Category Archives: Hungary

Another PISA test, another poor performance

It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.

The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.

In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.

The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.

In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.

The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.

One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.

A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.

November 23, 2017

MSZP and DK at the negotiating table

Although most people would consider a Fidesz win at the next national election preordained, several political analysts consider the situation not that straightforward. There are several reasons to believe that Fidesz’s road to victory might be more difficult than it would seem at first glance. First of all, Fidesz voters at the moment appear to be complacent. Four years ago Fidesz was very effective in getting out the vote. But in several recent by-elections relatively few Fidesz voters bothered to go to the polls. Second, we know that the majority of voters would like to see a change of government. Only the sorry state of the opposition is responsible for the enormous Fidesz lead. Third, although opinion polls show an unstoppable Fidesz, support for the government party is usually overestimated in polls. Fourth, although few analysts pay enough attention to it, dramatic changes are taking place on the left that might change the political landscape. Here I am referring to the slow but steady disintegration of MSZP. Fifth, there is still an untapped pool of 1.5 million men and women who tell pollsters that they will definitely vote but at the moment are still undecided about their party preferences. These conditions, I believe, provide a level of political fluidity that may result in a closer election than most people expect.

Today I will concentrate on party politics, primarily the battle between MSZP and DK. Ever since László Botka decided to throw in the towel, both DK and MSZP politicians have been telling us that they are furiously and effectively negotiating. The winner of these protracted negotiations seems to be the Demokratikus Koalíció. According to the latest public opinion polls by Závecz Research and Medián, the difference between MSZP and DK is only 2%, in favor of MSZP, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the November polls DK would surpass MSZP.

Why? DK just launched its election campaign with an impressive program, whose highlight was an hour-long speech by Ferenc Gyurcsány. We know from past experience that Gyurcsány is an effective campaigner. Also helping DK is its campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens which, I understand, is going well. With this issue DK is reaching people across the political spectrum because we know that a great majority of the Hungarian electorate opposes voting rights for those who don’t bear the burden of their decisions at the ballot box. DK obviously finds this approach to be of such importance that the party is investing in robocalls, to take place this week. With all this effort, I expect a surge in DK support. Of course, the question is whether DK will be able to appeal to any of those 1.5 million unaffiliated voters or will only siphon off disenchanted MSZP voters.

First, a few words about the gala opening of DK’s campaign. Judging from the video, it was a glitzy affair with lots of enthusiasm for the party’s chairman. The occasion  reminded Gábor Török, a political analyst, of American political rallies. In Török’s opinion, Gyurcsány is an oddity of sorts in Hungarian politics because he knows what his political interests are and he works resolutely on achieving his goals. On Olga Kálmán’s program on Hír TV Török called him “a potent politician.”

If there is agreement on the 106 electoral districts, which means only one opposition politician against the Fidesz candidate, Gyurcsány said he is “absolutely optimistic about the election.” At the moment, he believes that his support is 12-13%, as opposed to the 10% reported by Medián and Závecz, and he hopes that by election time DK might reach 15%. This is probably too optimistic an assessment of the chances of the opposition at the forthcoming election, especially since there are serious obstacles to DK and MSZP agreeing on those 106 electoral districts. At one point negotiations broke down, and a few days ago MSZP announced that, in addition to István Haller and Bertalan Tóth, two former chairmen, Attila Mesterházy and József Tóbiás, will join the MSZP negotiating team.

Apparently, in at least two districts there was a serious rift between the two parties over whose candidate will be the Fidesz challenger. One was the electoral district in Újpest; the other, one of the two seats in the city of Szeged. Let’s start with Újpest because its fate has already been decided. MSZP caved. László Varju (DK) will replace Imre Horváth (MSZP). In response, Horváth left the party, although he will sit with the MSZP delegation between now and the end of the current parliamentary session. This is a sad turn of events because in November 2014 Horváth, against all odds, won a by-election after the death of Péter Kiss. It was a tremendous victory. Péter Kiss in the spring had received 40.7% of the votes while the Fidesz candidate got 35.2%. In November Horváth got 50.6% of the votes and his opponent only 30.6%. No wonder that now, three years later, Horváth feels that his party has thrown him to the dogs, allowing DK to take over a traditionally socialist district. According to rumor, Horváth either will run as an independent or perhaps he will be LMP’s candidate, running, of course, in the same district against Varju.

