Category Archives: Hungary

Viktor Orbán will take care of Hungary’s unwanted immigrants

As many as 900 people may have drowned in the Mediterranean a few days ago in their attempt to enter Europe as illegal immigrants. This tragedy once again focused attention on the serious refugee problem the European Union faces. Thousands of people from war-torn Iraq and Syria have been joining citizens of African countries in dangerous journeys to escape danger and poverty. The EU has been slow to respond to the problem. The extraordinary summit held on Thursday dealt exclusively with those refugees who arrive by boat–admittedly the most pressing, life-threatening problem. But Hungary also receives a large number of applications for settlement in the European Union. The would-be immigrants are largely Kosovars, Syrians, and Iraqis who opted to travel by land across the Balkan peninsula. Their final destination isn’t Hungary but countries in western Europe. Hungary is just a transit point. Nonetheless, Viktor Orbán has been trying to use the immigration issue to his own political advantage.

Orbán’s populist attitude toward immigration has received wide coverage in the press. He appeals to the basest instincts of Hungarians, whose xenophobia is well known. Hungarian commentators point out that his latest suggestions for dealing with the immigrant problem–which currently is no problem at all–echo the ideas of Jobbik. (Jobbik warmly welcomed the prime minister’s new statements about refugee seekers.) Because it is Jobbik that wants to solve all problems by force, something that Viktor Orbán now advocates himself. This way, the argument goes, he hopes to recapture those Fidesz voters who have moved over to Jobbik and to bolster his sagging popularity among the population as a whole.

What are the main features of Orbán’s ideas on immigration? First and foremost, Europe does not need immigrants at all. Second, the European Union should be sealed and defended against intruders by the army. Third, the European Union should not overreach in its immigration/refugee policies. Each country should formulate its own policies and deal with its unwanted immigrants as it best sees fit.

"We need no refugees" Gábor Pápai / Népszava

We need no refugees” Gábor Pápai / Népszava

I will come back to these topics later, but first let me turn to the government “consultation” on immigration.The government will send out eight million questionnaires to the voting-age public, in the expectation that one million will be filled out and returned. The results will be seen only by government officials, if they bother at all with the exercise. The survey asks the following twelve leading questions.

1. How important is the spread of terrorism as far as your own life is concerned?

2. In your opinion could Hungary become the target of terrorism in the next few years?

3. Do you agree that mistaken immigration policies contribute to the spread of terrorism?

4. Did you know that economic immigrants cross the border illegally and that lately their numbers have increased twentyfold?

5. Do you agree with the opinion that economic immigrants endanger the jobs and livelihoods of the Hungarian people [magyar emberek]?

6. In your opinion did Brussels’ policies on immigration and terrorism fail?

7. Would you support the government in its effort to introduce stricter immigration regulations in opposition to Brussels?

8. Would you support a new regulation that would allow the government to place immigrants who illegally entered the country into internment camps?

9. In your opinion should those immigrants who illegally enter the country be returned to their own countries in the shortest possible time?

10. Do you agree that those economic immigrants who stay in Hungary should have to work to cover the cost of their keep?

11. Do you agree that the best means of combating immigration is to give economic assistance to the countries of origin of the immigrants?

12. Do you agree with the government that instead of allocating funds to immigration we should support Hungarian families and those children yet to be born?

I don’t think that I have to comment on this “national consultation.”

Instead, I would like call attention to something that few people have touched upon. In criticizing Orbán, many commentators point to the large number of Hungarians currently working in western Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Are they not “economic immigrants” in the countries where they have settled? The government’s answer is that the two cases cannot be compared. Hungary belongs to the European Union, which allows citizens of member states free movement and equal job opportunities anywhere inside the borders of the EU. Indeed, this is the case, and on this level the Hungarian government has a valid point. But let’s tackle the problem from another angle. Viktor Orbán appeals to a law that allows Hungarians the privilege of free movement. This privilege is an expression of the common will of the European Union. But now Hungary wants to be solely responsible for creating its own immigration policy that would deal with immigrants from outside of the European Union. When it is to his advantage, he appeals to the authority of the European Union, but when it looks as if he has to take joint responsibility for the immigrant issue, he refuses to cooperate.

If, by the way, Viktor Orbán thinks that immigrants from Eastern European countries are always welcomed by the population in countries of western Europe, he is very wrong. Just yesterday Austrian right-wingers demanded that the government introduce a quota system to keep Hungarians out of the country. They claim that there are enough of them as it is. And Orbán’s friend, British Prime Minister David Cameron, hasn’t shown himself to be exactly a friend of immigrants who come from the eastern periphery of the EU. In general, one can say that immigrants are unpopular, especially in economically difficult times. They are blamed for accepting jobs for less money and taking away the livelihoods of the natives. This is true now, and it was even true in countries, like Canada, where a large number of Hungarians settled in 1956.

