rhetoric is no more than the mortar that helps to activate and organize these attitudes into a whole.”

I find Mária Vásárhelyi’s argument compelling–another piece of the puzzle that is the Orbán government.

Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights: The case of Krisztián Ungváry v. Hungary

Today’s topic should resonate with readers of all political stripes. Any news about secret agents of the Kádár regime, especially because of the lack of full disclosure, always arouses a great deal of interest. In addition, tidbits about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s activities as KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs in the 1980s are highly sought after, especially in right-wing circles. Add to that a former “official/informal contact” between the university and the Ministry of Interior’s infamous secret service who happens to be today a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. Finally, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that finds the Hungarian Supreme Court’s finding and judgment in the case of Krisztián Ungváry v. László Kiss irreconcilable with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prescribes that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

The story started in 2007 when Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) published an article by Krisztián Ungváry, a historian who is an authority on, among other things, the secret service and its agents during the Kádár period. The article was about an aborted student movement at the University of Pécs. In 1982 three young law students wanted to start a peace movement independent from the official Országos Béketanács. They never thought the authorities would find anything wrong with such a movement. After all, Kádár’s Hungary, like the whole Soviet bloc, made frequent references to peace as something desirable. The problem was that the inspiration for this particular movement came from Western Europe and wanted to banish nuclear arms from the whole of Europe, including Soviet arms that could also be found on Hungarian soil. Therefore, the authorities immediately reacted in order to squash the Dialógus program, as the movement was named by the students.

The details of this “storm in a teapot” are not interesting as far as our story is concerned, but the original article does shed light on many aspects of “gulyás communism” that were not evident to the passive majority of Hungarians. The thesis of the article is that very often it was not the secret agents who were the most important sources of information for the Ministry of Interior but the so-called “informal contacts.” In connection with the Dialógus affair Ungváry mentions eight people who served as “informal contacts,” most of whom he managed to identify. Among them was the party secretary of the law school, László Kiss, then associate professor and today a member of the Constitutional Court, a position he has held ever since 1998. At the same time Ungváry comes to the conclusion that, although Gyurcsány as a KISZ secretary was a link in the chain, his role was minimal and he was not one of the “official contacts” the Ministry of Interior relied on.

Kiss Laszlo

László Kiss

Ungváry had proof of Kiss’s reporting to the Ministry of Interior and therefore had no reason to believe that he might be the object of years of litigation in connection with this article. A few days after the appearance of his article, Kiss made an announcement that was published in ÉS in which he declared that he had never been an agent and “never worked with the persons of the secret service mentioned in the article. In fact, he didn’t even know them personally.” He threatened Ungváry with both civil and criminal legal proceedings and, as it turned out later, brought charges against ÉS as well.

Ungváry’s answer in the same issue pointed out that Kiss’s name appears in the folder dealing with the Dialógus affair as the source of information on the details of the case. That didn’t satisfy Judge Kiss, however, and he proceeded with the litigation that lasted over three years.

Ungváry was acquitted of the criminal charges, but he and ÉS lost the first round in the civil case. In March 2010, however, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ungváry and the weekly paper. Liberal groups were delighted, and SZEMA (Szabad Emberek Magyarországért, the party of Klára Ungár) called on Kiss to resign his post after the ruling. After all, Ungár argued, a man with such a past shouldn’t be a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. 

Naturally Kiss had not the slightest intention of resigning. Instead he appealed to the Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the appellate court’s decision. Again liberal groups were up in arms, especially since the court fined Ungváry 3 million forints and ÉS 2 million for publishing the piece. But even Mandiner, a group of young conservatives, stood by Ungváry; in fact, they collected money so he would be able to pay the stiff fine. But Ungváry is not the kind of man who gives up easily. Shortly after the ruling of the Supreme Court in June 2010 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 3 the Strasbourg court ruled against Hungary. Thus Hungary will have to pay 7,000 euros to Ungváry and, 3,000 to ÉS over and above the amount the paper had to pay in fines after the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court.

The decision was a narrow one and the Hungarian government has the right to appeal, which would initiate another round of legal proceedings at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Hungarian government hasn’t responded yet but László Kiss certainly has. He is planning to sue Ungváry for distorting the verdict of the court when he announced that the finding of the court “validated” his claims about Kiss’s activities. Kiss went so far as to claim that the Strasbourg court “announced that Ungváry was unable to prove his claims,” which were no more than “speculations” that lacked any corroborating evidence.