Another bone of contention is one of the two Szeged districts that the local MSZP people refuse to hand over to DK. László Botka, the mayor of Szeged and former MSZP candidate for prime minister, is still strong enough to defend his territory against the MSZP negotiating team. István Ujhelyi, a member of the European Parliament and a strong Botka supporter, gave a press conference in Brussels, of all places, where he said that the local MSZP leadership has no intention of replacing a “winning team,” a claim that is only partially true. It is correct to say that Sándor Szabó (MSZP-Együtt-DK-PM) won one of the two Szeged districts, but the other went to László B. Nagy (Fidesz). The local MSZP’s candidate for the second district is Márton Joób, a MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM member of the city council and a close associate of Botka. Given the very loose party discipline in MSZP, it is not exactly easy to negotiate with the socialists. The center might make decisions that the national leadership finds important for the party as a whole, but the local party leadership can rebel, citing its own priorities.

All of this is hellishly complicated. The electoral law devised by Fidesz counted on just these kinds of situations that occur in each and every electoral district when it comes to dividing the political terrain among several parties. On the other side, Viktor Orbán handpicks the candidates, who are nothing more than loyal voting machines.

November 22, 2017

George Soros’s messages and the Hungarian government’s reactions

George Soros, simultaneously with releasing his rebuttal of the Hungarian national consultation on the alleged Soros Plan, gave an interview to Andrew Byrne of The Financial Times, in which he explained his decision to break his silence. He cannot remain quiet any longer because the Hungarian government about a month ago announced its intention to investigate the so-called Soros network. Under these circumstances, he felt he had to “set the record straight in order to defend these groups and individuals who are going to great lengths to defend European values against persecution.” At the same time he urged EU countries to raise their voices against “Orbán’s treatment of civil society and address fears over the rule of law in Hungary.”

“It is a tragedy for Hungary”

It is hard to know for sure whether this interview and rebuttal by George Soros came as a surprise to the Orbán government or not, but I suspect that it did. After all, the campaign against Soros has been going on for almost two years, yet Hungary’s benefactor hasn’t publicly criticized the Orbán government’s treatment of him and hasn’t come out in defense of the NGOs he has been supporting. During these two years he spoke out only once, thanking the 20,000-30,000 people who demonstrated on behalf of the beleaguered Central European University he founded. The devilish idea of a national consultation on the Soros Plan was born months ago, the questionnaires were sent to eight million voters more than a month ago, yet Soros said nothing. So, I assume Orbán believed that Soros would not engage verbally but would simply take all of the abuse showered on him and the employees of the civic organizations that have been the beneficiaries of his largesse.

A relatively new internet news site called Független Hírügynökség collected all the early responses to the rebuttal and the interview from pro-government sources and came to the conclusion that most of these slavish organs of government propaganda needed a few hours to recover from the shock. As is normally the case, these so-called journalists wait for the word from above. Once the government mantra is handed down, the “parrot commando” takes over. This time the magic phrase is “frontal attack.” It was Gergely Gulyás, the new Fidesz parliamentary whip, who got the assignment of sounding the trumpet. We can be assured that from this time on we will encounter the same phrase in all pro-government publications. According to Gulyás, George Soros until now has attacked Hungary and its government only “through organizations he finances, the European Parliament, and his Brussels allies,” but now he has personally joined the fight. He is attacking the government’s nationwide public survey, “making accusations, threats, and slanders.”

Gulyás, who has shed his gentlemanly demeanor since he became the Fidesz whip, wasn’t satisfied with criticizing Soros’s interview. Obviously he was told that he must announce that the investigation of the NGOs George Soros is worried about might be extended to Soros himself. Here is exactly what he said: “Civic organizations function freely in Hungary within a constitutional framework, but if there is an organized attempt at discrediting Hungary from abroad, this activity must be investigated.”

