József Debreczeni

József Debreczeni on the Roma question

After describing Bishop Miklós Beer’s efforts on behalf of the Roma minority and publishing the English translation of an article by Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, I think I should mention a book by József Debreczeni entitled Ne bántsd a cigányt!: political vitairat (Don’t hurt the Gypsies: A polemic). A rather odd title that needs some explanation. It echoes the name of a book by Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian-Hungarian politician and writer (1620-1664), Ne bántsd a magyart – Az török áfium ellen való orvosság (Don’t hurt the Hungarians – An antidote to the Turkish poison). In his book Zrínyi wrote: “How it is that you, Hungarians, can see the danger with your own eyes and yet are not awakened from your deep sleep.” Zrínyi was referring to the Turkish danger, but Debreczeni finds the quotation equally applicable to the danger that exists in Hungary today as a result of an uneducated, unassimilated, poverty-stricken underclass with a very high birthrate.

Debreczeni is neither a sociologist nor a historian of the Hungarian Roma. After getting an M.A. in history, he taught high school for a while but then became politically active in the late 1980s. After a short stint as a member of parliament (MDF), he became a freelance writer. He is best known for his biographies of József Antall, Viktor Orbán, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, he wrote two books on Orbán. The first appeared in 2002 a few months after Orbán lost the election and the second in 2009. The title of the second, Arcmás, means “portrait” but the word has two parts: “arc,” “countenance” and “más,” “other.” The message was that the Orbán of 2009 was very different from his earlier self.

Debreczeni considers the “Gypsy question” to be the greatest problem threatening “the existence of Hungarian society,” in which he includes the Roma minority. He highlights three aspects of the problem. First, the increasingly hopeless socioeconomic situation of the Gypsy minority. Second, the growing geographical isolation of Gypsies from non-Gypsies. Third, the demographic problem. The average Hungarian woman bears 1.3 children, a statistic that includes Roma women. Without them, that number is only around 1.0. Gypsy women have on average more than three children, and among the least educated and the poorest that number goes up to more than four. Given the low employment figures among the Roma, if these demographic trends continue Hungary will become “a third world” country. That is, if Hungarian society does not do something to answer the Gypsy question in the next decades.

After the regime change the new political elite was unable to handle the growing problems of the undereducated, unemployed Roma men and women. Just to give an idea of how little attention the new democratic parties paid to the Gypsy question, it was only SZDSZ that mentioned the problem at all in their first party program. But, in Debreczeni’s opinion, they went astray when they looked at it as simply a human rights issue. To “left-liberals” the fault lay only in prejudice and racism. This view became a “dogma,” which in turn became an obstacle to facing facts.

Meanwhile came Jobbik, a far-right party whose popularity was based in large measure on its anti-Gypsy rhetoric. At the EP election in 2009 it got 400,00 votes or 15% of the total. In the same election SZDSZ got a mere 2.16%.

“The democratic, left-liberal, anti-racist Roma politics has failed,” Debreczeni contends. He believes that the continuation of “the intolerant, confrontative, and by now unproductive liberal human rights approach” will lead nowhere and that Hungarians should find a new avenue to offer “a decent, democratic discourse and politics that would assist the integration of the Roma.” “If we can’t find it, we are lost.”

Ne bantsd a ciganytDebreczeni’s book, published two months ago, caused an upheaval in those “left-liberal” circles he criticized. A Roma activist, Jenő Setét, a close collaborator of Aladár Horváth, was the first to speak out against Debreczeni’s book. He complained about the very notion that Gypsies “are different.”

Indeed, Debreczeni, relying on research done by others, does claim that ethnic groups carry cultural baggage that may make them different from other folks. For example, he thinks that Hungarian-Germans are harder working than Hungarians. Gypsies, who until quite recently were self-employed, have a rather lackadaisical attitude toward time since they could work at their leisure. But critics charge that Debreczeni didn’t stop with a description of cultural differences. What upset people most is that he seems to make a value judgment: certain cultures are superior to others.

The second critic was István Hell, who belongs to the group of left-liberals Debreczeni criticizes. He wrote on Galamus that “we have created the current socio-cultural state of the Roma,” and he cites “segregation, limited educational opportunities, and not doing anything about these problems in the last twenty-five years.” The last and most outraged critic, Magdolna Marsovszky, expressed her surprise that such a book, which she considers racist, can be published at all.

Debreczeni answered all three. See his answer to Jenő Sötét in HVG and his article on Hell’s criticism in Galamus. István Hell wanted to continue the debate, but Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, put an end to it, claiming that it is not fair to criticize an author for the opinions of others that he quotes.

