Category Archives: Hungarian politics

On language and food

Today I will veer away from politics, to the extent that is ever possible, and write about two unrelated topics: the mode of address in Hungarian and food quality. For a long time I have found the first topic amusing; the second, irritating. The inspiration to write about them came from two opinion pieces, both in Magyar Nemzet.

Let’s start with the amusing one. I have been noticing more and more frequently that in radio and television interviews the interviewer and the interviewee can’t decide whether they are on formal or informal terms. They switch back and forth with abandon. Then there are the interviews that begin with a lengthy explanation about the long-standing friendship between the two individuals that can justify the use of the informal. There is also the accepted practice that journalists always use the informal among themselves. This is observed even if the person in question was once a government minister but for a short time worked as a journalist. The person I’m thinking of in this particular instance is Gábor Kuncze. Huge confusion reigns in Hungarian sociolinguistics.

Obviously, I am not the only one who is bewildered by all this. In a recent Magyar Nemzet opinion piece the author states that “sooner or later the nation must make a deliberate decision whether it maintains the formal mode of address or it introduces a language reform as the Swedes have done.” The fact is that the informal is spreading in Hungarian with incredible speed, but the author is wrong in thinking that it greatly accelerated only after 1990. Already in the 1950s university students, regardless of sex, automatically used the informal. The habit was then expanded to office workers, teachers, doctors, and so on and so forth. By now total strangers use the informal in the most unusual circumstances. I was somewhat taken aback when a young relative of mine during a business call used the informal with a total stranger on the other end of the line. Or, here is a bizarre encounter from a few days ago. Zoltán Szabó, the respected editor of Index, had an unfortunate encounter with a security guard at a KFC. The KFC employee without a second thought called the bespectacled middle-aged Szabó “te.” Szabó also called the security guard “te.” In no time the security guard smashed Szabó in the face, presumably not because of a linguistic faux pas.

My other subject of the day is one that irritates me: the claim that Hungarian agricultural products, without exception, are vastly superior to anything produced elsewhere. To question this categorical statement is considered outright sinful. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by another Magyar Nemzet opinion piece titled “It would be quite enough if it were good.” To understand the title, one ought to know that not long ago there was a large agricultural exhibit, which was accompanied by a tsunami of ads about “the best of Hungarian soil.” The author writes that, for patriotic reasons, he bought only Hungarian products for years, but now he feels cheated because, as anyone can tell, Austrian or German yogurt, butter, cheese, and milk are better than their Hungarian counterparts. The campaign waged by the ministry of agriculture, which cost 1.85 billion forints, will not make Hungarian agricultural products better.

Three weeks later Zsolt Balásy, an analyst at MKB Bank, wrote an article with the startling title “Don’t buy domestic products: Winners and losers of globalization.” What should matter, he argues, is the price-value relationship and not where something was produced. Balásy then moves on to a discussion of watermelon. Anyone who follows the seasons in Hungary knows that there comes a time when the most important topic everywhere is the price and quality of watermelon. At the beginning of the article Balásy relates his conversation with a greengrocer at a market in Budapest who tells him that the watermelon he is selling is “not like the 100 ft. Hungarian one.” It is better because this watermelon comes from Greece. (In Hungarian, watermelon is called Greek melon.) For part of watermelon season the only Hungarian watermelon available is of lower quality because the best watermelons are exported, where they compete successfully. Protectionism necessarily lowers quality everywhere.

Together for Hungarian watermelon and for your health / Index /Photo: Janos Bődey

On the internet, I encountered a website called gyakorikérdések.hu where someone poses a question and waits for answers or comments. One of the questions was: “Why is there the perception that Hungarian products are the best and most delicious?” The answers supported my contention that this belief is simply a popular myth based on inappropriate comparisons. As Balásy said, one should not compare a delicious Hungarian peach to a watery Italian one because then there is no question that the Hungarian peach will be the winner. Some of the commenters attested to the fact that in many cases the foreign products are better than the domestic ones. This is especially true of dairy products. Judging from the comments, food nationalism no longer works, but the Hungarian government hasn’t recognized that fact yet.