Let’s step back briefly to the Hungarian government’s “investigation” of the partially Soros-funded civic organizations. It was about a month ago that Viktor Orbán called these NGOs a threat to national security. Last week János Lázár announced that the government had asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to report on the possible dangers these civic groups pose to Hungary. This afternoon Pintér was to report to the parliamentary committee on national security about these alleged dangers. Before the hearing took place, Magyar Idők published an editorial which hypothesized that George Soros had timed his attack on Hungary in order “to divert attention from Pintér’s report” and “ahead of time to discredit it.” That sounded like a plausible theory, but to the obvious chagrin of the Orbán government, Pintér was unable to come up with any national security threats these human rights organizations present to Hungary. According to information that reached Index.hu, Pintér sidestepped the question. Obviously, he cannot go against the government’s position, but at the same time professionally he couldn’t find any national security risks stemming from these organizations’ activities. He apparently simply repeated what he had told the media a few days ago: “I don’t know whether George Soros poses any danger, but ideas he promulgates do not conform to the Hungarian conceptions and to Hungarian law. An open society, a society without borders are not accepted at the moment. They are futuristic.”

Yes, Soros stood up and fought, not so much for himself as for the people who as human rights activists are being threatened by the regime. Once he broke his silence he decided to go all the way. When RTL Klub asked for an interview, he sent a video message in Hungarian which the network immediately put up on its own website. It is a very moving video that lasts maybe two minutes. “It is a tragedy for Hungary that its present government is trying to keep itself in power by distorting reality and by misleading the population…. I’m terribly worried about Hungary; I think a lot about Hungary, and I want the Hungarian people to know that I will continue to do everything to support them.” It’s good to know that there are still people like George Soros around. The RTL Klub’s segment on Soros on its news program can be viewed here.

November 21, 2017

George Soros: “Rebuttal of the October 9 National Consultation in Hungary”

November 20, 2017

On October 9, 2017, the Hungarian government mailed a national consultation to all eight million eligible Hungarian voters purporting to solicit their opinions about a so-called “Soros Plan.” The statements in the national consultation contain distortions and outright lies that deliberately mislead Hungarians about George Soros’s views on migrants and refugees. Hungarian government officials also falsely claim that George Soros is somehow controlling the European Union decision-making process. In fact, decisions on how to address the migration crisis are made by EU member states and institutions, including the Hungarian government.

With Hungary’s health care and education systems in distress and corruption rife, the current government has sought to create an outside enemy to distract citizens. The government selected George Soros for this purpose, launching a massive anti-Soros media campaign costing tens of millions of euros in taxpayer money, stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, and employing anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s. The national consultation is part of an ongoing propaganda effort that has been underway since May 2015 that included the “Stop Brussels” consultation in the spring of 2017 and the referendum that vilified migrants and refugees in 2016.

George Soros started his giving in Hungary in the 1980s, establishing a foundation there in 1984. Since then, his support for Hungarians has totaled roughly €350 million and has included scholarships, health care services, and humanitarian efforts, including €1 million for reconstruction after the red sludge disaster in 2010. He also funds current efforts to help educate children with learning disabilities, tackle homelessness, and bring public transportation to the Hungarian countryside.

As a concerned citizen, George Soros regularly publishes commentary in newspapers around the world expressing his views and proposing policy approaches on a variety of topics, including the migration crisis. These are all publicly available on his website: www.GeorgeSoros.com.

National Consultation Statement 1:

George Soros wants Brussels to resettle at least one million immigrants per year onto European Union territory, including in Hungary.

FALSE

In a 2015 opinion piece, George Soros said that because of the war in Syria, the European Union would have to “accept at least a million asylum-seekers annually for the foreseeable future. And, to do that, it must share the burden fairly” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). A year later, when circumstances had changed, he suggested that the EU should make a “commitment to admit even a mere 300,000 refugees annually” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 2:

Together with officials in Brussels, George Soros is planning to dismantle border fences in EU member states, including in Hungary, to open the borders for immigrants.

FALSE

George Soros has clearly stated his belief that “the EU must regain control of its borders.” He believes that “the EU must build common mechanisms for protecting borders, determining asylum claims, and relocating refugees.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 3:

One part of the Soros Plan is to use Brussels to force the EU-wide distribution of immigrants that have accumulated in Western Europe, with special focus on Eastern European countries. Hungary must also take part in this.

FALSE

In his most recent commentary on the refugee crisis, George Soros endorsed “a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees.” He made clear that “the EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 4:

Based on the Soros Plan, Brussels should force all EU member states, including Hungary, to pay immigrants HUF 9 million (€28,000) in welfare.

