Tag Archives: Bálint Magyar

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

Masha Gessen and Susan Faludi on Orbán’s Hungary and Trump’s America

Below you will find excerpts from two fascinating articles in which Hungary’s current regime is compared with what might be coming to the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump.

The first excerpt is from Masha Gessen’s recent article, “The Putin Paradigm,” which appeared in the December issue of The New York Review of Books. Gessen is a Russian and American journalist, author, and activist known for her opposition to Vladimir Putin. Gessen discovered Bálint Magyar’s Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary, published in English this year, which inspired her interpretation of Putin’s Russia and her fear that Trump may introduce the world to a post-democratic mafia state.

The second selection is from Susan Faludi’s “Hungary’s sharp rightward turn is a warning to America,” an opinion piece that appeared in the December 5 issue of The Guardian. Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several highly acclaimed books: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, and The Terror Dream. Her most recent book, In the Darkroom (2016), was chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of the year. Susan Faludi is a dual U.S.-Hungarian citizen.

Masha Gessen: “The Putin Paradigm”

“The best available definition of the kind of state Putin has built is provided by the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who calls it a mafia state: it’s run like a family by a patriarch who distributes money, power, and favors. Magyar uses the word ‘family’ to mean a clan of people with longstanding associations; it is important that one cannot enter the family unless invited—’adopted,’ in Balint’s terminology—and one cannot leave the family voluntarily. In this model the family is built on loyalty, not blood relations, but Trump is bringing his literal family into the White House. By inviting a few hand-picked people into the areas that interest him personally, he may be creating a mafia state within a state. Like all mafias, this one is driven primarily by greed.

“The complete term Magyar uses is ‘the post-communist mafia state,’ and he argues that it can take root only on the ruins of a totalitarian state. But Trump may introduce the world to the post-democratic mafia state. In this model, he will still be the patriarch who distributes money and power. The patriarch’s immediate circle will comprise his actual family and a few favorites like General Flynn. They will concern themselves with issues of interest to the president, and with enrichment of themselves and their allies. The outer circle will be handed issues in which Trump is less interested. In practical terms, this will mean that the establishment Republicans in the cabinet will be able to pursue a radically conservative program on many areas of policy, without regard to views Trump may or may not hold, and this will keep the Republican Party satisfied with a president it once didn’t want.”

Susan Faludi: “Hungary’s sharp rightward turn is a warning to America”

“’American media should study Hungary’s record,’ Newt Gingrich declared approvingly after a visit to Hungary last summer, lauding a 13ft-high razor-wire border fence that Orban erected against the influx of ‘foreigners’, Syrian refugees. Gingrich tweeted that the nation has ‘proven a fence can stop illegal immigration’. Orban and Trump have established a mutual-admiration society, with the American retweeting the Magyar’s encomiums. The prime minister hailed Trump’s victory as ‘great news’ on Facebook.

“Anyone looking for a crystal ball for the coming Trump administration would do well to ‘study Hungary’s record’. And not just for clues about how a rightist strongman can permanently reorder a society and its institutions once it controls the legislature (as Trump and Orban do) and a judiciary (as Orban does and Trump is about to) – but also for how such a politician continues to consolidate power as his policies fail….

“Last week, Breitbart News, formerly run by Trump’s new chief strategist, Stephen K Bannon, announced that it ‘is preparing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against a major media company for its baseless and defamatory claim that Breitbart News is a “white nationalist website”’. This, despite its hosting articles such as ‘Hoist It High and Proud: the Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage’. Breitbart’s threatened litigation is especially ominous coming after a bevy of suits won by billionaire conservatives against news organizations, as Emily Bazelon chronicled in New York Times Magazine.

“The effects of such actions – presidential demonizing, threats of legal reprisal – are pernicious. As in Hungary, media repression thrives on self-censoring fear to accomplish its own ends. I won’t have to be fined in Hungary to worry about how a media excerpt of my book might be received by the Hungarian government. And I won’t have to be sued or slammed by anyone in the West Wing to know that I live in a less free world of speech. When I return from Hungary to the US next spring, it will be with a certain edge of trepidation. There is no island now.”

