Category Archives: Hungarian politics

Viktor Orbán before the European Parliament

I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.

I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.

The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.

The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.

Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.

Source: Politico / Photo: Emmanuel Dunnand / AFP

Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.

Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.

I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”

And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.

April 26, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Growing anti-Russian sentiment in Hungary

In the last couple of months the Hungarian government has been so preoccupied with George Soros’s evil empire that it has not noticed a shift in public opinion on its increasingly close relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Hungarians are getting fed up with Russian influence, which is noticeable wherever they look. In March, Publicus Intézet conducted a poll which revealed that the majority of Hungarians consider Viktor Orbán’s pet project, the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, to be contrary to Hungarian interests. Better informed people are convinced that the City of Budapest was forced to buy refurbished outmoded metro cars from Russia–cars that kept breaking down–in order to please the Russians.

When Bernadett Szél of LMP accuses Fidesz members of parliament of being Russian agents, when anti-Russian slogans are chanted at demonstrations, and when the Party of the Two-tailed Dog carries posters like the ones shown here, we can see that Orbán’s shameless courting of Putin’s Russia is starting to backfire at home.

By now many perfectly sane people are convinced that Orbán’s abrupt foreign policy turnabout when he was reelected prime minister in 2010 was not exactly voluntary. Until then, Orbán had been fiercely anti-Russian. Russian-Hungarian relations, way before Russia’s Putinization, were seriously strained during Orbán’s tenure as prime minister between 1998 and 2002. It took the socialist-liberal government years to normalize relations between the two countries. While in opposition, Orbán criticized any and all moves toward closer relations with Russia, especially Ferenc Gyurcsány’s friendly personal relations with Vladimir Putin after 2006. But then, in 2009, Orbán showed up in Moscow as the head of Fidesz to attend the congress of Putin’s party, United Russia.

It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who the other day said publicly what thousands of people suspect: that Vladimir Putin has something on Viktor Orbán which caused him to change course practically overnight. On April 8 Gyurcsány gave a long interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he claimed that “Viktor Orbán’s about-face can be logically explained only by assuming that the Russians are blackmailing him.” Upon further questioning, he indicated that he knows about certain aspects of Orbán’s life that might lend themselves to blackmail. On April 21 he went further in an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd. “I know the following: the Russians have confronted the prime minister with certain facts and documents which are so embarrassing that he would think five times before he would reject Putin’s demands.” Those who are in possession of the documents can be forced to release them only if the documents are required as evidence in a court of law. Therefore, Gyurcsány continued, “the prime minister should sue me over this accusation if he thinks that what I’m saying is untrue. In that case, I will prove my assertion.”

This is a pretty startling announcement from a former prime minister, but the fact is that a fair number of commentators, politicians, and ordinary citizens have been convinced for some time that this recent Russian-Hungarian love affair raises red flags. Two politicians who were interviewed right after Gyurcsány, neither of them a Gyurcsány fan, didn’t reject the possibility. On the contrary.

Meanwhile an activist, Gergő Komáromy, to demonstrate his opposition to Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin, threw (washable) yellow paint on the Soviet War Memorial, which stands on Liberty Square right across from the U.S. Embassy. Komáromy received a fine of 30,000 forints (around $100), a much milder sentence than Márton Gulyás got for a lesser act. But that was not the end of the story. A few days later Komáromy was contacted by a Chechen-born Russian citizen, Magomed Dasaev, who demanded a public apology. After Dasaev informed him that he is a nice Chechen but there are others who are not so nice and might be after him and his family, Komáromy readily agreed to a public apology both in Hungarian and in English. The video that was put online was a great hit among Russian internet users. In no time close to 200,000 people watched the Hungarian’s humiliation. For good measure even the Russian Foreign Ministry got into the fray, calling attention to the bilateral agreements on Soviet and Russian military memorials in Hungary.

