László Sólyom’s newest assessment of the Hungarian political situation

Only the other day I was complaining about an annoying habit of liberal journalists:  they gush over government criticisms coming from earlier supporters of Fidesz. They triumphantly quote these people by way of saying: “You see, even X or Y thinks that there is something very wrong with Viktor Orbán’s revolution at the ballot box. We have been saying the same thing for two years but now maybe Orbán will listen to his pal X or Y.”

First of all, they are wrong. Orbán will not listen to his old pals. He will look upon them as enemies to destroy. Second, the gushing reporters in their enthusiasm completely forget what these “converts” said or did in the past. Or are doing in the present, for that matter.

This happens time and again. Not long ago István G. Pálfy, whose “fame” or perhaps better put “notoriety” derived from his less than illustrious role in the “media war”of 1993-1994, was hailed as a changed man who had discovered the blessings of the free press. All that because he wrote a couple of self-critical articles in ÉS.

I myself mentioned the case of Sándor Demján, one of Orbán’s favorite “oligarchs,” who as a hard-nosed businessman at last discovered that his favorite government’s “unorthodox” economic policies are ruinous even for Hungarian businessmen whom Orbán favors against foreigners. Demján’s one-hour speech was studded with incomprehensible sentences like  “there is no such thing as unorthodox economic policy. . . . On the contrary, today’s economic policy is the most orthodox.” Did anyone inquire what this means? No one.

My third example is László Sólyom, the first chief justice of the Constitutional Court and president of the republic between 2005 and 2010. He was a disaster of a president and if you think that I’m too biased here is what American officials said about him in a cable sent to Washington in late 2008 entitled “President Sólyom’s injudicious activism.” The author of the cable reported that his supporters call Sólyom “principled” while his critics refer to him as “pedantic.” The Americans were no fans: “his minimal experience in economics and international affairs [is] combined with his personal animus toward the Prime Minister [Ferenc Gyurcsány].” In addition, he is incapable of political compromise. He was described as “both myopic and politically tone-deaf.”

The politically tone-deaf politician, because after all the president of the republic is a politician, has decided since his forced retirement from the presidency to “raise his voice” about twice a year. The last time was in October 2011 when he announced that “this regime is not constitutional.” At that time I castigated Sólyom for delivering his verdict in front of a group of high school teachers instead of using his considerable international connections and calling the attention of the world to the deteriorating Hungarian situation. In that post which, upon rereading, I consider one of my better ones, I severely criticized the man. Nothing has happened since then that made me change my mind.

This time Sólyom “raised his voice” in the tiny village of Aszófő (population 401). Why  Aszófő? Gábor Török, the political scientist known for usually not taking a stance, became a member of the town council half a year after his family moved there. Török’s position on the town council has its benefits. Earlier he managed to get Foreign Minister János Martonyi to deliver a speech on Hungarian foreign policy in the village, and this year László Sólyom accepted his invitation. As is clear, Török has friends in high places. Thanks to the good relationship between the two men, we are able to read Sólyom’s whole speech on Török’s blog.

László Sólyom and Gábor Török in Aszófő
Népszabadság — Photo by Simon Móricz

Sólyom, as his wont, tries to be balanced. He sees wrong on both sides. “On the one hand, there is the underrating of the intelligence of the population that derives from the aggressive governmental steps taken without any explanation, and, on the other, there is the loud noise in the defense of democracy that is coming from the discredited opposition.” Surely, the two are not of the same weight, but Sólyom is trying. However, in the latter part of the speech the comparison between the sins of the government and the sins of the noisy opposition in defense of democracy simply doesn’t hold up, as it shouldn’t. After all, the government has power while the noisy opposition doesn’t. Moreover, can’t a discredited opposition complain about the lack of democracy? Even loudly? Or, are they not entitled to do so, as we often hear from members of the current government?

Sólyom continues in a manner that only seems balanced on the surface. Yes, Hungarians are right in being offended by unfair criticism coming from abroad. The debate in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation was appalling and disillusioning and therefore the protests at the Peace Walk were understandable. And now comes the “however”: “politics mustn’t stay at the level of sentiments and conspiratorial theories.” There are well founded and objective criticisms that should be listened to instead of considering the critics enemies or even “counterrevolutionaries, a word we haven’t heard in this country for a good twenty years.” The reference here is to Viktor Orbán’s calling Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, a counterrevolutionary because Szabó found the law on public education unconstitutional.