FALSE

George Soros did not say that Hungary should be forced to pay HUF 9 million in welfare to immigrants. He did say, “Adequate financing is critical. The EU should provide €15,000 per asylum-seeker for each of the first two years to help cover housing, health care, and education costs—and to make accepting refugees more appealing to member states.” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). This would clearly be a subsidy from the EU to the Hungarian government. Last year George Soros announced that he would contribute to the financial effort by earmarking €430 million of his personal fortune “for investments that specifically address the needs of migrants, refugees and host communities.” (“Why I’m Investing $500 Million in Migrants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 5:

Another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 6:

The goal of the Soros Plan is to push the languages and cultures of Europe into the background so that integration of illegal immigrants happens much more quickly.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 7:

It is also part of the Soros Plan to initiate political attacks against those countries which oppose immigration, and to severely punish them.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

November 21,2017

Beware, the refugees are coming!

A couple of days ago a brief article appeared in Magyar Nemzet, which surely surprised those who happened upon it. The Hungarian government has surreptitiously accepted a fair number of refugees for settlement in Hungary this year. While the drumbeat against the Soros Plan and migrants is continuous and unrelenting, behind the backs of the misled people the government has accepted far more “migrants” so far this year than in 2016. While in 2016 the Hungarian government received over 25,000 applicants, this year their number shrank to fewer than 3,000. Yet, according to the Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs (BMH), the number of people receiving asylum has more than doubled.

Here are a couple of terms we must be familiar with before we can make sense of the statistics. My source is an extremely useful pamphlet the Hungarian Helsinki Committee published in English, called “Asylum in Hungary.” I assume this is one of those publications the Hungarian government accuses the Helsinki Committee of putting out to encourage immigration and promote the Soros Plan. In fact, it is a guide to help arrivals find their way through the complicated Hungarian bureaucracy. There are three different forms of protection a refugee can get in Hungary. (1) Refugee status (menekült) is for people with a “well-founded fear” of torture, inhuman treatment, slavery, physical or sexual violence, or very serious discrimination. (2) Subsidiary protection status (oltalmazott) is for people who are at a real risk of suffering any of the following: the death penalty, torture, degrading treatment, or serious threat to a civilian’s life. (3) Tolerated status (befogadott) is a protection status based on a more general (not individualized) risk of harm in the country of origin.

According to the statistics, the Hungarian authorities’ favorite refugee status seems to be the “tolerated” one. In 2016 271 people were allowed to stay in Hungary under this rubric. This year their numbers will most likely be close to 1,000 because so far 866 such permissions have been granted. The number of those who have received subsidiary protection is also up. In 2016 only 7 people were granted such status while this year the number was 73. On the other hand, the Hungarian authorities are extremely reluctant to grant bona fide refugee status. In fact, this year fewer such permissions were granted (89) than in 2016 (154). What is the reason for this reluctance? According to the Helsinki Committee, the real difference is that those with subsidiary protection status are not allowed to have their spouses, children, or parents join them at a later date.

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: László Beliczay

The refugee camps in Hungary are now practically empty. Last year there were more than 1,000 refugees in camps, while right now there are no more than 400. The reason for the small number of migrants waiting for a decision on their applications is that “the majority of the asylum seekers without waiting for the decision leave the country.” It is therefore difficult to understand why the ministry of interior still steadfastly recruits “border hunters.”

The only party that seemed to perk up after reading the Magyar Nemzet article was Jobbik. Péter Jakab, the party’s spokesman, released a communiqué in which he complained about the duplicity of Fidesz which, on the one hand, frightens people with the migrants and, on the other, allows them into the country. It is bad enough that Viktor Orbán through “settlement bonds” has allowed 20,000 people so far into the country, but “even 1,000 poor people” have been permitted to come to Hungary just this year. Jobbik, as far as the issue of immigration is concerned, holds even more draconian views than Fidesz. From this and other statements it is clear that if it depended on Jobbik, not one Middle Easterner or African would ever set foot in Hungary.

