Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

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Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.

John McCain: “A nation that’s on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator”

Viktor Orbán must have had a rough couple of days. First came the bad news that Vladimir Putin had cancelled the Southern Stream project, and then yesterday John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008 and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lashed out at him. In a speech delivered prior to the vote on Colleen Bell’s appointment to be the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary he gave a long list of objections to her appointment. The upshot was that McCain considers Hungary to be a strategically important country where a seasoned diplomat should head the mission instead of a political appointee.

Whoever collected information on Hungarian politics for McCain did a good job. Anyone who’s interested in knowing exactly what transpired can watch the video. The passage that caused outrage in Hungarian government circles came toward the end of McCain’s venting of his frustration:

We’re about to vote on a totally unqualified individual to be ambassador to a nation which is very important to our national security interest. Her qualifications are as a producer of the television soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” contributed $800,000 to Obama in the last election and bundled more than $2.1 million for President Obama’s reelection effort. I am not against political appointees. I understand how the game is played, but here we are, a nation that’s on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neofascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin and we’re going to send the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of foreign communication, is usually the first to raise his voice. He announced that “Hungarian diplomacy will immediately get in touch with American senator John McCain,” but he added that from the text it is clear that McCain was not talking about the Hungarian prime minister but about Vladimir Putin. Kovács’s most likely intentional misreading of the text could not be maintained for long because several Hungarian newspapers and television stations got in touch with the communication director of Senator McCain, who affirmed that there was no mistake. The senator was indeed talking about Viktor Orbán.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade moved into action and called in M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, to tell him, I assume, how wrong McCain was about Viktor Orbán. Considering that McCain is a Republican, I can’t quite see what Goodfriend as a representative of the Democratic Obama administration is supposed to do about McCain’s assessment of the Hungarian political situation.

And yesterday Péter Szijjártó announced that McCain must have based his opinion about the Hungarian prime minister on the antagonistic media because if he knew the real situation he would never call Orbán a neo-fascist dictator. The Hungarian response to any negative reaction to the Orbán government is always the same: The Hungarian citizens voted for this government three times this year and everybody should respect their decisions. Szijjártó also indicated that the Hungarian Embassy in Washington will get in touch with the staff of Senator McCain and will inquire about “the background of his statements” concerning the Hungarian prime minister.

Gergely Gulyás, a member of parliament and one of the deputy presidents of the assembly, was blunt. According to him, the “veteran senator for a short period of time lost his critical faculties.” Some pro-government journalists also used strong words. András Stump of Válasz called the 78-year-old senator “senile, ancient” (agg, vén) and not to be taken seriously. András Bencsik, editor-in-chief of the far-right Demokrata, called him an idiot. Another right-wing commentator again alluded to McCain as being incoherent during the session. But he did not stop there. He accused McCain of being far too friendly with Ukrainian Nazi politicians. And then he came to the crux of the matter: why is Hungary suddenly so important to the United States? Because of the United States’ interest in selling American shale gas to Europe. The Americans have become worried about Hungary being a middleman between Russia and Europe, which may result in their supplying all of Europe with Russian gas instead of their own. Otherwise, all the rest about democracy, about the illiberal state, about NGOs is of no interest to the United States. They are only excuses that mask the real intent.

John McCain in Budapest, January 2014 Despite the compulsory smiles McCain was not too happy even then

John McCain in Budapest, January 2014
Despite the compulsory smiles, McCain was not too happy even then

Of course, this story our man concocted is total nonsense, but what is really worrisome is that the official advisers to the Hungarian government, the great “political scientists” of Századvég, also seem to think along the same lines. Yesterday I cited some foreign policy experts who actually know their subject but who have been dropped from the ministries or, if they work in independent research institutes, are never consulted. On the other hand, we know that Századvég has allegedly supplied the government in the past four and a half years with thousands and thousands of pages of advice on domestic and foreign policy strategy with which, it seems, the Orbán government is completely satisfied. What kind of advice is supplied to the Hungarian government is well demonstrated by an article by Gábor G. Fodor, the strategic director of Századvég, which was published on December 1 in Napi Gazdaság, the paper owned by Századvég.