I checked the published judgment of “Case of Ungváry and Irodalom Kft. v. Hungary.” Since Kiss referenced the word “speculations,” I decided to check the text of the judgment. I found only one “speculations,” and not where I would have expected it to be if one believed László Kiss. No, the word was found in the description of the Hungarian Supreme Court’s judgment that the Strasbourg Court found wanting. Let me quote.

53. The Court notes the finding of the Supreme Court according to which the first applicant [i.e., Ungváry] was unable to prove that Mr K. had been in regular contact with the State security, often anticipating and exceeding its expectations. The Court finds that these expressions exceeded the limits of journalism, scholarship and public debate. In the present case, it is not the –arguably excessive – form of the expression but the defamatory content of these speculations, which the Court finds objectionable as being without sufficient factual support. …

The Court notes that the article intended to demonstrate that collaboration, that is, the activities of “official contacts” meant cooperation without specific, express operational instructions from the State security. Limiting its analysis to this kind of direct cooperation with the State security, the Supreme Court failed to consider that Mr K.’s reports had been in any case available to the authorities of the Communist regime, nor did it attribute any particular relevance to the fact that the first applicant’s undeniably offensive and exaggerated statements were made within the context of the broader presentation of the workings of the oppressive mechanism of a totalitarian regime. It did not consider relevant, either, that the first applicant had indicated the sense in which he had used the term informing (see paragraph 8 above). Indeed, the article was written in order to demonstrate how closely the Ministry of the Interior and the “social organisations” had worked together, and especially, how tight the relation had been between party functionaries and the Ministry of the Interior.

And finally:

The Court notes that the Supreme Court interpreted the first applicant’s description of these officials as one portraying them “guilty by association” – which, in that court’s view, could not prove that Mr K. “actually cooperated” with the State security (see paragraph 19 above).

The Court cannot agree with the deduction of the Supreme Court.

The Court finds that although the first applicant did not prove that Mr K. and his reports had actually been commissioned by the State security, it was nevertheless an undisputed fact that he, as a party secretary, had produced reports on the Dialógus affair. (p. 15)

If I read the decision of the Strasbourg court correctly, I don’t think that Judge Kiss has a chance. Unless, of course, the Hungarian judges are intimidated by the almighty judge of the Constitutional Court.

“Is Hungary being ruined by a scoundrel or a fanatic?” A debate

Bálint Magyar’s interview describing the Orbán regime as a post communist mafia state made a big splash in Hungary. The phrases “mafia government” and “mafia state” spread like wildfire. Readers may recall that I gave a fairly detailed summary of this interview in three parts under the title “Bálint Magyar: Viktor Orbán’s post-communist mafia state.”

Given the Hungarian penchant for open discussion it was not surprising that soon enough a critique of Magyar’s thesis appeared in the same publication, Élet és Irodalom, in which the original interview had been published. Gábor Horn, the author of the critique, is, like Magyar, a former SZDSZ politician. Horn disagrees with Magyar in fundamental ways. A week later, Horn’s article was analyzed by Mihály Andor, a journalist whose articles and short pieces often appear on the Internet site Galamus.

I will leave a discussion of  the merits of Horn’s arguments to the readers. I’m sure that an animated debate of his and Arnold’s arguments will follow. Here I will merely add a few new pieces of information that might be relevant to the discussion.

Gábor Horn considers Magyar’s analysis a good starting point, but he himself sees Viktor Orbán and his regime “fundamentally differently.” After briefly outlining Magyar’s thesis, Horn says that Magyar is on the “wrong track.” His findings are the “result of wrong perception.” Because “the situation is worse.” It would be better if Hungary were a well organized mafia state. Mafias work rationally.  Mafia leaders want to gain maximum profit, they leave those who don’t break the rules alone, they are interested in prosperity.

But, Horn claims, “the government of Orbán is anything but rational. … Viktor Orbán is not a godfather, not an anti-Semite, not a racist as so many people want to portray him. None of that is true.” He is not a mafioso, although Horn admits that people close to him “managed to receive considerable economic advantages.”

Instead, “Viktor Orbán truly believes in his own version of a unique third road for Hungarian economic development.” Here Orbán echoes those populist/narordnik/népies writers and ideologists of the 1930s who thought in terms of a third road, something between socialism and capitalism, that would make Hungary a prosperous, mostly agrarian state.

