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The Finnish educational model and current Hungarian reality

Following up on yesterday’s post I got in touch with Bálint Magyar, Hungary’s minister of education between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006. He sent me some very useful material on the educational reforms that were undertaken under his guidance as well as a short description and critique of the measures introduced by the second Orbán government in its 2011 Law on Education. Because there seems to be some confusion about the existing situation in Hungarian public education, I thought it might be useful to publish his piece here.

In addition, I would like to share a brief summary of the Finnish educational system based on the description provided by the Finnish Embassy in Budapest. The recent educational success of Finland is legendary. Since the first survey in 2000, Finland topped the list of the 45-65 countries that take part in the PISA test, given every three years, on three occasions and was near the top in the other years, save for 2012, when it was bested by four Asian countries in science, five Asian countries in reading, and seven Asian countries and four European countries in math (Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Estonia).

The Finnish system is radically different from the Hungarian one, especially as transformed by Viktor Orbán in 2011. One difference is that in Finland parents can’t choose the school to which they will send their children. All children attend the school maintained by the local community closest to his or her home. Moreover, there is no tracking like in the United States. Proponents of the Finnish system claim that the success of this model lies in the uniformity of education provided. Thus, there are no “elite schools” but there are no markedly inferior schools either, such as one finds in Hungary. The Hungarian system exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots and stands in the way of social mobility.

Finnish classroom

While the current government made it compulsory for children to attend kindergarten for three years, beginning at the age of three, and to enroll in first grade at the age of six, Finnish children start school only at the age of seven, preceded by a voluntary preparatory year. Children must attend school between the ages of 7 and 16, but almost all of the graduates continue their education. About half of them attend gymnasium, which is a three-year course of study. The other half attend basic-level vocational schools. The choice of trades is great: a Finnish 16-year-old can choose among 119 programs.

There are 17 universities and 27 colleges in Finland, where the competition for admission is fierce. In 2011 out of 66,000 applicants to universities only 17,000 gained acceptance, while out of 70,000 applicants to college only 22,100 were accepted. Finnish higher education is free.

According to OECD’s “Education at a glance,” Finland has one of the highest levels of educational attainment among the OECD countries: 84% of 25- to 64-year-olds have completed at least upper secondary education (against an OECD average of 75%) and 39% hold college or university degrees (OECD average: 32%). A few more facts about Finnish elementary education can be found here and here.

The same “Education at a glance” of the situation in Hungary points out that although a large number of people finish high school, only 23% of young people are expected to complete university studies. The OECD countries’ average was 39% in 2014. “Moreover, this rate has considerably decreased since 2010, by almost 9 percentage points.”

And now on to Bálint Magyar’s contribution.

♦ ♦ ♦

To all those concerned about Hungarian education

All those concerned in the world of schools—parents, students, teachers and the earlier municipal operators—have been stripped of their rights with the total centralization of public education. Officially redefining education from public service to civil duty, evoking the atmosphere of “military service,” they have made barracks out of schools and drill sergeants out of teachers. In consequence:

  • the minister personally appoints the principals of the over five thousand schools, while it is no longer the principal, but district government officials who decide about the employment of teachers at the schools;
  • teachers in all Hungarian public schools now have only one employer, the Klebelsberg National Schools Operations Center, so their dismissal is practically equivalent to exclusion from the profession; they were compulsorily registered as members of the National Teachers’ Chamber—which operates as a transmission belt of the government—while the unions’ rights were curtailed; school principals and teachers can only reply to the queries of the press with the permission of the district government official for education;
  • schools have been stripped of their rights to employ personnel or manage their budgets, the autonomy of the teaching faculty has been taken away, their freedom to shape the curriculum has been constrained, their right to choose school books has been limited to books recommended by the ministry;
  • the ideological indoctrination of the educational system is served by the liquidation of the schoolbook market, and the state monopolization of the distribution of schoolbooks, the replacement of the professional schoolbook accreditation mechanism with the ministerial schoolbook “tenders,” the legalized exclusion of private schoolbook publishers, in some cases their acquisition, in others their administrative destruction, the reform of the national curriculum in line with the ideology of the current establishment, the compulsory classes in divinity or secular ethics, and entry of this choice made by students in their reports and registers;
  • the channels of mobility are drawn under political control, and preference given to church schools at the decisive high school stage;
  • in order to establish a school system in the semblance of the prevalent cast-system-like social ideal, the lowering of the age of compulsory schooling from 18 to “only” 16—though planned to 15, and only reversed on account of broad protests;
  • at the end of class 7, it is planned to filter out those not suitable for a high school education with a career-orienting test, and force them to choose careers early;
  • the number of those receiving high school degrees are lowered, and the teaching of general knowledge subjects has been curtailed in vocational schools, especially in those which do not give high school degrees (baccalaureate), as little as 6 hours per week;
  • the means of dispensing with state resources for education are centralized, so it is no longer the previous operators who decide about procurements, but the state itself (the Klebelsberg Center) who chooses the court purveyors to the system.

