Tag Archives: Central European University

Johanna Laakso: Friends and foes of “freedom”

Johanna Laakso is a professor in the Finno-Ugric Department of the Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft at the University of Vienna. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki, where she also taught until 2000, when she moved to the University of Vienna. Besides her native Finnish, she speaks English, German, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Russian, and French. Professor Laakso is known to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum as Sentrooppa-Santra and is one of our frequent contributors on linguistic topics as well as on politics.  In 2014, at my request, she wrote a post when the Orbán government established one of its newfangled institutes, the Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet (Hungarian Language Strategy Institute). Her article, “Brave New Linguistics,” not only informed us about this institute but also summarized some of the most important developments in the study of linguistics in Hungary over the last couple of centuries.

The Finnish original of this article was published on Professor Laakso’s blog at http://sentrooppasantra.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/vapauden-ystavat-ja-viholliset/

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Mária Schmidt should already be known to the readers of this blog. She is a kind of a court historian of Viktor Orbán, and the general public will probably know her as the director of the “House of Terror” in Budapest, the museum which in a somewhat debated manner shows the Nazi and the Communist dictatorship as two parallel cases. She also played a very visible role in the official programme of the recent memorial year of the revolution of 1956. In her research career, she has worked with the history of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and the fates of minorities in Hungary in the turmoils of 20th-century dictatorships. She also teaches at the Catholic Pázmány university in Piliscsaba. According to the Hungarian Wikipedia, she was ranked by the Napi.hu portal as the 30th most influential person in Hungary in 2017, which is probably due to her political connections rather than to her academic merits. In the years 1998–2002, Schmidt was officially the counsellor of the Prime Minister, and now she leads one of the new research institutes founded by the government: on its homepage, the XXI. Század Intézet (21st Century Institute) states that its tasks comprise “supporting research on politics and numerous other activities connected to the research of politics”.

These numerous other activities, in turn, obviously include a fresh publication which appeared in early December: the book by Mária Schmidt, entitled Nyelv és szabadság (‘Language and Freedom’). Curious to know what Schmidt, a historian, has to say about language, I ordered the book for my holiday reading, despite certain forebodings. Sadly enough, the reality was even more terrible. In what follows, I’ll try to analyze my bewilderment at Schmidt’s book.

The Enemies: Muslim immigrants, left-wing liberal elite, Soros

The book is a compilation of Schmidt’s political columns and opinion pieces from the last couple of years. These texts do not form a logically ordered whole but mostly repeat the same things with slightly different words. Moreover, they do not attempt to argue or to give reasons. It seems that the goal is simply to hammer the basic ideas into the readers’ heads: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what is the real problem in today’s political situation. For the problems, three culprits are identified. First, the “migrants”, especially Muslim ones. Second, the left-wing liberal elites and decision-makers who invite and bring them to Europe, especially the German Chancellor Merkel and her associates. And third, behind all these, pulling the strings – ta-dah, George Soros!

Why “The Man in a Bowler Hat” by René Magritte was chosen as the cover illustration remains a mystery. True, Schmidt’s book does emanate a surreal atmosphere.

The immigrants who flooded Europe in 2015 are, of course, no real “refugees” (menekült), as the “left-wing liberal media” want to call them. In Schmidt’s opinion, they all, as a caste (no exceptions are mentioned), constitute a “mobile intifada”. The “migrants” are violent, they are murderers and rapists, they are men “of fighting age” (katonakorú), they come from “areas controlled by jihadists” (p. 139), they are “militant, combat-trained troops” (p. 132), and their “luggage most certainly is full of weapons, drugs and who knows what” (p. 134). They behave rudely and insolently, even towards the “patient and humane” Hungarian authorities, do not show gratitude for the help they are given, they expect a Western European standard of living without any duties. Their goal, and the goal of Islam in general, always and everywhere, is of course to conquer and repopulate Europe. For Schmidt, Islam is not a world religion with zillions of different interpretations and practices in different environments and traditions (as is the case with Christianity as well) but a monolithic system for terror and world domination. Accordingly, the Muslim invaders do not represent different nations, cultures, or political systems: a herdsboy from a tribal village in Afghanistan and a middle-class urban entrepreneur from Syria are both part of a homogeneous mass of “Muslims”, and behind all of them looms a mysterious power with oil and money.