Another balancing act follows. “Stealth fascism and dictatorship? Nothing of the sort. The greater part of the criticism of the Basic Laws–like marriage between a man and a woman, the defense of the embryo, the mention of God–is specious. On the other hand, there are still serious problems,” and here Sólyom mentions the criticism of the Venice Commission and the European Court of Human Rights which he considers well founded and very serious. Surely, no one is worried about stealth fascism and dictatorship because of the mention of marriage between a man and a woman in the constitution. But then why bring it up?

While a few lines earlier Sólyom assured his audience that there is no danger of inching toward dictatorship, half way through his speech he talks about “the loss of constitutional culture in the legislature and in the government. The two-thirds majority knows no limits. It feels entitled to do anything. The constitution no longer sets limits to politics but has become the instrument of politics…. They incorporate obviously unconstitutional paragraphs into the constitution in order to avoid a constitutional challenge to them.” But if this is the case, how can we believe Sólyom’s claim that there is no danger of stealth dictatorship?

And now we come to perhaps the most objectionable part of Sólyom’s speech which shows his hopeless misunderstanding of the goals of the Orbán government. Sólyom assumes that the large majority of Hungarians agree with Viktor Orbán’s stated goals: more jobs, a growing economy, high international reputation of the country, the unity of the whole Hungarian nation. The majority must agree on these issues because otherwise they wouldn’t have punished the former government as badly as they did at the 2010 elections. So, the problem is not with the stated goals but with “the style of their execution.” He quotes Comte de Buffon’s famous saying, “the style is the man himself” (“Le style c’est l’homme même“) and adds, in my opinion mistakenly, that “the style is the regime itself.” No, Mr. Sólyom, the problem with this regime is not its style. The problem is the regime itself.

The speech is also full of internal contradictions. Although he just told us that the style is the regime itself and that its goals are admirable, a paragraph later he states that “beyond cementing its political and economic power and introducing centralization the most we can notice is momentary tactical goals.” So, where are those long-terms goals that have the support of the majority of the population? Sólyom just said that the only goal seems to be power grabbing, preferably for decades.

I can only suggest to László Sólyom to give up this phony balancing act. Let’s not beat around the bush. Orbán’s regime is leading the country into something that no longer can be called democracy. Spelling out all the signs of stealth dictatorship while defending Viktor Orbán’s regime can only further discredit “the politically tone deaf” former president of Hungary.

44 comments

  1. Ivan Rettegö: “According to his famous statements, a country which has one language and tradition, is a weak country, that is why we must welcome foreigners.”

    And also try to integrate with the West, ie Western Europe in his case. And that was the message that Laszlo Solyom wanted to convey to the Slovaks in 2009 and which he could not? Hungary is so misunderstood! Perhaps it has even tried to welcome and integrate “foreigners”, but how bad that Roma (today) or Slovaks (before 1918) could not claim to be foreigners…

  2. @Louis:

    Very interesting – or not ? How many Hungarian divisions helped the Germans invading Russia ?

    This discussion is about ex-pres Solyom and why he may not be so popular with some/all ? people …

    BTW: He was Fidesz’s favourite once – now even the Orbán freaks don’t like him anymore …

  3. Kirsten: “And also try to integrate with the West, ie Western Europe in his case.”

    Where did this ardent love for and desire to integrate with the West came from? The Nazis came from the west, the Communist theory came from the west, did those “western” ideas, movements did so much good to Hungary?

    and no Kirsten, Solyom probably did want to convey anything to the Slovaks, he was most likely was trying to convey to the Hungarians in town, that they are not forgotten.

  4. Louis: “Where did this ardent love for and desire to integrate with the West came from?”

    I admit I have not met Stephen in person so I repeat what I learned from books: he wished to live on more civilised and peaceful terms internally and externally and the coronation as a Christian king contributed to that.

    But I reacted to the statement of Ivan Rettego who claimed that St Stephen and his peaceful message was the main interest in Laszlo Solyom’s visit. What you wrote perhaps makes it more likely why he was denied access to Komarno. Have you visited the place? It is very unlikely that any visitor to Komarno could have the impression that Hungarians there are “forgotten”. Is there not a “European square” presenting architecture from all over Europe and in front of that statues only of Hungarian kings? Very much worth a visit. It is a nice place and says a lot.

