Category Archives: Hungary

Putin’s award: 50s-style investigation of protesting Debrecen professors

Let’s continue with the Russian theme today: in this case, the scandal that has been growing ever since the senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed the title of Civis Honoris Causa on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” But the University of Debrecen is already the recipient of a sizable grant from a Russian foundation called Russkiy Mir, a soft power initiative created by decree by Putin in 2007, which aims at promoting the Russian language and “forming the Russian World as a global project.”

The University of Debrecen is not the only Hungarian university to receive grants from Russkiy Mir. ELTE was the first beneficiary, and the University of Pécs also got money from the Russian foundation. But, according to Dániel Hegedüs, a political scientist specializing in Russian penetration into western institutions, the University of Debrecen’s arrangement with Russkiy Mir is fundamentally different from the others because of the intensity of the relationship. For example, a new Russian center was established recently where students can have tuition-free Russian language instruction. The university has close contacts with many Russian institutions: Tyumen State Medical Academy, Belgorod Agricultural Academy, ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russian State Social University, and the Chuvash State University.

According to people familiar with the scene, pro-Russian sentiment is quite strong at the university. A young historian who represents undergraduates and graduate students in the senate, for example, voted for Putin’s award and expressed pro-Russian views, including an endorsement of the Russian occupation of foreign territories by means of arms. Mind you, this same student is keeping a portrait of Miklós Horthy in his room, which he intends to take home once he no longer has an office in the university.

It took only a few days after the announcement of the award for a handful of departments at the University of Debrecen to object to bestowing an honorary title on an autocrat whose rule in Russia is dotted with grievous attacks on democratic institutions and who is most likely behind the murders of politicians and journalists who are in his way. It was these professors whom the rector of the university, Zoltán Szilvássy, called “balfácánok,” which is a somewhat milder synonym of “balfaszok” (two-left-handed pricks). It means “blundering dolts or simpletons.” Who is this cultured academic?

In 2013 it wasn’t Szilvássy who won the most senate votes when three professors were vying for the job of rector of the university. In fact, he received less than one-third of the votes, which didn’t please the Orbán government. The vote was followed by two and a half months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and deals, resulting in the appointment of Szilvássy. At that time, the Oktatói Hálózat/OH (Faculty Network) protested against the violation of university autonomy. OH asked President János Áder not to affirm Szilvássy’s appointment, of course to no avail. In fact, since then “he was reelected with an overwhelming majority,” as Origo put it. What a surprise, especially since this time no other “balfácán” bothered to challenge him.

Since it was the Orbán government that placed Szilvássy in his position against the express wishes of the majority, he gladly does everything the government wants. One such occasion was the granting of another honorary doctorate, this time to Lajos Mocsai, a handball coach whom the government wanted to name rector of the University of Physical Education. As a handball coach he didn’t have any higher degrees or academic achievements, which were requirements for the job. (One could argue the merits of the case, but once the Magyar Testnevelési Főiskola under Semmelweis University became a separate university at Viktor Orbán’s insistence, the rules applicable to universities in general had to apply to this new creation as well.) So, Mocsai had to have a degree, and if he didn’t have a real one, an honorary degree would do. Szilvássy was ready to do the dirty work. In a ten-person committee only one person voted for the handball coach, but a month later, through some clever finagling, Mocsai received the honorary doctorate, which was accepted as a real one. Today he is a professor and the rector of the University of Physical Education.

There is relatively little available about Zoltán Szilvássy’s academic career, but it seems that, although he is an M.D., he moved over to the field of pharmaceuticals. In addition to his university duties, he also has several quite profitable business ventures. According to an anonymous commenter, who claims to be a former student and instructor at University of Debrecen, Szilvássy is by now a very rich man who “with disgusting mafia-like means carries out the cruelest professional personal decisions. He destroys professional careers with the typical vengeance of petty and untalented people.” These harsh words might not be unwarranted because, in the throes of the upheaval created by Putin’s honorary degree, an associate professor who heads the department of infectious diseases and child immunology returned an award she had received from Szilvássy in 2014 because the rector “together with his subordinates destroyed in a mafia-like manner” her department. She asserted that what’s going on in the university is “an unprecedented evil destruction” of the university’s scientific reputation. These words are quite similar to the ones used by the anonymous commenter on Index’s Fórum. The general opinion of the man is that “he completely lacks the modern European point of view based on democratic values.”

