Category Archives: Hungarian politics

In Orbán’s opinion Miklós Horthy was an exceptional statesman

Another day, another speech. Yes, Viktor Orbán delivered another speech which, with the exception of one short passage, was nothing more than his usual collection of clichés about “those people whose aim is the transformation of Europe’s cultural subsoil, which will lead to the atrophy of its root system.”

The occasion was the opening of the newly renovated, sumptuous house of Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931, in Pesthidegkút, today part of District XII of Budapest. Along with István Bethlen, prime minister between 1921 and 1931, Klebelsberg was his favorite politician of the interwar period. Neither of them was a champion of democracy, but they stood far above the average Hungarian politicians of the period. I devoted a post to Klebelsberg in 2011 when the government decided that the new centralized public school system would be overseen by a monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK).

As I said, there was only one passage in the whole speech that will not easily be forgotten. After describing the 1920s and 1930s as “a grave touchstone” of Hungarian history, Orbán said that the nation was able to survive thanks to “some exceptional statesmen like Governor Miklós Horthy, Prime Minister István Bethlen, and Kuno Klebelsberg.” Thanks to them, “history didn’t bury us under the weight of the lost war, the 133 days of red terror, and the Diktat of Trianon. Without the governor there is no prime minister, and without the prime minister there is no minister. Even Hungary’s dismal role in World War II cannot call into question this fact.” Jaws dropped even at the conservative Válasz, which called Horthy’s description as an exceptional statesman “a historical hornet’s nest” which will be followed by a long, far-reaching, and most likely acrimonious debate.

Source: Miniszterelnöki Kabinet / Károly Árvai

Maybe we could quibble over whether István Bethlen was a statesman, but that Miklós Horthy was not is certain, and not just because of his dismal political career. When we think of a statesman we think of a highly respected, influential politician who exhibits great ability, wisdom, and integrity. None of these fits Miklós Horthy. He was a narrow-minded man without any political experience. Why did Orbán feel it necessary to join Horthy to Bethlen and Klebelsberg as great statesmen of the interwar period, especially by employing such twisted logic? One cannot think of anything else but that he has some political reason for his “re-evaluation” of Horthy.

This interpretation is new because it wasn’t a terribly long time ago when, in the wake of the Bálint Hóman statue controversy in Székesfehérvár in December 2015, Orbán said in parliament that he couldn’t support the erection of the Hóman statue because the constitution doesn’t allow anyone to be honored who held political office after March 19, 1944, because any political activity after that date meant collaboration with the oppressors, i.e. the Germans. For that reason, he wouldn’t support a statue for Governor Miklós Horthy either. So, this is quite a leap, which may have even international consequences. Although Horthy was not officially declared to be a war criminal, historical memory has not been kind to him. I am certain that the news that Viktor Orbán embraced Miklós Horthy as one of the great Hungarian statesmen of the twentieth century will be all over the international media.

The Hungarian reaction in anti-Fidesz circles was that Orbán’s change of heart as far as Horthy is concerned has something to do with his desire to weaken Jobbik, a party which has been most fervent in its rehabilitation efforts on behalf of Miklós Horthy. Orbán has been waging a war against Jobbik for some time, and Jobbik’s very effective billboards infuriated him. He wants to destroy Vona and his party. He is vying for Jobbik votes by courting far-right Jobbik supporters who might be dissatisfied with Vona’s new, more moderate policies. Perhaps Horthy will do the trick.

As far as Horthy’s political abilities are concerned, his best years were the first ten years of his governorship when he had the good sense to let Bethlen run the affairs of state. Every time he was active in politics he made grievous mistakes or worse, be it in the years 1919 and 1920 or in the second half of the 1930s and early 1940s.

You may have noticed that Orbán talked about the red terror but didn’t mention the white terror that was conducted by Horthy’s so-called officer detachments (különítmények). They roamed the countryside and exercised summary justice against people they suspected of support for or participation in the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Horthy knew about their activities and most likely even encouraged them. The number of victims of white terror was about three times the number of those who were killed by the so-called Lenin Boys.

