Category Archives: Hungary

Corruption at the highest level? It looks that way

Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her tenure as U.S. ambassador in Budapest has prompted quite an uproar in Hungary. I have already spent three posts on her book. Here I simply want to call attention to the couple of sentences that caused the opposition to cry foul.

Kounalakis, discussing the Orbán government’s preferential treatment of Hungarian companies, relates the following story:

Minister of National Development Lászlóné Németh told me that every week she sat down with Orbán, looked over the list of public works projects, and decided which ones to prioritize and which bids to accept. “If a Hungarian company’s bid is competitive with one from an Austrian or German company, then yes, they will win,” she explained. “Why should German companies be building Hungarian roads? And if Közgép is the only Hungarian company that can do it, why shouldn’t they continue to win the bids?”

As Kounalakis rightly points out, Hungary’s EU membership requires it to treat all EU-based companies the same as its own. “Rather than creating a transparent and predictable business environment that would allow Hungarian companies to rise up through open competition, Prime Minister Orbán appeared to be closing competition to all but a few companies, whose success he sanctioned.” (p. 253)

Mrs. László Németh and Viktor Orbán after her swearing in ceremony as minister for national development

Mrs. László Németh and Viktor Orbán after her swearing-in ceremony

This information was a political flashpoint. Leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció were incensed, and Együtt threatened to sue Viktor Orbán himself. On May 17th, Orbán was asked by a reporter whether it was true that every week he sat down with the minister of national development to discuss the fate of certain large projects. Orbán didn’t deny it. In fact, he claimed that this was the legal and proper way of handling such matters. As Népszabadság concluded, “even today it is the government that decides which projects should win.”

Well, this sounded pretty bad. And so Fidesz issued a statement accusing Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government of corruption, adding that DK should be the last party to say anything about the current government’s misdeeds. Soon enough several government officials also decided to comment on the case, trying to save face. Mrs. Németh naturally claimed that Eleni Kounalakis misunderstood her. She and the prime minister didn’t discuss who should win. Rather, these conversations were about priorities, about ranking projects according to their importance.

The “Kounalakis affair” was even a topic at the Wednesday cabinet meeting. Defense is usually not enough for the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán and his cabinet members believe that the best defense is a good offense, and therefore János Lázár accused the former ambassador of publishing the book for the purpose of “earning a little extra money.” At that point I almost fell off my chair laughing. Lázár doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea about AKT Development and the immense wealth of the Tsakopoulos family.

DK plans to get in touch with Eleni Kounalakis and will also turn to the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). DK’s argument goes something along the following lines. Before the book was released the State Department went through the book carefully and didn’t object to the inclusion of such sensitive information as Viktor Orbán’s personal decisions about projects financed by the European Union. That this piece of information remained in the book is not surprising given the U.S. government’s concern over corruption in Hungary.

We don’t know whether Mrs. Németh and Eleni Kounalakis were alone when this conversation took place, but given the diplomatic protocol the former ambassador describes in detail in her book it is unlikely. Therefore, this indiscretion of Mrs. Németh is most likely known by others from the U.S. Embassy staff. Moreover, after every such meeting copious notes are taken, which are immediately sent to Washington. The only question is whether the State Department wants to get involved in this case. I somehow doubt it. And even if they did, it would still be almost impossible to prove what everybody suspects–that it is Viktor Orbán himself who determines the fate of bids for practically all government projects. Let’s put it this way: if you’re close to the prime minister, you win a disproportionate number of bids. Just witness the success of Orbán’s son-in-law and Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút, who is sometimes described as the prime minister’s front man.

Viktor Orbán: “Hungary is a serious country” where gays are patiently tolerated

First, some background to today’s post. May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Governments in Europe and North America usually release a statement on the occasion, just as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did. Obama and the First Lady reaffirmed that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights are human rights” and said that they wanted “to underscore that all people deserve to live free from fear, violence, and discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love.” According to Kerry, “the human rights of LGBTI persons are fundamental and enshrined in the Universal Declaration,” and he reasserted the United States’s “unwavering commitment to advance the human fights of LGBTI persons here at home and around the world.” In Europe, similar sentiments were expressed by leaders of the European Union. Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, promised the European Union’s support for the LGBTI community. Vera Jourová, commissioner for justice, emphasized that “we are all born equal in dignity and rights.”