As for the generosity of the Hungarian government, let me tell you about a Kurdish family who has lived in Hungary for the last seventeen years. The couple has three children, the oldest of whom is 18. The two younger ones were born in Hungary. Last year the office handling immigration issues refused to give the family permission to settle in Hungary. It was only two days ago that the court ordered a review of the case. The classmates of the older daughter wrote a heart-wrenching letter, pleading with the court not to expel their classmate from the country. So much for the famously Christian country.

Resistance to a school closing in Budapest

Can you imagine a developed country anywhere in the world where closing a high school is subject to cabinet approval? It’s hard to imagine, but there is one that lies “in the heart of Europe.” Of course, I’m talking about Hungary, where unfortunately “the heart” is often missing from decisions reached by the country’s political leaders.

Those of you who have been following Hungarian politics already know that I’m talking about the Raoul Wallenberg School, which teaches “human studies,” such as health care, social work, and special education. The school trains healthcare workers (nurses, dental assistants, pharmacy assistants, ambulance nurses, etc.), social care providers (social assistants, child caregivers), and special education assistants.  The school was completely renovated ten years ago and cost 3 billion forints. The money, as usual, came from the European Union and, this time, also from Sweden. Since the year 2004 the school has borne the name of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved several thousand Jewish citizens from certain death in Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Germany. The school has developed close relationships with schools in other European countries. They have yearly student exchange programs, scholarships, teachers’ visits, and conferences. All in all, “Raoul,” as everybody calls the school, is considered to be the best of its kind in Hungary.

So, why did the Orbán government decide to close it and scatter its 1,200 students and 70 teachers among six different vocational schools that don’t teach the subjects Wallenberg specializes in? The schools designated to receive “Raoul” students teach such trades as bricklaying, carpentry, and plumbing. All this was decided in two minutes at a cabinet meeting on March 18. In early April the principal of the school was told that, as of the end of the school year sometime in June, the Raoul Wallenberg School will be no more. And, she was warned, she cannot tell a soul about the school closing. No reason for the sudden decision was given.

It didn’t take long before everybody knew that the building that housed the Wallenberg School will be taken over by the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem/National Civil Service University. The expanding new university needs the space. The next victim most likely will be the Museum of Natural Sciences. The administration of the Wallenberg School knew that sooner or later they would have to evacuate the building, but they felt safe until at least April 30, 2016, because the EU grants Hungary received required that they remain in the same building for at least fifteen years. Well, the Hungarian government decided otherwise.

The way the government handled this case is typical. First, decisions are reached in secrecy, so there is no opportunity for those affected by the decisions to express their views. Second, the authorities don’t bother with rules and regulations. In the case of a contemplated school closing, there must be discussions with school boards, parents, teacher’s unions, etc. Of course, none of these people was consulted. Third, it really doesn’t matter what objections are voiced. The government goes full steam ahead anyway. Fourth, if there is trouble, as there was in this case, they send in a man who has no authority to make any decision. Fifth, they would like, if at all possible, to keep the media away. In this case, they also forbade the principal to talk to reporters. And finally, the last word is always that of the highest authority, who is Viktor Orbán himself. Even the minister of education cannot decide on a simple school closing without “the approval of the government.” What a country.

But sometimes the government meets stiff resistance and is forced to make concessions. It took about a week, but it now looks as if the Raoul Wallenberg School will continue as a unit, we just don’t know where. Since the city of Budapest will have only a couple of months to ready a building to receive a school currently equipped with special classrooms and equipment to teach healthcare subjects, it is hard to imagine that the school can open its doors in September. But, still, school officials are relieved and grateful. How did the administration of the school manage to win against the almighty state? Everybody involved refused to obey the order to keep quiet, and they all acted together: school officials, students, teachers, parents, and trade unions.

Heart and Sul of Raoul I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Heart of Raoul, Soul of Raoul–I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Although the principal was forbidden to speak, the deputy principal bravely went to ATV and told her story. She was impressive and fearless. The journalists, who initially were not allowed to attend a meeting of students, parents, and teachers with an official of the Klebelsberg Kunó Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), the mammoth office in charge of all Hungarian elementary and high schools, ignored the instructions and gave vivid descriptions of the tumultuous gathering of at least a thousand people. Brave and surprisingly articulate fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds barraged the hapless KLIK representative with hundreds of questions and criticisms until he himself admitted that he doesn’t agree with the decision. Leaders of both teacher’s unions were present and threatened KLIK with a law suit. After the meeting, it became clear that this crowd could not be easily appeased. The closing of the Wallenberg School would be another scandal.

And we mustn’t forget about the outside help the school’s defenders received. The ELTE students who had already twice demonstrated against the government’s trampling on the autonomy of the universities decided to add to their own grievances the unfair treatment of the Raoul Wallenberg School. Their last demonstration ended in front of the Wallenberg School.