October 16, 2017

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

Fidesz and gender inequality

A fascinating article appeared yesterday in 24.hu about József Szájer’s voting habits in the EU parliament. István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the EU parliament, noticed that Szájer, who is one of the nine vice-chairmen of the European People’s Party (EPP), often refrains from voting, although he is the one who instructs members of EPP to vote for or against an issue. Szájer explained that he, as vice-chair of EPP, in order to avoid self-contradiction, refrains from voting when the Fidesz caucus within the EPP cannot support the delegation’s majority decision. Thus, from Szájer’s non-votes one gets a fair idea of how often Fidesz members stray from the majority opinion. The resulting count revealed that in the last two years there have been 58 occasions when Szájer had to resort to this practice, which means that for the EPP leadership the Fidesz caucus must be a royal pain in the neck. It’s no wonder that a few months ago there was talk of their expulsion from the delegation.

A careful study of those issues on which Fidesz went against its own delegation is by itself a fascinating undertaking. No one will be surprised to hear that many of the contrary votes were about issues connected to migration. But the Fidesz delegation also went against the majority opinion on anything related to Turkey. Fidesz members didn’t quite dare to vote against the resolution condemning the repressive measures introduced by President Erdoğan; instead, they consistently abstained on all issues related to Turkey. The same was true of any piece of legislation connected to the rights of NGOs.

József Szájer at work / MTI / Photo: László Beliczay

Given the Orbán government’s views on migration, its outright friendly relations with Turkey, and its antagonism toward NGOs, none of these “nay” votes or abstentions is surprising. What is startling, however, is the Fidesz MEPs’ consistent anti-women stance. Fidesz MEPs either vote against or abstain when gender equality is at stake. In April of this year they abstained when the European Parliament approved the Arena report on female poverty. They did the same when it was the question of the Kuneva report on domestic workers. They also abstained on accepting the Honeyball report on sexual exploitation and prostitution. All this hasn’t gone unnoticed, and István Ujhelyi learned that the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) will send a delegation to Hungary soon to learn more about the situation on the spot. A similar delegation visited Poland just lately, and therefore I assume that the trip to Hungary is not far off. I should mention that FEMM has only one Hungarian member, Jobbik’s Krisztina Morvai.

Here are some of the women-related issues on which Fidesz members voted “nay” or abstained: (1) supporting girls’ education in the EU, (2) the implementation of the principle of equal opportunity and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation, (3) the enforcement of gender equality in the work of the European Parliament, (4) strengthening gender equality and women’s rights in the digital age, (5) preventing and combating human trafficking and defending the victims, (6) the development of labor market conditions favorable to a balance between work and private life, (7) the promotion of gender equality in mental health and clinical research, (8) the Report on Equality between men and women in the European Union—2014-2016, and (9) the Report on EU subsidies for promoting gender equality. As you can see, they wouldn’t even support the fight against human trafficking or research on the mental health of women.

What emerges from this list is a consistent and deliberate government policy against anything that would promote gender equality. It is not just Viktor Orbán’s ambivalent feelings toward women in politics, as expressed a couple of years ago at his meeting with students. And it is certainly not the delicate nature of women that would make them unsuitable for political life in Hungary, as Orbán claimed at the time. It is a hard political decision. As long as Viktor Orbán and his ilk are in power in Hungary, the situation of Hungarian women will not improve. Mind you, as far as the number of women in politics is concerned, the situation wasn’t exactly rosy even before 2010. Their numbers in parliament have been hovering around 9-10%. Hungary is close to the bottom of a list of 189 countries comparing the percentage of women in the legislative process. It is among countries like Gambia, Samoa, Botswana, and Belize. Nothing to be proud of. But at the same time Hungarians, on the whole, share Viktor Orbán’s belief that the reason for the scarcity of women in parliament is their unsuitability for the profession.

