István Pálffy

Hungarian attitude toward alcohol consumption

I would like to talk about two incidents that happened only a few days apart. We briefly touched on the first in the comments. István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an obscene letter full of four-letter words to the foreign correspondents in Budapest. In it he accused them of false reporting, resulting in an unjust and untrue picture of Hungary. The English-language letter can be read here at the end of the Hungarian introduction. Now it turned out that Lovas’s excuse is that he was drunk.

Two days ago there was a curious scene in the Hungarian parliament. An MSZP member of parliament happened to be delivering a question to one of the ministers when István Pálffy (KDNP), who is in his first term in parliament, got up, went by the speaker, shook hands with him, and began unsteadily ambling toward the exit. Then he suddenly stopped and began a conversation with two Jobbik members who, after he had left, indicated that the honorable member was drunk.

We may also add to these two recent incidents that József Balogh, another parliamentarian, hit “Terike” while intoxicated. In fact, he had to be so drunk that the next morning he had no recollection of the events of the night before.

According to the World Health Organization, mortality due to alcohol-related problems in Hungary was over three times the European Union average for men and around two and a half times that of the EU average for women. A full 10% of the population has been officially diagnosed with alcoholism. It is likely that there is a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and violence of all sorts, not just the domestic variety.

An American researcher reported that during her stay in the country she was offered a drink at practically all the families she visited regardless of the time of the day. I can attest to that myself. People wanted me to drink cognac at 11 a.m. and they could be very insistent, viewing refusal as an insult. Perhaps that’s why there is a certain tolerance toward “being tipsy.”

In an interview with Lovas in Heti Válasz the discussion turned to his unspeakable letter to the foreign journalists. There were jokes about the amount of alcohol he consumed, which turned out to be a whole bottle of wine and two ponies of pálinka. At least this is what he admitted to. Jokes were flying about the Hungarian expression “the glass suddenly became full,” meaning that “it was the last straw” that foreign correspondents were not reporting on the Baja video.

Pallfy Istvan

István Pálffy

As for Pálffy, I suspect that he is an alcoholic. Although he has an engineering degree, he spent most of his adult life as a newspaperman. First in Magyar Rádió and later at MTV. Between 2002 and 2008 he was in charge of the news and, given Pálffy’s political views, MTV’s news even before 2010 was anything but balanced. In addition he shows a keen interest in gastronomy and, not surprisingly, wines. He wrote guides to Hungarian wines with the title “The best 100 Hungarian wines.” I somehow doubt that he could be a great judge.

A Hungarian right-wing Internet site ran a story about these two incidents with the title “Pony” (Kupica). In it the author called Lovas’s letter “astonishingly sweet and obscene.” What was sweet about it I wouldn’t know, but Lovas’s obscene outburst seemed to have been explained away and forgiven.

Today an article appeared by György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who often publishes short articles in Magyar Narancs. He is bothered about “the jovial manner” in which the topic is treated. The way the interviewing journalist actually condones Lovas’s drinking that ended in great embarrassment not just for himself but for right-wing Hungarian journalism in general.

While Lovas thinks that he was justified in complaining about the alleged “anti-Fidesz” behavior of foreign journalists and only the alcohol made him use inappropriate words, Pálffy threatens anyone who says he was drunk in parliament with a law suit. Although the Hungarian parliament has a pub, according to one article I read its sales are ridiculously modest: one bottle of wine and ten bottles of beer a day! Pálffy claims that he has never bought any alcohol in the parliamentary pub. I believe him. But one doesn’t have to purchase liquor there in order to be loaded by the afternoon. The parliamentary session normally starts at 1 p.m.

Just as the attitude toward the role of women and domestic violence must change in Hungary, so should the attitude towards excessive drinking. But how can this happen when such a widespread “understanding” of the phenomenon exists? Interestingly enough, while there is some attempt at curbing smoking, I see no government effort at educating the public about the pitfalls of excessive drinking. In my elementary school we had a poster on the wall: “Az alohol öl, butít, és nyomorba dönt!” (Alcohol kills, makes you stupid, and reduces you to destitution.) I’m not sure that it shaped later behavior, but at least it was pointing in the right general direction–as opposed to granting a tax exemption for the production of pálinka.

Viviane Reding is the target in the Hungarian “war of independence”

It is truly amazing how fast “scandals” can break out in Hungary especially if, as I suspect, there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to create them. Here I was without a computer for two days and almost missed “the greatest scandal of the European Union.” Or at least this is what Fidesz MEP László Surján claims. He was talking about accusations originating in Hungarian circles about Viviane Reding, European Commissioner  for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She is accused of trying to cast a shadow on the outcome of next year’s national election. Of course, the assumption is that Fidesz will again win the election, but the “enemies of Hungary” led by Viviane Reding herself will question the validity of this outcome.

What happened? On the morning of June 18 Magyar Nemzet came out with a news item that began an avalanche of articles, to be precise fifteen in number, within two and a half days. According to the article, the paper received information from Brussels that Reding along with José Manuel Barroso had attended the Bilderberg Conference held in England between June 6 and 9. The Bilderberg Group which organizes these conferences was created with a view to building bridges between the United States and the European Union. It is often the target of far-right groups in the U.S. as well as in Europe.

