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March 6, 2017

The baffling story of Zsolt Bayer’s decoration

Almost a week has gone by and the furor over the decoration of the foul-mouthed, racist, anti-Semitic Zsolt Bayer hasn’t quieted down. In fact, it has grown. The protest started with a single individual who had received a similar decoration earlier. He sent it back to János Áder, president of the country, with a note explaining his reason: he didn’t want to belong to a group that includes people like Zsolt Bayer. Others followed his lead. As of today 82 men and women have expressed their disgust in this way.

People wanted to know who was responsible for the incredible decision and what the justification was for giving him the award. The journalists seeking answers to these questions ran up against a wall of silence. They asked all the possible ministries and offices but didn’t receive credible answers to their questions. We know that the prime minister has the final stamp of approval when it comes to nominations. But János Áder, in whose name the decorations are bestowed, could have vetoed the nomination if he had so wished. After all, when Ferenc Gyurcsány recommended former prime minister Gyula Horn for a decoration in 2007, László Sólyom refused to endorse the nomination because of Horn’s activities after the defeat of the 1956 uprising.

The journalists also had a hard time learning why the Hungarian government found Bayer’s achievements so remarkable that it saw fit to give him a state decoration. The custom in most countries is for someone to read a citation spelling out the reasons for the honor before the award is given. No such citation was delivered during the ceremony. 444.hu eventually received word from the prime minister’s office that the recommendation came from a civic group devoted to the memory of those Hungarians who ended up in Gulag camps after 1945. Zsolt Bayer, according to that group, has done a lot to acquaint the Hungarian public with the fate of these people. In addition, Bayer has published many articles about the life of Hungarians in Transylvania.

A day later, when the latest Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) was published, the official citation emerged. According to it, Bayer received the decoration not just because of his “exploration of several national issues” but also “as a recognition of his exemplary journalistic work.” 444.hu commented: “After that, the question is when the Kossuth Prize will come.” The Kossuth Prize is given for outstanding personal and group achievements in the fields of science, culture, and the arts. So, after all, the Hungarian government thinks that Bayer is the very model of a modern Hungarian journalist, worthy of emulation.

The great moment. János Lázár hands Zsolt Bayer the Order of Merit

The great moment. János Lázár hands Zsolt Bayer the Order of Merit

Then came another surprise. Tamás Stark, the president of the foundation that allegedly recommended Bayer for the decoration, knew nothing about it until he read the story in Népszabadság. Stark is a well-known historian who is a senior researcher at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He has written extensively on the very subject on which Bayer is supposed to have done so much work. But Stark is not familiar with anything that connects Bayer to work on the Gulag. In fact, in his opinion Bayer doesn’t deserve any award or decoration, not just because he is a racist and an anti-Semite but because “he supports a Russian regime that doesn’t confront the sins of Stalinism and tries to minimize and relativize them. It is precisely the memory of the Gulag’s victims that doesn’t allow the decoration of such a journalist.”

It turns out that this foundation exists mostly on paper. Stark told HVG that they meet twice a year in remembrance of the victims. Members of the board do not keep in touch with one another. It seems that the vice president, a certain Jolán Pintér, got the bright idea of submitting Bayer’s name to somebody high up in the government. It may have been Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, or perhaps Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of the group that decides on the persons recommended for prizes, awards, and decorations. Jolán Pintér refuses to say anything to the press.

Stark’s reference to Bayer’s relations with Putin’s Russia brought back memories of a Bayer piece published at the time of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest in January 2015. It was titled “Letter to Vladimir Putin” (Levél Vlagyimir Putyinnak). The article begins with a long passage Bayer wrote back in 2005 after he had paid a visit to Siberia. It is a gushing ode to the Russian soul and the country’s literature. What comes afterward is outright nauseating. He praises Putin “for not letting Russia perish” and cites the close mental affinity between Hungary and Russia. They have certain things in common “which in vain would we like to explain to anyone in the West.” He does admit that in the past there were many times when Hungarians had reason to fear the Russians, “but now you are right about everything or almost everything, Mr. President.” The liberals worry about Russia’s designs on Europe “when there is no more Europe” because “Europe wants to be America, and, Mr. President, this was to be your fate too.” If Putin hadn’t saved his country “there would be no Russia today.” There would be only a huge colony devastated by consumption. “And it is possible that every half an hour a plane would leave Alaska for Kamchatka. As the Americans bought Alaska from the tsar, today they would buy all of Russia, but for less money. On the other hand, it would be declared that Russia is an impeccable democracy, a first-rate free country… But you didn’t allow that to happen. You made it strong. You made it Russian. You couldn’t have done anything greater than that.”

