SZDSZ

The world according to László Kövér

Just when I think that Viktor Orbán and his fellow politicians must have exhausted their inventory of outrageous pronouncements comes another shocker. This time László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament and the third most important dignitary of the country after the president and the prime minister, decided to share his grievances and accusations. His message was intended for the Fidesz faithful, but soon it will reach Hungary’s allies from Washington to Brussels. I don’t think they will be pleased.

I guess the Fidesz leadership wants to make sure that everybody understands the Hungarian position, and therefore they must repeat their shrill message at least three times: first János Lázár, then Viktor Orbán, and now László Kövér. Although the underlying message remains the same, each repetition reflects the personality of the speaker. Kövér is perhaps our best source on the thinking of Viktor Orbán and the members of his closest circle. And what we find there is frightening–a completely distorted view of the world and Hungary’s place in it.

The basic outline is old hat by now: the United States wants to rule the European Union and is currently trying to teach Putin’s Russia a thing or two. Hungary is only a pawn in this game, but the United States is still trying to influence political developments in the country. Therefore, the most urgent task of the Orbán government is to retain the sovereignty of the Hungarian state. Also they “must assure the nation’s survival.” Their paranoia, they would argue, is grounded in reality.

The charge of American interference is based on a speech by Sarah Sewell, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, in which she stated that “addressing corruption is tough, but we are using a range of tools – and often working with other states and international institutions – to encourage and assist anti-corruption activity. At the State Department, our Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement works on corruption along with our bureaus that handle economics, energy, and human rights, and together State collaborates with USAID, Treasury, the Department of Justice, Interior, and Commerce – each of which brings specialized tools to the table.” For the Fidesz leaders this means direct interference in the internal affairs of East European countries. Kövér even suspects that the Americans had a hand in the recent election of Klaus Johannis as Romania’s president.

As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, Hungary shouldn’t even try “to make the Americans love [them].” They must find other allies in the countries of Central Europe. The Slovaks and the Romanians shouldn’t put “the Hungarian question,” which for Kövér means “their phobia,” at the top of their agenda. They should think about their common fate. “Our goal should be emancipation within the framework of the European Union.”

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo: Péter Gyula Horváth

According to Kövér, the United States was always partial to the left. In 1990 U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer ( 1986-1990) “favored the SZDSZ politicians” while Donald Blinken (1994-1997) during the Horn-Kuncze administration “sent exclusively negative information home about the activities of all the opposition parties.” He didn’t even want to meet the opposition leaders because he didn’t consider them to be human beings. To be fair, Kövér mentioned a few “good ambassadors.” For example, Charles Thomas (1990-1994), Peter Tufo (1997-2001), George H. Walker (2003-2006), April Foley (2006 and 2009), and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis (2010-2013) “at least as long as the State Department didn’t discipline her.” Every time there was a right-wing government the United States found “problems that should be solved.”

Until recently the Americans only wanted a simple change of government if they were dissatisfied with the one in power. But lately they have been thinking of “a complete elite change.” Their favorite was always the liberal SZDSZ and when it ceased to exist they supported LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Then the U.S. supported Gordon Bajnai, who “became the Americans’ new favorite.” Now that Bajnai is gone “the new season of the soap opera will open.”

According to Kövér, the U.S. at the moment is looking for new faces in the crowd of “hired demonstrators” or perhaps they just want to maintain the constant tension so that “at the appropriate moment they can come up with a new Bajnai.” But surely, he continued, sane advisers to the U.S. government cannot possibly think that a new political elite can be created by 2018 that will be capable of governance. Perhaps their goal is to fill the place of the defunct SZDSZ with a new party that would be able to tip the balance of power in favor of the minority. This worked very well in the past when a small party, SZDSZ, managed to pursue a policy that was to the liking of the United States by blackmailing MSZP.

At this point the reporter interjected an observation: “But Jobbik did not exist then.” Yes, that’s true, Kövér answered, but the alleged American scheme would still work. Jobbik has gained some ground lately, but when Jobbik is stronger, more and more unacceptable, more and more considered to be anti-Semitic and racist and therefore cannot be considered to be a coalition partner, “it will be easy to patch together a coalition government on the other side in which perhaps Fidesz could also participate with its own weight. The important thing is that no government could be formed without the post-SZDSZ against Jobbik.”

I think this paragraph deserves closer scrutiny. As I read it, the most important consideration of the United States, according to Kövér, is to smuggle back a post-SZDSZ that would be, as SZDSZ was, a liberal party. To this end, the U.S. would make sure that Jobbik will grow and will be such an extremist party that Fidesz couldn’t possibly pick it as a coalition partner. Therefore, Fidesz would be forced to join MSZP and a second SZDSZ in an unnatural cooperation with the left. This post-SZDSZ would shape government policy to the great satisfaction of the United States of America. Although I don’t think it was Kövér’s intention, he unwittingly revealed in this statement that Fidesz might be so weakened in the coming years that it would have to resort to a coalition government with Jobbik.