There is another piece of news that is connected to the Hungarian government’s quiet acceptance of a fair number of refugees, obviously in the hope of appeasing “the bureaucrats in Brussels.” This is an interview with Lívia Járóka, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament who was just elected one of the vice-presidents of the body. Járóka is part Roma on her father’s side. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University College of London. She became a member of the European Parliament in 2004, but it seems that she was dropped from the Fidesz list in 2014. However, she was just chosen to replace Mrs. Pelcz, Ildikó Gáll and also inherited her position as vice-president.

Járóka gave a fairly lengthy interview to Magyar Idők on the occasion of her election to the vice-presidency, an interview that is full of statements that would be unexpected from a Fidesz member of the European Parliament. First of all, she refused to engage in any anti-migrant talk. The reporter from Magyar Idők tried to elicit from Járóka a condemnation of the European Union’s refugee policy, but she avoided going down that path. Instead, she emphasized the necessity of their integration. “We would like it if they [the refugees] would understand that we find it important that, after a rapid and effective integration, armed with European knowledge, they would be able to return to their own homelands.” Well, well. This is a message we haven’t heard before. Integration? Until now we have heard from the highest levels of the Hungarian government that integration between Muslims and non-Muslims is impossible. Their cultures are so different that one ought not even attempt it. Moreover, the argument continues, these people don’t want to integrate. They want to live the same lives they led in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.

What’s going on? Of course, the first thought that comes to mind is that Viktor Orbán is up to his old tricks. Playing the migrant card in Hungary but behind the scenes in the European Union showing his reasonable side. He could, for example, go to Antonio Tajani, EPP president of the European Parliament, and tell him that, although only 3,000 or so asylum seekers came to Hungary, the country has already allowed almost 1,000 to settle and the new Fidesz EPP vice-president talks about “rapid and effective integration.” Surely, he will say, there must be some misunderstanding on that score. I can well imagine such an exchange during his recent visit with Tajani. Of course, it is also possible that Járóka, judging from her ethnic background as well as her professional interests, has a more sophisticated understanding of the issue and finds it difficult to accept the kind of reasoning the absolutely loyal “parrot commando” bombards the Hungarian public with.

November 20, 2017

Gábor Vona and Katalin Rangos in the Spinoza Theater

On Thursday in the Spinoza Theater on Dob utca, in the middle of the “Jewish quarters,”  a lengthy conversation took place between Gábor Vona (Jobbik) and Katalin Rangos, a well-known journalist. It was part of a series of conversations with leaders of all the more substantial parties, including Fidesz. This was the third such gathering, after the appearances of Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK) and Bernadett Szél (LMP).

After Anna Sándor, the director of Spinoza, announced the scheduled conversations a couple of months ago, she received criticism and even threats from people who considered Jobbik an unacceptable guest because of its anti-Semitic past. Anna Sándor refused to retreat. I can only applaud this decision. Hungary is allegedly still a democracy and, whether we like it or not, Jobbik is the largest opposition party. Its support is twice the size of MSZP’s.

The debate that spilled over to Facebook was about whether Spinoza, which is known to be sensitive to minority questions and yearly organizes the by now famous Jewish Festival, is not legitimizing with its invitation a party that until recently was known for its anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. From the comments on Jewish internet sites it is clear that the larger part of the Jewish community thinks that the theater’s invitation was a mistake.

The capacity of the Spinoza Theater is small and the atmosphere intimate, though the audience was not allowed to ask questions. The conversation, lasting an hour and a half, was exclusively between Katalin Rangos and Gábor Vona. Rangos was hard hitting and, as a result, Vona faltered a few times. But by and large he handled the situation quite well. The conversation can be viewed on Hír TV.

The weakest part of Vona’s responses came when he was asked why he tolerates László Toroczkai as deputy chairman of the party. I wrote recently about Toroczkai in my post on “Jobbik’s checkered past and present.” Most observers are convinced that Vona needs Toroczkai in a high position within the party because his presence in the leadership ensures the loyalty of the more right-radical supporters of Jobbik. Vona’s justification for Toroczkai’s presence in the party brought to mind that on certain issues Vona is still very much of a hard liner. For example, Toroczkai’s views on the migrants and Islam suit him just fine. His answer to Rangos about his old claim regarding the incompatibility of his possible Jewishness and his being the head of Jobbik was also totally unacceptable. I was equally appalled when he expressed his admiration for Mária Wittner just because she was a heroine of the 56 revolution, regardless of her extreme right-wing political views. So, I suspect that there are many far-right elements remaining in Vona’s ideological playbook.