Source: artsjournal.com

Source: artsjournal.com

So, Horn continues, the “mafia-like signs” are not the bases of Orbán’s system; they are only “collateral expenses” of the real goal. After all, Orbán knows that politics costs money. He “tolerates these political expenses but neither individual enrichment, money in general, nor economic gain is the goal of his politics.” This (I guess the mafia-like behavior) is “an important instrument in the service of the GREAT BELIEF.”

In Horn’s opinion it this zealous belief in an ideal economic and social system that drives him to take on the European Union, the IMF, the multinational companies, the banks, and everything else that stands in his way. Just as he truly believes that the old-fashioned school system serves his vision because it will lay the foundations for a better world. He is doing all this not because of dictatorial impulses but because he is convinced that “individual ideas are common fallacies and fallacies lead to blind alleys.” Orbán truly believes that the steps he is taking will lead to “the salvation of the country.” They are “not for his individual enrichment and his family’s economic supremacy.” Horn quickly adds that naturally Orbán has no objection to “doing well himself, but that is only a secondary question for him.”

Horn is also certain that “not for a moment does Orbán think that we don’t live in a democratic country. He just thinks that interpreting the law according to his will also serves the interests of the people. As all followers of the third-road ideology, he moves in a system completely outside the realm of reality, except in his case he manages to receive unlimited authority to execute his ideas.”

This is more or less the gist of Gábor Horn’s argument which, it seems, didn’t convince everyone. It certainly didn’t convince Mihály Andor. After reading Bálint Magyar’s interview and Gábor Horn’s article, he posed the question whether “the country is being ruined by a scoundrel or a fanatic.” That question can be answered definitively only by looking into Viktor Orbán’s head. Since we cannot do that, we have to judge from his actions, and from his actions “a cynical picture emerges of a man who wants to grab and hold onto power at any price.”

Andor outlines a number of Orbán’s moves that aim at sowing hatred between different groups in order to ensure his own unlimited power. If it were only great faith that motivates him, he wouldn’t have to turn man against man. When it comes to ideology, the originally atheist Orbán “paid off the churches that would take up the work of educating obedient servants of the state.”

If Orbán is not primarily interested in his own enrichment, what should we do with all the information that has been gathered over the last ten or fifteen years about the shady dealings of the extended family? Andor finds it difficult to believe that Orbán’s attitude toward money is no more than “collateral expenses in the service of politics.” Andor, like so many others, including Ferenc Gyurcsány and Mátyás Eörsi, believes that the Orbán family’s enrichment is one of the principal aims of the prime minister of Hungary.

Andor brings up a recent news item. Lőrinc Mészáros, mayor of Felcsút and chairman of the Puskás Academy, just took out 800 million forints worth of dividends from his construction company that employs 250 men. I wrote about this mysterious fellow who not so long ago worked as an artisan. He used to lay down gas pipes going from the main into the houses of Felcsút. Today he is obviously a billionaire. And, by the by, he also received 1,200 hectares of land through the land lease program of the Orbán government. Some people think that the connection between Orbán and Mészáros is more than meets the eye. They suspect that Mészáros is a “stróman” (the Hungarian spelling of the German Strohmann, dummy, front man) in Viktor Orbán’s service.

And more news about the strange financial dealings touching on the Orbán family appeared only yesterday. In 2008 Mrs. Orbán (Anikó Lévai) purchased a 90m² apartment on Gellért Hill where Ráhel (24), the oldest Orbán daughter, lives. Krisztina Ferenczi, an investigative journalist who has been looking into the Orbán family’s enrichment for at least ten years, found out lately that the apartment right next door was purchased by István Garancsi, who just happens to be the owner of Viktor Orbán’s favorite  football team, Videoton. He is also the man who owns the only credit union that will not be nationalized, ostensibly because he is in the middle of converting it into a full-fledged bank. Most likely Orbán told Garancsi about the impending nationalization and advised him to begin converting his credit union into a bank to save his business. By the way, it was Garancsi’s credit union that lent a considerable amount of money to the Puskás Academy.

It turns out that Orbán’s only son, who plays for Videoton, has been living in Garancsi’s apartment ever since 2011. Apparently the young Orbán is neither a good football player nor a particularly enthusiastic one. He played only once last season. But Garancsi doesn’t seem to hold that against him. He is renting out his apartment to the young Orbán. The financial details are of course not a matter of public record.