HÖK

Corruption at the University of Szeged

It was about a year and a half ago that Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education” which, despite its title, was mostly about corruption in Hungarian higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Transparency International interviewed 500 students and conducted a number of in-depth interviews with teachers and administrative professionals. The result? According to the students, corruption is highest in political life but is also present in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believed that the faculty was not at all or was only partially honest.

When this study was published I wrote a post entitled “Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians” in which I drew a parallel between corruption in politics and corruption in the student unions. In that piece I did not go into the details of how these student leaders operate, what kinds of illegal activities they pursue, and in what way they are assisted by corrupt university officials. Today, inspired by several recent newspaper articles on the “untouchable student leader” Márk Török of the University of Szeged, I would like to concentrate on these aspects of Hungarian university life, using the University of Szeged as a prototype.

The student union (HÖK) at the University of Szeged is notorious. Szeged is a large university, with an enrollment of 30,000. The yearly budget of the student union is 3.5 billion forints, an enormous sum for undergraduates to dispose of. However, seasoned HÖK leaders are no ordinary undergraduates. They have held their leadership positions for years. Since student leaders must actually be students, they are perpetual undergraduates. Often it takes them years to get a degree and, when they receive it, they immediately enroll in another department or school. So, for example, Márk Török began his university career as a history major. Once he got a degree in history he enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of Pedagogy and then moved over to the Law School. By now Török is 30 years old and has been enrolled as a student at the University of Szeged for the last twelve years. Between 2004 and 2008 he was the student union president of the Faculty of Arts; after that, he became president of the student union of the whole university. There was only one break in his presidential career when in 2008, as a result of disciplinary action against him, he could not attend college for two semesters. But apparently even then he was running the show from behind the scenes.

The powerful student leader, Márk Török

The powerful student leader Márk Török

The 3.5 billion forints allocated to the student union are spent without any oversight. It is the “president” of the student union who, with associates of his own choosing, decides how much money will be spent on what. In early 2011 first- and second-year students in Szeged signed a petition to demand more transparency but got nowhere.

People who know the inner workings of the university are convinced that the university administration has been cowed by the student union leaders, who can blackmail them in the university senate where promotions or/and appointments are being decided. If a professor gives them trouble, with their votes and some clever finagling they can ruin the person’s university career. It is impossible that the university administration doesn’t know of the alleged Ponzi-scheme that urged students to enroll in an association to receive a monthly stipend from HÖK of which ten percent would be paid as a membership fee in the association. The students were told to recruit five others. Upon closer investigation, it was determined that this was Török’s business venture. They also must know that HÖK, through a business venture, runs two pubs in Szeged.

Inside of the university Török can do practically anything he wants. For example, he made renovations in the building of the Faculty of Arts without university approval or obtaining a building permit. He is powerful enough to make administrative changes that are to his advantage. The deputy president in charge of the student unions who was responsible for Török’s expulsion paid dearly for daring to challenge the almighty student leader. Eventually even his post was eliminated. By now, without Török’s permission no student can expelled for either academic or disciplinary reasons.

In 2013 Török was again reelected president of the university’s student union. He was the only candidate and his platform was not publicly available. Átlátszó Oktatás (Transparent Education) is suing the university.

Abcug.hu published a surprisingly positive portrait of Márk Török. The reporter, Illés Szurovecz, went to his old high school in Veszprém where his former teachers spoke highly of him, describing him as mature beyond his years. He was always a leader with a flair for the theatrical. He was fiercely independent: “he had his own plans. What he decided on he carried through” even if it meant serious conflicts. He was his own man and did not need “allies.” He did not care what other people thought of him.

Within the university Török is unpopular, yet there is no one who can take his place. In any case, normally he is the only applicant for the post. The reason for his lonely position is his centralizing efforts in the last few years. Only his closest friends can have meaningful positions within the organization. Even his critics think that, after his departure from HÖK, Török will be in “some leading position.”

All this reminds me of Viktor Orbán. Purposeful, power-hungry, self-confident, stubborn, someone who keeps tab on everything, who has no allies, only subordinates. Unlike Viktor Orbán, however, Török seems to have business acumen. He is like an Orbán and Simicska combined into a single corrupt political manipulator. He has a promising career in the Hungarian mafia state.

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Rape at a freshman camp in Hungary

On August 30 an incoming freshman was raped at one of the many weekend camps organized by the student associations of ELTE. I have written several times about these students associations, or Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). They were organized right after the regime change when they received powers unheard of at universities west of Hungary. In many ways they resemble the former KISZ, the communist youth organization, since they have a very large budget and some of their leaders are paid employees of the university. These associations can spend money with little supervision. They can also decide on such important matters as the allocation of dormitory rooms. Most important, they have a say in faculty appointments since they have a 25% representation on the university senates. Corruption is apparently rampant in these HÖKs. In addition, they are breeding grounds for future leaders of Jobbik. Unfortunately, university administrators either don’t have the guts, the power, or the will to reform and curtail these associations.

