György Konrád

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

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The “miracle piano” and the Hungarian entrepreneurial spirit

January 22 was designated the Day of Hungarian Culture in 1989. Why January 22? Because it was on that day in 1823 that Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838) wrote the final version of his poem “Hymn” (Himnusz), which became the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem composed by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) in 1844.

This year the event was used by employees of cultural organizations, libraries, archives, and related organizations to express their dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s cultural policies. As we have discussed earlier, education and culture (unless, as the prime minister suggested, sports are part of culture) don’t enjoy governmental support. In fact, with each passing year cultural and educational institutions receive less money. The organizers gathered in front of the National Academy of Sciences, moved on to the Museum of Folklore, from where they went to the ministry of human resources to turn in a petition for higher wages and greater financial resources for education and culture. It was a nice idea, but only a few hundred people showed up. As formerly enthusiastic participants of these demonstrations now believe, too many small demonstrations are actually counterproductive.

The other event that was scheduled to coincide with the Day of Hungarian Culture was the long-awaited public unveiling of the “miracle piano,” a Hungarian invention described by Reuters as a “space-age piano.” A four-man team developed the new piano conceived by Gergely Bogányi, a Hungarian pianist. The piano bears his name. Some experts are enthusiastic about the sound of the “Boganyi” and there seems to be some interest in the Hungarian invention, but no buyer as yet. The piano was financed mostly by money coming from the European Union (New Széchenyi Terv) that gave the developers 217 million forints. The Hungarian National Bank contributed another 60 million. Apparently the four men put 75 million into the project from their own pockets.

Considering the financial involvement of the Hungarian government, it was predictable that Viktor Orbán would deliver a speech in the Ferenc Liszt Academy. In preparation for his arrival the police closed off two whole streets for a day and a half. The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.

In the speech he “with due modesty but with pride” pointed out the number of “cultural sanctuaries” that his government either built or renovated. What he neglected to mention was that all of the projects, like the Ferenc Liszt Academy where the gala performance took place, were financed with EU money. He described culture as “the thread that weaves together parts of the nation that drifted to or were torn away to different parts of the globe.” Somehow he must talk about the unification of the nation across borders. A space-age piano is good enough reason.

According to Orbán, “in this miracle piano there is everything that characterizes the Hungarians: ceaseless entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, a restlessness of the Hungarian spirit that strives for perfection and is never satisfied with what exists at the present.” I guess all that with “due modesty.”

The Boganyi piano

The Boganyi piano

Most of the speech was the usual fluff, but there were a couple of sentences that were particularly objectionable. He talked about “our greatest scientists, Ede Teller, Jenő Wigner or János Neumann who were born and went to school in Budapest but somehow (valahogy) could not make good use of their knowledge in Hungary.” Somehow? All three were of Jewish background and all three left Hungary in the 1920s. They ended up first in Germany and later, after Hitler’s rise to power, came to the United States. Their reasons for leaving Hungary were diverse, but they were a combination of the anti-Jewish numerus clausus law that severely limited the number of Jewish students in Hungarian universities, the general anti-Semitism prevalent in Hungary, and the superiority of German universities over Hungarian institutions. This constellation of reasons for young people to leave Hungary is not so different today. A lot of Hungarian Jews don’t feel at home in Orbán’s Hungary, and if a bright Hungarian student has the choice, he/she will choose a British, American, or German university over the domestic fare.

It is one thing to build or renovate concert halls, museums, or theaters, and another matter to have a cultural policy that fairly distributes resources among worthy recipients: writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. What is going on in Hungary is a “Kulturkampf” that aims at, on the one hand, rewriting the history of all facets of cultural endeavor and, on the other, creating a set of favored contemporary writers and artists. A good example of the latter is the establishment of a new academy of the arts that is now enshrined in the constitution itself. Its members are recruited from a group of artists in sympathy with the current regime and, as a gift for their loyalty, they receive generous annuities. As for the rewriting of the history of Hungarian literature, we have seen many cases where extreme right-wing writers of modest talents are dredged up from the period between the two world wars and elevated to the ranks of the Hungarian literary greats.

Just the other day I heard an incredible story from György Konrád, the well-known writer. He and his family live near Tapolca, a town in Veszprém County. Konrád often visits a small local library named after János Batsányi, a poet and philosopher, who was born in Tapolca in 1763. He was a radical who was an admirer of the French revolution and later of Napoleon, whom he followed to Paris. After the emperor’s fall he was taken back to Vienna and thrown into jail. He is considered to be one of the most radical representatives of the ideas of the Enlightenment in Hungary.