Both the Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, and the Raoul Wallenberg Society and Foundation also raised their voices in defense of the school. After all, this is the only school in the country that bears the name of Wallenberg. The Raoul Wallenberg Society was especially upset because in the last six years the Society, together with the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Wallenberg School, had organized a program called “Was it a long time ago? Where was it?” If you want to know more about the program, take a look at the Society’s online site. It sounds fascinating. Clearly, in the Wallenberg School students learned more than the normally prescribed subjects. The school took seriously the message of Wallenberg’s activities in Hungary.

It is not over yet, but Zoltán Balog showed up at the school yesterday and announced the change of plans. It is hard to tell why he decided to give in. Perhaps because his hands are full of other troubles concerning healthcare and the so-called reforms of higher education? Or was it the united front formed by teachers, students, parents, and trade union leaders? Was he worried about abolishing a school that bears Raoul Wallenberg’s name? Perhaps a combination of all of these things.

People are increasingly pushing back against the government and perhaps standing a little taller.

Fidesz can’t escape from the shadow of the Quaestor scandal

Medián came out with a new poll. This time the company wanted to find out how much Hungarians know about the scandal that followed the collapse of several brokerage firms and what they think about it. One of Medián’s conclusions is that people see a connection between the failures of the brokerage firms and the unpopularity of the government. More failures will only increase people’s distrust of the government. The majority of those questioned, despite the government’s best efforts, think that Fidesz bears a greater responsibility for the lack of proper oversight of these financial institutions than the earlier administrations. It is becoming increasingly difficult to blame the socialists for events that happen after five years of Fidesz governance.

One finding of the poll, which may have important repercussions for the future of the Orbán government, is that the Quaestor affair made the greatest impression on those surveyed. Over 70% of the people asked could name the firm without any help, and another 17% recognized the name from a list of brokerage firms. The other two companies, Buda-Cash and Hungária, are considerably less well known. And this is bad news for the government, because every day, it seems, more details about the close ties between the government and Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, are revealed.

birds

Two recent discoveries further support the suspicion that the Quaestor-Orbán government connection was very close indeed. One of the latest revelations is that the Nemzeti Befektetési Ügynökség, known as HIPA (Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency), which is a government office attached to the ministry of foreign ministry and trade, worked hard to find investors for a Quaestor project called Dunacity. As it turned out, the idea of a “city within the city” was first floated in 2006. It was supposed to be an entirely new building complex in the Soroksár area of Budapest, close to the present National Theater and the Palace of Arts, but not surprisingly, given the 2008 financial crisis, nothing came of it. It seems, however, that in the fall of 2014 HIPA began promoting the idea of Dunacity and published a pamphlet trying to recruit investors for the one billion euro project, along with some other desirable investments. In fact, 444.hu learned that shortly before the March 9 collapse of Quaestor, Levente Magyar, undersecretary in charge of foreign trade, escorted Arab businessmen to the planned future site of Dunacity. The English-language brochure spoke in glowing terms about the “new type of living, where the harmony of apartments, workplace, commerce, entertainment and relaxation is provided.” The government promised a new bridge across the Danube, a free port, and a new metro line. But what was perhaps most telling was that investors were guaranteed a 9-10% return.

The second revelation might be even more damaging, at least indirectly, to the Orbán government. Today János Lázár, who holds lengthy press conferences every Thursday, released the list of 24 municipalities that had purchased Quaestor bonds, which includes the city of Győr, whose football team Csaba Tarsoly owned. Győr’s loss–1,004,505,299 forints–doesn’t top the list. Százhalombatta lost 3,591,830,000 forints. But then why is Győr in the limelight? The reason is that the city of Győr wired this amount to Quaestor’s account on January 16, a day after the National Bank of Switzerland allowed the Swiss franc to strengthen some 20% against the euro. This unexpected currency decision hit large banks and brokerages hard, since most of them were net short the Swiss franc. For instance, Citigroup lost between $150 and $200 million, Interactive Brokers $120 million, and Deutsche Bank $150 million. The Swiss decision also had a negative impact on Hungarian banks, forex dealers, and brokerages. We know that Buda-Cash lost about $22-29 million. Most likely Quaestor was in the same predicament.

It was on April 3 that 444.hu first reported on this “strange coincidence.” Although one of the Győr city officials insisted that the only reason for investing the money with Quaestor was the attractively high yield, the reporter was not convinced. Something was wrong. If Győr purchased government bonds, their yield wouldn’t fluctuate from broker to broker. Therefore, the reporter justifiably suspected that the sudden decision to place that large sum of money with Quaestor, whose owner has invested billions in Győr, was not a coincidence. Moreover, 444.hu checked the city council minutes, where there was no sign of any approval of the money transfer. It was, the reporter concluded, most likely the decision of Győr’s mayor, Zsolt Borkai, a former Olympic champion and currently the president of the Hungarian National Olympic Committee. Let me add that Borkai is a favorite of Viktor Orbán. The prime minister even changed a law to make sure that Borkai could become a member of parliament in 2010. Borkai, before becoming a politician, was the principal of a military school with the rank of colonel. And there was a law on the books that said that a policeman or soldier can become a candidate for or serve as a member of parliament only five years after his departure from the military or the police force. The opposition jokingly called the legislation “Lex Borkai,” something Borkai was actually proud of.