I assume that nobody will be surprised to hear that no member of the Hungarian government offered such pledges to the LGBTI community in Hungary. So, on May 18, a day after the International Day Against Homophobia, a reporter from Index decided to ask a provocative question of Viktor Orbán. I am using here a somewhat modified translation of that conversation, provided by the blogger of Congress of Baboons, an English-language site.

Index: As today is the International Day Against Homophobia, politicians worldwide, including conservatives, declared their “Respect for the Gays.” Your government did not make a statement on this subject. Therefore, my question is: As prime minister, what message would you send to the homophobes, and what actions will the government take to ensure that in Hungary non-heterosexual couples can hold hands in public without fear?

Viktor Orbán: This is a question that makes one want to joke around, but I should spare us from anything of the sort. So, . . . I would suggest that anyone who makes public statements about this matter . . . do so with reasonable care. Hungary is a serious country. It is fundamentally based on traditional values. Hungary is a tolerant nation. Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us. Tolerance means patience, tolerance means an ability to coexist, this is the basis of the Hungarian Constitution which clearly differentiates between a marital relationship between a man and a woman and other, different forms of cohabitation. We are going to keep this. By the way, I am grateful to the Hungarian homosexual community for not exhibiting the provocative behavior against which numerous European nations are struggling and which results in an outcome that is the exact opposite of what they want to achieve. I believe that in Hungary, even though the constitution clearly differentiates between marriage and other forms of cohabitation, the people with lifestyles different from our own outlook on life are safe, they are given the respect of basic human dignity that they deserve. I believe that . . . foreigners don’t feel that in this respect Budapest is a dangerous city. This is good, this is how we can live together. If we … make more stringent regulations or the community of homosexuals starts being more provocative, I think that the current peaceful, calm equilibrium will be no more. No one would benefit from this. Everyone benefits from being able to coexist. I believe that as we now are, we can live together.

In brief, people whose sexual orientation is different from the “norm” are not equal to the heterosexual members of society. They are only tolerated, and they are tolerated only as long as they don’t rock the boat.

Orban Debrecen

Of course, Orbán didn’t answer the reporter’s question about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the International Day Against Homophobia. Instead, in his statement, he tried to explain the place of LGBTI people in Hungarian society and their rights as full members of a national community. In this answer, which he delivered with obvious discomfort, he revealed that their status in Hungary is anything but comfortable. An umbrella organization of LGBTI people in Hungary, Budapest Pride, immediately announced that “the LGBTI people living in Hungary are not at all grateful to Viktor Orbán. Instead of joking about it, perhaps the Hungarian government should do something against the discrimination this community suffers.” Magyar Narancs summarized Orbán’s message well: “A Hungarian doesn’t harass anyone, unless he is forced to harass him in a tolerant manner with mercy in his heart.”

The above exchange prompted some interesting responses. Because of Hungarian intolerance, few people ever admit that they are gays or lesbians. One exception is Klára Ungár, former SZDSZ politician and a member of parliament, who, it seems, got mad enough to out two Fidesz politicians who are closet gays. She was heavily criticized for the indiscretion, but she doesn’t regret her decision. The conversation above also prompted András Léderer, another former SZDSZ politician, to “confess” his homosexuality. In the article he wrote for HVG he accuses Orbán of not too well hidden homophobia.

Orbán’s words also elicited explicitly homophobic outbursts. Zsolt Bayer, a great friend of Orbán and one of those handful of students who established Fidesz, wrote a most disgusting article in Magyar Hírlap, which was openly and viciously homophobic. The article begins: “I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t wear a sheer pink tutu, but I still liked it. It was truly European, and unfortunately there is no cynicism in this. Because today this is Europe.” Bayer was talking about the wedding of Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel. He is the first European prime minister to marry someone of the same sex.

The beginning of the article is actually mild in comparison to what comes afterward. “Let’s stop and say it proudly: The hell with the International Day Against Homophobia!” (In the original, “leszarjuk a homofóbia elleni világnapot!”) And, “we have as much right to be homophobes as anyone else.” The prime minister made a mistake by even answering this “European provocation.” The proper answer would have been: “I don’t send any message because I have nothing to do with it.” But because he didn’t tell the reporter to get lost, the “provocation was successful.” As a result, “the domestic Europeans are whining, seething, gnawing.”