Well, a few days ago Konrád paid a visit to the library and what did he find? The library was renamed the Elemér Vass Library. Elemér Vass was a relatively minor painter about whom few people know anything, while everybody who ever went to high school can recite Batsányi’s warning to the Hungarian nobility:  “Cast your eyes toward Paris!” Perhaps it was the Enlightenment that bothered the local potentates. Hungarian libraries, it seems, are not meant to enlighten but to indoctrinate.

“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)

fate

Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.

The European Parliament’s debate on Hungary

I spent almost three hours watching the debate in the European Parliament on the Tavares report. We discussed this report at length at the time of its passage in the LIBE Commission of the European Parliament. In addition, I published Rui Tavares’s letter to the Hungarian people both in English and in Hungarian. So, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware that the report is a thoroughly researched document that in many ways echoes the findings of the independent judges of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

I found two good summaries of the debate, both in Hungarian. One appeared in Népszabadság and the other on the new Internet website called 444! But it is one thing to read a summary and another to see the debate live. Just to watch Viktor Orbán’s face was itself educational. Sometimes he looked vaguely amused, but most of the time his smile was sardonic. Who can forget that disdainful expression on Orbán’s face when one of his critics, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, mentioned the name of  György Konrád, “the great Hungarian writer”? And when he heard something he didn’t like, Orbán raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He considered all criticism utterly baseless and, through body language and facial expressions, made no secret of it. It’s too bad that most of the people in the chamber didn’t see all that since Orbán sat in the front row.

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Unfortunately the camera didn’t show Orbán when several people tried to explain to him that his concept of democracy is peculiar. He believes in the “dictatorship of the majority” or “majoritarian rule.” Verhofstadt even invoked John Stuart Mill’s words on the subject in his work On Liberty. In fact, one of the major criticisms centered around the nature of democracy and whether Hungary can still be called a democracy. If one were to ask Verhofstadt he would say: “No, Hungary is not a democracy anymore but ‘demokratúra’ as György Konrád called it.” Several other critics agreed with Verhofstadt although they may not have been so explicit.

A second core topic was the question of freedom and the Orbán government’s “war of independence” against the European Union. Several people expressed their bafflement at the very idea of defending the country from a Union to which Hungary belongs. Actually, here again two worldviews clashed. The one held by Viktor Orbán and his entourage maintains that nation states are the only legitimate formations and that they shouldn’t be superseded in any way by a supranational entity such as the European Union. If one holds this view, as Orbán does, then it is perfectly understandable that he defends his nation against the encroachment of the European Union. The problem is that Hungary joined the European Union of its own volition and thereby its government is obliged to follow EU rules. Orbán attempts to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that the Union is overstepping its authority, and therefore he has every right to resist its attempt at a “guardianship” that he will never accept.

Another important topic of discussion was Orbán’s interpretation of the criticism of his government as an attack on Hungary and the Hungarian people. Several critics rejected this view, making it clear that their criticisms are directed against the Orbán government and not the Hungarian people. In fact, some of the speakers argued that in their opinion it is the Hungarian people who must be shielded against the authoritarian behavior and laws of their own government.

As for Viktor Orbán, he had two opportunities to speak. At the beginning, right after Rui Tavares and Juán Manuel Barroso, and at the end, just before the leaders of the various parliamentary caucuses could answer him. In his first speech he was quite polite and a great deal less aggressive than is his wont. However, after listening to the debate where the Christian Democratic and Conservative voices were drowned out by speeches delivered by the liberals, socialists, and greens, Orbán returned to his true self. As Gabriella Zimmer (a German socialist) said, Orbán didn’t come to Strasbourg “to debate”; he came to express his anger at what he considers to be interference in Hungarian domestic affairs that are within the sole jurisdiction of the Hungarian government, parliament, and courts. He finished his speech with a refusal to accept tutelage from Brussels. For good measure he accused them of  having double standards and of defending the multinational corporations and banks. I had the feeling that by that time Orbán believed that he had nothing to lose. It was no longer necessary to try to mollify the EU parliamentarians. No matter what he does, I suspect he reasoned, the vote will go against him.