Győr promptly denied the charge, claiming that they made the decision to transfer the money to Quaestor earlier and signed the papers already on January 13. Since no one had seen the contract that the city signed, suspicion lingered on.

Today there was another twist in the story. János Lázár, during his press conference, talked about municipalities purchasing Quaestor and not government bonds. He specifically pointed to the city of Győr as “one of those municipalities that invested money in unsecured Quaestor bonds.” Borkai, whose nerves must be frayed by now, snapped back. Győr bought government bonds, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. It is his duty, he said, “to protest in the name of all 130,000 inhabitants of the city.” This time Borkai arrived with the original copy of the January 13 contract and a document that allegedly proved that the city had purchased government bonds.

So, who is telling the truth? Is it possible that Borkai thought he was buying government bonds but that Quaestor, hard pressed by the events of January 15, used the money to fill some holes in its own portfolio? Yes, it is possible.

The constant barrage of Quaestor stories is further damaging the waning reputation of the Orbán government. And the clashes between prominent members of the Fidesz hierarchy, like Borkai and Lázár, don’t help the cause either. One is just waiting for the next bomb to explode.

Is Fidesz’s soul lost, or is there more to it?

At the moment a fairly sizable crowd of students is marching from the ministry of human resources to the new university for civil servants, policemen, and officers nicknamed “the school for janissaries.” The students were not impressed by the government’s gesture to allow them to major in subjects the authorities find irrelevant to the national economy. They want freedom not just within the walls of the university but in the whole country. I don’t think it will be long before others join them. The Orbán regime is in trouble. When a conservative university professor, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, openly suggests that Viktor Orbán retire, the Fidesz edifice begins to look increasingly precarious.

I’m talking about Frigyes Solymosi. He has been critical of government policies for almost a decade, but his criticism was always packaged in such polite language that I found his opinion pieces on the boring side. Even now, Solymosi suggests only a temporary retirement, which might help restore “our international credibility.” Then, after a few years of rest, Orbán could again return to politics “with renewed energy either as the successor to the president or as the candidate of your party for the premiership.” The comments are less kind. “Nice, nice that you urge Viktor to take a short retirement, but please, don’t delude him. He must leave for good while he can.”

I heard an interview with Solymosi this morning, and I suspect that deep down even he doesn’t believe that his suggestion of a temporary retirement is realistic. He admitted that Viktor Orbán is not a man who is ready to change his ways, and therefore a “second coming” wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

Solymossy at least has been critical of Orbán and his political system for years while others on the right have remained quiet. But something has happened of late to induce them to speak out. A number of right-wing journalists at Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, and Mandiner have recently written critical articles. Starting with the last, I would like to call attention to a piece by Gellért Rajcsányi that was translated into English by Christopher Adam, editor-in-chief of Hungarian Free Press.  Rajcsányi claims that “Fidesz has lost its political buoyancy.” He suggests that it can recover but only if it can change and be reborn. And, he cautiously adds at the end, “it’s quite the challenge to be born again from this state or to hit the re-start button … if Fidesz is at all capable of this.”

Another right-wing journalist, András Stumpf, formerly of Heti Válasz, now with Mandiner, wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Nemzet two days ago, which is just one of the many devastating critiques of Viktor Orbán coming from the right. Zsolt Bayer, whose unspeakable racist prose I’ve called attention to many times, wrote an article in which he bitterly complained that in the last few years “Fidesz has lost its soul.” Stumpf is convinced that the problem is not only with the party’s “soul,” which is why he titled his own piece: “Soul? Come on!” And then he catalogues the sins of Fidesz rule in the last five years.

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

A party whose original mission was the creation of a country made up of a comfortably well-off citizenry cannot possibly turn away from the West, where the very idea of the bourgeoisie was born. But Viktor Orbán did exactly that and created a system in which it is not merit that counts but loyalty. Behind government decisions one always finds selfish political goals. The word “nemzeti” (national) became an empty phrase where even tobacco shops offered to party loyalists are called “nemzeti dohányboltok.” And Orbán created a country that allowed a murderer to return to Azerbaijan, where he was hailed as a national hero. Where was the soul then?

It is incredible to hear from a journalist who worked for years at Heti Válasz that “a new media empire is in the making, except now the dough will end up in different pockets.” He doesn’t even spare Fidesz when it comes to its relation to Jobbik. Orbán cannot attack Gábor Vona for his pro-Russian sentiments; after all, he himself is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. The only weapon that remains in his hands is labelling the party neo-Nazi. No wonder that Vona makes every effort to rub the SS tattoo off. Once this is done, Vona “will stand there in a snow-white shirt not soiled yet by the dirt of prior governance and he will say more or less the same thing that [Orbán] does. And he doesn’t have a beer belly.” Quite an indictment.

