Category Archives: Hungarian politics

Sándor Kerekes: My friend and my neighbor, CEU

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

Photos by the author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2017

Viktor Orbán is playing with fire with those itchy Christian palms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 21, 2017

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 20, 2017

The Hungarian parliament “debates” the anti-NGO bill

It’s becoming really hot in the Hungarian parliament, where the opposition is waging a heroic fight against an increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous Fidesz majority. Members of the opposition are feeling increasingly frustrated by their impotence within the walls of parliament. They are desperate as they watch the Fidesz bulldozer grind on with escalating force.

One would think that the international scandal that ensued after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country would temper Viktor Orbán’s zeal and that he would conveniently forget about the bill against those civic organizations that are partially financed from abroad. But no, he is forging ahead.

Tempers are flaring in parliament. Lately I have noticed growing impatience on the part of the Fidesz majority, which often prompts the president or his deputies to forcibly prevent discussion of pending legislation. One would think that with such a large majority, the government party would show some magnanimity, but this was never true of Fidesz and it is especially not true of late. Perhaps because Fidesz parliamentary leaders are feeling the pressure of the streets they take their anger out on the members of the opposition. In turn, some opposition members seem buoyed by those tens of thousands who have demonstrated in the past week. The result is shouting matches and fines ordered by either László Kövér or one of his Fidesz or KDNP deputies.

About two weeks ago commentators predicted that the Orbán government will consider their bill on the NGOs even more important than their law on higher education, the one that affected CEU. And indeed, top Fidesz representatives were lined up for the debate, among them Gergely Gulyás, whom I consider especially dangerous because he seems to be an unusually clever lawyer with the verbal skills to match. He acted as if the proposed bill wasn’t a big deal, just a simple amendment of little consequence. As for the issue of branding NGOs by demanding that they label themselves “foreign-supported” organizations, Gulyás’s answer was that some people consider such support a positive fact, others don’t. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the bill. He accused the opposition of “hysteria” stemming from frustration.

The Christian Democrats have recently discovered an able spokesman, István Hollik, who was not as restrained as Gulyás and spelled out in detail what the government’s problem is with the NGOs. According to him, “there are people who would like their political views to become reality and who want to have a say in the events of the world without seeking the trust of the electorate. This is what George Soros does in Europe and in America.” It is through these NGOs that Soros wants to influence politics.

MSZP’s spokesman was Gergely Bárándy who, I’m afraid, doesn’t set the world on fire. LMP’s Bernadett Szél, however, is another matter. In her view, the country shouldn’t be shielded from the civic groups but from “the Russian agents who sit here today in parliament.” She continued: “You are a government financed from abroad; you are politicians who are financed from abroad; you are supposed to do this dirty work. It is unacceptable.” As for Hollik’s references to George Soros, Szél said “You people make me sick!” Szél was well prepared for this speech because she had hundreds of cards printed on a black background saying “I’m a foreign funded politician.” She placed them on the desks of Fidesz MPs. Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd didn’t mince words either when she announced that “all decent people want to vomit” when Fidesz members vote against civic groups that help the disadvantaged and the disabled. Finally, Együtt’s Szabolcs Szabó compared the bill to the one introduced in Putin’s Russia. He charged that Viktor Orbán simply lifted a Russian piece of legislation and transplanted it into Hungarian law. “Even Mátyás Rákosi would have been proud of this achievement,” he concluded.

Bernadett Szél hard at work

But that wasn’t all. It was inevitable that the pro-government civic organization called Civil Összefogás (CÖF) would come up. CÖF is clearly a government-financed pseudo organization which spends millions if not billions on pro-government propaganda. Naturally, CÖF is unable to produce any proof of donations received. Bernadett Szél held up two pieces of paper to show that CÖF left all the questions concerning its finances blank. At that very moment, Sándor Lezsák, the Fidesz deputy president of the House, turned Szél’s microphone off. He accused her of using “demonstrative methods” for which she was supposed to have permission. Such an infraction means a fine. When Szél managed to continue, she said: “Take my whole salary, but I will still tell you that CÖF has a blank report. So, let’s not joke around. How much do my human rights cost? Tell me an amount. We will throw it together. I’m serious.” This is, by the way, not the first threat of a fine against opposition members. MSZP members were doubly fined because they called President Áder “János.” The spokesman of Párbeszéd “was banned forever from parliament” because he put up signs: “traitor” on the door leading to the prime minister’s study.

