Category Archives: Hungarian politics

The Hungarian socialists in turmoil?

Perhaps the most telling sentence on the state of the Hungarian Socialist Party came from its chairman in an interview he gave to Inforádió on August 7. In the interview Gyula Molnár tried to be upbeat. The public clash between László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership, and Zsolt Molnár, one of the top leaders of the party, is now behind them. Zsolt Molnár and László Botka have made peace, and the decision was reached to follow the party’s initial strategy, the lynchpin of which is the retirement of Ferenc Gyurcsány from politics. The chairman sounded upbeat until he uttered the following sentence: “I’m already afraid of the results of the August opinion polls.” Molnár’s fear is well founded. There is a very good possibility that the clash between the two well-known MSZP politicians will further erode the dwindling support for the socialist party.

MSZP’s leadership will not change strategy. As long as the politicians and the membership of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) insist on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list, there will be no collaboration with DK. Perhaps it was Gyula Molnár’s interview that inspired DK to publish an open letter to László Botka. Ágnes Vadai, one of DK’s vice-chairmen, posted it on her Facebook page. I assume DK is trying to make sure that the public will place most of the blame on Botka because of his intransigence concerning the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány. So Vadai stressed DK’s attempts to come to an understanding with Botka, though she emphasized that the DK community will not accept him as the leader of the joint opposition without the presence of its chairman. As she put it, “DK is not for sale either with or without its chairman.” Vadai ended her letter by saying: “You accepted the leadership role. If you’re successful, it will be to your credit, but if you fail, you will have to shoulder the blame.” Vadai added that if Botka rigidly adheres to his present strategy, he will place the democratic opposition in an untenable situation.

László Botka wasn’t impressed. First, he made fun of “the followers of Donald Trump’s Twitter politics,” meaning Vadai’s choice of Facebook as a vehicle of communication. Second, he indicated that he has no intention of changing his mind on the subject of Gyurcsány’s presence in the political life of the democratic opposition. His answer was a paraphrase of a line from a Szekler story. An old couple is sitting on the terrace. The wife turns to the husband and complains that he never tells her that he loves her. The old Szekler says: “I said it once. If there is a change I will let you know.” This story might capture one aspect of the Szeklers, who are known for their reticence, but it was impudent under the circumstances. It showed the arrogance for which Botka is becoming known nationwide. Moreover, a day later Botka accused Gyurcsány of not being a man of democratic convictions. Otherwise, Gyurcsány would support him, because he is the one who “proclaimed the strategy of victory” which will remove Viktor Orbán’s government.

Given these unfortunate events, observers of the political scene on both sides of the aisle have become convinced that Gyula Molnár’s fears of a serious loss of support will force MSZP to drop Botka, who hasn’t shown the necessary political finesse or a willingness to keep communication open with the other democratic forces outside of MSZP. Government publications began to speculate that Botka’s days may be numbered. Earlier there had been voices suggesting that Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd would be an attractive alternative, but I can’t imagine that MSZP politicians would be ready to entrust a non-party member with that position. A couple of days ago Figyelő, the once highly respected financial weekly which has since been purchased by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian, came up with a replacement in the person of Ágnes Kunhalmi.

Source: nyugat.hu / Photo by Bálint Vágvölgyi

The 35-year-old Ágnes Kunhalmi has popular appeal that MSZP hasn’t really exploited. She was designated the party’s education expert. She does appear frequently in the media, but always strictly in that capacity. This is surprising because in the 2014 election Kunhalmi showed what she is capable of. Gábor Simon, an MSZP old-timer, was MSZP’s candidate in Budapest’s 15th electoral district (Pestszentlőrinc-Pestszentimre/District XVIII). Only a few weeks before the election Simon was accused of money laundering and was arrested. The party in the last minute replaced Simon with Kunhalmi, who in a spectacular campaign lost by only 56 votes. The Fidesz candidate’s slim margin was due to several phony parties with misleading names being encouraged by the government to enter the race. There were at least three such “social democratic types” of parties on the ballot (SZDP [67], MSZDP [52], Szociáldemokraták [128]). Later, when the democratic forces had problems finding a candidate to run against Fidesz-supported Mayor István Tarlós, I thought Ágnes Kunhalmi would be a perfect candidate. Instead, Lajos Bokros ran in the last minute. Although he is not a popular politician, he did surprisingly well, getting about 35% of the votes.