Hungarian women don’t fare well in general. The European Institute for Gender Equality, an EU agency situated in Lithuania, published its latest report on gender equality in the European Union. Since 2005 three such reports were published, and the report noted that progress in this area has proceeded at a “snail’s pace” in general.

The report ranked all 28 states on an index score from one to 100 in terms of work, money, knowledge, time, power, and health. It also looked into the issue of violence. Sweden heads the list with an overall score of 82.6, followed by Denmark (76.8), Finland (73), and the Netherlands (72.9). At the bottom is Greece with a score of 50. And where is Hungary? Second to last with a score of 50.8. Over time scores increased in most member states, though some were stagnant (Czech Republic, Lithuania, Finland, Slovakia). There were, however, a few that managed to lose ground: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Spain, and the UK. The 2017 interactive equality index is available online.

Hungary’s low scores were predictable, as was the fact that in the last few years Hungarian scores have decreased. The worst score Hungary received was in the political, economic, and social power category. Here are some figures: for women’s political power Hungary received a score of 14.3, while the EU average is 52.7. That put Hungary last on the list. The same is true of women’s social power (20.9). Hungary did somewhat better in the economic sphere, where the EU average is 39.5 and Hungary received a score of 22.1. That better score, however, didn’t make up for the very low scores in the other two categories, and thus Hungary ended up at the bottom of the list with an overall score of 18.7 as opposed to 48.5 for the 28 member states.

It is depressing to see Hungary at the bottom or very close to the bottom in comparative lists. It is especially jarring in light of the constant bragging of Fidesz politicians about the fantastic achievements of the country. I wonder when the people of Hungary will notice that something has gone very wrong and that a better future is not likely any time soon.

October 14, 2017

Hungary leads the way in defense of persecuted Christians

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, organized by the Hungarian government and held in Budapest between October 11 and 13. We know that the prime minister considered this speech to be of great importance because it was made available in its entirety, in both Hungarian and English, on his website within hours. Such speed normally attests to Orbán’s belief that the content of a message is particularly significant.

I must say that I have to strain my imagination to see the political implications in this address, but Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider a sharp-eyed commentator, sees this talk as a new stage in the Hungarian government’s assault on the European Union. Others, like Tibor Pethő in a Magyar Nemzet editorial titled “Crusade” (Keresztes háború), views the Christian Democratic András Aradszki’s reference to the rosary as a weapon against the Satanic George Soros as an introduction to Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he said that Hungary will take the lead in the defense of the Christians of Europe and the world. He is not the only one who is convinced that Aradszki’s remarks in the Hungarian parliament were inspired, if not dictated, by the highest authority of the land.

In the last few months high-level politicians and government officials have taken up the cause of Christianity, the most persecuted religion. As Viktor Orbán put it, “215 million Christians in 108 countries around the world are suffering some form of persecution.” These figures are being repeated practically everywhere. I encountered one site where the claim was made that even in Mexico Christians are suffering “a high persecution level” from “organized corruption.” From remarks by Hungarian church officials and Christian Democratic politicians I learned, to my great surprise, that Hungary is also one of those countries where the persecution of Christians takes place.

According to Viktor Orbán, Christian persecution in Europe “operates with sophisticated methods of an intellectual nature.” Admittedly, it cannot be compared to the sufferings of Christian communities elsewhere, but greater dangers are lurking for European Christians, which many people don’t want to notice. He recalled the watchman in the Book of Ezekiel who, neglecting to warn people of the danger, was held accountable for the blood spilled by the enemy. Surely, Orbán sees himself as the watchman bearing news of the coming danger to the “indifferent, apathetic silence of a Europe which denies its Christian roots.” But there will be a price for this neglect of European interests. The present immigration policy will result in the transformation of Europe’s Christian identity.

