Almost a week has gone by and the furor over the decoration of the foul-mouthed, racist, anti-Semitic Zsolt Bayer hasn’t quieted down. In fact, it has grown. The protest started with a single individual who had received a similar decoration earlier. He sent it back to János Áder, president of the country, with a note explaining his reason: he didn’t want to belong to a group that includes people like Zsolt Bayer. Others followed his lead. As of today 82 men and women have expressed their disgust in this way.
People wanted to know who was responsible for the incredible decision and what the justification was for giving him the award. The journalists seeking answers to these questions ran up against a wall of silence. They asked all the possible ministries and offices but didn’t receive credible answers to their questions. We know that the prime minister has the final stamp of approval when it comes to nominations. But János Áder, in whose name the decorations are bestowed, could have vetoed the nomination if he had so wished. After all, when Ferenc Gyurcsány recommended former prime minister Gyula Horn for a decoration in 2007, László Sólyom refused to endorse the nomination because of Horn’s activities after the defeat of the 1956 uprising.
The journalists also had a hard time learning why the Hungarian government found Bayer’s achievements so remarkable that it saw fit to give him a state decoration. The custom in most countries is for someone to read a citation spelling out the reasons for the honor before the award is given. No such citation was delivered during the ceremony. 444.hu eventually received word from the prime minister’s office that the recommendation came from a civic group devoted to the memory of those Hungarians who ended up in Gulag camps after 1945. Zsolt Bayer, according to that group, has done a lot to acquaint the Hungarian public with the fate of these people. In addition, Bayer has published many articles about the life of Hungarians in Transylvania.
A day later, when the latest Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) was published, the official citation emerged. According to it, Bayer received the decoration not just because of his “exploration of several national issues” but also “as a recognition of his exemplary journalistic work.” 444.hu commented: “After that, the question is when the Kossuth Prize will come.” The Kossuth Prize is given for outstanding personal and group achievements in the fields of science, culture, and the arts. So, after all, the Hungarian government thinks that Bayer is the very model of a modern Hungarian journalist, worthy of emulation.
Then came another surprise. Tamás Stark, the president of the foundation that allegedly recommended Bayer for the decoration, knew nothing about it until he read the story in Népszabadság. Stark is a well-known historian who is a senior researcher at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He has written extensively on the very subject on which Bayer is supposed to have done so much work. But Stark is not familiar with anything that connects Bayer to work on the Gulag. In fact, in his opinion Bayer doesn’t deserve any award or decoration, not just because he is a racist and an anti-Semite but because “he supports a Russian regime that doesn’t confront the sins of Stalinism and tries to minimize and relativize them. It is precisely the memory of the Gulag’s victims that doesn’t allow the decoration of such a journalist.”
It turns out that this foundation exists mostly on paper. Stark told HVG that they meet twice a year in remembrance of the victims. Members of the board do not keep in touch with one another. It seems that the vice president, a certain Jolán Pintér, got the bright idea of submitting Bayer’s name to somebody high up in the government. It may have been Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, or perhaps Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of the group that decides on the persons recommended for prizes, awards, and decorations. Jolán Pintér refuses to say anything to the press.
Stark’s reference to Bayer’s relations with Putin’s Russia brought back memories of a Bayer piece published at the time of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest in January 2015. It was titled “Letter to Vladimir Putin” (Levél Vlagyimir Putyinnak). The article begins with a long passage Bayer wrote back in 2005 after he had paid a visit to Siberia. It is a gushing ode to the Russian soul and the country’s literature. What comes afterward is outright nauseating. He praises Putin “for not letting Russia perish” and cites the close mental affinity between Hungary and Russia. They have certain things in common “which in vain would we like to explain to anyone in the West.” He does admit that in the past there were many times when Hungarians had reason to fear the Russians, “but now you are right about everything or almost everything, Mr. President.” The liberals worry about Russia’s designs on Europe “when there is no more Europe” because “Europe wants to be America, and, Mr. President, this was to be your fate too.” If Putin hadn’t saved his country “there would be no Russia today.” There would be only a huge colony devastated by consumption. “And it is possible that every half an hour a plane would leave Alaska for Kamchatka. As the Americans bought Alaska from the tsar, today they would buy all of Russia, but for less money. On the other hand, it would be declared that Russia is an impeccable democracy, a first-rate free country… But you didn’t allow that to happen. You made it strong. You made it Russian. You couldn’t have done anything greater than that.”
Meanwhile, the world’s most important papers reported the story of Bayer’s decoration, and the Washington Holocaust Museum released a statement that condemned conferring a decoration on Zsolt Bayer. It is a very strongly worded statement that I will publish in full later. Here is the gist of the statement: “Governments have a responsibility to combat hate speech that invites violence. This is especially true for countries like Hungary where systematic persecution and mass murder were carried out during the Holocaust with the active complicity of the Hungarian state. If Hungary’s Order of Merit truly recognizes ‘the promotion of universal human values,’ then Hungarian Prime Minister and Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban and President Janos Ader have no choice but to rescind Zsolt Bayer’s award immediately.”
The independent Hungarian media immediately reported on the Holocaust Museum’s condemnation, but the pro-government papers acted as if nothing had happened. The only exception was the newly created 888.hu, which is supposed to attract younger audiences. The headline reads: “America again wants to meddle in Hungary’s affairs.”
Otherwise, the consensus is that the government will not rescind the decoration and that Zsolt Bayer has no intention of relinquishing it. Put it this way, Zsolt Bayer is one of them. Three and a half years ago, when Bayer was under fire because of his remarks on Gypsies being animals, Bayer’s friends organized a birthday bash for him where many of the Fidesz bigwigs were present, among them László Kövér, who delivered a speech. He thanked Bayer for the 25 years ”we spent together, in good times and bad. But not once have we disavowed each other and we never will.”
It is time to recognize that there is no substantial difference between the political views of Bayer and those of the Fidesz leadership. It’s just that Bayer can state outright what they can only insinuate.
August 24, 2016