Tag Archives: Árpád Göncz

Let’s have a new enemy: Romania

One can say all sorts of things about Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, just not that he is the paragon of diplomatic virtue. Upon his arrival in Hungary’s foreign ministry, he not only got rid of Hungary’s seasoned diplomats but also used language rarely heard in the world of diplomacy. Szijjártó was groomed for his diplomatic career in the rough and tumble of Hungarian politics, Fidesz style. He tore into fellow foreign ministers, presidents, prime ministers, anyone who dared utter a word against Hungary. Actually, he was just following the instructions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who at his very first meeting with the Hungarian ambassadors told them that they cannot let one “untrue” statement about the country go unanswered. Thus, like diplomats from banana republics, Hungarian ambassadors routinely write letters to the editor of major papers of the country where they serve. A rather distasteful habit.

It is hard to assess Hungary’s relations with her neighbors because they are so volatile. One month Szijjártó sends threatening letters to presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers of Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria and the next month we hear high praise for the same countries from Viktor Orbán. There are exceptions to the rule: Serbian-Hungarian relations seem to be consistently good and Romanian-Hungarian relations, consistently bad. Szijjártó’s latest move will not improve the situation with Romania.

Szijjártó forbade Hungarian diplomats serving abroad to attend the receptions Romanian embassies gave today on the country’s national holiday. It was on December 1, 1918 that the National Assembly of Transylvania and Hungary convened in Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár and decreed “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania.” As the foreign ministry’s spokesman explained to HVG, “the Hungarian people have no reason to celebrate December 1.”

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

Thus no one represented official Hungary at the reception in Budapest where the Romanian ambassador greeted the visitors in both Romanian and Hungarian and where the national anthems of both countries were played. The concert that followed included pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, and George Enescu. The ambassador’s speech, delivered in English, put special emphasis on the 1996 Hungarian-Romanian treaty on “mutual understanding, cooperation, and good neighborliness.” The English-French-language text of the treaty is available online, and its importance is detailed in a recent press release by the Romanian Foreign Ministry on the twentieth anniversary of its signing.

The Romanians’ response was surprisingly mild: “it is hard to understand such a decision because honoring the values and national symbols of a country certainly belongs to the basic precepts of the European Union and the Atlantic community.” As we have had to learn in the last six years or so, however, such “niceties” are not observed by the Hungarian government. Just as Viktor Orbán told the delegates of the Hungarian Diaspora Council on November 30, “political correctness, as a way of speaking, is the instrument of worldwide intellectual oppression,” which he naturally refuses to accept.

The pro-government media naturally greeted the Orbán government’s decision with elation. “At last we’re handling the Romanian national holiday as we should,” opined 888.hu. At last we have a foreign minister who behaves as he should. Leaders of the socialist-liberal governments behaved abominably, according to the news site. For example, on December 1, 2002 President Árpád Göncz, Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, and Foreign Minister László Kovács were among the guests at the reception where they met Romania’s prime minister Adrian Nãstase and representatives of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians, the major Hungarian party in Romania. Fidesz, which had lost the election only a few months before, raised hell. Fidesz sympathizers quickly organized a demonstration of about 500-600 people in front of the Kempinski Hotel where the reception was held. The party, by then in opposition, did everything in its power to create a scandal.

A few years of respite followed when we heard nothing about the treasonous Hungarian socialists and liberals attending the Romanian receptions on December 1. But then came 2010 when Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater whom Viktor Orbán and his friends hated, made the mistake of renting one of the halls of the National Theater to the Romanian Cultural Institute for the event. The most clamorous critics were the politicians of Jobbik and the Christian Democrats, but Fidesz also chimed in, saying that “the leader of one of the most important national organizations should know that the loss of Transylvania for the majority of the nation means trauma with lasting effect” and therefore no state institution should facilitate the reception. Under pressure, Alföldi withdrew his verbal agreement with the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, which naturally is more familiar with Romanian-Hungarian affairs than I am, brings up past occasions when Hungarian patriots inside and outside of Romania were quite happy to celebrate together with Romanian politicians. For example, Jenő Szász, then mayor of Odorheiu Secuiesc / Székelyudvarhely and a great friend of László Kövér, happily celebrated the Romanian national holiday with President Traian Băsescu in 2006. Géza Szőcs, former undersecretary for cultural matters in the prime minister’s office, back in 1990 even made a speech in Alba Iulia praising the democratic nature of the declaration of the National Assembly of Transylvania.

So, why this strident move, which will only further erode the already tenuous ties between Romania and Hungary? The most likely reason is Viktor Orbán’s newly found self-assurance which, as far as I can see, has grown substantially since Donald Trump’s victory on November 8. In his speech to the representatives of the Hungarian diaspora he rehashed the points he had made in his speech to the same body the year before. This gave him an opportunity to tout the wisdom of his political views and emphasize his belief that time is on his side. The real proof is “the surprising result of the American presidential election and the expectation that this election ushers in a new era.” The American election “supports [his] earlier view that a major worldwide realignment is forthcoming.” With Trump at the helm “instead of liberal democracy we can return to a democracy whose essence is freedom.”