Very briefly summarized, the United States’ interest in Hungary and the East-Central European region is dictated by one consideration only: getting rid of the Russian monopoly over the gas supply in the region. All the attacks on Hungary in the last few months have served this purpose. The U.S. has a master plan: (1) Ukraine must fall into the sphere of American influence; (2) the United States wants to stop the building of the Southern Stream; and (3) the Americans intend to prevent the Russian purchase of the MOL shares in the Croatian oil company INA. The goal is “a total change of monopoly of gas supply in the region.” Hungary is at the center of this master plan and surely this is why Hungary suddenly became such an important country for the United States. Hence the attacks against the Orbán government.

Can you imagine what kind of Hungarian foreign policy can be based on G. Fodor’s “analysis”? I shudder to think.

I am not at all sure that Hungarian diplomacy in its present state can successfully navigate through the perilous sea Hungary managed to get itself into thanks to the brilliant strategy of Viktor Orbán. Until recently the Orbán government was certain that a Republican administration would have closer and warmer relations with them, but after McCain’s outburst they must realize that even if the Republicans win the next election Hungary will remain a pariah in Washington, unless some miracle happens in Budapest. Like Viktor Orbán vanishes from Hungarian politics. And that at the moment does not look likely.

Viktor Orbán is not only illiterate when it comes to computers. What about diplomacy?

As you know, I was contemplating writing something about the internet tax, but I felt I had to deal with the further reverberations of Hungary’s shaky relations with the U.S. Now, it seems, the two topics have converged with M. André Goodfriend’s appearance at the demonstration last night.

So, let’s start with the demonstration itself. I considered the crowd very large, especially in comparison to similar gatherings when the issues were purely political. Abstract concepts don’t move crowds in Hungary. The reason might be the low level of political culture and sophistication, the lack of a sustained democratic past, and perhaps even the sinking living standards that force people to concentrate on sheer survival.

I watched the entire demonstration and was impressed with Balázs Gulyás, the organizer and speaker. Although he tried to keep the focus on a single issue, the internet tax, it was clear from the first moment that the demonstration was much more than that. It was a rejection of the kind of life Viktor Orbán and his minions are offering Hungarians, especially young people. I especially liked a phrase in Gulyás’s speech–“we only turned the clock back, not the century”–referring to going off Daylight Savings Time the night before. The demonstrators obviously knew full well that the internet tax is just a symptom of the many anti-modern moves that make the Orbán regime a retrograde construct that can only lead the country to disaster. We are already pretty close.

Another welcome feature of the demonstration was a healthy mix of the young, middle-aged, and old. Yes, I know that young people are not interested in politics, and I wish this weren’t the case, but one must face facts. Unfortunately, by and large this is the situation all over the world. But those young people who went out yesterday realize that this government does not serve their needs. They consider Viktor Orbán a man of the past, an old fuddy-dud who is computer illiterate. Someone who is never seen with a smart phone. Someone who “cannot send an e-mail.” The boys–as longstanding acquaintances call the Fidesz founders–are looking old and tired. Although Orbán is only 50, he is “not with it.” Something happened to these young revolutionaries of the 1980s over the last twenty years. Time has left them behind, and they want to foist their outdated ideas and outlook on life on the new generation.

Balázs Gulyás is telling the truth: not a computer in sight

Balázs Gulyás is telling the truth: not a computer in sight

On the other hand, the American chargé d’affaires, André Goodfriend, seemed to be very much with it as he stood in the crowd with a backpack. As he said in one of his many recent interviews, he spends a great deal of time on the streets of Budapest. A planned demonstration on the internet tax was certainly something he thought he ought to see in person. I’m also sure that he has the State Department’s backing for both his appearances at demonstrations and his presence on Twitter. There a so-called conversation developed between the American chargé and Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for international communication. I find Kovács unsuited for the job he holds, but perhaps it is fitting that such a man represents the Orbán government abroad. He is a perfect embodiment of this aggressive, crude regime.

Here are a couple of tweets, starting with

Goodfriend:

            “Interesting to see the nature of crowds in Budapest. Internet tax march seemed large & orderly w/good police support.” Then later: “Seeing the news reports of vandalism during the march as well, which I condemn. Not as orderly as it seemed where I stood.”

Kovács:

            “Checkin’ the mood, André?! @a demonstration organized by MSZP and liberals’?! As Chargé d’Affaires? Interesting, Eh?”

Goodfriend:

            “Absolutely. I’ve also checked the mood at the Peace Marches, and at numerous other events organized in Hungary.”

