Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern Opening”: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Yesterday I wrote that Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign trade, has been working to develop close political and economic partnerships with three former Soviet Republics–Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  The prime minister’s office, a huge administrative unit with hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats, is not exactly diligent about informing the public of Szijjártó’s doings. In fact, the first bit of news I discovered appeared in a paper dealing with sports.

The president of the International Weightlifting Federation is a Hungarian, Tamás Aján, who is also secretary-general of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee. He was visiting Tashkent on the occasion of the world championship of youth weightlifters that was held in the Uzbek capital. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, invited Aján for a private audience. After a long talk it became evident that the Uzbek dictator would like an arrangement whereby Uzbek athletes could train in Hungary. One of Karimov’s daughters is especially active in promoting education and sports for youngsters. Hence, I guess, the interest.

 Statue that replaced the memorial to the Soviet soldier: Oath to the Motherland, Tashkent

Statue that replaced the memorial to a Soviet soldier: Oath to the Motherland, Tashkent

As for Karimov himself, he is an outright dictator who wins elections with 90-95% of the votes after he makes sure that no other party can participate in the elections. During the Soviet period he was a party apparatchik who eventually became the party’s first secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989. After Uzbekistan became an independent nation, he won the first presidential election in 1991 and has been in that position ever since.

A month after the weightlifting story Magyar Nemzet described the “Eastern Opening” as a “rumbling”  while ” we flirt with Uzbekistan.”  It turned out that Vladimir Norov, the first deputy foreign minister of Uzbekistan, came to Hungary to confer with Péter Szijjártó. According to Szijjártó’s press secretary, the Hungarian side emphasized that Budapest wants to have “close cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries.”  Hungary will extend a loan to Uzbekistan that would enable Hungarian firms to modernize the lighting of Uzbek cities. In addition, the Hungarian government would financially assist the export of Hungarian medical equipment. There will also be student exchanges and stipends to go with them. And Hungary will supply irrigation systems for the Uzbek agricultural sector.

Uzbekistan is a politically isolated country. At the moment Hungary has no embassy, consulate, or even honorary consul in Tashkent. But I have the feeling that it will not be long before Hungary joins the odd assortment of countries with embassies in Uzbekistan.

There has been even less news on Turkmenistan in the Hungarian media. I found that at the end of March Gulsat Mammedowa, minister of education, was in Budapest and conferred with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources. The topic was cooperation on higher education. Balog emphasized that Hungary is ready to engage in joint projects in education and in the field of science. They agreed that a bilateral agreement will be signed to that effect.  The Turkmen minister of education also had conversations with Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, two of the undersecretaries in charge of education within the ministry of human resources.

The history of Turkmenistan since the early 1990s is very similar to that of Uzbekistan. It is a single party state that was ruled by president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006. Niyazov was a former bureaucrat of the Soviet communist party who in 1985 became the head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. He retained absolute control over the country even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow followed him in 2007. Although he is also a dictator, he’s made tentative steps toward establishing more contacts with the West. The former communist party is now known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and is the only one effectively permitted to operate. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned. Hungary has no diplomatic relations in Ashgabat. But, once again, I assume there will be if Orbán is around for another four years.

To give you an idea of the kind of country Turkmenistan is, consider this story. The president is crazy about horses and horsemanship. On May 1 there was a horse show where he himself also rode. In the finish Berdimuhamedow fell off his horse. The television station was forbidden to show his fall and pictures taken on the spot by reporters were confiscated. Even ordinary spectators had to hand over their pictures. Security men came and took him away. For half an hour there was deadly silence in the stadium. There were some who cried. However, forty minutes later, as if nothing had happened, Berdimuhamedow showed up dressed in a national costume. Amid great applause he took the top prize money of $11 million as the winner of the race. (By way of comparison, the owners of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb took home $1.4 million.) I can’t ascertain whether he fell before the horse crossed the finish line or after.

Despite the Turkmen officials’ best efforts, the video ended up on YouTube.

“Reforming” higher education, Orbán style

“Zdenek” suggested today’s topic and I gladly accepted his invitation. The topic is timely, and I am naturally interested in higher education.

There has been talk about trimming the faculties at a number of universities for some time. The first piece of news I read about the dismissal of faculty members across the board was in March 2012 when it was reported that colleges and universities were in trouble because their budgets had already been trimmed by 13 billion forints in 2011. How much less money they would get in 2012 was still not known.