A less vituperative article appeared in Napi Gazdaság, which is quickly becoming as unreadable as Magyar Nemzet was a couple of months ago. Péter Szikszai, a young actor, lists all those sitcoms and films with gay or lesbian themes. According to him, there is a steady pro-gay propaganda through television and movie theaters. It is spreading rapidly and occupies “the beachheads of the entertainment industry.”

Jobbik a few weeks ago wanted to forbid the Pride’s demonstration, coming up in July, but “forbidding Pride can no longer help.” And “the International Day Against Homophobia is neither here nor there.”

For the prime minister and his defenders, it’s always them (where the “them” are alleged to be somehow inferior) against us. Their problem is that the “them” are growing and the “us” are shrinking. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future individual rights will be respected in Hungary, not merely tolerated.

Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary and the State of American Democracy

Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University doesn’t need an introduction to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum or to anyone who is interested in Hungarian constitutional law or politics. Here is her take on the hearing held by Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

* * *

Usually, I write about the dismal state of Hungarian democracy.   But today, I will write about the dismal state of American democracy.

I went to Washington Tuesday to attend the hearing about Hungary before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. You can see the hearing and read the witness statements for yourselves here.

The hearing had a much higher profile than one might have expected. Fully nine Congressmen showed up and stayed through much of the hearing, which counts as a big turnout on Capitol Hill. In the audience, there was standing room only. Once the hearing began, however, it became obvious that the Democratic and Republican sides of the committee were not evenly matched nor was the committee interested in what the witnesses had to say. The Democratic members of the committee did not really understand why they were there, but the Republican members of the committee had an agenda that they relentlessly pushed for the full three hours.

Republicans hammered home their point that the US is unfairly picking on Hungary because it has a conservative government that adheres to Christian values. Hungary has entrenched in its constitution respect for fetal life, traditional marriage and belief in God, they pointed out, suggesting that the Obama administration was criticizing Hungary because it does not share these commitments. According to committee Republicans, the US ignores worse violations of democratic principles in other countries but, with its criticism of Hungary, has singled out unfairly a country that has been a loyal friend to the US. They argued that the Obama government’s increasingly critical policy toward Hungary is nothing more than a politically motivated campaign. Nothing to worry about in Hungary, they argued — it’s just conservative.

The performance of the American Congress on display at Tuesday’s hearing was not something to be emulated by any other democracy. It started with the disrespectful tone of the hearing toward witnesses – with Republican Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher of California leading the way – and continued with the ignorance of the members of Congress who should have known better about the subject of their own hearing. Most shocking of all was the fact that the questions from the House Republicans to critical witnesses were identical to those that have been directed in the past against other critics of the Hungarian government – including me – by representatives of the Hungarian government itself. (For evidence of that these ways of attacking critics are not new and have been the Hungarian government’s line for years, see my earlier responses to those same questions here.

Rohrabacher2

The Republicans followed the Hungarian government’s usual script precisely, which raises questions about how that script was communicated to them. Or maybe members of the subcommittee were really ignorant of the agenda they were pressing, which would be a different sort of scandal. Tuesday’s hearing made it appear that the important House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee had simply offered their space to a foreign government to put on the show it wanted.

In addition, the hearing provided yet another example of Republican congressmen undermining the foreign policy of the Obama administration. In its audacity, the performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was only a step below the recent incident in which congressional Republicans wrote to the government of Iran to tell them not to negotiate with President Obama because he could not make his word stick. Tuesday’s hearing misrepresented and mocked the concerns of the State Department while Republicans on the subcommittee buried witness Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee under a barrage of hostile and irrelevant questions that he could not possibly have anticipated because they required him to discuss other countries that were not on the hearing’s agenda. The committee Republicans seemed to be willing to allow a NATO ally – and a country where the United States has worked hard to promote democracy through multiple presidential administrations of both parties – to slide into autocracy so long as this autocratic government promoted Christian conservative values.

But two important things came out of this hearing – both more consequential over the long-term:

  1. The prepared remarks of DAS Hoyt Yee were more critical than any prior State Department statement has been to date about Hungary. After all, it is the State Department that is charged with articulating US foreign policy, not the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so Yee’s statement represents current policy. It linked Hungarian democratic weaknesses at home to its ability to be a reliable member of NATO: “Since internal weakness invites nefarious influences from the outside, NATO needs all of its members to be internally strong.” That is why the state of Hungary’s democracy will continue to be of concern to the US government.
  2. The Congressional Research Service prepared a report for the hearing, which was extremely critical of Hungary. The CRS has a reputation for being neutral, factual, and non-partisan. The report shows that the “fact assessment” arm of the US Congress has found that Hungary’s critics have truth on their side. This will have a larger influence than anything that the committee members said on Tuesday because it what everyone looking for a neutral source on Hungary’s present condition will cite.