And a few more words about the performance of Fidesz and Jobbik MEPs. What can I say? It was embarrassing. Szájer’s comments were the most outrageous. He was not on the list of official speakers but he asked to be recognized perhaps three times. In the first instance he outright lied when he announced that foreign investment was never greater in Hungary than in the last two or three years. Then he claimed that the members of the European Union are afraid of the truth and that’s why they don’t want to give Orbán the opportunity to speak. Both Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz, the president of  the EP, corrected Szájer. After all, they were the ones who asked Viktor Orbán to come to the plenary session of the European Parliament. But that was not enough for Szájer. He retorted that even in Stalin’s show trials more time was allotted to the accused than to the accusers. Well, that’s when Martin Schulz’s patience ran out. He reprimanded Szájer for making any comparison between Stalin’s show trials and the European Union. But Szájer is not the kind of guy who knows when to stop. He got up again and tried to explain away his unfortunate remark. He repeated his reference to Stalin’s show trials and added that it was only the time limit that he had in mind. Schulz was not impressed and rebuked him again. Szájer did a disservice to the Fidesz cause.

Kinga Gál, another Fidesz MEP, was one of the official speakers. She didn’t fare any better than Szájer. In her speech she challenged the democratic nature of the European Parliament that voted in committee for the Tavares report. Schulz gave her a piece of his mind. He told her that it is impossible to claim that majority rule in Hungary is perfectly legitimate while questioning the democratic nature of majority rule in the European Parliament. After all, the majority of LIBE members voted for the Tavares report.

The third Fidesz MEP, Ágnes Hankiss, asked to raise a “question.” It turned out that she in fact planned to deliver a lecture on the injustices of the Tavares report. Schulz interrupted her, saying that she was abusing the privilege of posing questions. Hankiss tried to go on but was stopped.

And if that weren’t enough, we had the privilege of listening to Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) twice. No EU parliamentary caucus accepted Jobbik and therefore they sit as unaffiliated members. Thus she had the privilege of speaking twice, just as the other leaders of the various parties. She sported a blouse adorned with Hungarian folk motifs and held up a sign reading “HUNGARY ≠COLONY.” Otherwise, although Orbán emphasized that he is the one who is most fiercely attacked by the far-right Jobbik, Morvai defended Fidesz and its policies all the way while accusing Viviane Reding of meddling in Hungarian affairs. Her second speech was especially remarkable. She recalled her days working with battered women who often thought that they could change their abusive husband’s behavior by pleasing him, working harder, and being the best of housewives. But eventually when the husband’s behavior remained the same, they came to the conclusion that there was only one remedy: divorce. So, Hungary should pack up and leave the Union if this abuse continues. After that ringing defense of Fidesz it will be difficult for Orbán to maintain his fierce opposition to the far right. After all, they speak the same language and Jobbik fights alongside Fidesz for the “honor of Hungary.” Frank Engel (Luxembourg EPP member) sarcastically remarked immediately afterwards that he hoped that “Ms Morvai has not just offered to go into coalition with Fidesz.”

The vote will take place tomorrow at 11:30 European time or 5:30 EDT. I will be watching.

Negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014 began while left of center public figures gather in Szárszó

This weekend was dominated by the Hungarian opposition, a rare event nowadays. First, the long-awaited negotiations between Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM (E14) and the Attila Mesterházy-led MSZP began. I complained earlier that the scheduled meeting was fixed for Friday. Another week wasted. Then in the last minute it was again postponed due to the death of Gyula Horn, former MSZP prime minister internationally known for his role in the unification of Germany by allowing tens of thousands of East German refugees to leave Hungary and join their compatriots in the West. Naturally, MSZP MPs wanted to be present at the eulogies in parliament honoring their former leader.

So, it was only on Saturday morning that the MSZP delegation comprised of Attila Mesterházy, József Tóbiás, Tamás Harangozó, László Botka, Zoltán Lukács, and Zsolt Molnár arrived at E14’s headquarters. Waiting for them were Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász (Milla), Viktor Szigetvári, Péter Kónya (Solidarity), Szabó Tímea, and Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd Magyarországért [PM]). The meeting lasted four hours although it was frequently interrupted for “cigarette breaks” for the smokers in the MSZP delegation.

According to several descriptions of the meeting, although it started off with socialist recriminations by Mesterházy about E14’s claim to be the exclusive herald of a new era, eventually the conversation became quite friendly. Most importantly, both Bajnai and Mesterházy announced that they are ready to step aside if circumstances so dictate and are ready to support whoever is chosen for the post of prime minister. They also outlined a timetable that will start with first agreeing to a common program but, I’m happy to announce, these talks will not drag out too long. By mid-July the agreement will be signed. In the fall they will start selecting common candidates and eventually will settle the issue of a candidate for the post of prime minister. The minimum requirement will be having only common candidates, but the socialists would also like to have a common list that in their opinion can assure the highest number of votes.