Universities were perhaps—in addition to the sphere of culture—the most important protected institutions of the critical intelligentsia’s positions. Institutional autonomy, the professorial status, and a relatively late retirement age all served as institutional guarantees for freedom of opinion among the teaching and research based intellectuals who maintained their own feudalistic defense lines, while the freedom of the students was provided by their status as adults, though unburdened by existential dependences, and so less vulnerable.

The calling of a higher-education leadership to order—though it had never been too brave—was prepared with three threatening government actions: a campaign of criminalization and trumped procedure—officiated by the Government Control Office—against a group of liberal philosophers; the announcement of a comprehensive financial and economic investigation of universities; as well as drastic cuts in state funding. These actions ensured that the overwhelming majority of university leaders and the teaching staff acknowledged the taking away of their rights with “calm resignation”:

  • the new regulations for higher education ensured the minister a substantive—i.e. autocratic—say in the appointment of rectors (paradoxically this was what ended the student unions’ potential position for blackmail within the institutions of higher education);
  • the right to appoint the financial heads of the universities was transferred to the minister of finance—who functions as governor to the political family, and the position of chancellors introduced in 2014 gave almost unlimited powers in all financial matters to the person filling this position as delegate of the prime minister even overriding the rector; the introduction of the institution of the board (under the name of consistory) does not serve what would be the noble aim of ensuring that people with the appropriate knowledge for the professional management of large institutions are in position, but rather the complete exclusion of institutional autonomy: three members of the five-member consistory would be appointed by the minister, the fourth, the chancellor is already a government appointee, and the fifth is the rector, who can only be delegated with the approval of the minister;
  • the financial autonomy of the institutions was wound up, its reserves tapped, or withdrawn;
  • in place of a per capita financing of higher education, a funding system that basically followed the choices of students in a fair competition, in 2010, a system of deals between the ministry and the higher education institutions stepped in, that can be used by government to blackmail the universities;
  • the government however decides not only about education financed by the state, but also tries to administratively ban fee-paid courses approved by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee at certain universities; it uses these administrative means to ensure an interest in the privileged higher education institutions;
  • the universities in a financial quandary then, in order to maximize the savings possible through each laid off teacher, themselves removed a significant segment of the teaching staff in their fifties and sixties—with liberal-critical intellectuals overrepresented among them.

Furthermore, the Hungarian National Bank’s establishing five foundations in 2014, with the express educational aim of propagating the government’s unorthodox economic teachings to counter the liberal principles conveyed by the economics taught at universities amounts to absurdity. The foundations were financially stacked up in steps that brought them altogether to a value of 250 billion forint (800 million euro), a resource equaling one and a half times the annual budget contribution to the entire Hungarian higher education.*

February 7, 2016

Fidesz and the judiciary: Another attempt at pressure

It was more than five years ago that one of the worst natural disasters occurred in Hungary, at the Magyar Aluminum Zrt. in Ajka. The storage facilities gave way and toxic red sludge covered three villages nearby, killing 10 people. The international media was full of the case, and I myself spent days discussing the Orbán government’s handling of the disaster. As usual, in no time the tragedy became a political football. Viktor Orbán and his undersecretary for the environment declared that the owners of the company were guilty even before the investigation began. The prime minister threatened the owners a few days after the disaster: “This affair will not end up the way that was customary in past years…. A new era started a few months ago in Hungary.”