Speaking of CÖF. Today László Csizmadia, chairman of CÖF, launched an attack against Michael Ignatieff in Magyar Hírlap. He described Ignatieff as “Goodfriend II on the left.” The reference is to the capable chargé d’affaires of the United States Embassy during the second half of 2016 when American-Hungarian relations were at the lowest possible ebb.

And one more small item. Index discovered that the parliamentary guards, a force created by László Kövér in 2012 (about which I wrote twice, first in 2012 and again in 2013, will get new weapons and ammunition:

  • 45-caliber pistols
  • 56 mm (.223 caliber) submachine guns
  • 62x51mm sniper rifles using NATO ammunition
  • .306 caliber rifles
  • manual grenade launcher for 40mm grenades
  • intercepting nets
  • a variety of ammunition for new types of firearms
  • universal (fired, thrown) tear gas grenades with artificial or natural active ingredients
  • hand-operated teardrop grenades working with natural or artificial substances

So, they will be well prepared for all eventualities.

April 19, 2017

Today’s extra: Interview with leaders of three Hungarian NGOs

Republishing this interview with three prominent civic leaders is timely since today the Hungarian parliament discussed a bill regulating civic groups that receive financing from abroad. I will report on the stormy session itself later. I am grateful to The Budapest Sentinel for permission to use their translation.

♦ ♦ ♦

Translation of interview with Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute (EKINT) director Bernadette Somody (pictured left), Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi (center), and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) managing director Stefánia Kapronczay (right) published in index.hu on April 12th, 2017 under the title “This is the logic of tyranny.” Photographed by István Huszti.

After Central European University (CEU) the government submitted a bill targeting far more defenseless civil organizations.  Civil organizations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000-tran.) annually from sources abroad would have to register themselves as foreign organizations, and those who refuse would be threatened with closure.

CEU appears to be the most important cause, when in fact this is.

  • The interviewees do not want to try to understand the bill, because they do not consider it a basis for discussion.
  • They believe the draft law is not about transparency but about making their work impossible, intimidation, and stigmatizing them.
  • They say that the government is not interested in contrary opinions, but wants to smother debate by eliminating civil society.
  • If government decisions may not be questioned, then they are not legitimate.
  • They promise not to cooperate, and that they will not break.

The bill is about “the transparency of organizations supported from abroad.”  Each can decide for himself whether the three civil organizations operate in a transparent manner: EKINT’s economic data can be viewed here, Helsinki’s here, and TASZ’s here.

In response to criticism from politically active civil organizations, the government repeatedly accuses them of being funded from abroad, which is true.  Why can’t you find supporters at home?

Márta Pardavi: This is true of every human rights civil organization in the region of central Europe.  This is a given.  There are not state resources for such objectives, but if there were, nowadays it is doubtful whether accepting them would not compromise independence.

The other possibility is that the population and society support the legal defenders. But neither the ability of Hungarian society to do so, nor people’s knowledge of human rights and democracy can be compared to that of Holland.  Because those groups whose rights legal defenders try to defend are often poor, stigmatized, and live on the periphery, their ability to promote their interests are low, and the state organizational structure does not help them.

It is due to these external limitations that our work is largely supported by foreign donors.  Which does not cost the Hungarian budget anything, even as civil organizations provide a number of services which the state ought to.

The EU is one source, and there are large foundations, not just the Open Society Foundation, which think it important that human rights be better respected around the world.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never accepted state support, because we always protected Hungarian citizens from the Hungarian state, and one of the necessary conditions of this is that it never happen that the state dictate what citizens we protect. Because it is the state which commits the most legal violations, we cannot accept money from it.

We also have a high ratio of foreign support, and of course the question arises how much support a Budapest-based foundation founded by Hungarians receives in the form of foreign money.  It is also worthwhile adding that there are affluent persons, not only in Hungary but in many places in the world. who want to gave part of their wealth to good causes.  These foundations do not operate here for historical and economic reasons, but rather, for example, in England.

An activity involving somebody giving of their wealth not only to their children or their immediate surroundings but to social goals  should not be stigmatized but appreciated.

Bernadette Somody:  Why is it an accusation if money originates from abroad?  It is false to suggest that if the money is foreign, then the interest is also that.  It does not follow from the fact that foreign sources can be found for these that these are foreign interests, because these are international interests. It reflects badly on the Hungarian government if it regards certain universal values as strange or foreign.  It is not true that there is no value for Hungarian citizens in things for which funds cannot be found in Hungary.