Soon after Kunhalmi’s name surfaced in Figyelő, the government publications were full of the news that “the dissatisfied MSZP leaders have already found the successor to Botka.” Origo seems to know that Kunhalmi, who is the chairman of the Budapest MSZP, is less than happy with László Botka’s decision to name József Tóth, the successful mayor of District XIII, as a kind of coordinator of the Budapest campaign, which under normal circumstances would be the job of the Budapest MSZP leadership. Yesterday Gyula Molnár denied in an interview on “Egyenes beszéd” of ATV that there is any intention of replacing Botka with Kunhalmi. In fact, their relationship is close. The party, including Kunhalmi, stands behind Botka. Moreover, MSZP will not change its initial strategy. MSZP has already chosen its 106 candidates for the 106 available electoral districts, though, he added, that can still be changed. In this scheme the other opposition parties would have a slim chance of winning any of the left-leaning districts.

Kunhalmi said that the election campaign will be in the hands of the Budapest Election Committee, which will be under the supervision of the Budapest MSZP leadership, which she heads. She and her team will, however, work with the party’s central leadership, with László Botka and with József Tóth. She added that she finds Tóth’s appointment an excellent idea because “there is a need to engage all successful left-wing politicians who can give new hope and impetus to Hungary after the long period of darkness under Fidesz.”

All of this optimism sounds too good to be true. Let’s wait for the polls, which will be coming out in late August. Perhaps, after all, the strategy will have to be changed and, with it, the person who will lead the team.

August 11, 2017

Extradition of Yerzhan Kadesov to Kazakhstan, with Hungarian assistance

In order to understand the ins and outs of today’s post about the extradition of Yerzhan Kadesov, a Kazakh national, from Hungary to Kazakhstan, I’m afraid I have to start with Mukhtar Ablyazov, the founder of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), a political party which was supposed to be a counterforce against the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh dictator who has been in power ever since 1984. Soon enough Ablyazov was accused of embezzling $5 billion from Bank Turan Alem (BTA).  He fled the country and settled in France, where he was subsequently detained by French authorities. Russia sought his extradition, but the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch took up his case. Last December he was released on the grounds that Russia had a political motive in making the extradition request.

Yerzhan Kadesov / Source: Interfax.kz

It was not only Ablyazov who fled Kazakhstan but several of his colleagues, whose extraditions were also sought and denied for the same reason. One of the lesser associates of Ablyazov was Yerzhan Kadesov, who escaped from Kazakhstan in 2009, first settling in Ukraine. After a while, however, fearing that the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych might extradite him, he moved to Hungary in 2012. Two years later Kazakhstan issued a warrant for his arrest, and in 2016 the Hungarian authorities detained Kadesov on the grounds that he was a national security risk. A Polish human rights group called Open Dialogue Foundation moved into action on Kadesov’s behalf. They released an urgent call to stop the extradition, pointing out that there is a good possibility that “Hungary is in the service of the Kazakhstani dictator” in handling the case.

Kadesov’s case is closely tied to that of Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov, Kadesov’s supervisor at BTA, who in January 2017 was kidnapped by Kazakhstani security forces in Turkey, where he enjoyed refugee status. Soon enough Zharimbetov began “to reveal Ablyazov’s crimes.” Based on his testimony, the Kazakh court sentenced Ablyazov to a 20-year jail term in absentia.

The Kazakh authorities seem to be using Zharimbetov to convince other fugitives to return to Kazakhstan. This is what happened in Kadesov’s case. It seems that the Hungarians helped the Kazakhs in their endeavor by allowing telephone calls from Zharimbetov to Kadesov while Kadesov was in jail in Hungary. Moreover, Kazakh diplomats in Budapest were free to visit him. But ODF claims that Hungarian human rights organizations were prevented from providing legal assistance to the incarcerated Kadesov. The Kazakh fugitive steadfastly denied his guilt for about six months, but in the middle of June he confessed and asked to be extradited to Kazakhstan. ODF claims that Kadesov was pressured via threats to his relatives in Kazakhstan “with the knowledge and assistance” of the Hungarian authorities.