Horthy’s election to the position of governor was mostly due to the fact that the only military force that existed in the country in late 1919 and early 1920 was his detachments. Politicians were worried about the possibility of a military coup. Horthy expressed his impatience with the politicians several times as they tried to hammer out a coalition government the allies would accept. And his officers made it clear that it is Horthy or else. His political views at that time were identical to those of his far-right officers who later claimed that they were the first national socialists in Europe.

Horthy’s real inability as a politician came to light when the world was edging toward a new world war. Perhaps his greatest sin was Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He volunteered Hungary’s military assistance when Germany didn’t even press for it. He also bears an immense responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust when, after the German occupation on March 19, 1944, the government he appointed sent half a million Hungarian Jewish citizens to their death while he himself did nothing. And we know that he could have prevented it, as he was able to stop the transports later, mind you only after 450,000 Jewish citizens had already been sent to die in Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

Orbán’s decision to declare Horthy a national hero shows the true nature of his regime.

June 21, 2017

László Botka has taken things into his own hands in MSZP

Yesterday I ended my post saying that, because only a few hours had passed since MSZP submitted its own proposal for a new bill that would regulate political advertising, I was unable to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspected that their reception of MSZP’s very questionable political move was not going to be favorably viewed. A couple of hours later, I had the chance to listen to a television interview with Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), who promised that the party leadership would take a good look at MSZP’s proposal but hinted that one has to be very careful when negotiating with Fidesz. The government party’s surprising readiness to negotiate was suspicious.

By this morning it became clear that no opposition party was ready to discuss the MSZP proposal. If the socialists go ahead with it, it will be a private deal between Fidesz and MSZP. But no opposition party can afford the stigma of making a deal with the devil. Only “political illiterates” could come up with such an idea unless, as many people suspect, certain members of the MSZP leadership are ready to cozy up to Fidesz for one nefarious reason or another. In this particular case, I think “political illiterates” were at work.

MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, László Botka, had been left in total darkness about the leadership’s decision to submit a “poster bill” of their own. That such a thing can happen gives you an idea of the chaos and confusion that must exist in the Hungarian socialist party. The most important officeholders in MSZP must have approved the proposal and its submission for consideration because it was Gyula Molnár, party chairman, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, who announced the move at a joint press conference on Friday. Fidesz-KDNP jumped at the opportunity and secretly indicated they were game. When Jobbik got the wind of the pending deal, János Volner, Jobbik parliamentary leader, made it public.

Bertalan Tóth and Gyula Molnár at a press conference

It was at this point that Botka decided to intervene. He explained that any negotiations and any joint action, like voting with Fidesz, would discredit the party and himself personally since he had stressed on several occasions that any collaboration with Fidesz was out of the question. He apparently argued that if an election advertising bill were to pass, MSZP might be in a better position vis-à-vis Jobbik as far as political advertisement is concerned, i.e., both parties would receive the same rate from the providers of advertising surfaces. But MSZP “would lose its character as an opposition party.” Jobbik would be Fidesz’s primary opponent at the next election.

Today MSZP also created a new body called the “national election committee” (Országos Választási Bizottság/OVB), which will be in charge of the election campaign. According to Index, OVB will consist of five people: László Botka; Gyula Molnár, party chairman; József Tóbiás, campaign manager; György Kerényi, director of communications; and Bálint Ruff, Botka’s political adviser. I suspect that readers of Hungarian Spectrum may not be familiar with the names of György Kerényi and Bálint Ruff. Kerényi is a highly respected journalist who worked for Magyar Narancs, Tilos Rádió, and Roma Sajtóközpont and was one of the founders of vs.hu. He was known for his independence, and therefore his colleagues were greatly surprised that he accepted a party position. His decision was based on his conviction that MSZP is the only party that has a chance to unseat Viktor Orbán, who in his opinion must go. And he must personally do everything he can to make that happen. As for Bálint Ruff, he is a young man, a law school graduate, who is a managing partner of Invisible Hand Coaching and Consulting.