  5. wolfi: Lets start at the beginning. “Slovakia was the only Axis nation other than Germany and the Soviet Union to take part in the Polish Campaign. With the impending German invasion of Poland planned for September 1939, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) requested the assistance of Slovakia. Although the Slovak military was only six months old, it formed a small mobile combat group consisting of a number of infantry and artillery battalions. Two combat groups were created for the campaign in Poland for use alongside the Germans. The first group was a brigade-sized formation that consisted of six infantry battalions, two artillery battalions, and a company of combat engineers, all commanded by Antonín Pulanich. The second group was a mobile formation that consisted of two battalions of combined cavalry and motorcycle recon troops along with nine motorized artillery batteries, all commanded by Gustav Malár. The two groups were organized around the headquarters of the 1st and 3rd Slovak Infantry Divisions. The two combat groups fought while pushing through the Nowy Sącz and Dukla Mountain Passes, advancing towards Dębica and Tarnów in the region of southern Poland.”

    This is something our Slovak neighbors do not often publicise….They were active participants in the attack on Poland in 1939. Of course that attack did not have any consequences on Poland’s Jewish population……or maybe it did…..The Slovaks just can not be that bad….

  6. @Louis:

    Are you really such an idiot that you think it necessary to quote from wiki without saying so ?

    Wiki also says:

    “On 14 March, the Slovak parliament convened and heard Tiso’s report on his discussion with Hitler as well as a declaration of independence. Some of the deputies were sceptical of making such a move, but the debate was quickly quashed when Franz Karmasin, leader of the German minority in Slovakia, said that any delay in declaring independence would result in Slovakia being divided between Hungary and Germany. Under these circumstances, Parliament unanimously declared Slovak independence. Jozef Tiso was appointed the first Prime Minister of the new republic. The next day, Tiso sent a telegram (which had actually been composed the previous day in Berlin) asking the Reich to take over the protection of the newly minted state. The request was readily accepted

    On 23 March 1939, Hungary, having already occupied Carpathian Ruthenia, attacked from there, and the newly established Slovak Republic was forced to cede 1697 km² of territory with about 70,000 people to Hungary. See Slovak-Hungarian War for more information.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slovak_Republic_%281939%E2%80%931945%29

    You seem to be fond of quoting (or stealing ?) texts from other sources while taking them out of context …

  7. Maybe I misunderstood You, but I got the feeling that You proved my point. It seems to me that is simply unacceptable for You, that in this case the Slovaks were paranoid.

    We can always find a reason to blame a nation. (roma, slovak sufferings before 1918). Let me not present what Slovaks did to the Hungarians. How about the civilized western nations massacres in Africa? Comparing the minority policy of France / UK with that of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy? Ireland? Easter Massacre of Dublin?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

    This leads nowhere. History does not work as a fight between good guys and bad guys. Hungarians=bad guys, Slovaks and oppressed minorities=good guys? What is next? All the Germans are nazis, all the Americans are idiots, all the Jews are evil? We have to get used to it: roles are always changing. A Hungarian can be a good guy, and a roma can be racist, for example. We have to decide upon a case by case analysis.

    In this case (Mr. Sólyom-case) the Slovaks were interested in the escalation of the tension.
    In his speech on the bridge Mr. Sólyom invited the Slovakian politicians to come to Hungary any time they want to visit their fellow Slovaks in Hungary. Was there any gesture like this from the Slovakian Govmnt? Nope, he was declared a threat to the Slovakian Nation.

    Mr. Sólyom had already signaled his intention to the Slovakian Gvmnt months before the event. And what happened? On the anniversary of the 1968 invasion, the Slovakian President or PM participated in any commemoration or something? Nope, the previous went swimming, the later played football or what. It must be a real sad and moving anniversary for the Slovak Nation!!!!

  8. Mr. Rettegö, thank you very much for sparing me the entire story about how Hungarians were maltreated throughout their history, how nobody can understand their sufferings and how well the intentions (misunderstood by the rest of the world) have always been. That service was provided already earlier by a number of your compatriots. I know already that all other nations have misbehaved at least as much as Hungarians (and that the latter point might be a bit unfair to Hungarians because when thought about it twice, Hungarians have not misbehaved – these are myths spread by anti-Hungarian forces), and that other nations were never punished as severely as Hungarians. And certainly I have already heard of arguments such as ” A Hungarian can be a good guy, and a roma can be racist, for example”. The choice of properties asigned by you to these two groups of people are purely accidental, I know. And if not, this is because these are undeniable facts.