December 19, 2016

Bálint Magyar’s latest book: Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary

At last Bálint Magyar’s groundbreaking book, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája, published last year by Noran Libro, has been translated into English with the title Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. The publisher is the Central European University Press, and the book is available for pre-order through Amazon. The official release date is March 31. (Clicking on the thumbnail image of the book cover to the left will take you directly to Amazon.)

Bálint Magyar developed the concept of the post-communist mafia state 15 years ago when in an article he first called attention to the “organized over-world” as opposed to the “underworld” we are familiar with. The article appeared on February 22, 2001, during the last year of the first Orbán government, in Magyar Hírlap, then still a liberal daily. It elicited considerable interest, and Magyar followed it up with several lectures that further elucidated his theory.

Memories often fade with the passage of time, and many Hungarians who are interested in politics are convinced that the 1998-2002 period “wasn’t really all that bad,” especially in comparison to the situation today. But the sad truth is that the contours of the mafia state were already visible then, except very few people noticed it at the time. Admittedly, there was a fantastic HVG cover from December 1999 that portrayed the top Fidesz leaders in fedoras (sometimes called gangster hats) with the caption “team spirit.”

Meanwhile a lot has happened. Among other things, Magyar served as minister of education between 2002 and 2006 and was a member of parliament from 1990 until 2010. Since then he has had plenty of time to further develop his theory of the post-communist mafia state.

Magyar Balint2In the past I devoted several posts to Magyar’s theory. The first occasion was the appearance of a volume of essays edited by Bálint Magyar and Júlia Vásárhelyi titled Magyar Polip: A posztkommunista állam (Budapest: Noran Libro, 2013). The book became an instant bestseller. It had to be reprinted shortly after its appearance. Professor Charles Gati wrote in his review of the first volume that “after reading this book the West no longer can look at East-Central Europe the same as before.”

The following year a second edited volume appeared with new authors. Finally, last year a third volume was published. All books deal with the same general theme but analyze the impact of the mafia state on different aspects of society: the law, the economy, social policy, culture, banking, etc.

Bálint Magyar’s latest volume, Post-Communist Mafia State, of which he is the sole author, encapsulates his latest thoughts on the subject. The foreword to the book was written by Kim Lane Scheppele, who is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. She called Magyar’s volume “a very brave book” which is “an outreach to the audience beyond the borders and thus beyond the immediate control of the Orbán government. … The failure of a democratic state should be a cause for concern in the international community, especially when anti-liberalism is spreading and new autocrats are looking for models.”

Although the English edition has not yet reached bookstores, it looks as if in places where it counts the book has already created quite a stir. Bálint Magyar and Tamás Lattmann, a constitutional legal scholar, gave a summary of the book in Brussels. From an interview with Jozef Weidenholzer, deputy president of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, it seems that the book’s last chapter titled “Pyramid Schemes—the limits of the mafia state” made the greatest impact. In this chapter Magyar argues that the whole pyramid scheme can work only because the European Union is financing it. Weidenholzer, who being an Austrian most likely knows the Hungarian situation better than most of the other MEPs, was surprised after hearing the details of the Orbán system. He found Magyar’s theory of the mafia state convincing. He added that “it is time to say goodbye to emotional debates and instead we should look at the whole problem with a clear head…. We can’t accept the existence of a mafia state in Europe.”

The European Commission and Parliament have concentrated until now on the Charter of Basic Laws and the Copenhagen criteria. But this is the wrong approach, Weidenholzer said. One ought to concentrate on the economic side of the problem. States aspiring for membership promised the introduction of full-fledged capitalism, “but this corrupt system has nothing to do with the market economy.”

We will see whether Magyar’s compelling book will enlighten minds in Brussels and Washington. We can only hope so.