Finally, a side issue that has only domestic significance. Here I would like to return to Kövér’s accusation of American manipulation in the formation of LMP. The party, currently led by András Schiffer and Bernadett Szél, has steadfastly refused any cooperation with the other democratic opposition parties. Therefore, the party’s leadership has been accused of working on some level with Fidesz because their “independence” was beneficial only to Viktor Orbán. András Schiffer’s refusal to have anything to do with the other opposition parties led to a split in the party in November 2012. Out of the sixteen LMP parliamentary members only seven remained faithful to Schiffer; the others joined Gordon Bajnai’s “Together” party. According to house rules at the time, a party needed twelve seats to form a caucus. The Fidesz majority was most obliging and changed the rules. LMP could have its own caucus with only seven members. The nine who left, on the other hand, had to be satisfied with the status of independents.

From the very beginning, the suspicion has lingered that Fidesz might have been involved in some way in the formation of LMP as a separate party. Now we learn from Kövér’s indiscretion that “the current politicians of LMP, until the split in the party, wouldn’t believe us when we explained to them why the Americans were supporting them. Then they suddenly realized how those who left the party in 2012–who were sent there in the first place–interpreted the phrase ‘politics can be different.’ They stood by Gordon Bajnai, who was the favorite of the Americans.” Thus Fidesz was in close contact with András Schiffer and warned him that his party was being infiltrated by “American agents.”

Kövér admits in this interview that “we, Hungarians, have never been any good when it came to diplomacy,” but now the Hungarian leadership thinks that their foreign policy strategy will be successful. They should make no overtures to the United States, in fact, they should turn sharply against Washington and instead rely on Germany. After all, Kövér is convinced that U.S.-German relations are very bad as a result of American spying on German politicians, including Angela Merkel. If Hungary keeps courting the Germans, perhaps Berlin will take Hungary’s side on the Russian question. Some friends think that Viktor Orbán may just be successful in pitting Germany against the United States. I, on the other hand, doubt such an outcome despite the fact that at the moment the European Union is very restrained in its criticism of Hungary.

An “abomination”: the Orbán government refuses to recognize Gábor Iványi’s church

More than two years ago I wrote a post entitled “The vindictive Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.” In this piece I talked about the two men Viktor Orbán hates most: Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gábor Iványi. We all know why Orbán hates Gyurcsány: Gyurcsány trounced him in the television debate that preceded the 2006 national election. But why does he hate Gábor Iványi, head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship/Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET), an offshoot of the Hungarian Methodist Church? Iványi, a bearded bear of a man, is outright saintly. Or at least he strikes me as such, and I am rarely impressed by churchmen. What does Orbán find so objectionable about Iványi, whom at one point he admired? They were such close friends that it was Iványi who persuaded Orbán and his wife, who in their youth were anything but religious, that they should allow him to baptize their two small children.

H. David  Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University who is an expert on church-state relations in today’s Hungary, thought it was Iványi’s fierce anti-communist stance during the 1980s that attracted the young Orbán to him but that after the regime change they parted ways. Iványi became one of the founders of SZDSZ and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 1998 and 2002. A few years later, when Orbán’s political views turned toward the right, he didn’t want to be associated with a small religious community. He was interested in developing good relations with the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed churches. The first two Orbán children were therefore “released” by Iványi at Mrs. Orbán’s request. The girl was rebaptized in the Catholic church and the boy in the Hungarian Reformed church according to a nineteenth-century arrangement devised for religiously mixed marriages. Meanwhile, Iványi, sticking with his own liberal views, remained a severe critic of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

Gábor Iványi

Gábor Iványi

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship has a small membership but a large social presence. The church runs several kindergartens, elementary schools, a college, old folks homes, and homeless shelters. But since the Fidesz government refused to recognize MET as a church, it was not eligible to receive any subsidies from the government to continue its educational and social activities with the underprivileged, the Roma, and the homeless.

The first excuse for excluding MET from the list of accepted churches was that MET’s membership was under the required 10,000. At that point Iványi conducted a membership drive of sorts, and soon enough the church could show that MET had 22,000 members, more than sufficient to qualify.