Would it be better if organizations could fund a greater proportion from micro donations or domestic companies?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  A country or society’s level of development is shown by the existence of common goals, values, and the degree of willingness, strength, and money to stand up for social matters or minority groups. There are more and more volunteers in Hungary, and those who donate regularly. But there is a huge difference between somebody who volunteers at their children’s school and if a non-Roma regularly donates to the work of a foundation that stands up for Roma rights.  Also a precise measure is whether a company dares to undertake such matters.  The reason it is possible to maintain the foreign organizations’ interest narrative is because Hungarian society is still very polarized, and there are few values in which the majority, or everyone, believes.

Márta Pardavi: Of course, it would be better if more Hungarian citizens supported (civil society), and for years we’ve endeavored to better explain to them why our work is useful to society.  Unfortunately, the campaign against civil society today is so intensive that the civil activities and their results themselves have come to be questioned.  I think many are contemplating whether civil organizations are even needed, and whether they are turning to a bunch of people suspected working according to political orders if they ask help or extend help.  This is not the fault of civil society but a consequence of the anti-civil government campaign.

Bernadette Somody:  We are talking as though there are three different squares on the map: the state, that is, the government; society, so citizens; and the civil organizations. This is already the product of the government’s propaganda.  There are not three areas but rather two: on the one hand the state organs, the government, the practitioners of public power, and on the other, society.  Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work.

The government justifies the modification to the law on the basis of creating transparency.  What’s the matter with this?

Bernadette Somody: It is not at all a question of whether we would want to operate transparently.  It is important that if we represent a given opinion, our financial background be known.  But this is already entirely the case today.  What we are speaking out against is the stigmatization, against the need to register separately, and the closure of those who do not satisfy this requirement.

Stefánia Kapronczay: In 2015 we even issued an opinion about this.  We try to take seriously the principle of transparency.  We wrote that the supporter can already be known, and whether a given source is international, and what activity is undertaken using the support. In fact, we set forth recommendations as to what operating information should be made available in place of the expected financial accounting.

Bernadette Somody:  Among consolidated relationships it is reasonable to raise the question as to what the motivations are of those who loudly participate in the democratic debate.  The stronger their position, and our position in the media is still perhaps louder than that of a citizen, the more it is necessary to disclose information about itself.  It is precisely for this reason that we still show our budgets going back years.

What principles argue against civil organizations being as transparent as possible?

Bernadette Somody:  The fact that we do not make decisions that are binding on citizens.  We have our opinions, just like any other citizen, but their expression is not associated with any compulsory or public power, and we do not spend public money.  In contrast to the state, there is no reason in the case of civil organizations why the main rule needs to be transparency.  We must not compromise our right to demand, just like any citizen, that there be a constitutional reason to compel us to make information public.  I think people would be outraged to be told by a company to publish their salary on the internet.  Why would they do this?  Under no circumstances do we wish to find meaning in a meaningless concept.  We do not want to act as though we believe that this is a real argument.  The bill is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.

How much are civil organizations of this kind required to accommodate the expectations of foreign supporters?

Márta Pardavi: Donors always have expectations: this is called strategy or application and reporting obligations.  The task of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to protect refugees.  One method of this is to provide legal assistance that enables vulnerable people to navigate the legal maze.  We agree with this, and in this sense it is not about alignment but about a community of values.   Applications involve a huge amount of paperwork and tremendous inspection.  It is mostly the same when it comes to the administration of EU supports and the Open Society Foundation.  But beyond the obligations set forth in the application and the contract, it is not necessary to meet any other expectations.  They do not even say at the UNHCR whether we can appeal in a specific case or what kind of statement we should issue.

Bernadette Somody:  The basis for the relationship with the donor is the community of values in the goals, as well as oversight ensuring that the money is spent properly which must be strictly documented.  But it is not like a road construction tender, where the government says a 50 km-long road is to be built between cities A and B with such and such a foundation and from such and such materials, and the one submitting the cheapest offer (or somebody else) wins the tender.  Our clients do not instruct us in such a manner.  We agree that people should be able to travel more easily and more safely, this is supported by a donor, and we submit a proposal as to what we believe would be a good mode of transportation.  They require of us that we perform what we undertook.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  The organizations have public, easily accessible strategies.  For 22 years TASZ has held decision-makers to account according to the same principles.  To say that we change to suit the expectations of the donors is a lie.  There is never any concrete substantive expectation as to what we are to execute.  Naturally, it matters what applications can be submitted in a given season. But we do not change our values because of this, and we retain the activity for which there is no funding and try to find money for it.  For this reason it is very important that those citizens who agree with our activities support us with a monthly donation, even if it is only a symbolic amount.  If only so that we can stand on several legs, since this is also one of the bases for dependency.