As time went by, however, it became obvious that the fault lay with those so-called experts who in the mid-1980s, when the reservoirs were built, decided to locate them on a spot that was geologically unsuitable for carrying the enormous weight of the sludge. A disaster was unavoidable. The only question was when it would occur. The new owners who bought the facility in the mid-1990s, however, were assured at the time of purchase that the reservoirs were sound. And only two weeks before the accident state inspectors, recently appointed by the undersecretary in charge of the environment, certified that they were still sound.

Five years later the district court in Veszprém found the accused executives and employees of MAL innocent. The 15 defendants were cleared of all criminal charges, including reckless public endangerment.

Environmental groups and the people affected by the disaster were dismayed and Fidesz was outraged. The job of officially voicing this outrage was given to Szilárd Németh, a man with no legal training and a bully of limited mental powers. As was already evident in 2010, right after the accident, Fidesz politicians have little regard for the independence of the judicial branch of government in general, but Németh’s involvement guaranteed that there would be a frontal attack on the Hungarian judiciary.

On the day that the verdict was announced Németh expressed Fidesz’s dissatisfaction with two recent verdicts that didn’t meet their expectations. One was the three-year suspended sentence for Miklós Hagyó (remember the infamous Nokia box?), whom the prosecutors wanted to send to the penitentiary for twenty years for crimes committed as part of a conspiracy. Instead the charge was reduced to being an instigator of misappropriation. The other case, of course, was the MAL acquittal.

Szilárd Németh, expert on energy and the law

Szilárd Németh

The first question is why Németh got the job of dealing with a situation involving the judiciary. Németh has no legal training. He got a degree that prepared him to be an elementary school teacher and librarian. Mind you, the other Fidesz politician who spoke on the issue, Bence Tuzson, does have a law degree. Both he and Németh insisted that Fidesz “finds it unacceptable that no one is culpable” in such a dreadful case. Naturally, they respect judiciary independence, but they want not only “the administration of justice but also the administration of equity.” Németh and Tuzson “emphatically called on the prosecution” to appeal the verdict. According to Németh, the judge was wrong. The people responsible for the tragedy can be identified–the executives and employees of MAL.

Yesterday Németh gave a press conference during which he further elaborated on Fidesz’s insistence on “doing something” about the faulty verdicts in the red sludge and the Hagyó cases. Hagyó, formerly MSZP deputy mayor of Budapest, was, he said, a crime boss who deserved a very stiff sentence. The “judge misunderstood the charge presented by the prosecution.” I might add that Péter Polt’s prosecutors are frequently “misunderstood.” There are two possibilities: either they prepare their cases so poorly that the judge has no choice but to rule in favor of the accused or the charges are fabricated against Fidesz’s political adversaries. I suspect the latter is the more likely.

According to Németh, there are serious problems with judges who don’t want to follow the stricter laws the government introduced as a result of the wave of migrants and instead “run abroad where they ask for a change of the clearly successful new laws.” Németh is referring here to the latest ruling of the European Court of Justice against the anti-terrorist surveillance legislation that would have allowed TEK, the anti-terrorist group, to conduct activities that the court deemed illegal.

What does Fidesz plan to do about judges who don’t toe the party line and decisions that run counter to the party’s wishes? First, the party’s parliamentary caucus will have a discussion on this sorry state of affairs next week, and perhaps the following week the Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on justice, György Rubovszky (KDNP), will put the question on the table. Németh added that, if necessary, the committee will ask Péter Darák, chief justice of the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, and Tünde Handó, chairman of the National Judicial Office mentioned in yesterday’s post, to testify. In addition, it may be necessary to amend the criminal code to remedy this situation. He said all this while claiming that although Fidesz “respects the liberal demand of judicial independence,” it wants to enforce “democratic demands of transparency and accountability.” I didn’t realize that judicial independence is a liberal notion, but if that is the case, in an illiberal state like Hungary it can obviously be constrained.

Today in a popular blog, Vastagbőr (Thick Skin), a guest blogger, N. L., a lawyer, had a few things to say about Németh’s ideas. According to Németh, the verdicts in these two cases are scandalous, which rightly rouse the indignation of most people. This may even be true, N.L. wrote, but that shouldn’t be brought up as a valid argument against the verdicts because this would lead to the administration of justice by outraged individuals. N. L. very much hopes that neither Péter Darák nor Tünde Handó will oblige the head of the parliamentary committee on justice in case he decides to haul them before the committee. Otherwise, they would violate the law, which states that “a judge must avert all attempts at influencing his decisions.” Their appearance in front of that committee would truly be “the end of judicial independence.”