Meanwhile, the world’s most important papers reported the story of Bayer’s decoration, and the Washington Holocaust Museum released a statement that condemned conferring a decoration on Zsolt Bayer. It is a very strongly worded statement that I will publish in full later. Here is the gist of the statement: “Governments have a responsibility to combat hate speech that invites violence. This is especially true for countries like Hungary where systematic persecution and mass murder were carried out during the Holocaust with the active complicity of the Hungarian state. If Hungary’s Order of Merit truly recognizes ‘the promotion of universal human values,’ then Hungarian Prime Minister and Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban and President Janos Ader have no choice but to rescind Zsolt Bayer’s award immediately.”

The independent Hungarian media immediately reported on the Holocaust Museum’s condemnation, but the pro-government papers acted as if nothing had happened. The only exception was the newly created 888.hu, which is supposed to attract younger audiences. The headline reads: “America again wants to meddle in Hungary’s affairs.”

Otherwise, the consensus is that the government will not rescind the decoration and that Zsolt Bayer has no intention of relinquishing it. Put it this way, Zsolt Bayer is one of them. Three and a half years ago, when Bayer was under fire because of his remarks on Gypsies being animals, Bayer’s friends organized a birthday bash for him where many of the Fidesz bigwigs were present, among them László Kövér, who delivered a speech. He thanked Bayer for the 25 years ”we spent together, in good times and bad. But not once have we disavowed each other and we never will.”

It is time to recognize that there is no substantial difference between the political views of Bayer and those of the Fidesz leadership. It’s just that Bayer can state outright what they can only insinuate.

August 24, 2016

 

New MSZP leadership: A breath of fresh air

Those who two weeks ago insisted that nothing would change in the Hungarian Socialist Party after the election of a new/old set of officers were wrong. Despite the fact that some of the newly elected socialist politicians are old-timers, the ideas and strategies that are emerging are refreshingly new. Instead of the indecision that the Tóbiás-led party exhibited in the last two years, Gyula Molnár and his crew are resolutely and unambiguously opposing  the politics of the governing parties. Judging from the reaction of Fidesz and its media, they must be on the right track.

József Tóbiás and his team were reluctant to handle politically difficult issues. Let me recall here four such sensitive matters that are now being treated very differently.

The first is voting rights for those recent Hungarian citizens who live in the neighboring countries. MSZP, fearing that their popularity, which is terribly low in the Hungarian diaspora, would suffer further if they came out against the government position, refused to take a stand on the issue. Molnár, by contrast, has given a definitive answer: ethnic Hungarians can receive Hungarian citizenship but not voting rights. At last MSZP is joining the other opposition parties on this issue.

The second matter is how to respond to the government’s referendum on “compulsory quotas.” From the start all the other major opposition parties (save Jobbik of course) suggested boycotting the referendum. Although the “no’s” will obviously win, for the referendum to be valid at least half of the eligible electorate must vote. The opposition shouldn’t assist Fidesz by encouraging voter participation. The Tóbiás leadership, again worrying about the party’s popularity, hesitated to endorse the boycott. Now MSZP is joining the others in opposition to the referendum. The slogan is: “Stay at home, stay in Europe!”

Third, Molnár said that although “the security of Hungarians” is of the utmost importance, they “would take the fence down” once they have the opportunity. I don’t know whether Molnár discussed this matter with his close ally, István Hiller, chairman of the party’s board, who a few months ago declared that although he hates the fence, he cannot come up with anything better.

