prime minister’s office

Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.