Poland

“In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity

Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of gaps in his knowledge. In crafting national policy he doesn’t consult with experts because he is the expert on all things Hungarian. He tries to remake Hungarian society to reflect his own flawed image of the ideal nation.

One of his most dangerous experiments is in public education. Early in his administration we could already see how preoccupied he was with training the future Hungarian workforce, how he put more stock in things than in ideas. His latest plan to restrict entry to gymnasiums and to force most children to learn a trade after eighth grade is especially harmful. Although experts pointed out that eight grades of study before beginning a dual education is inadequate schooling in today’s world, they were not heeded, and probably not even read. A huge reorganization of education was ordered from above without any consultation.

A few days ago a thorough study was published by one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Human Resources at the Budapest Corvinus University. The title of the study is “In the defense of gymnasiums.”

The amazing thing about most of Viktor Orbán’s reforms is that even the premises on which they are based are faulty. For example, the government’s claim that the number of trained skilled workers has decreased since the change of regime is just wrong. As the authors show in one of the many diagrams accompanying the study, although the number of graduates of trade schools (szakiskola) has decreased, the number of graduates from schools where students can also obtain a matriculation certificate enabling them to enter college has increased. This trend started already before 1990.

The other often repeated misconception is that attending a gymnasium or a trade school that offers matriculation certificates (szakközépiskola) is a waste of time and energy because these people cannot find employment. The fact is that with a matriculation certificate it is easier to obtain a job. Unemployment among those who did not finish high school is 8%, while among high school graduates it is 4.8%. Among college graduates it is 2.9%. There is also a wage difference between those who went only to trade school and those who while learning a trade also earned a high school diploma. The wage difference is 25% in favor of the latter.

Ordinary trade schools offer inferior educational opportunities. If we compare two children with similar potential, the one who goes to a trade school will perform worse than his counterpart in a high school offering dual education.

Orbán’s favorite hobby-horse is the “dual education” that is well-known in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. However, according to the authors, Viktor Orbán misunderstands the concept. In Germany a student receiving a dual education will first spend between 7,155 and 7,950 hours on academic subjects. In Hungary it is only 5,742 hours. This is an appreciable difference. As if a Hungarian student were to spend ten or eleven years instead of the eight he does now on academic subjects. Or if a Hungarian high school student would spend not twelve but about fourteen years in high school. In Denmark two-thirds of skilled workers speak English right out of school. In Hungary less than one percent do. In Denmark only 40% of the dual-education school graduates actually end up on the shop floor. The others become technicians or lower- or middle management. One reason they can rise through the ranks is that, among other things, only 7% of Danish students have problems understanding documents. In Hungary that number is 37.3%.

Orbán and his “education team”are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.

Percentages of university graduates broken down by age

Percentage of university graduates by age

Moreover, by restricting entry to gymnasiums the number of people who can enter university will also shrink. So, instead of boosting the number of college graduates as most countries are doing, Hungary will soon have the distinction of being among the least highly educated people in Europe.

I would like to call attention to the incredible leap Poland has made. Among the 45-54 age group Poland clearly trails behind many countries. This is the heritage of the socialist system. But now more than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds are university graduates.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the new system is that the restrictions to entering gymnasiums will most severely affect children from the lowest social strata. As it is, children coming from families belonging to the top fifth income bracket have a 2.3 times greater chance of entering gymnasium than children from the lowest fifth. With Orbán’s new system, children of rich families would have a 3.4 times greater chance of earning a high school diploma than their poor schoolmates. This inequality also holds true for higher education. Someone coming from a poor family would have his chance of entering college slashed by 30%.

The authors suggest that Hungary follow the Polish example. In Poland the number of years of study has been increased to thirteen. The Polish government has raised teachers’ salaries and introduced all sorts of modern methods of teaching. As a result, Polish achievement on the PISA tests has made a spectacular leap.

Of course, this study will remain a cry in the wilderness. In the last four years extensive changes have already been introduced in the structure of Hungarian education, accompanied by a decreasing amount of money being spent on education. Hungarian education was nothing to boast about even before, but what is happening now ensures total failure.

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Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.

