Category Archives: Hungarian politics

László Botka’s fight against the liberals and for the “melósok”

After about a month of total silence László Botka finally seems ready to take center stage and begin his election campaign in earnest. The opening salvo was a long interview he gave to Népszava in which he declared war not just against Fidesz and the Orbán government but also against the “small liberal parties” on the democratic side. Which parties is he talking about? All the parties on the left with the exception of MSZP.

Initially Botka promised to visit all of these parties with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció, whose chairman is unacceptable to the MSZP candidate. Botka began his “negotiations” with LMP, which I found a strange choice given LMP’s negative attitude toward joint political action. I have since come to believe that his choice of LMP as the first party to visit was intentional. After what he had to know would be a rejection by LMP, he could stop the “unity game,” which in his opinion led nowhere in 2014 and will certainly lead nowhere in 2018. He decided that he will go it alone and will “hold negotiations” with the electorate. Talks with other parties are “just a waste of time.”

Botka was adamant from the very beginning that Ferenc Gyurcsány must remove himself from the political arena and that the leaderless Demokratikus Koalíció should simply follow his and MSZP’s lead. I doubt that Botka ever seriously believed that Gyurcsány would oblige. Indeed, in no time Gyurcsány said that he has no intention of leaving his voters, who just reelected him chairman of DK.

So, two possible allies of MSZP–LMP and DK–were removed from the list, leaving only “the small liberal parties.” After this interview, however, it is unlikely that the politicians of these parties will be willing to negotiate with Botka about anything.

Throughout the interview Botka did his best to discredit “the small liberal parties” in every way possible. He expressed his great disappointment over the fact that the liberal politicians, who had been very encouraging when he first announced his candidacy, soon cooled toward him. In his interpretation this means that “they don’t believe in victory in 2018 and they got frightened.” This behavior of the liberal leaders prompted him to change strategy and give up negotiations altogether. He is not afraid, he believes that victory is possible. And that’s why he “doesn’t want to come to an agreement with the liberal party leaders who are stuck in their own selfish interests.” He will negotiate only with the voters. This, of course, is sophistry. One could come up with many reasons for their reluctance, among them Botka’s attitudes and his somewhat dictatorial ways. For instance, it was his imperious style that cost him his position as chairman of MSZP’s board last summer.

Botka continued his attack, accusing “the small liberal parties that exist at the border of being and not being” of actually wanting to maintain the current political setup. They want to get a few seats in parliament as part of the opposition, but they don’t want to remove the Orbán government. Therefore, the liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz have the same goal: the maintenance of the status quo. MSZP is the only party that wants change and actually represents the interests of the people. Even so, Botka made an effort to seem marginally conciliatory: “my door is still open, but I will not put a comma where a period must be placed.”

I believe this is straight talk, and therefore for the time being any cooperation among the parties of the democratic opposition is over. Each party will campaign alone. MSZP launched its campaign in Miskolc, formerly an industrial city in the poorest region of the country. It was once a socialist bastion but has been under Fidesz leadership since 2010. Also, it was in this region that MSZP lost a lot of voters to Jobbik. So, starting the MSZP campaign there made a lot of sense.

MSZP’s campaign slogan is “Justice to be done, the rich will pay.” Some newspapers interpreted this slogan to mean that Botka’s final goal is “income equality,” which he denied in the interview. Still, his heavy emphasis on the disparity between rich and poor gave that impression and apparently frightened some people. Even the reporter who interviewed Botka in Népszava asked: “So, then you will draw a sword against the rich?”

The slogan may be overly aggressive, but given the poverty that exists in Hungary, Botka’s emphasis on improving the living standards of the poor and helping the lower-middle classes with tax breaks is a good strategy. There’s no question that the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government must be abolished.

