The Hungarian president’s new year message

László Sólyom is not a good speaker. In addition he has a speech defect that is called "raccsolás" in Hungarian, a word that doesn't have an English equivalent. It simply means that he is unable to roll his "r's." Not the end of the world, a lot of people can't. The real problem is that he is stiff and awkward. It also seems that he just throws his speeches together; they are confused and full of non sequiturs. Of course, it is also possible that he spends time on them but this is the best he can come up with.

This year's speech is no better than his earlier ones. His theme is "renewal" because according to him "it is impossible not to talk about starting anew." But "starting anew" (újrakezdés) and "renewal" (megújulás) are not synonymous. For instance, we might start a new magazine subscription and then renew it yearly. As an aside: Finding synonyms is a favorite pastime of Hungarians with sometimes absolutely ludicrous results. For example, when they try to find synonyms for geographic names! In legal documents it is especially dangerous to play around with synonyms because everybody should know that no two words mean exactly the same thing. Interpreting a Constitutional Court decision can became a muddled mess as a result of the judges' use of synonyms.

A lot of people try to start anew on January 1, usually with no great success, so the first sentence of the speech is fine. However, the next one is already problematic. Sólyom adds: "Because Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany belong to the same circle of holidays."  Well, they're temporally proximate, but I'm not sure whether two Christian holidays and a secular holiday belong to the "same circle." I guess he wanted to fortify his message with religious overtones and thereby managed to make a mess of his introductory paragraph.

After abandoning the "starting anew" theme and switching to renewal he talked for a while about spring. Here we are at the very beginning of winter and Sólyom claims that "everything is turning toward the sign of spring." Everything? Surely, there are very few signs of spring, yet once Sólyom got entangled in the theme of renewal he felt he had to continue with the metaphor of the promise of spring.

With the new year comes new hope. Here he returns to the promise of Christmas. According to Sólyom the message of Christmas is that "one day the time of fulfillment will come and hope can be born in everybody's heart." I consider this almost a profanity because here he is really talking about politics. By referring to Christmas and the birth of Christ he is practically equating possible political developments with the promise of everlasting life.

Perhaps he realized that "the time of fulfillment" was too strong a phrase. Perhaps he is just such a careless writer and thinker that he didn't even realize what he was saying because in the next sentences he changed "fulfillment" to "hope" and later to "chance." He called on all members of society to help politicians fulfill this hope.

Here he changed topics again without any connecting thought. He called people's attention to the fact that four years ago, in 2006 which was also a year of elections, he had mentioned that "every responsible man must examine carefully the promises and the credibity of those who promise." One might think that Sólyom was talking about the rather irresponsible promises made by Fidesz politicians lately when it is clear that no government can "buy" votes given the current financial and economic situation of the country. However, my hunch is that he is talking about the socialists, especially about Ferenc Gyurcsány who didn't divulge the whole sorry state of the Hungarian economy before the elections. His next sentence makes his stance even clearer: The responsible voter "also has to weigh the accomplishments of those who already governed." In order to strike some kind of balance, he added that this same responsible person also has to decide whether "those who haven't governed yet have enough skill to realize their slogans." Can he be talking about Fidesz here? I doubt it because, after all, Fidesz governed once already. I suspect he is talking about Jobbik.

New topic, again without any segueway. Corruption. Yes, everybody knows that this is a real problem, but Sólyom handles it in a singularly naive manner. It's not enough to fight corruption with the power of the law but people's attitudes must change. This may be correct but I very much doubt that "the shame of corruption weighs heavily on everybody and everybody would feel better if they could cast it off." Oh, sure, especially those who no longer would be on the receiving end!

Back to Christmas. There was a babe born then which reminds him that Hungarians should produce more children. But for that one needs "first of all families." And once he talked about children, he decided to talk about schools. Again, Sólyom has fairly simplistic ideas about what one should do with the Hungarian school system. Hungary needs schools where children are taught "solid values and decency." It is true that the Hungarian educational system is in desperate need of thorough structural reform. The problem, however, is not lack of solid values and decency but something much more basic.

After children and schools it is not surprising that Sólyom turns to the "nation," to "national values." In children he sees the future of the nation. Here he returns to the theme of renewal. We now find out that "the foundation of the necessary renewal … is the love of the Hungarian nation."  The foundation? Without which there can be no renewal? I very much doubt it. What the country needs is more jobs, lots of capital, better trained people, a healthy population, a better school system. All sorts of tangible accomplishments and not some abstract patriotism that can easily be transformed into nationalism. As it often is.

The final paragraph is the funniest because here Sólyom expounds on the "reconciliation of Hungarian society" which according to him "cannot be separated from starting anew." In his words "in this new situation [after the elections, I presume] there must be a government using different language and there also must be a different type of opposition." If Fidesz wins the elections, I'm sure that the tone of the government's communication will be very different from that of the moderate and polite voice of Gordon Bajnai. As for the new opposition, I doubt that anyone could possibly imitate the style of Viktor Orbán, Péter Szijjártó, and András Cser-Palkovics. Thus Sólyom is most likely right: "there will be a government using different language and there will be a different type of opposition."

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Paul Hellyer
Eva, I think you are rather too harsh on Sólyom and his speaking style. A great orator he is not, but I do think he is a more effective communicator than you give him credit for. I heard him speak recently here in New Zealand to local Hungarians and he came across has a warm, decent and thoughtful person. While he was admirably aided by a superb translator for we English language listeners, his speech was well received by the Hungarians in the audience, judging by their comments afterwards. Regardless of the language he spoke in, his warmth and sincerity shone through clearly. This was much more obvious when he was in smaller groups, so I do understand your comments about his appearing “stiff and awkward” in more formal situations, but I think this over-stating the case somewhat. As to his New Year speech, while I don’t have the advantage of fully understanding it in Hungarian, I do sense his desire for a “better” Hungary. He seems to recognises that the current political dialogue is both toxic and dysfunctional and that most Hungarians wish for something better of their political elite. Perhaps he could have expressed this more clearly and… Read more »

“raccsol” = “he has a glottal ‘R'”


Yes I agree with Paul here: Sólyom is well-intentioned, I believe, and judging from his actions isn’t keen on any of the major parties in the Hungarian Parliament.
In terms of the “foundation” of the necessary renewal – it is true that it would be bunk to talk of the nation state as itself being the spiritual basis – but I guess he’s casting around for a sense of community, shared culture and trying to tie this to the nationalistic mood of January 2010.
In this sense Sólyom is surely as much of a passenger on the sinking ship of state as all of us are.