What surprised me even more was an op-ed piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet written by Gy. László Tóth, who in the past was a loyal Fidesz “political scientist.” Years ago, by mistake, I picked up a book of his essays that I simply couldn’t get through. And now what do I read? He talks about the “ruthless fight for Orbán’s trust and for getting into the charmed circle around him from where it is possible to step into his shoes.” He tells about the “servility” of these people, about “the low level of intellectual capacity” in the leadership, about “the total lack of morality,” about “arrogant, cynical communication often accompanied by lack of manners” which “is rejected by the whole right.”

These criticisms are not voiced by some hopeless liberals but by people who have been enthusiastic supporters of Viktor Orbán and his party. So, there is a growing number of former Fidesz supporters who have had enough of Orbán’s vision of Hungary. They see the same corruption, greed, immorality, and cynicism as the other side does. What these critics haven’t realized yet, perhaps because they don’t know enough about the subject, is that the situation is not much better in the economy. Yes, I know, some people will point to the good GDP figures for last and perhaps even this year. But these figures are misleading. The growth is fueled by subsidies coming from Brussels. The amount has been especially high in the last two years because we are nearing the end of the European Union’s seven-year budget cycle when every country tries to spend as much money as possible in order not to lose a penny from the allocated amounts. But this happy state of affairs will soon come to an end.

It has taken five years, but Viktor Orbán has managed to alienate even his most ardent supporters. Now the question is whether the two sides can find some common ground. Reading these essays, I don’t think it would be impossible.

The right-wing media in turmoil

At the moment the government’s only absolutely reliable mouthpieces are Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. Lajos Simicska’s media empire is still in transition, and the government’s new media complex has not yet been launched. So, the media confusion on the right is considerable, which is bad news for a government that thinks that the real key to success is communication. As it stands now, MTV’s new all-news channel is a flop, and Fidesz for all practical purposes is boycotting Hír TV, Simicska’s television station.

After Simicska publicly broke with his old friend Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the true Orbán loyalists left Magyar Nemzetthe flagship of the pro-government media, most likely knowing that Viktor Orbán was already working on a replacement of the media conglomerate financed by Simicska and that they would have no difficulty finding jobs in the future. Meanwhile, rumor had it that part owner and editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV, Gábor Liszkay, might be taking over Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper, transforming it into a full-coverage daily in the spirit of Magyar Nemzet.

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The recent history of Napi Gazdaság is intriguing. It shows how easily Viktor Orbán can pull strings with allegedly independent enterprises if and when he needs their cooperation. In 2013 Századvég Intézet purchased Napi Gazdaság, which until then had been an independent organ. Now that the government and Fidesz need a daily paper, it was enough for Viktor Orbán to call on Századvég and ask the management to sell the paper to Gábor Liszkay and Árpád Habony, about whom I’ve written earlier. Indeed, as of yesterday Napi Gazdaság belongs to Liszkay, and the group of people who left Magyar Nemzet have followed him to his new venture. I understand that even the typesetters and the proofreaders are from Simicska’s paper. At Napi Gazdaság changes have already taken place. For example, the paper became two pages longer. After a few months its name will also be changed.

While preparations for the establishment of genuine pro-government media have been underway, Fidesz was also working on punishing Simicska for his disloyalty. It wasn’t enough to entice Magyar Nemzet‘s and Hír TV’s staff. There was also talk in town about Fidesz politicians boycotting Hír TV. Fidesz denied the charges. As a result, there was quite an exchange between János Lázár and one of the editors of Hír TV, in which the editor called Lázár a liar. Well, the truth is that Antal Rogán didn’t use the word “boycott,” but his words strongly indicated that it would not be advisable for a Fidesz politician to accept an invitation from Hír TV. In the past, Rogán said in his interview on M1, there were “compulsory appearances” on Hír TV and “mandatory interviews” in Magyar Nemzet. From here on Fidesz politicians “can go if they want.” It will be their personal decision. Boycott or no boycott, if I were a Fidesz politician I wouldn’t rush to accept an invitation from Hír TV or Magyar Nemzet.

László Kövér, right after the falling out between Orbán and Simicska, declared in an interview with Magyar Hírlap, a paper that espouses Jobbik ideology and that lately has become a favorite organ of Fidesz politicians who can’t or don’t want to have any dealings with Hír TV, that Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV are “opposition organs.” What does “opposition” mean here? In my reading, Kövér thought that the paper moved too far to the left and often “criticized the government unjustly.” But lately, especially after the Tapolca by-election when Fidesz at last realized that Jobbik is a threat, the party line changed. Now the charge is that Lajos Simicska is moving over to Jobbik and is offering his services to this neo-Nazi party. Surely, this is another Fidesz lie. I have been diligently reading Magyar Nemzet‘s op-ed pages and there is not a morsel of truth in this allegation.