February 19, 2016

Viktor Orbán on the success of his educational “reforms”

Viktor Orbán’s interviews, scheduled for every second Friday, usually portend some important announcements. The one held on February 4 began with this sentence by the reporter: “Let’s start with a domestic issue, specifically with the hottest one, education.” Indeed, it is an issue that might have far-reaching consequences for Fidesz’s long-term political future. Since that conversation took place, Mrs. Judit Czunyi, undersecretary responsible for public education, has been removed from her position, and all attempts at appeasing the restless teachers who have had enough of the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the government agency, the Klebelsberg School Maintenance Center (KLIK), have failed. It is also unlikely that the roundtable discussions initiated by the ministry of human resources will yield the kinds of results Zoltán Balog, the minister, was instructed by Viktor Orbán to achieve. The government hopes that with some minimal concessions and a promise of improvements in the functioning of KLIK the protesting voices can be silenced. Or at least this is what Viktor Orbán, who is the mastermind behind the overcentralized, conservative educational system introduced in 2010-2011, hopes. He is thoroughly satisfied with the current state of affairs, and he claims or pretends that the newly introduced system is a vast improvement over the former one.

Just as János Lázár’s statements on the size of Hungary’s public sector were full of untrue claims, Viktor Orbán’s assertions about the state of education in 2010 are equally unfounded. He made three claims: (1) “the Hungarian educational system was financially bankrupt, accumulating hundreds of billions of debt” prior to 2010; (2) “all international assessments showed that Hungarian children’s performance was continually deteriorating”; (3) since 2010 the government “has invested 700 billion forints in education,” which included 450 billion in development and the rest in raising salaries.

No one, not even the most critical opponent of the Orbán regime, maintains that all was well with Hungarian education before 2010, but today teachers as well as students would be happy if they could just return to those days. Critics were vocal then too, especially after 2008 when the government was forced to tighten its belt and education, like everything else, received less money than before. But let’s take a look at a graph that shows government expenditures on education in several countries in the region between 2004 and 2013. Hungary (red) currently spends the smallest percentage of its GDP on education. The decline in expenditures for the sector after 2010 is spectacular. Less and less money has been spent on education, and some of that most likely ended up in the pockets of swindlers hanging around Fidesz. It is enough to read about Árpád Hadházy’s (LMP) February 4 press conference, “Corruption Info,” in which he told details of the incredible corruption around European Union subsidies earmarked for education. The money spent on “development” that Orbán was talking about didn’t do much to improve the quality of Hungarian education.

Government expenditures on the countries of the region as percentage of the GDP

Government expenditures of the countries of the region as a percentage of GDP

I don’t know which international assessment of student performance Orbán had in mind when he talked about the steadily deteriorating student performance because there are several. I decided to take a look at the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school children’s scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading. The first such survey was taken in 2000 and since then it has been repeated every three years. The last one is from 2012. Given the drop in Hungarian student achievement between 2009 and 2012, I dread the results of 2015, which will be released soon.

While in mathematics Hungarian students didn’t improve between 2000 and 2009 with a score hovering around 490, there was a slight improvement in science and a significant improvement in reading during the same period. In this last category in 2000 Hungarian students’ average was 480, but by 2009 it was 494. But then came 2012. Hungarian scores dropped in all three categories. In math from 490 to 477, in science from 503 to 494, in reading from 494 to 488. That meant that in math Hungary dropped from 29th to 39th place, for example. Hungarian students scored lower in all three categories than the mean scores. Moreover, they scored just a little lower than U.S. fifteen-year-olds. I bring this fact up because Hungarians like to think that their education is vastly superior to that of the despised Yankees.