Kovács:

            “Are you sure that’s the wisest thing in this histerically stirred-up atmosphere while you vindicate to be a key actor? Eh?!”

Goodfriend:

            “There’s always a choice between hiding away, & getting out to see what’s happening. I try to hear the full range of perspectives.”

Kovács:

            “Sure ‘hearing’ and influencing does make a large difference.”

Goodfriend:

            “When I want to influence, I speak. Otherwise, I’m listening. Sometimes there’s not enough listening.”

Kovács:

            “That we’ve learned through the past couple of days. Sometimes there’s too much ‘demonstration.'”

Goodfriend:

            “So, now is the time to draw lessons from the discussion, and follow words with constructive, meaningful deeds.”

Kovács:

            “Surely, giving an ultimatum by demonstrators to a govt is no ground for constructivity. Good luck with friends like that…”

Goodfriend:

            “Some people see ‘ultimatum’ others see a proposition awaiting response as part of dialog. Constructive part may be the response.”

An extraordinary exchange in which Zoltán Kovács showed his true colors and the baseness of his discourse.

Meanwhile the likes of Kovács, András Bencsik, and other organizers of the Peace Marches were ready to call their 100,000 followers to defend their leader because the United States may prepare a coup against Orbán just as it did in Ukraine, they claimed. Apparently they were told to cool it because it might be taken as a sign of weakness of the all-powerful prime minister. Just as they were told to scrap a planned demonstration on behalf of the poor Russians suffering under the yoke of sanctions.

But the volume was turned up by members of the government. László Kövér last night on HírTV talked about a verbal cold war and warned the West that further criticism of Hungary might change the positive picture Hungarians have of the United States and Western Europe. He also tried to explain away Hungary’s isolation by saying that Hungary has so few friends because this is the “nature of politics.” And naturally he did not forget about the NGOs that serve foreign interests.

At the same time there are a few voices warning the government that its relations with the United States have reached a dangerous juncture. Péter Boross, prime minister for a few months in 1993-1994, came out with this observation: “The European Union and the European Parliament are terrains where the government and the prime minister can defend their actions. But the United States is different. The United States is a great power and I would not suggest getting into an argument with her. That can be dangerous for Hungary.”

Others share Boross’s view. An opinion piece in HVG was entitled “The country that came into the cold.” In another, which appeared in privatbanker.hu, a journalist is convinced that “the ice is cracking under our feet” and that Hungary’s relations with the West are shattered at their very foundations. Even in the pro-Fidesz Válasz an editorial warned that it is not a smart thing to irritate the lion. The writer found it outlandish that Tamás Deutsch, one of the veteran politicians of Fidesz and a member of the European Parliament, called André Goodfriend a fifth-rate CIA agent. The author also found Kovács’s tweets to the chargé unfortunate. Such a communication style might be acceptable in Syria and Iran, he said, but these countries do not claim to be allies and friends of the United States.

More about this topic tomorrow.

The city of Miskolc is ready to pay its Roma inhabitants to leave town

Today we are moving to Miskolc just as one of the ministries may do sometime in 2015 if the Orbán government disperses its ministries all over the country, as currently planned.

This is Hungarian Spectrum‘s second trip to Miskolc, a city that has fallen on hard times in the last twenty-five years. Miskolc and environs was one of the most important centers of Hungarian heavy industry in the socialist period. In the 1970s almost 80% of the workforce of the county of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén worked in that sector. After the change of regime, with the disappearance of heavy industry, the area became one of the most impoverished in the country. Miskolc, the county seat, had a population of almost 200,000 in the 1970s; today it is around 160,000.

Understandably, given this economic background, the population of Miskolc and other smaller towns in the county heavily favored the socialists, at least until 2010 when Miskolc for the first time elected a Fidesz mayor, a Transylvanian import, Ákos Kriza. Before he moved to Hungary Kriza completed medical school in Târgu Mureş/Marosvásárhely. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum already encountered Kriza in connection with a scandal involving the Canadian government and the Roma refugees whom Ottawa sent back to Hungary because the Canadian immigration did not consider them to be bona fide political refugees. Since most of the Gypsies who tried to emigrate to Canada came from Miskolc and its surrounding area, it was clear that once they returned to Hungary they would most likely go back to Miskolc. It was at that point that Kriza declared that ” Canada will not send its refugees to Miskolc.” As you can see, Dr. Kriza is no friend of the Roma.

