Tag Archives: Ágnes Heller

The Hungarian Jewish community feels abandoned by Netanyahu’s Israel

Viktor Orbán did his best to make his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest a failure. First, quite unnecessarily he wove into one of his speeches a laudatory reference to Admiral Miklós Horthy, whose government played an active role in the Hungarian Holocaust. He called him “an exceptional statesman.” And then, two weeks before the arrival of the Israeli prime minister, he launched a vicious hate campaign against George Soros, which prompted anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of Hungarian society.

Orbán apparently is in the habit of adding his own final touches to prepared speeches, and this superfluous and harmful addition about Horthy was one of these impromptu additions. The remark created an uproar at home as well as abroad, especially in Israel. Given the three-day visit by the Israeli prime minister to Budapest this week, one really wonders what was going on in the Hungarian prime minister’s head. Israel’s leading English-language paper, Haaretz, interpreted this remark “as part of an extremist nationalist and racist campaign [Orbán] is conducting ahead of elections in 2018.” Moreover, Orbán’s remarks “placed Israel in an embarrassing position” given Netanyahu’s impending meeting with Viktor Orbán and the Visegrád 4 countries in Budapest.

The Israeli government demanded an explanation. Four days after the delivery of the speech Yossi Armani, the Israeli ambassador, was instructed not only to issue a public statement but to make clear to the Hungarian government that Israel hoped for a statement from Viktor Orbán. He also warned that tension over the issue could hurt the summit between the two prime ministers. Eventually, a telephone call came from Péter Szijjártó, but, as Haaretz explains, he “did not clarify Orbán’s remarks, apologize or express regret for them, [but] the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, with an eye on the upcoming summit, decided to act with restraint and end the affair.”

Foreign Minister Péter Szjjártó in Jerusalem preparing Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest

Barely a week after this gaffe, the Orbán government embarked on a massive anti-Soros poster campaign which, if George Soros weren’t Jewish, would have been just fine with the Israeli prime minister, who dislikes Soros as much as Viktor Orbán does. But as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz and spokesman for the Jewish religious community, pointed out, although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He asked for the removal of the thousands of posters plastered all over the country. This call was then followed by the Israeli ambassador’s statement that “the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also shows hatred and fear.” But at this point Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister of Israel, interfered. The foreign ministry issued the following statement: “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” he said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.” The Hungarian Jewish community, which witnessed the anti-Semitic reactions to the poster campaign, was stunned and felt abandoned by the government of Israel.

András Heisler told the Associated Press today that “the Israeli foreign ministry’s clarification … in part surprised us and in part was hugely disappointing…. The Hungarian Jewish community felt that we were left in the lurch.” Most political observers are convinced that “Netanyahu’s visit provides [Orbán] a kind of acquittal regarding anti-Semitism and the stamp of being far-right.” Later in the day Heisler talked to Agnes Bohm of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency where he explained the Hungarian Jewish community’s position more fully. “It is most important for the Hungarian Jewish community that the Israeli prime minister condemns strongly any kind of hate campaign or hate speech during his visit to Hungary, and it is also very important that Netanyahu should stress the importance of the Diaspora, including the Hungarian Jewish Diaspora,” he said. Heisler also explained that “Soros’s name has a different meaning in Hungary and in Israel.” In Hungary “Soros is the symbol of the Jewish capitalist.” He added that “it was unacceptable for us that the Jews were afraid due to the hate campaign and to the hate speech. No leader of any Jewish community can tolerate when Jews fear the consequences of the hate campaign of the government.”