Hungarian “melósok” received Balkanic wages

The question is whether this kind of program will make a difference as far as MSZP’s current poor showing in the polls is concerned. Will the party be able to garner enough support to win the battle with Fidesz on its own? Will this program resonate with the skeptical, disillusioned millions who right now don’t know where to turn? Will Botka’s program attract another one million voters the party needs to be competitive? If yes, Botka’s dismissal of the “small liberal parties” might not have been too hasty a decision. But that is a big “if.” What if the half a million or more non-MSZP voters on the left are turned off by Botka’s high-handed manner and refuse to support MSZP?

Botka’s success or failure depends on what happens to MSZP after the announcement of a strategy that moves away from the “third road” strategy of MSZP over the past ten to fifteen years. Will a social democratic program aimed at capturing the vote of the physical workers whom he called by the slang expression “melósok” be enough? There were millions of “melósok” prior to 1990, but today the description is dated, recalling bygone days. Still, perhaps the promise of a better life will move the apathetic uncommitted voters.

March 16, 2017

European Court of Human Rights on Hungary’s refugee policy

The European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision yesterday that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

The case involved two refugees from Bangladesh, Ilias Ilias (24) and Ali Ahmed (27), who arrived at the Serbian-Hungarian border on September 15, 2015 and were subsequently detained in the transit zone for 23 days. The transit zone toward Hungary was fenced in and guarded. After two sets of asylum proceedings, they were expelled from Hungary on the strength of a government decree that lists Serbia as a safe country. Yesterday the Court declared that the Hungarian authorities handling the case had violated the rights to liberty and security as well as the two men’s right to an effective remedy. The court also found that “the Hungarian authorities failed to carry out an individual assessment of each applicant’s case; disregarded the country reports and other evidence submitted by the applicants; and imposed an unfair and excessive burden on them to prove that they were at real risk of a chain-refoulement situation.” The decision was unanimous. “As just satisfaction, the European Court held that Hungary was to pay each applicant 10,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 8,705 euros for costs and expenses.”

Already in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights had handed down a ruling, not involving Hungary, that it was illegal to keep asylum seekers in “detention camps.” A couple of years ago the Hungarian government agreed to abide by that ruling, presumably in the hope that most of the refugees, once free to move about, would leave Hungary for greener pastures. That is exactly what happened. But once the Hungarian government realized that it was unable to handle the flow of refugees, Orbán decided to build a fence to prevent refugees from entering the country. The few who were allowed through the fence were subsequently kept in so-called transit zones while their applications were reviewed. The government’s legal experts believed that these transit zones were different from the detention centers the Court found illegal because these “container” zones were open toward Serbia. The Hungarian government maintained that these zones have extra-territorial status, i.e., they are not situated within the borders of Hungary. Viktor Orbán likened them to airports. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, however, stated that the Hungarian transit zones are under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state and are not “extra-territorial institutions.” In brief, there is no difference between detention centers in the middle of the country and transit zones at the border.

Hungarian civil rights activists are encouraged by the Court’s decision. They find this judgment especially timely because the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, just passed by parliament and countersigned by President János Áder, envisage these container transit zones as the sole means of handling all asylum applicants.

What is the Hungarian government’s reaction to the verdict? There’s no official word yet from the government itself, but Fidesz announced that it was an absurdity. “For Hungary to pay when it observes and complies with EU rules and protects not only the country but also the borders of Europe” is incomprehensible. They stand by their belief that the migrant crisis can be handled only with a forceful defense of the borders, and they will withstand all the pressure coming from Brussels and Strasbourg. To ensure that Hungarians’ hatred of the refugees doesn’t wane, they will have a new “national consultation” so “the people will be able to tell their opinion of the immigration policies of Hungary and Brussels.”