Szilvássy was furious at those who dared to criticize his decision on Putin’s award. He instructed his chief-of-staff—because a Hungarian rector does have such a thing—to call in the rebellious “balfácánok” one by one for something that in the 50s was known as self-criticism. The faculty members were smart enough to say “no” to that suggestion. They were, however, ready to meet the dean of the faculty of science and technology, and a time was set for the meeting. But when the 50-60 professors showed up, they were faced not with the dean but with the same chief-of-staff, József Mészáros, whom they had refused to deal with earlier. Mészáros is an old Fidesz apparatchik and a good friend of Lajos Kósa, the former mayor of Debrecen. He gave each person a piece of paper with a number of questions on it, aimed at finding out who the initiators of the “rebellion” were. After the faculty members answered the questions and signed their piece of paper, he was going to have a talk with them, one by one. Well, at that point patience ran out. The professors refused to answer the questions and accused the university’s administration of using 1950s methods. Some tore the piece of paper into bits right there, while others gave it back without signing their names. A member of the department of constitutional law gave a legal lecture to Mészáros, and the former rector expressed his opinion that the questions led him to believe that they want to pin the blame on him and the department heads as the organizers of the protest.

This case lets us see Viktor Orbán’s system more granularly. This is how intimidation works at each level, in each school, in each hospital, in each university, and even in private companies if the boss or the supervisor is a Fidesz man or woman. Fear is spreading, and not without reason.

September 22, 2017

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017

A first: Nine opposition parties agree on long-range healthcare priorities

Today was an extraordinary day, one that few people believed would ever come to pass. All nine opposition parties, including Jobbik, signed onto a “national healthcare minimum,” a document that outlines the basic steps that must be taken to salvage the sinking ship of Hungarian healthcare. Fidesz was also invited to the discussions that preceded the final act of approval, but the government party refused to participate.

How did this project come into being? The description of the process might be educational for crafting future agreements in fields that shouldn’t fall victim to party politics.

First, I should say a few words about the man, Gyula Kincses, without whom this healthcare minimum project couldn’t have taken place. Kincses was an ear-nose-throat specialist who eventually moved over to healthcare management and politics. He began his political career as an MDF member of parliament (1990-1994), but he was always more interested in healthcare management. It didn’t matter which party was in power, they all relied on his advice and expertise–from Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) through all subsequent governments–that is, up until 2010. He reached the pinnacle of his career during the Gyurcsány administration when he served as undersecretary of health.

By now Kincses is retired, but he is still extremely active. In the last five years he has been writing a blog called Asztalfiók (Desk drawer) in which he analyzes various aspects of healthcare. He is regularly asked to comment on health issues by Hír TV and ATV. As far as I know, he has not been asked for advice by this government.

Gyula Kincses

On June 14, 2017, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Political Capital held a conference titled “Can Healthcare be cured?” where, in addition to healthcare professionals, representatives of several opposition parties were invited to participate. Tímea Szabó (Párbeszéd), László György Lukács (Jobbik), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Imre László (DK), and László Szakács (MSZP) were among the speakers. Naturally, Fidesz was also invited, but they ignored the event. At this conference Jobbik’s Lukács was the only person to stress the “necessity of a consensus among the representatives of political life, which would elevate the issue of healthcare over and above the usual political skirmishes.” This suggestion moved Gyula Kincses, who was in the audience, to ask Lukács whether he would sponsor such a resolution.