And finally, Molnár doesn’t seem to be afraid to handle a hot potato, gay marriage and adoption rights, which the earlier leadership judiciously avoided. MSZP is joining the other opposition parties in expressing its support for people who are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Gyula Molnár with Attila Mesterházy, former chairman, announce the boycott of the referendum

Gyula Molnár with Attila Mesterházy, former chairman, announce MSZP’s boycott of the referendum

Fidesz hasn’t gotten around to attacking MSZP’s new leadership on all of these issues, but fear not, they will. Right now they are concentrating on MSZP’s endorsement of the boycott which, judging from the pro-government media’s reaction, is a real blow to the Orbán government.

On Saturday Molnár announced in a Facebook note that the party will organize a “Free Europe Day” on October 2, the day of the referendum. “On that day we should remember our parents and grandparents who at home, in secret, were listening to Radio Free Europe, which helped loosen the bonds of an oppressive regime and acquainted the citizens of our homeland with the idea of our common Europe.” MSZP doesn’t want to monopolize the event. It’s inviting everybody who wants to join. Although the other opposition parties haven’t had time yet to discuss the idea, I’m fairly certain that most of them will join, with the possible exception of LMP. Its spokesman already announced that although LMP wants Hungary to remain in the EU, “the problem of migration must be solved first.” The referendum, he said, is no answer, but MSZP and the other democratic parties aren’t offering a better solution.

Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation, was the first party leader to respond to Molnár’s call for a Free Europe Day on October 2. In his opinion, MSZP’s call for a boycott illustrates the party’s “irresponsibility” because the referendum “gives the government the strongest instrument to avoid the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary.” For good measure, Gulyás added that Gyula Molnár was elected chairman of “the corrupt heir to the party that had jailed listeners of Radio Free Europe” during the Kádár regime.

Magyar Idők finds MSZP’s call for a boycott truly outrageous, especially since it came right after the European Parliament voted, with the support of the MSZP, DK, Együtt, and LMP members, in favor of stiff fines on those governments that refuse to allow refugees to settle in their countries. Anyone, the paper continued, who until now has hesitated should be sure to vote and vote with a resounding “no.”

Dániel Deák, one of the analysts of the pro-government Nézőpont Intézet, predicted today in an interview at MTV’s M1 that with the election of Gyula Molnár cooperation among the parties of the political left is assured because of the similarities of political ideas and strategies that now exist between MSZP, DK, and the other smaller parties. He interprets Molnár’s announcement of the boycott as the party’s acceptance of the idea of settling a certain number of refugees in Hungary, which until now only DK and Együtt had supported. In his opinion the MSZP chairman is preparing cooperation with DK, and “in the next two years the two parties might even unite.”

Understandably, Molnár has his critics within MSZP. László Botka, mayor of Szeged and until two weeks ago chairman of the board, was massively rejected by the delegates in his bid for reelection. They opted for István Hiller, minister of education (2010-2014) and earlier chairman of MSZP, who helped the party win the election in 2006. From an interview Botka gave to Index it is evident that he feels betrayed and a victim of some behind-the-scenes conspiracy. He really wanted to remain in his post because, according to the new by-laws, the board has some important new functions. He would have been able to influence the party’s strategy for the election campaign that would have involved decisions concerning partnerships with other parties. It is possible that this is exactly why an overwhelming majority didn’t want Botka to head the board. He most likely would have been vehemently opposed to any kind of understanding with DK. Right now he is “following such steps with growing concern.” Naturally, he is no friend of Gyula Molnár, whom he considers to be “behind the times” because “he was not part of everyday politicking in the last six or seven years.” He is hoping that Molnár “during the summer can figure out what strategy he will follow.” If he chooses a strategy different from Botka’s own, then, Botka said, he will keep fingers crossed for the party in Szeged. I suspect that Botka will not be involved in MSZP national politics for the foreseeable future. And, as opposed to Botka, I believe that Molnár has already figured out his strategy.