Most likely not independently from the blunder committed by the party leadership behind Botka’s back, the composition of OVB changed significantly in the last two days. Index reported on June 18 that Botka had named József Tóbiás’s campaign manager, who in turn named Zsolt Molnár, campaign manager in 2014, Ferenc Baja, a really old socialist politician who served in high positions both in the party and in the socialist-liberal governments between 1994 and 2010, and Bertalan Tóth, the most important man in the party’s parliamentary group, to the body. These three people have since disappeared from OVB, and I suspect that Gyula Molnár remained only because he is, after all, chairman of the party. Keep in mind that it was Molnár and Tóth who came forth with the announcement of an independent MSZP proposal for the “poster law.” In fact, we have evidence that Tóth’s removal is connected to this political miscalculation. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, said at today’s press conference that Bertalan Tóth represented the interests of the party to the best of his knowledge in negotiating with the other parties concerning the “poster law,” but with the appearance of Botka a “new political calendar” has begun. I wonder how long Tóth will remain the leader of the Fidesz caucus in parliament. As for Zsolt Molnár, he is a controversial character who has been the subject of long-standing criticism for his cozy relations with Fidesz politicians. As for Baja, perhaps Botka objected to his very high positions in the party for almost twenty years when Botka didn’t want to have anyone associated with the campaign who had had “substantial responsibility” for the political situation in which Fidesz could win a two-thirds majority in 2010. I might add that I for one don’t share Botka’s assessment of the guilt of the socialist-liberal governments for the overwhelming victory of Fidesz in 2010, but Ferenc Baja was never one of my favorites.

In addition, Botka tightened the reins on communication and finance. Without the knowledge of Kerényi, no MSZP politician can issue any statement or express any opinion different from the official one. I must say that this decision has been long overdue. MSZP is a notoriously undisciplined party where party leaders regularly contradict one another and voice their personal opinions about accepted party policies in public. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, also said that anyone who in any way collaborates with Fidesz will be expelled from the party.

Indeed, MSZP is shaping up to be a different party. Perhaps in the long run this botched-up political move will have a beneficial effect on MSZP. This incident might have prompted Botka to take a more active role in the everyday running of party affairs which, if he makes good decisions, might improve the party’s acceptance by the public. At the same time, if those socialist politicians who are the most visible public representatives of MSZP are not better able to convey the party’s messages and if the party leadership is unable to mobilize its supporters, no amount of firmness, tenacity, and determination on the part of László Botka can revive the Hungarian socialist party.

June 20, 2017

What’s MSZP up to? Other opposition parties are suspicious

On April Fool’s Day thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. The message they carried was simple: ordinary citizens work while the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Jobbik, the party that ran this billboard campaign, hit Fidesz where it hurt. An infuriated Viktor Orbán wanted the billboards gone as soon as possible. In the beginning Fidesz activists were sent to remove or deface them, but, given the number of billboards Jobbik scattered all over the country, a better solution had to be found. In such cases Fidesz’s usual response is to create a new, targeted law.

This is exactly what happened here. On April 27 Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, submitted a proposal to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards. The bill included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulated that starting on June 1, 2017, local government permission would be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduced other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards would have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. Much worse, the appendix to the decree stipulated that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

There was only one problem. Certain parts of the Kósa-Halász bill needed a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz at the moment is short by two votes. Fidesz couldn’t convince any member of the opposition to vote for the bill. The opposition, both right and left, found it unacceptable. And although one of the DK members of parliament had such a serious attack of kidney stones that he had to be taken to the hospital and missed the vote, Fidesz still came up one short. As you can see on this photo, Orbán was anything but happy. Nonetheless, it was decided to resubmit the proposal this Friday at an extraordinary session of parliament.