Sándor Csintalan, who works for Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern, in a Facebook note accused Rogán of losing touch with reality. Csintalan himself has quite a past, and he has few if any friends among politicians and commentators on the left, but this time I think he is right. Csintalan pointed out that “when Jobbik wins, an event you do a lot for, then thank your pals, Habony and Vajna, and look into the mirror. Stop and think a little before it’s too late.” Even if one doesn’t believe Csintalan, one should read László Seres’s short piece in HVG. He quotes Rogán as saying that “one must be blind not to see that Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and Lánchíd Rádió are getting closer and closer to the extreme right.” Seres responded: “We must be blind because we don’t see it.”

Yes, Magyar Nemzet became critical of the Orbán government, but it is not the only right-wing organ that carries such opinion pieces. Even such old loyalists as András Bencsik or Zsolt Bayer, the organizers of the Peace Marches, have become disillusioned. Their articles in Demokrata and Magyar Hírlap criticize Fidesz because it has abandoned its ideals. They are disappointed, but they still talk longingly of old Fidesz, especially during the period between 1998 and 2002 when Fidesz had a mission: to create a “bourgeois democracy,” a “polgári Magyarország.”

Now that the shackles of party restraints have been removed, the more talented members of Magyar Nemzet are putting out a good right-of-center paper. If it finds an audience, it will provide some real competition to papers on the left. Tomorrow I will sample some op-ed pages I especially found revealing, offering insights into the mood of former Orbán loyalists.

Hungarian students demand autonomy of universities

The Orbán government wants to reform higher education so that it will advance the material well-being of the Hungarian nation. Its primary purpose should be to contribute to areas such as manufacturing and agriculture, to the production of physical products.

Last November I wrote about László Palkovics, the latest undersecretary in charge of higher education, who announced early in his career as a member of the government that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.” After reading a long interview with the man, I came to the conclusion that Palkovics was planning to transform Hungarian higher education into one “huge engineering school.”

It seems that the presidents of Hungarian universities had the same misgivings about Palkovics’s “reforms” as I did. The Hungarian Conference of University Presidents (Magyar Rektori Konferencia) pointed out “the flaws of a concept that concentrates exclusively on economic matters.” As usual, the presidents’ objections were ignored. By mid-April rumors circulated that a large number of subjects taught at the bachelor’s level would be eliminated from the course offerings. “Communication” and “international studies” were prime targets; the government wanted to get rid of them as undergraduate majors. Vh.hu seemed to know that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade wasn’t happy about the proposed elimination of the study of international relations, which usually attracts very bright students. After all, some of these young people contemplate a diplomatic career.

On the afternoon of April 17 the government at last made its new plans for higher education public. Isn’t it interesting that momentous decisions that the government suspects will meet with resistance are usually released late on Friday afternoon? The hope, I assume, is that by Monday the outrage will subside. Well, it didn’t work out that way this time, especially since the document indicated that not only would certain social science fields, like international relations, no longer be available for B.A. students but that the very survival of the faculty of social sciences was at stake.

Today students and faculty members of several universities met in “forums” to discuss the government document. First I heard about the forum held by Eötvös Lóránd Tudományegyetem (ELTE) students and professors of the Faculty of Social Sciences. A few minutes later I learned that other universities were joining the “revolt.” The revolt continued on to the Budapest Műszaki Egyetem (MBE/Budapest Engineering School), where László Palkovics was holding the fort against irate students who accused him of not knowing what he was talking about.

Given the centralized nature of Hungarian higher education, I suspect that this decision would affect all universities and colleges, although at the moment the talk is only about ELTE, Corvinus, and the Catholic University. The government’s plans, by the way, are not based on financial considerations. As it now stands, students who want to major in international relations must pay their own way, so the government saves no money whatsoever by getting rid of the discipline. The reason for the decision is most likely political. The Orbán government doesn’t like the way ELTE and other universities teach the subject. Fidesz has no problem with offering a major in international relations at the undergraduate level at the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (NKE/National Civil Service University), where the regime educates its own elite. By the way, some people call NKE “the university for future janissaries.”

Not that I’m keeping fingers crossed for Viktor Orbán and his government, but I thought that perhaps in the last few months they had learned a thing or two, that they would tamp down their zeal for reform and stop annoying people at every turn. I can assure Mr. Orbán that it is dangerous to push students too far. Look at what happened in 1956 when forums were held at ELTE, BME, and Szeged and a few days later Mátyás Rákosi was gone. Orbán’s government is teetering at the moment. In his place I wouldn’t tempt God.

The protest at ELTE’s faculty of social sciences began on Facebook, and thousands signed up to attend a meeting today at 6 p.m. A list of five demands was ready by mid-morning.