Viktor Orbán at the 2014 NATO Summit

The NATO summit in Newport, Wales is over and, according to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, “from the Hungarian point of view it was a great success.” So, let’s see what the Hungarian prime minister considers to be a great success in view of his and other leading Fidesz politicians’ earlier pronouncements on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

NATO approved wide-ranging plans to strengthen its defenses on its eastern flanks in order to reassure Poland and the Baltic states that they have the full backing of NATO in case of Russian aggression. The plan includes the creation of a rapid action force temporarily stationed in Estonia but eventually to be moved to Poland. This rapid action force will include several thousand ground troops ready to be deployed. It will be supported by air, sea, and special forces. This is not as much as Poland initially wanted, which was a permanent NATO base in the region, but even Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was satisfied with the current plan. According to details released and reported by Reuters, the first units of the force are expected to total around 5,000 troops that will be ready to move in two days.

Viktor Orbán spoke to Hungarian reporters after the summit ended. He announced that, just like other NATO members, Hungary will increase its military spending. As I noted yesterday, at the moment Hungary spends only 0.88% of its GDP on its armed forces; the country agreed to the compulsory minimum of 2.0%. If Hungary today decided to spend that much on the military it would mean an additional 360 billion forints, which at the moment it does not have. Orbán also announced that Hungary’s security can be guaranteed “only within the framework of  NATO” and that he therefore views “the decision of the Hungarian people when in a referendum they voted for membership in NATO” as wise. He said that Hungary would purchase modern weaponry and prepare the Pápa air base to receive large strategic carriers. He also said that “NATO troops will appear in the region of Central Europe,” which may mean that they will also be stationed in Hungary. By the end of the year each country will develop its own plans in case “there is a direct military threat” to these countries. The threat Orbán is talking about is obviously Russia.

Viktor Orbán, the faithful ally, withNATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Prime Minister David Cameron

Viktor Orbán, the faithful ally, with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Prime Minister David Cameron

Realizing the discrepancy between his current enthusiasm for greater military security for Hungary and his earlier statements on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, he tried to convince his audience that earlier he was only against sanctions, which is “an entirely different question” and independent of the decisions reached at the summit. However, Orbán not only spoke up against the sanctions but stated that as far as he is concerned the conflict for Hungary is an “economic” issue only. He made it clear at that time that he understands the anxiety of Poland and the Baltic states but Hungary’s situation is different. In plain language, as far as he is concerned Hungary’s old and faithful friend Poland can go down the drain, he doesn’t really care. It looks as if the Poles interpreted his words similarly. Zsolt Németh, former undersecretary of the ministry under János Martonyi and now chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, talked about “a serious challenge to bilateral relations” between Poland and Hungary in Krynica in an economic forum. The Ukrainian issue should not be allowed to divide the two countries, he emphasized.

While today Viktor Orbán sang the praises of NATO, only a couple of days ago Tibor Navracsics, foreign minister at the moment, expressed doubts about the western commitment to Hungary. In an interview with Boris Kalnoky of Die Welt, he specifically talked about the West letting Hungary down in 1945 and 1956. Moreover, when asked whether Hungary would like to have NATO troops on its soil, he answered that Hungary, unlike the Baltic states, is not threatened by anyone. And recall László Kövér’s outlandish attack only two days ago on Ukraine and on the western powers who use her as a pawn to separate Russia from Europe. One cannot dismiss Kövér’s remarks as unimportant. After all, Kövér is the closest associate and friend of Viktor Orbán and the president of the Hungarian parliament. Apparently, he is the only person in Fidesz who can give Orbán a piece of his mind and who can actually influence him. So, it is hard to know what Viktor Orbán really thinks about NATO and Hungary’s relation to it.

The pressure is intense on Orbán as a result of the Russian aggression and the western reaction to it. Although the Russian “separatists” have ostensibly agreed to a ceasefire, there is no question that in the last few weeks a full-fledged war was waged in the southeastern districts of Ukraine. And everybody knows that that war was unleashed by Vladimir Putin. NATO’s and the EU’s reaction to Russian aggression was rapid and resolute. As a result, it looks as if Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and his flirtation with Putin’s Russia is over. Orbán will have to shelve his grandiose plans to have Hungary play the role of mediator between East and West. In the future it will be impossible to play that game if he wants Hungary to stay in the European Union, which he clearly needs for financial reasons. Now the question is whether the European Union will allow him to build his “illiberal state” on its “liberal” money.

Hungary is in a difficult diplomatic bind: The “Orbán doctrine” is dead

This morning 168 Óra ran the headline “The Orbán doctrine has collapsed after three days.” The reason is the Russian “incursion” into Ukrainian territory. After that, said Árpád Székely, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, there will be neither Paks nor the Southern Stream. Székely actually welcomes the first consequence, a dubious deal between the Hungarian and the Russian government to build a new nuclear reactor in Hungary, but he is sorry about the likelihood of scrapping the Southern Stream project that would have supplied gas to the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria.