The Association of Hungarian Judges published a short communiqué, which stated that Németh’s statement “by itself violates the independence of judges declared in the Basic Law” against “exerting pressure on judicial bodies, including the courts.” Péter Darák also made a statement in which he expressed his dismay over the public expression of personal opinions and expectations vis-à-vis the courts. This is especially true, he said, when it is uttered by representatives of another branch of government. Tünde Handó has not yet expressed an opinion.

February 1, 2016

Guide book to embezzlement of European Union subsidies. Part II

Benedek Jávor (PM-Együtt) is the most active Hungarian opposition member of the European parliament and therefore perhaps the most hated by the Orbán government. Being the target of the mafia government carries risks. His office has been broken into and his telephone conversations are being tapped.

Jávor is indeed a dangerous man for the current regime because he is in constant touch with the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, better known as OLAF, which has been investigating a large number of suspicious cases. The investigations sometimes take years, but in several cases OLAF investigations have been concluded and the Hungarian government notified of its findings. Jávor has been following several OLAF investigations. For example, István Tiborcz’s business venture, Elios. Frightened by the prospect of a serious investigation, Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law “sold” his street-lighting firm in a great hurry. Jávor has also kept an eye on the OLAF investigation into Antal Rogán’s pet project, “The heart of Budapest,” an expensive renovation project in downtown Pest.

Here I would like to write about two other grants to which Jávor called attention: first, the fraud that was committed in a project earmarked by the European Union for the more effective oversight of subsidies coming from Brussels and, second, money received to improve the energy efficiency of private homes that is instead being diverted to insulate government buildings.

Benedek Jávor (PM-Együtt), member of the European Parliament

Benedek Jávor (PM-Együtt), member of the European Parliament

First, the story of the guardians of public morality who turned out to be common thieves. The case goes back to 2012 when almost a billion forints that were supposed to be spent on hiring extra staff to uncover fraud involving EU subsidies were stolen by a number of men, among whom was a former employee of the government’s Nemzeti Fejlesztési Ügynökség (NFÜ / National Development Agency). OLAF closed its investigation in June 2015, but it was only in October that the case was reported in the Hungarian media. Since OLAF cannot conduct criminal investigations in the member countries, it turns the job over to the local authorities, assuming that they will do a creditable job in going after the guilty ones. After hearing nothing on this front, Jávor turned to Péter Polt, prosecutor-general, and András Tállai, the new chairman of NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. Polt claimed that his office is investigating; Tállai seemed blissfully ignorant of the case.

What happened that attracted the attention of OLAF? At that time NFÜ was the highest government authority handling the allocation of EU subsidies. (Now the prime minister’s office decides their fate and, thanks to Ákos Hadházy, we know what a terrific job it does.) A consortium was formed to advise NFÜ on more efficient oversight. Instead of doing the work themselves, the members of the consortium hired subcontractors who received large sums of money for doing nothing. The fraud seemed so serious to OLAF that a team actually went to Budapest to investigate. They found that millions of forints had been paid, in cash, to phony subcontractors. After four years of investigation, OLAF recommended that all the money spent on the project should be paid back by the government.

One would think that after this debacle the members of the consortium would lie low but, according to a recent news story, some of them are now vying for a new job that would bring 5 billion forints of EU money to those who win the tender. As HVG put it, “there are four royal warrant holders and two dark horses competing for the tender.” Warrant holders are companies that can supply goods and services to Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. Of course, in this context the four companies are the ones that are “approved” by the Orbán government. At least two of those described as “royal warrant holders,” CEU Tender and Szilárd Nagy’s law firm, were members of the consortium responsible for the earlier mega-fraud.

The second case is also outrageous. In December 2015 János Lázár announced that the European Union will not allow the Hungarian government to use EU money for the purpose of improving the energy efficiency of private homes during the 2014-2020 budget period. Therefore, the Orbán government will use the subsidies allocated to energy efficiency on public buildings only.