The Hungarian media didn’t waste much time on this conference. The only article I found appeared on Jobbik’s internet news site Alfahír, which makes sense since it was a Jobbik politician who accepted the challenge of getting all the parties involved in working out a national minimum. A month later, on July 28, Népszava reported that the representatives of nine parties with measurable support (DK, Együtt, Jobbik, LMP, Kétfarkú Kutya, MSZP, MoMa, Momentum, and Párbeszéd) had gathered to try to identify the most basic elements necessary for a coherent healthcare policy that could be sustained over time. One of the problems Hungary, like most countries, faces is that when a new administration comes into power it brings with it politicians with new ideas who immediately dismantle everything the previous administration had accomplished. An agreement on healthcare—or, for that matter, on education—over the long run would eliminate this extremely destructive practice. Surprisingly, it turned out that the parties actually agreed on many of the elements Kincses found important. By the end of July Kincses was greatly encouraged by the level of cooperation he had received. Kincses gave an interview to Egyenes beszéd (ATV) in which he stressed that Fidesz would be a welcome member of the team, but the government party was steadfastly refusing to participate. However, he said, they are still waiting.

Although Kincses didn’t brag about it, by that time the document was more or less ready. By early August the final text was sent to the participating parties for discussion and for a final word of acceptance or rejection. At that time Alfahír still expressed its doubts whether all the parties would accept the final text. Well, today we at last found out that Kincses accomplished the close-to-impossible task. All nine parties decided to support the nine basic elements of the document.

The Hungarian media can occasionally be more than irritating. None of the articles covering this story lists all nine points, but I managed to find that the parties committed themselves to spending at least 9.4% of the Hungarian GDP (EU average) on healthcare. Currently the figure is only 7.1%. Of this, the state pays 4.8%, while the rest is paid by individuals. Out of every 100 forints spent on healthcare, 40 forints are paid by Hungarian citizens, which is much higher than in other EU countries. The plan would lower that figure to 30%. Everyone who is insured would receive the same quality care, though private insurers could offer additional services. The document includes a promise of graduated, substantial salary raises for healthcare workers over the next five years and the restoration of the old “social security system,” which was abolished by the Orbán government and replaced with a system financed by taxation.

The first party to sign was Jobbik, followed by DK. By now only a few haven’t yet gotten around to signing the document.

Magyar Idők has been silent about this whole project. In the past few months the government media has reported nothing about the discussions concerning long-term healthcare plans. It was only Pesti Srácok which today sarcastically announced that “the great opposition cuddling materialized; of course, Jobbik is among them.” Otherwise, the paper summarized the document accurately.

This is a first step but, I think, an important one. I hope there will be others to follow. They might inspire the electorate to realize that, after all, these parties can agree on issues which are important to them.

September 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán: Christian Europe in danger

Once a year the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), an alleged NGO, holds its congress. The fact that since 2011 the event has been held in the chamber of the former Upper House (Főrendiház) says a lot about the independence of the organization.

Until very recently KÉSZ was a purely Catholic affair. It was established in 1989 by a Catholic priest and professor of theology who served as its president until his death in 1996. In that year another Catholic priest and a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Osztie, took over. He served until 2016. At that point the presidency was assumed by a Greek Catholic priest and canonist, I guess in an attempt to appear a bit more ecumenical.

The close connection between KÉSZ and Fidesz was obvious even from the few references Viktor Orbán brought up about the organization’s past. He specifically noted KÉSZ’s assistance in setting up thousands of “civic cells” that Fidesz used to widen the base of the party after the 2002 defeat. Then, in 2009, KÉSZ joined the notorious Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO financed in all sorts of devious ways by the Orbán government. KÉSZ also gives assistance to the government when it comes to its nationality policy outside the country’s borders. For example, KÉSZ has signed joint declarations of intent with the Keresztény Értelmiségi Kör (Christian Professional Club) in Serbia where the Hungarian political elite is an important supporter of the current government. KÉSZ’s website provides no details about its financial resources, but it has a publication called “Jel” (Sign) which looks quite professional, it finances books, and it organizes conferences.