While high-level negotiations in the UN, NATO, and EU are going on over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, I had to think about one of the many fallacies Viktor Orbán presented us with during his pep talk to the Hungarian ambassadors only four days ago. In his speech he indicated that as far as he is concerned old-fashioned diplomacy is passé. “Not that classical diplomacy has lost its magic and beauty” but “we must acknowledge the realities of the economic age in which we live.” Well, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must be solved by old fashioned diplomacy, and Hungary’s newly reorganized foreign ministry is ill prepared for the task. Moreover, its leaders are constrained by the prime minister’s unorthodox ideas on diplomacy. Orbán’s Hungary is in a bind.

I should note in passing that German-Hungarian relations have cooled considerably. Earlier, I wrote about a warning from Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, that in his government’s point of view “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” Since then an even more detailed and stronger statement was signed by Michael Roth, undersecretary in charge of European Affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, and his colleague Tomáš Prouza in the Czech Foreign Ministry. They warned that “Europe is more than a market.” It is a community of shared values.

According to Hungarian sources, Hungarian diplomats have been trying for some time to entice Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Hungary for the annual German-Hungarian Forum. After all, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the German refugees’ safe passage to Austria thanks to the action of the Hungarian government in 1989. If she could not come, they at least hoped for a visit by the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Well, it seems that Budapest will have to be satisfied with an assistant undersecretary as the representative of the German government. The highest ranking German participant will be Reinhold Gall, social democratic minister of the interior of Baden-Württemberg.

Now, to return to the current diplomatic challenge. After the failure of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Belarus, several thousand Russian troops crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Subsequently Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced that his government will introduce a proposal in parliament to change the non-aligned status of the country and to request membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some observers immediately announced that Ukrainian admission to NATO was very unlikely. However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement today in Brussels, saying: “I’m not going to interfere in political discussions in Ukraine. But let me remind you of NATO’s decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008, according to which Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ provided of course, Ukraine so wishes and fulfills the necessary criteria.” A strong warning for Russia. Putin often stressed that Russia will not tolerate a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are recommending tougher sanctions against Russia. They gathered in Milan today for an informal meeting to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Tibor Navracsics represented Hungary in Milan, but I could find no report on his position in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We know that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, and Denmark were strongly in support of tougher action.

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German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier is arriving at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan

Tomorrow the European Council will meet again to decide on the President of the European Union and the EU Foreign Affairs Chief. According to the latest intelligence, the next President of the European Union will be most likely Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Tusk’s government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over the issue of Ukraine. Just today the Polish government announced that it will allow the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to fly over its territory only if the plane changes its status from military to civilian. Earlier his plane was barred altogether from Polish air space. Russia was not very happy. Its foreign ministry declared that Poland’s closing its air space to Shoygu’s plane is “a major violation of norms and ethics of the communication between states.”

Today three of the four members of the Visegrád4 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) issued statements about the Russian incursion. Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regards the incursion of Russian troops into the southern regions of the Donetsk province “as actions that fulfill the attributes of aggression, as defined in UN documents–Resolution 3314 of the United Nations General Assembly.”

The Czech statement was equally strongly worded. “The Czech Republic considers the incursion of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of eastern and southeastern Ukraine a fundamental threat to peace and stability of all of Europe.” It called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory.”

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

Hungary chose an intermediate position and released the following statement: “We are closely monitoring and evaluating the situation on the ground, and we are in contact with our EU and NATO allies. A confirmed incursion of  Russian regular military units on Ukrainian territory would gravely escalate the crisis. In line with our consistently expressed earlier position, we emphasise that only a political process can lend a sustainable solution to the present crisis and therefore we support all diplomatic efforts to this end. The upcoming extraordinary European Council meeting and the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers offer good opportunities for harmonizing the European position on this matter.”

Two of the opposition parties, Együtt-PM and DK, called on the government to stand by Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The former also wants the Hungarian government to suspend preparations for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant while Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. The party also asked Orbán to use his good offices with Putin to convince the Russian leader to withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

DK wants to call together the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs, national security, and defense and to have the government prepare a statement that condemns Russian military action against Ukraine. In addition, Tibor Navracsics should call in the Russian ambassador to Hungary to convey to him Hungary’s condemnation of Russian aggression. Naturally, none of these suggestions or demands will be considered by the Orbán government.

