Endre Aczél

Week-long demonstration in Budapest was not in vain

Many people labeled the dogged effort of a small group of protesters against the erection of the proposed  monument to the victims of the German “occupation” of Hungary a waste of time and energy. What will they achieve? Nothing. They dismantled the barricade around the proposed site ten or eleven times, but work on the foundation for the monument continued unabated. The monument showing Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle will be in place before the end of May. They achieved nothing.

Well, this seems not to be the case. The protestors on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) accomplished something, after all. This morning the US Embassy in Budapest released a statement in which the United States urges the Hungarian government “to seek an honest, open, and factual assessment of the Holocaust in Hungary [which] includes soliciting and considering the opinions of all segments of Hungarian society, and especially those who are rightly most sensitive to the government’s plans during this 70th anniversary year.” The statement also reminded the Hungarian government that it “had indicated in February it would resume dialogue after Easter with stakeholders concerned about Memorial Year plans.”

Hard at work / Népszabadság

Hard at work / Népszabadság

It took no more than a couple of hours for The Wall Street Journal to report on the US initiative which, by the way, coincided with Mazsihisz’s own effort to resume dialogue with the Hungarian government. We have no idea what will happen, but perhaps the US’s unequivocal support for those who object to Viktor Orbán’s high-handed attitude toward Hungarian guilt may help focus the dialogue. The controversy is more than a debate over some fine points of history. The 7oth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust could provide an opportunity for Hungarian self-assessment. Unfortunately it is precisely that self-assessment which the current Hungarian government wants to prevent.

Meanwhile there were a couple issues in connection with the demonstrations that caused quite a furor. One was an interview with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who seemed to be in an even worse mood than is his usual wont a couple of days after the election. He should have been elated because, after all, his party managed to receive more than 5% of the votes and thus he and five of his colleagues will be able to take part in the work of the parliament. Yet he was morose. When asked by Olga Kálmán what he had to say about the work that had begun on the monument in spite of Viktor Orbán’s explicit promises, Schiffer answered that he had nothing to say. He called the response “disproportionate hysterics.” The opposition shouldn’t waste its energy on this monument. Instead, they should busy themselves with the current very serious problems of the country. Kálmán was so stunned that she committed a  journalistic mistake: she let her own feelings interfere with her professionalism and expressed her disapproval of Schiffer’s response, which she obviously considered callous. Right-wing papers were delighted that András Schiffer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shared their view on the issue and pointed the finger at Olga Kálmán. Others, mostly in opposition circles, were horrified at Schiffer’s response.

Here I would like to quote Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist with a vast knowledge of foreign affairs, domestic politics, history, and sports. Aczél remembered an old political-literary event from 1937. In that year the cream of Hungarian literati decided to issue a proclamation protesting artificially inflamed anti-Semitism. Milán Füst (1888-1967), who happened to be Jewish, refused to sign it. These were the words he used explaining his reasons for not joining his fellow writers: “There is the Jewish question and perhaps it could even be solved. But it is not the most important question of the country because there are more burning questions. . . . I will not allow all our troubles to be pilfered on account of the Jewish issue.” A year later the first anti-Jewish law was enacted. The moral of the story is obvious.

András Schiffer’s response resembles what Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994), had to say in an interview on HírTV despite the fact that Boross is a right-wing nationalist and an apologist for the Horthy regime while Schiffer is allegedly a democrat.  I wrote an article about Boross’s seemingly sudden political shift after Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010. Formerly, Boross acted like a true conservative who was afraid of the extreme right. He kept bringing up stories from the 1930s and talked about the consequences of this dangerous ideology. But in the last four years Boross showed himself to be a reactionary right-winger, in many respects sharing the views of the Hungarian extreme right. So, it’s no wonder that Boross considers the demonstrations no more than a hysterical reaction of the left-leaning intelligentsia. The demonstrations are not really about the memorial; they reflect “the hatred of the left fed by their loss at the election.” In an interesting twist he accused “the demonstrators of inflaming fears, especially in older people who went through those terrible years.” So, if I understand him correctly, the demonstrators are the ones who are frightening the Jewish population who, as he added, want to live in peace. “This is an intellectual crime.” And, he added, it is these Budapest intellectuals who are partly responsible for the critical voices from abroad as well. I think, knowing Péter Boross’s ideology, that we can safely replace the adjective “Budapest” with “Jewish.”