Most likely not independently from the appearance of this book, Sándor Friderikusz decided to have a three-part series on the Roma question on his excellent program, Friderikusz, on ATV. The series aired on October 7, November 4, and November 18. I highly recommend these programs, which point out the complexities of the issues.

József Debreczeni is one of the vice-presidents of Demokratikus Koalíció, and therefore some people might consider the opinions expressed in the book to be DK’s position on the issue. However, I’ve seen no sign of either an endorsement or a criticism of Debreczeni’s suggestions on how to handle the Roma question.

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Domestic reactions to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

In the wake of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26 politicians on the left have been united in their condemnation while journalists on the right have been scrambling to make the speech more palatable.

The reactions of MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM to the horrendous political message about establishing an “illiberal democracy” were fairly similar. They all deplored the fact that the Hungarian prime minister seems to be following the example of Putin’s Russia.

József Tóbiás, the newly elected chairman of MSZP, was perhaps the least forceful  in his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s political philosophy. Tóbiás pointed out that Orbán with this speech demonstrated that he has turned against all those who don’t share his vision: the socialists, the liberals, and even the conservatives. Because all of these ideologies try to find political solutions within the framework of liberal democracy.

Együtt-PM found the speech appalling: “The former vice-president of Liberal International today buried the liberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only lay to rest liberal democracy but democracy itself.” Subsequently, the party decided to turn to Brussels, asking the European Commission to protect the independent NGOs.

Gábor Fodor in the name of the Hungarian Liberal Party recalled Viktor Orbán’s liberal past and declared that “democracy is dead in our country.” The prime minister “made it expressly clear that it’s either him or us, freedom loving people.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy in the name of the Democratic Coalition (DK) was the most explicit. He said what many people have been hinting at for a while: that “a fascist state” is in the making in Hungary. “Unfortunately,” he added, Orbán “is either insane or a traitor, or both.”

LMP’s András Schiffer, as usual, had a different take on the speech. According to him, Orbán’s critique of liberal democracy is on target. Only his conclusions are wrong. LMP, which likes to describe itself as a green party, is an enemy of capitalism and also, it seems, of liberal democracy.

Magyar Nemzet published an interesting editorial by Csaba Lukács. He fairly faithfully summarized the main points of  the speech with one notable omission. There was no mention of “illiberal democracy.” And no mention of “democracy” either. Instead, he went on for almost two paragraphs about the notion of a work-based state and expressed his astonishment that liberals are so much against work. “Perhaps they don’t like to work and that’s why they panic.” Lukács clumsily tried to lead the discussion astray. Surely, he himself must know that the liberals are not worried about work but about the “illiberal democracy” he refused to mention in his article.

Journalists who normally support the government and defend all its actions seem to be at a loss in dealing with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” Deep down most likely they also know that this so-called “illiberal democracy” will not be democracy at all. So, they simply skirt the issue.

Válasz‘s editorial avoided the term as well, but at least István Dévényi wanted to know more about Viktor Orbán’s plans. After discussing the reactions of the opposition parties which talk about the end of democracy, he added: “I don’t think that for the time being there is reason to worry, but it would be good to know what exactly the prime minister has in mind when he talks about a nation-state, a work-based state that will follow the welfare state.”

A new English-language paper entitled Hungary Today managed to summarize the speech that lasted for 30 minutes in 212 words. Not surprisingly this Hungarian propaganda organ also kept the news of “illiberal democracy” a secret. Instead, the reader learns that “copying the west is provincialism, and we must leave it behind, as it could ‘kill us.'”

As for DK’s reference to Italian fascism, it is not a new claim. For a number of years here and there one could find references to the similarities between the ideas of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1932-1936) and those of Benito Mussolini. As prime  minister of Hungary, Gömbös made great strides toward establishing a fascist state in Hungary. József Debreczeni, an astute critic of Viktor Orbán who uncannily predicted what will happen if and when Viktor Orbán becomes prime minister again, quipped at one point that comparing Orbán to Horthy is a mistake; the comparison with Gömbös is much more apt.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Népszava’s headline: “He already speaks like a dictator / Getty Images

Péter Új, editor-in-chief of 444.hu, rushed to the library to find a Hungarian-language collection of the Duce’s memorable speeches. I might add that the book was published in 1928 and that István Bethlen, who happened to be prime minister at the time, wrote the preface to Benito Mussolini gondolatai (The thoughts of Benito Mussolini). In this book Új found some real gems: “The century of democracy over.” Or, “Unlimited freedom … does not exist.” “Freedom is not a right but a duty.” “It would be suicidal to follow the ideology of liberalism … I declare myself to be anti-liberal.” “The nation of tomorrow will be the nation of workers.”