July 11, 2016

A monster was created: Hungarian student unions

It is hard to describe my state of mind when I read about student unions as they exist in Hungary. My feelings are a mixture of outrage, disgust, and contempt. Contempt for university administrators who not only tolerate but are cowed by these so-called student leaders who, in some cases, are common criminals. Outrage that none of the governments between 1990 and 2016 was willing and able to do anything to put an end to student unions in their present form. I understand that any attempt to disband these student unions would have been met with fierce opposition from the right because by the second half of the 1990s most of these unions were in the hands of Fidesz and, later, Jobbik. If there is a change in the political system of the country one of the early tasks of any new democratic government should be the removal of these thoroughly corrupt bodies, instead allowing each university to devise its own independent student union/student government that truly represents the student body and that has drastically reduced power.

Structe of the Szeged HÖK Not a small organization

Structure of the Szeged HÖK. Not a small organization

What brought this topic to the fore again? Naturally, another scandal at the University of Szeged, where HÖK (the Hungarian acronym for the student union system) over the last ten years has created conditions that would not be tolerated at any western university. At least not at those I’m familiar with.

One can only feel disgust for such cowards as the members of the Szeged administration who sank so low as to sue an honest investigative journalist of atlatszo.hu because he exposed fraud in one of the HÖK elections and, after being pressured by HÖK, demanded 340,000 forints from the journalist because the university’s good name suffered as a result of his revelations. The necessary money was collected within a few days on the internet. Shame on the University of Szeged, although I’m happy to report that the journalist, after going all the way to the Kúria, won last month. The University of Szeged will have to reimburse him, and he in turn will hand the money over to atlatszo.hu.

I wrote twice about HÖK in connection with the University of Szeged, in which I described this particular student union as “the most notorious.” Hungarian student union leaders have power that would be unimaginable elsewhere. The first problem is the amount of money these student organizations handle. In the case of Szeged, it is 3.5 billion forints. The student leaders spend this money practically without any supervision. They have power over such things as granting scholarships and allocating coveted dormitory places. That’s bad enough, but without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. Because student leaders have been allocated one third of the seats in the university’s senate, they can actually blackmail the members of the faculty in the body where promotions and/or appointments are being decided. If a professor gives them trouble, with their votes and some clever finagling they can ruin the person’s university career. Students shouldn’t have such far-reaching power when it comes to academic matters. And they certainly shouldn’t be in charge of scholarships.

HÖKs at other universities might not be as corrupt as the one in Szeged, but all of them are considered to be corrupt to a greater or lesser degree. And this corruption has ramifications that extend far beyond the university walls. The younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often come from these student unions, where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. Perfect grooming for later political life in Fidesz. And if we think about it, Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying, and they managed to achieve self-government in their small dormitory with practically no supervision. But at least they didn’t get paid, as today’s HÖK leaders do. Now in power, they’re making up for it.

So, why do I return again to the Szeged HÖK? Because, if the university and the ministry of human resources are lucky, the president of HÖK, Márk Török, might be removed from his position after a staggering twelve years. But don’t hold your breath. He is suing the university and, because of sloppy wording of the relevant law, he may even win. One could ask how anyone could be the head of a student union for over twelve years. Easily. Török got his first degree in history, then moved over as a candidate for a teaching certificate, after which he began law school. And he used this time to advance his own interests. I don’t have space here to tell the story of Török’s Ponzi scheme or to elaborate on the fact that the Szeged HÖK runs two pubs in town. True horror stories. And yet there is a university with 30,000 students that is entirely powerless.

Admittedly, last year the ministry of human resources did make one small change to the law governing student unions. They stipulated that no person can be an “officeholder” of HÖK for more than four years. That would have meant in Török’s case that he was already ineligible to run and to be elected to office last September. Somehow, however, Török’s case fell through the cracks due to the sloppiness of the ministry of human resources. The ministry gave two different interpretations of what they meant by the “previous four years.”

But that is not the end of the ineptitude of Zoltán Balog’s ministry. The law on higher education talks only about an “officeholder of HÖK” and doesn’t stipulate whether this means only a high officeholder or everyone who has a HÖK title (such as press secretary). The question is whether the university can get rid of only Márk Török or whether it can also oust the rest of the organization that has overstayed its welcome. Or is the law so vague that it will be struck down, letting the whole crew remain at Szeged? When atlatszo.hu inquired, different universities gave different answers to the question of who is an officeholder. According to Corvinus University, “officeholder” means only the president, but other universities consider “officeholder” to cover all officials of the student union. According to the legal think tank Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKINT), the latter interpretation is the correct one, but that unfortunately doesn’t solve all of the problems of the university in trying to get rid of Márk Török and his entourage. EKINT says that the university administration will have to take the university’s by-laws into consideration in ascertaining how they can enforce the new four-year limit as applied to HÖK officers. So now they can argue legal niceties when they should have removed Török from HÖK ages ago because of his criminal activities.