By now he sees himself as the premier politician of Central Europe who has brought considerable prestige to Hungary. “Central Europe hasn’t had so much influence on European affairs since the House of Árpád or perhaps since King Matthias.” Of course, he is talking about his own influence on the common policies of the Visegrád 4 countries.

Finally, I would like to call attention to Orbán’s comments in this speech on the Hungarian military. We all know that European countries will have to commit a larger percentage of their GDP to the NATO budget. In fact, Hungary has already promised an increase in defense spending. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the following couple of sentences, but they gave me a pause. First, he said that Hungarians settled in a very difficult spot and “our first question is always what kinds of dangers we will have to face next.” Then, a few lines later, he told his audience that the Hungarian army must be beefed up not because of some outside threat but because Hungary “mustn’t fall behind the striking powers of the armies in our region.” I don’t know whether these statements are significant or just the usual imprecise talk.

December 1, 2016

October 23, 1992: The first signs of a growing Hungarian extreme right

Today I’m moving back in time, to 1992, when President Árpád Göncz was set to deliver a speech commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution. He never delivered that speech because some of the people who gathered there simply didn’t allow him. This was the first public appearance after the change of regime of the Hungarian far right, some of whom a year later joined István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Hungarian Party of Justice and Life).

For the last few days I have been reading, more or less simultaneously, two biographies of József Antall, Hungary’s prime minister between 1990 and 1993: Sándor Révész’s critical Antall József távolról (József Antall from afar) and József Debreczeni’s sympathetic A miniszterelnök. Révész is a liberal journalist. Debreczeni is today one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalicíó. During the period he is writing about, he was a member of the top leadership of Antall’s party, the Magyar Demokrata Fórum. Révész was able to watch Antall only from afar while Debreczeni was in constant contact with him. Debreczeni was and still is a great admirer of Antall, and in his book he paints a portrait of a man who as a private person was very different from his public persona. Thus, we get closer to Antall the person in the Debreczeni portrait while we have a much clearer view of him as a prime minister in Révész’s biography.

Debreczeni doesn’t spend much time on the aborted speech, which upset the Hungarian left, especially the politicians of the liberal SZDSZ (Szabad Democraták Szövetsége/Association of Free Democrats). In his interpretation, Göncz’s old comrades from 1956 turned against the president because he refused to sign a piece of legislation that demanded prosecution of offenses committed between December 21, 1944 and May 2, 1990 by high-level communists, with no statute of limitations. Göncz, who certainly had no love for the communists who had condemned him to life imprisonment, had his doubts about the bill’s constitutionality and therefore sent it on to the Constitutional Court for review. The court’s chief justice was László Sólyom, who cannot be accused of leftist sympathies. The court found the bill unconstitutional.

Debreczeni blames the liberal press for conjuring up conspiracy theories about the aborted speech. They stated, suggested, or supposed that the incident was organized and that in the final analysis the Antall government was responsible for what happened. In Debreczeni’s view, these people were not Nazis; they were disappointed 56ers who wanted justice. (pp. 308-309)

Révész devotes more space to the events of October 23, 1992 (pp. 174-176). From his summary of what happened prior to the incident, we learn that the organizations made up of former 56ers who attended the event were all followers of István Csurka, who had organized several demonstrations earlier demanding Göncz’s resignation. These were the organizations the Ministry of Interior consulted in connection with the celebrations. Many of these groups held separate celebrations ahead the official one where Péter Boross, later briefly prime minister, and Lajos Für, minister of defense, made speeches. People who had attended those demonstrations plus some skinheads came to the event where Göncz was supposed to speak, and they came in an organized fashion, under police protection. Together, Révész contends, they constituted the bulk of those who turned against Göncz. Boross even invited the border guards to attend, apparently “as part of their patriotic education.” According to Sándor Pintér, who was chief of police at the time, “as if on a signal … 800-1,000 people at once started to yell, boo, clap … it certainly seemed like a concerted action.”

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

According to the conservative interpretation, there were no more than 60-70 skinheads, but about 3,000-4,000 people turned against Göncz. The skinheads were perhaps extreme right-wingers, maybe even Nazis, but the rest were good middle-class citizens, heroes of the 56 revolution. The liberals see it differently. They lump all these groups together as part of the growing extreme right which soon found its voice in István Csurka’s MIÉP. These people were not only anti-Semitic; they were irredentist and thoroughly anti-democratic.

Debreczeni, who is no fan of Göncz, blames the president for accepting this liberal view of the events because it meant that he could also accept the communist interpretation of 1956 as a fascist uprising. Of course, this interpretation would be valid only if we accepted these organizations’ claim to their primacy in the revolution.