I have no idea whether Mazsihisz’s latest effort at continuing a dialogue with the government will succeed. I don’t even know whether the United States government’s statement addressed to the Orbán government will achieve anything. But at least we can say that the efforts of the people who were on that square every afternoon were not wasted. They drew attention once again to the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge–and to accept Hungary’s responsibility for–heinous actions of the past.

Potpourri: Forex loans, the duped MSZP, and outraged patriots in Stockholm

I decided to touch on several topics today instead of concentrating on only one. The reason? All three recent political events are still in flux. We have no idea how and when they will be settled.

Two of the three topics I’m going to talk about are not new to readers of Hungarian Spectrum. One is the story of the fraudulent video taken in Baja after the repeated by-election at one of the polling stations. The other is the continuing saga of the Swedish TV program on Hungary. And finally, today’s news is that a decision was finally made on the fate of Forex debts that over 100,000 people are unable to pay back.

Let me start with the last topic, the government debt relief scheme. Today’s announcement of the impending government action came unexpectedly and, in usual Fidesz fashion, the measure will be passed by parliament tomorrow. It seems that in the last minute the Orbán government got cold feet and didn’t dare go ahead with their original, radical plan that would have made the banks bear the entire burden. Critics warned that if the government followed through on the plan the entire Hungarian banking system would collapse. So, it seems that they settled for a less onerous solution. As I understand the proposed plan, people with mortgages in foreign currencies will be able to temporarily repay them at below-market exchange rates. Mortgages denominated in Swiss francs can be paid in forints at an exchange rate of 180 forints instead of the current 241. Those with mortgages in euros can convert them at 250 forints instead of 296. The difference between the spot and discount rates will be held in a temporary account, with the banks and the government splitting the interest and some of the costs involved. Mortgage holders will have five years in which to repay the exchange rate difference. Anyone who would wants more details of the plan should consult Margit Fehér’s article in The Wall Street Journal.

Now let’s go back to Sweden. I mentioned in an earlier post that Swedish public television broadcast a program about Hungary on October 23 which, in the opinion of the Hungarian government, contained factual errors and generalizations that reflected badly on Hungary and its people. They found it especially galling that this “anti-Hungarian” documentary was broadcast on the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

In my earlier post I called attention to Viktor Orbán’s order to the ambassadors to defend the good name of Hungary every time there is an alleged attack on the country. As one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Gergely Prőhle, said on ATV yesterday, “the ministry’s employees are a disciplined lot” and therefore they took Orbán’s words seriously. Since Prőhle had earlier been ambassador to Switzerland and Germany, he was asked what he would have done had he been in Lilla Makkay’s shoes. It seems that Prőhle, who is among the more moderate voices in the Foreign Ministry, feels compelled to follow the official line. He announced that Ambassador Makkay did the right thing and that he would have done the same thing. He emphasized that Makkay was polite and spoke in Swedish.

I don’t blame either Makkay or Prőhle. After all, they are representatives of the Hungarian government. I do, however, blame the Orbán government which instructs the country’s ambassadors to interfere with the media of western countries. I also blame this government for creating an atmosphere that encourages the right-wing press to write an open letter to the Swedish ambassador in Budapest. We know that if Zsolt Bayer, Ur-Fidesz, opens his mouth, the consequences are always dire. I bet that after someone translated Bayer’s open letter the Swedish ambassador no longer had any doubts about whom she was dealing with. And if someone added that he is an old friend of Viktor Orbán, I’m sure she was just thrilled.