But, as David Baer pointed out in his article published in Hungarian Spectrum, the process of deciding which church will be recognized has nothing to do with membership or any other formal requirements. It all depends on whether the government, in this case specifically Viktor Orbán, likes the leader of that church or not. And he definitely does not like Gábor Iványi and what he stands for. Baer quoted a telling paragraph from a Heti Válasz interview with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources responsible for recommending churches for consideration to the parliamentary committeeThe reporter brought up the fact that it now seems that Orbán’s children were baptized “in a false church.” He responded as follows:

Baptism is valid even if it is performed by a midwife, which means that Orbán’s child is all right. In addition, it is not in good taste, in my opinion, if someone appears all over the media announcing that he baptized the prime minister’s children. What kind of spiritual leader gives statements about the spiritual life of believers who have been entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing because I take being a pastor seriously. And as to those who don’t, why are they surprised that the government, in turn, does not take them seriously?

So, basically, the recognition of a religious community depends on the whim of Viktor Orbán. And it matters not whether the formal requirements are fulfilled.

At the end of May Iványi decided to write a letter to László Kövér. In the letter he noted that Zoltán Balog, already in February, stated that MET had fulfilled the requirements for official recognition but that sixty days had gone by without any action. He asked Kövér to expedite matters. Meanwhile, during the past few months the Orbán government tried its best to find something that could make MET ineligible. Even the Office of Defense of the Constitution (Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal [AH]) was sent to snoop around in order to find out whether MET “posed a national security risk” to Hungary. Surprisingly, it did not.

At last, on June 12, the parliamentary committee on judicial matters decided to take up the case of MET. Gábor Iványi was called in. Iványi told about the billion forint loss the church suffered because its educational and social activities are not, unlike those of the official churches, compensated by the state. MET, not being one of the official churches, cannot even receive gifts from taxpayers who would like to donate 1% of the tax they owe to MET.

I should add that MET is not the only religious community that was in this predicament. There are nine others. Without translating them all, here is the list:

  • Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség,
  • Szabad Evangéliumi Gyülekezet,
  • Evangéliumi Barátság Vallási Egyesület,
  • Magyar Evangéliumi Egyesület,
  • Mantra Magyarországi Buddhista Közösség,
  • Magyarországi Szabadkeresztyén Gyülekezet Egyház,
  • Magyarországi Názáreti Gyülekezetek Hitéleti Egyesülete,
  • Magyarországi Bahá’í Közösség,
  • Szim Salom Progresszív Zsidó Egyesület,
  • Magyar Reform Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége

Surprise, surprise, all ten were again rejected on July 11. By now even the saintly Iványi was outspoken. He told Népszava that “today in Hungary there is tyranny because the pathological will of one man becomes the law.” He also gave a long interview to the Amerikai Népszava, where he called the Hungarian situation ” an abomination.” One can only agree with him.

István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.

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.

Gábor Demszky: Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process and freedom of the media

Gábor Demszky, one of the early Hungarian “dissidents,” played a central role in the admittedly small but influential “democratic opposition” to the Kádár regime in the decade prior to the regime change in 1989-1990. His main anti-government activities included organizing, printing, and publishing illegal books, periodicals, and newspapers collectively called samizdats. During this time he was constantly followed by the secret service and harassed by the authorities, and he clashed multiple times with the state police during demonstrations for a free press and multiparty democracy. He was deprived of his livelihood and was jobless all through the 1980s.

He was one of the founding members of Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ) or Association of Free Democrats, which was the second largest party at the 1990 elections. He first became a member of parliament and was then elected lord mayor of Budapest. He was reelected to the same office five times and hence became one of the longest serving mayors in the history of Budapest.

His lecture on Samizdat, civil disobedience, the Helsinki process, and the 1986 and 2010 media laws was delivered yesterday in the Library of Congress.

* * *

My presentation today will cover three interrelated topics: (1) First, I will define, explain, and illustrate the meaning of the Russian word samizdat; (2) Next, I will describe the Helsinki process in order to give the historical background of this kind of press and subculture and (3) I will use the development of the Hungarian media law since 1986 as a case study for the current lack of freedom of the press in Hungary.

For historical reasons, 1968 is an appropriate and obvious date to begin with, because this date signaled the end of the hope for a “reformed” or “enlightened” communism in the Eastern bloc with the crushing of the Prague Spring and the banning of a theater piece of the nineteeth-century Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz from being performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw and the resulting anti-Semitic backlash.

Here is a joke from Warsaw from 1968 about the banning of Mickiewicz’s play. Brezhnev calls the Polish Interior Minister, Mieczysław Moczar, a hardliner, and asks him: “What’s this? What are these demonstrations going on in Poland?” To which Moczar replies: “Well, a play by Mickiewicz has been cancelled.” “Couldn’t you arrest this Mickiewicz?”  “But Comrade Brezhnev, Mickiewicz is dead!” “That why I like you, Comrade Moczar!”

Demszky Gabor2

Gábor Demszky

But let us return to our first topic: samizdat literature. In my opinion, samizdat and all forms of civil disobedience in Eastern Europe were strongly motivated by the Helsinki process and by the Polish opposition’s bravery and ideological split with the Soviet system.