Why is all this important today? Rereading Révész’s book is a revelation. All those far-right political views I find repulsive today were already taking hold in Hungary in the early 1990s. And just like now, although not to such an extent, perhaps the majority of the government members aided and sympathized with these groups. Although Antall himself was committed to western democracy, most of his cabinet members were not. Lajos Für, who was close to the groups that wreaked havoc during Göncz’s speech, was later involved with Jobbik’s paramilitary Hungarian Guard. Péter Boross today is the honorary chairman of the Veritas Institute and is an apologist for the Horthy regime, including its racism. In September 1993, when Miklós Horthy was reburied in Kenderes, seven ministers of the Antall government were in attendance.

Today, a lot of people bemoan the fact that Hungary has no moderate right-of-center conservative party. It doesn’t because the country has mighty few democratically minded conservatives. In MDF the few moderates lost out to the likes of Csurka, Boross, and Für.

In the early 1990s, however, the far-right wing of MDF was not strong enough to impose its will on Hungarian political life. What it needed, and eventually got, was a leader like Viktor Orbán with the power and the determination to create an illiberal, xenophobic state.

Imre Mécs’s eulogy: Árpád Göncz was always on the side of the good, the true, and the humane

According to the wishes of Árpád Göncz, president of the Third Republic, he did not have a state funeral. Foreign politicians who admired him were at the funeral as private persons. The same was true of Hungarian politicians, including the current president of the country, János Áder, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. While János Áder sat close to the grave, Orbán and his wife stood far away, practically in the last row of the thousands who came to pay their final respects to the man who was beloved by many.

Árpád Göncz had asked Imre Mécs, who shared a prison cell with him after the Revolution of 1956, to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. Both men were arrested in 1957 and were released only in 1963, after János Kádár declared an amnesty for some of the political prisoners. In 1958 Göncz was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of appeal. Later he was heard to say that this was the happiest day of his life. After all, his life was spared.

Imre Mécs was not so lucky. He was condemned to death in 1958, and it was only a year later that his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Mécs, at the request of the family, didn’t deliver the complete speech, which I’m publishing here in its English translation, at the funeral. He left out his critical remarks about Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state. This text was delivered in front of the Parliament later in the evening. The picture was taken there.

* * *

Mecs2

Twenty-six years ago, on June 15th 1989, an epoch-making, regime-changing funeral ceremony took place where and when we were able – at long last – to pay our last respects in a dignified fashion to the executed prime minister of the 1956 revolution and to thousands of other martyrs. Árpád Göncz was one of the most important personalities to pave the way for the regime change… Now, he, too, is gone. Our Uncle Árpi, who was loved by a whole nation, who was the father and protector of a nation. We have gathered here today to share the sorrow of Zsuzsa Göntér, his beloved wife, faithful companion, as well as that of the entire Göncz family. Árpád, you will be missed by your four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. And, we too will miss you, Árpád, your friends and fellow prisoners of cell No. 50. Your colleagues, your acquaintances—so many people who may not even have met you in person, but who felt that you are with them, and for them. Look, this cemetery is full of mourners.

Seeing all this, I’m sure Árpi would smilingly rise from this catafalque, run to us, and, as he always did, would hug and kiss, caress and smile at us. Alas, it is impossible; such is human life. What he was, now becomes a miraculous memory. Yet, he will remain with us and love us all. In his entire life, love was the most important thing for him, which went hand in hand with the total rejection of viciousness and selfishness.

My dear friend! You went through difficult historic eras and hard times in your personal life but you always took sides with the good, the true, and the humane. It is therefore not surprising that you breathed, hoped, and acted together with the Hungarian students and people in the fall of 1956. When the mightiest army of the world perfidiously invaded us for the second time (in the 20th century?) and brutally crushed our freedom fight, Minister of State István Bibó, Árpi’s good friend, stood unshaken and represented Hungary. Árpád was instrumental in smuggling Bibó’s statements out of the country. He had an important role in the resistance movement, too. They were both arrested, we were worried for their lives. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. Zsuzsa, his wife, left alone with the four children had to fight all alone for her husband and the daily bread for the family. For us, she represents the biblical strong woman. A wonderful person! God bless you, dear Zsuzsa!

While in prison, and with his wife and four children at home— Árpád Göncz remained strong, and never gave up. Instead, he learned English in the prison and became a translator in the prison’s ‘translation office’.  After his release in 1963, he became one of the best literary translators of his country. He worked night and day, translated, put famous literary works into Hungarian, and at the same time, he became a writer himself.