Zsolt Semjén, Viktor Orbán, and János Lázár after the voting was over Magyar Nemzet / Attila Béres

At the center of this billboard controversy is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and business partner. Simicska, in addition to owning Közgép, a construction company that once had a virtual monopoly on government infrastructure contracts, also owns several other businesses, including Mahir Cityposter and Publimont, which rent out billboard spaces and advertising kiosks. Jobbik’s billboards and posters appeared on spaces owned by these two companies. It was suspected from the beginning that Simicska, who broke with Orbán and Fidesz about two years ago, provided space for the Jobbik posters at a cut rate, but until very recently Jobbik refused to divulge the cost. So, in addition to the Kósa-Halász bill and Orbán’s decree, NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, paid a visit to Mahir’s headquarters. They had the right to check all financial transactions between January 1 and April 30. They were specifically looking for financial transactions connected to the Jobbik posters.

When the price Jobbik paid Simicska’s firm was finally made public last week, it was obvious that “Simicska had sold the surfaces at a ridiculously low price,” as Népszava pointed out. Simicska, who until recently was the “financial genius” behind Fidesz’s coffers, used to favor Fidesz by charging very little for advertising posters. Now he was doing the same for Jobbik.

And so, if Fidesz’s bill were to fail again, because of Jobbik’s special relation with Lajos Simicska, the real winner would be the far-right but lately somewhat mellowed Jobbik. MSZP swung into action. They dusted off an old proposal that they had earlier submitted to parliament, which they now presented as an alternative to the Fidesz proposal. It would, just like the Kósa-Halász bill, forbid political advertising except during the campaign period by parties, municipalities, and the government, but, in addition, it would specifically forbid advertising by CÖF, the government-financed so-called civic organization, and Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization.

With MSZP’s move Fidesz-KDNP was presented with an easy path to victory. Fidesz is “still studying” the matter, but it finds many aspects of the MSZP bill acceptable. Jobbik naturally is not game, and it looks as if LMP is also holding to its original position. According to LMP’s spokesman, unity must be maintained against this bill, which would only help Fidesz. However, as we all know, if MSZP is ready to sit down and negotiate, there will be no problem on Friday. And in that case, Jobbik will have been outfoxed. Not surprisingly, Jobbik politicians are crying foul. János Völner, head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, described MSZP’s move as one of the most obvious and brutal political pacts since 1990. He claims that the poster market was the only one where there was parity among the parties. MSZP with this move contributes to Viktor Orbán’s media dominance.

Alfahír, Jobbik’s online news site, illustrates the mood in the party. The article reporting on MSZP’s offer begins this way: “June 19, 2017. Please don’t forget this date. Today is the birthday of the Orbán regime’s Patriotic Popular Front. Today what we had suspected for years has become official: MSZP became the prostitute of Fidesz.” The Patriotic Popular Front (Hazafias Népfront) was created in 1954 and was dismantled in 1990. It was supposed to be a body representative of the whole society.

Too little time has passed since the MSZP proposal to be able to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspect that, similarly to LMP, they will not be thrilled with MSZP’s special deal with the government party. They will be most likely strengthened in their suspicion that MSZP is not playing a fair game and that somehow it has a secret understanding with Fidesz. I wouldn’t go that far, but MSZP’s leadership is not known for its boldness and clear-cut positions. How MSZP voters will react to this unexpected move no one can tell yet, but somehow I don’t think that it will be popular among MSZP voters, most of whom, I suspect, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Viktor Orbán and his party.

June 19, 2017

Justice in Orbán’s Hungary: The Ahmed H. case

As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.

The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.

Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.

Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”

The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”

A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)

Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.

The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.

Péter Bárándy in the courtroom

At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).

Ahmed H. with his back toward us is trying to calm the crowd / Source: police.hu

After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.

Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.

The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”

June 18, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: The Dress Rehearsal–The fate of George Lukács and his archives

When the present campaign against the Central European University started I did have some pangs of deja vue, the feeling that this did happen to me, I have experienced this feeling before. And indeed, not long afterwards, as the weekend of April the 22 has arrived I realized that the basis for the recognition was none other than the bizarre goings on surrounding the Lukács Archives.