1. We demand the autonomy of universities. We demand free choice of university and majors.

2. There is a need for specialists with a knowledge of the social sciences, of the European Union and international relations.

3. In the 21st century it is not the state that decides the future professions of people. It is not the state that decides what specialty exists and what doesn’t. The state cannot forbid any specialty or monopolize it for the university of the government.

4. The impact studies behind the decisions should be made public. We demand transparency, discussion, and professionalism.

5. With the elimination of these majors the government goes against international and European trends, undermines our future, and completely ruins the possibility of Hungary’s success in the world.

At this point the Ministry of Human Resources tried to calm the situation and claimed that nothing has been decided yet, that it was the opposition parties who were responsible for whipping up emotions against the government. The ministry insisted that “before the May introduction of the decisions there will be an opportunity for all affected by the new system to express their opinions.” Unfortunately past experience teaches us that such promises are not worth the paper they are written on. The ministry explained that the changes to be introduced “serve the interest of the students” and “strengthen the effectiveness of teaching.” The students not surprisingly don’t seem to agree.

This morning at ELTE the professors, instead of giving their scheduled lectures, used class time for a discussion of the planned changes. It was during these student-teacher discussions that they came up with their five demands. Moreover, the university administration is on their side. Both the president and the dean of the social science faculty were present and made speeches at the “forum” held this afternoon.

The engineering students also gathered for a discussion, and again they seem to be backed by the faculty and the administration. The government, though generally pro-engineering, wants to abolish the teaching of design engineering. László Palkovics, who is an engineer and who actually taught at BME, was present and the students gave him a hard time. One student point blank asked him whether he has any idea what design engineering is all about. The students wanted to know why he thinks that the work of design engineers is superfluous. The best he could come up with was that design engineers earn 100,000 a month less than other engineers. As usual, the claim is not true, or at least a company manager who was present said that in fact on average they are more highly paid than their colleagues.

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

After the forums were over the ELTE students marched to BME, and from there a fairly large crowd proceeded to the building of the ministry of human resources with the promise of returning if the ministry doesn’t withdraw the plans by Wednesday. I have the feeling that in the interim other universities will join the ELTE and BME crowd, but I doubt that a complete withdrawal of the “concept” is in the offing. In his speech at the forum the president of ELTE expressed a modest expectation. He said that he is hopeful that the international relations major might be saved. But, let’s face it, this is not enough. Indeed, the autonomy of the universities should be restored. That will not happen as long as the Orbán regime is in power, but I very much hope that a total overhaul of Hungarian higher education will take place after the fall of Viktor Orbán.

Yesterday there was an interview with Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist who with László Solyóm, former chief justice of the constitutional court and president of the republic, crafted the constitution that functioned well until in 2012 the second Orbán government replaced it with its own. In the interview Tölgyessy said something that caught my imagination. The Hungarian people are rarely aroused to revolt. They are fine with practically any regime so long as it leaves their private spheres alone. But when the government forces itself upon them by wanting to change their lives, then Hungarians stand up and say no to their overlords. János Kádár knew that. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, wants to change everything, including his subjects. Tölgyessy is sure that in the long run Orbán’s plans will fail.

Fidesz omnipresence in small towns in Hungary

As if Buda-Cash, Hungária, and Quaestor weren’t enough, we have a new financial scandal, this time in Karcag, a small town half way between Szolnok and Debrecen. Right now it’s is hard to know how many billions of forints disappeared after Mrs. Sándor Dobrai, the co-owner of Kun-Mediátor, a travel agency, together with her daughters and grandchildren, packed up and left Hungary in a great hurry. The woman was a “highly esteemed” member of Karcag society, the mayor of the town said after the scandal broke. The town’s political leadership, with whom she had excellent relations, had no idea that for years she had been acting as a quasi-broker for perhaps as many as one thousand people in town, promising them a 20% annual return on their investments.

Here I will not dwell on the shady business of Marcsi, as she was known to the locals. I am more interested in those small towns where nothing can happen without the approval of Fidesz. Karcag is prototypical of the settlements I have in mind.

Karcag has been in Fidesz hands since 1990. In that year Sándor Fazekas, a 27-year-old lawyer and brand new member of the then still liberal Fidesz, became the mayor of the town. Fazekas must have done something right because he remained in his post until 2010. In 2006, when he last ran as a candidate for mayor, he received almost 80% of the votes. He also became a member of parliament that year.

Everything revolves around Fidesz in Karcag, where the party’s only apparent opposition these days is Jobbik, whose candidate, an elderly gentleman, received 22.69% of the votes. This is a fairly new development. Four years earlier Jobbik had no mayoral candidate, and MSZP’s man received 20% of the votes. Last year the parties of the democratic opposition didn’t even bother entering the race. The lone “independent” candidate received 9.83%.