That a Chechen decided to take things into his own hands and threaten a Hungarian citizen was too much even for András Stumpf of the conservative Válasz. He found the video “chilling.” The Fidesz government, which prides itself on being a “national government,” should be national now and raise its voice against a Chechen forcing a Hungarian citizen to be humiliated in front of everybody. The Russians “look upon this city as their predecessors used to. As a colony, their own little kindergarten. So, it is really time for all of us to be national.”

Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, moved into action. She finds it unacceptable that neither the Hungarian intelligence community nor the prime minister speaks out against “Russian pseudo civilians telling Hungarian citizens how they can protest the government’s policies.” Her view is shared by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the committee. The committee will call on the Budapest police and the Office for the Defense of the Constitution for an explanation. What happened cannot be tolerated in an EU country, Molnár said.

Others called attention to mysterious Chechens showing up in Moscow. As Krisztián Ungváry put it, “In the beginning, the Chechen only asks; then he sends the head of a dead animal; and finally someone is hit by a car.” Attila Ara-Kovács recalled a group photo from 2006 on which one can see Anna Politkovskaia, Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemirova. What they have in common is that by now all three are dead, killed by Chechen hit men. And, of course, there is the case of Boris Nemtsov, who was killed practically in front of the Kremlin, also by a Chechen. Putin, it seems, created a network of Chechen henchmen who do his dirty work. Given Viktor Orbán’s itchy palms and CÖF’s talk about civil war, the appearance of Hungary’s own Chechen is worrisome.

I assume that nobody is shocked after everything that has happened recently that the attitude of Hungarians toward Russia has undergone a dramatic shift. To the question “In your opinion, whom does the current foreign policy of the government serve first and foremost?” the percentage of those who named Russia tripled (from 9% to 26%) between November 2016 and April 2017 while the percentage of those who answered that the Orbán government’s foreign policy primarily serves the interests of the homeland has shrunk from 57% to 45%. But more about this fascinating poll tomorrow.

April 23, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: My friend and my neighbor, CEU

I have always been familiar with this downtown area, this prestigious, formerly tony district, called Lipótváros (Leopold Stadt), first built and populated by the aristocracy and the elegant set, and when they faded out of money, up and coming Jews made it their own. Here, a mere two blocks away from the classicist Basilica, is located CEU, Central European University, its headquarters ensconced in the classicist palace of the Count Festetich family. There are another five-six buildings spread around, former banks, corporate buildings, all housing different departments of the University, populating the place, already quite populous with endless streams of tourists, with students, teachers and hangers on, such as myself, for a good many years. Kitty-corner from CEU’s main building is the former historic Lipótvárosi Kaszinó, the once august social club of the richest Jews of Pest, which was the target of a time bomb attack by Jew-haters sometime in 1923, causing several deaths.

Photos by the author

Opposite, on the other side of Nádor Street, stands a yellow three-story classicist-style building. Lajos Kossuth once lived in it. And just a couple doors to the north, number 11 Nádor Street, is the art deco building that housed in the 1950s the National Planning Office, the economic heart of the murderous communist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi. This Planning Office was the employer of my mother, whom we regularly visited, my brother and I, because of the building’s loop-style elevator that swished up and down without an operator and which we rode going up on the one side and, after seeing the mechanism in the attic space, proceeded down on the other side countless times. They called this elevator type ”pater noster” because it kept going without ever stopping. This number 11 is also part of CEU now (the pater noster of course long gone), as is the building next door that was just completed last fall in the super modern, that is to say, super post-modern style, and it is wonderful.

All these buildings and a few more in the adjacent streets are open at most times to anybody interested in walking in, and there are plenty of people interested because there is a steady stream of programs, conferences, lectures, workshops going on almost all day long into the night on the most varied subjects. At the counters of the door keepers in every building a screen shows the programs, be they today, or next month, or several months ahead.