Those are the two important takeaways from the hearing. We should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee Tuesday for real US policy, which is moving ever more resolutely toward serious consequences for Hungary.

That said, the hearing was a dismal performance by America’s elected representatives. It appeared to be a victory for the Hungarian government, if only because the belligerent committee chair engaged in frequent monologues so only the Hungarian side of the story – which he presented – actually got out. It was the kind of victory that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán specializes in – bullying, one-sided and mean. It was a demonstration of “gotcha” politics and depressing to see that the Hungarian government’s unfair tactics toward its opponents were transferred in every particular to Republican members of the US Congress who became the ventriloquists’ dummies for the government of Hungary.

For example, one of the witnesses was asked to recite the opening lines of the Hungarian constitution. Not surprisingly, he – being American – did not have the Hungarian constitution committed to memory. So the committee member triumphantly quoted the line: “God Bless the Hungarians.” And then he gave a lecture about how critics objected to the invocation of God, which was for him evidence of that the attacks of Hungary were politically motivated.

Actually, virtually all of the criticism of this opening line of the Hungarian constitution focuses on the fact that the constitution uses the word for “Hungarians” that covers only ethnic Hungarians and not all citizens of the country. So the constituent power invoked in the constitutional preamble fails to include Jews, Roma and members of other ethnic groups who are Hungarian citizens while it also includes ethnic Hungarians outside the territory who are not even citizens. That is why this statement raised red flags to many of us – not because it mentioned God. But the committee did not seem to have a clue about this issue.

Former Hungarian ambassador to the US, András Simonyi did a masterful job Tuesday holding his own as a witness in a show-trial-like situation. He focused on the Hungarian government’s refusal to recognize any limits on its powers and the way its non-transparent deals with Russia threatened to undermine European alliances, including the EU and NATO. Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First eventually got Chairman Rohrabacher to look a bit less sure of himself by mentioning the Hungarian government’s attacks on churches, which the congressman did not seem to know anything about (despite the fact that many of his colleagues signed a letter to the Hungarian government in 2011 protesting the cancellation of the legal status of hundreds of religious organizations and backing up the State Department concerns on this issue).

Chairman Rohrabacher got many of his facts wrong, and many dangerously so, but, since he controlled the chair, no witness could challenge them.For example, he denied all evidence of officially stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary, following the Hungarian government’s line that it is open-minded and tolerant while only the far-right Jobbik party is anti-Semitic. In response to an attempt by witness Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First to explain that the Hungarian government is rewriting Hungarian history through monuments, textbooks and museums to say that the Germans alone were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary, Rohrabacher mocked the witness and pointed to the existence of open synagogues as the only evidence that was necessary to show that charges of anti-Semitism are baseless.

Chairman Rohrabacher was oblivious of the fact that surveys show levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary and a fear on the part of many Jews in Hungary about their futures there. He also didn’t seem to know that 30 of his Jewish colleagues in the US Congress had written a letter to Prime Minister Orbán protesting the Hungarian government’s rewriting of history again backing up the State Department’s expressed concerns. Chairman Rohrabacher’s denial that Jews in Hungary have reason to be alarmed was not a particularly good demonstration of his solicitude toward religion – or his colleagues.

The hearing made apparent that the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee was living in a parallel universe in which they got to invent their own facts. They paid no attention to the Congressional Research Service report and its careful findings. The three Republican congressmen that stayed throughout the whole hearing (Chairman Rohrabacher and Republican members Randy Weber and Ted Poe from Texas) denied evidence about growing authoritarianism and intolerance in Hungary, which turned the representatives’ description of Hungary into something like the fact-denying opinions of some of their party colleagues on climate change, economic policy and more. Stephen Colbert used to say that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” which is what these committee members seemed to believe. And so they were having none of it.

In fact, Chairman Rohrabacher and his allies on the committee did even worse than engage in denying facts that the Congress’ own research arm established. They followed the script used by the Hungarian government to bash its critics, literally repeating the same questions, the same comparisons and the same defenses of Hungary that I have heard many times from members of the Hungarian government itself.