How stable are they financially?

Márta Pardavi:  In an ideal case a civil organization, like every  business organization, should have a stable, reliable income from which it can finance its basic operation, and if it wants to especially focus on something for a few years, say that the same authority that is investigating should not choose legal defenders, then we can obtain separate money for that.  It should not be necessary to worry whether it will be possible at the end of the year to pay the financial advisor or whether the office will have electricity.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain donations for that, and civil organizations must often rely on the current opportunities at hand.  But certainly we are not willing to do certain things.  We do not apply for funds allocated for achieving objectives that are not among our priorities or which do not pertain to our activities.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  If such an organization can see twelve months ahead that its operating costs are covered, then it is very happy.  We could sleep well if we saw three years in advance but the reality is at most one year.

Bernadette Somody:  EKINT is clearly under-financed.  It would be good if we could see one year in advance.  We operate with an extremely small budget but with salaries that are acceptable to committee people,  But it is entirely certain that there are interdependencies with the circles of activities of the Eötvös Károly Institute which are slightly more difficult to illuminate than defending the rights of people.

Yes, it is possible to know more about TASZ and Helsinki, but what does EKINT deal with?

Bernadette Somody:  Originally the institution came about to transform the theoretical foundations of knowledge for use by the government.  Today there is no need whatsoever for this on the part of the government.  But meanwhile it is necessary to confront the fact that the frameworks and the foundations have been called into question.  EKINT did not want to pursue a mission other than the one for which it was created 15 years ago, but changes to our environment made this necessary and forced us to stand up for the boundaries of constitutional democracy.  The government liquidated the institutional system protecting human and basic rights.  This can only be occasionally accomplished in a decorative manner.  For this reason EKINT supervises the institutions and mechanisms overseeing the exercise of public power, and we call attention to when they are compromised, and we try to maintain the need for them so that we do not get used to this like the frog does to hot water in a pot of boiling water.

It is not clear to many people that it is not volunteers but paid employees working at serious civil organizations.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is only necessary to pay our colleagues because the people working here could work at law offices or other companies.  It is not possible to fulfill our obligations with volunteers; only with paid, professional experts.  Just our legal assistance service handles more than 2000 requests annually and involves 120 unique legal cases.  They often ask what my regular job is apart from what I do at TASZ.  At these times I am astonished they believe it is possible to perform work besides this.

Bernadette Somody:  The civil organizations have to pay their colleagues not only because they could work elsewhere but also to prevent them from being compromised.  I can maintain that EKINT employees always promote our values and interests if I can ensure their existential security.  If somebody is forced to live from other sources, then their existential interests may compete with the interests of their civil workplace.

How is it possible to explain to those who do not understand why it is necessary to have civil organizations at all?

Bernadette Somody: The state renders decisions that are binding on us, its citizens.  That we submit ourselves to these even if we do not agree carries a minimal moral condition: that we dispute these decisions.  The draft modification to the law about CEU was adopted a week after it was tabled.  There was no opportunity for debate.

As with the press, civil organizations are capable of amplifying an alternative, often minority point of view, and to keep these on the agenda in order for there to be an opportunity to strengthen points of view contrary to those of the government, and ad absurdum for  governments to be replaceable.  This is the democratic minimum and a condition for a normally working constitutional democracy.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is the task of the government to listen to these opinions and factor them into the decision-making process.  But this does not mean the exercise of pressure that cannot be resisted.  The government, especially one enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary majority or a significant majority, is elected to make decisions representative of the community of citizens having heard these opinions.

In order to make good decisions, it needs to know the point of view of citizens, which civil organizations often reinforce.  For example, when we represent handicapped persons whose voices are weak.

The government believes civil organizations lack democratic legitimacy to be able to have a say in communal matters.  Do they?