Finally, according to rumors the two parties “graciously” agreed to allow the Demokratikus Koalíció to join the unified opposition but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány does not run in the forthcoming election. He can’t even be an ordinary parliamentary candidate. As expected, DK has already posted a note on Facebook:

DK is a proud and strong party with a membership of 8,000. It won two local by-elections and at two others its candidates won 25% of the votes. It has ten members in parliament which is currently the second largest opposition party. DK is the greatest opponent of the Orbán dictatorship.

No one should doubt that Ferenc Gyurcsány, the last active politician who defeated Viktor Orbán, will run in the 2014 elections.

And now let’s move on to the next event that may have some influence on Hungary’s political future. Hungary’s leading left-of-center public figures, businessmen, politicians, artists, writers, philosophers, and political scientists gathered for a “picnic” or as one newspaper called it a “jamboree” at Tivadar (Teddy) Farkasházy’s house in Balatonszárszó (Szárszó for short). Farkasházy, a writer and humorist, is the great-great-grandson of Móric Fischer von Farkasházy, founder of the Herend porcelain factory in 1830.

It was in 1993 that Farkasházy first invited the cream of Hungarian society to a get-together to discuss matters of importance. At this first meeting Viktor Orbán and several other people from the right were among the invited guests.

These yearly gatherings continued for ten years, but after 2003 they were no longer held. Perhaps because then came eight years of socialist-liberal rule. But Farkasházy came to the conclusion that it was time to revive the tradition. A couple of days ago Népszava predicted that although more than 400 people were invited, most likely many of them will be afraid to attend. Well, they were not. According to some estimates there might have been 600 guests. Naturally, Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy attended in addition to two former prime ministers, Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány.

György Konrád, the well known writer, was one of the main speakers. He made no secret of his conviction that the next prime minister of Hungary should be Gordon Bajnai because he has “already proved himself.” But Attila Mesterházy should be there assisting him. It should be like a tandem bicycle: Bajnai at the handlebar and Mesterházy pushing the pedals. People present wondered how Mesterházy must have felt listening to Konrád’s advice, but apparently Mesterházy took it in stride and in fact even thanked Konrád for some of the praise he received from the writer.

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy / Népszava

Paul Lendvai struck a rather pessimistic note, announcing that  in his opinion the opposition couldn’t possibly win the next election. Well, that got to fiery Ágnes Heller, who gave such an inspiring speech urging people to do everything possible that she received a standing ovation. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy spoke, the former in his usual measured manner and the latter in a more populist vein.

The real value of such a gathering lies not the speeches but in the opportunity it offers important people from many walks of life to gather in small groups and exchange ideas. There is an excellent picture gallery in Népszava, from which it is clear that everybody who’s anybody in leftist circles was at Farkasházy’s house in Szárszó.

Farkasházy might be a humorist, but he has no taste for the snide kind of humor Index’s reporter displayed in his early reports of the event and he was subsequently barred from the premises. HírTV fared worse. Farkasházy didn’t even let them in. On the other hand, ATV’s crew was there, and tomorrow after Egyenes beszéd we will be able to see the most important parts of the program.

Magyar Hírlap triumphantly announced that Ferenc Gyurcsány left early “because he wasn’t allowed to speak.” Of course, this is nonsense. The program was fixed ahead of time, so Gyurcsány knew that he would not be one of the speakers. This is a small thing but it says a lot about the unprofessionalism of the journalists who gather at the right-wing publications. And, as long as I’m lashing out at journalists, some young ones (in their early 20s) are simply supercilious and write dumb little snippets like the one in today’s 444.hu where the reporter calls the new formation “a coalition of clowns.”

I don’t know how important this meeting of like-minded people was, but I don’t think that it was totally useless. It might mend fences between the Hungarian liberals and socialists on the one hand and left-leaning intellectuals on the other. Let’s hope that this gathering was the start of closer cooperation between them.

The Orbán government and the “Jewish question” by Karl Pfeifer

Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian journalist who as a child spent some time in Hungary and learned faultless Hungarian. His Hungarian friends call him Karcsi. You can read more about him here.

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Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, is doing everything in his power to obtain legitimacy for his antidemocratic policies from the next World Jewish Congress that will be held in Budapest (May 5-7, 2013). Does the choice of Budapest signify anything given the daily reports of growing Hungarian anti-Semitism?