Today, a year later, we know that Hungarian higher education is not exactly high on the Orbán government’s agenda. Although Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan includes upgrading Hungarian universities to the point that they will be among the best in Europe, his government seems determined to diminish even their current state of mediocrity.

kick outOne way to destroy the reputation of a university is to fire faculty members with distinguished international reputations. And that’s exactly what the Orbán government has been doing in the last few years. I assume that long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum remember the cleansing of the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. If not, it is worth taking a look at the January 2010 post on the affair. At that point several philosophers were dismissed. Now it seems that literature and linguistics professors are in the crosshairs. It is not immaterial that they are liberals.

I do understand, given the government’s attitude toward higher education and its financing, that universities are strapped for funds. The problem is that the decision about who gets dismissed seems to be politically motivated.  At least this was the situation in 2011. At the moment we don’t know with any certainty who will be leaving the Faculty of Arts, just that 22 university professors who are older than 62 will lose their jobs. In addition, the university will ask 10 part-time instructors to take a half a year of unpaid leave. According to the by-laws of ELTE, associate professors can work up to the age of 65 while full professors can stay until the age of 70.

None of the people mentioned as possible targets would qualify for forced retirement under the rules of the university. Tamás Tarján (Hungarian literature) is a 62-year-old associate professor. Sándor Radnóti, a full professor, is 66. László Kálmán (linguistics) is an associate professor and is only 56 years old. György Tverdota (literature), a full professor and departmental chairman, is 65. The last person mentioned was Ádám Nádasdy (linguist), a 66-year-old associate professor; he is the only one who should, according to ELTE’s retirement terms, step down.

The news about the dismissals was first reported by NépszabadságThe author of the article specifically mentioned four names: Sándor Radnóti, Tamás Tarján, György Tverdota, and László Kálmán. Since then, Sándor Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that as far as he knows his name is not on the list. As Radnóti explained, he shouldn’t be forced to retire because he didn’t have the privilege of having a job for forty years as required by law. In the 1970s he worked for a publishing house but was fired for political reasons. Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that he has a verbal assurance that his job is safe.

László Kálmán told Magyar Narancs that he did receive a letter from the dean of the faculty suggesting that he take an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the year. However, it turned out that this is not the first time he received such a notice. Ádám Nádasdy is also among those who might be terminated, but so far he hasn’t received any word about his fate. However, he knows that things can change very quickly.

Everything is in flux, but my hunch is that the information Népszabadság received has some basis. Perhaps the letters haven’t been sent out yet, but most likely the decisions have already been made.

One problem with this allegedly mechanical approach is that the decision makers pay no attention whatsoever to quality. It doesn’t matter how famous or how valuable the faculty member is. The person must leave because of his or her age.  It is enough to take a quick look at these men’s curriculum vitae to realize that if they are dismissed the university will deprive itself of valuable assets. They all are known abroad because they either studied or taught at foreign universities. They all received high academic honors at home and abroad. László Kálmán speaks English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Russian. Ádám Nádasdy speaks English, Italian, German, and French. And what a lecturer! I highly recommend listening to a lecture he delivered at the Mindentudás Egyeteme a few years ago. It is a treat. György Tverdota is the foremost expert on the poetry of Attila József and is regularly invited to international conferences. Several of his works have been translated.

I used the phrase “allegedly mechanical” advisedly in describing the process of forced faculty retirement. Do we really think that only 22 members of the Faculty of Arts at ELTE are older than 62? Presumably age is only one criterion in deciding who stays and who goes. The people mentioned above are well known liberals who frequently express their opposition to the Orbán government’s policies. László Kálmán often analyses speeches of Fidesz politicians, and Radnóti was already a victim of political harassment when Viktor Orbán set Gyula Budai loose to find dirt on the liberal opposition.

I’ve saved the best for last. The new undersecretary for higher education, István Klinghammer, came out with this startling statement: “It is not in the interest of foreigners to have high quality Hungarian education.”  It is jarring, to say the least, to hear this kind of right-wing paranoia from a former president of ELTE and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (elected in 2010).

Klinghammer is a great fan of forcing students who receive scholarships to stay in Hungary for a number of years. However, trying to make scholarship students the modern-day equivalent of indentured servants will prompt yet another fight with the European Union. Just today László Andor, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, made it clear in an interview that Brussels will not accept the proposed bill tying Hungarian students to the homeland in its current form.

Klinghammer also has a very low opinion of certain majors. In his introductory interview as the new undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s ministry he referred to Mickey Mouse majors. He himself began his studies at the College of Engineering (mechanical engineering) but switched to ELTE’s Faculty of Science where he received a degree in geography. His first diploma entitled him to teach geography in high school. He received a degree in cartography later. It seems that Klinghammer’s fame as a cartographer didn’t exactly spread far and wide.

I’m curious whether the Faculty of Sciences at ELTE will have similar budgetary cuts that will necessitate firing twenty-thirty faculty members. By the way, as far as I can ascertain, Klinghammer is still on the faculty of ELTE. He is 72 years old.