Kumin’s letter, Makkay’s scolding, and her invitation to journalists to come to the Hungarian embassy didn’t achieve anything. Or, rather, it did but not exactly what the great defenders of Hungary’s reputation had hoped for. The same program that broadcast the documentary on Hungary in the first place returned to the subject a week later and told its audience what had happened during the last week. The Hungarian government and its representative in Stockholm looked ridiculous.

confusion2And finally, there is the ongoing story of the fraudulent video. Whoever hired the four or five Roma to stage the gathering that was supposed to prove that Fidesz bought Roma votes at the by-election picked the wrong men. Their stories not only made no sense initially, they couldn’t keep their stories straight. One of their claims, that a MSZP politician ordered the tape from Róbert G., seems to have been disproved. At least this is what the politician’s polygraph test indicates.

Of course, the real question is who was behind Róbert G. and the others. It’s possible that local Fidesz politicians, Róbert Zsigó, and Csaba Kovács, hired the Romas. Some evidence points in that direction. In a conversation with Olga Kálmán shortly after the second round of voting Zsigó told her that on Saturday, that is a day before the election, he received information that the opposition parties were planning to create a video that would implicate Fidesz in vote buying. He added that he immediately went to the police with the information. A few days later Máté Kocsis repeated the same story on one of MTV’s evening programs. As we know by now, the video was created on Monday. Strange, isn’t it?

In any case, Ildikó Lendvai was right when on Sunday in an interview on ATV she said that “we were duped,” adding that no one likes people who are considered to be saps. Endre Aczél wrote two excellent short articles about the case entitled Csali and Csali–II (The bait). I think that the scenario Aczél outlined in his first article is most likely very close to reality. But if that was the case, it was a dangerous game to play. On the other hand, no scandal is ever big enough to have much effect on Viktor Orbán, his party, or his 1.5 million strong followers.

Metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán?

A few months ago I had a debate about Viktor Orbán’s metamorphosis from liberal to right-wing populist with someone who has known Viktor Orbán ever since the beginning of the democratic opposition’s struggle for regime change. I insisted that no one can change that much and that fundamentally, and therefore, I submitted, Orbán was never a democrat. My friend, a well-known member of SZDSZ, insisted that yes, Viktor was a true liberal but power had a terrible effect on his psyche. I wasn’t convinced.

Lately I have been noticing a change of heart among those who worked closely with Orbán or who as members of the media have been following those Hungarian political events in which he played a prominent role.

Just today Endre Aczél, a seasoned journalist with vast experience with MTI in the 1970s and MTV in the late 1980s, wrote one of his short but sharp-eyed opinion pieces in Galamus. In it he expressed his “suspicion” that it was at least fifteen years ago that Orbán abandoned the idea of the “rule of law.” He recalls a speech by the freshly elected young prime minister that was delivered before the yearly meeting of the country’s ambassadors. Orbán suggested to Hungary’s representatives abroad not to emphasize the “rule of law” but to stress the “law and order” that his government wants to re-establish.

The orange is rotting. That's all / faszkivar.blog.hu

The orange is rotting. That’s all. / faszkivan.blog.hu

Tamás Bauer, an economist, former SZDSZ politician, and today deputy chairman of DK, also remembers the day when he knew that Viktor Orbán was not a democrat. It was also in 1998, on July 6, when during the debate on the government program in parliament Orbán said: “I ask everybody who wants to re-establish order and security; everybody who wants a child be important not only to the family but also to the state; everybody who wants to belong to the Hungarian nation; everybody who wants to make Hungary a country that cooperates with other European nations to vote for the program of the government.” It was at this point that Bauer truly understood, although he had had an inkling before, how Orbán imagined the exercise of power. Because Orbán made it clear that he envisaged himself as the man who alone represents the nation and who considered the opposition a group of people who don’t belong to the nation. After all, in normal parliamentary democracies, the opposition doesn’t vote for the government program.

Therefore Bauer knew way before 2010 what kind of rule Orbán was going to introduce, especially once he achieved the much coveted two-thirds majority. Although according to some interpreters the original Orbán constitution of 2011 was still a democratic document, Bauer disagrees. A constitutional committee was set up, but the majority of the members came from the two government parties. Thus the new constitution reflected the will of the government and the party, Fidesz-KDNP. There was no use participating in this farce. It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who first called for a boycott and his call was followed by MSZP and later by LMP. That constitution was about as legitimate as the 1949 communist constitution. After all, the 1949 constitution reflected only the will of the Hungarian communist party, and the 2011 document was similarly created by and for Fidesz-KDNP.