Others searched for additional sources of Orbán’s assorted thoughts and claims in the speech. I already mentioned Fareed Zakaria’s article on illiberal democracies. Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progressive Institute concentrated on Orbán’s assertion that a well-known American political scientist had described American liberalism as hotbed of corruption, sex, drugs, and crime. Filippov found an article by Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Decline of America’s Soft Power.” (You may recall that Zakaria’s article also appeared in that periodical. It seems that one of Orbán’s speechwriters has a set of Foreign Affairs on hand!) But whoever wrote the speech badly misunderstood the text. The original English is as follows:

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have eradicated their liberal opposition, and radical Islamists are in most cases the only dissenters left. They feed on anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition to U.S. policies, and popular fears of modernization. Liberal democracy, as they portray it, is full of corruption, sex, and violence—an impression reinforced by American movies and television and often exacerbated by the extreme statements of some especially virulent Christian preachers in the United States.

Radical Islamists are the ones who claim that liberal democracy is full of corruption, sex, and violence. Viktor Orbán is now joining their ranks. Putin, Mussolini, radical Islamists–these are Orbán’s ideological friends. And he has unfettered power to transform this frightening ideology into government policy.

It was a mistake to release documents relating to Gyurcsány’s speech of May 26, 2006

I predict that Viktor Orbán will regret, if he has not already done so, his decision to dredge up those two documents that Sándor Pintér released two days ago. They were supposed to prove that Ferenc Gyurcsány was himself responsible for his infamous speech of 2006 becoming public. Not that, even if it were true, which it is not, it would make any difference. It is not really news. News would be if we learned who the people were who were responsible for the theft of the tape from either MSZP headquarters or the prime minister’s office.  The release of the documents was supposed to serve only one purpose: to remind the public during the election campaign of Gyurcsány’s unforgivable sins against the nation. It seems to me that instead of achieving the desired outcome Viktor Orbán is now facing uncomfortable questions about his and his party’s role in this whole sordid affair.

We learned nothing new from the documents about the circumstances of the leak, but we found out something that Viktor Orbán has steadfastly denied ever since September 2006. For the first time a Fidesz politician, Lajos Kósa, admitted yesterday that they knew of the tape’s existence earlier. Not that we didn’t suspect as much. Most commentators who analyzed the events prior to the siege of the Hungarian Television building came to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán already knew about the contents of the tape in July 2006 and that by the beginning of August the Fidesz team managed to lay their hands on the actual tape. This timeline was also assumed by József Debreczeni, who relied heavily on a blogger’s detailed description of the events, available online, for his book A 2006-os ősz. Orbán decided to withhold the release of the tape until the time was ripe. And that day was September 17, just as Viktor Orbán was en route to Brussels.

Now, for the first time, Lajos Kósa under the pretty aggressive questioning of Antónia Mészáros of ATV admitted that they made several copies of the speech and delivered them to the more important media outlets, including Magyar Rádió, where two or three sentences were lifted from a long speech. So, instead of learning anything new about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s complicity, we are now faced with a Fidesz admission of something we until now only surmised. That was Fidesz’s first own goal, and more may follow because questions are pouring in.

How is it possible, for example, that Viktor Orbán weeks before the siege predicted what would happen on September 19? Tamás Lajos Szalay of Népszabadság calls attention to a three-part article of Orbán published in Magyar Nemzet entitled “Watershed.” The first part was published on July 29, the second on August 5, and the third on September 9. Why the long gap between the second and third articles? If it is true that the tape arrived sometime in early August, it is likely that Orbán had to rewrite his article to reflect his new found knowledge. In any case, Orbán in his piece exhibits prophetic faculties when he sees only two possibilities. He envisions unrest unless “we find a peaceful way out of the crisis.” The peaceful way was the Gyurcsány government’s resignation.

Most likely not too many people remember the tape sent to several radio stations in the name of “The Warriors of Democracy” which sent a chilling message to the government. On September 14 a distorted male voice called on the government to resign. If they don’t do so by September 20, Budapest will be in flames. Most commentators dismissed the threat as the work of a crackpot, but in light of what happened on September 19 I wouldn’t dismiss it. The police at the time said something about a crime that can be viewed as a terrorist threat, but by January 2007 they were no longer investigating the case. We will never know who the warriors of democracy were or whether they had any connection to Fidesz. But the long-forgotten warriors of democracy cropped up again in today’s Népszabadság.

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy expressed the opinion of the Demokratikus Koalíció on the matter. They demand the release of all documents. He pointed out that with Kósa’s admission we now know that Viktor Orbán has been lying about his own involvement in this affair. “It has become clear that Hungary has a liar as prime minister.” Admittedly, not exactly a new discovery. Another observer, István Gusztos, remarked in Gépnarancs that while the released documents tell us nothing about Ferenc Gyurcsány, they do tell us a lot about Fidesz, which “had a determinant role in the outbreak of disturbances.”