As of today, the president of the university was in an upbeat mood. He made the decision to annul Török’s election of last September. I have no idea why they waited so long because already last September the police were investigating the suspicious circumstances of the elections. But, of course, HÖK in turn will sue the university. Total madness.

The Hungarian government back in 1990 created a monster. But for that monster to thrive over the years it needed the active help of corrupt Fidesz and Jobbik politicians and cowardly university officials. And that it got in spades. What failed to thrive, unfortunately, was Hungarian higher education itself.

June 23, 2016

Hungary is proceeding with its anti-EU, anti-refugee referendum on compulsory quotas

The other day the Fidesz majority in parliament, along with Jobbik MPs, voted to approve a referendum on the “compulsory” quotas the European Union will allegedly impose on Hungary. Hungarians will have the opportunity to vote on this question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” Now that’s a loaded question, with obvious prompts to answer “no, no, never!” The parliamentary vote went strictly along party lines, with MPs representing MSZP, LMP, and DK opting to stay away. Only five independent members voted against the bill.

As has been discussed here many times, the overwhelming majority of eligible voters, if they bothered to vote at all, would vote “no” to the referendum question, even if it weren’t so loaded. I assume, therefore, that LMP and MSZP deemed it politically wise to have its members to stay away rather than vote against the measure. The absence of DK’s MPs is harder to explain since it normally is more resolute than MSZP in questions concerning Hungary’s adherence to EU decisions. According to some Facebook gossip DK MPs missed the vote, but Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of the party and a member of the European Parliament, claims that their absence was a planned boycott.

After the bill was approved, the European Commission inquired into its exact meaning. The commission assumes, according to its communiqué, that the Hungarian referendum’s question pertains only to future decisions, not to decisions that were already accepted by the EU interior ministers last September. In fact, if we can believe Viktor Orbán and his minister of justice László Trócsányi, it looks as if Hungary will not contest the decision reached regarding the 1,294 refugees from Italy and Greece. However, we mustn’t forget that Hungary has challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice and that Viktor Orbán has declared time and again that he will not allow any refugees to settle in Hungary.

referendum2

DK, Együtt, and PM interpret the referendum as a calculated move by Orbán to withdraw Hungary “at any time” from the European Union. Therefore, said Zsuzsanna Szelényi of Együtt, this referendum is fraught with risks and dangers. DK claims the same. By holding this referendum, Viktor Orbán is asking for a mandate “to lead Hungary out of the Union.” Although I understand that this argument is a reasonable political ploy to keep people away from the voting booths, I can’t believe that Orbán is seriously thinking of taking the country out of the European Union. He must know better than anyone else in what dire financial straits the country would find itself after such a move. Moreover, a large majority of Hungarians, even after years of anti-EU propaganda, feel strongly about Hungary’s continued membership.

Fidesz for its part is trying to convince the electorate that “in the past twenty years there has not been such a weighty decision before the Hungarian people” as this referendum question. I guess this includes such momentous decisions as the adherence to NATO or joining the European Union. The spokesmen for the government and Fidesz keep calling attention to the dangers for Hungary that lurk in Brussels, dangers that can be averted only if the Hungarian government can demonstrate the resolve of the country’s citizens concerning the refugee issue.

By today all the democratic opposition parties decided to urge their voters and sympathizers to boycott the referendum. MSZP, after a long period of indecision, at last opted to join the others. The party’s leadership, however, said that the rationale for their opposition is different from that of DK. MSZP will urge its sympathizers to stay away, but they don’t consider such an act a boycott because they don’t consider a referendum on the question illegitimate per se. “We don’t want compulsory quotas either, but we will have a better program than this joke of a referendum.” Or, as József Tóbiás, party chairman, told Index, “we say ‘no’ to Fidesz’s pseudo-question and we say ‘yes’ to the real ones.” In brief, as usual, MSZP is sitting on the fence.