In 2001 when I started to visit Budapest with some regularity, I met a young man from New York who was teaching English writing skills to the students of the then minuscule CEU. We are still friends, and he is a tenured professor now. Over the years since, as we discovered the fantastically varied and excellent programs available to the interested public, we also met the most amazing people in the course of attending those conferences and lectures. And thanks to the opportunities there, we found out about facts and events that otherwise would never have come to our attention, nor would we have had any other way to find out about them. A close friend of ours is teaching and practicing psychology at CEU, another teaching Turkology, a third one is doing “only” plain history, uncovering the heretofore unknown events leading up to the Holocaust in Hungary, and another one is the researcher and translator of the Russian-Jewish literature that has never been heard of before in Hungary.

At a very interesting conference a few years ago I heard and met Deborah Lipstadt, the formidable historian, who put a dent into Holocaust denial for good. At the same conference I also met György Lázár from California, whom I have long admired for his excellent writing, and we became friends right then and there.

The CEU system of beaming intelligence and knowledge is somewhat obscure to me. I never needed to find out how it worked because it worked very well, and that was more than enough for me. But it is obvious that there is practically no scientist, professor, researcher, or lecturer who would not be glad to accept an invitation to present his thoughts or research results at CEU. I was at a lecture a few months ago where the presenter simply reported on what he was currently reading and what he was finding out from it, without really suggesting where this was taking him. That was a truly fascinating lecture.

Just as the “House of Fates” museum controversy was at its height, CEU hosted first the American historian who participated in the establishment and eventually the opening and operating of the Philadelphia Jewish Museum and then, a few months later, the Canadian historian who did more or less the same in Warsaw at the stupendous Jewish museum there. In fact, I found both lectures so engrossing and illuminating that I was compelled to write an open letter to Maria Schmidt, the Hungarian historian, who had the opportunity to do the same here, in Budapest, but was so inept and so biased that she probably lost that opportunity forever. She was not at these lectures but would have benefitted from them immensely.

It is also true that apart from the student community, the leaders and faculty of other universities were somewhat sluggish in expressing their views in favor of liberal and free education. Particularly distasteful was the response of Rector András Lánczi of Corvinus University, who claimed the exclusive right to voice the position of the University. This was, alas, too late because many members of the faculty had already spoken out strongly in defense of CEU. This, however, brought to the surface an element of sour grapes as it turned out from some complaints that the salaries of professors at CEU are five times those at Corvinus.

The sinister attack of the government against CEU, the unsuspecting sitting duck in the middle of town, was of course a shock and a scandal for almost everybody, except the close coterie of the Fidesz government. But to my wife and to me it was like a personal attack against the lifestyle we moved to Budapest to enjoy: the free and copious flow of ideas and information. This was to us, and I am sure to many other people I came to meet at CEU, an ignoble, sinister attempt to take away from us an important part of our lives, the intangible treasure we considered our own and are not prepared to give up. We are not giving it up because the excuses offered for taking it away are hollow lies that under no circumstances would justify robbing us, never mind robbing the students and faculty of the university. We are not letting go because it would be taken from us without compensation: the government doesn’t offer anything in return but empty bluster and conflicting lies that wouldn’t fool even an elementary student. And finally we refuse to let it go because this institution is an organic part of the city and of the country, producing something that could not be, and is not, produced anywhere else in Hungary, something so precious, so valuable, that it is one of the best things this country has ever produced and is a sampler of what this country, even in the midst of its sorry decline, is capable of producing.

There is, however, a silver lining, increasingly so. The wheel of fortune is slowly but quite perceptibly turning. The government of Viktor Orbán mindlessly plunged into this hate fest, in a few days completing the process from suggestion to legislation of putting this magnificent institution out of business. But what a sorry testimony it was to the ineptitude and shortsightedness of this government! What kind of people do they think these are? Will the CEU community buckle under helplessly? Yes, that is what they expected. But the resolve of the faculty, the students, the solidarity of the entire student community, not to mention of the worldwide movement on behalf of CEU, has strengthened the hand of Michael Ignatieff, the president of the University. And as the “match” presently stands, the advantage is slowly moving in Mr. Ignatieff’s favor. The government has so far refused to negotiate with him, hoping that the U.S. government will be their partners. But what a miscalculation! The American government wouldn’t even want to hear about this matter, and they wouldn‘t talk to any official from Hungary either. The hapless government is slowly running out of options. Soon they will have only two choices: withdrawing the new, inhuman law, thus giving up on killing the university, or sitting down to talk to Mr. Ignatieff. And the fewer options they have left, the stronger his position will be. In this case, I expect that Mr. Ignatieff will not settle for anything less than an internationally guaranteed, ironclad warrant from the government assuring that no more interference will ever befall this long-suffering university.