The next step will be a serious second look at the football hooligans’ role on September 19, 2006 during the siege of the television building. In Hungary the worst football hooligans are the fans of Ferencváros (Fradi). The Fradi fans were in a foul mood at the time because their favorite team had lost its place in Division I. Orbán, who is an Újpest and Videoton fan, paid a surprise visit to the Ferencváros-Jászapáti match, their first one in Division II. He settled in the middle of the Fradi fans and even gave an interview to reporters present. He expressed his disgust at what had happened to Fradi, which was in his opinion “a scandal” (disznóság). Commentators were a bit surprised at Orbán’s sudden appearance at a Fradi game. The precise connection between this visit and the Fradi fans’ active participation in the siege of Hungarian TV is not known, but in all probability the two occurrences were not unconnected–especially in light of a later development when as a result of a new investigation of the case during the Orbán government, the sentences already passed on a handful of hooligans by the courts were annulled. The suspicion lingers that those half-crazed, drunk men had been assured ahead of time that their actions would have no consequences once Viktor Orbán was the prime minister of Hungary.

MTV ostrom

All in all, I believe that it would have been better for Viktor Orbán, however fervently he wants to “get” Ferenc Gyurcsány, to let sleeping dogs lie. There is just too much muck around Fidesz headquarters which seems to surface every time the subject of Balatonőszöd comes up.

József Antall twenty years later

I happened to be in Hungary on the day József Antall, Hungary’s first prime minister after the regime change, was buried. Just to give you a sense of how little I knew about Hungarian affairs in those days, I wasn’t even aware that Antall had died. I also had no idea how much he and his government were disliked, nay hated, in Hungary. Naturally I didn’t realize how difficult the transition was from the so-called socialist system to a market economy and what it meant to millions of Hungarians–high unemployment, very high inflation, spreading poverty, and, as I later learned, a fairly incompetent government.

Antall was right when he told the members of his cabinet that they had joined a kamikaze government. He realized, at least in the early days of his administration, that no government, regardless of how well prepared its members were, could remain popular under the circumstances. And since the members of the Antall government had absolutely no political and administrative experience, their performance was less than sterling.

Antall JozsefAlthough today, twenty years after Antall’s death, politicians from right to left praise Antall as a great statesman, in his day he was sharply criticized for being a man of the past.

Two important biographies of Antall have appeared since his death. The first, published in 1995, is by Sándor Révész, a liberal journalist and writer. The second was written by József Debreczeni, an MDF member of parliament during Antall’s tenure as prime minister. He is an admirer of Antall. From the two books two entirely József Antalls emerge. Révész’s Antall is a typical member of what in Hungarian is called the “keresztény úri osztály,” a social group that’s difficult to define precisely. Members of this group were normally Catholics, their ancestors came mostly from the lower gentry, and their fathers and grandfathers (having lost their land) served as government bureaucrats. Since their livehood depended on government, they were loyal to the Horthy regime. Indeed, that was the Antall family’s background as well. Debreczeni’s Antall is a man characterized by utter devotion to democratic principles and parliamentarism and devoid of any nostalgia for the Horthy regime, for which he was blamed by the left.

I remember watching the funeral of the prime minister on television among relatives who all hated Antall and his government. I was struck by the pomp and circumstance of the event and could hardly get over the uniforms and caps of the young men surrounding the coffin, which I must admit I found ridiculous. They had an unfortunate resemblance to costumes out of a Lehár or Kálmán operetta. Indeed, one could sense a conscious effort to return to the former “days of glory.”

Critics of Antall charged that he not only knew nothing about economics but that he wasn’t even interested in it. Fine points of the Hungarian parliamentarian tradition were more his thing. They pointed out that he was long winded and that during his speeches he often lost his train of thought. I was told that he was an arrogant and aloof man who couldn’t identify with the man on the street. That may be the case. I certainly didn’t have the opportunity to decide on my own. In fact, the first time I heard Antall speak at some length was yesterday when I listened to a speech of his from 1990 which was never delivered because MTV, then led by a close friend of Antall, refused to air it. He considered it to be a campaign speech and therefore inappropriate just before the municipal elections. MTV’s refusal to air the speech in turn began the so-called media war between the government and the mostly liberal media, which ended with the decimation of the staff of MTV and MR.

Here are my first impressions. I don’t think that Antall was as ignorant of economics as his critics maintained. In the first fifteen minutes of his speech he was able to explain quite cogently why Hungary was having economic difficulties. There was nothing wrong with his explanation. The second fifteen minutes, however, was something else. I came to the conclusion that, despite all the claims about Antall’s high sense of democracy, he had no clue about the true nature of democracy. Or, even if he knew it theoretically, he was unable to translate it into political practice. The second half of his speech was devoted to criticizing the opposition for behaving as an opposition. To his mind, instead of criticizing his government the opposition should help him along in his quest to get Hungary out of trouble.