Mazsihisz is the representative of the Jewish religious communities, but secular Jews are just as unhappy about Netanyahu’s approach to what they consider to be a problem in Hungary and what the Israeli prime minister blithely ignores for political gains at home and abroad. According to Válasz, Mária M. Kovács, Péter Zentai, and Péter Bokor–a historian, a journalist, and an architect–delivered a 28-page document to Israeli Ambassador Yossi Armani containing letters to Netanyahu by 17 signatories. Among them are such well-known personalities as Ágnes Heller and György Konrád. At the same time Sándor Révész, a journalist and writer formerly of Népszabadság, wrote an opinion piece in HVG titled: “First? Worst!” It is a hard-hitting piece against the Israel Netanyahu has built. The message is that “to the Jewish state the Hungarian government is more important than the Hungarian Jews.” In Révész’s opinion, Netanyahu is a politician with whom few democratic politicians want to develop close relations. Orbán is one of the few who is not choosy. He is ready to be friends with the leaders of Russia, Egypt, and Turkey, or Netanyahu’s Israel. They are kindred souls. Such harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s regime cannot be heard too often in Hungary.

But Mairav Zonszein, a journalist and translator residing in Israel, feels very much the same way about this ugly episode. She wrote an opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which she expresses her admiration for George Soros who “has failed the litmus test that seems to count for Israel’s current leadership: unconditional support for the government, despite its policies of occupation, discrimination and disregard for civil and human rights. … Mr. Soros’s humanitarianism and universalism represent an expression of post-Holocaust Jewish identity that is anathema to the hard-line nationalism of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition,” which necessarily leads to close relations with such autocratic states as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and Hungary. She finds the Orbán-Netanyahu alliance unacceptable and immoral.

By contrast, the right-wing Hungarian media is outright ecstatic. Pro-government journalists look upon Netanyahu’s disregard of Mazsihisz’s worries about the anti-Semitic overtones of the anti-Soros campaign as an “official Israeli affirmation of the fact that neither Hungary nor the anti-Soros poster campaign is anti-Semitic.” For decades the Hungarian left has called “the political right Nazi and anti-Semitic.” But now, after the Israeli government’s statement, it is at last clear that this was a baseless accusation.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrived this evening in Budapest from Paris, where he attended a memorial gathering to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Holocaust roundup. The post-war French government remained silent for a very long time about the fact that the French administration at the time was in charge of the roundup and deportation of about 13,000 Jews, including about 4,000 children, most of whom were killed. Although President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the country’s complicity in 1995, Emmanuel Macron used the occasion to reiterate his declaration that the French state bore responsibility for what happened in 1942 in Paris. I wonder whether Viktor Orbán will be ready to publicly declare the Hungarian government’s complicity in the death of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. I wouldn’t wager too much money on it.

July 17, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

Who’s behind the political turbulence in Hungary? Naturally, the United States and the “left-liberals”

When Viktor Orbán, however reluctantly, decided to scrap the internet tax, he undoubtedly thought his troubles were over. He would not have to worry about young people going out on the streets again to demonstrate against his government. But he was wrong. The demonstrators found plenty more to criticize, especially the regime’s systemic corruption. Since Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who admits missteps, he and his supporters had to find a culprit, someone who was “stirring the pot.” And the most obvious candidates for such a role were the United States, described by right-wing commentators in Magyar Hírlap as “the empire,” and the “left-liberal” intellectuals at home and abroad.

Let’s start with the United States, enemy number one. Those commentators who blame the U.S. for the unfolding drama of anti-government sentiment tend to forget that it was not the United States that revealed its decision to ban six allegedly corrupt Hungarian officials from its territory. It was the Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily owned by Századvég, the think tank that has been described by a former associate as a money laundering operation. If the government hadn’t decided to leak the information about the ban, most likely today we would know absolutely nothing about Ildikó Vida and her co-workers at the Hungarian Tax Authority (NAV).

But, according to the Hungarian right, the United States’ role in this latest crisis goes far beyond its travel ban. Under the present circumstances, the argument goes, there is no possibility of carrying out an armed coup in Hungary like the one the U.S. allegedly staged in Chile in 1973. Therefore, the United States is now supporting, I suppose even financially, the opposition. “Many people believe that it was the United States that was behind the initial successes of Gordon Bajnai.” But Bajnai turned out to be the wrong man for the job.