  9. 1. “sparing me the entire story about how Hungarians were maltreated throughout their history,”

    Misunderstood intentionS? “IntentionS”? It was a specific issue: Mr Solyom and his case.

    I don’t really understand what You are trying to tell me. Where did I say that Hungarians were “maltreated throughout their history”? That is exactly what I am opposed to:
    generalization from a specific issue. Just because I wrote that the Slovakian gvmnt’s arguments were lame and they lied, and added some background info, I am already some “conspiracy against Hungary” promotoeur?

    Where did I denied that Hungary did horrible things?This whole blog is enumerating Hungarian evil acts. Saying that every nation did awful thing is an excuse? This is all about PR. Watch an American movie and You will find Serbs as villains, and Croatians as innocents. It is not about misunderstanding, it is about interests.

    All I wanted is to point out the importance of the “case-by-case” analysis. The second world war thought us the lesson not to use prejudices. In this case, Mr Solyom was right, Slovak gvmnt was idiot.

    2. In my understanding, humans are the same everywhere. If a Hungarian/Slovak/German can be a racist, why can’t be racist an American/Chinese/Japanese/Jew? What prevents them from being that?

    Undeniable facts? A Hungarian can be a bad guy too. And a Roma nice guy as well.

  10. @Louis and Iván:

    Sometimes I wonder where you live and whether you’ve ever been to Hungary or Slovakia …

    Whenever a Fidesz or Jobbik politician is criticised you seem to believe that all of Hungary is in danger.

    Let me tell you a story:

    Last summer my wife’s young ones visited us at the Balaton for a holiday but then the boss called and asked the son to program something. Now the problem was that that program had to be physically transported on a USB-stick to the machine – which was in Komarno …

    So after the programming was finished instead of sending it via post my wife and I agreed to travel there, meet the engineer and give him that stick. It was a nice journey though the Hungarian countryside and shortly before our arrival in Slovakia I phoned the guy and he said: Let’s meet at the hotel “Pokol” near the Danube – sure, I answered, I can already see it on the other side of the street …

    After business was done we went to the pedestrian zone of Komarno – all the shops had of course their ads in Hungarian and Slovak and prices in € and in addition in the old Slovak currency …

    Then we decided to sit on the terrace of a cafe where the waitress immediately talked to us in German (maybe because I’m blond and six feet tall …) but when my wife asked something in Hungarian she switched automatically to Hungarian too …

    After some small talk we asked her if she knew of some kind of “welcome package” containing the new Slovak € coins – no she said but after a few minutes she brought a set of coins which we gladly accepted – a German friend of ours collects the € coins from the different countries and Slovak and Slovenian coins are hard to find.

    Reality is very different from what you guys try to make us believe …

    Anyway it’s funny: When I open my purse I find a mixture of € coins from all countries which to me is a really good sign.

  11. wolfi: “On 23 March 1939, Hungary, having already occupied Carpathian Ruthenia, attacked from there, and the newly established Slovak Republic was forced to cede 1697 km² of territory with about 70,000 people to Hungary. See Slovak-Hungarian War for more information.”

    Do you know, how many Poles (including Jews) could this way escape to and through Hungary when Slovakia and Germany attacked Poland????? You obviously think it would have been better if the Slovaks could attack from that region also and cause a more complete massacre.

  12. Do you know, how many Poles (including Jews) could this way escape to and through Hungary when Slovakia and Germany attacked Poland????? .

    YES, yes. “More than half of those who fled Poland went to Romania and Hungary.
    Thousands of refugees escaped to the south and booked passage on ships leaving Black Sea ports in Bulgaria and Romania.
    After the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, however, Hungarian authorities deported both Hungarian Jews and Polish Jewish refugees alike. The Germans murdered the majority in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring and summer of 1944.” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005593
    Thank you Kovach for reminding us what is the deal that Horthy made with the Germans! Maybe the Polish Jews would of been better off to leave out Hungary.

  13. wolfi, that was exactly my experience in Komarno, too. You are spoken to in the language that you speak. In the bookshop Slovak books in one window and Hungarian books in another. A Slovak in the street telling me “this is the house where Jokai lived!”. No tensions visible. The provokations from both sides, which were easily visible too, did not dominate and instead appeared to come from outside.

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