As for me and my friends in the CEU community, we are confident and hopeful because thought and ideas are more potent than a petty tin pot dictator’s personal caprice and his thirst for vendetta.

April 22, 2017

Viktor Orbán is playing with fire with those itchy Christian palms

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Zsolt Bayer reacted to a series of demonstrations with the following threatening words: “We will also be on the streets to protect what is important and sacred for us. And we will be very angry. So, for a while you can rant and rave, you can try to tear the parliament apart, the ministries, the Fidesz headquarters, the president’s office, you can attack the policemen, assault journalists—for a while. But then no longer. Then you will experience what it feels like to be persecuted and threatened. I’m telling you we are very angry. Is it clear?” LMP’s Bernadett Szél decided to file charges against Zsolt Bayer for “public incitement.”

Bayer is not the kind of guy who, once he has a “cause,” abandons it easily. He promptly answered his critics in an article published in Magyar Idők in which he recalled all the questionable actions of socialist politicians in 2002, as if they had anything to do with the issue at hand. Then, he continued, today’s demonstrators bellow “You will hang!” “To jail!” And they attack journalists. This is what can be called “incitement,” not his answer to all these provocations, which simply states “we will also go out to the streets.” Naturally, they will be peaceful as they always were in the past. His response to the “sniveling” Bernadett Szél is that they will not create a Hungarian Maidan. “I can promise you, and you can call this promise a threat.”

Zsolt Bayer was one of the organizers of those peace marches (békemenetek) which, according to Viktor Orbán, saved him when foreign powers tried to topple his government in 2012. In the past three years or so the organizers haven’t tried to stage a mega-demonstration because the last couple of times they tried, their efforts were flops. Therefore, I consider it highly unlikely that Bayer and his friends in CÖF, the government-sponsored NGO, will try to organize a large demonstration for their beloved leader, Viktor Orbán.

On the other hand, there are groups of people who are not so “peaceful” as the older recruits of the peace marches. These less than savory characters, some from the fan club of the Ferencváros football team, have a very bad reputation when it comes to exercising physical force on the streets of Budapest and elsewhere. They were the ones who attacked the building of the Hungarian public television station in September 2006. This was the first time that Fidesz used these football hooligans for political purposes, but they also showed up on other occasions, the most notorious being the time they prevented István Nyakó (MSZP) from submitting his application for a referendum on Sunday store closings.

Bayer is not the only one who is providing ideological ammunition to these groups. A relative newcomer is a certain János Somogyi, who describes himself as a “retired lawyer” and who is a regular commentator at Magyar Idők. His opinion pieces are viciously anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalist. He is a great supporter of Vladimir Putin and everything Russian. A few weeks ago he was still a supporter of Donald Trump, but who knows what will happen if Trump doesn’t fulfill his and Orbán’s expectations. His tone is aggressive and bears an uncanny resemblance to the articles published in the communist party’s official daily newspaper, Szabad Nép, before 1956. As far as he is concerned, the demonstrators are “pitiful characters.” Most of them are only misled, though others are “provocateurs in the pay of foreign powers.” They are a nuisance, and “many of us are running out of patience.” The demonstrations are getting to a point where retaliation can be expected. In order to describe his and others’ waning patience, he used the Hungarian equivalent of the word for a carnival strength tester, the high striker– “pofozógép,” punching machine. Actually, he uses the word “pofonosláda” (punching box), which I couldn’t find in the Magyar Értelmező Szótár. But what is important is the word “pofozó” or “pofonos”(punching, slapping) because, as we will see, János Somogyi’s inspiration for dredging up such a rarely used Hungarian word came from none other than Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary.