On the other hand, I believe that Viktor Orbán will quietly vote with the majority on all the issues that will be discussed at tomorrow’s European Council meeting only to go home and report on the excellent ideas he gave to his colleagues about how to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

The Ukrainian crisis: Hungary between Russia and the West

There are occasions when it becomes blatantly obvious how little the Hungarian people are told about their government’s activities. I’m not talking about state secrets but about everyday events. I find it outrageous, for instance, that I had to learn from a Polish Internet site that Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, had a talk with Viktor Orbán in Budapest before flying to Brussels. There was not a peep about this meeting in Hungarian papers, presumably not because Hungarian journalists are a lazy lot but because the prime minister’s office failed to inform the Hungarian news agency of the meeting. The less people know the better.

There is official silence in Budapest on the Ukrainian protest, perhaps soon civil war, with the exception of a short statement issued by the Hungarian foreign ministry at 5:12 p.m. today. I assume there had to be some kind of communication between the prime minister and his foreign minister. If we compare the Hungarian statement to the words of Donald Tusk we can be fairly certain that the two men didn’t see eye to eye on the issue.

According to Tusk, “the moral judgment here is black-and-white, there are no gray areas.” Moreover, “the responsibility for the violence in Kiev rests with the government, not the opposition.” And what did the Hungarian communiqué say? “The responsibility of the Ukrainian government is decisive, but the parliamentary opposition forces must keep their distance from extremist groups.” While according to Tusk “the crisis in Ukraine could determine the course of the whole region” and  requires the European Union to prepare for commitments lasting “not for hours, days or weeks, but for many years,” the Hungarian foreign ministry simply stated that “Hungary finds the European Union’s active participation in the interest of a lasting solution to the country’s political and economic crisis important.”

One can only guess why Tusk had to stop in Budapest on his way to Brussels, but whatever transpired in that meeting it didn’t result in Hungary’s forceful condemnation of the Ukrainian government and its active participation in the process contemplated by the United States and the European Union. Tusk specifically mentioned Poland’s interest in Ukraine because of its common border and historical ties. Both are also true about Hungary’s relations with Ukraine.

It seems to me that Viktor Orbán got himself into a rather uncomfortable situation with his hurried agreement with Russia on the Paks nuclear plant. Pro-government papers, like Heti Válasz, show that journalists in government service feel obliged to defend Vladimir Putin and his policies. One spectacular sign of “loyalty” was an article that appeared in the paper about a week ago in which the author expressed his disgust with the American campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians that prompted a partial boycott of the Sochi Olympics. If the Hungarian right feels that it has to come to the rescue of Putin in this case, one can imagine its position when it comes to such a momentous event as the near-civil war situation in a Ukraine torn between East and West.

While Tusk welcomes Ukrainian refugees and Polish hospitals are taking care of the wounded, nothing was said about any Hungarian willingness to take in refugees if necessary. In fact, I detected a certain fear that such an onslaught might reach the country. There is some worry about the Hungarian minority of about 200,000 in the Zakarpattia Oblast, especially around Beregovo/Beregszász. The Hungarian Inforadio announced tonight that according to a Ukrainian Internet paper “the change of regime has been achieved peacefully in Zakarpattia Oblast.” This may simply be sloppy reporting, but we know that regional capitals all over western Ukraine are engulfed in violence and that in some places the opposition took over the administration. Ukraine is falling apart at the seams. All this is far too close for comfort as far as Hungary is concerned. Yet Viktor Orbán is sitting on the fence.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Meanwhile Donald Tusk has taken the initiative with spectacular success. He flew to Brussels to facilitate a quick decision on the Ukrainian crisis and assembled a delegation of French, German, and Polish foreign ministers to visit Ukraine tomorrow. They will assess the situation before a meeting in Brussels to decide whether to impose EU sanctions on Ukraine. While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was giving a press conference, U.S. Secretary John Kerry was standing by his side. He stressed President Viktor Yanukovich’s “opportunity to make a choice.”

At the same time German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had a telephone conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who urged EU politicians “to use their close and everyday contacts with the opposition to urge it to cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities, to comply with agreements reached and to decisively distance itself from radical forces unleashing bloody riots, in fact, embarking on the route to a coup.”

It seems that Hungary is trying to strike a “balance” between the western position and that of Russia. It will be difficult.