Meanwhile major international newspapers are critical of the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees in general, especially since there is increasing evidence that some of the policemen serving along the borders mistreat those who illegally try to enter the country. In addition, about 80 asylum seekers in a detention center in Békéscsaba began a hunger strike on Monday protesting their incarceration. On March 13 The New York Times in an editorial harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment. The editorial begins with these words: “Hungary’s cruel treatment of refugees has reached a new low.” The editorial justifiably points out that while “Mr. Orbán derides the European Union’s values, Hungary has no trouble taking its support, having received 5.6 billion euros from the union in 2015.” The final verdict is that Hungary treats “desperate refugees with incredible cruelty.”

To round out this post, let me say a few words about the celebrations on Hungary’s national holiday in remembrance of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence. The little I saw of the crowd gathered in front of the National Museum, where Viktor Orbán spoke, was disgusting. There was a confrontation between Fidesz loyalists on one side and followers of Együtt’s Péter Juhász, with whistles, on the other. During the encounter the loyalists hurled all sorts of obscenities at the whistlers. They also claimed that the Együtt protestors were “members of the AVH,” the dreaded state security police that was dismantled after 1956. The reporter for ATV was called a Jewish stooge. All in all, just another terrible national holiday.

I haven’t yet read Viktor Orbán’s speech in full, but one sentence caught my eye. According to Orbán, the nations of Europe are in a state of insurrection. As he put it, “the winds of 1848 are in the air.” In 1848 one revolution after the other broke out in Europe against the European monarchies, beginning in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Orbán Viktor blithely compared the democratic revolutions of 1848 to the dark forces of the extreme right on the rise today. He is keeping fingers crossed for victories by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, after his favorite Donald Trump won in the United States. Well, I’m happy to announce that Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the election, getting 31 seats in parliament, against Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PV) with 19 seats. This is the second disappointment for Viktor Orbán. The first was the Austrian presidential election, which ended in a victory for a Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, instead of Orbán’s favorite, Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ. And as things stand now, it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. What a disappointment for the Hungarian leader of the far-right Fidesz.

March 15, 2017

A success story: The sole Roma student at the Benedictine Gymnasium of Pannonhalma

Let’s stay with the topic of the Roma minority but this time from an entirely different, more upbeat perspective. Today I’m profiling a remarkable young man who comes from a village called Hencida in Hajdú-Bihar County, population 1,200, who will graduate this year from the famous Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma. After graduation he will spend a year at a French university to perfect his knowledge of the language.

This is a remarkable achievement in and of itself for at least two reasons. One is that the percentage of Roma high school graduates is still very small, although the numbers have improved since 1990 when only 1.5% of Gypsies had a high school diploma. Today it is 3.4%. The other reason is that a fourteen-year-old boy, coming from unimaginable poverty, managed to adjust to and succeed in a world that had to be utterly alien to him. That is quite a feat. I have met young men and women who, encountering similar challenges, were unable to face the difficulties and turned their backs on the great opportunities that were being offered to them.

Yes, the difficulties. First of all, this particular gymnasium is a fairly tough one. It is an all-male boarding school where students can visit their parents only once a month. And there is not much time for such travel because Saturdays are still school days in Pannonhalma. Second, although children of modest means are eligible for financial assistance, most of the parents must pay about 590,000 forints ($2,000) a year for room and board. Third, in the last 15 years the gymnasium has accepted only four Roma students, of whom only two finished the four-year program of study in Pannonhalma. At the moment, the young man from Hencida, whose name is István Ötvös and whom everybody calls Pisti, is the sole representative of the Roma minority in the school.

I encountered Pisti’s story in Abcúg, an internet site specializing in the Hungarian countryside and paying a lot of attention to the problems of the Roma minority. From the story it becomes clear that the school administration is not itself engaged in trying to attract talented minority children but relies on the very few people who are active in assisting the Roma population. One of these people is Nóra L. Ritók, the director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Real Pearl Foundation). Pisti can thank Nóra Ritók, who got in touch with Father Titusz Hardi, the principal at Pannonhalma, for his good fortune.