At the KÉSZ congress held on September 16 Viktor Orbán delivered a lengthy lecture on the state of the world. His two most important statements, both made at the end of the speech, were that (1) “the Germans, the Austrians, and the arrogant western media” began a “smear campaign” against his country which was “centrally ordered, centrally controlled, centrally engineered against Hungary—out of vengeance because [Hungary] closed the Balkan route used by the migrants” and (2) if the European leaders are unable to find a path to coexistence between immigrant and non-immigrant countries “the tension that exists between them now will be even more intensified, which may lead to a greater chasm or even a fatal break in the history of the European continent.” Both of these claims are rather frightening.

The attentive audience / Source: Index / Photo János Bődey

Although these are the two statements I chose as the weightiest, there were some other noteworthy claims. One was that “the goal of today’s anti-Christian program” is the importation of non-Christian elements, which in turn will weaken Christianity in Europe to such an extent that it will actually die out. Before Orbán spoke, Cardinal Péter Erdő had delivered a speech in which he talked about the strong roots of Christianity in Europe. Picking up on this theme, Orbán accused “the anti-Christian European program” of planning “to change the subsoil” so that “the roots of Christianity, no matter how thick and strong they are, cannot take hold, and thus the giant tree simply falls over.” Again, Orbán sees a malicious design or at least tries to convince his audience that there is such a design–that European politicians are contemplating the Islamization of Europe and the death of Christianity on the continent.

Orbán also set forth a religious elaboration of his theme that “We want a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” He added: “But this is possible only if we take upon ourselves the task of creating a Christian Hungary within a Christian Europe.” This qualifying sentence is a new motif in Orbán’s political vocabulary. He is certain that under his leadership Hungary will remain a Christian country, but he is not so sure about Europe. “The ideology of the immigrant countries is international liberalism,” while in the case of the non-immigrant countries “the guiding principle is … sovereignty and Christian social teaching. The adoption of Western European liberalism by the people of Central Europe would simply mean suicide. Or to be more precise it would be a suicidal ideology for the countries of Central Europe” because it would result in their becoming immigrant countries. Obviously, liberalism in any shape or form should be banished from Central Europe. I wonder what the Czechs and the Slovaks would think of this demand.

Finally, here is something that Orbán uttered elsewhere, but I think it belongs here. In his speech to the members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation he apparently noted with great satisfaction that “in the last six years, on the left-right scale, a thoroughgoing shift has occurred toward the right.” I’m afraid he is correct.

September 19, 2017

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 2017

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017

Immigrants in Hungary: The Dutch colony in Csemő

Today’s post was inspired by a fascinating report on Dutch families who in the last 10-15 years have settled in Hungary. To provide some context for this report, I did a little research on foreigners who settled on a more or less permanent basis in Hungary. The statistical literature distinguishes between people who arrived in Hungary from countries outside the European Union and those, like the Dutch immigrants in Csemő, a village on the Great Plains, who came from the EU.

Let’s look first at some data on those immigrants who came from so-called “third countries,” i.e. countries outside the European Union. In 2015 their number was estimated to be 60,000. Their arrival, according to the research conducted by the Central Statistical Office, “was beneficial for Hungary because these immigrants were younger, better educated, and economically more active than the Hungarian natives.” The largest group is the Chinese, but a lot of people came from Ukraine, Vietnam, and Russia. They can be counted as permanent residents since 60% of them have been living in the country for more than ten years. Two-thirds of them came either to work or to join other family members. Twenty-five percent came to study. In 2013 employment statistics for foreigners were higher than those of the local population:  67.9% as opposed to 58.2%. The educational attainment of the newcomers is also higher than that of the Hungarian-born population (48% v. 20%), most likely because many of the immigrants originally came to study in Hungary and then opted to stay. These statistics make Viktor Orbán’s hysterical anti-immigrant views even more ridiculous.

By the way, a few days ago someone asked about the size of the Chinese immigrant population in Hungary. If I recall properly, no one responded to the inquiry. I can now offer some information. The official, somewhat dated figure is 6,800, but, according to estimates, their number is closer to 20,000.  These people settled in Hungary on a more or less permanent basis and their children attend Hungarian schools. Very few of them, however, have become citizens so far.