We, together with him, sought contact not only with other 1956’ers but also with members of the fledgling democratic opposition movement; all that in the midst of the sleazy clandestine machinations of the secret police. Finally, we got united and won, together with the heroic victims of 1956. After the funeral of the late Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the process of the change of regime got accelerated, and we looked forward to a promising future. Árpi played a significant role in that, too. At the roundtable discussions, with joint effort and will, we were able to create the first democratic state ruled by law: the Republic of Hungary. Most of the demands of 1956 and the desires of the nation came true: our homeland became free, we introduced a multi-party political system, and market economy also started to evolve. Our party, the biggest liberal party in our history, ended up second in the first democratic elections in 1990. József Antall, the victorious prime minister, offered Árpád Göncz the Office of the President of the country on the condition that we jointly phase out laws requiring a two-thirds majority in parliament—legislation that hinders efficient and responsible governance. This pact was necessary and wise, and thus the President of the Hungarian Writers’ Association, one of the leaders of the Free Democrats, became the first, outstanding President of the Republic of Hungary, and he held that position for the maximum of ten years.

Árpi took his presidential duties very seriously. He helped to consolidate a liberal state ruled by law, assisted the different branches of power to find their place in the system, and promoted the efficient operation of the Constitutional Court.

For ten long years, you promoted our reputation all over the world.

Thank you Árpi!

Thank you Mr. President!

Two years later, the President of Russia visited our parliament and apologized to the Hungarian nation. Unfortunately, the victims of 1956 resting in plot No. 301 could not hear that.

Then, we became a member country both in NATO and the European Union, and thus the old dreams of the Hungarians came true. Our nation never had such a great opportunity. Yet, the country does not succeed—why? Why is there dejection, hopelessness? Why is there pseudo-democracy? One time “young democrats” now turn against their principles, seek exclusive power, centralize practically everything, create a new predatory-exploiting stratum of society of their choice, and all that out of the money of the poor. They have institutionalized corruption and poverty, centralized the autocratic system, and oppressed self-governance in every field.

They stir up hatred, and ignorance is rampant. Love, which determines the quality of your life, is persecuted and is ‘non-grata’. But you are right, Árpi! There are a lot of good people, but they are benign and silent or soft-voiced. Nevertheless, they do help the needy, the homeless, and the fallen. We can count on them.

We are in pain now that we lost you, the ‘Man of all men’, and our hopes are also fading away. I miss you, my dear friend, Árpi. I miss you so much. I miss your soft voice, your firm posture; and I miss your smile, too.

The current power intentionally ignores the spirit of 1956, Árpi. They cleared away from Kossuth Square the Statue of the Eternal Flame that you initiated, and which was set up through the generous contributions of ordinary people. We have just found it with the help of civic volunteers at a sculptor’s place just outside of Nyergesújfalu. We will take it back and guard the flame that we rekindled together in 1996. This beautiful and modest statue must be put back in place, because the memory of the revolution and freedom fight of 1956, the most important historic event of the 20th century in Hungary, must have a worthy monument in Kossuth tér, which was one of the most important venues of the revolution. I am sure you would be with us in this fight! I remember how painful it was for you when football hooligans spoiled the festivities of the 50th anniversary in 2006, while leaders of 56 states visited us, praising our revolution and our country that had never been respected more.

Enough is enough! We will bring back the flame of the revolution! We will revive the spirit of 1956! We will bring back democracy! Dear Árpi, we owe this to you and to ourselves.

What can we do? We must follow the guidance of Ferenc Deák: we must unbutton the old vest and rebutton it again. We must reach back to our pure, original values, to the time of the change of regime in 1990, the ideals of the Republic of Hungary.

What we need is cooperation, cooperation and again cooperation, we need to join our forces, otherwise we will never have democracy in Hungary again. Petty rivalling groups cannot democratize the country: they will be nothing more than just unimportant showcase decorations in the hands of power.

We promise you, Árpi, we will not rest until the sun rises again over our homeland.

You will remain forever in our history, and also in our hearts.

May I ask members of the mourning family as well as all those present here today, let us hold each other’s hands as we did on 16th June 16th 1989, and for a long and deep minute think of Árpád Göncz, our beloved and everlasting president.

God bless you, Árpi, and rest in peace!

Kossuth tér, 6th November 2015

In memoriam: Árpád Göncz (1922-2015)

Árpád Göncz (1922-2015) served for ten years as the first president of post-communist Hungary. He was liked and respected by 70-80% of the population even though Hungarian society was as politically divided then as it is now. What was his secret? The answer most likely is that he didn’t act like a politician. He remained the same unassuming fatherly figure everybody called Uncle Árpi.

This apolitical image, however, contrasts sharply with Göncz’s recurring encounters with politics. At age of 22, right after he finished law school, he was called up to serve in the Hungarian army, which he promptly deserted and instead joined a group of anti-fascist fighters. As soon as the war was over, he became involved in politics. He joined the Smallholders’ Party where he filled several important positions despite his young age. When the brief democratic interlude was over, Göncz found himself in something of an internal exile: he made his living as a factory worker. In 1952 he began his studies at the Agricultural School at Gödöllő, which he couldn’t complete because by that time he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in the 1956 Revolution.