Even before the parliamentary vote on the issue, Népszabadság summarized the common belief that there is no way that this referendum, due to the Orbán government’s own machinations with the law on referendums, will be valid because getting 50% of the electorate to turn out is well nigh impossible. The paper admits that such a successful referendum–about university tuition fees and co-pays–did take place in 2008, but at that time Fidesz, which was behind the referendum, campaigned for it as a vote against the by then very unpopular Gyurcsány government. They almost promised the people that as a consequence of a successful referendum, the Gyurcsány government would resign. Today there is no such compelling argument to rally the troops. Frightening people with tens of thousands of refugees who cannot be seen anywhere probably won’t have the same impact as promising them an immediate change of government and early elections.

A few days ago when a friend asked whether Hungarian citizens living in Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia will be able to vote on the quota question, I had to admit that I had no idea. Well, today I happened on an article on kitenkinto.hu, an internet site specializing in news from abroad. There I read that János Babity, the Hungarian consul-general in Sutobica/Szabadka in Serbia, told journalists that “ 185,000 Hungarian citizens have the right to decide with whom they want to live in the territory of Hungary.” Voting will be conducted in the same manner as at the 2014 national election. So, I’m afraid, the Hungarian government will have an immense pool of voters to mobilize outside the country. Moreover, election fraud here is practically guaranteed. Let’s not forget that over 98% of the Romanian-Hungarian vote went for Fidesz in 2014. Voting by absentee ballot is largely unsupervised.

Today Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said on the German WDR’s “Europa Forum” that “the European Union is not a smorgasbord from which everybody can pick and choose.” Member states “must eat what is on the table.” At the same time, the magnitude of the EU’s threat of what is in essence a fine of 250,000 euros for every refugee Hungary refuses to accept from its allotted quota started to sink in. Last Friday Orbán expressed his total disgust at the EU’s shameful treatment of the poorer countries. A couple of days ago Bence Uzson, one of the government spokesmen, talked about the price of resistance that Hungary would have to pay. He indicated that Hungary is trying to convince the other Visegrad 4 countries to join the battle against Brussels. Moreover, there is talk that Hungary, even without support from its neighbors, might be ready to veto the measure.

On a brighter note, Vesna Györkös Žnidar, the Slovenian minister of the interior, announced yesterday without much fanfare the arrival of the first 30 refugees from Greece. Slovenia will voluntarily take 587 refugees and establish “integration homes” for them. The refugees will take part in “integration programs for a whole year, during which they will have all the assistance necessary from the Slovenian government.” Slovenia has a population of 2.06 million. I guess the Slovenes are not worried about being overwhelmed by people of an alien culture. If Hungary were that generous, the country would give shelter to 3,000 refugees. But instead, it wants to take in not a single refugee. A real embarrassment.

May 12, 2016

Another year, another round of matriculation exams

I will never understand the fascination of the Hungarian media with the matriculation exams held about this time every year. However hard it may be to imagine, in just one week almost two hundred articles appeared about the ins and outs of the questions students had to answer in such subjects as Hungarian language and literature, history, English, math, and biology.

The matriculation tsunami began on May 2 with the Hungarian literature exam, which most teachers considered to be easy. A few hours later, after the test was over, we could read about student reactions to the test and which exam questions were the most popular. This year it looks as if an Áron Tamási short story topped the popularity list because, as one teacher remarked, “even if the student knows nothing about Áron Tamási, it will be a cinch to answer the questions.” On the other hand, the first hour of the test, a passage from Gyula Moravcsik’s book World of the Papyruses, was considered to be difficult. Moravcsik (1892-1972) was a professor of Greek philology and Byzantine history. Some people considered the choice odd.

On the second day of tests students had to answer questions on Hungarian and world history. Less on world history and a lot more on Hungarian history. A few minutes after the test began, history teachers announced that the test was difficult, but three hours later students reported that it was actually very easy and some of them left the exam early. A frustrated student complained that he had memorized an incredible number of facts, which turned out to be a useless exercise because, to his great surprise, many of the questions were “of the thinking type.”