Hungary is a small country without many relatives, but it has something other richer and bigger countries don’t have, Orbán claims. Many larger countries may have well-intentioned politicians, but they are not strong enough because “they work in coalition governments; they are at the mercy of media industries.” Hungary, by contrast, is a “stable country” whose current government has won two-third majorities in two consequent elections and, what is also important, “the public’s general attitude is robust.” Therefore, “fate and God have compelled Hungary to take the initiative.” I puzzled over the meaning of Orbán’s reference to the “robust attitude” of Hungarians and, since it didn’t make much sense to me, I turned to the original Hungarian text where I found that the prime minister was talking about the “healthy attitude” of the population. What are the characteristics of this healthy attitude? What about those who, unlike Hungarians, don’t have a healthy attitude? It is a good topic for a debate.

These are the main points of Orbán’s speech. Hungarian assistance in Iraq, which he briefly described at the end of his speech, needs no elaboration. I already wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in a post titled “Two New Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians.”

So, let’s see what the other shining lights of the Fidesz world had to say. After all, the conference lasted three days and those days had to be filled somehow. As a result, there were many, many speeches on the subject of Christian persecution.

One of the first men to greet the participants was András Veres, bishop of Győr, who currently serves as president of the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops. He was the one who, in his sermon on the August 20 national holiday, felt compelled to talk disapprovingly about increased government support for the in-vitro fertilization program. His words created quite a storm. After some hesitation, the government stood by its position. Details of the controversy can be found in my August 25 post. At the conference he admitted that the persecution of European Christians still means only mocking them, “but all bloody persecutions” began like that. The reason that Hungarians understand the plight of Middle Eastern Christians better than Western Europeans do is because “there is persecution of Christians in Hungary today.” You can imagine what some bloggers had to say to that when the government is pouring money into the churches–well, at least into the government-approved churches; it financially “persecutes” the others.

Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources who himself is a Protestant minister and who, over the years, has acquired the reputation of formulating high-flown ideas that usually fall flat, decided that “the conservation of Christian values, worldview, and culture also means the conservation of democracy.” I assume that for most people this assertion makes no historical sense whatsoever. Balog, presumably following Viktor Orbán’s lead, sees in Hungary’s assistance to the Christians of the Middle East “an opportunity to reform the foundations of European Christianity.” Well, that’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It seems that Hungary is not only defending Christian Europe but also wants to reshape it.

Péter Szijjártó was more modest. He only wants to make Budapest “the engine of the fight against the persecution of Christians.” We learned from him that “work is a Christian value,” as if working hard was alien to other cultures. He also had the temerity to say, after the government propaganda against migrants and lately against George Soros, that “a good Christian cannot be against anyone.”

Zsolt Semjén and Zoltán Balog at the press conference / MTI / Photo: Attila Kovács

Zsolt Semjén didn’t disappoint either. He gave a press conference after the “consultation” was over. He argued that Islamists who commit anti-Christian genocide should be brought before the International Court of Justice. He also said that the persecution of Christians in Europe is of “the light variety,” which is “not without its dangers because what’s going on in Europe is the conscious destruction and apostasy of Christianity.”

I’m pretty sure that Semjén was not happy with a question he got about the 1,000 Coptic Christian families from Egypt and Iraq the Hungarian government allegedly generously settled and gave Hungarian citizenship to during 2014 and 2015. Both Zoltán Balog and Péter Szijjártó insisted at the time on these people’s presence in Hungary, but the problem was that the leaders of the already existing, though small Coptic community had never heard of them. Or, rather they knew about “a few businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.” The government couldn’t give a coherent explanation for the invisible Coptic Christians. After all, 1,000 families should mean about 4,000 people. I devoted a whole post to the story at the time. Now Semjén insists that the government cannot say anything about these 1,000 Coptic families because their lives are in danger. I guess that’s one way for a good Christian to avoid the issue.