In 1963 he was one of the many political prisoners who received amnesty, and thereupon a new phase of his life began. He became a free-lance translator of such famous writers as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Updike, and William Styron. In addition, he published novels and plays of his own. By 1983 his literary corpus was significant enough that he received the prestigious Attila József Prize.

Given Göncz’s life-long fascination with politics, it is not surprising that in the late 80s he was among those few Hungarians who were actively working for a change of regime. His choice of SZDSZ, a liberal party, was somewhat surprising given his past association with the Smallholders. This is what today’s right-wing critics simply cannot understand.

Let’s skip the complicated story of how Göncz became president and move straight to his election. On August 3, 1990, the Hungarian government unanimously elected him to become the first president of the Third Republic. In his acceptance speech perhaps the most remarkable sentences were the following: “If I want to serve anyone, I will serve those who have no servants, the defenseless ones who neither in the world of the gendarmerie nor in the world of the more equals among the equal ones [i.e., the Horthy regime or the communist era], ever received a good word from anyone, those who are uncompetitive in a competitive world, those who have no means of defending themselves.”

Göncz

Since yesterday when we learned about his death some wonderful obituaries appeared by people who knew and loved the man. I especially liked the writings of László Lengyel and Sándor Révész. For Lengyel Göncz represented “the human face of Hungary.” Someone who “was first a man and only then a Hungarian.” For Lengyel, Göncz “is our better selves.” Someone who might have made mistakes but “always stood on the right side.” He is “the opposite of today’s inhuman, callous Hungary which is in the middle of burying freedom and solidarity.”

But he was hated by the Hungarian right. It is enough to read some of the opinion pieces in the right-wing papers at the time to realize the intensity of that hatred. But the interesting thing is that all the filth that was thrown on the “liberal” president didn’t have any effect on his popularity among ordinary people. Even MDF and later Fidesz voters overwhelmingly (over 70%) approved of Árpád Göncz, the man and the politician.

The source of the conflict between the Antall government and Árpád Göncz was their different interpretation of the powers of the presidency. The case involved the appointment of heads of public radio and television by the government without any consultation with the opposition. The conflict got to the point that, at least according to the liberal interpretation of the affair, Péter Boross, minister of the interior, hired skinheads to prevent Göncz from making his speech on the anniversary of the 56 Revolution. “Fascist, government cheering crowds booed the president and, in the opinion of Fidesz, solidarity is a must among democratic politicians. We understand the difficult situation in which members of the government found themselves: they had to choose between their followers, dressed in Nazi garb, and the president of the country. And you didn’t choose the president.” This is what Viktor Orbán had to say in parliament at the time about this affair.

Sándor Révész quotes an old radio interview with Árpád Göncz in which he said: “Hungary at the present moment is not so much a besieged fortress, as so many people see it. It is rather a house whose windows should be opened to let in fresh air. Because here in the last forty years and even before, for a long time a lot of intellectual junk and unpleasant smell gathered. Xenophobia, racism belong to the junk that we swept under the rug, and when there is a draft or we pick up the rug suddenly all that dust escapes and covers the whole room.”

At the end of his acceptance speech in 1990 he alluded to the fact that he is “not afraid of polemics,” and he warned the politicians that he was not going to run away from political disputes. Later in 1999 in an interview he said: “Perhaps you thought that because I often smile everybody can do anything with me. It is terrible that in Hungarian political culture people often equate smiling with political idiocy…. Many people thought that I was the raisin in the coffee cake, but then they realized when they bit into it that this raisin is actually a pebble.”

Tonight thousands and thousands of people stood in line on Kossuth tér in front of the parliament building to bring flowers in remembrance of the man they were proud to have as their first president.

The leader of the Hungarian Roma community under scrutiny

In the last few days several investigative articles have appeared about the growing scandal at the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ), the representative of the Hungarian Roma minority. Although Ákos Hadházy of LMP called attention to corruption in one of the programs under the supervision of ORÖ in early February, the prosecutors didn’t find sufficient cause to investigate. After a while, however, it was impossible to ignore the case because the evidence of wrongdoing was overwhelming. At last an investigation began in early May. NAV, the tax authority, appeared at the headquarters of ORÖ and began collecting documents and computers.

Back in February I wrote about the case and wondered whether the former head of ORÖ, Flórián Farkas, would be investigated this time and whether, if found guilty, he would finally be punished. Until now he has always managed to avoid prosecution. In that post I very briefly outlined Farkas’s run-ins with the law. Here I would like to concentrate on his shady political career.

Flórián Farkas has had assistance from both the left and the right. Currently, he is one of the signatories of the Fidesz-Lungo Drom Alliance; the other signatory is Viktor Orbán. But he also had excellent relations with MSZP during the 1994-1998 period when an MSZP-SZDSZ coalition was in power. It seems that both Gyula Horn of MSZP and Viktor Orbán of Fidesz overlooked Farkas’s misdeeds since, for some strange reason, both thought that he could deliver the Roma vote. Whether he did or not nobody knows.