George Lukács has been a thorn in the side of the right and the ultra-right for a long time. He was the scion of a wealthy bourgeois family, the son of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, who, nevertheless, signed up for Marxism, Communism and not only did he support those ”unspeakable” tenets, but was actively involved in fighting for them in the Hungarian Commune in 1919.

He was always engaged in cultural issues, but was not averse, at least not in his youth, to take action if necessary. This is how he became shortly after being the commissar for culture, a political commissar in the military. And in this capacity was he embroiled in an event of decimation of his military unit after an unfortunate defeat at Tiszafüred. The actual facts of this episode are unclear, some say he carried out the executions of seven soldiers, other say he prevented the executions and in any case, he was not the one ordering it. Nevertheless, the stigma of this event has remained with him forever.

The apartment house where George Lukács lived

After the commune he emigrated to Austria and eventually to Germany, where he met and impressed Thomas Mann, wrote and published and became involved with the Communist International, but to his detriment, because he was eventually declared a right wing heretic, ”revisionist.” His life from here on was alternating between Moscow and Berlin until finally he was forced to settle in Moscow during the darkest years of Stalinist terror. He kept on working, mostly in the field of literary criticism and aesthetics, probably to avoid notice and managed to stay out of the political infighting until he was finally deported to Tashkent by the NKVD in 1941.

At the war’s end he began his political carrier in Hungary. He was co-opted as the member of the Academy of Sciences, became the member of parliament, was appointed as a professor of the Budapest university and was also made to be the editor of a journal or two. It looked at last, after decades of misery, that he has hit his stride and was the mainstay of the communist establishment. But, of course it didn’t last. As a free spirit he soon became a stumbling stone to the party establishment, he was ”criticized” and applied the then customary ”self-criticism” to himself and soon became a political pariah again.

In 1956 he was appointed minister of culture again in the Imre Nagy government for twelve days. That lead to endless misery and also to internment in Romania. After the revolution he remained in internal exile and banishment, but managed to publish abroad, thanks to his international fame and the fact that he was writing all his works in German, that made him the darling of the western European intelligentsia.

In the nineteen sixties he informally established a kind of philosophy school, or ”circle,” including roughly twelve, or fourteen young students of philosophy, whom eventually became the cutting edge and were collectively called the ”Budapest School” of the discipline. (They were also called the ”Lukács kindergarten.”) Eventually, however, they were one by one discredited for not towing the party line and were forced either to share Lukács’s internal exile, or were forced to emigrate and become respected academics abroad. Also, they were the intellectual vanguard of the opposition that prepared later for the change of the system.

Sometime in 1965, Lukács was finally forgiven, the communist party has readmitted him as a member and for the remaining few years of his life was spent in unbridled public respect if not adulation. He died in 1971 and that was the event that started him out as the unintended hero of a new and even more surreal saga. As long as he only acted as the free spirit that he was, at all times and at all places, eventually he became the opposition of the prevailing order. He insisted on being a Marxist and a communist, but the communist establishment refused to tolerate his independence and intellectual superiority. Therefore, he always ended up censured, in being the minority of one, and the subject of permanent suspicion and exclusion. But that was fine with him, he was content taking the honest, uncompromising intellectual’s position for better and for worse. However, it is also true that in the short periods of power he used his position and doctrinaire nature to make the life of other, non-Marxist writers and philosophers miserable, often forcing them to abandon their calling and resort to a livelihood of physical labor.

It is worth keeping in mind that Lukács’s works were written in a dense German prose, heavily laden with Marxist-Leninist jargon and in any case, they are about the esoteric subjects of ethics, aesthetics, literary criticism and some kind of social science not to be mistaken with sociology. (He never managed to get ready with his all-encompassing, general work of philosophy. Although he has worked for years on the outline and the materiel. And actually, the manuscripts of this “super opus” are, besides of many others, the sought after documents the scholars come to his archives to study.) It is obvious, therefore, that the political right that ceaselessly attack him as long as they can remember, has no quarrels with his works, because they are devoid of the intellect to read and to value any of it. If there is anything that can be regarded as his ”fault,” it is his Marxism, his communism most often mentioned, but frequently with reference to his Hungarianized name that was still Löwinger in his father’s time and that it is a clear and unmistakable reference that in his case we have on our hands an “un-reconstituted, pushy, overachieving, and in any case, intolerable Jew.” This is what the ultra-right cannot forgive.