Indeed, the country was in big trouble and Antall’s party, MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), although it received the most votes, didn’t have an absolute majority to form a government on its own. Antall turned to József Torgyán’s Smallholders and the Christian Democrats; with these two parties came some people whose devotion to democracy could be seriously questioned. Given the enormous tasks facing the government, the best solution would have been a grand coalition between the two largest parties, MDF and SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége), an idea that was bandied about in 1990. It would have made a lot of sense to share the burden and the unpopularity, which was bound to follow the change of regime. But Antall refused to contemplate such a coalition because he considered SZDSZ not a liberal but a center-left party.

Viktor Orbán has always paid lip service to the greatness of József Antall and has tried to intimate that he is the politician Antall himself wanted to be his successor. Indeed, there is at least one common feature shared by these two men. Antall as well as Orbán considered the opposition traitors because they were critical of their government’s policies. I found a short note in Beszélő from which I learned that József Antall at one of the yearly meetings of Hungarian ambassadors viewed criticism of his foreign policy, especially Hungary’s relations with the Soviet Union and the neighboring countries, as “treason.” From the article I also learned that Antall frequently used modal verbs. In this case he said: “I could even say it is treason.” Well, it seems that Antall had somewhat similar verbal tricks to the ones the present prime  minister of Hungary employs far too often.

This afternoon Géza Jeszenszky, Antall’s foreign minister, was a guest of György Bolgár on Klubrádió. Jeszenszky was not only a member of his cabinet but also the husband of Antall’s niece. Naturally, Jeszenszky thinks very highly of the former prime minister and, although he admitted that as a historian he shouldn’t ponder “what if” questions, of course he did. He announced that if Antall hadn’t gotten sick shortly after he became prime minister MDF wouldn’t have lost so massively in 1994. He is also certain that Gyula Horn would never have become prime minister of Hungary if Antall hadn’t died. It seems to me that Hungarian political life, as viewed from the plush office in the foreign ministry, was very different from what I encountered on the streets in 1993. The Antall government’s fate was already sealed in the second half of 1990. And the great electoral victory of MSZP was a foregone conclusion by the middle of December 1993.

The Fidesz robber barons. Part I

I think that among the comments there was already mention of a new book by József Debreczeni, A fideszes rablógazdaság (The Fidesz robber barons). In a way it is a companion volume to the book edited by Bálint Magyar entitled Magyar polip: A posztkommunista maffia állam (Hungarian octopus: The post-communist mafia state). In fact, Debreczeni borrows Magyar’s description, “the upperworld,” to describe the modus operandi of the Orbán government between 1998 and 2002. Debreczeni’s book is an account of the illegal activities of Viktor Orbán’s closest associates and provides critical background for understanding the current functioning of the mafia state.

Debreczeni combed through the findings of two decades of Hungarian investigative journalism, which unearthed some of the shady dealings of the Fidesz empire. There is no question that in a truly democratic country some of the actors in this story would have long been retired to lengthy stays in prison. The reason this didn’t happen in Hungary was that the cast of characters was extremely cunning. They made sure that there would be no legal consequences of their criminal activities.

How was this achieved? Most likely, at least in part, through blackmail. The highly respected chief prosecutor, Kálmán Györgyi (1990-2000), after having a conversation with János Áder, in those days president of the Hungarian parliament, suddenly resigned in March 2000 although his tenure expired only in 2002. The Fidesz government thus had a free hand to nominate a man, Péter Polt, a Fidesz party member and an older friend from the early 90s, who in the following years became the incarnation of the Chinese wall between justice and the thoroughly corrupt Fidesz leaders, including Viktor Orbán.

From the earliest days of Fidesz, only a handful of people–Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, Lajos Simicska, and Tamás Varga–dealt with financial matters. Of these four only Tamás Varga ended up in jail.

Once Fidesz became a parliamentary party and thus received a certain amount of money from the central budget, it became patently obvious that “the boys” had little notion of or even inclination toward keeping their finances in order. The party’s steering committee eventually became curious about what was going on with the money at the disposal of the parliamentary delegation. The members who were supposed to take a look at the books were faced with assorted slips of paper stuffed into plastic bags. Bookkeeping Fidesz style, I guess. After some scrutiny, it was determined that there were serious questions about how the money had been spent. The committee entrusted with checking the nonexistent books came to the conclusion that “responsibility for the party’s financial disarray should be the subject of a criminal investigation.”

In the end nothing happened because Viktor Orbán convinced the party membership that the report was the work of people who wanted to ruin the party. He asked for, and received, their vote of confidence. At the same time he threatened members of the steering committee with legal action.