Then came Plan B. The United States, even before the three landslide Fidesz victories, realized that “there is no chance of replacing Viktor Orbán.” But since there are no potential leaders in the opposition, André Goodfriend “became the star of the anti-government movement.” The United States has been working toward the destabilization of the country in the hope of changing the Orbán government’s foreign policy orientation.

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the "left-liberals at a press conference

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the “left-liberals,” at a press conference

It is this American destabilization effort that explains the outrage of thousands of Hungarians against the Orbán government in front of the parliament building. The various groups that have appeared recently don’t offer an alternative, but this is not their real goal and purpose. They want to “weaken” the regime, make the “consolidation” efforts of the government impossible.

Magyar Hírlap zeroed in on the “domestic enemies.” Left-liberal intellectuals, hand in hand with the Americans, are behind the disturbances. Proof in support of this accusation is rather flimsy, but such weaknesses have never bothered Magyar Hírlap‘s Tamás Pindroch. The link between the “left-liberal intellectuals” and the United States was demonstrated by André Goodfriend’s appearance at one of the Saturday evening open houses of László Bitó, professor emeritus of ocular physiology at Columbia University who developed Xalatan, a medicine for glaucoma. And if anyone needs more proof here it is. Back in April Ágnes Heller, the philosopher, was asked during a political discussion whether something like what happened in Kiev could happen in Hungary. Heller responded that yes it could but not in the same shape and form. For example, a revolt of the hungry masses could break out.

But Pindroch’s accusations are mild in comparison to what László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime and even for a few years after the change of regime, had to say. He is convinced that a large demonstration like the one we saw on Monday cannot be organized on the internet and without any money. According to him, “it was a carefully prepared, well-organized and financed event.” Földi suggested that those behind the action serve foreign interests for financial gain and thus commit treason. In brief, his claim is that the United States is financing those left-liberals who are behind the anti-government protests. Földi is convinced that by now the United States will be satisfied only with the departure of Viktor Orbán. Abandoning participation in the Southern Stream will no longer suffice.

Another intriguing piece by András Dezső appeared in Index, an online site that cannot be called right-wing. Dezső is a talented young journalist who made quite a name for himself with his investigation of Jobbik’s Béla Kovács, who is accused of being a Russian spy. In this piece he proposed that there is a direct connection between a report of Human Rights First, “a little known but influential human rights organization,” and the current U.S. policy toward Hungary. The report, entitled “We’re not Nazis, but…,” made a number of recommendations to the U.S. government in general and the State Department in particular which, according to Dezső, the United States is actually following today. I wrote about this report at length and quoted some of the recommendations Dezső is talking about.

Yes, there are similarities between the recommendations of the authors of the study and the actual steps taken by the U.S. government, but I would find it strange if the staff of the Hungarian desk at State was so oblivious to what is happening in Hungary that only after reading this, by the way, excellent report did they finally decide to act. Moreover, here is something that undermines Dezső’s hypothesis. One of the recommendations of the report is to “seek commitments from Hungary and Greece to set in place policies and practices to impede high-level corruption and improve transparency and equal enforcement of the law.” But we know from the aide-memoire–what Viktor Orbán called a scrap of paper (fecni)–that Goodfriend intervened with the foreign ministry as well as the tax authorities on the subject of corruption as early as October 2013, almost a year before the appearance of Human Rights First’s study.

My hunch is that the officials of the State Department have been following the Hungarian domestic scene and Viktor Orbán’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for some time. Their concerns most likely intensified in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. And then came the fateful June 27 “illiberal” speech of Viktor Orbán when, it seems, they decided that it was time to act. The sharp-eyed authors of the study on the Hungarian far right noticed the same problems the U.S. diplomats perceived and recommended similar remedies. But we would underestimate the diplomats in the State Department if we assumed that only an outside study woke them up and made them move.

Trying to crack down on corruption is one thing, funding and organizing demonstrations is something else. There is no evidence that the U.S. helped the demonstrators–or even that the demonstrators needed outside help. They just needed the miracle of modern communications technology.

A new political coalition in Hungary? Let’s hope so!