In 1975, we knew that the Helsinki Final Act was only an international agreement to which countries were not legally bound. It was only a declaration of intention, and the obligations therein were only moral and political. But in spite of the document’s legal weakness it obviously reshaped East-West relations and led to the end of the Cold War. For us it was a “testament,”  a “creed,” and we wholeheartedly campaigned for its implementation.

In addition, Helsinki created bonds between East European dissidents and Western democrats. It started a controversial and ongoing dialogue about the implementation of the so-called “baskets”. (Baskets referred to different policy principles which the signatories accepted.) Naturally we, the “easterners,” have shown a great interest in the “basket-three” provisions because it contained basic human rights provisions. Why? Because we hoped that basket-three would ease our isolation. “The free flow of information, travel, and family reunification” were all magic words for us. We also knew that there was a growing pressure on our governments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. There was no doubt in our minds that the content of the “baskets” would be effective tools and frames of reference to advocate for the liberalization of Eastern Europe.

In addition, an effective follow-up process started to assess the progress of countries in fulfilling the terms. The follow-up meetings in Belgrade, Madrid, Vienna, etc. repeatedly created new opportunities. They became high level forums for our outcry and complaints.

In the framework of the “Helsinki process” a congressional commission called Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) was established in the Unites States, and in both the East and West several human rights groups were established in order to monitor the implementation of the agreement. It became more and more natural that East European citizens could meet and write letters and petitions about the human rights abuses to American and West European diplomats.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) became a strong advocate for United States activism on human rights, and it was an essential part of the transnational Helsinki network. The newly elected president, Jimmy Carter, was very concerned with the human rights issues, and with his leadership they received high priority within the OSCE and especially in the Belgrade follow-up meeting.

Meanwhile, the members of the Moscow Helsinki group were constantly harassed. Russian authorities considered the close cooperation between NGOs in Moscow and the Helsinki Commission in the United States a conspiracy against the Soviet regime. Orlov, the famous Russian human rights activist, was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp followed by five years of exile.

I already mentioned Jimmy Carter’s strong involvement in the Helsinki process, which I highly admired and respected. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the later National Security Advisor, who influenced him the most in his election campaign for the presidency. His commitment and arguments are reflected in a later letter written by Jimmy Carter to Andrej Sakharov, who was asking to help the Helsinki monitors in the Soviet Union. The president’s answer was very supportive: “Human Rights are a central concern of my administration. We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience.”

After this exchange of letters between the President of the United States and the most well-known human rights activist, Andrej Sakharov, Leonid Brezhnev declared that Sakharov was a renegade and an enemy of the Soviet State. What happened to the Soviet dissidents after this exchange of letters is well known. The Soviet authorities punished the dissidents with forced labor camps, house arrests, and long imprisonments.

But let’s focus on the dissident movements in Eastern Europe from a Budapest perspective. In the middle of the seventies, the establishment of KOR, the Committee for the Protection of Workers in Poland, had a strong influence on the intellectuals of the opposition in Hungary. And not much later, taking a stand for the Charta ’77 movement of the Czechoslovak dissidents enabled the Hungarian democratic opposition to finally crystallize. In spite of the expected repression, its members took a stand for each other and for human rights in the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act.

By 1979, 270 of us signed a statement protesting the lawsuit in Prague brought against Václav Havel and his fellow dissidents and addressed it to the Hungarian leadership. These almost three hundred – mostly young – people provided the background and the foundation for our independent institutions, our press, and the flying university (seminars with well-known dissidents in private apartments) and the Fund for the Support of the Poor. We read, translated, and disseminated the writings of the theoreticians of the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition.

Adam Michnik’s 1976 study entitled New Evolutionism had the largest impact on us. Perhaps this short writing was the most important samizdat text ever translated into Hungarian. In his study, Michnik goes beyond the traditional dilemma of “reform or revolution” and recommends setting up structures parallel with the Communist power. According to him, the dissidents’ task is the establishment of independent public opinion, the creation of independent organizations: such movements that cannot be integrated. The objective was political emancipation and self-organization of the citizens, as well as control of the government. In the course of history few political concepts or projections have become self-fulfilling prophecies as those of Michnik. This was the foundation on which Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union, came into being.

The Solidarity movement had varied impacts on the different groups of Hungarian society. The political leadership at the top of the social pyramid continued its milder domestic policy course, while at the same time, instead of real structural economic reforms, it accelerated the financing policy to maintain living standards through Western loans in order to forestall the dissatisfaction of the workers and civil servants. Apparently, all this made it necessary to continue with a relatively friendlier foreign policy towards the West within the limited potential of the Soviet bloc.