Immigrants to Hungary quickly become part of the social fabric of the country. Two years ago an article appeared on napi.hu about a “surprising statistic” that proves that Hungary is in the forefront of countries where the integration of immigrants is rapid and rather painless. I must admit that I wasn’t as surprised by the findings of the Központi Statisztikai Hivatal/KSH (Central Statistical Office) as the journalist of napi.hu was. Historically speaking, immigrants who settled in Hungary, within a generation or two, especially in larger towns and cities, became completely integrated. Budapest and Pécs were excellent examples of that phenomenon during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Of course, there are quite a few immigrants who come from member states of the European Union, many of them still young and working, mostly in Budapest and larger cities, but others retired or semi-retired who come for various reasons, including cheaper accommodations, more living space, and a quieter life.

It is a subset of this second group that Magyar Nemzet’s report “Dutch ‘refugees’ on the Great Plains” describes. About 100-150 Dutch people settled in and around the village of Csemő, a place that didn’t exist until 1952. Unlike most Hungarian villages, which boast histories going back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, Csemő’s Wikipedia entry lists under “Places of Interest” two town squares and a hunting lodge. To my great surprise I found an elementary school named after one of my classmates from ELTE, Mihály Ladányi, a poet who spent his last years in the village.

The way these ethnic mini-enclaves come into being is through word of mouth. One family discovers a picturesque village somewhere, and they then tell their friends about the place. This is how Jeroen and Jacqueline Bastiaensen found a run-down homestead (tanya) in Csemő, which they bought “for a tenth or twentieth the price of something comparable in the Netherlands.” This was five years ago, and they claim they do not regret their decision. Since then they have fixed up the place. The couple also operates two guesthouses that they rent out to Dutch and Belgian visitors. In addition, for some extra income they take care of the properties of those Dutch families who spend only a few weeks in Csemő. The reporter also talked to Lammi Luten, another Dutch settler whose family arrived in Hungary eight years ago. Her children attend the local elementary school and are naturally fluent in Hungarian.

The Lutens in front of their house / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: László Végh

Of course, the Hungarian reporter was eager to find out what these people think of Hungary and the Hungarians. Jacqueline explained that certain things are very different in Hungary. As an example, she brought up the case of “Holnap Zsolti” (Tomorrow Zsolti), the local plumber. They call him “Holnap Zsolti” because every time he is phoned for a job he promises he will be there tomorrow, but he doesn’t show up. Jacqueline is surprisingly good-natured about Holnap Zsolti, but she admits that there are times when his attitude seriously interferes with her business. She also complained about someone she hired as a cleaning lady who often doesn’t come to work because “her grandmother is sick, or she overslept, or she simply had other things to attend to.” Obviously, Jacqueline has already learned enough Hungarian to explain to her that this is not the way to be a responsible employee.

Lammi Luten’s criticism of her Hungarian neighbors points to something that might be a more deep-seated and serious problem. As she sees it, Hungarians are not as hard-working as the Dutch. If a Dutchman has the opportunity, with a little extra work, to earn 200 euros a week instead of 100, he will jump at the opportunity. She believes that “Hungarians are satisfied with less; they work only as much as they have to.” She also complained about the unreliability of her fellow villagers. But she feels compensated by what she considers to be a stress-free living situation. Finally, by way of comparison between the Dutch and the Hungarians, she talked about the differences between their bicycling habits. “A Hungarian bicyclist pedals slowly and keeps looking around. It is a miracle that the bicycle remains upright. A Dutchman will pedal hard, having little goals in mind. For example, to pass the bicyclist ahead of him.” These are of course generalizations, but this kind of attitude must be prevalent enough to strike outsiders as typical.

As we can see, the newcomers manage to interact with the local folks. But, according to the mayor, the local inhabitants “don’t learn much from the practical, well-disciplined, correct Dutch.” He claims that the language barrier prevents closer interaction. Still, the mayor of the village, Dr. Roland Lakos, who in addition to Hungarian speaks only Russian and therefore doesn’t have much interaction with the Dutch inhabitants of the village, included a Dutch translation of the description of Csemő on its website. It claims to be “one of the most flowery villages” of Hungary. From the video I must say it looks like a very pleasant place.

September 16, 2017