Kriza, Miskolc, and the Roma minority have been in the news again since May 8 when the city council voted for the “liquidation of ghettos and slums” in Miskolc. A large area will be razed. If one didn’t know Kriza’s attitude toward Gypsies one could actually praise him and the city council for providing decent housing for these poor people elsewhere. But, of course, we would be wrong in assuming such a benevolent move from a city council with a very large Fidesz majority. Out of twenty-eight city fathers there are only 6 MSZP, 2 DK, and 3 Jobbik members.

The deal presented to the affected Roma inhabitants is that if they just move out of their dwellings and move to another house or apartment in town they will not get any compensation. Anyone who decides to leave town will receive 1.5-2 million forints, though only if he spends this money on the purchase of another dwelling. In some other town or village, of course. All the Fidesz members of the city council voted for the proposal, MSZP representatives abstained. Only DK and Jobbik voted against it, the latter because they objected to giving any compensation to Roma forced out of their homes.

Miskolc street scene in the district to be raised soon to give place to a stadium/minap.hu

Miskolc street scene in the district to be razed soon to provide room for a stadium/minap.hu

It didn’t take long before one could read in Népszabadság that the mayor of Sátoraljaújhely (Fidesz) feels sorry for the Gypsies of Miskolc but “they shouldn’t come here.” Therefore the city fathers contemplated passing an ordinance to the effect that anyone who has purchased a dwelling from money received from another municipality for the express purpose of buying real estate will not be able to get public work or welfare for five years. Sátoraljaújhely was not the only town to complain. Kazincbarcika’s mayor labelled Miskolc’s move a “poverty export.”

Those affected by the ordinance, at least 400 families, were outraged. Most of them want to stay in Miskolc and, instead of compensation, would like to receive another piece of property in exchange. These people consider the Miskolc city council’s decision “deportation” pure and simple.

By mid-June Fidesz began collecting signatures in support of the city council’s decision and at the same time Jobbik organized a demonstration with the usual skinheads in black T-shirts and frightened Gypsies. The Fidesz initiative was a great success. “Within a few hours … several thousand signatures were collected. The people of Miskolc overwhelmingly support the decision reached by the city council.” At this point, Jobbik also decided to collect signatures to deny monetary compensation for the properties currently used by Roma families.

The lack of any interest in the affair on the part of Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of Roma affairs, is glaring. In parliament Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, already informed a member of parliament who inquired about the scandal in Miskolc that he and his ministry have nothing to do with this strictly local affair. That is, the Orbán government has no intention of putting an end to such discriminatory initiatives. The only active political forces in defense of the Miskolc Roma are the Hungarian Solidarity Movement and the Demokratikus Koalíció. Solidarity organized a demonstration in which a rather large crowd of Roma and non-Roma marched together today.

The irony of this whole affair is that the razing of the Roma ghetto and slum serves only one purpose:  building the new stadium Miskolc received as a gift from Viktor Orbán. He has his priorities.

Four years ago when Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union one of their most important contributions was supposed to be working out something called the “Roma strategy.” Apparently, it was a great success, at least on paper. But what I just described is reality.

And here is the most recent piece of news on Hungary’s contribution to the Roma strategy. There is a European program called Roma Matrix that aims to combat racism, intolerance, and xenophobia towards Roma and to increase integration through a program of action across Europe. Today Roma Matrix held a conference in Budapest at which one of the vice-mayors of the city extolled all the effort the city has made for the Roma community of Budapest. Magyar Nemzet‘s headlined the article describing the conference: “One must decrease the level of discrimination.” Not eliminate it, just decrease it. Well, we can start in Miskolc and Sátoraljaújhely.

The Hungarian government supports school segregation for Roma

A  couple of days ago I noticed a short news item in Euraktiv.com entitled “Hungary criticizes EU Commission’s ‘lack of flexibility’ on Roma policies.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, who represented Hungary at the meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC),  wants flexibility in implementing the integration of schools. In fact, as we will see later, Zoltán Balog doesn’t believe in integration. This fact is well-known in Hungary, but it seems that the news hasn’t reached Brussels yet, as so many things don’t.

Balog emphasized at the meeting that there can be no uniform Roma strategy for all EU countries and therefore the European Commission has to be “more responsive” to the changes demanded by member states. However, he added, the Roma issue “is a European responsibility.” How typical. The EU is responsible financially and otherwise for dealing with the very serious unemployment and poverty of the Roma minority but Hungary will do whatever the Orbán government, specifically Zoltán Balog, thinks ought to be done. And since  Zoltán Balog doesn’t believe in integration, what he would like is to have a free hand in the matter.