At the conference allegedly fifteen minutes were devoted to the case of Hungary during which Reding informed her audience of her efforts on behalf of the Hungarian opposition to cast a shadow on the purity of the forthcoming Hungarian elections. These opposition forces are allegedly being financed by the United States. In no time it also became clear that Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány are involved in this plot as well. At this point Magyar Nemzet didn’t reveal the origin of its story but later we found out that the source was an unnamed Italian “official.”

By the afternoon the Fidesz script was already written. It was most likely also decided that it will be the Christian Democrats who will lead the charge against Reding. I guess the Fidesz strategists remain convinced that those “ignorant bureaucrats” in Brussels don’t realize that Fidesz and KDNP are one and the same. Occasionally there is a division of labor depending on the issue. In any case, a few hours after the first article appeared on June 18 the Christian Democrats already had a communiqué ready. They will sue Reding and everybody else involved. By the next day they demanded her resignation. A Christian Democrat MEP, László Surján, officially approached the appropriate committee to investigate her case. He also called for her resignation.

Meanwhile back home Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party and deputy prime minister; Péter Harrach, whip of the Christian Democratic caucus; and the spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, did the talking. They were everywhere, but HírTV, the pro-government television station owned by the same group that is in charge of Magyar Nemzet, was especially full of interviews. By the time the Christian Democrats began talking in the electronic media there was no doubt in their minds that Reding is guilty of the charge. She really did reveal that she was conspiring with the Hungarian opposition against the rightful government of the country.  Harrach was especially adamant. Perhaps they will not be able to prove it, but they are convinced that the report coming from Brussels is “true.” Reding should not only be removed but should disappear altogether from the political life of her country and the Union. Pálffy even went so far as to talk about possible withdrawal from the Union if the present structure of the EU is changed in 2020.

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

On what basis does the Hungarian government hiding behind the nonexistent Christian Democratic party accuse Viviane Reding of criminal behavior? The man who first reported that Reding would attend the Bilderberg Conference was István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent in Brussels. The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are most likely unfamiliar with his name because lately he hasn’t been in the limelight unlike during the 1998-2002 period when he had a rather unsavory reputation. At that time he was in charge of creating a right-wing pro-Fidesz corps of journalists. His students were told to keep lists of “unreliable” foreign journalists who were critical of the first Orbán government. Altogether he has a murky past. As a young man in Hungary he was accused of rape. Later he illegally left Hungary and worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich for a while, but apparently he couldn’t get along with anyone. He also spent some time in California where he left behind a wife and child whom he refused to support.

In any case, Lovas claims that sometime in April a mysterious Italian official approached him with the news that Reding would be attending the Bilderberg Conference. Lovas approached Reding’s spokeswoman who told him that this was the first time she had heard about such a trip. So he dropped the story, but the journalists at Magyar Nemzet didn’t. They madly tried to learn something about the Bilderberg Group and were happy to discover that an economist known for her far-right views was the first in Hungary to call attention to this evil secret organization. Then they approached the liberal Paul Lendvai who attended three of these conferences between 1968 and 1993. Lendvai assured them that there was nothing sinister about these meetings between politicians and influential European and American businessmen. I’m certain that the Magyar Nemzet journalists opted to believe the right-leaning economist and not Paul Lendvai, whom they consider “an enemy of the country.” Obviously the Bilderberg Group and Reding interested them greatly, and they published a number of articles about the Bilderberg conferences.

Then came June 5 when Lovas’s mysterious informer, the Italian official,  told him that the conference would have a 15-minute discussion on Hungary. The conference ended on June 10, and I assume that further details about this 15-minute discussion must have reached Lovas soon thereafter. So why the long wait to break the story? My guess is that Magyar Nemzet withheld it until Fidesz-KDNP could create its own version.

What most likely helped their work was that during the weekend both Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about the growing fear that is gripping the country and about stories circulating of hidden cameras above the voting booths. With that the connection between Reding and the opposition could easily be established.

Reding categorically denied the story and the European Commission announced that it has no intention of investigating Reding’s alleged criminal activity.

By the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hungary actually came up in the discussion. After all, the Hungarian government’s behavior in the European Union has been causing considerable headache for the EU leadership and parliament lately. Reding may even have described the general atmosphere in Hungary and the fear of political retribution spreading in the country. However, the rest of the story is simply unbelievable. Reding is a seasoned politician who has been in political life since 1979; she wouldn’t share such a bizarre story even if it were true. As I said, she may have talked about the fear of possible electoral fraud and/or fear of the almighty and very aggressive Fidesz. But the rest of the story was concocted somewhere in the witches’ kitchen of Fidesz-KDNP’s strategists.

But this is a dangerous game. Both Barroso and Reding are members of the European People’s party. What do the Hungarian Christians want to achieve with this frontal attack on a fellow Christian Democrat? I can’t imagine that this attack could possibly help the Hungarian cause. But perhaps their minds work differently from mine.