Index also got hold of the story, though fairly late in the game. Index’s source, I assume, was the Polish ODF. In the middle of June Index sent inquiries to the ministry of interior concerning the Kadesov case but got no answer whatsoever. This surprised the journalists because in the past they always got answers, even if they were fairly meaningless.

The first thought that came to my mind when reading this story was the Hungarian decision to extradite Lieutenant Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. During the summer of 2004 NATO’s Partnership for Peace organized a two-month program for officers from the member states in Budapest. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the Partnership when it was established in 1994. The young officers were supposed to study English in the Hungarian capital. Ramil Safarov, an Aziri national, purchased an ax locally, and one night when the Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan was asleep, he brutally hacked him into pieces. He practically severed the Armenian officer’s head. During his trial Safarov freely admitted that his only reason for killing Margaryan was that he was an Armenian. He showed no remorse for his crime. In addition, while in jail he attacked the guards, for which he received two and a half years in a separate trial. In 2006 the verdict was announced: he received a life sentence for premeditated murder.

Between 2006 and 2012 the Azeris tried to convince the Hungarian government to let Safarov serve his sentence in Azerbaijan, but the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments steadfastly refused the request, knowing full well that he would immediately be released since the Azeri government and people considered Safarov a national hero. However, after Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Azerbaijan in June 2012, a deal was struck between the Orbán government and the government of Ilham Aliyev for Safarov’s release from Hungarian custody. And indeed, just as predicted, Safarov was greeted at home as a national hero and immediately received clemency from the president. The minister of defense bestowed on him the rank of major.

A Kazakh fugitive who is extradited today won’t be as fortunate as Safarov. Other countries where Kazakh fugitives sought shelter–Great Britain, Spain, the Czech Republic–have all refused to extradite them to Kazakhstan and/or Russia. Hungary is the odd man out. I assume that by now Kadesov is already in a Kazakh jail, where apparently he can’t expect a fair trial. Of course, this case will not create such an outcry as the Safarov case did. After all, it was a murder case. Safarov’s release by the Hungarian government also had serious diplomatic consequences. After the incident the Armenian government broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary, adding that “the Armenian nation will never forgive” Hungary for what happened. Diplomatic relations between the two countries haven’t been restored since.

On the other hand, Hungarian relations with Kazakhstan have been close ever since 2012. Who can forget Viktor Orbán’s speech during his visit to Kazakhstan: “We believe that we are equal partners within the European Union but originally we were strangers there. When we go to Brussels, we have no relatives there. But when we come to you in Kazakhstan we are at home. This is a strange feeling that people have to go to the East in order to feel at home. Therefore, it is always with great pleasure that the Hungarian delegation comes here.” Surely, one cannot say ‘no’ to such a good friend. Denying extradition might spoil their wonderful friendship.

August 10, 2017

Hungarian politicians and Migration Aid’s “migrant resorts”

By now, I’m sure, many readers of Hungarian Spectrum who regularly follow the English- or Hungarian-language news from Hungary have heard the story of those refugee families who were offered the opportunity to spend a few days in a village at the edge of Kis-Balaton, a huge wetland habitat. As is clear from the name, the place is only a few kilometers from Lake Balaton. An Austrian benefactor offered three cabins to Migration Aid International, an Open Society Foundation-supported organization that is helping both the refugees who are still being kept in transit zones along the Serbian-Hungarian border and those who have been released and have been granted asylum and are currently under the “protection” (oltalom) of the Hungarian state. In the rest of this post you will see what this “protection” means in the current harsh reality of the Orbán regime.

Cutting to the chase: a Fidesz member of parliament, three mayors in the vicinity of those three cabins, and some of the less than charitable and enlightened inhabitants of the three towns swore that no refugee can have a vacation near them. They don’t care about these people’s legal status. They don’t want them nearby. In fact, as one of the mayors said, they don’t want them anywhere in Hungary.

Source: abcug.hu / Photo: András Hajdú

Many articles have been written on the subject in Hungarian, and yesterday The Budapest Beacon published a detailed summary of what happened in Keszthely, Hévíz, and Zalavár, three towns located in one of the busiest tourist areas of Hungary. Since the disgraceful story can be read elsewhere, I will approach the topic from a different angle. I wanted to discover its genesis.