If one takes a look at ministers of education appointed by Fidesz governments, one has the distinct feeling that education was not a priority for Viktor Orbán. Among the Fidesz holders of the office it is only Zoltán Pokorni (July 8, 1998-July 15, 2001) who is considered by everybody, even the socialists and the liberals, to have done a professional job. He started his career as a teacher and was one of the founding members of Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ). But after he became chairman of Fidesz he resigned his post. The short tenure of his successor, József Pálinkás, was undistinguished. By 2010 Orbán found education and healthcare so unimportant that he abolished their separate ministries. The first minister of the new mega-ministry was a totally ineffectual medical professor. He was followed by Zoltán Balog, who had absolutely no experience with either education or healthcare. He is a Protestant minister.

The man who served longest as minister of education was Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), who held the office twice. Once in the Horn government (January 1, 1996-July 8, 1998) and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány government ( May 27, 2002-June 9, 2006). He was the one who began a thorough modernization of the whole system. Although at the time a lot of conservative teachers hated his reforms, today Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), admitted that it was during his tenure that the national curriculum came into being and emphasis was put on “competence development” instead of rote learning. The younger and more progressive teachers welcomed the new methods, but the older ones were unwilling and perhaps even unable to change their ways. A clearly conservative “educational expert” said the following about this period to Magyar Nemzet:  “During the former government the educational philosophy was liberal. One could choose from a lot of programs, which caused confusion….” Although it wasn’t compulsory, she herself, who worked as a teacher in a gymnasium at the time, “tried competence reinforcing teaching. This is not the only possible method, but it was successful.” Reluctantly, she had to admit that the improvements in reading had something to do with the “liberal” methods introduced by Bálint Magyar. He was also a great promoter of the use of computers in the classrooms, which again wasn’t exactly a hit with teachers who would have been forced to learn new skills.

In any case, after 2006, by which time the minister of education was István Hiller (MSZP), some of the more ambitious plans were scrapped because the government found the computerization of schools too expensive. In 2010 with the Fidesz victory everything came to a halt.

Yesterday on KlubRádió I heard a father who had just returned to Hungary from the United States. He himself is a computer scientist. He called his children’s school in a well-off suburb of Budapest “a computer museum.” Anyone who’s interested in hearing younger progressive teachers describing the situation in Hungarian schools should spend about twenty minutes listening to a discussion on Antónia Mészáros’s program on ATV last night. Perhaps after listening to the reasons for the present revolt we can better understand what the real problem is with Fidesz’s educational philosophy: it stripped the teachers of their independence and it tries to make children unthinking robots.

February 6, 2016

Ferenc Gyurcsány, the mafia state, and the future of MSZP

Today Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister of Hungary and chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), released a 20-page political pamphlet, gave a few interviews, and delivered a 45-minute speech, shown live on ATV. Instead of trying to summarize his political program, titled “Hungary of Many” (Sokak Magyarországa), I will focus on a couple of points that struck me as significant.

The title of the pamphlet is telling. Gyurcsány is convinced that people didn’t vote for Fidesz because they wanted to live under a regime of “Eastern despotism” but because they saw strength in Fidesz as opposed to the left, which proved to be weak. Gyurcsány would like to bring together liberals, social democrats, and moderate conservatives because all these people have something in common: a desire to put an end to Orbán’s regime and to live in a country with an effective government that would serve the majority of the people instead of the select few.

This is not a new message. What is new is that, after a lot of hesitation, Gyurcsány seems to have accepted Bálint Magyar’s description of the Orbán regime as a “mafia state.” As far as I know, he is the only opposition politician who has fully embraced Magyar’s concept. But that is not the only common thread in their thinking. Gyurcsány’s ideas on education also seem to echo Magyar’s. He cracked a few jokes about Orbán’s stuffing sausage while he doesn’t know what a “password” is. He elaborated on the essential role of computers in education, which would be a return to Magyar’s reforms between 2002 and 2006. Of course, one could ask why he buckled under MSZP pressure to relieve Magyar of his post and name István Hiller as his successor. Hiller, by the way, was praised by Orbán in his chat with the students of his former dormitory as the only talented politician on the left.