In every regime, under all governments, Farkas managed not only to survive but to ascend the political hierarchy. According to an article that appeared recently in Népszabadság, he was already active in Roma organizations during the Kádár period, but it was only in the early 1990s that he established Lungo Drom, which eventually became the favorite Roma organization of the Antall government as opposed to the Roma Parliament, which József Antall considered to be too radical. By 1993, among the various Roma organizations, Lungo Drom received the most financial assistance from the government.

Although there had been questions even at that stage about the finances of Lungo Drom, it received the support of the Horn government after 1994. Over the next four years Farkas got into all sorts of scrapes, which an ambitious investigative journalist, Attila B. Hidvégi, tried to learn more about. When Hidvégi was working on a 1995 case involving Farkas, two associates of the Hungarian secret service visited him and told him to stop digging around. He gave up. Farkas obviously had important friends in high places. Another time, when it looked as if his case would end up in the courts, President Árpád Göncz got a phone call from the ministry of justice more or less instructing him to grant Farkas clemency, which meant that the case never went to trial. Moreover, documents pertaining to the affair were declared to be top secret for 30 years.

Before the 1998 election Farkas managed to convince Gyula Horn that he would be able to deliver the Gypsy vote at the forthcoming election. Horn was certainly courting Lungo Drom. He attended its congress in January 1998 where he delivered a speech, which he included in his book Azok a kilencvenes évek… (Those 1990s). In it Horn told his audience that the Roma community has to shape up and do its share in changing the situation of the Gypsy community. Some other Roma communities criticized the prime minister but, as Horn put it in 1999 when the book was written, “Flórián Farkas and I continued to work to realize the programs that had been started.” (p. 472)

Great was the surprise within MSZP when at the end of 2001 Fidesz and Lungo Drom signed an agreement to cooperate politically. This time Farkas misjudged the situation, which was not at all surprising because almost all the opinion polls predicted an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Fidesz lost but Viktor Orbán made sure that Farkas’s name was placed high enough on the party list that he would easily become a member of parliament, where he served for two terms as a member of the Fidesz caucus.

Since 2010 Farkas’s influence has grown considerably, especially after he signed a formal alliance with the government to craft the country’s Roma strategy.

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

A few days ago, Magyar Nemzet suggested that perhaps the greatest task Hungary has to undertake in the coming years is to find a solution to the problems of the Hungarian Roma community. The author of the article estimated that 20% of all Hungarian children under the age of five are Roma. If this new generation cannot be rescued from the kind of poverty and low educational attainment the Roma community currently experiences, the future of the Hungarian economy will be in serious jeopardy. The article accused the so-called Roma elite of betraying their own people. But in the final analysis, I believe, Hungarian politicians, past and present, are perhaps even more responsible for the prevailing situation. They were the ones who handed over billions and billions of forints coming from the European Union to corrupt Roma leaders.

The Roma politicians around Fidesz have their own enablers in the Orbán government. Index learned that Tamás Köpeczi-Bócz, an assistant undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, is a suspect in the case involving the financial manipulations of ORÖ. He is in charge of the coordination of EU funds, including a sizable amount of money for Roma affairs. Apparently, it is thanks to him that no investigation of the affairs of ORÖ took place until now because he informed the prosecutors that all expenses were absolutely legitimate. In brief, it seems he is part and parcel of the fraud that has been perpetrated for years.

Magyar Nemzet learned that Farkas has the exclusive right to choose Roma politicians to fill certain government positions. That’s why, claims the paper, Lívia Járóka, a former member of the EU Parliament, was dropped by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, take a look at her biography in Wikipedia. One has to wonder why she was shipped off to Brussels in the first place. And why, after two terms, did she disappear into nothingness? The Wikipedia article ends with this sentence: “As of September 2014 she is no longer listed on the European Parliament site as an MEP.” Can Hungary afford to dispense with a Roma politician of this caliber? Viktor Orbán obviously believes that it can.

Commentators think that Flórián Farkas has never been closer to being indicted, especially since there are signs that the Orbán government might stop shielding him. János Lázár announced that if Farkas cannot clear his name, the prime minister will withdraw confidence in him. Népszabadság noted that Lungo Drom is no longer mentioned as an ally on Fidesz’s website. But who will come after  him? Offhand, I don’t see any serious, reliable candidate for the job.

Corruption in Roma organizations: The case of Flórián Farkas

If you were to ask László Bogdán, the maverick, controversial Roma mayor of Cserdi in Baranya County, he would tell you that the Roma organizations that allegedly represent Hungary’s Roma minority should all be abolished. In his opinion, these people are the worst enemies of the Hungarian Roma because they are politically and fiscally corrupt. A large chunk of the billions the European Union and the Hungarian government spent in the last twenty-five years on convergence programs for the Gypsy minority ended up in their pockets.