In 2011 prime minister Orbán’s hand-picked president of the Academy of Sciences has put into motion the fervent wish of all right-wing ignorami that the Lukács Archívum, located in his former apartment at the shore of the Danube, at a magnificent location, and has served the international community of social sciences and philosophy as a research institute, and a place of pilgrimage, should be shut down. Also, the George Lukács Foundation that was taking care of the collection of his books and manuscripts housed there, must be shut down because it is “bearing the dishonorable name of the Marxist-communist: George Lukács.” The Academy obsequiously agreed that the closing becomes effective January 1st 2012. This was the moment when the international outrage begun to gather and it is increasing ever since.

Although I was aware of Lukács over the years, I had no particular interest in becoming acquainted closer until the controversy erupted. Since, however, I was planning to visit his archive, as it is open to all interested researchers, only appointment is required. But, why should I deny it, I never got around to do this until this spring.

It is a recurring spring time ritual in the tourist trade in Budapest, to open certain houses, buildings to the public, usually those celebrating their one hundredth anniversary. This year, however, the buildings standing on the shore of the Danube were chosen, a fascinating array of Budapest trivia, regardless of age, and one of these, one of the most prominent ones, was the art-deco building in which Lukács spent his life from 1945 until his death in 1971. Admission only at Sunday from 5 p.m. At 4:30 there was a sizable line up. I was first. This apartment is indeed at a magnificent location, but is still in municipal possession, dusty and neglected, yet it is hard not to suspect that behind all the machinations to shut down the Archive is somebody’s grubby desire to get possession of the roughly 900 square feet flat. It was touching to see the actual unmistakable signs of obvious penury the great man has lived in. On his cheap, well-worn desk besides the elegant small bronze bust of Goethe, there lies a carton box of cheap cigars and there is the case for his iconic glasses made of papier-mâché. Of course, there are books everywhere. It is tacitly admitted after questioning that the once open book shelves that cover almost every wall, were furnished with glass doors and locks, because in the early years the admiring visitors didn’t hesitate to pinch a book or two as a souvenir of their visit. The visitors now are so numerous that I can only slowly make any progress from room to room, everybody is whispering in respectfully subdued tones, we are at the scene of history and of the battle waged for intellectual freedom. That is what happened here fifty, sixty years ago and just the same, that is happening now as I am ambling from room to room making some photographs. Of the three rooms the middle one where I luckily can speak to one of the archivists. Is it still to be closed down and if so, when will it happen? I ask him. Well, he answers in measured tone, it is no longer imminent, the new president of the Academy is less sanguine and more reasonable. Chances are that the archive will survive. They are optimistic and the visitors, scholars and gawkers alike, just keep on coming.

I was truly touched not only by the spirit of the location, but also by the reverence the other visitors have shown towards it. And then I just went home to find an ad in a weekly paper about an international conference dedicated to the life, work and importance of George Lukács, to start in four days’ time at ELTE university.

I attended this conference’ first and last days. I was amazed to learn that the obscure and impenetrable writing and theories of Lukács are a living and active legacy, practically all over the world. The participants of the conference came from a hundred countries, the presenters came from the US, Brazil, Portugal, Japan, Germany and a lot of other places, not to forget Greece. The language of presentations was mostly English, but there was a whole section’s worth of Portugal speakers too. In many respect I was vastly underqualified to understand the ideas discussed. However, reverence towards them and the intense immediacy and importance of those ideas was truly astounding.