But that also put a limitation on what measures could be taken against the opposition. The activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition got stronger by the beginning of the 1980s both with regard to the number of its members and the methods it used.

This was the time, however, when the typed samizdat was replaced by the samizdat duplicated by stencil, and the core of the opposition around János Kis, a philosopher, decided to launch an illegal political periodical openly publishing the name and title of the editors. The first issue of this periodical, called Beszélő, having the meaning both “speaker” and also “visiting hours” in jail, was published in December 1981.

When Solidarity came into being, I felt that it would utterly change the political situation of the region and I consciously prepared myself for the transposition of the Polish experiences. In 1981 I decided to launch an independent publishing house called AB; I bought a whole ton of paper and hid it in my parents’ cellar. As a reprisal, I was expelled from the editorial office where I used to work, and from that time on I had no job until the 1990s when I became an MP and then the mayor of Budapest.

In addition to the engagement of the opposition in politics and having the independent, illegal press in the strict sense of word, the independent, opposition-led literary and artistic life began to bloom again, mainly in Budapest. Alternative rock, mainly punk bands, had regular performances for audiences of several thousands, singing songs that were straightforwardly against the regime. One of the leading bands sang “polak-wenger dva bratanki” (Poles and Hungarians are brothers) in their most popular song

At the same time, the Hungarian political leadership, with János Kádár at the top, hardened for fear of losing power, and anticipating his own political death. Although their hands were tied by being heavily indebted to the West, the government still cracked down on the opposition time and again.

In October 1985, Budapest hosted the CSCE Cultural Forum, a six-week interim meeting, as part of the Helsinki review process, involving the 35 nations that signed the Helsinki Final Act. The independent literary symposium, held by the opposition on the occasion, was a breakthrough for the dissident movement.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), the predecessor of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental group linking citizens’ Helsinki groups in a number of Western countries, sponsored the independent literary symposium in Budapest from October 15–17 which coincided with the opening of the official Forum.

This “unofficial forum” marked the first time that private citizens from East and West met openly in a Warsaw Pact country to discuss violations of cultural freedom, including censorship, unofficial publishing and minority rights. The unofficial symposium included prominent writers from a number of countries, including Susan Sontag, Danilo Kis, Jiri Grusa, Amos Oz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash, as well as independent Hungarian writers such as George Konrád and Miklós Haraszti.

A few hours before the independent symposium was to begin, the Hungarian government forced the hotels to cancel the facilities that had been reserved for the meetings.With the help of Hungarian dissidents, the meetings were relocated to private apartments in Budapest and proceeded without further obstruction.

After the close of the European Cultural forum, however, the authorities stepped up their harassment of those involved in samizdat activities.These harassments were well documented in the report written in 1986 which belongs to a series entitled “Violations of the Helsinki Accords” prepared by Helsinki Watch for the Helsinki Review Conference in Vienna, Austria. According to the report, Helsinki groups that formed in the USSR had been effectively disbanded, and more than three dozen Soviet Helsinki monitors were still in prison or exile. Jeri Laber, Executive Director of the Helsinki Watch, said in 1986:

Human rights continue to be grossly violated by a number of Helsinki signatory countries. He highlighted the number one obstacle in the process of implementation of the Final Act: Although there are no legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Helsinki Accords, their moral force continues to grow. Despite the fact that violations continue – indeed, just because these violations continue – we believe that the Helsinki process must continue as well.

When almost 27 years later I was reading the Helsinki Watch Report, the precise and careful analysis of Jeri Laber about the first media law in 1986, it gave me a very strange feeling. Maybe history is repeating itself? Were the Fidesz lawmakers with their super-majority in 2010 simply copying some paragraphs and rewriting others? A new press law passed in March 1986 was the first general press law in the history of Communist Hungary. Previously, the press and periodicals were regulated by decrees from various ministries. The new law defined the rights and duties of the press to provide “truthful, accurate and prompt dissemination of information,” and the public’s right to “an accurate picture of the political, economic, scientific and cultural life in the Hungarian People’s Republic.”

The first press law from 1986 also prevented the press from disseminating information that would hurt “the constitutional order of the People’s Republic and its international interests… and public morals.” This very general rule fosters censorship and other forms of state intervention. Surprisingly, the second part of the regulation was simply copied into the new media law in 2010 which stipulates that all media outlets must register with the newly established Media Council and that they may be fined for news reports that are “unbalanced”, insulting or in violation of “public morality.” The Media Council also has the power to deny registration and force journalists to disclose sources, particularly on the grounds of “national security” or “protection of public order.” (These regulations were later annulled by the Constitutional Court.)

The first press law which came into force in 1986 essentially codified the existing practice at that time, although it also included some new restrictions: according to the law, editors in charge became responsible for the execution of the principles of press policy and could be fired for failing to execute those principles.