It looks as if the journalists of Magyar Idők regularly check Migration Aid’s Facebook page. There they learned, most likely on August 2, that the organization’s activists were planning to spend the weekend getting the three cabins ready to receive the first three families. The journalist who got the job of inciting public opinion against Migration Aid and its plans was Áron Nagy, who subsequently wrote five articles on the unacceptability of allowing “migrants” to vacation anywhere near Lake Balaton.

The very first article was, most likely purposely, misleading. According to Nagy, “Migration Aid International in the outskirts of [Keszthely] is planning to give temporary accommodations to asylum seekers let out of the transit zones.” Migration Aid’s Facebook page was very specific about the status of the refugees. They were not asylum seekers. They already received asylum in Hungary. Migration Aid was equally clear about using the cabins for the purpose of providing short vacations for people in desperate need of some normalcy. The total news value of this article was the sentence I just quoted. The rest of the 450-word article was filler that besmirched the reputation of Migration Aid and made sure everybody knows it is connected to George Soros’s foundation.

The news spread quickly and naturally reached the local internet news site, Zalai Hírlap Online (zaol.hu), which got in touch with András Siewert, the operative coordinator of Migration Aid. Zaol.hu’s handling of the story was a great deal more professional than Magyar Idők‘sThey went to Migration Aid’s Facebook page and accurately quoted the description of the organizations’ plans for the cabins. Siewert explained that these people want to stay in Hungary and the organization is trying to acquaint them with Hungary’s history and culture. Zaol.hu asked whether Migration Aid was concerned about any negative local reaction, to which Siewert’s answer was that since the neighbors are mostly Austrians and Germans they don’t anticipate any trouble. What a sad commentary on the state of mind of Hungarians after two years of hate mongering.

By that time it became known that the three cabins are situated in the outskirts of Zalavár, a village of 1,000 inhabitants. Ildikó Horváth, the mayor of the village, learned about the refugees from Magyar Idők but found out only from zaol.hu that the three cabins are situated in Zalavár. Her reaction was swift: “As soon as this information reached me I took the necessary steps,” which “will serve the interests of the villagers.” What the mayor of Keszthely, a city 13 km. away, had to do with three cabins in Zalavár is hard to fathom. But it was clear from the zaol.hu article that by that time the mayors of the whole region had been in touch with one another, and they swore that they would use “all legal means” to prevent the families from vacationing anywhere nearby. Jenő Manninger, the Fidesz member of parliament representing the district, admitted that the visit of these families doesn’t mean permanent settlement, but this scheme of Migration Aid is dangerous nonetheless because it is part of the “Soros plan.” He added that “the authorities are already investigating the legal possibilities of preventing the organization of such camping holidays.”

In the next few days Magyar Idők did its very best to further incite public opinion against the migrants and their “vacationing.” Áron Nagy got in touch with Ferenc Ruzsics, the mayor of Keszthely, who said that these people have no place anywhere in the country. He accused Migration Aid of being underhanded, although we know that the organization announced its plans on Facebook. Magyar Idők also got in touch with Manninger, who announced that “in no way can the migrants settle, even if at the moment their camping is legally possible.” Quite a claim by a legislator who ought to know that these people have the legal right to settle wherever their hearts desire in the territory of Hungary.

Two days later Áron Nagy was at it again. In his article dated August 5 he complained that Migration Aid persists on going through with the original plan despite the outcry of the locals. In order to fill space, he went on and on about the exact location of the three cabins and tried to find contradictions in different journalistic accounts of the events. The whole article was a pitiful attempt at blackening the name of Migration Aid.

On the same day Áron Nagy also published an opinion piece titled “Migránssimogató” (Migrant Stroking), in which he proudly took credit for “exposing” Migration Aid. As a result of his first article, “those Hungarians who are considered by Brussels to be retarded folks disposed to fascist ideas cried out from Zalavár to Keszthely: not one of them here.”

And if that weren’t enough, Áron Nagy with a colleague, Kriszta Gidró, wrote another article on August 7 in which the duo repeated all their objections to Migration Aid as well as to “migrant resorts” anywhere in Hungary. They were especially infuriated by András Siewert’s insistence that migrants can live wherever they want and that in the future Migration Aid will continue to organize vacations for those who have already been granted asylum. Siewert also said that they have no obligation to ask permission to organize such outings. The journalists found it upsetting that “Migration Aid will continue to pursue its refugee advocacy actions.”