Meanwhile in Hungary a liberal blogger compared the two Viktors and found many similarities. Neither is a democrat, both are corrupt, and both built a mafia state with the help of their oligarchs. And yet Ukrainians are fighting in the streets while in Hungary Orbán still has a large and enthusiastic following. In his post he tries to find answers to the question so many people ask: how is it that the Hungarian people have not revolted yet? Are they less freedom loving than the Ukrainians? Are they longer suffering? Can they be more easily fooled? Our blogger is convinced that one day Hungarian patience will run out. He gives Viktor Orbán a piece of advice: “Keep your eyes on Ukraine!”

Conversations with a Pole in the United States

It was six years ago that I first met Barbara, a medical assistant originally from Poland. Every second year I go for my recommended bone density test, a job she does.

When I first met her I immediately noticed her accent. I knew that her original language was most likely Slavic, but I couldn’t put my finger on which one. When it turned out that it was Polish I told her that I came from Hungary. The immediate result was: Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki, which almost always follows such Polish-Hungarian encounters in the United States.

Source: pl.wikipedia.org

Source: pl.wikipedia.org

The conversation immediately turned to our own stories. About how we ended up here and under what circumstances. Barbara and her husband had two boys, whom they wanted to make sure would be fluent in Polish. Almost every summer the boys went to Poland to spend time with their grandparents.

As for the Polish situation at the time, she was full of complaints. She talked about the high unemployment, the millions of Poles who went to Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain to work. During one of our encounters around this time I gingerly brought up the Kaczyński brothers, but I quickly dropped the topic because I got the impression that Barbara found the Kaczyńskis to her liking.

Over the years we compared notes on the state of affairs of the two countries. She complained about her compatriots who don’t work as hard as she does and who expect the state to look after them. We talked about the boys; the older entered college last September. They picked a Catholic-run university for him where the education costs a fortune; in return she expects the boy to ace every subject he is taking. I tried to explain that the first year is the most difficult and that she shouldn’t put too much pressure on the boy. However, she is adamant.

But then we began talking about Poland. Barbara is very well informed on Polish affairs because for an extra $20 a month the family subscribes to four Polish television channels from our local cable provider. She admitted that the younger boy who is still at home is not interested in the Polish channels, but she will pay another $20 next year when forty Polish channels are available.

At this point I said to her that as far as I know Poland is doing very well economically. She who until recently was full of complaints admitted that this is the case but mournfully added that it is only because the European Union is providing the country with money which “they will have to pay back.” After we clarified the meaning of that statement I assured her that for the time being Poland doesn’t have to worry. The money will be coming for at least seven more years. However, this didn’t satisfy Barbara who then began worrying about what will happen if the multinational companies move farther to the East in hopes of lower wages. However, all in all, Poland is doing quite well, she had to admit.

And then she stopped and looked worried. “But I hear that Hungary is not doing at all well.” She couldn’t quite understand why. She remembered how well Hungary fared in the 1970s and 1980s and how envious Poles were when they had a chance to visit the country. What happened? I gave her a very short summary of events of the last ten or so years with special emphasis on the last three. The story of the football stadiums especially appalled her. It was obvious that Barbara knows something about football and also knows that Hungary is nowhere in the international standings. In fact, she even came up with some statistics. But the highlight of our conversation was when I got to the stadium in Felcsút, a town of 1,600 inhabitants with a stadium for 3,600. “You must be kidding! But this is crazy! How can the people put up with that?” I told her that I don’t understand it myself but this is how it is.

The history of two countries in the last six years. The always complaining Polish Barbara now feels sorry for Hungary and the Hungarians. I think she also came to the conclusion that there is something very wrong with a prime minister who builds a huge stadium in his boyhood village, right next door to his weekend house.

When it was all over she embraced me. I’ll be curious how our next conversation will go.

The Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen, King of Hungary

The Holy Right Hand is housed in the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and once a year, on August 20, it is carried in the Holy Right Hand ( Szent Jobb) procession.

The Basilica’s website tells a straightforward story that accepts without qualification that the mummified right hand once belonged to King Stephen, the first Hungarian king (1000-1038).

Here is their story in a nutshell. Stephen was buried in Székesfehérvár on August 15, 1038, in a sarcophagus that is  more or less intact although empty. The body was later reburied in the lower underground catacomb out of fear of possible disturbances of the grave. It was at that time that the hand was removed from the rest of the body because of its alleged miraculous properties. It was taken to the treasury of the basilica from where the man who was in charge of guarding the treasury stole it and hid it on his estate in the County of Bihar/Bihor, today Romania.