On the other hand, his explanation of how he, who once said that Jobbik was not a democratic party and that democracy is not his cup of tea, now wants to restore democracy in Hungary was more convincing. As he put it, he can thank Viktor Orbán for his recognition of the absolute necessity of democracy because in the last six to seven years he learned what it’s like to live in an undemocratic state. Those who don’t want to listen to the entire conversation can read a good summary of it here.

Péter S. Föld, whose writings I greatly admire, wrote an article titled “Variations on Vona and Spinoza.” Variation A is that Vona is a Nazi and Jobbik is a Nazi party. They try to convince us that their past actions were only childish mischief, but their metamorphosis is merely a tactical move. After they grab power we will see a return of the old Jobbik. They will again count Jewish members of the government and parliament; they will again spit into the shoes alongside the Danube. Therefore, allowing Vona into Spinoza was not just a mistake but a sin. Variation B claims that we should recognize that Jobbik is not the same party that it was a few years ago. Vona has changed for the better. If we look around, we must realize that Fidesz is in fact to the right of Jobbik by now. If they are ready to apologize, we must forgive them. Moreover, we have no choice if we want to get rid of the Orbán regime; we must cooperate with Jobbik.

Föld summed up the opposing positions on the left perfectly. I figure that the majority of the people believe Variation A, just as Katalin Rangos announced at the beginning of the conversation. Those who were present most likely will not be swayed by whatever Vona told them.

While we contemplate the alternative positions, it is worth taking a look at the government papers because they might guide us in our own assessment of the dilemma the Hungarian left-of-center opposition faces. First of all, all three papers I consulted talked about both sides in a most degrading manner. Here are a few headlines: “Communists, anti-Semites, and flag burners in cahoots for power,” “Vona sucks up to and delivers an oath of allegiance to the moonbow of MSZP-SZDSZ,” and “Vona makes a penitent, ridiculous visit to the downtown liberal elite.” All three articles have an anti-Semitic tinge to them because they make it clear that this “downtown liberal elite” frequents the old Jewish quarters and the Spinoza Theater.

According to 888.hu, Vona humiliated his own party and disgraced himself. And Rangos was labelled “the most servile and unscrupulous” supporter of the MSZP-SZDSZ governments. Even so, according 888.hu, she was all sweetness and light and acted like a “forgiving mother hen” when talking to Vona. She was accused of allowing Vona to wiggle out of sticky questions concerning the past. The Fidesz media, most likely reflecting the party’s fears, seems truly worried about some kind of reconciliation between the opposition parties of the left and the right.

I have the distinct feeling that Fidesz was mighty unhappy about this gathering and that orders were given out to warm up some old stories about Jobbik’s past anti-Semitic statements to help shape public opinion for the event. Gábor Kubatov, who is an extremely important person within Fidesz, gave an interview to Figyelő in which he talked at some length about a possible “technical cooperation between the left and Jobbik.” While he was at it, he delivered a ringing condemnation of both anti-Semitism and Ágnes Heller, “the chief ideologist of the left-liberals who keeps talking about cooperation with Jobbik.” Such cooperation would completely undermine Fidesz’s basic political strategy.

November 19, 2017

One of the many impostors in the service of the Orbán government

A couple of days ago The Budapest Beacon published an incredible story about a woman in her sixties who accused NGOs who are defending the rights of refugees of “subversive activities.” She charged that they have compelled interpreters to lie on behalf of the asylum-seekers. As a result, several interpreters have been dismissed. The story took a really bizarre turn when a few days ago we learned that it was the accuser herself who had falsified a Syrian refugee’s plea, from innocent to guilty.

This is not the first time that Magda Nasrin Katona has run into trouble with the law. In 2012 she received an eight-month suspended sentence for perjury. She attacked a woman walking her dog with a cane, after which she accused the victim of attacking her. Two years earlier, when she represented her foundation as an observer of the November 2010 presidential election in Afghanistan, she got into quite a bit of trouble. She was caught on camera demanding money in return for votes. A journalist from The Washington Post ran the story, including the video, which naturally got to Hungary in no time.