According to the census, 7% of Hencida’s population is Roma, but I suspect that their number is much higher than this official figure would indicate because relatively few Hungarian Roma register themselves as such. The school Pisti went to was a segregated school. He was an excellent student there, but once he got to Pannonhalma the shortcomings of his education became apparent. He had serious academic difficulties in his first year and just barely passed math. By now, however, he has a solid B average.

Here is Pisti’s story. His parents divorced when he was eight. He and two of his younger siblings remained with his mother, who subsequently remarried and had another child. Three years later his mother died and his stepfather’s illiterate parents took the orphans in. Pisti, who is quite artistic, ended up attending the Real Pearl Foundation’s art school, where he impressed Nóra Ritók. As the reporter says, “with the help of the Foundation a new world opened” for the boy. He even had the opportunity to travel to Portugal for an artistic tour while he was still in elementary school.

Pisti (R) with his roommate Máté (L) from Budapest

This is how Pisti describes his life in Hencida. “I didn’t really like home. I yearned to get away. I wanted something new. I wanted to study. I didn’t want the fate of my former classmates. By now most of them are on public work and some of them already have children. A couple of my elementary school classmates are in prison. I didn’t want this kind of life. I wanted to learn and to live a better life than the rest of us at home.” His “parents” were at first reluctant to let him go “because, on the one hand, they were worried about me and, on the other, they didn’t really understand what an opportunity it was to attend such a good gymnasium and get a matriculation certificate. In fact, they still don’t understand.”

Pisti’s new classmates came from a world he knew nothing about. A large majority of the boys at Pannonhalma are the sons of doctors, lawyers, university professors, and high government officials. Yet his social adjustment was apparently quite swift. As he proudly says, after one or two weeks he was already feeling comfortable: “I knew how to behave, politely, like the others.” But this assimilation comes with a price. He no longer feels at home in Hencida. In fact, he rarely visits his “parents” and not just because the village is very far from Pannonhalma and the students don’t have both Saturdays and Sundays off. He often spends even holidays in the school or visits the family of one of his friends. “When I get home, I can’t find my place. I don’t know what to do. I became alienated from my family. I don’t know what to talk with them about.”

This alienation from his family is understandable. The opportunities at Pannonhalma are impressive, and during his stay there he has been immersed in a culture he cannot share with his family at home. On the other hand, he seems to have a close relationship with the principal of the school, who was keeping an eye on him even when he was living in Hencida. It is on the principal’s advice that he will study at a French university for a year.

Pisti gets free room and board. In addition, a foundation that works with disadvantaged Roma communities and individuals gives him 10,000 forints a month. He also has a private benefactor who sends him 20,000 forints every month. This is the money he can use to buy clothes. And, he says, he even manages to put some money aside for his move to Paris.

István Ötvös’s story is unfortunately all too rare in Hungary. It cannot be otherwise as long as the Roma community’s lot is so miserable and, for most, hopeless.

March 14, 2017

The Grand Alliance: Viktor Orbán and Flórián Farkas, partners in crime

No matter which newspaper or internet site I turned to in the last couple of months, I always seemed to find an article about new twists and turns in the infamous corruption case connected to the EU-financed project “Road to Employment.” The story goes back to 2015 when Ákos Hadházy, today co-chair of LMP and a steadfast sleuth of corruption, discovered a massive corruption case that led to the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ/National Roma Self-government) and its former chairman, Flórián Farkas. Farkas is today a member of parliament, government commissioner in charge of Roma affairs, and, most important, a close political ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Farkas is the man who delivers the Gypsy vote for Fidesz.

Signing of the grand alliance

Thanks to Hadházy’s insistence, the prosecutor’s office reluctantly began an investigation of the case on February 24, 2015 and has allegedly been investigating ever since. To date the office hasn’t questioned a single suspect in the embezzlement of about 1.6 billion forints ($5.5 million). Nonetheless, let’s be cockeyed optimists. The office still has about three more months–until June 24–before the investigation will probably be terminated.