Bernadette Somody:  The need for democratic legitimacy, that is, that a plurality or majority authorize a political actor, can be expressed if the actor exercises public power, in other words what the state does: pass laws and impose its will.  Oner of the tricks of state hate propaganda is that it tries to differentiate civil organizations from citizens, where the civil organizations are themselves made up of citizens.

Instead, they are made to appear as though they resemble the state, and exercise power over citizens.  This is a completely false, fake, and malicious thing to imply.   Democratic legitimacy requires from the government that it win its power in elections that are really free and fair, which is doubtful in Hungary, but that is the subject for a different discussion.  But I would turn it around: it should be the condition of the state’s activity that it allow civil organizations to freely operate.  If the activity of the government cannot be challenged, then it is not legitimate.

Márta Pardavi: The visceral response is that a debate on democratic legitimacy essentially means that nobody should interfere in politics who is not a member of parliament.  However, this outrages a lot of people regardless of what they think about politics or the content of political messages.  Whoever has turned out for a protest, or swore when he felt that things were being decided over his head in parliament, understands how much of a false, deceitful claim this is.

Bernadette Somody: The government makes it seem that only the government’s opinion is legitimate because only it possesses democratic legitimacy.  The government speaks for the nation, and anyone who criticizes it is serving various foreign interests.  This is not democracy, this is the logic of tyranny.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is truly aggravating when citizens living in Hungary are deprived of their right to have a say in debates over public issues, where the government refers to the authorization it obtained from them.  The whole thing is a strange and inverted logic.

Of the three organizations, EKINT does not fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law (EKINT operates as a nonprofit foundation, whereas the bill refers to associations and foundations).  Is this really a drafting error, or the result of something?

Bernadette Somody:  I don’t want to call its legality into question, but we would very much like to abstain from seeking for meaning or mistakes in hateful propaganda.  This is a stigmatizing, hateful, step threatening the existence of civil organizations, unsuitable for our looking for realizable constitutional content or principles.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We completely agree.  This law needs to be understood as a campaign to discredit civil organizations, and there is no point in getting into a constitutional or legal debate, because with that we created the notion that there is room for debate.  The draft law has nothing to do with transparency.

Márta Pardavi:  There was no discussion whatsoever concerning the need for the law or its details, and this also shows that they want to deprive us of the ability to serve Hungarian citizens.   They very deliberately denied us the opportunity to state our opinion of the bill, even though this is prescribed by law.  After the five-party discussion, based on the statement of Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz chair of the parliamentary committee on legislative affairs), it was apparent that, following the Putin scheme, the government is no longer in the mood to listen to contrarian points of view.   Unfortunately, the government did not engage in debate with our principles in the refugee matter, which should be a civilized discussion, but decided that it had had enough of contrarian points of view, and would prefer to try and silence civil organizations by stigmatizing them as anti-Hungarian traitors.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never have a problem debating with János Lázár or Fidesz.  When we state our opinion we are not speaking about a party or a politician but rather about what they are doing.  We consider debate to be very important and we would very much like to participate in it, and it is precisely one of the largest criticisms that there is no dialogue and no forums for discussion.  Now they have raised this to the next level.  Not only are they refusing to talk to us but they won’t listen to the points of views of the citizens who are behind our various affairs.

How does the law obstruct the organizations? Why is it a problem if you have to write everywhere that TASZ, for example, is financed from abroad?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  This is part of a long campaign.  Already since 2013 we hear that foreign funding is somehow connected with not serving the national interest.   Such voices appeared in this campaign that called for the organizations to be swept away.  One needs to see that where such a law is adopted, they never stop at the first step.

In Russia they resisted organizations by requiring them to register themselves as foreign agents, and forced them to do so, and when they continued to resist, they closed them down.  This draft law makes possible their closure via a simplified procedure.

Márta Pardavi:  The law does not guarantee the transparency to which it refers, since in our case this is continuously fulfilled, in contrast, say to CÖF-CÖKA (pro-government civil organizations funded by the state- tran.), whose public reports say absolutely nothing.  So it is completely clear that the government is targeting those who criticize it.  The first step was the 2014 affair involving the Norwegian Civil Fund, but legal steps taken against the civil organizations were entirely fruitless.  To the contrary, we became more renowned. Now we have arrived to the second part, and we have to calculate with there being a continuation, if public outrage fails to stop it.