I remember well that in the late Kádár regime, the president of the Tájékoztatási Hivatal (Information Office) Comrade Ernő Lakatos held weekly sessions for the editors-in-chief of the printed and electronic media about the press directives and policy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party. It was a one-way, unidirectional, military type “discussion” about which the editors-in-chief informed their colleagues. There were a lot of rumors in Budapest about Comrade Ernő Lakatos, who had personally ordered the dismissal and punishment of the dissidents, among them myself and my friends.

Since 2010, based on information collected by the former OSCE media freedom representative, Miklós Haraszti, members of the three basic content provider groups, the online media, the printed press, and the radio-television sector, have to sign special contracts with the Media Council. The contract stipulates that they would regulate themselves based on the content prohibitions in the media law, prohibitions that go far beyond the criminal and civil law. In this cooperative agreement they promise that any breach of the media law will be investigated and settled by themselves.

Why did they do so? Because by accepting the role of the executioner, they can escape the constant harassment by the Media Council for petty infractions. But for the same reason, the owners put pressure on the editors to refrain from any political challenge in their news service and their chat shows. This is the mechanism of self-censorship. This is the reason why politics simply disappeared from the commercial TV channels.

Those owners who would balk at accepting the “co-regulation” contracts would simply stigmatize themselves in the eyes of the almighty Media Council. They could be subject to frequent fines that would be grounds for severe punishment later, including being shut down. Despite the participation in co-regulation, the Media Council is still entitled to pull any matter into its purview. Guaranteed self-censorship is behind the fact that punishments for coverage, content, are not frequently meted out.

As a result of “cooperative regulation,” the media companies are toeing the line and the Media Council can claim: just look, the fines are less frequent; there is no sign of supervision over the media. Foreign owners, in their own countries, would never agree to participate in this kind of cooperation. At home they rely on the principles of a free press. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, which annulled the right to supervise content outside the broadcast media, they could have withdrawn from the co-regulation schemes, as they would have long done in their own countries. But they don’t do it. They prefer to be obedient. We are living in a “brave new world.”

There are other procedural similarities between the two press laws as well. Press restrictions that were announced in the winter of 1986 stipulated that anyone found with even one copy of samizdat may be subjected to heavy fines. These fines may be levied without any court proceedings, and appeals may only be addressed to the police officer who determined the fine.

Against the rulings of the Media Council there is no recourse to regular court. In such cases jurisdiction lies exclusively with the Administrative Court. In matters of substance, or merit, the administrative courts have no jurisdiction. They can only adjudicate on questions of procedure; whether the Media Council adhered to the media law during the process or not.

The media law has been criticized by a number of international organizations including the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and a number of European Union member countries and non-governmental organizations. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, stated that if misused, the media law “can silence critical media and public debate in the country.” According to a review by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the appointment procedures for Hungary’s Media Council fail to meet the Council of Europe’s standards for safeguarding media independence and pluralism.

But again, it seems to me that there are no effective legal mechanisms for enforcing compliance with the Council of Europe and other EU standards. The historical similarity with the lack of legal means for enforcing the Helsinki accords in the seventies and eighties is obvious. This means that non-compliance can become a practice again.

Since the last election, Fidesz, the ruling party, justifies its diktat by pointing to its two-thirds legislative super-majority attained in the 2010 elections. But its actions fly in the face of the Copenhagen Criteria which established the EU’s basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. These criteria were established for new member states in the EU enlargement process in 2004.

As a response to non-compliance of the Hungarian government, the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark recently wrote to the European Commission suggesting that new tools were needed to bring persistently deviating member states into line. Here you can read the essence of their statement:

At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially  important that the fundamental values enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected. The EU must be extremely watchful whenever they are put at risk anywhere within its borders. And it must be able to react swiftly and effectively to ensure compliance with its most basic principles. We propose addressing this issue as a priority and believe that the Commission has a key role to play here.

In my opinion, the European Commission as the guardian of treaties has the obligation to ensure that the institutional structures and operating rules of the member states are brought in line with the moral commitment they made when they joined the EU. There is a lesson which we learned at the time of the Helsinki process: the enforcement of the principles of the Helsinki Final Act wouldn’t have been possible without international pressure exercised at the follow-up conferences.

But finally, only the voters of the East European countries could change the fundamental laws and their own constitutions in the years of the Velvet Revolution. Only “We the people” could have decided our own destiny, and we made the right choice ourselves. History is repeating itself. The upcoming election in 2014 may be Hungary’s next chance to return to a state with freedom of the press which allows well-informed citizens to make free choices, life without fear or apathy, and a collective desire for “a community of the rule of law.”