Three days before Somogyi’s article about the punching machine/box Viktor Orbán gave an interview to Kossuth Rádió’s Vasárnapi Újság. It was during this interview, while discussing the demonstrations, that Orbán talked about people’s hankering to strike out. The reporter, Katalin Nagy, told Orbán that some well-known provocateurs were planning to disturb the Easter procession around the Basilica. Although she is a “peaceful Calvinist,” hearing about such a barbarity was like a punch in the gut. How long must one endure all this, she asked. It was at that point that Orbán said that “many people’s palms are itching. Even the palms of those who otherwise are peaceful and upright Christians.” As I explained in an earlier post, an itchy palm for Orbán means a yen to hit someone or slap someone around.

And that takes us back to a bunch of skinheads and football hooligans who already made a brief appearance at one of the demonstrations but were soon removed by police. Now, these people are organizing a counter-demonstration, scheduled for tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. in “downtown Budapest :)” (I keep wondering what this smiley really means.) The organizers got a lot of requests for such a demonstration because people are fed up with the pseudo-civilians, George Soros, CEU (which is a janissary school), and with the demonstrations in general, which in their opinion are a combination of a pre-Pride march and Woodstock. They don’t want see either an Arab Spring or a Ukrainian Maidan in Hungary. They don’t want an army under the EU flag to influence Hungary’s domestic affairs. “Let’s retake the streets, so Hungary and Budapest can again belong to Hungarians.” Retaking the streets of Budapest sounds pretty frightening to me. The last time I looked, 226 people had indicated that they would attend and 674 are interested.

Tamás Poszpischek, organizer of the demonstration to retake the streets of Budapest

Who will take responsibility for the itchy palms of these good Christians? The extremist organizers, already at the Sunday demonstration, got into a heated discussion with some of the protesters while abusing Soros and Jews in general. Five or six people posed no threat then, but what if several hundred gather tomorrow in “downtown Budapest” for a “medicinal walk”?

Mária M. Kovács, a history professor at CEU, wrote about the itchy palms of good Christians on her Facebook page: “If István Bethlen in 1928 had said that the palms of the Christians are itching, there would have been a national scandal. The parliamentary opposition would have screamed, newspapers would have carried the news on their front pages, and most likely there would have been fist fights at the universities. But István Bethlen didn’t say such a thing.” Yes, this is how far Viktor Orbán has moved to the right. With his coded anti-Semitic remarks that no one even notices, the prime minister himself is leading the troops toward a possible physical confrontation.

April 21, 2017

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

In today’s post I will not even be able to scratch the surface of the debate over restructuring the Hungarian electoral system to make it more proportional. It’s an exceedingly complicated, emotionally fraught subject.

Until recently the discussion was merely academic, but with civil activist Márton Gulyás’s call for a political movement whose goal is changing the unfair electoral system, it has become a political issue. Supporters of such a change believe that it is a prerequisite for fair elections that would reflect citizens’ true political views instead of the two-thirds Fidesz majority that the present system practically guarantees. Opponents argue that, given the present political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve a two-thirds majority, just as Fidesz did in 2014, which would enable it to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. As Orbán said, “one has to win only once, but then big.”

There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t even have been able to form a government on its own.

In 2015 János Széky, writer, translator, and political commentator, first talked about the need to address the serious shortcomings of the Hungarian electoral law as it was originally conceived in 1990. He devoted a chapter to it in his book Bárányvakság, the Hungarian equivalent of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis or LCA, an inherited eye disease. He returned to the topic in February of this year, arguing in an article that with a proportional electoral system Fidesz would never have gotten a two-thirds majority. The standard response to this assertion is that it wasn’t the electoral system that produced Fidesz’s super majority but the extremely poor performance of the Gyurcsány government. Széky disagrees. Since the end of World War II no other party has received two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in any of the present members of the European Union. Not even 60% of the seats. “There is no such thing in a democracy,” claims Széky. In this essay and in his book, Széky forcefully argues for a proportional electoral system based on party lists and criticizes the political elite for neglecting this vitally important political issue.