What is the point of these matriculation exams? First of all, there are two levels of exams: the regular one, which testifies to the student’s successful completion of studies at the high school level, and a higher-level test, which also serves as an entrance exam to university. Far in advance of the exams, students receive a fairly long list of topics from which the final questions are picked.

I often wonder whether this whole nerve-wrecking matriculation examination ritual is really necessary. What does it achieve? The month the students spend preparing for the exam seems to me, at least, to be a waste of time. Within years, if not months, most of them will remember very little if anything of their cramming.

The history exam, for instance, is made up of 12 multiple choice sections and three essays. However anxiety inducing it may be to anticipate the exam, in fact most of the time the answers to the multiple choice questions are obvious, either from the text or from the graphs accompanying them. And it seems, from reading the instructions to grading the essay questions, that expectations are low.

One of the chief demands of teachers in the last few months was a free choice of textbooks, from a reasonably long list of possibilities, as was the case before Rózsa Hoffmann and Viktor Orbán decided to limit the choice to two. Yet even in those days, all students had to take the very same exam all over the country. Then as now it was a central authority that decided on the guidelines for grading the answers. So, basically, the teachers have been constrained all along by the expectations of the ministry that handles the matriculation exams. It is what in this country we call teaching to the test. The performance of a teacher and a school is judged by the grades of the students taking the matriculation exams after Grade 12.

matrozbluz

I also have my doubts about the use of matriculation exams as predictors of the university careers of students. And that takes me back to the Hungarian literature test, which included a long passage about a topic that had absolutely nothing to do with literature and on which students were expected to spend an hour. It was considered to be difficult by the students as well as the teachers. The interesting thing is that this passage and the attendant questions are quite similar to what American high school students are faced with on the SAT exam, which most major colleges and universities require. Here are some practice questions that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Although the SATs have come under a lot of pressure over the past years, many colleges and universities still consider them an important factor in making admissions decisions, as you can see from the top national universities’ average SAT scores. To answer questions after reading a long and fairly complicated passage the student needs to exhibit concentration, attention to detail, and the ability to reason logically. The questions test aptitudes, not the mastery of a subject. These aptitudes may not guarantee academic success, but they are a much better predictor of academic success than the ability to regurgitate facts that are forgotten in no time and/or might not be useful for anything in later life.

But I’m sure the tradition of matriculation exams will continue whether it makes sense or not. Girls will act as if they still lived in the nineteenth century and will put on their sailor blouses, blue skirts, and stockings. And boys will appear every day in blue pants and white shirts instead of wearing their most comfortable clothes for three nervous hours of hard work. But that’s the tradition from the days when very few people even finished gymnasium. Then it was a really big deal. It’s hard to imagine, but in 1950 only 16,000 students finished high school and only 4,000 graduated from university. Today over 112,000 students took their matriculation examinations. We could laud that obvious progress but for the fact that 112,000 is far fewer than the number of students who entered gymnasiums during the socialist-liberal period and took their matriculation exams in 2011, when it was over 140,000. Orbán doesn’t like gymnasiums. Interestingly, all of his own children have attended one. The youngest, Flóra, is just beginning grade nine–of course, in a gymnasium.

May 11, 2016

Two critical reports on Hungary from Washington

Two less than complimentary analyses of Hungary were just published in as many days. The first was Freedom House’s report “Nations in Transit 2016” and the second, the U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports.”

A few prefatory words about Freedom House. It is an independent watchdog organization “dedicated to freedom and democracy around the world.” It was established in 1941 in New York City to battle the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the United States at the time. Freedom House was an “aggressive foe of McCarthyisim” and a “strong supporter of the movement for racial equality.” It was only in the 1970s that Freedom House turned its attention to the erosion of freedom in many parts of the developing world. With the end of the Cold War, it expanded its activities to the study of conditions in the post-Communist world. The annual “ Nations in Transit” report concentrates on former Soviet-controlled areas in Eurasia, 29 countries all told. Freedom House’s headquarters nowadays is in Washington, D.C.