Finally, Agnes Heller, supposedly Lukács’s favorite and certainly most famous disciple gave the closing key note address. It was, as are all her speeches, very simple and very reasonable, devoid of any scholarly frills or embellishments. And after she finished it she announced to go around the room, hearing everybody’s question personally and answering it one by one. At that moment she launched herself at the crowd, the tiny 86, or so years old, and commenced a lively conversation with the more than hundred attendees. I asked her quite early, because I was sitting close to the front, how Lukács had lived, how did he make a living. She told the story that the great man was completely without covetousness, he owned one suit of cloth, one pair of shoes and when the Academy of Sciences provided him with a car and chauffeur, one of the perks of membership at the time, he had no idea what to do with them. She also told of Lukács’ circumstances in Moscow, where he lived in condition so poor that nobody found it worth to denounce him for the sake of acquiring his apartment. This helped him to survive the hard years in Moscow.

Ágnes Heller at the Lukács Conference

The international outrage and protest seemingly managed to stave off the closing of the Lukács Archive for the time being. The attempt to get rid of it may just have been the dress rehearsal for the much greater task, the attack against the CEU. His statue, however, was not nearly as lucky. The ultra-rightists, when they saw that the Archive is probably too tenacious an issue, went full tilt against the statue, standing in a lovely park near the Danube in the last thirty-two years. The park is located in a heavily Jewish populated area, with indelible holocaust memories and here the Jewish Lukács had respect and appreciation. Not to mention that the quality of the statue was also worthy of the man and the locale. The City of Budapest council, however, was not ashamed to decide, at the behest of a young, neo-Nazi alderman, to remove the statue and remove it they did on the 28th of March this year, post haste.

And yet, as the respect and admiration for Lukács doesn’t cease to pour in, and although his statue is taken back, for some rest, to its sculptor for the time being, his Archive is on the verge of revival and a possible renovation was also mentioned. All these toing and froing around him was very similar to what is happening now around the Central European University. This is why I had the feeling of déjà vuThe statue was a small matter city hall could deal with it. But the CEU is bigger, much more important and too much depends on its existence: this is a matter for the government. The government has botched it up, awakened the protest of domestic and international community, the European Union, the United States and the scholarly community near and far. And if the story of the Lukács Archives is any indication, then we have reason to trust that the politicians’ stupidity and ineptitude will prove to be insufficient to slay such edifice of spirit and ideas such as the CEU is.

June 17, 2017

 

 

 

Teaching Hungarian doctors to say hello

On June 2 several newspapers reported that a pregnant woman, after leaving the Ferenc Jahn Hospital in Budapest and while waiting for a taxi, collapsed in an epileptic seizure. The taxi driver had the good sense to hold her head to prevent her from injuring herself on the hard pavement. With the help of a passer-by he phoned the ambulance service. The dispatcher wouldn’t send an ambulance and instead suggested going to the hospital for help. But the door was locked and no amount of knocking or honking the car’s horn elicited a response. It took several more calls before the woman’s physician appeared at the door with a nurse. The taxi driver rightly pointed out that the problem is not only the state of Hungarian healthcare but also the attitude of doctors to their patients. I should add that this incident occurred at the same hospital where for several days no one noticed that there was a dead body in a restroom that served visitors to the neonatal unit.

I don’t know what our taxi driver would have thought if he had listened to a conversation between György Bolgár of Klub Rádió and a physician a day after the incident. The illustrious colleague explained to Bolgár why the hospital did what it was supposed to do. Just because the woman collapsed in front of the hospital, the institution had no obligation to accept her. He illustrated the case with the following example. Can anyone whose BMW breaks down in front of a BMW factory expect his car to be fixed right there just because the trouble occurred in front of the plant? People in a hospital have no time for such unexpected incidents. Who can go out? A doctor who is with another patient? Or a nurse who has to look after 40 patients? Yes, the taxi driver could only phone the ambulance service. Soon enough another physician, a woman this time, phoned in. She kept repeating, robot-like, that “there are rules,” and the rules say one must turn to the ambulance service in such cases. Period.