Gyurcsány offered an assessment of MSZP’s situation. As anyone who follows the Hungarian media knows, MSZP is in a serious crisis. Something of a palace revolution is underway. From what one can piece together from interviews with MSZP politicians who have pretty well disappeared from active politics, it looks as if under Attila Mesterházy’s chairmanship a conscious decision was made to push all the leading members of the older generation out of the party. I guess the new, younger politicians around Mesterházy believed that the older greats of MSZP were responsible for the party’s loss of popularity. Support for the party, they hoped, would soar once people saw all new faces running MSZP. Well, it didn’t work out that way. In fact, the party’s popularity has fallen. The MSZP parliamentary caucus, with very few exceptions, is comprised of inexperienced and unknown members whose performance, admittedly under adverse circumstances, is substandard.

Gyurcsány’s essay and speech were timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Demokratikus Koalíció, but I’m sure that MSZP’s sorry state was also a serious consideration when it came to timing. In his essay Gyurcsány buried MSZP in its present form. As we know, the current thinking of the MSZP leaders is that the road to success lies in returning to truly “left” policies. Gyurcsány is convinced that they are wrong. A turn further to the left is not what Hungarians want. He also doubts MSZP’s ability to provide a candidate for the premiership who has any hope of winning because, as he put it, “ever since 2002 all successful prime ministers came from the world outside of MSZP.” In the last 15 years the socialists have been unable to attract or to produce a politically mature, suitable candidate for the post of prime minister. The appearance of PM, Együtt, and DK offered real competition, which will “make the transformation of our side more intensive. The final goal is unification, and the party of the future will barely resemble the MSZP we know.”

And now let me move on to a pretty dramatic conversation between Ferenc Gyurcsány and György Bolgár on Klubrádió’s “Let’s Talk It Over.” Bolgár began the 15-minute conversation by questioning the wisdom of Gyurcsány’s forceful call for unity. It might turn the other politicians on the left against him, warned Bolgár. After all, he is such a controversial character. Wouldn’t it have been better to remain quiet? he asked. Gyurcsány, who has been asked this kind of question many times before, even by Bolgár himself, normally answers in a measured way. But not this time. He lashed out at Bolgár. In his opinion, a democrat cannot possibly question the right of a politician to express his thoughts. He is the leader of a party that has about half a million voters. His followers want him to talk about the ideas that motivate them. When Bolgár brought up politicians like Viktor Szigetvári and Gergely Karácsony, who might be turned off by the hyperactive Gyurcsány’s latest political move, Gyurcsány responded that he didn’t care what Szigetvári or Karácsony think or say. He accused Bolgár of joining those who are sowing discord among the politicians of the left. In his opinion, this is a sin because with such an attitude they only lend a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s regime.

I don’t know the reasons for this outburst, but I suspect that Gyurcsány believes that this is the right time to reassert himself publicly, either because of the discord within MSZP or perhaps because he has been getting closer to an understanding with some of the opposition politicians. If the latter, Bolgár’s criticism was not well timed.

What MSZP’s leading politicians will think of “Many for Hungary” I can well imagine. However, the party is in bad shape, and even the staunchest socialists have to admit that Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and establish DK was a terrible blow to the party. MSZP has to rethink its shrinking place among the opposition parties.

Bálint Magyar on the failures of the socialist-liberal governments

After two edited volumes on the post-communist mafia state (Magyar Polip, 2013 and 2014), Bálint Magyar came out with a book of his own, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), which offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the failings of the socialist-liberal coalition government that led to the “revolution in the voting booth.” His thoughts on the matter are especially significant since Magyar himself was a member of three of these governments. He was minister of education between January 1996 and June 1998 in the Horn government and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments between May 2002 and June 2006.