This story, I believe, is a good example of the way the Hungarian population is being indoctrinated, with the assistance of the government media in the service of Viktor Orbán’s policies. It is a shameful story of manipulation and duplicity.

August 9, 2017

Toward a police state? A proposed government “data grab”

It doesn’t happen too often, but a few days ago Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection of Freedom of Information (Nemzeti Adatvédelmi és Információszabadság Hatóság/NAIH), strongly criticized the government’s latest attempt to infringe upon the privacy of both Hungarian citizens and foreign visitors.

On July 31 the ministry of interior submitted a bill for consideration which, among other things, aims at a greater scrutiny of individuals and creates a central storage facility for information gathered by state and non-state authorities. Thus, as opposed to the present practice, extracting information on individuals would be a one-step process. At the moment data gathered by the different branches of government and non-government organizations (police, traffic supervision, public transportation authorities, banks, toll road monitors, etc.) can be accessed only by first presenting reasons for their legitimate use. But, as the bill reads now, there would be no judicial oversight of the collected material. Thus, every scrap of information on individuals would be collected in one place where an individual’s whole history could easily be assembled–and all that without any judicial oversight.

In addition, the ministry of interior wants to know more about everybody who spends any time in a hotel as a guest, be that person a Hungarian citizen or a foreign tourist. Hotels would have to copy people’s I.D.s or passports. The state seems to be interested in all the details: date of arrival and anticipated date of departure, sex, birthplace, birth date, citizenship, and mother’s maiden name. All this information would have to be stored and provided upon request to the various national security services. The authorities would also require hotels to install software that would enable the transfer of data collected.

It didn’t take long for Péterfalvi to label the proposed bill “a visual surveillance system for secret information gathering.” Péterfalvi’s letter to one of the assistant undersecretaries can be found on the website of NAIH. His conclusion is that the new law would “further restrict” the individual’s right to the protection of his personal data. He suggested changing the bill to make sure that the state authority that needs the piece of information documents the reasons for its request and specifies the precise scope of the inquiry. He also wants further restrictions on surveillance around churches, polling stations, political meetings, and demonstrations. In addition, Péterfalvi wants NAIH to have the authority to verify the use of the documents requested by the state authorities.

Now that practically the whole government is on vacation, István Hollik of the Christian Democratic Party was the one to react to Péterfalvi’s opposition to the bill. Hollik was brief and noncommittal. According to him, the government will have to consider whether Péterfalvi’s proposals can be incorporated into the bill. But, he added, since the bill otherwise is fine, he sees no problem with the small changes proposed by the president of NAIH. I’m not sure whether Hollik understands that Péterfalvi’s requirements are more substantive than they may appear at first glance.

In any case, Demokratikus Koalíció isn’t satisfied with Péterfalvi’s solution to the problem. The party wants the whole bill to be withdrawn. Péter Niedermüller, co-chair of the party and member of the European Parliament, announced that if the bill, even with the amendments, is passed by the Hungarian parliament, DK will turn to the European Commission because the party believes that the law doesn’t comport with the constitution of the European Union.

Viktor Szigetvári, the president of Együtt’s board, also wants the ministry of interior to immediately withdraw the bill. In his opinion, the bill paves the way for the establishment of a police state. He called attention to the anti-democratic practices of Russia, whose president is Viktor Orbán’s role model, and therefore he suspects that Orbán’s intentions are anything but benevolent. He considers the bill another sign of Orbán’s plans for unlimited power.

MSZP, which seems to be far too preoccupied with its own problems, didn’t make any official announcement about the party’s position on the question. The only comment came from Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, whose status in the party is more than shaky after his recent open disagreement with László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. MSZP usually takes a less categorical position than the other opposition parties, and therefore I wasn’t particularly surprised when Molnár stated that there is a need for a new law on data protection but there are several problems with this bill. He called the proposal “excessive, even if national security precautionary measures sometimes justify stricter restrictions.” As usual, MSZP is sitting on the fence.

So far, only a couple of foreign papers have reported on Péterfalvi’s reaction to the proposed bill. Euractive introduced the topic with the headline “Hungary rights chief denounced ‘data grab’ bill,” using AFP’s report from Budapest. It quoted from an interview with Péterfalvi on KlubRádió where he claimed that the bill “would give almost automatic access to personal data.”

I assume the issue will not come up until late September, when the parliament reconvenes.