Among other things, these student associations are responsible for the organization of “freshmen camps” prior to the opening of the fall term. I guess the original idea was to give freshmen an opportunity to get to know each other as well as to meet savvy upperclassmen. A recent headline, however, described these camps as “szesz és szex” (alcohol and sex).

The scene of the crime was Fonyódliget at Lake Balaton where the freshmen of ELTE’s teachers’ college were supposed to get acquainted. It turned out that the organizers, leaders of the school’s HÖK, hired a 38-year-old photographer who they knew had raped someone else earlier and had in fact spent five years behind bars. The rapist first beat the freshman and then tried to strangle her, all the while taking at least 100 pictures of the act.

The picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This picture was taken in 2012 on the same camp site where the rape occurred

This time at least the university administrators acted immediately. They suspended the responsible HÖK leaders and promised a full investigation.

And this wasn’t the only problem the ELTE administration had to deal with, although it was by far the most serious. Reports also poured in about the law school’s freshman bash, although the activities there seemed to have been nothing new. For years the organizers have made the freshmen sing a particularly obscene ditty. Index found the text of the obscene song and published it. If you swear that you are over 18, you can have the pleasure of reading it.

It seems that a tragedy had to occur to prompt ELTE’s administration to act. They decided that from here on these freshman camps will be organized centrally and will take place under the university’s supervision. This should have been done much earlier.

While the news was full of the rape case, the three guys who shoot the breeze on Class FM’s Morning Show, a popular program, talked about the freshman camps in a rather light-hearted manner. They called the rape of the freshman “an unfortunate event,” chatted at length about the general licentious atmosphere of these camps, adding “let’s not be hypocritical, we know what’s going on there.” There was even some inappropriate reference to gay people. The media’s reaction was outrage and apologies followed. However, these three guys’ reaction at Class FM is not at all unique, even in media circles. There is a new television reporter at ATV who did not think that his fellow radio journalists said anything particularly objectionable. And a few days later when he was interviewing a representative of an association involved with sexual abuse and domestic violence, he first skirted the issue and, when he had to say something, he brought up violence against men as also being a problem. He added that the trouble is that “women don’t talk about the assaults.” Perhaps if they just talked more, these assaults could somehow be prevented.

Even the director of communications at ELTE, György Fábry, seemed ambivalent to me. Of course, he admitted that it was a terrible tragedy and there will be serious consequences. But he tried to minimize the atmosphere that prevails in these camps. In his conversation with Olga Kálmán he kept repeating that no one forced the participants to sing the obscene song and that, in fact, this year the song was not included in the repertoire. He kept saying that some of the stories are exaggerated. From an earlier conversation on Egyenes beszéd I gained the impression that he is a great defender of HÖK. Indeed, it turned out that he, as a student at ELTE’s faculty of arts, was one of the first HÖK leaders in the early 1990s. The faculty of arts’ HÖK has been solidly in the hands of Jobbik, whose leaders use these freshman camps to recruit members for the party. When probed about the Jobbik connection, Fábry defended the group and said that the problem was not as serious as the media made it out.

Although the commissioner in charge of education who works under the general ombudsman will be investigating freshman camps nationwide, the problem is not with the camps per se. The problem lies with the almost exclusively male composition of the HÖKs. At ELTE women make up 75% of the student body, yet they are barely represented in HÖKs. Ninety-four percent of the student body at the teachers’ college are women, one man heads the college’s HÖK. These fellows often use their prominence as organizers to intimidate freshmen women. Details of what’s going on right under the noses of the university administration are well described by a recent article in Index.  Of course, the problem is not restricted to rowdy university students letting off steam. What happens at these freshman camps is part and parcel of the Hungarian male attitude toward women.

Neo-Nazi/Jobbik programs on Duna TV: The Orbán government has no objection

I have been planning for some time to write a post about the neo-Nazi propaganda that can be heard daily on Duna TV.

Duna TV was established during the Antall government and is supposed to serve the Hungarian diaspora in the neighboring countries, although I understand that MTV covers a large portion of the territories in question. In any case, at Duna TV, just like at all other public media outlets, the change of government brought in an entirely new management and staff. The old right-of-center ideology that was the trademark of Duna TV was not good enough for the Orbán government. By now there are a couple of programs on Duna TV that are neo-Nazi propaganda, pure and simple.

A rewriting of Hungarian history is one of the goals of this relatively young crew, whose roots go back to their days as HÖK officials in various Hungarian universities. I wrote several times about this student association (Hallgatói Önkormányzat), which bears a suspicious resemblance to KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). Just like KISZ secretaries, HÖK presidents receive salaries and have large sums of money at their disposal. There were scandals at several universities involving HÖK, and there is no question that in most colleges HÖK is “the breeding ground for Jobbik.” At ELTE’s faculty of arts one HÖK chairman after the other ended up in Jobbik. One of the chairmen, István Szávay, is today a member of parliament.