Meanwhile, the ministry of human resources (EMMI), which is responsible for Roma affairs, began an investigation of its own. It came to the conclusion that, indeed, almost all the money ORÖ received had been “diverted.” The Gypsy organization was told that it will have to reimburse the ministry for the enormous amount of money it spent leasing expensive cars, buying a luxury villa on Gellérthegy Road in Buda, giving high salaries to officials of the organization, purchasing unnecessary software, and hundreds and hundreds of other useless items. The money which was intended to assist unemployed Roma achieve skills necessary for employment ended up in the pockets of Flórián Farkas and friends.

In May ORÖ and the ministry agreed on the terms for repayment of the embezzled money. In the first eleven months ORÖ was to pay only five million forints per month, totaling 55 million forints or 3% of the total obligation. In the twelfth month, however, the balance of the money owed (that is, the other 97%) was to be transferred to the ministry. It was a rather odd arrangement.

By early December it came to light that ORÖ actually owes more than 1.6 billion forints to the ministry. It had accumulated a debt of approximately 500 million forints to sundry firms, lawyers’ offices, the tax office, and ministries other than EMMI. The new chairman of ORÖ, János Balogh, just like his predecessors, enjoys an affluent lifestyle. Despite the financial difficulties the organization faces, he bought himself a fairly expensive new car without the approval of the board.

In the last few months, for reasons unknown, Flórián Farkas has become invisible. He has a nice family house in Szolnok, but his wife and his neighbors claim that he doesn’t live there at the moment. He cannot be seen in parliament either, although there is nothing new in that. Farkas is among those members of parliament who show up in the House on only the rarest of occasions.

Going back to the strange balloon payment due this spring, how in the world is ORÖ going to find that much money? For an answer we have to look no further than the handouts of the third Orbán government on December 21, 2016. It disbursed about 300 billion forints among its favorite organizations and projects: for instance, the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, the Ludovika Military Academy, and the study of Viktor Orbán in the new building housing the prime minister’s office. Among these disbursements was a 1.3 billion forint item for ORÖ called “special assistance.” According to MTI, this money is meant to cover the establishment of the new Roma Oktatási és Kulturális Központ (Roma Educational and Cultural Center). In fact, this “special assistance” is a thinly veiled way to make ORÖ’s debt of billions disappear.

And what will happen to the “Road to Employment” program? The decision was made in February 2017 to dismantle it. The best thing is to forget about the whole thing, as if it never existed. As far as the fate of Flórián Farkas is concerned, he doesn’t have to worry. He has the full protection of Viktor Orbán. The prime minister’s office came to the conclusion that even though 1.6 billion forints disappeared, Flórián Farkas is innocent. He made a few small mistakes, that’s all. He will remain government commissioner in addition to his job as a member of parliament.

At this point one would have thought that at last we had finished with government handouts to the thoroughly corrupt ORÖ. But no. There was undoubtedly still a shortfall that had to be covered. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet reported that EMMI will buy ORÖ’s luxury villa on Gellérthegy Road for 270 million forints, which apparently is way above the current market value of the property. At the time that ORÖ bought it for 200 million, the price was already considered to be too steep. It is very possible that the government is buying a white elephant just to let the Gypsy leaders of this corrupt organization and its real boss, Flórián Farkas, off the hook. Or, viewed another way, to buy thousands and thousands of critical Gypsy votes.

March 13, 2017

Will communist-era internal security files finally be open in Hungary?

At last the archives of the huge internal security network, currently stored in the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal or AH (Constitutional Defense Office), an idiotic name for one of the many offices dealing with national security, will be transferred to the Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltár/ASzTL (Historical Archives of the National Security Services). On March 6 a lengthy report on the “study of the pre-1990 data preserved on magnetic tapes” was released by a working group of the National Remembrance Committee and the Historical Archives of the National Security Services. Three days later the Hungarian government approved the transfer of the material.