As Magyar says, although “the Third Republic wasn’t killed by the left and the liberals, they had a share in adding to its vulnerability.” After listing the usual reasons for their failure–corruption, loss of credibility, overspending, and strategic mistakes, Magyar concentrates on the deeper reasons for the current sad state of the liberals and the socialists. He points to a “loss of identity” due to a lack of recognizable symbols associated with the left. “The democratic forces had neither a public ethos nor a modern vision of society.” (p. 39)

One reason that the democratic forces couldn’t come up with an identifying symbolism was that the socialists and the liberals “didn’t speak the same language,” and therefore they couldn’t formulate a common policy. The socialist politicians didn’t understand the importance of creating a spiritual link to their electorate. In times of plenty, perhaps such a link can be dispensed with, but in times of trouble only those politicians can ask for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” who themselves have a vision over and above the promise of a slightly higher standard of living. By contrast, Fidesz, after 1993, easily revived the old “ideological instruments of the right”: God, country, family. These were simple phrases that could offer a framework in which the Hungarian everyman could find solace and hope.

There were few meeting points between the socialists and the liberals, but there was at least one question on which they could easily agree: the separation of church and state. Both considered religion part of the private sphere. But Gyula Horn’s decision in 1998 to negotiate with the Vatican, resulting in special privileges for the Catholic Church, put an end to that accord. In Magyar’s opinion the leaders of MSZP looked upon the church the same way that politicians did in the Kádár regime–as “an institution that can be influenced and bought.” The socialists didn’t realize that by the 1990s the Catholic Church was no longer fighting for its survival; it strove for a more prominent political and social role. Because the Church’s leaders had been compromised by virtue of their cooperation with the Kádár regime, they had no intention of cooperating with the democratic socialists. Horn hoped that the Church would stand by the socialists in the election campaign as a result of his generous financial settlement. Of course, they didn’t. They helped Fidesz with its “God, country, family” slogan, which fit the Church better anyway.

Already in 1990 the liberals and socialists lost the parliamentary debate over the concept of a modern, democratic nation. The conservative parties made August 20th the national holiday, a day that emphasizes events eleven hundred years ago:  the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, the establishment of the state, and the acceptance of Christianity. The liberals and socialists wanted March 15th to be the national holiday, the day when a modern, democratic Hungary was born. They lost. They also lost the debate over the question of the coat-of-arms, which was the heraldic symbol of the Kingdom of Hungary. Eventually the left even lost the battle for the left-inspired 1956 revolution, which in the interpretation of the right has since become “the revolution of right-wing radicals.”

Not only the socialists but also the liberals “were deaf” when it came to the necessity of symbols in political discourse. Members of the democratic opposition, including Bálint Magyar himself, were suspicious of anything that might limit the freedom and autonomy of the individual. This secular intellectual elite’s self-assurance seemed like an “arrogance of rootless individuals.” The socialist-liberal government even missed the opportunity to support women’s issues and work out a concept of a modern family where women can be useful members of the national economy. In brief, they failed at the reinterpretation of spiritual, national and familial communities, and therefore “the road to national populism was wide open.”

imagination

Meanwhile Hungarian society went through some very rough times after the change of regime. Instead of the hoped-for welfare state came high unemployment and inflation. Neither the socialists nor the liberals had any viable answers. The socialists could offer only paternalistic solutions while the liberals clung to their belief in the invisible hand of the markets. They looked insensitive to the hopelessness of those who were victims of the change of regime.

Another problem was the quality of the personnel in the ministries. By the second half of the Kádár regime the quality of the higher echelon of the ministries was high in comparison to the other socialist countries. Since then, the quality of the leading government officials has deteriorated. In addition, every four years each new prime minister decided to reorganize the whole government structure. Magyar is especially critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision in 2006 to eliminate the position of “administrative undersecretary,” the person who was in charge of the everyday running of the ministry. Gyurcsány also made the mistake of placing the police under the ministry of justice, which “the doctrinaire liberals” liked because it fulfilled their desire to have control over the police, but in the fall of 2006 the minister of justice, a former professor of law, turned out to be unfit for the job.