As I sit here to write about the latest and perhaps the most important political development of 2013, the situation is still far too fluid to be able report on the final outcome of this new round of negotiations among the democratic opposition forces.

Yesterday Gordon Bajnai on ATV and Attila Mesterházy on Magyar Rádió practically simultaneously announced that the negotiations that resulted in the ill-fated bilateral agreement between E14-PM and MSZP proved inadequate to strengthen the anti-Fidesz forces and therefore a renegotiation of the terms is necessary. MSZP has been languishing while E14-PM has been losing support. At the same time Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) has been gaining ground. According to some polls, it has garnered more potential voters than E14-PM which, in its agreement with MSZP, received 31 electoral districts out the available 106 in which the party could name its own candidates. At one point MSZP offered only two losing districts to DK and told the DK negotiating team that several of the party’s top politicians, including the party chairman Ferenc Gyurcsány, were not welcome on the MSZP list. Not surprisingly, DK refused these offers and demands.

In the last couple of months those voters who would like to get rid of Viktor Orbán and his corrupt and incompetent government have become discouraged and dispirited. By mid-December it seemed that at least four democratic opposition parties would run with separate lists and their own candidates, which would make a Fidesz victory in the coming election inevitable. Saner observers pointed out that as long as the anti-Fidesz voters don’t see a united and hence strong opposition, they will not be inspired to either work for the cause or vote for opposition candidates. After all, their efforts and votes would be wasted.

Yet both the Bajnai and the Mesterházy camps remained adamant. They not only refused to listen to “the voice of the people” but also attacked Ferenc Gyurcsány with such vehemence that at one point it looked as if any understanding with DK was impossible. Tibor Szanyi (MSZP), for example, called Gyurcsány “a mentally disturbed Bolshevik billionaire with whom one cannot build a future.” Bajnai accused him of betraying the aspirations of the democratic opposition. László Puch, the powerful MSZP politician who handled the party’s shady finances, said that “Gyurcsány all his life uttered only stupidities.” Gyurcsány stood fast. He has good political instincts and knew that these would not be the final words if events dictate otherwise. Moreover, he claims to be impervious to insults. He considers them part and parcel of politics.

Some people might complain that opposition politicians could have saved themselves a lot of headaches if they had realized the force of Gyurcsány’s opinion on the issue at the very beginning: given the new electoral rules, one can win against Fidesz only if there is a common list and one candidate for the post of prime minister. Mesterházy claimed yesterday with some justification that MSZP’s original idea was indeed to have a common platform, and negotiations to that end even began about a year ago. At that time it was Gordon Bajnai’s team that decided not to attend these meetings. And so the idea withered away.

negotiations2In fact, E14-PM kept postponing negotiations with MSZP in the hope of making the party stronger and thus having a stronger negotiating position. Mesterházy also indicated yesterday that it was E14-PM that was dead set against the participation of DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány in the negotiations. Apparently, it was not so much Gordon Bajnai who felt so strongly against his former friend and political ally but the few former LMP politicians who had left their party and joined Együtt 2014. This antagonism was understandable because, after all, LMP was a political formation that came into being in direct opposition to Ferenc Gyurcsány and his policies.

But finger pointing doesn’t lead anywhere. It is possible that originally it was E14-PM that was the obstacle to wider cooperation, but MSZP’s Mesterházy and some politicians around him were quick to follow the lead of Bajnai’s party. In fact, in the last few weeks one gained the distinct impression that E14-PM had had a change of heart and instead of the earlier harsh talk against Gyurcsány, E14-PM politicians were carefully leaving the door open for a renegotiation of the terms of the agreement signed by the two parties.

According to yesterday’s Népszava there were a number of influential liberal intellectuals who helped Gordon Bajnai make up his mind. Népszava mentioned by name László Bitó, formerly professor of ocular physiology at Columbia University and writer of fiction since his retirement in Hungary; Ágnes Heller, philosopher; Bálint Magyar, SZDSZ politician and former minister of education; Sándor Radnóti, literary historian; and Iván Fischer, conductor and music director of the renowned Budapest Festival Orchestra. These people have argued passionately for some time that the opposition’s ticket should include all parties and individuals who could contribute to an electoral victory in April.