It is still hair-raising that only a few days after the European Council’s commissioner for human rights issued a statement about the narrowing civil field in those places where civil society is subject to greater pressure, Hungary was listed among such countries that are hardly examples to be followed:  Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan.  Often the government claims that Hungary’s draft law parallels that of Israel or the United States, as though they were the same, but they are not.  But when we protest against following the Russian example, it shows just how extremely awkward it is to bear Putin’s stigma.

How will the organizations continue to operate if the law comes into force with the current content?

Márta Pardavi:  We still don’t know but we are contemplating this.  After the Moscow Helsinki group signed the Helsinki closing document in 1978 in the midsts of the most serious dictatorship.  Very brave citizens brought this about, who exposed serious human rights violations to the public, and who kept contact with foreign civil organizations.  Amidst the most serious conditions, there were always those who raise their voices against violations.  In a European Union democracy this can be done amidst a more pleasant environment, but there are times when greater risk taking and bravery is required.   It is not possible to say where we are in the current form.  Greater bravery will be required to stand up but I think our colleagues possess it.  We know each other well and we are starting out in good shape.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  For us the most important thing is that we can help Hungarian citizens to avail themselves of their rights.  As to what the administrative framework will be, we still do not know, but it’s for sure that TASZ will remain and complete its work, our clients can count on that, whether we are talking about mothers suffering from hospital infections, reporters, or special-needs children.

Bernadette Somody:  We don’t know either.  But I would like to sensitize what the law means with an example.  Assume that, just as civil organizations have published their financial information for years, everyone who disclosed personal information  about themselves at some point in time will be required to wear what they said on their clothes.  We would feel that this fundamentally violates human dignity.  The same thing is happening now with civil organizations.

April 19, 2017

From Viktor Orbán’s mailbox: Letters from former loyalists

In the last few days a number of open letters, interviews, and articles have appeared that reveal a growing dissatisfaction with the Orbán regime on the part of some well-known supporters of the party. These people have never made a secret of their steadfast support of Fidesz. Some of them accepted political or diplomatic roles, and for a very long time they held their tongues. One reason for this silence was most likely their natural reluctance to admit that they had been misled and that what they once considered to be of real value turned out to be a collection of fake trinkets. Old-time conservative, right-of-center people, at least those who still have their critical faculties intact, have been speaking out against the political system Viktor Orbán has built in the last seven years.

At first these voices were timid and muffled. Criticism was embedded in a litany of excuses or even praise. Then their language became more forceful and their tone less forgiving until, in certain cases, we started to hear well-known former Fidesz supporters use language indistinguishable from that of the liberal critics of the regime. Here I think mostly of people like Péter Ákos Bod, an economist and former chairman of the Hungarian Central Bank; Attila Chikán, an economist who was minister of the economy in the first Orbán government; Csaba László, an economist and adviser to Orbán at one time; and Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington and Oslo. But there are other, less prominent people who are now criticizing the government. And what’s most important, they openly say that Hungarian democracy itself is in danger.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. Today an article appeared in Magyar Nemzet written by Attila Körömi, a former Fidesz member of parliament representing Pécs. He joined Fidesz at the end of 1989. As a 30-year-old, he became a member of the Pécs City Council and then, between 1998 and 2006, served as a member of parliament. After 13 years of silence he wanted to explain what made him leave Fidesz in 2004. His disillusionment had begun already in 2002, but what really opened his eyes and prompted him to act was an April 5, 2004 meeting of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus chaired by Viktor Orbán. At this meeting Orbán apparently announced an entirely new program based on his recognition that, despite the change of the political system in 1990, “it is the Kádár regime that won.” If Fidesz wants to be successful, it has to follow policies that were characteristic of the Kádár era. Moreover, the ideal of the autonomous citizen will be abandoned from now on, and Fidesz “will talk to the people.” Instead of moving forward, Orbán was going to lead the country backward to a one-party system. About a week later, Körömi left the party.

The story of that 2004 meeting is enlightening. It tells us what we have long suspected, which is that at some point Orbán recognized that, after all, today’s Hungarians are “the people of Kádár” (Kádár népe). What is surprising is how early Orbán came to that conclusion. The other unexpected piece of information is that, according to Körömi’s recollection, Árpád Habony has been around Fidesz for much longer than most of us realized. Körömi first encountered the mysterious shadowy adviser of Orbán sometime between 2000 and 2002 and again at that fateful April 5, 2004 caucus meeting, sitting right beside Viktor Orbán.