Everyone in the energy sector was stunned because the European Union had specifically urged the member states to support investments in energy efficiency projects for the benefit of the population. As a result, in 2014 the Hungarian government asked the EU for funds to be spent on outright grants to homeowners. Between now and 2020 perhaps as many as three million residences could be insulated from a grant of 150 billion forints. The insulation of 40,000 apartments a year would create several thousand jobs. As the result of such a project, Hungary could save 4% in natural gas consumption by 2020.

Yet the government decided against the project and opted to use the amount granted to ordinary citizens on government and other public buildings. A day after this announcement the government proclaimed that the amount of money designated for improving the heating of TEK’s headquarters was to be raised fourfold. TEK is the infamous anti-terror unit created by Viktor Orbán practically the day after he took office in 2010.

And here comes Benedek Jávor again. He asked the European Commission about its stance on the issue. The answer was clear: the Hungarian government had specifically asked for money for work to be performed on 50,000 private homes to make them energy efficient. If the government cannot show proof of the work done on 50,000 homes, it will have to pay back the money it received for the project.

What can be behind this diversion of EU money from private residences to public buildings? Benedek Jávor is most likely right when he suspects that as long as ordinary citizens apply for individual grants, the homeowner will decide whom he will hire to do the job. With a public building, it will be the government that will pick the winners of the tenders. To make a large building energy sufficient is a huge job, costing billions. It can only be done by large companies, the ones that can be described as “royal warrant holders,” i.e. oligarchs close to Fidesz. (The Orbán government doesn’t hide the fact that one of its goals is to enrich people who can then be used for its own political purposes.) Individuals who would like to improve their houses will turn to some small local business owner outside the reach of the government. Their action will not directly benefit Fidesz. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every major project in Hungary is undertaken for the enrichment of the present political elite and its business partners. The Hungarian public’s well-being is at the bottom of their priority list.

January 30, 2016

The Nurse in Black keeps fighting

While preparing to write this post I realized that I had spent far too little time on Mária Sándor’s struggle to improve the lot of nurses and other hospital employees whose salary is so low that their take-home pay is insufficient to keep body and soul together. She began her crusade almost a year ago. By the end of 2015 she was named “Person of the Year” by RTL Klub, Hungary’s largest commercial television station. The day before, she received a newly established award called “Respect,” given out by Népszabadság.

I wrote about her only once, on August 12, 2015, although she has been in the news quite frequently since. “The nurse in black,” as she has come to be known, is a symbol of courage in a country where courage is in short supply. A commentator wrote bitterly about Hungarians’ self-image as a heroic, freedom-loving people who are ready to rise against injustice whereas, in reality, there are mighty few people who have the courage to stand up and fight for their rights. He expressed his hope that there will be other brave people like Mária Sándor. Another writer actually titled his article “Cowards” when he found out that no hospital, state-owned or private, would employ Mária Sándor, although according to her superiors she was a very good nurse in the neonatal unit of the Péterfy Hospital.

In my post about Mária Sándor I described her as a “sophisticated activist who instinctively knows how to call public attention to her cause.” Her appearance at work in a black uniform was something that made her instantly famous, especially since the hospital’s reaction was to fire her on the spot. (The director later recanted.)

We have been witnessing the struggle of a single nurse because, although there are two unions allegedly representing hospital employees in addition to a newly created “professional association,” a government mandated organization to which all employees must belong, none of them has chosen to represent the interests of the grossly underpaid employees.

Mária Sándor belonged to the Független Egészségügyi Szakszervezet (Independent Union of Healthcare Workers/FESZ) as opposed to the even more opportunistic MS EDDSZ, whose leader, Ágnes Cser, was active only when there was a socialist-liberal government in place. And, of course, she belonged to the Magyar Egészségügyi Szakdolgozói Kamara (Hungarian Association of Professional Healthcare Workers/MESZK) because she had no choice. The very first thing the president of MESZK did was to initiate an investigation into Sándor’s conduct because “she has many times transgressed the regulations of the ethical code of the association.” Mária Sándor immediately contacted several media outlets, and MESZK subsequently withdrew the investigation planned against her.