Gordon Bajnai announced his willingness to abandon the idea of becoming the next prime minister of Hungary. Actually, if the old agreement between E14-PM and MSZP had remained in force, even then it would have been unlikely that Bajnai would have become prime minister given the large difference in size between the two parties.

Mesterházy in theory also showed his willingness to talk about all possible issues, even including giving up his candidacy for the post of prime minister. Lately there has been a lot of talk about both men stepping back and finding a third attractive and inspiring candidate. What we heard this afternoon, however, after a three-hour meeting between the negotiating teams of Bajnai and Mesterházy belies the latter’s openness to giving up his claim to the leading position on the common ticket.

MSZP seems to be rather inflexible in other respects as well. According to some socialist sources, the party doesn’t want to give a place on the common ticket to Ferenc Gyurcsány. We know enough about the membership of DK to realize that neither the membership nor the party’s other leaders would ever agree to his exclusion. I can’t believe that MSZP will be able to maintain that position. People are sick and tired of politicians in general and are especially tired of those politicians whose political ambitions seem to override the needs of the country. Too much insistence on the premiership may backfire. Moreover, Fidesz’s spokesman concentrated her criticism of the announcement on the selfishness of the politicians involved, whose only concern is personal gain.

We don’t know what the final result will  be. After three hours of negotiations this afternoon the two teams decided to continue talks this evening. We will see what tomorrow brings. And the next day. And the day after that….

“What shall I call you?”* The political system of Viktor Orbán

You may recall that a few days ago I published a lecture of Gábor Demszky, former mayor of Budapest, delivered in the Library of Congress. After the text of the lecture I described an exchange between Anna Stumpf, political attaché of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, and Gábor Demszky. Stumpf, the daughter of Viktor Orbán’s right hand man during his first administration and today a member of the Constitutional Court, took exception to Demszky’s description of the dire situation of the media in Hungary today when he claimed that in some ways it is less free than it was in the Kádár regime’s last few years. She exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Within a couple of days this footnote to Hungarian Spectrum‘s coverage of the lecture made the rounds in the Hungarian media. It made a splash even in the liberal press because the Hungarian opposition doesn’t quite know what to call Viktor Orbán’s political system. Moreover, they are reluctant to describe the “System of National Cooperation” as a regime that is perhaps worse than the “soft dictatorship” of János Kádár. Bálint Magyar and his coauthors from many disciplines describe Viktor Orbán as the Godfather, the leadership of Fidesz and their friends and relatives as mafia, and the political structure as a “mafia state.” The book this group of political scientists, philosophers, economists, and sociologists published became a bestseller in Hungary since it appeared a few weeks ago, and references to the “Hungarian Octopus,” the title of the book, appear frequently in the written and electronic media. Yet some people are not entirely satisfied with the description. There are a few people, especially those who publish mostly in German, who consider Orbán’s system “fascism” pure and simple.  Magdolna Marsovszky is one of the chief proponents of this theory. Only today she commented on an article in the German-language blogPusztaranger, which dealt with a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of the guests was Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the Hungarian National Theater. What Vidnyánszky said at the conference led Pusztaranger to call this new National Theater a “faschistiches Erlösungtheater,” that is, a fascist redemption theater.

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic sybols

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic symbols / www.deviant.com