October 13, 2017

The latest opinion polls on the chances of the opposition parties

First, before getting into the polls, a short “public service announcement.” Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. will hold an “open day” tomorrow (October 13). Arcanum has been digitalizing an enormous number of documents, periodicals, newspapers, and books over the past few years. A certain amount of their digitalized material is available at no cost, including such gems as Maria Theresa’s 1767 Urbarium, which genealogy buffs will find especially useful, but for full access you must pay a monthly fee. If you visit Arcanum’s table of contents (https://adtplus.arcanum.hu/hu/) you will find an amazing amount of material. So I urge everybody to make a quick trip today and look around. Tomorrow everybody will be able to browse Arcanum’s rich depository of material.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two new polls have been published recently. The first was conducted by Publicus Research, which was specifically interested in voters’ reaction to László Botka’s withdrawal as MSZP’s candidate for the post of prime minister. To my surprise, 43% of the respondents didn’t think that Botka’s disappearance from the scene made an appreciable difference in the electoral chances of the parties on the left. My surprise was based on the following considerations. First, those who disapproved of Botka’s handling of the negotiations with the other left-opposition parties should think that his retirement would enhance the likelihood of a united front, which, at least in theory, should boost the chances of the socialist-liberal side. On the other hand, those who saw in Botka a strong leader who could give a face to a unified opposition should be disappointed and consider the chances of the opposition diminished. Yet, it mattered not whether the respondent was a Fidesz, a Jobbik, or an MSZP voter; they all agreed that Botka’s presence in the campaign was neither here nor there. I think this outcome is a sad commentary on Botka’s eight-month non-campaign.

The amazing finding is that, despite the fact that 66% of the respondents thought that Botka’s withdrawal from the race shows the chaos that exists among the left-opposition parties, 44% still think that with hard work and readiness to compromise the left-opposition could win, as opposed to 49% who think that, no matter what, they couldn’t win. Moreover, over 60% said that Botka’s resignation was not too late; there is, they believe, still time to find a suitable and successful replacement.

As for the likelihood of victory over Fidesz at the next election, the respondents were divided, depending on party preference. Over 83% of Fidesz voters are convinced that their party will easily win next year, while MSZP voters are even more sure (89%) that there will be a change of government in 2018. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters are much more cautious in their predictions. The majority (58%) are optimistic, but there is a large minority (42%) who fear that Fidesz will remain in power.

When Publicus Research asked the respondents about their willingness to vote for the left-opposition, there were only a couple of surprises. Clearly, Fidesz supporters are not contemplating voting for such an opposition group. However, it was somewhat of a shock that 53% of Jobbik voters would be willing to vote for the left-opposition. I suspect that the question wasn’t clear enough: “How likely would you be to vote for a left-wing joint force (együttműködés) at the 2018 election?” There is only one situation in which such a decision would make sense: if a Jobbik voter was confronted with a situation in which no Jobbik candidate was on the ballot in his electoral district.

Otherwise, Publicus, along with many other pollsters, maintains that the majority (56%) of the electorate would like to see a change of government. Over 90% of MSZP, DK, LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and Jobbik voters want Viktor Orbán and his minions to be replaced, and what is encouraging is that 56% of undecided voters want the same. Considering the consensus view that undecided voters hold the key to electoral success, that level of desire for a change of government must be heartening to the opposition.

