László Bartus

László Bartus on Gordon Bajnai’s road to failure

In the wake of the stalled negotiations between Együtt 2014-PM and MSZP several opinion pieces appeared. I found most of them less than inspiring. This morning, however, I happened upon László Bartus’s article in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, a paper Bartus bought after he emigrated to the United States. The Amerikai-Magyar Népszava is the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, established in 1891. Within a few years Bartus managed to transform a backwater ethnic weekly into an Internet outlet that not only covers Hungarian news but also offers a rich digest of American politics. The paper that had only a few thousand readers ten years ago today has a significant online presence. Amerikai-Magyar Népszava has many devotees from Hungary who never fail to send me links to some of the more important articles published in the paper.

László Bartus is a controversial man. There are those who think very highly of him while others dislike his style. One thing is sure: Bartus doesn’t beat around the bush, and therefore he can rub people the wrong way. He has decided opinions, and I guess if someone holds equally strong opposing views the clash is inevitable. I’m pretty sure that this editorial will also be controversial. Although Bartus and I don’t always see eye to eye, I happen to agree with some of his analysis in “Road to failure” that appeared in yesterday’s Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. I found his criticism of Gordon Bajnai’s strategy especially on target.

The article is an indictment of Viktor Szigetvári, the chief adviser of Gordon Bajnai who, in Bartus’s opinion, is largely responsible for Bajnai’s political failure. In Bartus’s assessment Bajnai, given the poisonous political atmosphere in Hungary, was lucky that he managed to survive a year as prime minister of Hungary without serious political damage, which gave him a real advantage over some other politicians. But then he “committed all the mistakes that a politician can commit.” Bartus doesn’t remember one good step Bajnai has taken since October 23, 2012. We often make the mistake of blaming advisers of people whom we find decent and attractive but in this case, Bartus claims, the “bad adviser” syndrome is genuine. He considers Viktor Szigetvári “one of the most noxious characters of Hungarian public life since the change of regime.”

Like me, Bartus finds the Hungarian version of “political scientists” (politológusok) injurious to politics. Szigetvári is one of those “ventriloquists” who try to convince the rest of us that they are “in possession of some secret knowledge that other ordinary human beings simply cannot understand.” Some of them appear on radio and television programs and “talk a lot of nonsense only adding to the general confusion,” but there are others who are much more dangerous because they sell their “advice” for good money. Eventually these “advisers” become convinced that they themselves should be politicians because after all they are in possession of that secret knowledge. This is what happened in the case of Viktor Szigetvári who by now is co-chairman of Együtt 2014. But even before, Szigetvári had political ambitions and held high positions during the Medgyessy, Gyurcsány, and Bajnai governments. Under Bajnai, he was in charge of the prime minister’s office.

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Bartus is amazed how it was possible for Szigetvári to survive unscathed even as everything he touched went sour. He was for a while in charge of MSZP’s communication, which was anything but admirable. He was somewhat of an odd bird among the socialist party leaders. I myself mentioned in April 2009 that Szigetvári graduated from the famous Piarist High School in Budapest which normally produces Fidesz cadres and not MSZP comrades. In addition, he wrote his dissertation under Tibor Navracsics. “He joined MSZP when it served his interest and when not he left it.” He calls himself a “conservative liberal.” Szigetvári’s “natural place would be on the “Christian-national right.” And perhaps that is why Szigetvári led Bajnai to the wrong strategy of trying to find allies on the conservative right which, according to most people, really doesn’t exist in Hungary.

In addition, it was also a mistake to use the so-called “civic movements” Milla and Solidarity because there is no politics without parties. It was wrong of Bajnai to offer himself as the leader of an alliance when he himself didn’t even have a party.  It was a mistake to define this alliance in opposition to the left. It was wrong to mouth some of the lies of Fidesz, including the Fidesz interpretation of the events of September-October 2006. Bartus “in place of the chairman of MSZP [Attila Mesterházy] would have gotten up and stopped all further negotiations with them at that very moment.”

Szigetvári’s strategy to create a centrist party led Bajnai into dangerous waters, For example, he talked about Cardinal József Mindszenty and István Bibó as if these two were on the same side in October-November 1956. Bartus objects to Bajnai’s views on the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, viewing them as no more than an echo of the Orbán government’s propaganda. Bartus is of the opinion that one cannot make peace with the Orbán ideology because it is impossible to rebuild democracy hand in hand with those who managed to destroy it.

While Bartus considers the Orbán regime fascism pure and simple, he also has a very low opinion of MSZP, even in its reformed and renewed form. What he would have suggested to Bajnai is to find a new “third road policy.” But Bartus’s third road is very different from the ideas of the populist/narodnik/népies writers. For him the “the road” means to be against both Orbán’s fascism and MSZP’s corruption. To bring true democracy, the rule of law, and a well regulated capitalist system at last to Hungary. As far as Bartus is concerned, MSZP is incapable of leading Hungary in this direction. In Hungary “the only possible partner in such a quest is Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK, which best represents these principles. Behind DK stands the majority of  the modern, enlightened grey matter of the country. . . . The real adherents to the rule of law.” Bartus admits that the supporters of  DK are not numerous, but still “these are the natural allies of Bajnai and not the careerist former students of Jesuits and socialists who cling to their corrupt ways.”

I happen to agree with László Bartus that Gordon Bajnai’s natural allies should be the members and supporters of the Demokratikus Koalíció, but one must ask whether Bajnai could have been any more successful if he had turned to Ferenc Gyurcsány and sought the support of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Unlikely. DK may one day become an important political force, but it certainly is not at the moment.

Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. At least not according to a Hungarian judge

First, before I recount the encounter of László Karsai with Jobbik, I should perhaps refresh your memory of the man. He is best  known as a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, but his field of competence is much broader. He even wrote a book about the nationality question in France and another on the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. He studied the question of the Hungarian Gypsies between 1919 and 1945. If  readers of Hungarian Spectrum know his name it may be because I wrote about a controversy that erupted as a result of his refusal to attend a conference in Norway on Raoul Wallenberg. Karsai was one of the invited guests, but he backed out after he learned that Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Norway, was one of the sponsors. Géza Jeszenszky wrote a university textbook on national minorities in East-Central Europe, and his chapter on the Gypsies was full of inaccuracies and reeked of prejudice.

Karsai can be controversial. For example, at the moment he is working on a biography of Ferenc Szálasi, the founder of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party. He discovered a number of new documents that prove that the generally accepted scholarly opinion of Szálasi might not be accurate. Especially with respect to Szálasi’s views on the Hungarian Jewry. On the other hand, he is convinced that Miklós Horthy knew more about the death camps than he later claimed. So, he does what a good historian should do: he tries to seek the truth even if it might not please some people.

As I noted earlier (more or less in passing), László Karsai is once again in the limelight. This time Jobbik sued him because in December 2011 Karsai called it a neo-Nazi party. He made the statement in the course of an interview on ATV’s early morning program called “Start.”

Jobbik’s leadership took its sweet time before deciding to make a court case out of the “incident.” It took Jobbik half a year to discover that its good reputation had been damaged by Karsai, but then they demanded satisfaction. One reason for the delay may have been that Karsai uttered his half a sentence on Jobbik’s ideological makeup in the course of discussing the emerging Horthy cult. The discussion wasn’t so much about Jobbik as about Jobbik’s attitude toward the Horthy regime.

Jobbik sought a verdict that would find that the party’s reputation had been impinged upon by Karsai; moreover, they demanded an apology from the historian. Karsai’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the nature of a party’s ideology is not a question that can be decided by court proceedings. It belongs to the free flow of scholarly debate within the historical community.

Jobbik tuntetok

Jobbik categorically denies that it is a Nazi or neo-Nazi party although there is extensive proof that the leading members of the party made no effort to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. Some of the organizations Jobbik has strategic alliances with proudly call themselves national socialists. Kuruc.info, which may be Jobbik’s publication, often talks about Adolf Hitler in laudatory terms.

The real question, however, is not whether Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party but whether this historical question can be debated publicly and whether judges are the ones who should decide this issue.

The historical community itself is divided on the question. Rudolf Paksa, a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Hungarian extreme right, claims that “Jobbik is definitely not a neo-Nazi party in the scientific sense. It is anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic, but all these together still do not make it a neo-Nazi party. After all, there are no indications that Jobbik wants to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, which is an absolutely essential characteristic of national socialism.” At the same time Paksa found it outrageous that Jobbik wanted to decide the issue in a court of law. Paksa testified back in January that he hoped the judge would respect the freedom of expression and opinion.

After hearing the arguments, the judge decided to postpone the decision. It wasn’t until March 22, 2013 that the verdict was handed down by Péter Attila Takács, the presiding judge. According to Takács, Karsai besmirched the good name and reputation of Jobbik by calling it a neo-Nazi party. Karsai will have to pay 66,000 forints in court costs and within fifteen days he will have to apologize in writing, an apology that Jobbik may make public.

Why did Takács rule this way? The rationale for the verdict is, to my mind, peculiar to say the least. The problem, Takács wrote, is that the characterization of the party by Karsai didn’t take place as part of a scholarly discussion about the ideological makeup of Jobbik but in the context of the developing rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Therefore it cannot be considered part of a scientific exchange.

Since then the verdict has become available in Beszélő (March 26, 2013) and I read with some interest that the judge, among other things, forbids László Karsai “from further infringement of the law.” How can one interpret this? Does it mean that in the future he cannot call Jobbik a neo-Nazi party if the conversation is not about Jobbik itself? Or that in certain circumstances he can label it as such without breaking the law? It’s hard to tell.

The important thing is that the judge found Jobbik’s arguments well founded and cited two paragraphs of the 1989 Constitution that was in force at the time of the incident. Paragraph 59(1) stipulates that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone is entitled to the protection of his or her reputation and to privacy, including the privacy of the home, of personal effects, particulars, papers, records and data, and to the privacy of personal affairs and secrets.” In addition, the judge cited paragraph 61(1)  that states that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone has the right to the free declaration of his views and opinions, and has the right of access to information of public interest, and also the freedom to disseminate such information.” I find the second line of reasoning truly outrageous. Jobbik has the right to the free declaration of its views and opinions but not László Karsai. Absolutely brilliant.

Naturally, László Karsai is appealing the verdict. Reading it, I had the feeling that Judge Takács might not have been the most impartial judge. Here are a couple of telling details from the verdict. Jobbik’s history is described in the most benign terms as a youth movement whose goal was “to unite young people committed to the national ideal.” “Well known people supported them: Mária Wittner, Gergely P0ngrácz, Gy. László Tóth, István Lovas, Mátyás Usztics.”  The judge forgot to mention that these well known personalities all belong to the extreme right. Jobbik wanted to offer “an alternative for radical right-wing voters.” Jobbik’s parliamentary caucus is the second largest after Fidesz-KDNP, and they have representation in the European Parliament. So, there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. This decision is a boost to Jobbik and the extreme right.

I might also mention that unfortunately Hungarian courts do not subscribe to the tenets of case law. If the judge had followed precedent, Karsai should have been exonerated because in 2010 Gábor Vona sued László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York. Bartus called Jobbik “a rotten, fascist, Nazi” party. The court dropped the case against Bartus, claiming that the editor simply exercised his right to free expression. The vagaries of Hungarian jurisprudence. It will always remain a mystery to me.