I was in the audience, but only the official witnesses were allowed to speak. So let me give Chairman Rohrabacher some answers to his questions, given that he did not extend the courtesy to the witnesses to do so. By now I know all about these questions, since Hungarian officials have asked me the very same questions so often.

Chairman Rohrabacher argued that the Obama Administration has singled out Hungary for criticism even though it is no different than many of the US’s allies. He asserted that the UK has no more “checks and balances” than Hungary has – so why pick on Hungary? (The UK is the Hungarian government’s favorite example, too.) But can he really know so little about the government of both places? Yes, the UK has many more checks and balances than Hungary. While the UK, like Hungary, has a parliamentary system in which the parliament elects the prime minister, it also has an upper house – unlike Hungary – as well as a fiercely independent judiciary – unlike Hungary. And it has well-functioning independent accountability offices that can call the government to heel, unlike Hungary. Plus the UK has a robust party system with real choices, a free media and a strong and independent civil society, unlike Hungary. It’s a ridiculous comparison.

Chairman Rohrabacher, backed by Congressman Weber, then argued that Bulgaria and Romania were more or less in the same league, democratically speaking, as Hungary, but they badgered DAS Yee about why the US wasn’t also picking on them. They should have known that both Bulgaria and Romania were let into the EU with asterisks. Neither country fully complied with EU criteria upon entry and both are still under the supervision of the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to ensure their continued progress toward EU standards, which they have not yet met. Hungary, which sailed through without question into the EU more than 10 years ago, should not be in the same league with Bulgaria and Romania because it started off much farther ahead in its democratic performance. The congressmen were right that Hungary is no longer clearly ahead of Bulgaria and Romania, but the comparison is misleading. It’s not, unfortunately, because Bulgaria and Romania have gotten so much better. Instead it is because Hungary has gotten dramatically worse. Since when is an exit by one of its allies from the family of unproblematic democracies of no concern to the US government?

Chairman Rohrabacher also excused the current Hungarian government for gerrymandering the last election because gerrymandering happens in the US too. Yes, both countries gerrymander, but there are big differences between the gerrymanders. In Hungary, a single party gerrymandered the whole country at once, with absolutely no input from any opposition party; in the US, gerrymanders in national elections happen at the state level so there is variation in who captures the process across the country. Plus it is a violation of American election law to exclude all opposition parties from the process of districting, which is precisely what happened in Hungary. In Hungary, there is no judicial review of the district maps to check for unduly self-serving gerrymanders; in the US, court review of districting is routine. Not all gerrymanders are the same. Yes, the US is bad on this – but Hungary is far worse.

Chairman Rohrabacher seems to believe that the US and Hungary both single out politicians for unfair treatment when they are in opposition. If he thinks his party is badly treated under a Democratic administration, I wonder what he would think of being in a parliament where an opposition party would have no chance to introduce bills, make amendments, or even debate most proposals of the government – and where they cannot even see the bills far enough ahead of time to know what they contain before the governing party calls the vote to pass them. Or where any attempt to protest the exclusion of opposition legislators from participation in the legislative process comes with hefty fines against individual members who try to make their views known. I suspect he would think that that was a different world.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was shameful. The committee allowed itself to be used to parrot the views of the Hungarian government and in so doing, showed what dreadful shape American democratic institutions are in.

Congressmen not at their best: Hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations

Year after year the approval rating of the U.S. Congress is abysmally low. In 2012 Huffington Post reported on the findings of a Gallup poll that showed that “Americans are about as likely to trust members of Congress as they are car salespeople.” A year later Public Policy Polling found that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback.” After watching the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats on U.S.-Hungarian relations, I understand why. It was one of the most disheartening scenes I have witnessed of late.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that the hearing was staged as a result of the efforts of Connie Mack IV, the new lobbyist for the Hungarian government who in 2012 failed in his attempt to become a senator. Since Mack had been a Republican representative from Florida for twelve years, he naturally has many old friends on the Hill, including Dana Rohrabacher, a fellow Republican from California, who happens to be the chairman of this subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Some Hungarian-American leaders who were supposed to testify on behalf of the Hungarian government chickened out. Frank Koszorus, Jr. of The American Hungarian Federation and Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition thought that there was no reason to hold such a hearing because, in the wake of the appointments of two new ambassadors, relations between the two countries have improved greatly. I suspect that there was something else behind their refusals to testify: the person of the chairman, who is known as a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and his ideas about the future of Russia. Teleki and Koszorus most likely figured that it is bad enough that Viktor Orbán is considered to be the Trojan horse of Putin in Europe; they didn’t want to fortify this image with some possibly pro-Russian remarks by Rohrabacher.