The second poll, by Medián, was released today. The data was gathered in the second half of September, before the withdrawal of László Botka. The goal was to find answers to the question of the electorate’s desire for collaboration among the opposition parties. This time only possible voters for opposition parties took part in the survey. Here again there are some surprises. Perhaps the most intriguing result is that 33% of anti-Fidesz voters claim that they prefer each party to run alone. This, given the present electoral system, would be suicidal for the opposition parties, and again I’m not sure whether the respondents really understood the question properly. They may have thought of separate party lists, especially since there was an alternative that talked about a common list that included all the opposition parties minus Jobbik. The other surprise is the relatively large number (33%) of those who want complete cooperation, which would include Jobbik. When Medián broke the answers down by party preferences, it turned out that 43% of MSZP, almost 50% of DK voters, and 34% of the undecided ones are willing to include Jobbik in a joint venture against Fidesz. Obviously, the desire to get rid of Orbán and his corrupt and undemocratic government overrides any other consideration. Although the leadership of LMP has been championing for years to face the election on its own, the party’s voters are not entirely convinced. LMP voters are almost evenly split on the issue.

Finally, let me lighten your day with a Jobbik stunt concerning the government’s campaign against George Soros. I think I wrote earlier that Bernadett Szél asked for a copy of the Soros Plan, which naturally the government was unable to provide. Jobbik did better than that. It filed charges against George Soros with Károly Papp, the chief of police. The charges are: (1) preparation for a violent change of the constitutional order, (2) conspiracy against the constitutional order, (3) destruction, (4) treason, and (5) rebellion. As support for the charges they cited claims by Bence Tuzson, undersecretary responsible for communication, György Bakondi, chief adviser on domestic security, János Halász, Fidesz spokesman, Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on security, András Aradszki, who called Soros Satan, Gyula Budai, Fidesz member of parliament, Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, and Csaba Fodor, managing director of Nézőpont, a Fidesz political think tank. Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman, said that if Soros is guilty of all the things Fidesz and government spokesmen accuse him of, he should be arrested and charged. I’m sure that Károly Papp will not find the Jobbik antic funny.

October 12, 2017

Mária M. Kovács’s laudatory remarks on Randolph L. Braham and his work on the Hungarian Holocaust

The 95-year-old Randolph L. Braham, professor emeritus at the City University of New York, gave a lecture in Goldmark Hall on Wesselényi utca, Budapest. Professor Braham’s list of publications is long, but his monumental work The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary is the one that established his reputation as one of the foremost Holocaust researchers of our times.

After the welcoming speech of András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, Professors Mária M. Kovács and András Kovács, both of Central European University, delivered laudatory remarks on the extraordinary accomplishments of Professor Braham, who has devoted his life to the study of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Professor Braham is no stranger to Hungarian Spectrum. Several of his articles were published here. I’m most proud of the fact that Professor Braham specifically designated Hungarian Spectrum as the best place for his scholarly article “The assault on the historical memory of the Holocaust.”

The lecture that he delivered in Budapest, without notes, was titled “Anatomy of the Hungarian Holocaust.” After his lecture he was awarded the Laurea Honoris Causa award from the University of Szeged. Ever since the 1990s the university has had close working relations with Professor Braham. Moreover, the students and faculty of the university have been the beneficiaries of the J. and O. Winter Fund, administered by Professor Braham.

Professor Randolph L. Braham with Zsolt Szomora, associate dean of the Law Faculty of the University of Szeged

Here one can read the remarks of Professor Mária M. Kovács, who is also well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. We published several of her articles, including her polemics with Mária Schmidt. The video of the event can be seen online, although the simultaneous translation from English to Hungarian and from Hungarian to English makes it difficult to follow the speeches.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Professor Braham, dear President Heisler, dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great honor to be able to welcome Professor Braham, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the City University of New York, on this occasion. We are all very grateful for his visit here, in Budapest.

Professor Braham’s presence here, in the Goldmark Hall, is more than just a ceremonial occasion. It is an exceptional opportunity for us to pay tribute to the world’s most important scholar of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Professor Braham has, single-handedly, done more for recording the history of the Hungarian Holocaust than anyone else has. We owe it to him, more than to anyone else that this history did not disappear in the Orwellian black hole of forgotten memory.