Yes, both commentators claim, Viktor Orbán hasn’t been a democrat for a very long time. Perhaps he never was, I might add.

In the last few days there is a video that has been making the rounds on the Internet. It originally appeared on the website of Népszabadság. The video was taken at the demonstration organized to urge János Áder not to sign the amendments to the constitution. The speaker is Péter Molnár. Perhaps not too many people remember him, although he was one of the founders of Fidesz and the group at István Bibó College where Fidesz was born. He even spent four years in the Hungarian parliament as a member of the Fidesz caucus. And then he left the party and politics. On the video one can hear him telling Áder: “That is not what we dreamed of, Jánó!” A few days ago I quoted Tamás Deutsch’s tweet claiming that this is exactly what they were dreaming of back in the late 1980s. Surely, this was an answer to Molnár.

I first encountered Molnár’s name in György Petőcz’s book Csak a narancs volt (It was only the orange / Élet és Irodalom, 2001). He was one of the contributors to the volume. He and the four other contributors left Fidesz completely disillusioned in 1993-1994.

What are Molnár’s recollections of the early days of Fidesz and Bibó College? According to him, László Kövér managed to create a lot of tension even in those days. At every meeting he insisted that all members of the college–there were around 80 students–must be politically active. Kövér and Orbán worked together and wanted to rule the community according to their own ideas. Molnár recalls that in the college there was a feeling of unity and solidarity but “Viktor’s political management destroyed it just as he destroyed [the original] Fidesz.” A good example of how this “solidarity” worked in Fidesz land. Once a member of the college group said that “Viktor can be certain that he can rely on his old friends in Bibó College.” Two years later the old buddy of Viktor lost his high position in the party and the government because he dared to disagree with him. “Solidarity existed only as long as the person followed the ‘correct’ policy. It didn’t matter whether he belonged to the inner circle or not, if he disagreed with Laci Kövér and Viktor, he was finished.” Does a democrat behave this way?

Let’s return for a moment to Endre Aczél’s opinion piece that appeared today. Its title is “Order? My own!” No,  Orbán hasn’t changed his stripes.

Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan: empty promises

Perhaps “narancsblog” was right when he announced that it really doesn’t matter what Viktor Orbán said yesterday in front of invited guests about the state of the country. He is right. It makes no difference. It is also immaterial what the adoring fans of Viktor Orbán thought of the speech. Népszabadság‘s reporter was there, microphone in hand, and asked the same questions he asked a year ago, starting with: “What did you think of the speech?” Not only were the questions the same but the answers were as well: “Everything is wonderful, everything is going in the right direction.” They feel richer than ever and how nice that they will have to pay 10% less for natural gas. Nothing could change their minds. “What about the GDP? What about the drop in real wages? What about unemployment? What about the almost half a million Hungarians who live and work abroad?” The answer: statistics cannot be trusted.

As for the commentators, they couldn’t come up with anything terribly new either. Many labelled Orbán’s speech a pack of lies. They pointed out that Orbán again mixed up two famous Hungarian writers, Géza Ottlik and Sándor Márai, and that he recycled his jokes. They also emphasized that instead of talking about the present that is, let’s face it, unpleasant and even painful, he decided to look back over the past one hundred years and look forward to what will happen in 2030.

Viktor Orbán came out with a most ambitious “twenty year plan” (presumably already being implemented). Even Nikita Krushchev, as we were reminded by Endre Aczél, dared to plan for only seven years when in 1959 he promised that the Soviet Union’s GDP per capita would surpass that of the United States. And then came 1966 and no one remembered his boasting any more. Not only was the plan forgotten, Khrushchev himself was gone.