Finally, Magyar bemoans the weakness of the Hungarian system of institutions that were supposed to provide those checks and balances that guarantee the democratic functioning of the state. Way before 2010, racist talk and action became commonplace and was tolerated. And, Magyar asks, didn’t László Sólyom’s silence after the formation of the Hungarian Guard in 2007 contribute to the increasing acceptance of racism? Or, when he reacted far too late to the serial killing of Romas in 2008 and 2009? Or what about the courts that waited until the Hungarian Guard had grown into a sizable force and then took years to disband it?

The Constitutional Court also played a role in the demise of the Third Republic. Magyar mentions two milestones in the twenty-year history of the court. The first, when in 1995 the court ruled against a large portion of the austerity program of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, which wanted to put an end to the populist policies practiced in Hungary. With this act the Court made “equitable and rational political discourse” impossible. And in 2008 the Court gave its blessing to a Fidesz referendum question on the annulment of college tuition fees and co-payments at doctor’s offices. Some members of the “independent” Constitutional Court were politically motivated in this case. Their decision heightened the population’s “unrealistic expectations and paralyzed the government’s capacity to act.” Indeed, this was the last nail in the coffin of the Third Republic.

The Hungarian government under domestic and foreign pressure

As I’m writing this post thousands are again demonstrating against the government. The crowd gathered in front of the parliament, which one of the organizers called “the puppet show,” and then is heading toward the Castle District, where Viktor Orbán is planning to move. The move will cost an incredible amount of money but, as one of the undersecretaries in the prime minister’s office said, the citizens of Hungary will be really happy once the prime minister moves to quarters befitting his position. Given the mood of these crowds, I very much doubt that that will be the case. The good citizens of Hungary who are out on the street actually wish Orbán not to the Castle District but straight to hell.

The demonstration was organized against corruption but, as usually happens at these mass demonstrations, the crowd went beyond the limited goal of the organizers and demanded the resignation of Viktor Orbán and his government. Fidesz politicians, it seems, have been caught flat-footed. They surely believed that these demonstrations would peter out. Winter is approaching and Christmas will soon be upon us. It was hoped that people would be busy shopping and preparing for family gatherings. But this time they were wrong. Suddenly something inexplicable happened: the totally lethargic Hungarian public was awakened. What happened? After all, the misuse of power and the network of corruption have been features of the Orbán regime ever since 2010 and yet the public was not aroused against its unrelenting abuse of power. Most people knew that Fidesz politicians are corrupt and that they stuff their pockets with money stolen from the public, but they felt powerless to do anything about it.

I see a number of reasons for this change in the Hungarian political atmosphere. I would start with the influence of the book Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State, edited by Bálint Magyar, in which dozens of political scientists, economists, sociologists, and media experts published articles that presented for the first time a comprehensive picture of the institutionalized corruption which is the hallmark of the Fidesz regime. Fairly quickly the terms “mafia state” and “mafia government” became part of everyday vocabulary, and the government’s dealings came to be understood within the context of The Godfather. The sinister nature of the enterprise was slowly grasped.

A second reason for the optimism and activism was the success of the first two mass demonstrations against the “internet tax.” Viktor Orbán had to retreat. If he retreated once, more demonstrations might force him to reverse earlier decisions. The success of the first demonstrations gave impetus to the others.

Last but not least was the Hungarian government’s own stupidity when it decided to leak the news about American dissatisfaction with the National Tax Authority and the corrupt officials who tried extract kickbacks from at least one American company. Hungarians expected their politicians to be corrupt, but the news that high officials at the Hungarian Tax Authority were also on the take was too much for them. Moreover, they felt that they now have an ally, the United States of America.