For a while it looked as if the hearing might not even take place. But then Rohrabacher found Kurt Volker, currently executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as a replacement for the two reluctant supporters of the Orbán regime. Volker has had a distinguished career in the State Department and on the National Security Council. He is also something of an expert on Hungary and speaks fluent Hungarian. He usually stands by the Orbán government, and thus he was ready to testify on its behalf.

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

On the other side, there were two witnesses: András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Ted Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis in Human Rights First, a non-governmental organization whose report on human rights abuses in Hungary I found outstanding. The State Department was represented by Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

In addition, in a highly unusual move for such a hearing, Réka Szemerkényi, the new Hungarian ambassador, was asked to deliver a short account of the state of democracy in Hungary. In excellent English, she did what a good ambassador should on such an occasion: she painted a rosy picture of Hungarian democracy.

What followed was deeply disturbing and disheartening. The Democratic members were poorly prepared, even though the Congressional Research Service had written an admirable six-page summary of Viktor Orbán’s six years in office. As for the Republican members, I’m afraid they were “briefed” by the Hungarian government instead of the Congressional Research Service. All of the information they had was most likely spoon-fed by the “political scientists/propagandists” of Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, via Connie Mack. It was a disgusting affair. The four Republicans–Ted Poe of Texas, Paul Cook of California, Randy Weber of Texas, and Dana Rohrabacher–bullied both Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke. They used the occasion to bash the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to express their disgust with such liberal ideas as equal rights. They seemed to be convinced that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is more of a democracy than the United States is–or at least it’s more of the kind of democracy they would like to see.

The testimonies of Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke are available online, and both contain plenty of criticism of the Orbán government. But our four congressmen were not interested in their facts. They had made up their minds way before the hearing began. Unfortunately, both Yee and Stahnke eventually became somewhat rattled and were unable to respond to some of the accusations. Rohrabacher kept accusing the State Department of using a double standard against Hungary just because the country’s current government is Christian and conservative. Interestingly, Rohrabacher seemed to be perfectly ignorant of the very controversial law on the churches, and Stahnke was unable to explain it because he was short on time.

The man who best withstood the assault was András Simonyi, who managed in the few minutes he was allotted to summarize the most blatant attacks on democracy in Orbán’s Hungary.

One can be grateful that these ignorant bullies are not responsible for the country’s foreign policy.

* * *

Anna Bayer, who was present at the hearing, decided to send the following letter to Dana Rohrabacher because of his views on the controversial German Occupation Memorial.

Honorable Representative Rohrabacher
2300 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative Rohrabacher,

As an American and daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, I was appalled by your comments at the May 19 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US-Hungary relations. Your comments during the hearing were not only factually incorrect and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust, but also constitute Holocaust denial.

When discussing the German Occupation Memorial constructed in Budapest by the current Hungarian government, you publicly said during the hearing that your view is that the issue “that they didn’t build a statue that expanded upon the victims of Hungary during the Second World War to specifically include Jews instead of everyone who suffered, that is not anti-Semitism, you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting that it is.” The German Occupation Memorial is designed to distort the history of the Holocaust in Hungary. In 1944, the Hungarian authorities, allied with Nazi Germany, deported over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Much of Hungary’s Jewish community was then murdered. The deportations were carried out with the consent of the Hungarian government of the time, with the participation of over 200,000 Hungarian citizens in the administration of this deportation.

I ask that you publicly apologize and retract your comments. You have done a disservice to your constituents, to the Jewish-American community, and those Hungarians who have worked to recognize the atrocities of the past and make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, in Hungary or elsewhere.

Sincerely,

Anna Bayer
Washington, D.C.

The Christian, national government’s heart is merciful: Orbán in Strasbourg

I just finished listening to the hearing on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations” organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. I’m not yet ready to comment on it, except to say that it was an excellent forum for the Republicans to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to applaud Viktor Orbán.

Hungary was also the topic of another debate today, this time in Strasbourg in the plenary session of the European Parliament. It was only yesterday that Viktor Orbán announced his intention to attend in order to defend Hungary.