The slogan that was plastered all over the podium read “Hungary is performing better.” As it turned out in the course of Orbán’s address, this means that in all respects Hungary is doing better now than at any time since 1990. A quick look at economic indicators, however, reveals that actually the opposite is true: Hungary’s economy is in shambles. But then I guess these are just more untrustworthy statistics.

Ferenc Gyurcsány summarized Orbán’s performance in a single phrase: “empty head, empty speech.” Others were even less charitable. A blog writer called him “the national bullshit generator.” Klára Ungár, Orbán’s former friend and colleague in Fidesz, made a witty remark in which she quoted from Erzsi Gazdag, a poet who often wrote children’s verse. One of her best known poems is “A mesebolt,” a store that sells tales:

Volt egyszer egy mesebolt,
abban minden mese volt.
Fiókjában törpék ültek,
vízilányok hegedültek.

I’m not going to try to translate it, but basically in that “tale store everything was a tale.” So, in Orbán’s speech there was not word of truth.

Another truckload of political promisesBy les mois de l'année / Flickr

Another truckload of political promises
By les mois de l’année / Flickr

In his brief reference to the last one hundred years he compared Hungary’s situation to an old folk ballad about Mrs. Kelemen Kömíves. A fairly gruesome story about twelve bricklayers who are hired to build the walls of the Fortress of Déva (Deva, Romania). Whatever they build during the day collapses overnight. So, they decide that the first wife who comes to visit will be killed and her ashes will have some miraculous powers to keep the mortar strong. According to Orbán, whatever “our great-great grandparents built was taken away by World War I and the peace (békerendszer) that it brought; what our great grandparents built was taken away by World War II and the system of peace created afterward; what our grandparents and parents built was taken away by the communist system.” The message is that, considering everything, Hungary’s situation is not at all bad. (I don’t know who the sacrificial lamb is supposed to be in this analogy.) I think I should also point out that from Orbán’s grandparents and parents nothing was taken away by the communists. The opposite is true. The Orbán family was a beneficiary of the socialist system.

After spending only a little time on his accomplishments he quickly moved on to his grand design, his “master plan” as he called it. Miracles will take place. By 2030 Hungary will not be financially dependent, although I’m not quite sure what he means by financial independence. The central government will not have to borrow money? Will not have to issue government bonds? Hard to imagine. No country works that way and the country that tried it, I have Romania in mind, had a sorry end. “We will end our energy dependence” by that date. Furthermore, everybody will be saved from “the slavery of indebtedness in foreign currencies.”  The population will stop decreasing. Everybody will find work who wants to live in Hungary. Hungary will be among the thirty most competitive countries in the world. From these sentences it is clear that Viktor Orbán envisages himself as prime minister of Hungary at least for another eighteen years because he and his team will carry out this master plan.

“By a reindustrialization of the country Hungarian industry will be linked to the German industrial complex (a magyar ipart összeépítjük a némettel)…. We will build up ten thousand middle-size companies that will be competitive in the export business. Fifteen to twenty large Hungarian multinational companies will strengthen the global expansion of the Hungarian economy…. Four to five percent of the country’s GDP will be spent on research and development. Several of our universities will be among the top 200 in the world…. The living standards of Hungarian families will surpass the European average. We will achieve all this with carefully prepared plans, with a reorganized state, with committed experts, and with a society that wants and is able to work.

Shortly before Viktor Orbán delivered his speech came the news that the European Commission has its doubts about Hungary’s ability to hold the deficit under 3% in 2013. Commentators tried to guess what the prime minister would say about this piece of news. Would he say anything? Well, he did. Let me quote:

You shouldn’t be troubled by the European Union’s economic prognosis. For example, as far as the budget is concerned not once did they manage to guess it right. We keep fingers crossed that perhaps this time they will manage. We will help them because this year the deficit will again be under 3%.

Of course, what Orbán neglected to tell his adoring audience is that during 2012 the budget had to be rejiggered time and again to remain below the magic 3%. And surely, he didn’t want to tell them that most likely the EU prediction for 2013 is correct and that to remain under 3% new austerity measures will have to be introduced.

But Fidesz supporters can hang on to those twenty-year dreams and sleep unencumbered by the realities of today.