When Braham began this work in New York in the 1960s, in Hungary itself, the topic of the Holocaust was still outlawed from historical scholarship. At that time, Braham realized that unless the work of recording the Holocaust was set in motion from outside Hungary, the dignity and memory of over half a million Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust would, perhaps, never be protected.

Since then Braham has produced and edited over sixty books, hundreds of articles and bibliographies, and a magisterial Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary.

As a result of Braham’s gigantic work, the Hungarian Holocaust is regarded today to be among the best-documented chapters in the entire tragedy of the Shoah. This immense achievement – as György Ránki put it – is not likely to be surpassed anytime soon in the future.

And now, let me also say a few personal words about what Randolph Braham means to us, Hungarian historians. As we began our own work, we began by reading Braham’s works, first without even knowing if the term “Braham” referred to an institution or a person. “Just go to Braham” – was the first piece of advice we heard if we were interested in issues of the Holocaust.

And there still is no better advice we could give to our own students.

By today, the term “Braham” came to refer to an entire school of scholarship that our guest has established. A school of an immensely precise, panoramic and microscopic study of the Hungarian Holocaust.

But Braham is not only a great historian. He is also a moral compass for our profession and beyond, for our entire community. He speaks for us even when we may be at a loss for words.

When, a few years back, he was asked in an interview what it is in other people that he dislikes the most, his reply was: “indecency, unreliability, and hypocrisy.” And if he discovers any of these, his personal response is unyielding.

This was precisely the case three years ago when the Hungarian government established the infamous Veritas Institute and erected the German Occupation Memorial.

In response, Braham returned his medal of honor to the government to protest against the blatant drive to falsify history and to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era. “I reached this decision with a heavy heart” – Braham said. But “I cannot remain silent, especially since it was my destiny to work on the preservation of the historical record of the Holocaust.”

Yes. This is exactly what Braham’s destiny has been. Elie Wiesel put this into more eloquent words than I ever could. To recommend Braham’s work to the public – Elie Wiesel said –, “is more than an act of friendship, it is the duty of remembrance that belongs to the realm of the sacred.”

Welcome in Budapest, Professor Braham.

October 11, 2017

Viktor Orbán is losing his cool

Trump’s uncontrolled outbursts seem to be contagious. While in the past Viktor Orbán showed considerable restraint when giving interviews or answering opposition members of parliament, in the last couple of weeks he has given vent to his frustration and anger.

Friday, during his regular morning radio interview, he lashed out against the European Commission, repeating himself, calling the legal opinion released by the European Commission an object of derision, a document that one cannot discuss without laughing. If Hungary accepted this document, it would become the laughing stock of Europe. He went on and on. Then yesterday, he accused Ákos Hadházy (LMP), who has spent years fighting the endemic corruption of the Orbán regime, of corruption himself. Pressured by the European Commission and by Hadházy’s dogged pursuit of his government’s systemic corruption, Orbán no longer seems capable of exercising self-control.

I have been following Ákos Hadházy’s political career ever since he first appeared on the national scene. He reported on a local corruption case in Szekszárd, a small town, where he was a Fidesz member of the city council. Since then, Hadházy, now co-chair of LMP, has focused on uncovering corruption cases. Just the other day, he said in an interview that he had held more than 80 “corruption infos.” Once a week he stands in front of the cameras and reports on yet another horrendous case. Each of these cases involves millions if not billions of forints. Hadházy estimates that in the last seven years the “Fidesz clientele” stole about three trillion forints of the subsidies Hungary received from the European Union. In his assessment, all work performed is at least 30% overpriced.

Lately, Hadházy has been working on two cases, both involving healthcare. The first one was a program that was supposed to set up “mentor houses” for premature babies and their parents in Szeged, Kecskemét, and Gyula. A foundation was established for the purpose, called “I Arrived Early Foundation,” which received 1.2 billion forints from the European Union. Since it was such a large project, Hadházy asked for details. It turned out that less than half of the money was allocated to the program itself. The rest was designated for the maintenance of the foundation. Money was spent on most likely overpriced rentals, legal advice, laptops, telephones, several printers, and very high salaries for the “coordinators,” while the 40 mentors received only about 50,000 forints a month.