The flood of immigrants is made possible by the fact that Europe, after losing its national values, has turned powerless, spineless, and unable to defend itself. The words in its languages have lost their meaning, due to the tyranny of political correctness, and the political organs of the EU are held captive by the Marxist elite. What is even worse, this elite has the nerve to criticize Hungary, for instance for harassing NGOs, for closing the archive museum of György Lukács (Schmidt: only because Lukács was a Communist!) or for terminating the newspaper Népszabadság.

As for Népszabadság, the paper of the state-holding party in the party state, it is a shame that even in 2017, there can be members of the European Parliament who dare to position themselves in support of a former Communist paper! As if some thirty years ago people had worried about the fate of the Völkischer Beobachter! (p. 197)

A particularly ferocious attack is directed at Angela Merkel (who, according to Smith, hates Europeans and especially Germans, because of their Nazi past…) and at Germany as a whole: Germany is not only burdened by its Nazi past, but Socialism as well was invented in Germany, Schmidt reminds. The EU, in turn, is in practice ruled by Germany, because Germany more than any other country profits from the EU. Schmidt also plays the Nazi card (“the dream of a unified Europe was already cherished by Hitler”, p. 130), as at the end of the following example, invoking an association to the concentration camp transports:

A normal man or boy will know his duties and defend his wife, daughter, mother, or sister. Only these Germans of today have turned so brain-washed and unmanly that they are not even capable of that. The Merkelian language has by now depoliticized and thus debilitated the whole public discourse in Germany. Not only because it is endlessly tedious and monotonous, but because it lacks any content, because it never says anything, it means just letting out hot air. Merkel let the flood of Muslim migrants invade Europe without showing any need to argue for her strategy or to make her strategy public. The German citizens are content with Wir schaffen das. As if they were merely facing a logistic challenge. These people will arrive here, be collected and selected here, divided into quotas there, and then transported to their goals. If only this logistically oriented mode of action were not so familiar already! (p. 29)

The reason for the weakness of German or, more generally, Western elites is that they have failed in their Vergangenheitsbewältigung, dealing with the past. Schmidt thinks that the Western upper class and intellectuals are clinging to their victim status and guilt. Because “only the victim deserves attention, recognition, and privilege” (p. 48), elites and privileged, well-to-do groups also want to be victims. This gives rise to #metoo campaigns, the collective self-castigation in the spirit of “collective guilt” which is continuously practised especially by Germans, or more generally, the mania of former colonial overlords to blame themselves for all possible wrongdoings the colonized peoples have experienced. (As Schmidt reminds, Hungary, in contrast, has never colonized any country. Of course, one might ask how the Magyarization policies of the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy towards its ethnic minorities in the late 19th century prepared ground for the ethnic conflicts which took place throughout the 20th century. But this is probably not the proper place to discuss these issues.)

This situation, then, creates new opportunities for those interested in “migrant business”. The immigrants are not invading Europe merely out of their own free will or driven by their Islamic ideology, but they are being invited, directed, and transported. This is done by fake NGOs “intertwined with human trafficking gangs”, by diverse human rights organizations and the European Court of Human Rights and other organs of justice, whose actions are causing disaster “like a loose cannon” (p. 133) – because “invoking the state of law means questioning the people’s representation”, it amounts to “juristocracy” (p. 202). For these organizations, human rights are a “rubber concept” which they can “extend and apply at will, depending on each current need” (p. 175). (What “extending human rights” in this respect might mean is not explained in more detail, nor are examples given.) The fake NGOs, in turn, are funded especially by George Soros, the super-villain as shown to the people of Hungary in recent hate propaganda campaigns; Schmidt quite seriously compares Soros with the mighty villains who aspire to world domination in James Bond films.

Both the left-wing liberal elites and the decision-making machinery of the EU are controlled by Soros, Schmidt claims. As evidence for this, she mentions the “gas pipe Socialists” who after or alongside their political career have turned into lobbyists of big enterprises, and – believe or not – the fact that Saturday Night Live once called Soros “the owner of the Democrat Party”. If even the authors of a political satire show “treat this like a fact”, it must be a fact…

Whatever motivates Soros and his buddies to do this (beyond the simple fact of being evil) is hardly taken into scrutiny, no explanations are sought. Is “migrant business” really that profitable? Schmidt does claim that the “migrant business” is based on Western enterprises’ need for cheap labour, but elsewhere (p. 139, for example) she states that the “migrants” are unwilling to work (and unable as well, being largely uneducated analphabets), especially for small wages: they merely expect a comfortable life on welfare.