August 8, 2017

Foreign language teaching in Hungary: Progress is very slow

Hungarians’ subpar knowledge of foreign languages in comparison to other European countries becomes a hot topic in the media from time to time. The reasons for this periodic interest in the topic vary. There are times when an international poll is taken, from which the population can learn that Hungary is again the very last on the list. That piece of news is usually followed by some soul-searching and analyses of the probable causes of the problem. Second, at this time of the year we normally learn that thousands of new college graduates cannot receive their diplomas because in four years they didn’t manage to pass a B2 (intermediate) language exam. (Here are some sample English and German tests a student would be confronted with.) Or, the occasion may be a new government decree that would change the current requirements. It just happened that in the last few months all three of these scenarios converged. A new poll was published, news came about the thousands of graduates without language certification, and the government announced its intention to require the infamous B2 exam prior to entry to college or university.

HVG called the results of a graph published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation “shocking.” According to the graph, which the directorate general published on Facebook, the very last country out of 24 European countries is Hungary, where only 37% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 can speak at least one foreign language. The runner-up is Bulgaria with 39%. Among the poor performers–countries whose score is below the EU average–are Poland (62%), Italy (60%), France (59%), Belgium (58%), Greece (58%), Portugal (58%), and Spain (51%). These scores might place the countries toward the bottom of the list, but they are still way ahead of the scores Bulgaria and Hungary achieved.

Although the problem is great, it is only now that the government decided to conduct a scientific study on the probable causes for these poor results. Those who want to pass the buck try to convince themselves and others that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is the principal obstacle to learning Indo-European languages. But, according to a survey, 69% of Finns speak one or more foreign languages. So clearly, this theory can easily be debunked. One cannot complain about the number of hours Hungarian students spend learning languages. For example, Hungarian kids spend 936 hours over nine years to learn their first foreign language, compared to 537 in Poland and 472 in Romania. According to foreign language experts, to pass the B2 test 500-600 classroom hours are plenty.

If Hungarian speakers are not inherently handicapped when it comes to learning languages and if more than enough time is allotted to foreign language study, the problem must be either with the teachers or with the teaching methods. Experts specializing in foreign language education claim that the quality of the Hungarian foreign language teachers is satisfactory. That is, they are competent in the languages they teach. The problem lies with the methodology. Studies show that one-third of all language teachers still use methods that are responsible for the dismal performance of their students. For example, the primary language in the classroom is Hungarian. The classes are deadly because the students mainly memorize words out of context and picayune grammatical points are discussed, for example tenses that are rarely used in normal conversation. The mainstay of the classroom routine is a question by the teacher followed by a student answer, which is dissected and corrected right there. Once that is done comes the new victim. This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.

But there are structural problems in the school system itself that affects not only foreign language learning but learning other subjects as well. That is the 8 + 4 school system, which was originally designed for the time when compulsory education ended after grade 8. That meant that history, literature, chemistry, physics, geography, math, and a foreign language—in those days Russian—were taught on a very elementary level. Relatively few students continued their education in gymnasiums. And so, all these essential subjects were taught again, allegedly on a higher level, in high school. Since 40-45% of grade 8 students still don’t attain the expected level of competence in the foreign language they studied since grade 4, the level of instruction must inevitably be lowered in the first couple of years of high school. Some experts claim that in many schools foreign language teaching in grade 9 begins from square one.

Then there is the problem of overemphasizing the importance of the language tests, although we know there is no clear correlation between passing the tests and knowing the language. In the Kádár regime, once someone passed an official language exam, he was set for life. Whether he needed that foreign language in his work or not, he received extra pay for the rest of his working life. To some extent this is still the case. I read an article in which the author tried to find an explanation for those 10,000 or so students yearly who cannot receive their diplomas because in four or five years they didn’t manage to pass the foreign language exam. The author’s explanation is that in a great number of cases the diploma-less student finds a job without that infamous B2 exam. In her opinion, the motivation is still insufficient. But I suspect that the universities themselves are in part responsible for this state of affairs because students are rarely required to use a foreign language during their years in college. The inclusion of foreign-language articles in the list of compulsory readings would certainly provide some motivation to improve one’s language skills.