It’s all too easy to agree with Bogdán. There are just too many stories about local Gypsy leaders pressuring their fellow Roma to cast votes for the mayor they support or to vote for the party that bought their allegiance.

The current scandal is about the disappearance of well over a billion forints from EU funds for a program called “Bridge to Employment.” Implicated in the alleged corruption case is Flórián Farkas, who has been a faithful ally of Viktor Orbán ever since 1998.

It was Ákos Hadházy, the veterinarian from Szekszárd who uncovered the illegal grants of tobacco concessions by local Fidesz officials to friends and Fidesz supporters, who once again unearthed possible fraud. Hadházy nowadays is a member of LMP and spends his spare time digging into possible corruption cases in connection with EU subsidies. He found that the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ/National Roma Self-Government), instead of creating jobs through the “Bridge to Employment” program, spent 31 million forints for office furniture, 26 million for improvements of its headquarters, 28 million to lease ten cars for six months, 19 million for a study about what kind of software the organization should buy, 21 million for seven computers, 31 million for another study on recruitment to the program, and nothing on job creation. The top members of ORÖ are outraged at Farkas’s alleged spending spree.

Farkas’s position in ORÖ is murky. Officially, he is no longer the president of the organization because, according to the new parliamentary rules, a member of parliament cannot have any other job. In December 2014, however, Viktor Orbán named Farkas government commissioner in charge of Roma affairs, and in that capacity he appointed himself head of the “Bridge to Employment” program. Moreover, he seems to have a stranglehold on ORÖ. His successor, István Hegedűs, indicated that he is in his position as long as Farkas wants him there.

As for those indignant ORÖ leaders who accuse Farkas of depriving the Hungarian Roma of millions if not billions of forints, they might be upset for their own selfish reasons. Hadházy discovered that one of the organizers of the project, Tamás Monostori, told the Roma leaders at a meeting last summer that “nobody has to be afraid of being left out. It’s no secret that there is an enormous amount of money that we haven’t been able to use.” Index found even more direct evidence that Farkas promised part of the money to the members of ORÖ. In 2013, at a general meeting of the organization, he told the members who were present that “we will try to secure this money or a little more for you.” A substantial portion of the EU subsidies would be used to give full-time jobs to the elected Roma politicians of ORÖ.

As time went by, it was discovered that the transactions Hadházy unearthed in early January represented only a fraction of the money spent by Farkas and his friends. They also purchased a building (initially, the purchase price was unknown) in the elegant Gellérthegy section of Buda, on which they spent an additional 21 million. Later Farkas and Co. unintentionally revealed in an answer to Hadházy’s letter that they paid around 300 million forints for the building itself. The anti-Farkas forces insisted on calling a meeting of the representatives of ORÖ. But apparently Farkas made sure that his friends boycotted the gathering, leaving the rebels without a quorum.

At this point the government and the prosecutors decided that perhaps they ought to move. What will follow remains unclear. János Lázár, who is responsible for the disbursement of EU subsidies, announced that he would launch an inquiry only when the whole project was completed. For me this means: let’s investigate only when all the money is stolen.

Hadházy pressed charges against the leadership of the “Bridge to Employment,” but the prosecutor’s office refused to follow up. The office might, however, investigate the charge of “budgetary fraud.”  NAV, the national tax and custom’s office, is also interested in the case. And Zoltán Balog called for an internal investigation. So, we will see what happens.

It was in 2011 that Flórián Farkas took over the chairmanship ORÖ, which previously was called Országos Cigány Önkormányzat (OCÖ/National Gypsy Self-Government). His predecessor was Orbán Kolompár, who had several encounters with the law and is now serving a sentence for embezzlement.

Flórián Farkas was born in 1957 and, unlike Kolompár, finished high school. For a while he worked in the building industry. Between 1975 and 1982 he ran into trouble with the law on three occasions and spent time in jail. He has been involved with Roma affairs since 1987 and in 1991 became secretary general of Lungo Drom (Long Road in the Romani language). In 2003 he was named president of OCÖ.

Flórián Farkas surrounded by Fidesz top brass

Flórián Farkas surrounded by Fidesz top brass

His fourth encounter with the law was in 1996 when the prosecutor’s office investigated him in connection with the foundations around Lungo Drom. As a result of this investigation, he was charged in 1998 with breach of fiduciary responsibilities. The Hungarian public never found out, however, whether Farkas was guilty of the charge or not. President Árpád Göncz gave him “procedural clemency,” and the documents pertaining to the case were sealed for thirty years. Apparently the reason for the clemency was the close relationship that existed between OCÖ and the socialist-liberal government of Gyula Horn.

In 1998, when Fidesz won the election, Farkas moved over to Viktor Orbán’s camp. Just before the 2002 elections the Farkas-led Lungo Drom signed an “electoral alliance” with Fidesz. Obviously, Farkas, like everybody else, was certain of a Fidesz victory. The Roma leader was given a high enough position on the Fidesz list that he became a member of parliament. He then had eight rather lean years in opposition until, in 2010, the billions from the EU fell into his lap.