Over the years socialist-liberal governments, at least halfheartedly, supported opening the archives, but right-wing governments categorically rejected the idea. For example, one of the most vociferous opponents of opening the archives of the feared III/III department of Kádár’s ministry of interior was Péter Boross, the arch-conservative interior minister and later prime minister in the early 1990s. As for Fidesz, the Orbán government’s reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that in the last seven years LMP turned in 14 proposals to make all documents pertaining to the workings of the internal security apparatus of the Rákosi and Kádár periods accessible. These proposals never got out of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

The present report focuses on one aspect of the vast archival collection of the secret services: “the study of the magnetic tapes.” The existence of these tapes first came to light in 1995, although the initial reaction was one of denial. At that point I belonged to an internet political discussion group in which one of our members, who had been employed by the ministry of interior, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of such tapes. Once their existence could no longer be denied, those who didn’t want the content of these tapes to be revealed announced that they could no longer be read because the recording was done on by now obsolete equipment. Of course, this was just a diversionary tactic. Years later, in 2007, it was Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsán who at last set up the so-called Kenedi Commission, a group of researchers familiar with the history of the internal security apparatus. It was that commission which asked a group of IT experts to find a way to make the tapes readable. One of these tech gurus gave a fascinating description of how they managed to accomplish the task. By the way, I should mention that the material on these tapes was made secret until 2060. I don’t know which so-called democratic government decided that the “secrets” of the Kádár regime must be preserved until 2060 (when, presumably, everybody who’s implicated will be dead), but I will note that the Kenedi Commission was promptly dismantled by the Orbán government.

As opposed to other post-communist countries, Hungary allows only extremely limited access to communist-era documents. The East German archives were opened immediately after the regime change. Somewhat later both the Czechs and the Slovaks put all their material online, and anyone can comb through it to his heart’s content. Knowing the “enthusiasm” of the Fidesz government for transparency, I doubt that such a situation will exist in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister.

The present system is quite restrictive. Individuals can ask for their own file if such a file exists. If in that folder he finds a cover name, he can ask for the informer’s real name. But an ordinary mortal can conduct “research” only if he can prove that the person he is researching is a public figure. And only approved historians who can demonstrate a real need to do research in this field are allowed to use the stored archival material. Details of the procedure and the appropriate sections of the 2003 law are given on ASzTL’s website.

Even if one gets permission to do research on public figures to find out whether they were informers, the 2003 law governing accessibility to this material was written in such a way that even if it is perfectly obvious that X or Y was an informer, it is almost impossible to prove it. The law demands supportive material that more often than not is simply not available. For example, the law requires a signed agreement between the security services and the informer or a handwritten report from the agent. It has often happened in the past that the “maligned victim” dragged the historian to court and won because these demands were not met. Historian Krisztián Ungváry claims that as long as the 2003 law is in force nothing will change. For the time being all public figures can rest easy: their “sterling reputations” are being protected by the Hungarian government.

The procedure a historian must go through at ASzTL reminds me of my own experience in the Hungarian National Archives in the 1960s. One had to define one’s research topic quite narrowly–in my case, the foreign policy of the Friedrich government in 1919. I wanted to look at the transcripts of the cabinet meetings. Instead of giving me the full transcripts, the staff extracted only those parts that dealt with foreign policy. One was at their mercy. I assume the situation is similar at ASzTL. Let’s assume that in order to get a full picture of a specific case one needs to look at files on others. Surely, according to the present rules, this is not allowed.

Some people claim that nobody is interested in the issue. Who cares? people say. It was a long time ago. Why disturb the past? It is over with. At one point Bence Rétvári (KDNP), at the time the political undersecretary of the justice department, came up with the brilliant idea that the whole archives should be dismantled and that anyone who has a file should just pick it up and take it home. This kind of talk totally disregards the fact that the history of those 40 years requires an understanding of the enormous network which over the years might have had about 200,000 members. Ever since 1990 the issue has been discussed back and forth, committees have been formed, but governments made sure that the public would know as little as possible about the potentially checkered past of present-day politicians.