It turned out that two other very similar projects received about half the amount that “I Arrived Early Foundation” got, and they managed quite well. Mind you, they didn’t pay 50 million forints for “legal advice.” In fact, they got along just fine without it. While a methodology study cost the “I Arrived Early Foundation” 50 million, the other foundation managed to get one for 8 million.

Hadházy stirred up a hornet’s nest by investigating this particular foundation. János Lázár’s wife is one of the board members of the foundation, and Hadházy suspected that the unusually generous financial support given to the foundation was not entirely independent of Mrs. Lázár’s presence there. Soon after the “corruption info” in which Hadházy announced the foundation’s suspicious expenditures, he found himself in the crosshairs of Zoltán Balog’s ministry, which awarded the money to the foundation, and the Office of the Prime Minister, headed by János Lázár. Nándor Csepreghy, Lázár’s deputy, assisted by the government paper, Magyar Idők, led the attack. Magyar Idők published several articles accusing Hadházy of being a heartless man who compared these premature babies to newborn puppies. Hadházy, who is a vet in private life, did in fact compare the weights of some of these babies to newborn puppies, and he was quite accurate. A newborn puppy is about 500 grams, just like the smallest premature baby. Csepreghy, in defense of his boss, called Hadházy an “ignorant scoundrel.” Lázár at one point offered his wife’s retirement from the foundation, but as far as I know nothing of the sort happened. Naturally, the foundation explained away all of its expenses.

The second case was even more clear cut. The National Healthcare Services Center (Állami Egészségügyi Ellátó Központ/ÁEEK) issued a tender for several ventilators. General Electric and three Hungarian firms submitted bids. The Hungarian firms were actually just wholesalers, and their bids were a great deal higher than General Electric’s. The three Hungarian firms offered to sell the ventilators for a price between 1.7 and 1.9 billion forints as opposed to GE’s offer of 1 billion forints. ÁEEK tailored the tender in such a way that only one bidder could win the tender. Predictably, GE lost the bid, but the company decided not to take the decision lying down. The American firm turned to the Public Procurement Authority (Közbeszerzési Döntőbizottság), which ruled in GE’s favor. ÁEEK had to pay 50 million forints. Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, subsequently denied that the procurement was rigged.

Ákos Hadházy addressing Viktor Orbán in Parliament / Source: ATV

The GE affair was the topic of Ákos Hadházy’s weekly corruption info. János Lázár seemed to agree with Hadházy that those who were involved in the case must be investigated. So, emboldened by Lázár’s reaction, Hadházy brought up the case in parliament yesterday when Viktor Orbán by house rules had to be present and was obliged to answer questions. Hadházy asked the prime minister who was right: János Lázár or Bence Rétvári. Orbán flew off the handle. He accused Hadházy of lobbying for GE. “A representative stands up in the Hungarian Parliament lobbying for a company. How much money did you receive for this? How dare you? How dare you lobby for a company in the Hungarian Parliament during an ongoing public procurement? Especially, on behalf of a foreign company. Now, I have been sitting here for many years, but I have not seen a case more corrupt than this, shame on you!” He also ordered an “investigation” of Hadházy right on the spot.

Hadházy doesn’t seem to be intimidated. He will sue Orbán for slander. Otherwise, he wrote a defiant note on his Facebook page in which he pointed out that Orbán, with his outburst, “kicked a three-meter self-goal” by calling attention to the fact that they want to steal billions from the “dying hospitals.” He said that Orbán’s claim of “an ongoing public procurement” is a lie since the Public Procurement Authority already closed the case. Otherwise, he is looking for the day when Orbán will have to apologize to him. Well, in his place I wouldn’t hold my breath.

October 10, 2017