The latest government decision to require passing the B2 foreign language exam prior to entering university is a typical Orbán government move. Such a requirement would be fair only if students could learn a foreign language well enough to be able to pass this intermediate language test, but as things stand now this is not the case. In fact, according people familiar with the situation, in order to overcome this hurdle students need extra tutoring by competent teachers from language schools. These lessons are not inexpensive, and only better-off parents can afford them. This will mean that thousands of students coming from a lower socio-economic background will be barred from acquiring a college education. Although even the Orbán-appointed ombudsman has reservations about this plan, the government is bound and determined to introduce it by 2020. To give you an idea of the gravity of the situation, in 2016 39% of all entering college students didn’t have their B2 language exam behind them. The numbers were especially high among those who entered teacher’s colleges. Some smaller universities outside of Budapest also did very badly.

At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen by 2020, but the government decided in June that a nationwide survey should be conducted between now and February 2018. The survey of 17,000 students will be conducted in 70 high schools and 100 elementary schools. I must say that such a survey should have been done decades ago because the problems of foreign language teaching are at least a century old. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German. But especially after 1945, during a long period of linguistic isolation and the exclusive teaching of Russian, the situation deteriorated significantly. Unfortunately, opening the borders didn’t make a quick and appreciable difference. It would be high time to remedy the situation, but the Orbán government’s educational philosophy is antagonistic to modern teaching methods, so desperately needed in Hungarian schools.

August 7, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

What happened to Momentum? The loss of youthful innocence

I think it’s time to return to Momentum, a new political formation that became an overnight sensation after their activists, with some help from left-liberal parties, collected 260,000 signatures in the dead of winter in support of a referendum about holding the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024. The overwhelming support for the initiative forced the Orbán government to retreat and abandon one of Viktor Orbán’s most cherished dreams.

The last time I wrote about Momentum was in March, after a number of disastrous interviews that András Fekete-Győr, the leader of the group, gave to ATV and HírTV. I titled that post “What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés.” I’m afraid nothing has happened since to make me change my mind. But, if we can believe Republikon Intézet’s telephone poll, Momentum is so popular in Budapest that 9% of active voters would vote for it at the next election. Momentum’s standing nationwide, as measured by several polling companies, is 2%.

Many commentators compare Momentum to the youthful Fidesz in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also a generational party that came from practically nowhere. A few months later it won enough votes to be represented in parliament. In July 1989 Fidesz organized a three-four-day gathering that included political discussions. It was held in Bálványosfűrdő/Băile Bálványos, which over the years has become a gathering place for Hungarians, mostly from Romania, to listen to the political messages of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the leadership of Momentum decided to organize a three-day gathering called “Opening Festival” in Bodajk, a town of 4,000 inhabitants in Fejér County. During the day they held panel discussions and at night it was all fun and games. Lots of music and dancing. The event, as we learned later, cost quite a bit of money, but the business-minded Momentum leadership believed that it was a good investment, even in financial terms. By all accounts relatively few people attended. According to the journalist from Index, on the first day there were no more than 200-300 people.

In March, when I looked at Momentum’s so-called program, it was practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since. They promise a party program for October 15. Otherwise, Momentum’s strongest message is that it rejects not only the last seven years of Fidesz rule but everything that has happened in Hungary since 1989. As for the general political orientation of the party, Fekete-Győr likened Momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!” The general impression is that Momentum is neither on the right nor on the left, perhaps because so far it seems devoid of ideas.

It is almost impossible to figure out what Momentum actually wants. They made only a few concrete political announcements, the most important of which was that in no way would they consider cooperation with any other party unless “there is a danger of a two-thirds Fidesz majority,” as Fekete-Győr put it. This makes no sense to me. By the time it seems likely that Fidesz’s strength would result in a two-thirds majority, no cooperation among opposition parties could do anything to change the situation.

Momentum seems not to know whether it is a serious political party or a charitable organization. In the midst of talking about matters like Hungary’s place in the European Union and the benefits of the Eurozone, Fekete-Győr could tell his audience about a project of theirs to supply soap and towels to schools and hospitals where they are currently in short supply.