Magda Nasrin Katona in Afghanistan in 2010

I decided to look into Magda Nasrin Katona’s career in Hungary. My aim was to learn how questionable characters like Katona manage to make careers for themselves in Hungary.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that it wasn’t only the Orbán government and Fidesz that considered Katona an asset. Over the years she managed to get grants here and there from the foreign ministry and to pass herself off to serious scholars as someone whose experience made her a true expert. The truth is that most of the Hungarians Katona came into contact with were too provincial to realize that she was for all intents and purposes a fraud. And those who did discover that Katona was not what she claimed to be remained quiet instead of unmasking her. I’m afraid it sounds like a typical Hungarian story to me.

We don’t know much about her life and activities before the early 1990s. I assume that she has a degree in Arabic studies, most likely from ELTE. She signed one of her articles Dr. Magda Nasrin Katona, but since later she had problems writing a real Ph.D. dissertation, her doctorate was the kind that is called the “kisdoktori” in Hungary, a title that no longer exists. We know that she was married to Mohammad Yar, most likely an Afghan. Given her age (she was born in 1953), they might have met in Hungary, where Yar might have been a student. People who know her told inquiring reporters that she had lived for many years in Afghanistan and that she actually owns property there. According to at least one source, the marriage ended some time ago and Yar moved to the United States.

Katona’s published works that are available online appeared in three or four publications. One was a quarterly published by the Pro Minoritate Foundation, which was close to Fidesz. The periodical is still in existence, although the foundation doesn’t seem to be active anymore. From the table of contents it seems to be a publication that may receive subsidies from Fidesz. Another periodical that carried several of her articles was Hadtudomány (Military Science), which is the publication of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science).

By 2002 some people started noticing that Katona’s knowledge of Afghanistan left something to be desired. In Külügyi Szemle, the publication of the Külügyi Intézet under the aegis of the foreign ministry, a fairly lengthy article tore her article on Afghanistan apart.

In 2003 she became a frequent contributor to Magyar Nemzet, which was then a publication that toed the Fidesz line, but at the same time she also kept in touch with the socialist-liberal governments. Her foundation, which may not actually have existed, received small grants from the foreign ministry in three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, during the tenure of Ferenc Somogyi and Kinga Göncz.

What was the opinion of her expertise at the time? In 2010, after The Washington Post scandal broke, Index asked around to ascertain what “national security experts” thought of Magda Nasrin Katona. Somewhat surprisingly, university professors, authors of books, and experts on national security praised her to the sky. Péter Tálasi, whom I consider one of the smarter people in the field, thought that “Magda Katona is the best informed analyst of the domestic affairs of Afghanistan. Few people know the country as well as she does. Her knowledge of the language plays an important role here.” Ferenc Gazdag, a historian and national security expert, also spoke highly of her. “She has a wide knowledge of the country,” he said. Peter Wagner, a member of the Magyar Külügyi Intézet in whose publication her article was panned, made it clear that she doesn’t work for the ministry but still she is a real expert on Afghanistan. But Index talked to some other people, who didn’t want to disclose their names, who told the paper that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation had been rejected several times because “very serious mistakes, contradictory statements, and unverifiable sources” were found throughout. Moreover, a good portion of the dissertation was merely a Hungarian translation of English-language sources. Soon after Index dropped the word about the alleged plagiarism, she gave up the idea of obtaining a Ph.D.

All through these years Katona worked for the Bevándorlási Hivatal (Immigration Office) as a translator and interpreter. Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, wrote an article in Népszabadság in which he complained that “in the Nyírbátor refugee camp where the Afghan communist national security officers and the mujahedeen fighters were placed together, Magda Nasrin Katona showed partiality toward the former and did a lot to see that these Afghan supporters of Soviet aggression—political officers, party secretaries, government officials—would receive asylum in Hungary.”

Of course, people like Katona can be found everywhere, but it would help if more businesses and institutions required confidential recommendations when hiring. In my experience, recommendations for Hungarians go straight to the applicant instead of to the person who is supposed to decide on the applicant’s fate. Then there is the very bad habit of not releasing information that would raise doubts about the person’s abilities. Why were professors quiet when it was discovered that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation was largely plagiarized? One could ask dozens of questions, but the final result is that there are just too many cases in which totally unqualified people parade as experts to the detriment of scholarship.

November 18, 2017