An enterprising senior at Yale organized a two-day conference on “New Europe: Democracy in Post-Communist Central Europe.” Although “heavy interest [was] anticipated,” unfortunately very few attended.
I couldn’t go to the Saturday session when Sławomir Sierakowski, founder and editor of Krytyka Polityczna, a political journal of the Polish left, and Peter Weiss, current Slovak ambassador to Hungary, also a socialist, gave talks. However, I was looking forward to the Sunday session when Gábor Horváth, deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság, and two members of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry–Undersecretaries Zsolt Németh and Gergely Prőle–were supposed to deliver lectures.
As it turned out, Zsolt Németh’s appearance was cancelled in the last minute because of his urgent parliamentary responsibilities somehow connected to the pending presidential elections. I have my doubts that Németh’s return had anything to do with the election of a new president. That decision has already been made, and the decision in the final analysis depended only on Viktor Orbán. Since then decision was made. No surprises. The nominee is János Áder.
The first speaker of the afternoon was Gábor Horváth of Népszabadság. Horváth formerly served as a foreign correspondent based in Havana (1991), Moscow (1993-1997), and Washington, D.C. (2002-2008). The topic of his talk was the sorry state of the Hungarian media between the late 1980s and today. The impression one received was that in the last twenty-five years there has always been some government pressure on the media. Although that pressure fluctuated in intensity, the general trend has been greater and greater interference in the affairs of the media.The situation of the Hungarian media has never been as bad as in the last two years.
Next came Zdenska Mansfeldová, head of the Department of Political Sociology at the Institute of Sociology at the Czech Academy of Sciences, who talked about the democratization of Czech society. The members of the panel (Weiss, Sierakowski, and Horváth) added interesting observations about the general state of democracy in the region.
The Hungarian Foreign Ministry
And then came the representative of the Orbán government, Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle. He didn’t arrive alone but had two Hungarian officials with him. One was the Hungarian consul in New York and the other an employee of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.
I was prepared for a speech that emphasized the brighter side of the Orbán regime. After all, what else can one expect from an official representative of a government? But what came exceeded all my expectations. The upshot of Mr. Prőhle’s speech was that democracy building in Central Europe will take time but that the Orbán government has been doing nothing else but strengthening Hungarian democracy. Well, in light of all the criticism coming from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission, it was not a credible position to hold, especially in an American university setting.
Half way through his speech, the moderator came up to me and said that since he himself doesn’t know much about the Hungarian situation, he would appreciate it if I answered Mr. Prőhle. By that time the few people who were familiar with the Hungarian scene were becoming somewhat agitated. A graduate student at Yale, a Hungarian by birth, got so upset that she picked up her belongings and left. The heavy oak door of the room made a huge noise that even Mr. Prőhle couldn’t ignore.
I jotted down some notes, but I had to pick only a few topics given the time constraint. I could have answered Prőhle for a whole hour because I objected to practically everything he said in the course of his talk.
He started his speech by paying homage to 1956 as an inspiration for today. A rather strange claim when Viktor Orbán a few years ago said that “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” Moreover, at the moment it is very possible that Imre Nagy’s bust will also be moved even though it doesn’t stand on Kossuth tér, only nearby. Moreover, even without Fidesz’s negative attitude toward the principal participants of ’56, the spirit of that revolution really has no relevance for today. Whether I like it or not.
Another point I objected to was the amount of time Prőhle spent on the punishment of those responsible for the maintenance of the Kádár regime. He kept talking about “closure.” I argued that periods of history cannot be closed and left behind. The lyrics of the Socialist Internationale may urge people to make a clean slate of the past, but that is impossible. Moreover, I added, the reason there was no retribution was that the 1989-90 regime change came about as a result of a political agreement. The members of the communist political elite gave up power peacefully. In this connection, I quoted József Antall, the prime minister between 1990 and 1993, who turned to the right-wing members of his party and told them: ” Why didn’t you make a revolution?” But since there wasn’t one, there was no revolutionary retribution either. Thank God, I would say.
My rather hard hitting criticism gave courage to the others. Both Sierakowski and Weiss expressed their total astonishment that so many years after the events of the regime change the Orbán government wants to return and punish those who according to them are guilty. It is good for only one thing. Political retribution against politicians who are currently opposing the Orbán regime. Sierakowski called Prőhle’s attitude “cynical.” Weiss talked about the Hungarian regime change in glowing terms. It was an “example for all of us in the region.” Prőhle couldn’t be persuaded and kept talking about those awful communists who married important communist leaders’ granddaughters and also became millionaires. I did interject at this point that there are sociological studies that prove that the beneficiaries of the privatization process weren’t really the party apparatchik but the middle management of state enterprises. He looked as if he had never heard of that. Unfortunately there was no time to mention the Orbán government’s favorite communists or how the current prime minister became a rich man while in politics.
One more important piece of information. Everybody knew all along that Gergely Prőhle’s political sympathies lie with Fidesz. Yet, his career didn’t come to a screeching halt in 2002 when Viktor Orbán lost the election. His first administrative job was in 1998 when he became undersecretary in the ministry of national cultural heritage (a brain child of Orbán that has died a quiet death since). In 2000, he was named ambassador to Germany and kept his job even after Orbán’s defeat. Moreover, after he served three years in Germany he was named ambassador to Switzerland. Those awful socialists were actually so satisfied with his work that in 2005 he was made deputy departmental head in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was only in 2006, I assume after the formation of the second Gyurcsány government, that he left the ministry. Whether on his own or not is not clear from his c.v.
That’s the difference. Viktor Orbán’s regime doesn’t tolerate anyone who is not absolutely loyal to the politics of Fidesz. In 2010 János Martonyi made a clean sweep of the ministry and Fidesz politicians were named to practically all posts. As long as this is the practice, it is hard to break the cycle. The newly appointed people receive their jobs because of party loyalty and thus it is is questionable whether they could fulfill their duties impartially after a change of government.