In 2002, after the public learned that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a paid officer of the counter-intelligence unit of the ministry of interior, a committee was set up that became known as the Mécs Committee after Imre Mécs (SZDSZ), its chairman. The commission, because of Fidesz’s obstruction, got nowhere. But apparently those members of the commission who had access to the files found at least ten politicians from the post-1990 period who had worked for the internal security forces.

In fact, as far back as 1990 Miklós Németh, the last prime minister of the old regime, was said to have handed over a long list of former informers who had important positions in the newly formed parties and later became members of parliament or members of the Antall government. This list of informers was leaked by someone called “Szakértő 90” in 2005 and is still available on the internet. In the interim historians have published several articles about the shady past of public figures–for example, János Martonyi, foreign minister in the first and second Orbán governments. He was one of the people who successfully sued Krisztián Ungváry.

It would be high time to set the record straight, but I have my doubts.

March 12, 2017

What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés

At the end of February and the beginning of March, I spent a considerable amount of time on Momentum, the new political movement that, with a successful signature drive, managed to force the government to scrap its pet project of holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. I was enthusiastic about this group of young men and women, who struck me as an intelligent lot. What I found especially attractive was that the members of this civic group realized that they could best effect political change by becoming part of the political process. They announced early on their desire to form a political party.

Admittedly, I was worried about their categorical announcement that they would refuse to cooperate with the “political elite,” whom they obviously despised. It was equally worrisome that the chairman of Momentum, András Fekete-Győr, didn’t seem to make a clear distinction between the political system prior to 2010 and the one after. As if this young firebrand wanted to throw out the totality of political change that has taken place since 1989. He talked about instituting an entirely new political system once his party is in power. This statement unfortunately reminded me of Viktor Orbán’s promise in 2010 that his “revolution in the ballot boxes” was the beginning of true democracy in Hungary.

Because Momentum worked so assiduously on collecting signatures for a referendum on hosting the Olympics, the leaders of the movement had little time to give interviews and to share their political ideas with the public. Since then, the chairman of the new party, called Momentum Mozgalom (MoMo), has been giving interviews galore. From these interviews a sad fact emerges: András Fekete-Győr hasn’t got a clue about politics. If he faithfully represents the goals and platform of MoMo, we can forget about this new political formation and the 140 people who apparently make up the party at the moment.

The interview tsunami began on March 6 with Györgyi Szöllösi of “Hungary Live” on Hír TV. In the course of the interview Fekete-Győr triumphantly announced that Momentum is planning to win the election single-handed in a year’s time. Mind you, a few days earlier he admitted that 2018 was too early a date and announced that his party would concentrate on the 2022 election. No probing questions about the feasibility of such an improbable feat could shake Fekete-Győr’s self-confidence. They will be ready to form a government as a result of their impressive electoral victory. The reporter reminded him of an earlier remark: “We haven’t lost our minds and think that we alone can replace the present government.” So, what happened? asked the reporter. Fekete-Győr simply denied that he had ever said such a thing.

From here he moved to even shakier ground when he said that “the Hungarian Left doesn’t have a positive vision of the nation (nemzetkép).” As we know, this is the favorite accusation of Fidesz against the opposition. Therefore, it was inevitable that the reporter would want to know more about Fekete-Győr’s interpretation of “nemzetkép.” Within seconds it became patently obvious that Fekete-Győr had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually he came up with a totally meaningless answer: in his opinion, it means “political peace.” Let’s not even try to interpret this brilliant observation.