The next noteworthy document is an open letter to Viktor Orbán from Miklós Király, professor of law and earlier an adviser to Ferenc Mádl, a Fidesz-supported president between 2000 and 2005. His main complaint is the state of Hungarian education but, being a legal scholar, he also has some harsh words about the government’s total disregard of constitutionality and its disrespect for the opinions of representatives of higher education and science. After the enactment of the anti-CEU law, everybody in higher education feels threatened. Legal certainty and predictability have disappeared. Orbán in his latest radio interview wanted to know why professors and students in Hungarian state universities complain about curtailing CEU’s privileges. They complain because from now on they will never know what will happen to them. Király also calls attention to the underfinancing of education, with the result that by 2016 not one Hungarian university could be found among the top 500 universities on the Shanghai list when other universities in the region–Vienna, Cracow, and Prague–are there.

He reminds Orbán that by now both science and higher education are international, and therefore the government must realize that Hungary as a part of the European Union cannot turn inward. Király adds, “I’m sorry that until now nobody told you that.” He calls on Orbán to consider his arguments and to do some soul searching for Easter.

Writing another Facebook letter to Orbán was Gábor Pósfai, managing editor of Decathlon Hungary, a subsidiary of Decathlon Group, one of the world’s largest sporting goods retailers. He begins with “Is your palm itching? Wash it and hold it out to your brethren as long as it is Easter.” The reference is to Viktor Orbán’s Saturday and Sunday interviews in which he indicated that all these demonstrations and the less than polite comments about him often make him so angry that he would like to hit his loud opponents. (Actually, Hungarians consider an itchy palm a sign that they will received unexpected money, not that they are itching for a fight.) Pósfai as a Christian could question Orbán on the seventh, eighth, and tenth commandments, but what really bothers him is his incitement of the population and turning people against one another, which seems to be one of Orbán’s favorite pastimes. Obviously, it irritates Pósfai that the present regime considers itself the embodiment of truth. He has had enough of one war after the other. He is tired of “the last eight years,” which are responsible for everything that is wrong. He is fed up with Orbán always finding fault with others: Gyurcsány, Bajnai, exploitative multinationals, migrants, the EU, Simicska, Brussels, and Soros. According to the current government, everybody is against us. Meanwhile, Orbán turns friends and family members against each other. If it goes on like this, catastrophe awaits the country.

And finally, Tamás Kovács, an Olympic fencer and trainer, wrote an Easter letter to Viktor Orbán on Facebook. In 1990 he voted for MDF, but between 1994 and 2014 he voted for Fidesz. Thus, Kovács can be considered one of the most loyal Fidesz supporters. One of those core voters who, no matter what, will always vote for Fidesz. Or, maybe not. Kovács believes that the trouble started only in 2014, but “in the last two years, we keep comparing the incitement against certain people by the governing party to the communist times when I see on billboards: EU, Brussels, Gyurcsány, multinationals, Simicska, Soros, MSZP, MSZMP, Jobbik, they are all against us…. Where will that lead? What will be the end of this? There can be only one opinion in this country, Fidesz’s opinion?” What about those 6 million people who didn’t vote for Fidesz? The undeclared slogan “Those who are not with us are against us” must be stopped because it does incredible harm to the nation. His final sentence is: “It cannot go on like this.”

Most of the comments to Kovács’s letter are positive, but we can also read: “My God, what an unfair letter. What kinds of emotions it whips up.” Or, “With this letter you proclaimed yourself to be one of the gravediggers of the nation.” Or, “This is a malicious letter, fie.” Or, “You should be ashamed of yourself. Didn’t you notice that ever since 2014 total war has been waged against us by the opposition and the enemies?” The preponderance of comments, however, congratulate him and add that more and more right-wingers feel this way. So, there is hope.

April 18, 2017

Mária Schmidt on George Soros, the grave digger of the left, Part II

Yesterday I began dissecting Mária Schmidt’s latest propaganda piece,“The Grave Digger of the Left,” which offers up second-hand conspiracy theories about George Soros’s philanthropic endeavors. In the second part of my analysis I will concentrate on the “Hungarian experience” with “Sorosism,” as she calls Soros’s “ideology mix.”

In Schmidt’s view, Hungary was a guinea pig for Soros, who learned the tools of his evil trade in the country of his birth. It was in Hungary that he figured out the kinds of organizations worth investing in, organizations that would then “serve his interests.” He quickly discovered that Prime Minister József Antall and his successor, Péter Boross, both of MDF, were not willing to be partners in his shady schemes. So, Soros had to concentrate on liberal intellectuals in the social sciences and in the cultural sphere in general. He used decoys like programs for the Roma and providing medical supplies to hospitals to lure people into his camp.