——

Anna Stumpf, political attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, was present and took strong exception to Gábor Demszky’s description of the situation of the media in Hungary after the lecture. She claimed that opposition radio, Klubrádió, opposition televison, ATV, freely criticize the government without any interference. Demszky explained that neither of these two media outlets has nationwide coverage and, in fact, Klubrádió by now can broadcast only in Budapest and Debrecen. Moreover, companies fearing reprisals dare not advertise on these media outlets, which makes their financial situation truly desperate. He added that in some ways the Hungarian media today is less free than it was in the Kádár regime. To which Anna Stumpf exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Naturally, Anna Stumpf is far too young to know anything about the Kádár regime first hand.

Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position

Only yesterday an article appeared on Galamus by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. It is well reasoned argument for why DK should be allowed to present candidates for parliament in the next election.

On the basis of past elections we know that in order to win the next election the democratic opposition needs at least 2.7 million votes.

According to opinion polls, MSZP can count on 1-1.2 million votes, which is about half of the 2.3 million the party received in 2002 and 2006. At that time the rest of the votes necessary for a win came from SZDSZ. As things stand now, Együtt-14’s voting base doesn’t exceed the number of SZDSZ voters (about 400,000) in previous elections. And that is not enough, says Bauer. The hope is that once there is an agreement among the parties about a common candidate for prime minister and a common list, people’s lethargy will be replaced by enthusiasm because then there will be some hope of removing Viktor Orbán’s government.

Mesterházy insisted that he as the chairman of MSZP, the largest party, be the next prime minister. At the same time Bajnai felt that “the two largest parties” should agree first on the fundamental questions. Bauer believes that neither position, given the current Hungarian situation, is valid. It doesn’t matter that these two parties are larger than the third; together they still cannot deliver the necessary votes. At the moment, together they don’t have as many votes as Fidesz has alone. Therefore they need every extra vote they can get, including from those who would like to see Viktor Orbán go but haven’t yet decided to vote for MSZP or E-14. As well as those who haven’t yet chosen a party. And yes, adds Bauer, they need DK’s 200,000 voters.

At this point Bauer did some calculations on the basis of the average results of three independent polling companies: Medián, Szonda, and Tárki. Bauer looked at two sets of figures: the three parties’ standing among the electorate as a whole and the figures that reflect the situation that would result if we count only those who are certain about their participation in the next election. Calculating on the basis of the whole electorate, MSZP would receive 68, Együtt-14-PM 24, and DK 8 districts. Among those who are certain at the moment about their participation, MSZP would receive 65, Együtt-14-PM 26, and DK 9 districts.

Source: The Aperiodical

Source: The Aperiodical

Thus, Bauer argues, if MSZP receives 75 districts out of which it gives up four to DK, the liberals, and the social democrats, MSZP will have 71 districts and E-14 31. (I might add here that neither the liberals nor the social democrats are measurable in nationwide polls.) Thus both MSZP and E-14 will be over-represented. This is especially true about E-14. Its voting base may be three times greater than DK’s, yet it will have eight times more districts than DK if DK accepted MSZP’s offer.

Bauer continued his calculations by trying to figure out how many seats the democratic opposition would need for a two-thirds majority or a simple majority as well as what the composition would be if they lost the election. He came to the conclusion that in all three cases, given the present support for DK, the party would be able to form its own parliamentary caucus and therefore could represent its own political ideas in parliament.

One could argue that Tamás Bauer’s argument is based on an overly static view of electoral sympathies. One cannot simply add up polling preferences and come up with a grand total. Moreover, the argument continues, it is possible that by giving DK 8 or 9 districts the democratic opposition would lose voters because of some people’s intense hatred of Ferenc Gyurcsány. These people further argue that the DK people have nowhere to go, and after all they are perhaps the most consistent critics of the present government. So, surely, they wouldn’t vote for Fidesz or boycott the election even if DK got practically nothing. Yes, this is true, but it is also true about those E-14 voters who currently swear that they wouldn’t vote for a democratic opposition in which Gyurcsány’s party is more visibly represented.

There have been polls that indicate that the supporters of the parties on the left are quite open. They don’t particularly care who the prime  minister will be, although Gordon Bajnai has more support than Mesterházy, but I don’t think that too many people would vote for Fidesz just because they don’t like Mesterházy, Bajnai, or Gyurcsány. If they do, they deserve another four years of Viktor Orbán’s exceptionally bad governance.

At the moment I’m trying find out whether there are any polls that tried to measure the loss that might be incurred by the democratic opposition were it to give a fairer share to DK in the next elections.