When Fidesz won the national election in 2010, Fazekas became minister of agriculture even though, according to Zoltán Gőgös, MSZP’s agricultural expert, he “cannot distinguish the front from the back of a cow.” Indeed, his performance has been spotty at best, and his questionable dealings with Russia via Szilárd Kiss brought calls for his resignation.

In addition to Fazekas, there is another “distinguished” son of the town–Mihály Varga, minister of national economy. The anomaly in this group of high level Karcag politicians is Ágnes Vadai, formerly of MSZP and now deputy chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Vadai has not lived in Karcag since the age of 14, but she knows the situation in town well because her parents still live there. As she mentioned in one of her interviews, Karcag is so imbued with Fidesz ideology and a hatred of the “communists” that when she tried to buy red carnations at the flower shop she was told that they don’t stock the flower because it is part of MSZP’s logo. According to her, in Karcag everybody knows everything about everybody else, and therefore she finds it impossible to believe that the Fidesz city fathers knew nothing about the booming business of Mrs. Dobrai, especially since her relationship with town hall was close. Kun-Mediátor also owned a one-person television station that broadcast a two-hour program every evening, dealing mostly with local events. Fazekas as well as Varga appeared as guests on Mediátor TV several times in the past.

Karcag City Hall

Karcag City Hall

Of course, this proves nothing. It certainly doesn’t indicate that local Fidesz politicians were in any way involved in Mrs. Dobrai’s scheme. But then why does Mihály Varga feel compelled to write a Facebook note saying that “it is a well-known fact that during the 2002 and 2006 election campaign Ágnes Vadai received considerable help from the business group which also owns Kun-Mediátor”? Launching countercharges against political opponents is a typical Fidesz tactic, which I consider unfortunate because it calls, perhaps unwittingly, attention to their own possible culpability. The reaction from a commenter was that “in Karcag one cannot even go to the toilet without Fidesz’s permission,” and he accused the local Fidesz leadership of being involved in the illegal financial hoax. He mysteriously added: “ARE YOU PERHAPS AFRAID OF TALKING ABOUT ÉPKART?”

It was in 2011 that Tibor Szanyi called attention to a Karcag firm called Épkart Zrt., which was given preferential treatment when EU grants were handed out. The game was the same as that which the European Commission complained about the other day. The demands of the tender were such that only one company was eligible to apply and win it. Since then, Épkart has received numerous large jobs and the company has moved its headquarters from Karcag to Budapest. Last August the company even received an award from Sándor Fazekas for its excellent job in restoring the Grassalkovich Castle in Hatvan. Clearly, Fazekas, as the mayor of the small town for twenty years, and the owner of Épkart must be old acquaintances if not friends. Népszabadság learned a few days ago that Kun-Mediátor Kft., which also moved to Budapest, just happened to have the same address as Épkart Zrt. Moreover, it turned out that Épkart has been renting a building in Karcag to the two daughters of Mrs. Dobrai ever since 2013. Otherwise, Épkart denies any business dealings with Kun-Mediátor.

I’m certain that most people in Budapest and the few larger cities in Hungary have absolutely no idea of what’s going on in towns the size of Karcag. Just recently I read an article by Tamás Bod, the sole representative of the united opposition on the town council of Gyula, a town 90 km away from Karcag, close to the Romanian-Hungarian border. The mayor of Gyula received 67% of the votes. Out of the 14 members of the council eight are Fidesz, two represent a local group but usually vote with Fidesz, one is a member of Jobbik, and then there’s Tamás Bod. Bod used to be a newspaperman and was considered to be an enemy by the local Fidesz leadership even before he decided to enter local politics. For example, he was forbidden access to Fidesz events even in those days.

After he entered the race he was called “the shame of Gyula” and a “failed journalist” who was now trying to make a living as a politician. (By the way, he gets 48,000 forints a month for serving on the council.) They had a policeman “interrogate” him about a fist fight he allegedly caused miles away and used it as a photo op. He got a seat on the council from the compensation list. He is allowed to speak at council meetings for five minutes only, while the Fidesz members answer with 15- to 20-minute speeches. The local paper refused to let him answer an article by the editor-in-chief which reminded Bod “of the 1950s.” When he asked for remedy from a member of the board of directors, a literary historian, he was told that board members can deal only with financial matters, which Bod found strange since all three members of the board have a literary background. He is totally helpless, and the only thing he can say under the circumstances is “I hope I disturb you.”

If you take a look at the local paper, the Gyulai Hírlap, you will see that Tamás Bod is really trying, but in this town very few people would ever join Bod’s demonstration against Fidesz corruption.

At least in Karcag no one disturbs the work of the council as Bod does in Gyula. Fidesz and Jobbik members decide all matters. In Karcag the few people who don’t agree with the policies of the Orbán government must either hide their anti-government sentiments or pretend that they are a faithful followers of the party. It will be very difficult to break the stranglehold of Fidesz rule in these smaller towns where Fidesz functionaries have been in power for a decade or more.