Tag Archives: Béla Markó

What went wrong in 1990?

This year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Hungarian democracy after fifty years of Soviet domination. To mark the occasion a number of books, articles, and reminiscences will be published. Several interviews with people politically active in those days have already appeared.

These new studies and memoirs will complement books that have already been published dealing with the two or three years preceding the opening of parliament on May 2, 1990. Of course, there are at least two narratives of the same story, but I consider Zoltán Ripp’s Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest, 2006) a book that will have a significant impact on the public assessment of these events for a long time to come. Ripp, as a good historian should, tried to give a balanced view, yet it was obvious that his sympathies lay with those people who later formed the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). I’m unaware of a comparable work written from the point of view of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), although I just read that Imre Kónya, who later became minister of the interior in the Boross government (December 13, 1993-July 14, 1994), is in the process of writing his reminiscences of the period. Of course, the memoirs of a politician, however valuable, cannot be compared to a scholarly work with thousands of footnotes.

Two biographies of József Antall, the first prime minister of the post-communist era, appeared earlier. The first, Antall József távolról (József Antall from Afar), was written by Sándor Révész, a journalist at Népszabadság. It was published in 1996, three years after Antall’s death, not enough time for a balanced assessment. In 2006 József Debreczeni came out with A miniszterelnök (The Prime Minister), which suffers from Debreczeni’s undisguised admiration for Antall.

To understand the political situation twenty-five years ago it is important to recall the results of the elections of 1990 which took place on March 25 and April 8. Considering that it was the first free election after so many years, voter turnout was relatively low: 65%. MDF received 24.7%, SZDSZ 21.4%, the Smallholders 11.7%, MSZP 10.9%, Fidesz 8.9%, and the Christian Democrats 6.4%. MDF couldn’t form a government alone. Eventually, Antall opted for a coalition of MDF, the Smallholders, and the Christian Democrats. The opposition, all from the left of center, were the liberal SZDSZ (93 seats) and Fidesz (21 seats) in addition to MSZP (33 seats). A “grand coalition” of MDF and SZDSZ was out of the question for Antall and other important MDF leaders.

Although it is fashionable on the right to blame SZDSZ for the very sharp divide between the two political groupings, it was not a one-way street. A hatred of SZDSZ was widely shared in MDF political circles. The above-mentioned Imre Kónya published a short article in Magyar Nemzet a few days ago in which he recalls a conversation with Antall during the coalition negotiations. The future prime minister told Kónya that he didn’t want to govern with the liberals because “once they establish themselves in some of the ministries not even God Almighty will be able to get rid of them.” Yet, given the Hungarian constitutional set-up, Antall was forced to come to an arrangement with SZDSZ to ensure the relative stability of his government.

Today some critics, even former members of MDF like Károly Herényi, think that Antall made a huge mistake when he decided to form a coalition of three parties, all from the right. The problems facing the country were so great and the road ahead so difficult that a “grand coalition” would have been the only sensible move. Such an arrangement would have spread the responsibility for the very unpopular measures that lay ahead. And common governing may have blunted the sharp differences between the two groups.

Ever since 2010 there have been signs of a softening of the opposition’s very negative opinion of József Antall. Those who criticized him for years now think much more highly of the former prime minister. This is not surprising after five years of Viktor Orbán. Most people stress the fact that, despite all his faults, he was a steadfast supporter of parliamentary democracy, which is more than one can say about the current holder of the office.

And yet, although MDF could certainly have made a worse choice, Antall’s background and his immersion in Hungarian history didn’t prepare him to lead a new Hungary. This may sound odd coming from a historian, but let me explain what I mean. Normally, one would think that being well versed in history ought to be an asset for a politician. Yes, but not when the history of the country offers no viable models for a democratic future. Moreover, Antall by upbringing brought along the thinking of the “keresztény úriosztály” who were the main supporters of the Horthy regime. What do we mean by “keresztény úriosztály”? Another difficult term to translate. It was a group of upper middle class people, often of gentry background. The majority were Catholics, and many of them were either civil servants or were employed by the municipalities. József Antall, Sr. belonged to this class and held high civil service positions during the Horthy era. József, Jr. naturally attended a Catholic school, the famous Piarist gymnasium in Budapest. Throughout his youth he was steeped in that culture.

Source: www.piarist.hu

József Antall with István Jelenits, Piarist theologian and writer / Source: www.piarist.hu

With this background came a heightened nationalist fervor, which was an important ingredient of post-Trianon Hungary. Imre Kónya in an interview recently explained that what made him an opponent of the Kádár regime was not only the lack of democracy and freedom but also the want of nationalism. Although he sympathized with the fierce anti-communism of SZDSZ, it was the MDF leaders’ nationalism that induced him to join the party. After all, Antall was the one who announced that in spirit he wants to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians, which raised quite a few eyebrows. This nationalism has been the hallmark of the Hungarian right ever since. Unfortunately, in today’s world this nationalism can lead only to isolation and conflict.

The other day I talked about RMDSZ, the Hungarian ethnic political party in Romania. I mentioned its former chairman, Béla Markó, who just yesterday published a remarkable opinion piece in Népszabadság. He was talking about May 9, Europe-Day. He concluded his piece with these words: “Today we celebrate that day [May 9] as Europe Day, when the idea of European cooperation proved to be more important than the delusions of nation states because in a common Europe nations can breathe more freely than they can being locked up in their own hubris. I don’t know whether this will happen or not. But it should happen this way.” An indictment of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism.