Naturally, the Hungarian government is doing its level best to “correct” this widespread perception. Gullible foreigners are fed all kinds of half- or untruths about the situation in Hungary. They minimize the extent of anti-Semitism in the country while exaggerating the government’s effort at attempting to curb activities of neo-Nazi groups.*

World Jewish CongressI was there when the Hungarian ambassador to Austria, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, declared in Vienna the other day: “If Hungary were a fascist country the WJC would not hold its congress in Budapest. One hundred thousand Jews live in Hungary and our prime minister made clear that he does everything in his power to defend the Jewish minority. I have never heard the Austrian chancellor say anything like that in the Austrian parliament.”** Now even the most ardent critics of the present government (I among them) never called Hungary a “fascist country.” And, thankfully, the Jews of Austria were never subjected after 1945 to the kind of verbal (and sometimes physical) threats as they are in present-day Hungary. Therefore the Austrian chancellor never felt he had to defend the Jewish minority in public.

The first question is how did the Hungarian ambassador arrive at the figure of 100,000 Jews in Hungary? According to the Nuremberg or the Hungarian racial laws of the early nineteen forties? Or does anybody seriously claim that there are 100,000 Hungarian Jews entitled to enter Israel and receive Israeli citizenship according to the premises of the Israeli law of return?

In the end it is a question of democracy. Can the state and its rulers decide the identity of its inhabitants? Should they have the right to define who is a Jew and to define Hungarian Jews as a minority? After all, Hungarian Jewry was never considered to be a distinct ethnic minority. Yet Viktor Orbán, in that speech the Hungarian ambassador was referring to, was talking about “our kind of Christian Democrats” as opposed to the Jews. Isn’t one’s personal identity a basic right of every citizen?

Hungarian right-wing media rehash the old claim that the Jews were responsible for Communist rule in Hungary. While the leaders of Hungarian Jewry use the old and failed method of appeasement.

In 1920, when French and British Jews lodged a complaint at the League of Nations about the law that restricted the number of Jewish students at institutions of higher learning, the Hungarian-Jewish leadership objected to foreign interference in the name of Hungarian patriotism. As a result of protests of the excluded students eventually the officials did lodge a complaint but added that the community concerned was not in a position to act freely: “… in view of the virulence of anti-Semitic agitation in Hungary, it will be readily understood that the Jewish community are scarcely free agents in this matter.” ***

So, when anti-Jewish laws were enacted  in 1938 the Hungarian Jewish leaders’ position was already compromised when they tried to get help from British and French Jews. They didn’t receive much assistance. The Hungarian-Jewish establishment felt it had to come to terms with the country’s rulers and to acquiesce in “moderating” anti-Jewish legislation, hoping that would forestall the harsher measures advocated by the extreme right-wing elements. As we know, this was to no avail. Harsher and harsher laws were introduced until the final solution reached about 70% of Hungary’s Jewry. Jews were alone within the Hungarian non-Jewish society, almost without any support by the liberal and progressive elements.

How do the rulers of Hungary deal with the “Jewish question” today? Here is one example of many. György Konrád, who by an almost miraculous chain of fortunate circumstances escaped the Hungarian Holocaust to become one of the most famous dissidents and authors of his country, the President of the international PEN club of writers and President of the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters, celebrated his eightieth birthday on April 2. He received congratulations from all over the world, was officially invited by the politically conservative president of Germany for a personal visit at his residence. But nobody from official Hungary, not the president, not the prime minister, not the mayor of Budapest, not the lowest government official in charge of cultural affairs saw fit to send him even a friendly word. On the contrary, one of the chief functionaries responsible for national culture (or rather the lack of it) publicly stated that Konrád was no Hungarian writer at all, only erroneously seen abroad as such.

While some might be tempted to restrict Hungarian anti-Semitism to the Hungarian Nazis and their political party, Jobbik, and trust the promises of Mr. Orbán, they should know that the nationalistic, “völkisch” policy of the government will continue unabated after the ladies and gentlemen of WJC and journalists like myself graciously invited as reporters will have returned to their countries of origin.

*http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/17/gyor/ In Győr a Nazi demonstration was allowed in the center of town on April 13 and the Nazi were escorted by the Hungarian police.

**Austrian public radio has reported on the statement of the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna. http://oe1.orf.at/programm/335405 and I published on the same at http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/25/ungarn-symposium/

***The Joint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, The Jewish Minority in Hungary (London).