Viktor Orbán survived this early investigation as he has survived all subsequent ones as well. The few million forints spent on who knows what at the launch of Fidesz were peanuts in comparison to the close to 700 million forints Fidesz received in September 1992 as a result of the sale of a very valuable building in downtown Budapest. The building was given to MDF and Fidesz by the Hungarian state. The two parties had every right to sell the building and use the proceeds to cover their own expenses. That was not the problem. The problem lay with where the money went.

Out of the 700 million, Simicska, who by then was in charge of the party’s finances, immediately transferred 574 million forints to FICO Kft., which had acted as a Fidesz foundation since 1990. For two years there was little movement of money in or out of FICO, but in 1992-93 everything changed. Simicska began establishing assorted businesses: Quality Invest Rt., Millennium Rt., Quality Party Service Kft., Terra Negra Ingatlanértékesítő és Hasznosító Bt., Quality Profit Kft, Taxorg Kft., Best Lízing Kft., Auto Classic Kft., etc. Moreover, as it turned out, a few million forints also ended up in the hands of Viktor Orbán’s father who didn’t have enough money to buy the state stone quarry he had managed during the Kádár years.

forints

These were not Fidesz owned companies. They were owned by a network of old friends around Viktor Orbán and László Kövér: Lajos Simicska and Tamás Varga were old high school friends; Szilárd Kövér was László’s younger brother; Zsuzsanna Pusztai, Simicska’s wife; Sándor Varga, father of Tamás; István Bakos, Szilárd Kövér’s brother-in-law; Gyula Gansperger, high school friend; Katalin Horváth, Gansperger’s wife, and so on. So, the state property became party property and then the party property became private property. Surely, the argument goes, Simicska must have convinced Orbán and Kövér that these companies would ensure Fidesz’s financial well-being, which at this juncture looked as if it would win the 1994 election.

What happened to the money that ended up in these private companies? Very little is known of its fate. We know that after a while these companies did not pay taxes, VAT, or social security. Eventually they were sold, twenty-two of them on the same day, allegedly to a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya, and a Croatian called Josip Tot. They, of course, were not the real buyers. As it turned out, the passports belonging to these two men had been stolen, and allegedly they knew nothing of the transaction. Of course, the companies that went bankrupt and were sold for pennies to unknown individuals had also taken out substantial bank loans, on which the banks were unable to collect.

All this came to light in 1999 when two investigative journalists unraveled the complicated story in Élet és Irodalom. Unfortunately, it was too late. By that time Viktor Orbán was prime minister of Hungary. Immediately after the formation of his government he made Lajos Simicska head of APEH (Adó- és Pénzügyi Ellenőrzési Hivatal), the Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. All documentation on these companies disappeared from the computers of APEH. After all, Simicska was put there for the sole purpose of covering the tracks of their illegal financial activities. Simicska stayed at the head of APEH only as long as was necessary to accomplish his task. A few months later, in the summer of 1999, claiming that attacks on his person ruined his health and caused his father’s death, Simicska resigned. By that time, the APEH files were most likely clean as a whistle. When later during the socialist-liberal period a government commissioner wanted to reopen the case, Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, blocked his way.

According to an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs in 1999, at least 60 Fidesz-related companies were established between 1990 and 1998. Simicska’s name appeared on 24, of which 14 were “purchased” by Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

After reading the details of the relationship between Orbán and Simicska, some people came to the conclusion that Orbán had been dragged into the morass of financial wrongdoing concocted by Simicska. He was in so deep that he was unable to extricate himself without landing in jail. He was the good guy under the thumb of the bad Simicska. But, as Debreczeni sums it up: “At the beginning one could perhaps think that Fidesz was led by a democratic Dr. Jekyll and a mafioso Mr. Hyde, but in the end it turned out that in reality a politician Hyde and a financier Hyde ruled the party, and by now, rule the country.”

To be continued

Hungary’s ruling party and its concept of democracy

A fairly lengthy psychological portrait of Viktor Orbán has been circulating online lately. It is not new. It was put together in 2010, and my hunch is that it’s arousing interest now because after almost three years of the Orbán regime people are becoming curious about the psychological makeup of the man. After all, it is becoming clearer by the day that there is something not quite right with the original founders of Fidesz. Perhaps they are not what people thought they were. Attila Ara-Kovács’s short essay on the young Orbán stirred things up, and I hope that others who know a lot about this period will probe further into the beginnings of Fidesz and the people who were responsible for its founding and nurturing.