Where it all happened

And what was the reaction of the hospital administration once the story got out? The statement the hospital issued revealed that the security guard inside was fully aware of what was going on in front of the entrance. In fact, he was taking notes. “Everybody knows,” the hospital said, that between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. the main entrance to the hospital is closed. One must use the entrance to the emergency department. As for the incident itself, “it is unfortunate that an epileptic seizure may occur at any time in the case of an epileptic patient.” The hospital administration conducted “a thorough investigation” and found that everybody followed the expected protocol. I should add that the emergency entrance is almost a whole kilometer away from where the incident occurred.

Only a few days after this incident the Állami Egészségügyi Ellátó Központ (ÁEEK), or National Healthcare Services Center, published a so-called performance evaluation, covering the 2013-2015 period. It is an extremely detailed manual of more than 1,000 pages on every possible aspect of the Hungarian healthcare system. Those who are not quite ready to wade through the incredible amount of information should at least read the summary (összefoglaló), which is depressing enough. Within the European Union, Hungary, together with countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania, is at the very bottom, whether as measured by mortality rate, life expectancy, or number of healthy years. There are incredible regional differences. For example, in Central Hungary, which includes Budapest, men live 6.6 years and women 8.4 years longer than their fellow citizens in Northern Hungary. The correlation between educational attainment and health is a well-known fact, which has a large literature. A man with a grade 8 education will die 12 years earlier than a man with a college degree. In the case of women, the difference is 5.6 years.

But what made the greatest impression on those who read about the study in the media was the notion of “avoidable deaths” which, according to the study, in 2014 was 26% or 32,000 deaths. Fourteen percent of these “avoidable deaths” could have been prevented by timely and appropriate care while 12% of them could have been prevented by better public health practices. Half of those who died before the age of 65 could have been saved if people were more health conscious. With these statistics Hungary ranks 26th of the 28 member states.

In addition to this massive study, Political Capital together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung organized a conference, “Can healthcare be cured?” Attila Juhász of Political Capital published a short, 30-page study with the same title which he summarized at the conference. Zsófia Kollányi, assistant professor of health policy and economy, mostly talked about Hungarians’ ever worsening health and societal conditions. She gave a few intriguing examples of the depth of the problem. For example, Swedish men live 9 years longer than Hungarian men, but the “real drama” is that if we compare college-educated Swedish and Hungarian men the difference is only five years. On the other hand, if we compare Swedish and Hungarian men with elementary educations the difference is 12 years. So, a greater emphasis on education would also most likely improve Hungary’s health statistics. However, the Orbán regime’s educational policy is moving in exactly the opposite direction.

After Fidesz won the election in 2010, one of the first moves of the Orbán government was to abolish a recently established independent organization that dealt with patients’ complaints. I’m sure that this was at the request of the medical profession, which in those days at least was a strong supporter of Fidesz. This independent watchdog organization was not exactly the favorite of physicians. Márton Asbóth, the lawyer in charge of health issues at TASZ, told the audience that every year 3,000 people turn to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union with their complaints. So, there would be a great need for the resurrection of such an organization.

Finally, as György Leitner of the Primus Magán Egészségügyi Szolgáltatók Egyesülete (Association of Prime Private Healthcare Providers) said, “Hungarian doctors must be taught to greet people and shake hands.” Andrea Mezei of the Emberibb Egészségügyért Közhasznú Alapítvány (Foundation for More Humane Healthcare) also complained about the attitude of Hungarian doctors toward their patients. According to her experiences, “a cashier at the checkout counter is able to greet the shoppers, but in the doctor-patient relation this is often not true.” Healthcare facilities are like “islands” out of touch with Hungarian society at large. Her foundation tries “to bring normalcy into hospitals” by organizing training for doctors and nurses. They are not welcome in every hospital, and in fact in one hospital the nurses petitioned the hospital administration to prevent them from organizing such training. Leitner, representing the private healthcare providers, seconded Mezei’s observations by saying that not only is money missing from healthcare but also the positive attitude that adds to the satisfaction of the patients.

Which takes us back to the Ferenc Jahn Hospital’s attitude toward the woman with the epileptic seizure and the doctor who compared a hospital to a BMW plant.

June 16, 2017

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017