With the storm over MESZK’s handling of the Sándor case, it was again “the nurse in black’s” move. She was so appalled by what the association, which is supposed to represent her, did that she decided to tender her resignation. But life isn’t so simple in Hungary. She could not practice her chosen profession unless she was a member of the government-created professional association. By quitting MESZK, Sándor gave up not only her job at Péterfy but all possibilities of working as a nurse, at least in state-owned hospitals. She was ready to take a job as an aid in a home for the elderly for about 40,000 ft. take-home pay. As she said, “I don’t want to be in the service of this system.” Her union, FESZ, simply expelled her because the leadership considered her methods “too radical.”

Soon enough she and some brave souls began a series of street demonstrations which, though they didn’t result in large crowds, prompted a few remarkable encounters. The best example was one between Mária Sándor and the leaders of FESZ, her former union. The union organized a “loyal stroll,” visiting various political parties as well as the ministry of human resources during which they passed on their proposals, which included doubling their average wage of 150,000 forints in two years. They also gave calendars to all MPs to “remind them of the difficult situation the healthcare workers are in.” It was at this point that Mária Sándor arrived with a large banner: “Hungary for Hungarian Healthcare,” the name of her new organization. That in itself managed to confuse the representatives of the official trade union, but what added to their confusion was that Tímea Szabó, co-chair of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (Dialogue), arrived in the same kind of black T-shirt worn by Mária Sándor on that fateful day in the Péterfy Hospital. The flummoxed FESZ delegates quickly left the scene. Mária Sándor stole the show.

In Mária Sándor’s opinion Hungarian healthcare is already in ruins. In an interview in Magyar Nemzet she complained about a system in which a nurse must look after 40 to 50 patients. On January 4 on TV2’s Mokka Sándor talked about the 12,800 Hungarian nurses who are by now working abroad. She also claimed that Hungarian hospitals would need at least 20,000 more nurses. Something must be done and urgently, as she asserts time and again.

The fact that she made common cause with László Mendrey’s Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, the more active of the two teachers’ unions, and with Andrea Varga, president of the Autonomous Territorial Trade Union, is a step in the right direction. As Mendrey says, the “goal is to reach a critical mass” instead of having individual groups representing relatively few people.” One hopeful sign is that the leaders of the “1,001 doctors against gratuity” assured their support for the teachers who started their own movement in Miskolc.

Hungary for Hungarian Health Care / Mária Sándor and her associates "We are with the teachers"

Hungary for Hungarian Health Care / Mária Sándor and associates “We are with the teachers”

In addition, a new union of physicians was established by Tamás Dénes, who spent ten years as a specialist in Great Britain. The new group is called “Rezidensek és Szakorvosok Szakszervezete” (Trade Union of Residents and Specialists / ReSzaSz). According to Dénes, physicians must change their methods because their efforts up to this point haven’t achieved anything. The first step is to stick by the rules. For example, the law specifies the maximum number of hours a doctor can work. Physicians should refuse extra work, even for extra money. That would bring home the fact that the amount of work required simply cannot be done by the number of physicians currently in the system. But he doesn’t rule out strikes or the threat of mass quitting as weapons.

Something is certainly in the air. The question is whether the underpaid and overburdened employees in education and healthcare are sufficiently desperate and fed-up to take things into their own hands and force the Orbán government to attend to the serious problems in these fields. While apparently half a trillion forints was spent on sports since 2010, perhaps a few billion could go to the education and health of Hungarians.

January 18, 2016

Cologne and its aftermath

The New Year’s Eve events in Germany have had a predictable effect in Hungary. As usual, Hungarians are divided on the issue. The majority, those who were against immigration in the first place, feel justified, while the minority tries to find some sensible explanation for what happened.

Giving an accurate summary of the events is not an easy task in light of the conflicting reports released by the police and contradictory comments by German politicians. The numbers of incidents reported to the police are also changing constantly. By now, police have received 516 complaints in Cologne alone. And the number of assailants varies from a few hundred to a thousand.

Although we know that Cologne was not the only place where these events occurred, most of us have no idea about the other locations or the number of victims. I found a good summary, from which I learned that police received 50 criminal complaints in Hamburg, 39 of which were sexual in nature; in Stuttgart two 18-year-old girls were surrounded and groped by a group of about 15 men; eleven women filed criminal complaints in Düsseldorf; and in Frankfurt there were seven criminal complaints, including the case of three women who were surrounded by a group of 10 men and “massively” groped. In addition, some reporters include the rapes of two girls that took place in Weil am Rhein, close to the Swiss border. These rapes, however, were not part of the events on the streets of Germany’s larger cities. Two girls were gang raped by three or four Syrian young men at a party in the apartment of one of the men.