Szávay’s predecessor at ELTE’s HÖK, Gábor Balogh, calls himself a historian, although he is in reality a Jobbik propagandist. He writes for far-right publications and, according to at least one source, is on the editorial board of kuruc.info, the site the Orbán government claims not to be able to shut down. At one time he worked for Barikád, the official publication of Jobbik. His name could also be found as a contributor to alfahir.hu, and lately he writes for Jobbegyenes (Straight Right). He gives lectures on political and historical topics to sympathetic audiences which are then made available on YouTube by igazCsepel, who seems to be the cameraman of Jobbik.

Why did Gábor Balogh’s name crop up suddenly? One reason is that in Jobbegyenes he wrote a sharply worded article about Imre Kerényi’s asinine Magyar Krónika, in which he expressed his misgivings about such primitive ideas that give a bad name to the conservative ideology. György Bolgár asked him for an interview, during which Balogh was asked about his professional activities outside of writing a blog. It turned out that he produces and edits television shows on historical and literary topics. From here it was only a couple of clicks to the notorious series aired on Duna TV called Hagyaték (Inheritance).

I don’t watch Duna TV and therefore had no idea that this series is not new. In fact, more than 50 programs were already produced and shown. Every Saturday there is a new segment which is then repeated over and over every day of the week, sometimes twice a day. So, one doesn’t have to worry about missing one of the programs. The programs are also available on YouTube. A Facebook friend called my attention to one that he found especially upsetting entitled “Geniuses at a dead-end: Endre Ady and Attila József.” The conclusion of this program was that these two poets were basically good Hungarians whose Jewish friends led them astray. One of the latest programs extolled the virtues of the Hungarian aristocracy whose only goal in life was service to people and country. Another recent program was devoted to the praise of the Hungarian gendarmes whose activities were distorted after 1945, primarily the result of personal revenge because of their involvement in the “logistics of deportation.” Naturally, what the writers and producers of the program mean is that it was the returning Jews or their surviving relatives who falsified the true role of the gendarmes. One can see many, if not all, of the segments of Hagyaték in the video archives of Duna TV.

Already two years ago people noticed that blatant Arrow Cross and Jobbik propaganda was going on at Duna TV. Péter Urfi of Magyar Narancs wrote an open letter to Zoltán Rockenbauer, the editor of MTVA in charge of cultural programs, in which he complained about Hagyaték and Száműzött magyar irodalom (Banished Hungarian literature) shown on Duna TV. Naturally, nothing happened because including such programs among the offerings of the public television stations is not the result of a misstep or an unfortunate mistake but is part and parcel of what I see as a planned political move by the Orbán government. There may not be a written or verbal agreement between Fidesz and Jobbik, but there is no question in my mind that the Orbán government panders to Jobbik with these programs which rewrite Hungarian history according to Jobbik tenets. A prominent place is given to the map of Greater Hungary, and there is a lot of talk about Trianon and “Nem, nem, soha!” (No, no, never!). Often the commentator talks about Kárpáthaza (Carpathian Home) instead of Magyarország, which is a borrowing from Ferenc Szálasi’s ideological vocabulary.

hagyaték

About a month ago Blikk discovered that the son-in-law of Sándor Lezsák, deputy president of the Hungarian parliament (Fidesz), has a company called Dextramedia Kft. that produces television programs. This company received an order from MTVA to produce a five-part series on the everyday lives of those people who, after losing their homes because of their Forex loans, moved into the ill-conceived newly erected community in Ócsa. At this time Blikk‘s only question was the connection between the owner of the company and a high Fidesz official. But it seems that there is a more to Dextramedia. A couple of days later hirhatar.hu reported that Dextramedia produced for the neo-Nazi Internet N1TV a warm remembrance of Hitler on the anniversary of his birth. And then we learned from hir24.hu that Dextramedia was one of the sponsors of the Christmas Eve concert of a band called Nemzeti Front. Among the other sponsors was kuruc.info.hu.  I guess nobody will be terribly surprised to hear that Hagyaték is also produced by Dextramedia. The gate between Fidesz and Jobbik is wide open.

A couple more pieces of information. The new historical institute, Veritas, is supposed to spearhead the rewriting of Hungary’s history. János Lázár found an ideologically appropriate director–Sándor Szakály, a military historian who wrote a whole book on the history of the Hungarian gendarmes. Szakály was one of the experts asked to comment on the history of the organization for Hagyaték. We learned from him that the Hungarian gendarmerie was the best in the whole world. The 12,000 gendarmes were the most disciplined force in the country, and their main task was the prevention of crime. They were friends of the people but enemies of the criminals. They were extremely well trained and received continuing education. They had to wear their uniforms and carry their weapons even when off duty.