A few days ago Ágnes Heller described the present situation in Hungary as “Bonapartism,” which is defined as “a political movement associated chiefly with authoritarian rule usually by a military leader ostensibly supported by a popular mandate.” When pressed, she elaborated by saying that Bonapartism is at its core striving and acquiring power for its own sake. Moreover, such a system, according to her, cannot come to a resting place, a consolidated state of affairs because the very essence of Bonapartism is the continual striving toward greater and greater power and glory. Such a quest, however, must eventually fail. Society cannot be maintained in a constant state of ideological, national, and social warfare. Others, like János Kornai, agree that Orbán’s system is a dead end but, as he wittily said, one can live on a dead end street for a very long time. A society can live under such circumstances for perhaps decades. That was certainly the case with the Soviet Union. Not a pleasant prospect for those people who believe that Hungary’s future lies with the West, which entails a break with its authoritarian and communist past. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the main outline of Viktor Orbán’s devilish plans for his “revolution” were in the making most likely years before the 2010 electoral victory. László Lengyel, a political commentator and economist, thinks that Orbán and his closest collaborators had a completely defined plan for the political edifice they intended to build way before 2010 because as soon as the first session of parliament gathered, the plan for the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or NER) was ready for immediate implementation. And commentators are starting to realize that Orbán’s regime is more than populism. The word “dictatorship” is an increasingly common description. There are just too many signs that Orbán’s world bears a suspicious resemblance to the communist times when one had to fear the authorities. Comparisons are made to the Rákosi regime instead of to the milder Kádár era. By the late Kádár period people’s property, for instance, was left alone. One didn’t have to worry that one day some official would arrive and take away one’s car or apartment. But nowadays private property is not at all safe. If the government decides to take away the livelihood of thousands of slot machine owners, it can do it from one day to the next. Or steal millions in savings. It can do it with impunity. Often the goods taken away are passed on to others who are favored by Viktor Orbán and his friends because they are on the right side, the national side. Again, the charge is that a complete change in ownership structure is being contemplated and slowly achieved. Here again the point of comparison is the Rákosi regime. But at least then the state didn’t turn around and sell the confiscated property to its own clients. Then it was done for ideological reasons. And then comes the soul searching. What did we do wrong in 1989-1990? At first, the participants were certain that their peaceful political and economic transition was ideal; it was certainly judged to be the best in the region by outside observers. A lot of people still cling to that belief. But, others argue, perhaps the introduction of a great number of cardinal laws, which need a two-thirds majority to pass, was a mistake. Ágnes Heller charges, not without reason, that the Budapest intellectuals who made up the democratic opposition really didn’t know the people of the country they lived in. Others rightly point out that the democratic education of the population, especially of the youth, was completely neglected. On the other hand, one cannot accuse Viktor Orbán of not knowing his people. He knows them only too well, and this is the key to his success. But more about this tomorrow. —— *I borrowed the title from one of the best known poems of Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). The original and its English translation can be found here.

Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.

Negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014 began while left of center public figures gather in Szárszó

This weekend was dominated by the Hungarian opposition, a rare event nowadays. First, the long-awaited negotiations between Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM (E14) and the Attila Mesterházy-led MSZP began. I complained earlier that the scheduled meeting was fixed for Friday. Another week wasted. Then in the last minute it was again postponed due to the death of Gyula Horn, former MSZP prime minister internationally known for his role in the unification of Germany by allowing tens of thousands of East German refugees to leave Hungary and join their compatriots in the West. Naturally, MSZP MPs wanted to be present at the eulogies in parliament honoring their former leader.

So, it was only on Saturday morning that the MSZP delegation comprised of Attila Mesterházy, József Tóbiás, Tamás Harangozó, László Botka, Zoltán Lukács, and Zsolt Molnár arrived at E14’s headquarters. Waiting for them were Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász (Milla), Viktor Szigetvári, Péter Kónya (Solidarity), Szabó Tímea, and Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd Magyarországért [PM]). The meeting lasted four hours although it was frequently interrupted for “cigarette breaks” for the smokers in the MSZP delegation.

According to several descriptions of the meeting, although it started off with socialist recriminations by Mesterházy about E14’s claim to be the exclusive herald of a new era, eventually the conversation became quite friendly. Most importantly, both Bajnai and Mesterházy announced that they are ready to step aside if circumstances so dictate and are ready to support whoever is chosen for the post of prime minister. They also outlined a timetable that will start with first agreeing to a common program but, I’m happy to announce, these talks will not drag out too long. By mid-July the agreement will be signed. In the fall they will start selecting common candidates and eventually will settle the issue of a candidate for the post of prime minister. The minimum requirement will be having only common candidates, but the socialists would also like to have a common list that in their opinion can assure the highest number of votes.