I recommend reading the full report, written by Nate Schenkkan, because it covers several important aspects of Europe’s political and economic problems, in addition to evaluating human rights issues in the post-communist countries. Here I will deal only with Freedom House’s assessment of Hungary, the country that holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for “the decline of the average democracy score for Central and Eastern Europe by 12 percent from its peak in 2006.”

freedom house 2016

Freedom House divides the geographical area into three regions: the Balkans, Central Europe, and Eurasia. Countries considered to be Central European are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In addition to analyzing these regions as wholes, Freedom House looks at aspects of political life in individual countries: electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. The final overall “democracy score” is a combined “grade” on all these issues that are essential for the functioning of a democratic society. This “grade” is based on a scale of 1 to 7; the higher the number, the worse the “democracy score.” If we compare this year’s score to those of 2015 there are three countries in Central Europe whose score hasn’t changed: the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Romania. The scores of four countries have improved: Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Finally, there are three countries with worse records than a year ago: Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

Sorting the Central European countries from highest to lowest “democracy scores,” we get the following results: Estonia (1.93), Slovenia (2.00), Latvia (2.07), Czech Republic (2.21), Poland (2.32), Lithuania (2.32), Slovakia (2.61), Bulgaria (3.25), Hungary (3.29), and Romania (3.46). In brief, Hungary’s score is getting closer and closer to countries like Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. It is sinking to the level of the countries of the Balkans. Details can be found in a separate section on Hungary.

Hungarian media reactions to “Nations in Transit 2016” were predictable. Opposition sites took the report seriously and pointed out that it was the scores on corruption, freedom of the media, and national democratic governance that dragged the country down to the unenviable position in which it currently finds itself. What really shocked Hungarian journalists was that even Bulgaria received a slightly better score than their own country. If Viktor Orbán remains in power for a couple more years, which is likely, and if he tries just a bit harder, Hungary will become the country with the worst “democracy score” in Central Europe.

Magyar Idők ignored the report and simply published MTI’s story, according to which Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the report “nonsense.” How can “people hanging around in American offices thousands of miles away tell anything about the situation in any country?” Well, the multitude of footnotes indicates that most of the material was gathered from Hungarian sources, and it is likely that some of the anonymous authors also live in Hungary. Szijjártó is convinced that Freedom House came out with these figures only because the United States doesn’t like Hungary’s position on immigration. Moreover, it is bizarre that such critical remarks come from a country that erected not a simple fence like Hungary did but a massive wall to keep migrants out of the country. “We were elected by the citizens of this country and it is our duty to act in their best interest.” He added that they don’t care what Freedom House writes about them.

The U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports: Hungary” is just as critical of Hungarian conditions as Freedom House’s analysis. The report is a long, devastating description of the Hungarian situation last year. The Hungarian government’s handling of migrants and asylum seekers is severely criticized, but the report also points to prison overcrowding, lengthy pretrial detention, the politically determined process for recognizing churches, government corruption, media concentration that restricts editorial independence, government pressure and intimidation of civil society, violence against women, inhumane treatment of institutionalized persons, discrimination against Roma, verbal abuse and harassment against LGBTI people, and human trafficking.

The pro-government media’s reaction was again predictable. Pesti Srácok gave this headline to its article on the report: “Washington’s chief problem with Hungary: Migrants couldn’t move freely in the country.” Quite a misrepresentation of the document. Magyar Idők complained that “America again lectures us on human rights.” Tamás Deutsch, currently Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of the party, was more expansive. First of all, according to Deutsch, the report “is crawling with factual errors, many half-truths, and a pathological bias against Hungary.” But in Deutsch’s opinion all this is really beside the point. The important question is: “How does the honorable government of the United States of America have the temerity to grade the countries of the world like a screaming home room teacher with a distinct body odor because of his nylon gown who whirls a key ring around his forefinger?”

I suspect that Deutsch’s comments will not be the last on the subject. I expect, especially from Magyar Idők, massive anti-American rhetoric. The editors of Magyar Idők have been specializing in anti-American and anti-German opinion pieces, all the while expressing great admiration for Russia. I am waiting for a juicy editorial on the State Department’s “Human Rights Report.” After all, they haven’t had time to translate it yet.

April 14, 2016