The Cologne police were incompetent, starting with their total absence from the streets where the revelers were celebrating the coming of the new year. Even under normal circumstances one expects them to be there, but given the threat of terrorist attacks in several European countries, including Germany, their absence is really unforgivable. The second problem was that the story broke only three days after the events. Although most people blame the delay on mistaken notions of political correctness, which may or may not be the case, I’m astonished that attacks on hundreds of people by as many as one thousand men could be kept quiet for that long.

By January 7 the police were convinced that finding and convicting the perpetrators would be very difficult, given the time that had elapsed. Witnesses believed that they were men of North African and Arab appearance. Police at that point called attention to earlier “criminal gangs that operated in strength for several years in the area, turning it into a place many Cologners avoid after dark.” They are locally known as antänzer (waltzers). They snuggle up to their victims, twisting a leg around them. As the result the victims lose their balance. A few seconds later their wallets or cell phones are missing. If, however, the attackers were newly arrived refugees, they couldn’t have known about the tricks of these organized gangs. And indeed, at this point the police announced that they had no knowledge of who the perpetrators were.

During the next three days the Cologne police identified a total of 19 suspects, all foreigners. But what is interesting is that these people were not from Cologne but travelled there from other German cities. As of yesterday, police believe that the suspects came from North Africa.

The other issue on which no consensus exists among police officials and politicians is whether these simultaneous attacks were organized. On the basis of secret police reports, Bild am Sonntag claims that the North African groups organized the attack on Cologne online. Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of justice, shares that widely-held opinion, which most likely is correct. The most revealing statement came from Holger Münch, head of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, who said that “the same conditions were in place at different locations…. I’m not saying that there was no organization, but it is not organized crime. That would have a different quality for me. We would be talking about … hierarchical groups.” However, “what we see here is perpetrators communicating with each other and making arrangements.” So, in brief, gangs organized the attacks online. This is a very different story from the generalization that men from Muslim countries, because of their cultural differences, are unfit to live by European rules and to learn that in their future home men and women have equal rights.

Reaction from the extreme right was swift in Cologne and elsewhere. A rogue band of “bikers, hooligans and bouncers” organized a “manhunt” on Facebook before attacking a group of Pakistanis in Cologne. Two Pakistani men needed hospital treatment after being attacked by 20 vigilantes. Soon enough a 39-year-old Syrian national was assaulted by a group of five people.

But the worst anti-migrant violence occurred in the Connewitz section of Leipzig, where police arrested 211 far-right extremists. While they were smashing windows and setting several cars on fire, members of the xenophobic group LEGIDA, the local version of the Dresden PEGIGA, marched, demonstrating against the asylum seekers. Supporters of Viktor Orbán can rejoice. Among the posters they carried was one that read “Köszönöm—1956, 1989, 2015.” Meanwhile, five police officers were injured. Leipzig politicians were shocked. The general secretary of Saxony’s Social Democrats, Daniela Kolbe, wanted to know “how can it be that a mob of 250 violent Nazis can rampage through Connewitz without the intelligence agency warning of this danger beforehand?”

Viktor Orbán, the idol of the German right

Viktor Orbán, the idol of the German far right

While LEGIDA members demonstrated in one part of the city, thousands of Leipzigers also turned out in the rain yesterday in opposition to LEGIDA. The gathering was organized by a broad coalition of trade unions, churches, NGOs, and businesses such as Porsche and BMW, who had called on citizens to form a human chain around the city center to demonstrate against LEGIDA.

I should also mention something the Hungarian media doesn’t report: A survey was conducted by Forsa, a polling group, for RTL Television, which showed that 60% of respondents saw no reason to change their attitude toward foreigners after the assaults. About 37% said they viewed foreigners more critically. In any case, as of today, Germany’s laws concerning deportation will be tightened. “Any custodial sentence for crimes against another person’s bodily integrity, including sexual assaults, as well as violent thefts, would be grounds for deportation.” Meanwhile, let’s hope that calm can be maintained and far-right, neo-Nazi groups restrained.