According to most observers, U.S.-Hungarian relations are at their lowest point since the post-1956 period. U.S. policy toward Hungary seems to me at least to be finely calibrated. At the beginning we were told about the six unnamed people who were barred from entering the United States. A few days later we learned that the president of the Tax Authority was definitely on the list. A few more days and we were told that the president is not the only person on the list, there are a couple more. Another week went by and André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires, indicated that there might be more Hungarians who would face the same fate as the six already on the list. Another few days and we learned from the American chargé that he had given the Hungarian government all the information necessary for investigating the cases. And it was not the “useless scrap of paper” Viktor Orbán pointed to. In plain language, we found out once again that the Hungarian government lies. And yesterday we learned from an interview with Goodfriend that the sin of Tax Office Chief Ildikó Vida goes beyond not investigating obvious corruption cases within her office; she herself was an active participant in the corruption scheme at her office. Of course, Vida is outraged, but she cannot do more than write an open letter to Goodfriend claiming innocence. As time goes by the Hungarian government is increasingly embroiled in a web of lies and Orbán’s regime comes to resemble ever more closely the government of a third-rate banana republic.

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

While the State Department is using the corruption cases as a club, Senator John McCain is pursuing his own individual crusade. The senator, who is no friend of Putin, has been keeping an eye on Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state and found it to be troubling. What we saw two days ago was his frustration that Hungary will again have a political appointee as an ambassador. As he emphasized over and over, Hungary is a very important country that deserves a professional diplomat. His outburst about Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator” was a bit strong, although Orbán’s system does have features in common with some of the fascist regimes of the past. But the Hungarian charge that McCain is ignorant of the Hungarian political situation is entirely baseless. Once he calmed down, he put it into writing what he finds objectionable about Orbán’s illiberal state. At the time of the release of his statement on Hungary he wrote a brief tweet saying, “Deeply concerned by PM Orban eroding democracy, rule of law, civil society & free press in Hungary.”

Below I republish Senator McCain’s statement on Hungary because I find it important and because it proves that, regardless of what the Hungarian government says, McCain (undoubtedly with the help of his staff) knows what he is talking about.

Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, antidemocratic constitutional changes have been enacted, the independence of Hungary’s courts have been restricted, nongovernmental organizations raided and civil society prosecuted, the freedom of the press curtailed, and much more. These actions threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance and have left me deeply concerned about the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary.

These concerns are shared by many. A ruling by the Venice Commission in 2013 found that Prime Minister Orban’s constitutional changes threaten democracy and rule of law in Hungary, stating that the amendments ‘contradict principles of the Fundamental Law and European standards,’ and ‘leads to a risk that it may negatively affect all three pillars of the Council of Europe: the separation of powers as an essential tenet of democracy, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.’

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned Hungary’s media laws, saying that they create a climate of fear and media self-censorship, even after critical changes were made to account for previous complaints from the European Commission. ‘The changes to the Hungarian media law only add to the existing concerns over the curbing of critical or differing views in the country,’ said Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE’s representative on Freedom of the Media.

The European Central Bank has repeatedly warned that Prime Minister Orban’s government is encroaching on the independence of its central bank, calling for him to respect the independence of monetary policymakers and condemning attempts by the government to threaten central bankers with dismissal if they oppose government policy.

And just last month, six Hungarians were banned from entering the United States over alleged corruption. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires André Goodfriend reportedly called the ban a warning to reverse policies that threaten democratic values, citing ‘negative disappointing trends’ in Hungary and a ‘weakening of rule of law, attacks on civil society, [and] a lack of transparency.’

Democracy without respect for rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of economic, civil, and religious liberties is not only inadequate, it is dangerous. It brings with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and economic restrictions – all of which we have witnessed in Hungary since Prime Minister Orban took power. Prime Minister Orban has justified his actions by calling for a new state model based on ‘illiberal democracy,’ but his vision defies the core values of the European Union and NATO. These alliances are founded not only on the principle of democracy, but also rule of law and the protection of individual liberty and fundamental freedoms. All members must remain committed to these values.

Meanwhile both Hungarian and foreign newspapers are full of stories about the demonstrations and about McCain’s characterization of Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator.” As the Hungarian prime minister continues to come under attack, both from within and from without, it’s unclear how he will fight back and how effective his counterattack will be. If the proposed Sunday store closings are any indication of the government’s new game plan, the counterattack will be a colossal failure.