Recently Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. He gave several interviews and wrote extensively on the subject. He shares Széky’s poor opinion of party leaders who neglected to explain to their followers the real reason for Fidesz’s “success”–a grossly disproportional electoral system. In order to escape from what Haraszti calls “constitutional dictatorship,” this system must be changed. As far as Haraszti is concerned, in talking about electoral victory the opposition parties are engaging in self-deception or, even worse, deceit.

Haraszti doesn’t believe in an alliance of the left-of-center parties, which would be a straitjacket for the parties and wouldn’t satisfy the needs of their followers. Moreover, at present there is no sign of any kind of cooperation among them. Competition among parties is a natural state of affairs, but it can work only if there is a genuinely proportional electoral system. Fidesz must be forced to change the system it made even less proportional than it had been. If it refuses, the opposition parties should abstain from participation in the election. Haraszti believes that no electoral campaign and election would be accepted if all the other parties refuse to participate. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore would have to negotiate with the opposition parties, all demanding radical change.

One of the first people to criticize Miklós Haraszti’s blueprint for achieving a reform of the electoral system was the political analyst Zoltán Ceglédi. He calls the plan an illusion. It is hard to imagine that Orbán would willingly replace a system that is advantageous to him with one that would give him fewer votes. Moreover, knowing Orbán, the more pressure is applied, the more adamant he will be to keep the present system. In his opinion, the claim that Fidesz cannot be defeated under the present system is wrong. The word “Fidesz” is not in the law. One simply must get more votes. Ceglédi considers boycotting parliament under the present circumstances an acceptable method of not collaborating with a thoroughly corrupt and dictatorial regime. But boycotting the election is not a realistic goal. The defeat of Orbán as soon as possible is of primary importance, but it must be done under the present system.

The other critic who published an opinion piece today is László Bruszt, professor of political science at Central European University and visiting professor at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. He considers Viktor Orbán’s campaign for the recapture of the two-thirds majority pretty well lost. In his opinion, Viktor Orbán’s Easter message was not about the consolidation of his regime but a desperate stab at saving it. Bruszt is, however, unhappy with Márton Gulyás’s declared goal of changing the electoral system. Concentrating narrowly on one issue diminishes the opportunities the recent demonstrations offer the parties. In fact, it may divide them. Yes, Fidesz must be defeated but by Fidesz’s own rules. The secret is competition on party lists but with a single common candidate in each district.

What Bruszt considers more important than a change in the electoral system is a modification of rules and regulations not found in the electoral law. For example, the extreme limitations placed on sending messages to the electorate. A couple of weeks before the election in 2014 there were practically no signs of campaign activity. Parties had minimal possibilities to advertise either on the streets or in the media. Fidesz used so-called “civic organizations” like the government-financed CÖF as proxies. Since electoral laws did not apply to them, they were able to advertise where parties were forbidden to do so.

Orbán is in trouble now and much more vulnerable than in 2014. Bruszt actually compares him to Károly Grósz, the last party secretary of MSZMP in 1989 who, like Orbán, became more and more aggressive as he felt more and more threatened. The opposition should not let Orbán escape from the trap in which he finds himself by talking exclusively about an unfair electoral system and thereby offering excuses for failure. Moreover, since the present system can easily produce a super majority, if the opposition could receive 45-47% of the popular vote, it would be in a position to change the constitution and many other institutional laws the Orbán regime has introduced.

Electoral laws, of course, go beyond questions of proportionality. Electoral districts are drawn in such a way as to favor particular parties, voting procedures benefit some (for instance, Hungarian Romanians) and disadvantage others (Hungarians living in Great Britain), and campaign finance laws can make a significant difference in the outcomes of elections. All thorny, all worthy of debate.

April 20, 2017