The profile is based on Freudian psychoanalysis. To my mind its real value comes not so much from its theoretical hypotheses as from its account, based on contemporary sources and later recollections, of how  self-government in the college dormitory where Fidesz was born functioned. If we can believe László Kéri, the political scientist who was one of their original supporters, four people ran the show in the dormitory: László Kövér, Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán, and Tamás Varga. (Varga subsequently spent more than three years in jail for tax fraud.) Orbán, Simicska, and Varga all came from the Székesfehérvár gymnasium. The “gang of four” were the ones who told all the others how they were supposed to behave and what they were supposed to think. Kéri thought that they were an aggressive, exclusive group who ignored the opinions of others and constantly sought out enemies. He compared them to the “Lenin boys” of Béla Kun who traveled the country murdering people. Kéri apparently warned that when Orbán runs this country he “will hang [István] Stumpf and me first because we know who you were once-upon-a-time.” Lately there has been a concerted effort to discredit Stumpf who as a judge on the constitutional court has exhibited too much independence and tends to side with those who rule against the government.

Kéri may have been that perceptive in the late 1980s, but I must say that he showed less acumen when before the 2010 elections he was actually looking forward to a new Orbán government, preferably with a two-thirds majority, because Viktor Orbán in this case will accomplish great things. When the reporter who conducted the interview with Kéri reminded him that Orbán’s first government was not very promising, he optimistically remarked that Orbán is eight years older and therefore wiser. He will be a great prime minister.

Soon enough Kéri had to admit that he was dead wrong. Reflecting on the lost election of 2002, Orbán told József Debreczeni, his biographer, that the only reason he failed was that he was not tough enough.

Critics of the current government tend to gloss over the first Orbán government even though almost all of the present tendencies have their antecedents in Orbán’s first four years in power: extreme nationalism, unification of the nation across borders, accommodating MIÉP (an extremist anti-Semitic party), interference with the media, government propaganda, strained relations with the neighbors. And one could go on and on. General dissatisfaction with, and even fear of, the government led to a record turnout in the 2002 election. And yet eight years later the same crew was reelected with a large majority.

Today, conflicts with the outside world are considerably more numerous than they were between 1998 and 2002 when Hungary wasn’t part of the European Union. But even then Viktor Orbán wasn’t exactly the favorite of foreign political leaders. He had especially strained relations with the United States. George W. Bush refused to meet him, most likely because although he was present in the chamber he acted as if he didn’t hear István Csurka’s (MIÉP) comment after 9/11 that the United States only got what it deserved. Relations with Romania were bad and Orbán managed to tear into Austria as well. Because of his attack on the Beneš doctrine he was not exactly beloved in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He looked upon Russia as an arch enemy. By the end he had only two friends left: Silvio Berlusconi and the Croatian Franjo Tuđman, whose funeral was boycotted by foreign politicians. But, fear not, Viktor Orbán was there.

A few days ago László Kéri wrote a fairly lengthy critique of the second Orbán government. The essay focuses on the first sentence of the government program allegedly written by Viktor Orbán: “The victor has a job to do, not to insist on being right…. For me this is the motto of modern governance.” And yet, says Kéri, Orbán has been doing nothing else in the last three years but trying to convince everybody that he is right. Always right. While none of the tasks he set forth has been accomplished. He destroyed practically overnight the old structures but was unable to set up functioning new ones.

The politicians of Fidesz don't believe in them

The politicians of Fidesz don’t believe in them.

These criticisms point out administrative failings. But George Kopits, former chairman of Hungary’s fiscal council between 2009 and 2011, is harder hitting. In The Wall Street Journal he bluntly calls Viktor Orbán’s newly constructed regime “a constitutional mob rule” because with the two-thirds majority Viktor Orbán can do whatever he wants. May I remind everybody that George Kopits is an economist with conservative political views, not one of those liberals whom the government accuses of treason against the nation when they criticize his government. Kopits also thinks that “today’s Hungary is eerily reminiscent of the communist regime of János Kádár, under which all public institutions were potemkin bodies that dared not challenge the hegemony of the Politburo.”

Is Kopits exaggerating? Surely not. Just today a lengthy interview with László Kövér appeared in Heti Válasz. Only a summary is available online, but the quotations are telling. “In a democracy there is only one constituent assembly, the people, which at election time receives a mandate through its representatives who via fixed rules and regulations exercise their rights.” The scrutiny of the constitution by the constitutional court “would mean the end of the rule of law and democracy.” He continues: “Who is a democrat? I, who think that the country’s future depends on the free decision of the people which can be corrected in four years, or those who in their distrust of the people expect a small body to read what kinds of messages the God of the Constitution (alkotmányosságisten) sends to earthlings based on the constellations, viscera, and bird bones?” In brief, the constitutional court is not only superfluous but is an outright undemocratic institution. So much for any understanding of democracy by the present rulers of Hungary. If one takes a look at the old 1949 Stalinist constitution, one will find very similar sentiments. Obviously Kövér and company feel quite comfortable with the constitutional arrangement of that dictatorial regime.