Szakály went on and on about the greatness of the force, and he was assisted by another expert–Péter Ákos Kosaras, a high school teacher (by now principal), who lost his job when he posted a picture of himself on a Hungarian social media site dressed in an SS uniform, which he captioned “a good-hearted SS officer.” But he wasn’t unemployed for long. I understand that Kosaras has since written a book entitled Magyarok a Waffen SS- kötelékében (Hungarians in the Waffen SS) in which he portrays these people as heroes.

The objectionable Hagyaték shows are directed by Attila Vándor, one of the owners of Dextramedia, and the editor is our Gábor Balogh.

Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians

Just the other day Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education.” This title is somewhat misleading because the main emphasis is on corruption in higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Five hundred students were interviewed in a questionnaire survey, and a number of in-depth interviews were conducted with teachers and administrative professionals. According to the students, it is in politics that corruption is the highest but it is also present, even if not to such an extent, in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believe that the teaching staff is not at all or only partially honest. Twenty-six percent question the integrity of the admission committees, and 46% doubt the honesty of the student council/union.

Let me concentrate on the student councils here. The HÖKs were set up with generous support from the government in the early 1990s when politicians in their democratic zeal felt that students, just like every other group, needed their own self-governing institution. They were given both funding and wide-ranging privileges. They could offer financial assistance to students in need. They also had jurisdiction over the dormitories. And they had the right to vote on the appointment and promotion of professors.

Quickly enough some students discovered the benefits of attaining high positions in the student union, including substantial personal monetary benefits. As a result, it was not always the most honest men and women (mostly men, I’m afraid) who vied for these positions.

These student unions became incubators for future politicians, especially those who eventually ended up in Fidesz. Fidesz in the 1990s was extremely popular among students, and eventually the whole leadership of Fidelitas, the junior branch of the party, underwent their political apprenticeship in student unions of various universities. Since then, with the rise of Jobbik, in some universities Jobbik took over the student unions. You may recall that at the Faculty of Arts of ELTE the Jobbik leadership of HÖK picked out “the most promising” (i.e., most likely to join Jobbik) freshmen. This crew had a running list of entering freshmen and made special mention of who might be a Jew or a left-winger.

A leadership position in HÖK could have been good preparation for an honorable political career. These student leaders had to negotiate with the faculty and the university administration, and in theory they were supposed to defend the rights of the student body. Unfortunately their primary concern was to fill their pockets and acquire more and more power. In the study half of the students claim that members of the student union ask for money, gifts or favors from those who request a place in the dormitory or social assistance. The financial affairs of the student union are unregulated and opaque.

The corruption of the budding Fidesz-Jobbik student leaders practically guaranteed that when they found themselves in more important political positions they would carry on their shady business, only on a much grander scale.

Perhaps the most notorious HÖK was at the University of Szeged where in early 2011 there was practically a student revolt to get rid of the corrupt HÖK members. There, as István Tanács, Népszabadság‘s Szeged correspondent wrote, “instead of student autonomy HÖK had a potential for blackmail of the administration.” About 600 students, freshmen and sophomores, naive souls, signed a petition demanding more electoral transparency. Their demands were modest: they wanted the votes collected to be kept at night in the safe of the Dean’s Office and not in the office of HÖK. They wanted a public notary to be present when the results of the election were counted. They also demanded a completely new election for all positions and not individual replacements of students whose term of office was ending.

"I no longer want to be chairman for that long" -- Márk Török, the notorious chairman of Szeged HÖK

“I no longer want to be chairman for that long” — Márk Török, the notorious chairman of the Szeged HÖK

The leadership of the Szeged HÖK managed to fend off the attempts at undercutting their power within the organization. That could be done relatively easily because the heads of the student unions are not elected in a truly democratic manner. In fact, the HÖK in Szeged is organized in such a way that its president has absolute power and the university’s administration has no say whatsoever over its affairs. The university’s senate accepted that arrangement as well as the demand of HÖK that this provision can be changed only with the approval of the student union.

The head of the Szeged HÖK is in charge of billions of forints spent on scholarships, the maintenance of dormitories, and assistance for living expenses, for books, for sports and cultural events. Moreover, without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. One of the vice-presidents of the university who made such a decision on his own was himself eventually removed from the university at the insistence of the HÖK chairman. It looks as if the university administration is actually afraid of the student union.

So, the younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often comes from these student unions where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. We shouldn’t be surprised about the atmosphere that pervades the party. In addition, let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying. They managed to achieve self-government within their small dormitory and ran the show with practically no supervision.

While I think that political activity should be part of university life, I also think that the power of HÖK should be broken once the electorate gets rid of those who brought into Hungarian political life the institutionalized corruption learned already in college.