Romanian-Hungarian relations: Ethnic strife and corruption

The first Orbán government, between 1998 and 2002, managed to alienate practically all of its neighbors, so the past five years can be viewed as something of an improvement. Budapest now proudly claims to have excellent relations with Slovakia and Serbia. Relations with Croatia are less rosy, and as far as Romania is concerned, the two countries’ relationship is outright disastrous. Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Victor Ponta of Romania have never officially met. I don’t know about Orbán, but Ponta said that he has no intention of meeting face to face with his Hungarian namesake.

There are several reasons for the strained relations between the two countries, chief among them the Orbán government’s constant interference in the affairs of the large Hungarian minority in Romania. There exists an ethnic Hungarian party in Romania, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ) or Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which since 1996 has often been part of the government. RMDSZ is a right-of-center party whose leaders always had better relations with Fidesz than with the socialist-liberal governments. For many years the chairman of the party was Béla Markó, a poet of some renown. In 2011 he was followed by Hunor Kelemen, another writer. I don’t follow Hungarian ethnic politics in Romania, but my impression is that Kelemen has much closer ties with the current Hungarian government than his predecessor did. Moreover, while Markó used to be proud of his party’s achievements as far as the rights of the Hungarian minority were concerned, Kelemen is much more critical of Bucharest and often harshly criticizes Romanian minority policies. Only a few days ago he complained to the president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, about the grievances of the Hungarian minority. Kelemen reproached the Venice Commission for praising Romania’s minority policy without consulting with RMDSZ, the representative of that minority.

But there are other issues of more recent vintage. One is Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which Romania, boxed in between a less than friendly Russia on the east and a pro-Russian Hungary on the west, disapproves of. Another matter that divides the two countries is that while Hungary has been pursuing a less than friendly foreign policy toward the United States and is a very unwilling participant in the trans-atlantic alliance, Romania wholeheartedly supports it. From the vantage point of Brussels and Washington, Romania is a country that is heading in the right direction while Hungary is not.

In the last few years there were relatively few meetings between the Romanian and Hungarian foreign ministers. The last time a Hungarian foreign minister visited Bucharest was in 2013. Last February Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlățean was in Budapest, but it was not an official visit. He came to meet the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four.

But now Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu came to Budapest on official business. He and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, were supposed to sign a memorandum on minorities: Hungarians in Romania and Romanians in Hungary. According to the 2011 census there are 1,227,623 Hungarians in Romania and 35,641 Romanians in Hungary. Although apparently both sides wanted to sign the memorandum, at the end the two foreign ministers couldn’t agree on any of the ethnic issues. During the meeting they did sign some agreements on roads to be built and the opening of border crossings, but the ethnic issues seemed to be insurmountable. According to vs.hu, an internet news site, Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of minority policies, put pressure on Szijjártó not to move an inch on certain issues.

Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó / MTI-MTVA / Photo: Tibor Illyés

Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó / MTI-MTVA / Photo: Tibor Illyés

One topic that came up in the conversation will add to the poisonous relations between the two countries. That is the case of Attila Markó, a Romanian-Hungarian politician, who is currently sought after by Interpol and who is hiding in Budapest. And that takes us to the Romanian Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie/DNA) and its fearless prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi.

I first read about her in a fairly lengthy New York Times article. Although DNA was originally established by the Romanian government in 2003 to placate the European Union, apparently the Romanians never meant it to be a serious corruption-fighting agency. Once Kövesi took over, however, things changed radically. Since 2013 several very important Romanian politicians have been charged and found guilty, including former prime minister Adrian Năstase and Dan Voiculescu, a politician and businessman who received a 10-year jail term for money laundering.

DNA became interested in Attila Markó, a member of the Romanian parliament and earlier undersecretary in charge of minority affairs. Markó was a member of the committee responsible for the restitution for confiscated property during Romania’s communist period. According to the charge, Markó and seven other members of the committee overpaid the claimants to the tune of 85 million euros. Markó in an interview with András Stumpf of Mandiner expressed his distrust of the Romanian justice system. In addition, he claimed that “the Romanian state is using the fight against corruption to decapitate the Hungarian political elite. To date there were too few Hungarians among those arrested.” So, Markó wants to make an ethnic issue out of a possible corruption case.

Of course, I have no idea whether Markó is innocent or guilty, but his claim that DNA is after him because of his ethnicity doesn’t ring true. After all, all eight members of this particular committee have been charged, and surely not all of them are Hungarians. Moreover, Laura Kövesi (née Laura Lascu) has lived all her life in near proximity of Hungarians. She was born in the county seat of Kovászna/Kovasna County, a predominantly Hungarian town in the middle of the Szekler region of Transylvania. She attended law school in Cluj/Kolozsvár, which also has a fairly large Hungarian population. And finally, judging from the name by which she is known today, she is or was married to a Hungarian. So, all in all, I doubt that Markó’s accusation is well founded.

Markó’s name apparently came up during the negotiations between Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó. The Romanian foreign minister asked his colleague to inform the appropriate authorities about the international warrant issued for the arrest of Attila Markó, but Szijjártó refused to get involved, claiming that the foreign ministry has no authority in such matters.

I’m certain that we will hear the name of Attila Markó in the coming months because I doubt that the Hungarian authorities will extradite Markó to Romania. The Orbán government, which already has the reputation of doing nothing to combat the rampant corruption in Hungary, will now be in the unenviable position of harboring an allegedly corrupt politician from Romania.