Before his appearance in the chamber, he gave a press conference in which he marshaled his usual arguments for a discussion on capital punishment, which may last a whole decade. I guess he is ready to fight at least ten years to convince the members of the European Union to reinstate the death penalty. As for immigration, Orbán explained the reasons for Hungary’s refusal even to entertain the idea of allowing immigrants inside the country. Some countries, he said (presumably Great Britain, France, and perhaps the Netherlands), had been colonial powers and as such are accustomed to multiculturalism. Hungary, on the other hand, was never a colonial power, and therefore for Hungarians multiculturalism is a foreign idea. When I heard this, I broke out in laughter. Hungary for centuries and centuries was a multinational state in which half of the population was non-Hungarian. The country’s population was made up of Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Ruthenians, Germans, Slovenes, Yiddish-speaking Jews, Croats, shall I continue? Didn’t each of these groups have its own culture? Weren’t the people of Austria-Hungary accustomed to living side by side with people of different cultures? In fact, as far as its mixture of nationalities was concerned, Austria-Hungary was something of a mini-European Union. I assume, however, that for Orbán these cultural differences were minor. After all, most of the country’s citizens were steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and virtually all of them were white. Not like the “barbarians at the gate” of Hungary now.

The debate started with a short speech by Frans Timmermans, who was very critical of Orbán’s use of scare tactics as far as immigrants and refugees are concerned. If Hungary does not abide by the constitution of the European Union, the European Commission will not hesitate to use sanctions that are at its disposal as spelled out in Article II of the EU Constitution. Fidesz MEP Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, interpreted Timmermans’s words as a threat and bitterly complained about restrictions placed on the right to open discussion about certain subjects. Most of the representatives who spoke during the debate preceding Orbán’s speech argued against the idea of bringing up the subject, which they consider to be one of the fundamental values of the Union. As Sophia in ‘t Veld, a liberal MEP, said, such a debate would be a short one: “we condemn it, the European Union condemns it. That’s it.” Throwing the issue of capital punishment into the debate was intended to divert attention away from the main issue, the “national consultation” on immigration, which might be at odds with the fundamental values of the European Union. During the debate, the “national consultation” was described as a kind of “poisoning of the minds,” which some considered outright shocking. There was only one man who tried to defend Viktor Orbán–Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party, although his defense was feeble. After praising the great economic achievements of the Hungarian government, the only thing he could muster in Orbán’s defense was that talking about immigration is appropriate because two-thirds of the immigrants are turned away.

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Then came Orbán, who as usual started on an ironic note. He found it flattering that the members of the European Parliament were devoting a lengthy discussion to the Hungarian situation. There could be reasons for such a discussion in the European Parliament–for example, the great Hungarian successes of late, but alas, he said, this is not the reason he has to be in Strasbourg. He was pleased to hear that the European Union is interested in order, public safety, and immigration, but these problems are not Hungarian problems. They are European problems. The only reason that Hungary is the target is because “Hungarians like straight talk, [they] don’t like babble and equivocation,” said the man who is the master of double talk. Hungarians will openly say what they want: “Europe should remain European, and we want to keep Magyarország magyar.” For those readers who don’t know Hungarian, “Magyarország” means “Hungary.” So, Hungary should remain ethnically pure. If we take Viktor Orbán at his word, no foreigner, regardless of where he comes from, is welcome in Hungary. Otherwise, he called the European Union’s proposal on a quota system to deal with those who receive political asylum “absurd, close to madness.” Hungarians themselves will decide what to do with their illegal immigrants.

Finally, he closed his five-minute speech by arguing for a discussion about the death penalty, the prohibition of which is “after all not carved in stone by the gods.” After Orbán finished his speech, Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, replied with a single sentence: “but there is such a divine commandment as ‘You shall not murder.'” Although the debate continued, this was best possible answer to this great Christian who only a few minutes earlier explained that his “government is Christian and national, [in whose] heart there is mercy.”