Finally, according to rumors the two parties “graciously” agreed to allow the Demokratikus Koalíció to join the unified opposition but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány does not run in the forthcoming election. He can’t even be an ordinary parliamentary candidate. As expected, DK has already posted a note on Facebook:

DK is a proud and strong party with a membership of 8,000. It won two local by-elections and at two others its candidates won 25% of the votes. It has ten members in parliament which is currently the second largest opposition party. DK is the greatest opponent of the Orbán dictatorship.

No one should doubt that Ferenc Gyurcsány, the last active politician who defeated Viktor Orbán, will run in the 2014 elections.

And now let’s move on to the next event that may have some influence on Hungary’s political future. Hungary’s leading left-of-center public figures, businessmen, politicians, artists, writers, philosophers, and political scientists gathered for a “picnic” or as one newspaper called it a “jamboree” at Tivadar (Teddy) Farkasházy’s house in Balatonszárszó (Szárszó for short). Farkasházy, a writer and humorist, is the great-great-grandson of Móric Fischer von Farkasházy, founder of the Herend porcelain factory in 1830.

It was in 1993 that Farkasházy first invited the cream of Hungarian society to a get-together to discuss matters of importance. At this first meeting Viktor Orbán and several other people from the right were among the invited guests.

These yearly gatherings continued for ten years, but after 2003 they were no longer held. Perhaps because then came eight years of socialist-liberal rule. But Farkasházy came to the conclusion that it was time to revive the tradition. A couple of days ago Népszava predicted that although more than 400 people were invited, most likely many of them will be afraid to attend. Well, they were not. According to some estimates there might have been 600 guests. Naturally, Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy attended in addition to two former prime ministers, Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány.

György Konrád, the well known writer, was one of the main speakers. He made no secret of his conviction that the next prime minister of Hungary should be Gordon Bajnai because he has “already proved himself.” But Attila Mesterházy should be there assisting him. It should be like a tandem bicycle: Bajnai at the handlebar and Mesterházy pushing the pedals. People present wondered how Mesterházy must have felt listening to Konrád’s advice, but apparently Mesterházy took it in stride and in fact even thanked Konrád for some of the praise he received from the writer.

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy / Népszava

Paul Lendvai struck a rather pessimistic note, announcing that  in his opinion the opposition couldn’t possibly win the next election. Well, that got to fiery Ágnes Heller, who gave such an inspiring speech urging people to do everything possible that she received a standing ovation. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy spoke, the former in his usual measured manner and the latter in a more populist vein.

The real value of such a gathering lies not the speeches but in the opportunity it offers important people from many walks of life to gather in small groups and exchange ideas. There is an excellent picture gallery in Népszava, from which it is clear that everybody who’s anybody in leftist circles was at Farkasházy’s house in Szárszó.

Farkasházy might be a humorist, but he has no taste for the snide kind of humor Index’s reporter displayed in his early reports of the event and he was subsequently barred from the premises. HírTV fared worse. Farkasházy didn’t even let them in. On the other hand, ATV’s crew was there, and tomorrow after Egyenes beszéd we will be able to see the most important parts of the program.

Magyar Hírlap triumphantly announced that Ferenc Gyurcsány left early “because he wasn’t allowed to speak.” Of course, this is nonsense. The program was fixed ahead of time, so Gyurcsány knew that he would not be one of the speakers. This is a small thing but it says a lot about the unprofessionalism of the journalists who gather at the right-wing publications. And, as long as I’m lashing out at journalists, some young ones (in their early 20s) are simply supercilious and write dumb little snippets like the one in today’s 444.hu where the reporter calls the new formation “a coalition of clowns.”

I don’t know how important this meeting of like-minded people was, but I don’t think that it was totally useless. It might mend fences between the Hungarian liberals and socialists on the one hand and left-leaning intellectuals on the other. Let’s hope that this gathering was the start of closer cooperation between them.