Naturally, Zoltán Balog was wise enough to keep his conviction to himself, and instead he listed the government’s accomplishments in the last four years. It is true that they named an undersecretary, Zoltán Kovács, to be in charge of Roma issues. Kovács, it should be noted, failed as undersecretary in charge of government propaganda directed toward the outside world and also failed as government spokesman. It is also true that the Orbán government changed the constitution to allow separate parliamentary representation for ethnic groups and nationalities, but we know from Professor Kim Scheppele’s essay on the electoral law that it only provides for the election of one Fidesz-picked MP to represent the Roma community while it deprives Gypsies of the right to cast a vote for the party of their choice. That’s why Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, urged Gypsies not to register as Gypsies and organized a separate Gypsy Party which will have 60 candidates running in the next election. Balog also talked about “training schemes in sectors such as masonry, forestry, and construction aimed at giving Roma the necessary skills to find a job on the market.” I must say this is new to me.  The only thing I have read about, in article after article, are the absolutely useless classes that prepare the chronically unemployed for nothing.

It was at least three years ago that I gained the distinct feeling that Balog, then still undersecretary in charge of Roma issues, wanted to “outsource” the problems associated with the Gypsy minority’s economic and social difficulties to the churches. He kept talking with church leaders, emphasizing their unique talents for such tasks. Although he tried to dump the whole thing onto the churches, he didn’t quite succeed. However, as the churches took over more and more schools, some poor segregated schools ended up in their hands.

Erzsébet Mohácsi / Source: Népszabadság, Photo by János M. Schmidt

Erzsébet Mohácsi / Source: Népszabadság, Photo by János M. Schmidt

Enter a foundation that has been fighting for a number of years for the rights of children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds (Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyerekeknek Alapítvány). The Foundation has been trying to mediate between parents and schools to achieve integration. But since it is becoming obvious that the government itself doesn’t stand behind integration efforts, the Foundation has only one recourse: to go to court.

Lately, the Foundation had an important win against the Greek Catholic Church, which has two schools in Nyíregyháza: one elite school and one segregated school. The school that is currently segregated had been closed earlier and the children were bused to the school downtown, but after the Church took over, the segregated school was reopened.

For one reason or another Balog is enamored with the plans of the Greek Catholic Church in Nyíregyháza. He sees this particular school as the “citadel of convergence” for Roma students. He imagines integration as a two-step effort: first you put the disadvantaged, mostly Roma, children into segregated schools where “they will catch up.” Once they achieve the knowledge and skills in these segregated schools equal to that of students in the “white” schools, the Roma children can be integrated into the mainstream population. We know that this is nonsense. American segregated schools were also supposed to be “separate but equal,” which of course they were not. According to Erzsébet Mohácsi, president of the Foundation, Balog believes that there is good and bad segregation. His segregation will be excellent, of course.

The Foundation won the case against the Greek Catholic Church where Balog went so far as to be a witness for the defense where he argued for segregation before the judge. Although the Foundation won the case and therefore the Greek Catholic Church is supposed to close its segregated school, it became quite clear during the proceedings that the good Christians have no intention of integrating. The judge apparently asked whether they could find places in the Church’s downtown school for 12 children who just started first grade in the segregated school. The representative of the Church, after some hesitation, announced that perhaps they could create a new classroom directly under the roof. The judge was taken aback and tried to explain to him what the suit was all about. The answer was that the students couldn’t be integrated into the existing classes because it would be “harmful to the other children.” Balog after the trial announced that the verdict “is a sad commentary on the judiciary, which denies parents’ right to a free choice of schools.”

I might add that Balog found an ally on the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels– the president of EESC, French politician Henri Malosse. He praised Hungary’s efforts. He visited Hungary and was very impressed because “pupils have knowledge about the Roma culture” there. He also called the critical coverage of events in Hungary “disinformation.” Although Malosse has a degree in Russian and East European Studies and speaks Polish and Russian, he seems to know little about Hungary. It is hard to believe that he would approve of segregated schools for Roma students as the norm in Hungary and elsewhere. Members of the Orbán government are very good at hiding their true intentions. Let’s hope that the hidden agenda will not remain hidden for long.