Well, that was bad enough, but a day later another interview, which appeared in 24.hu, prompted uniformly negative responses from responsible opposition commentators. First, let’s see what we can learn about Fekete-Győr’s political past from this interview. First, he most likely voted for Fidesz in 2010 when he was 21 years old. “What made Fidesz attractive for me was the fact that it had several convincing characters like Viktor Orbán, Tibor Navracsics, János Lázár, and János Áder.” Let’s not comment on Fekete-Győr’s choice of convincing politicians. Instead, I will be charitable and chalk up his strange taste to his youth. He still thinks, however, that “Orbán is a helluva talented politician who can speak the language of the common man about his coherent worldview.” He supports Orbán in his efforts to keep the refugees out, but it should be done “not so aggressively.” He also approves of the centralization of public education, “but KLIK is not a good answer.”

Otherwise, throughout the interview Fekete-Győr was so arrogant that the reporters eventually asked him: “What feeds this arrogance with which you reject the approach of all the opposition forces, be they Ferenc Gyurcsány or Tibor Szanyi?” Then came the answer: “We are not as arrogant with everybody—if you can call it arrogance—but I have no idea what the hell Ferenc Gyurcsány is still doing in politics. It would be high time for him to get lost.”

It took only a few hours for journalists to comment on this interview. One of the first was my favorite Árpád W. Tóta, who is both astute and witty. He began his opinion piece, titled “Moment, bitte,” with “Neither Right nor Left? And the Left not national enough? Please, tell me something really new.” Yes, we are grateful for not having the Olympic Games in 2024, but “gratefulness is not a blank check or a free ride.” In the rest of the essay Tóta accuses of Fekete-Győr of being utterly devoid of any serious vision and  contends that what he is trying to sell is at best a collection of banal clichés. Tóta is certain that if Fekete-Győr had to explain what a “positive national vision” is, which is missing on the Left but exists on the Right, he would be at a loss. As we could see from his Hír TV interview, Tóta was correct. The self-confident leader of MoMo failed. He couldn’t mutter out an intelligent sentence on the topic because, as Tóta rightly observes, the “concept” is an empty phrase, something Hungarians call a “lózung.” Tóta also visited MoMo’s website where he found the party’s “program” on education and healthcare, which they call their “vision.” There is nothing wrong with the direction, but the program is full of clichés that have been more intelligently developed and more fully proposed over the last three years by several parties on the Left.

Another devastating critique came from László Bartus of Amerikai Népszava, who called attention to some of the most objectionable statements in Fekete-Győr’s interview. I think Bartus is right when he criticizes the young politician’s admiration of Orbán’s ability to speak the language of the common people, which is mere populist drivel. Moreover, Hitler and Mussolini also knew how to speak the language of the people. How can he call Orbán’s illiberal, far-right, anti-Western pseudo philosophy a “worldview,” asks the editor-in-chief of Amerikai Népszava. Bartus finds Fekete-Győr so objectionable that he even defends Ferenc Gyurcsány against his ill-tempered attacks, and Gyurcsány is not exactly Bartus’s favorite. After all, as the reporters reminded him, the electorate decides who stays in politics and for how long, not Fekete-Győr. Anyone who wants politicians to pack up and clear out of public life is not a democrat, says Bartus. Moreover, he continues, “this helluva talented politician who is currently robbing the country blind is not Ferenc Gyurcsány. It was not Gyurcsány who abolished the constitution but Orbán.”

A day after the 24.hu interview came another interview, this time with Antónia Mészáros of ATV. A somewhat chastened Fekete-Győr tried to explain away his ill-tempered and inappropriate comments about the former prime minister. Mészáros, who is known for her sharp intellect and insistent interviewing style, was all sweetness and light. She handled the chairman of MoMo with kindness. I guess she knew that Fekete-Győr didn’t need her help to make himself ridiculous. Perhaps he didn’t realize it, but as a commentator said, “tonight Antónia Mészáros had Fekete-Győr for supper, and once she was full she leaned back and smiled. Her prey didn’t even realize that he was almost completely consumed.”

March 11, 2017

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017