We’ll see whether he has a fifth encounter with the law. And whether he will be protected once again.

Skinheads here, skinheads there

Never a dull moment. Yesterday, a convicted felon was elected to serve as one of the five deputies to the president of the Hungarian parliament. An outcry followed in opposition circles, especially since Viktor Orbán himself voted for the appointment of Tamás Sneider (Jobbik). A few hours later Magyar Nemzet found a skinhead in MSZP: Zsolt Molnár, who served as chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security in the last four years and who was supposed to continue in this capacity in the new session. What a coincidence!

It was on October 23, 1992 that Hungarian TV viewers could see a rather large far-right crowd, skinheads and others, who ultimately managed to prevent President Árpád Göncz from delivering his speech on the national holiday. People were shocked at this first sign of a far-right movement in Hungary. Magyar Televizíó, the only television station in existence then, filmed the event. After they aired their report, government officials accused the producers of falsifying the event. 168 Óra, a weekly magazine, ran a long story on the demonstration decrying the appearance of neo-Nazi ideas among Hungarian youth. The magazine published several pictures to accompany the story. As it so happened, on one of the pictures was a young hooded man. He was just a high school student at the time but, according to his classmates, he was deeply interested in politics and, as they recall, he sympathized with the right. According to one old friend, he was an MDF (the government party) supporter, while another remembered that he was a follower of István Csurka. (At the time István Csurka was still a member of MDF, so the two recollections are not necessarily in conflict.) The young man was none other than Zsolt Molnár, today a very important man in MSZP.

As Zsolt Molnár recalls, he was excited that his picture appeared in such an important publication as 168 Óra. He even boasted about it to his family and friends. He made sure that there were several copies to go around. But this was an isolated incident of “fame,” followed by years of obscurity as he went to law school, worked first as a prosecutor and then as a lawyer in private practice. Ten years later, it seems, he decided that his true place was in MSZP. In 2004 he became a party member and from there on his political career was uninterrupted and hugely successful.

Molnár naturally doesn’t deny that he was present at the anti-Göncz demonstration, but he denies that he was a skinhead. His accusers claim that skinheads in those days wore hoodies–I guess to cover their bald heads–and Molnár wore one. Molnár claims that he covered his head because it was raining. I checked the weather forecast for October 23, 1992 and, yes, it was raining. In fact, it rained in Budapest for four solid days. Not only, he says, wasn’t he a skinhead; he claims that he didn’t even know any skinheads. He was only a Honvéd (Kispest) football fan; they called themselves “the Ultras.” Honvéd was Ferenc Puskás’s club, by the way. Even his former classmates deny that he had anything to do with skinheads.

Zsolt Molnár with his youthful picture and plenty of hair

Zsolt Molnár with his youthful picture and plenty of hair

The timing, as always with Fidesz, is perfect. MSZP refuses to vote for Tamás Sneider because he was a skinhead? And what about your Zsolt Molnár? He was a skinhead too.

I can’t help wondering whether the Molnár affair is the third “sin” of MSZP that Fidesz people promised to uncover. The first was the infamous Baja video and the second the Gábor Simon case. (In passing, a quick update on the latter. Since the initial flurry of  accusations and counter-accusations, there’s not been a word about the case. Gábor Simon is still in jail, but no one is interested in his case. According to his lawyer, he has been interrogated only once since his arrest on March 10, and we just learned that his infamous African passport doesn’t exist. Or, at least, it is not in the possession of the prosecution.) Is it possible that Fidesz got wind of Molnár’s picture a long time ago and just waited for the best possible moment to use this evidence? I think that’s a likely scenario. If this was indeed the third strike and if the promise of three strikes against MSZP is true, perhaps we will be spared more discoveries of MSZP “wrongdoings”–at least for awhile.

In any case, MSZP is scrambling again. Molnár has asked for another security clearance, the so-called C-type, which is the most thorough. He had already been checked out twice before and no problems were uncovered. However, even if he passes with flying colors, it might already be too late to salvage the situation. DK spokesman Zsolt Gréczy admits that Sneider’s case is a great deal more serious than Molnár’s demonstrating against President Göncz and yelling “You have lied enough!” Molnár, in his opinion, was just a misguided youngster. However, “if the Hungarian left wants to be an alternative to Fidesz, we must be consistent, which may require difficult decisions. Therefore, the Demokratikus Koalicíó thinks that Zsolt Molnár should not be the chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security.”

The opposition parties continue their squabbles. DK is taking a position against MSZP in this case, while Együtt2014-PM is outraged that MSZP joined Fidesz-KDNP, Jobbik, and LMP in nominating Sneider to the deputy-president position. Mind you, MSZP wasn’t exactly generous toward their former allies. They could have helped E14 and DK have their own parliamentary delegations, but they didn’t. Oh well, as I said, never a dull moment.