Who are the chosen ones? The use of historical names in today’s Hungary

As soon as Viktor Orbán triumphantly returned as prime minister, this time with a two-thirds majority, the new administration began to obliterate those street names that honored people who could be associated with the Kádár regime or the Soviet Union. Actually, by this time not too many such street names had survived; most of the objectionable ones had been changed already in the early 1990s. They overlooked a few, though. For example, in 1993 I was surprised to see that in Pécs there was still a Zója utca, named after Zoya Kosmodemayanskaya, the famous partisan, who posthumously became a Hero of the Soviet Union. In fact, it is still called Zója utca. I don’t know how the watchful Fidesz municipal administration missed this short street. Moreover, even Fidesz initially overlooked Marx utca, a mistake that was remedied in 2012 when it was renamed Albert Wass utca after the man who was sentenced to death in absentia for war crimes by a Romanian court after World War II.

You may recall that the government eventually turned to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for guidance about which street names could be tolerated and which could not. Confusion reigned in city halls as diligent officials pondered whether Béke (Peace), Alkotmány (Constitution), and Szabadság (Freedom) could be left alone or had to be changed.

Moszkva tér fell victim to a name change, as did Roosevelt tér. The idea of renaming Roosevelt Square, I’m almost certain, came from the highest echelons of Fidesz. If I had to guess, I would point to László Kövér as the man who was most bothered by having a square named after FDR, whom he most likely blamed, unjustly by the way, for Hungary’s ending up behind the iron curtain. The odium of starting the procedure fell to József Pálinkás, at the time president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which happened to be located on Roosevelt Square. It’s outrageous, Pálinkás announced, that the square doesn’t bear the name of the Academy’s founder, István Széchenyi. Mind you, just to complicate matters, two streets north of the Academy there was already a Széchenyi utca.

The removal of Roosevelt’s name from one of the nicest spots in downtown Budapest was an unfriendly gesture toward the United States. It couldn’t be interpreted any other way. But it also carried a larger political message: the United States, which had been an ally of the Soviet Union, was not a friend of Hungary, just as the Soviet troops were not its liberators. Such an interpretation, however, left Hungary squarely on the side of Nazi Germany.

When we thought that at last the frenzy of street name changes had died down, the Christian Democrats, who don’t seem to have enough on their plate, realized that there are still some buildings that were named after the wrong people. After weeks of wrangling, it was decided that the famous Ságvári Gymnasium in Szeged must change its name. As a student, Endre Ságvári (1913-1944) became interested in Marxism. First he was a member of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and later, in 1940, he joined the illegal communist party. During the war he organized anti-war rallies, and after the German occupation he was one of the few who tried to organize a resistance movement against the Germans. He was tracked down by the authorities, and on July 27 he was surrounded by four gendarmes, on whom he pulled a gun. He wounded three of them. After throwing his gun away, he ran out of the building but was mortally wounded by one of the gendarmes. One of the four gendarmes also died later in the hospital.

Sagvar utca

In 1959 one of the gendarmes was condemned to death for Ságvári’s murder, but in 2006 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict, claiming that the gendarmes acted legally. The decision created a huge debate because, in this case, the Hungarian state, despite German occupation, must have functioned as a sovereign country, which today the Orbán government hotly disputes. Surely, one can’t have it both ways.

There were only two people in the whole of Hungary who, weapon in hand, turned against those who tried to arrest them: Endre Ságvári and Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a member of parliament, who waited with a pistol when members of the Gestapo came to arrest him. Scores of streets, hospitals, and schools are named after Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, but Ságvári has been deemed an ordinary criminal.

Fine, one could say, Ságvári’s case is debatable. But a dormitory named after Gyula Ortutay (1910-1978), a well-known ethnographer who was minister of religion and education between 1947 and 1950, must also be renamed. Ortutay’s political career after that date was minimal. He played some role in a politically insignificant Patriotic People’s Front and was a member of the so-called Presidential Council, a body whose members represented trade unions, various nationalities, and parties that had existed before the introduction of the one-party system. Ortutay was a member of the Smallholders’ Party before 1948. I really wonder how far this government’s zealous anti-communists are planning to go.

On the other hand, the regime has no problems with the dozens and dozens of Catholic schools named after Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár from 1905 until his death. He is known for his vicious anti-Semitism. In his book Zsidókérdés Magyarországon (The Jewish question in Hungary), János Gyurgyák described Prohászka’s influence as “tragic for Hungarian intellectual and political life.” Hungarian anti-Semitism in the twentieth century cannot be understood without referencing Prohászka. But, I guess, it is perfectly acceptable to use him as a model for future generations. I would be curious to know what these schools’ administrators and teachers tell their students about Ottokár Prohászka.

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.