Another thought. Medián’s CEO, Endre Hann, called attention to the fact that although in the electorate as a whole Mesterházy and Bajnai are neck to neck in popularity, in fact Mesterházy occasionally surpasses the popularity of Bajnai. But this result is misleading because of Bajnai’s greater rejection by Fidesz voters. I wonder whether Medián ever conducted a poll that would allow us to gauge Gyurcsány’s popularity or unpopularity among those voters who will actually vote for the democratic opposition next year. Such a poll could be very useful in deciding what the best strategy would be.

In any case, tomorrow I will give a short list of DK’s positions on certain issues that are different from those of either MSZP or Együtt-14.

Whom should Viktor Orbán fear? Not his former self but the rebellious students

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Attila Ara-Kovács’s name because I’ve written about him several times on this blog, but if anyone needs a refresher course here’s a brief description of his career from Cluj/Kolozsvár to Budapest where he joined the democratic opposition. In the late 1980s the democratic opposition worked side by side with Fidesz, then a youth organization, so Ara-Kovács had plenty of opportunity to get to know the young Viktor Orbán.

Ara-Kovács, who nowadays has a column (Diplomatic Notes) in the weekly Magyar Narancs, was inspired a couple of days ago to include a piece on domestic issues in his column: he decided to share the impression the democratic opposition gained of the young Viktor Orbán in those days.

Ara-Kovács discovered on YouTube a composed young woman, Réka Kinga Papp, who for two and a half minutes severely criticizes Hungary’s prime minister. She actually calls him a “mad dictator” who will be swept away by the wrath of the people. But she still gives him credit for the constructive role he played in the late eighties. Especially his famous speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs that launched his spectacular political career. So did another new youthful opponent of the Orbán regime, Máté Ábrahám, who also expressed his admiration for the young Orbán. This young man said something to the effect that today’s Orbán would surely be afraid to meet his young self. These students suppose that in those days Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others were pure as the driven snow. They became corrupt only because politics and power corrupted them.

It is time to tell the truth, says Ara-Kovács, because it is essential that these youngsters don’t labor under false impressions of Fidesz’s role in the regime change. According to Ara-Kovács, Réka Kinga Papp’s young Orbán never existed. She talked about the “innovative, happy, well meaning will” that Orbán allegedly added to “the big Hungarian collective.” Ara-Kovács categorically denies that Orbán added anything of the sort. On the contrary, he decided to establish a second liberal party by which he divided “the camp of the most authentic opponents” of the Kádár regime.

Viktor Orbán broke his wordOn the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / July 16, 1989

Viktor Orbán broke his word
at the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / JuneLászló Kövér 16, 1989

As for Orbán’s famous speech in which he demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Ara-Kovács provides some background information. The so-called round table of the opposition made the decision not to mention this demand. First, because they knew that negotiations were already underway and second, because they didn’t want to trap Mikhail Gorbachev in “an impossible” situation. In addition, they didn’t want to provide additional ammunition to the hardliners in the Soviet bloc: the East Germans, the Czechoslovaks, and the Romanians. One must keep in mind that Václav Havel at this point was still in jail. Viktor Orbán and László Kövér, representing Fidesz, accepted this joint decision only for Orbán to break his word the next day. The impression created by that speech was that only Fidesz and Viktor Orbán were radical enough to dare to strive for complete independence while the others were political opportunists. “For him even the revolutionary moment of 1989 was no more than a question of power politics.

This was Viktor Orbán’s first betrayal that was  followed by many more. He betrayed his ally, SZDSZ, and three years later betrayed his own supporters when “he changed Fidesz from a radical liberal party into a party adopting an extreme nationalistic ideology.” No, says Ara-Kovács, these young university and high school students are not at all like the young Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others. “Viktor Orbán is not afraid of a meeting with his former self but he is afraid of you. And it is important for you to know that.”

Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ara-Kovács’s article another news item caught my attention. It is an interview with László Kövér that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of Heti Válasz. A short description of it is already available on the Internet. According to Kövér, there is no resemblance between today’s “rebels” and their former selves. Ever since the early 1980s they purposefully prepared themselves to accept a political role in the future. “We knew that belonging to the eight percent of the population who received an opportunity to become part of the elite by attending university entailed responsibility. It never occurred to us to leave this country although then there was a dictatorship in Hungary.”

Well, let’s dissect these sentences. Kövér talks about the early 1980s. In the early 1980s no one but no one had the slightest inkling that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. That its empire would crumble by the end of the decade. Most of us didn’t even know it in 1987 or early 1988. So, if Kövér and Orbán were preparing themselves for political roles they were getting ready to join the socialist political elite of the Kádár regime. It cannot be interpreted in any other way. If that is the case, it is no wonder that they didn’t want to leave the country despite its being a dictatorship. No, they would have been an integral part of that dictatorship. Perhaps those who would actually steer the ship of that one-party regime. Everything Orbán, Kövér, Áder, and some of the others from the original crew are doing right now supports this hypothesis.