September 17-19, 2006: Viktor Orbán’s reactions to the street violence

Time flies. More than a month has gone by since December 29 when I stopped writing about József Debreczeni’s bestseller on the events of September-October 2006 although I promised to continue the story. But, as usual, daily politics intervened and I had to turn to current events.

Back in December, most readers of Spectrum from Hungary were unaware of Debreczeni’s retelling of the story of the siege of the Hungarian Public Television Station (MTV). At the time I also saw no book reviews in the Hungarian media. Since then a few did appear and most of them were critical of Debreczeni’s approach. They claim that the author began writing his book with a preconceived idea: Viktor Orbán got hold of the speech Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered to the MSZP parliamentary delegation shortly after the socialists won the elections and at the opportune moment decided to release a couple of choice sentences from it. Meanwhile, in the intervening month, he made sure that the time was ripe for an emphatic response.

Yes, I agree that there is no hard proof of Orbán’s complicity and therefore we have to rely on conjecture, but I don’t think that Debreczeni adjusted the facts to suit his hypothesis.

In any case, let’s continue the story, this time examining how Orbán reacted to the events. On September 17, when the whole country could hear Ferenc Gyurcsány’s voice on the radio saying that “we lied morning, day, and night,” Viktor Orbán was in Brussels. Whether it was planned this way is hard to tell. In any case, he interrupted his trip and returned to Hungary on the evening of September 18.

According to Debreczeni, a reporter for Index asked four high-ranking Fidesz politicians about Orbán’s whereabouts but no one knew exactly what Orbán was doing while the television station was burning. He was quiet until the afternoon of September 19 when he gave a press conference. Here he reiterated that Gyurcsány and his whole cabinet should resign and in their place a “cabinet of experts” should be appointed. Naturally he distanced himself from violence in general, but when he was asked about the siege of the television station he announced that “what happened was the manifestation of righteous indignation, but it was not the cars, not the policemen, not the firefighters, and not the building of the television station that was responsible for the austerity program of Gyurcsány.” So, says Debreczeni, “the real problem was not with violence per se but that this violence was directed at the wrong objects.”

ViolenceAn assignment for "Daily Dawn" /Flickr

Violence
An assignment for “Daily Dawn” /Flickr

That same evening Orbán was the guest of MTV’s very popular program Az este. To the question of whether he feels any responsibility that the demonstration fueled by the party ended in violence Orbán answered in the negative. Only Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, is responsible for what happened: “no one could have thought that the people will applaud the acknowledged lies and forged data.” He then added two sentences that are truly unacceptable from a democratic politician and a responsible leader of the largest opposition party in the country. He urged people “not to retire to their houses but to defend their interests on the streets…. They can always count on Fidesz because we will defend them from every kind of violence.” A rather odd interpretation of the events of the previous day.

Debreczeni, the former MDF member who was a sympathizer of Ibolya Dávid, contrasts Orbán’s attitude to that of Ibolya Dávid, who considered the statement “one of the most irresponsible pronouncements of Viktor Orbán. Every democrat who respects the rule of law and the constitution would have expected the chairman of Fidesz to condemn the criminal acts and the vandalism that took place. We expected Viktor Orbán to recall his sympathizers from the streets and postpone the planned demonstrations on Saturday…. In this situation Viktor Orbán’s behavior is irresponsible and incomprehensible when he urges  people not to retire to their houses but to remain on the streets. Viktor Orbán is endangering not only the future of the Hungarian right but also the existence of Hungarian democracy.”

In the following days he only added oil to the fire. In an interview with Hír TV  he repeated that he “supports all indignation on the part of the population” because after all no one spoke to the Hungarian people the way Gyurcsány did in Balatonőszöd. Orbán time and again called the Gyurcsány government “illegitimate” and thus practically encouraged people to topple it one way or the other. And, indeed, “the peaceful demonstrators” remained on Kossuth Square until October 23. Speakers came from extreme right-wing organizations and their speeches were full of hate and anti-Semitic remarks. There was open agitation against the constitutional order for weeks on end. Almost every night there were demonstrations not just in Budapest but also in other middle-sized cities organized by Fidesz activists and/or members of civil circles. The crowd knew that “it had the support of the political hinterland.”

So, even if  we cannot say for certain that Fidesz was pulling the strings during the actual siege of the television station, there is no question that Viktor Orbán and Fidesz supported the violent actions and encouraged people to join forces with the rabble on the streets. Despicable behavior and unacceptable in  the family of democratic nations. Yet four years later he once again became prime minister with a mandate that gave him unlimited power. No question, that power is in the wrong hands.