Árpád W. Tóta of HVG, whom I consider one of the most astute observers of the current Hungarian political scene, asked the leaders of Momentum some probing questions. What Tóta learned from Fekete-Győr was that the political profile of Momentum, which today is fuzzy, will be shaped by whatever the people want. Of course, this is a very dangerous populist notion which can lead a party to adopt even extremist views. This is exactly what happened in Fidesz’s case when Viktor Orbán discovered what people wanted to hear. I don’t think the leaders of Momentum ever thought through the dangers of such a populist approach to politics. I’m sorry that the video has no subtitles, but those who understand the language should definitely spend 10 minutes on Tóta’s conversations with the leaders of Momentum. It is worth it.

The “Opening Festival” was lavish, and questions were raised where the money came from to fund the event. Tóta himself in that interview asked Fekete-Győr about the cost, but the Momentum leader feigned ignorance of the amount. He maintained, however, that the only money they have comes from membership dues. Another student leader, Miklós Hajnal, on ATV claimed that the cost of the festival was a “trade secret.” Eventually Momentum announced the real cost. The party spent 23 million forints (about $89,000); the income received from the participants was only 11 million. Apparently, currently Momentum has 1,100 card-carrying party members who pay 1,000 forints a month as a membership fee.

The less than transparent finances of Momentum have aroused the interest of the media. A few days ago Heti Válasz, a right-of-center weekly, discovered that at least two well-known businessmen have helped the party financially. One is Gábor Bojár of Graphisoft, a software company, and the founder of the Aquincum Institute of Technology, who told the paper that he gave them one million forints. The other is György Raskó, MDF’s undersecretary of agriculture in the Antall government, who is now a successful agro businessman. The amount Raskó gave to Momentum is unknown, but there were strings attached to the gift. He wanted the party to include an education program that would be similar to the successful Finnish model. Apparently, he also wanted to receive assurances that Momentum would not cooperate on any level with MSZP and the Demokratikus Koalíció. In addition, Raskó also warned that he doesn’t want Momentum to become a “Budapest downtown liberal intellectual” party.

Momentum, right turn / Photo: HVG

Not surprisingly the government media attacked both Momentum and its wealthy supporters. Magyar Idők hypocritically expressed its concern over “the undue influence of entrepreneurs over party politics” and declared that Momentum is not an independent party but an instrument in the hands of men with definite political goals. But left-liberal publications aren’t exactly thrilled either. Pesti Bulvár, a relatively new internet news site, repeated the general dissatisfaction on the left with Momentum’s refusal to cooperate with anyone, which further weakens the anti-Orbán forces. Garai, the author of the article, titled “A party is for sale,” estimates that Momentum has already spent 100-150 million forints. He charges that the leaders of Momentum, by accepting Raskó’s demands, admitted that they don’t really want regime change because they ought to know that small parties running alone can lead only to Fidesz victory. Moreover, given Raskó’s political views, he says, Momentum is moving over to the right.

I have had heard interviews with both Bojár and Raskó and found most of what they had to say eminently reasonable. Raskó is normally asked to comment on matters related to agriculture, and he shows great knowledge of the subject. However, I must admit that his categorical refusal to make common cause with other anti-Orbán forces shows a shortsighted and rigidly ideological posture that is not in the interest of the country.

We don’t know how long Raskó has been supporting Momentum financially, but my feeling is that it has been from the very beginning. We know that he gave these young people money at the time of their signature drive for a referendum on the Olympic Games. Moreover, Raskó’s son is a member of Momentum. As for the extent to which Raskó has been influencing these young people’s ideas, that remains an open question. We know, for example, that Raskó is a believer in the establishment of large agro businesses instead of small family farms and that Momentum also supports this idea.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting advice from experts. In the case of Momentum, when I think back, I was struck how often András Fekete-Győr boasted about unnamed, very important advisers who worked with them. All political parties need experts in a range of fields, but in this case we have a bunch of young people without any political experience who may not know what to do with the advice they receive. And, of course, I am disheartened by Raskó’s advice of noncooperation. It is the worst advice he could have given the leaders of Momentum.

Finally, Edina Pottyondy, a member of Momentum’s board of governors, quit her post two days ago. She remains a member of the party and will be one of the organizers of the party’s efforts to recruit followers in the countryside, said the spokesman for the party. I cannot escape the feeling that the less than transparent handling of the party’s finances might have had something to do with her departure. In any case, whatever has transpired since July 22, the first day of the “Opening Festival,” has done a lot of damage to Momentum. The reputation of the seemingly innocent, young, bright boys and girls has suffered a serious blow.

August 5, 2017