A conference on democracy in post-communist Central Europe at Yale University

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.

Kulugyminiszterium

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.

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kormos
Guest

Ms Balogh:”The situation of the Hungarian media has never been as bad as in the last two years.”
I am sorry to say, but above statement in incorrect.

Member

@Kormos “I am sorry to say, but above statement in incorrect”
Aha.

Francis Dedeyne
Guest

@Kormos: Have you seen Pal Schmitt’s interview at the Hungarian state television? Kim Jong-il would not have done better.
So you are completely right… compared to North Korea, the Hungarian media sky is clear and the sun is shining.
It’s really an incredible mystery why the whole world is turning against the Hungarians… Now even Fritz, Hans und Klaus…
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/16/hungary-investment-survey-idUSL6E8FD5M620120416

Eva Balogh
Guest

Kormos: “Ms Balogh:”The situation of the Hungarian media has never been as bad as in the last two years.” I am sorry to say, but above statement in incorrect.”
Not it isn’t. Horvath was talking about the media between 1989 and 2012. During this period it wasn’t.

Petofi
Guest

@ Kormos (Mr. Sooty)
You have some bark on you to defend this government.
Can you name two things in the two years it has been in power that have been as beneficial to the citizens as they have been to Orban, and his power/money-grubbing backers?
Perhaps you’d like to contemplate the usefulness of:
a) contstitution
b) media commission
c) judicial laws
d) central bank laws
e) land distribution
f) Esztergom
and I could go on.
I’d really like to see a committee of three professors who would defend these in, say, Sorbone, Oxford, and Harvard Universities.
I would even allow you to throw in that moron, Kerenyi as a secret weapon. (I wish I was a millionaire. I’d put up a million dollar challenge for the Fidesz government to defend their policies in those venues.

Member

Have you attended the gala dinner after the show?
It just dawned on me why the guys don’t want politicians with language skills. They don’t want them to speak in public. It’s such a terrible thing to explain the unexplainable. Like a North Korean guy would explain that the Korean people are happy and well fed. This explains the low attendance. Who wants to waste time on propaganda horseshit.
These Orbanoids are all the same. “Is there anything wrong with Hungarian media”? Nope. Absolutely nothing.
By the way the guy who did the falsifications at the Hungarian State TV just landed an editor job at the MNO. Quality journalism guaranteed. Want a career in journalism in Hungary? Go cheat.

Eva Balogh
Guest

Mutt Damon: “Have you attended the gala dinner after the show? It just dawned on me why the guys don’t want politicians with language skills.”
You’re kidding. It was a marathon. It ended around 7 p.m. and we were told that there were refreshments across the hall. You haven’t seen anything more pitiful. A few pieces of cheese and crackers. I wouldn’t have minded a glass of water but there was none.
When I first heard about the gala dinner I was rather envious because a Yale gala dinners are usually scrumptious. The chefs really go out to produce fantastic meals. Christmas dinner in my college used to be first-rate.
However, I heard something about going out to a restaurant. Well, if they went to Morys'(To the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louis dwells) then it wouldn’t be too bad but given the refreshments I am not sure. Here you can read something about Morys: http://www.morys1849.org/ and I bet you can even hear the song on the internet mentioned above.

Member

@ kormos: “Ms Balogh:”The situation of the Hungarian media has never been as bad as in the last two years.”
I am sorry to say, but above statement in incorrect.”
Please, go on and be just a tiny bit more specific beyond your facts already provided.

Dubious
Guest

Go, Éva, go! Well done at the conference.

stevve
Guest

It would be useful to peel off the individuals from the Fidesz/Jobbik camp.
I would like to start with the nobles aristocrats.
The rest will be easy.
The argument could sound like, let us be honest to each other.

Wondercat
Guest

Yale and sweaty cheese cubes. Why am I, writing as a Princeton / Harvard graduate, not surprised?
**grin**

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