St stpehen's sarcophagus

During the reign of King László I the Right Hand was discovered, but the king forgave the thief and in fact erected a monastery on the spot. The village today is called Szentjobb/Siniob. It was here that pilgrims came to pray in front of the king’s Right Hand, which was allegedly capable of performing miracles.

It was only in the fifteenth century that the Right Hand was moved  from Szentjobb/Siniob back to Székesfehérvár. During the Turkish occupation, however, around 1590, it ended up in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and was held by Dominican friars. The official church story doesn’t divulge any details of its mysterious reappearance in Ragusa. As for the rest of the Hand’s history, I outlined it yesterday–that is, the purchase of the Right Hand by Queen Maria Theresa and her gift of it to her Hungarian subjects.

Today I would like tell the story that the Catholic Church ignored.

There are two chronicles that mention the burial and subsequent reburial of the body. Both report that the Right Hand was removed to the County of Bihor where it was found by King László on May 30, 1084. According to the chronicler Hartvik, bishop of Győr (1116), at that time the Hand had St. Stephen’s ring on it which definitely identified it as belonging to the saintly king.  The alleged Right Hand today has no ring on it or any sign that there ever was a ring it that was later removed.

szent jobbThere is another problem. All contemporary pictures show Stephen buried lying on his back, his hands alongside his body with open fists. Today’s Right Hand, as you can see on the picture, is tight-fisted. But that is not all. The official coat-of-arms of the town of Szentjobb/Siniob shows not just the hand but the whole arm bent at the elbow. Since the town came into being as a result of the presence of the Holy Right Hand, one must assume that the coat-of-arms is an accurate depiction of the actual state of the relic at the time.

And with that missing arm we come to Stephen’s body parts wandering around in central Europe and the Balkans. It is assumed that the upper arm was removed in 1370 when Louis the Great (Nagy Lajos) also became the King of Poland. It was customary to send important relics as symbols of steadfast friendship and devotion to men, country, or cause. The Franciscans of the city of Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg) hold that at one time they were the ones who were entrusted with guarding the holy relic of St. Stephen’s upper arm for which King Jan Kazimierz II ordered a jeweled case.

The lower arm was sent by King Sigismund (Zsigmond)  to Albert V at the time of his daughter’s marriage to the Prince (1411), sealing a personal union between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire. For a while it was held in the St. Stephen Basilica in Vienna, named after St. Stephen the Martyr, and later was moved to the Schatzkammer of the Hofburg. But there is a bit of a problem with this lower arm. When the bone was sent to Hungary for the millennial celebrations in 2000 and was put on display, it was discovered that it is not part of an arm. Rather, it is the fibula of a right leg.

In addition, there are several small pieces of Stephen’s skull cap (calvarium) that are held in various places, including Székesfehérvár. No one has ever tried to find out whether these pieces of Stephen’s skeleton belong to the same man or not. Since the 1950s the Right Hand was examined three times but not scientifically. The first time the Right Hand seemed to have developed mildew which needed to be removed. The physician who attended to it added some conserving material to the rest of the hand and that was all.  In 1988 another physician examined it, but the only thing he came up with was that there was no sign of metal ever touching the hand because otherwise there should have been some observable discoloration. He also noticed that it was a relatively small hand. The third time it was Miklós Réthelyi, professor of anatomy and later minister in the second Orbán government, who took a look at it, but he came up with nothing new. A DNA examination would only make sense if we could find a descendant of Stephen, but even if that were possible I doubt that either the Hungarian Catholic Church or the current Hungarian government would be too keen on such a scientific investigation.

As for the  multiplication of St. Stephen relics. As late as 2004, a piece of Stephen’s upper arm that ended up in Poland was given by Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, Archbishop of Cracow, to the Hungarian chapel of the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Cracow. In 2009 Balázs Bábel, Archbishop of Kalocsa, gave a golden reliquary to Robert Bezák, Archbishop of Nagyszombat/Trnava, in which there is a very small bone of the Right Hand.  In the same year a small piece of St. Stephen’s skull was sent to a church in the Subcarpathian part of Ukraine.  In 2006, Cardinal Péter Erdő, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, gave a piece from St. Stephen’s rib to Alojz Tkáč.

What can we say state with certainty about the Holy Right Hand? “It is sure that it is the hand of a man,” to quote the title of a piece in 444.hu.

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In this summary I relied on Piroska Rácz’s article in Rubicon (2013/6) in addition to “The history of the Holy Right Hand” on the website of the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and on “Szent Jobb” in the Hungarian version of wikipedia.