He was so successful that by today “left” in Hungary equals “Soros.” All of his pet projects have been adopted by the Hungarian liberals and socialists: political correctness, the environment, feminism, same sex marriage, support of migrants, legalization of prostitution, etc.

Schmidt, who begins her essay with a quotation from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” further exhibits her familiarity with Western pop culture by comparing Soros to “the evil but super intelligent Silva” in the Bond film Skyfall, who “with obsessive and missionary zeal aims at world domination.” Soros’s results, she admits, have been spectacular. For example, “as everybody knows, the network of Soros’s civilians was behind the colorful revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Arab spring.” In fact, at one point Schmidt charges that Soros himself boasted about his success in creating “a Soros Empire out of the Soviet Union.” I don’t know how we all missed the “fact” that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the handiwork of George Soros. Now, according to Schmidt, Soros’s target is the European Union itself.

Mária Schmidt’s “evil but super intelligent Silva”

At this point we get to the real reason Schmidt wrote this essay. Viktor Orbán’s vicious anti-migrant rhetoric has been extremely effective, with the overwhelming majority of Hungarians now the most xenophobic group in all of Europe. The hatred Orbán planted in Hungarian souls has taken root. The challenge for the Hungarian government is how to keep nurturing this hatred. By now there are no migrants around, and there is fear in government circles that this hatred may wither over time. And if it withers, support for Orbán may wither as well.

The government has therefore begun to personalize the migrant crisis, coming up with enemies who can in one way or another be tied to it. Soros, of course, tops the list. Time and again Orbán has blamed “the migrant crisis” on George Soros. Since Central European University was founded by George Soros and some of the NGOs receive small amounts of money from the Hungarian-American financier, they can be targeted. And Brussels is an old stand-by. Whatever the problem, Brussels is always at fault.

To xenophobic Hungarians the very mention of outside influence or pressure on the country makes them flock to Orbán as their only defense against this “foreign invasion.” And since Viktor Orbán has as his overarching goal to remain in power regardless of the cost to the country and its people, this goal is well served by calling attention in every way possible to the dangers foreigners (migrants as well as international capitalists) pose to the Hungarian way of life.

Central European University is in the government’s crosshairs because, as Schmidt puts it, the university is Soros’s “replenishing base” for liberal cadres in Hungary and elsewhere. An illiberal state, one would think, cannot allow such a place to exist within its borders. But Schmidt doesn’t go that far, most likely because she knows that the tug of war between the Orbán government and CEU won’t end with closing the university in Budapest. So she is satisfied to state the lie that the government, by insisting that the same rules apply to CEU as to other Hungarian universities, only wants to send the message that George Soros “isn’t omnipotent and invulnerable.”

Her final shots are directed not just at Central European University but also at the kinds of universities that exist in English-speaking countries and that are so highly valued worldwide. She tells us how enthusiastic she was when CEU moved to Budapest. Many people, herself included, looked upon it as a sign of the end of the old university system. Soon enough, however, they realized that CEU didn’t contribute to pluralism within the social sciences. On the contrary, it became a supporter of “post-communists.” Instead of employing the old Hungarian Marxists, the university imported western ones. “Discarded American, Canadian, Israeli, Western European Marxists found secure positions for a few pleasant years in the departments of CEU,” she charges. And just as they became disillusioned with CEU, over the years Schmidt and her ideological comrades became disillusioned with Anglo-Saxon type universities in general. Now that she and her comrades speak English and are well informed about the world, unlike in the Kádár years, they know about the intolerance in American and British universities where they don’t want to listen to voices contrary to their liberal tenets. Hungarians “don’t want to have ‘safe spaces’ for those at CEU who don’t want to listen to others.”

Schmidt’s blanket labeling of all those who teach at CEU as “discarded Marxists” shows an ideological blindness that is appalling, especially from someone who has academic pretensions. And her reference to the “safe spaces” inside the walls of CEU is outright frightening. If Orbán, Schmidt, and their ideological partners keep going down the road they embarked on in 2010, the Hungarian younger generation who, according to Schmidt’s own admission, has been poisoned by Soros, will find “safe spaces” outside the country. We are getting close to this point.

April 17, 2017