In any case, alongside the Soros network or the Soros plan there exists even a “Sorosism” or a “Sorosist world view”, probably roughly the same thing as the ideology of the “left-wing liberal elite”. The Central European University was also founded to spread this Sorosist ideology, and there – as in Anglophone universities in general – nobody will be accepted or given the floor who does not agree with “militant Sorosists”… But of course, the 87-year-old Soros is not operating alone, but probably he is being used as a gallion figure by “groups behind him who represent a certain part [egy meghatározott rész] of international speculative capital” (p. 250). Who or what are the people who constitute this “certain part”? No answer is given, but I’m afraid that many readers will find one in no time.

The Heroes: “Populists”, “Patriots” – and especially Viktor Orbán

The opposite to the opportunism and indifference of the “elite” and also the target of the elite’s implacable hate are those whom the elite dubs “populists”.

Populist is what they call a politician who is doing what the voters are expecting from him/her. In other words, a democrat. (p. 14; Schmidt presents this as a quotation from The Spectator, no more precise source is given)

Among those who are called “populists”, especially Eastern Europeans, those to whom Schmidt often refers with the pronouns (“we”, “us”) or inflection forms of the first person plural (“we know”), are particularly dangerous to the Western villains and importers of immigrants. The reason is that these “we” have already during Soviet times learnt to recognize the “Communist, Trotskyist, later Post-Communist or left-wing” (p. 93) method by which the innocent are made guilty and the hostile invaders glorified as heroes. These people, therefore, are immune to the propaganda of Soros and the arrogant Western cultural Marxists, because they still retain their national basic values and a self-respect based on them, which gives them courage.

Courage or audacity (bátorság), in turn, is the central characteristic which Schmidt in one of the last chapters of the book attributes to Viktor Orbán. Audacity is shown, for example, in the campaign to lower utility costs (rezsi), even called “the rezsi fight” (a trick by which especially elderly voters are made happy by seemingly smaller gas and electricity bills). To Schmidt, organizing “national consultations” also counts as an example of audacity, as they are based on the audacious idea that “outside of the elite, even other people can have an opinion which counts” (p. 217). (And this opinion can be expressed by checking a “yes” or “no” box following a suggestive and weighted question.) In general, audacity constitutes the core of Orbán’s political credo:

We should not wonder if these groups, lacking and not understanding any quality, are irritated by Orbán, the freedom fighter. The same Viktor Orbán who on the 16th of June in 1989, at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, on the Heroes’ Square in Budapest burst into the world of politics, being the first one in the whole region to publicly demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from the country. This required real audacity, as only twelve days earlier, on the Tiananmen square in Beijing students demanding democracy had been murdered in heaps.

This myth of young Orbán as the first one who dared to challenge the occupation forces of the collapsing empire has, in fact, already been debunked. Already in March 1989, an agreement with the Soviet Union about the withdrawal of the occupation forces had been made, that is, three months before Orbán’s speech, and in April the first Soviet soldiers had already left the country. The agreement was not yet public knowledge, but the committee in charge of the reburial ceremonies was informed, and they had also discussed the issue with Orbán. The reference to China is also somewhat baffling: basically the same regime which had freedom-loving students shot to death is still holding the power, and recently, Orbán has made demonstrative approaches to the decision-makers in China. But obviously Schmidt trusts her fearless and clear-sighted readers not to draw any further conclusions.

Time for confrontation

A major part of the bewilderment which Schmidt’s book can cause in a reader outside her target group is due to style. Although the text is written for a broad and general readership, an academic author, a university teacher, might be expected to base the credibility of her text on rational and logical argumentation. One would thus naïvely expect neutral formulations which strive to objectivity and avoid a heated, emotional tone. However, Schmidt writes in the style of an agitator in early 20th century. She is not afraid of vulgar and colloquial expressions such as komcsi ‘Commie’, migránssimogató (could be freely translated as ‘migrant hugger’), or mocskos bolsi ‘filthy Bolshie’.

Schmidt’s most essential rhetoric tool is confrontation and one-dimensional highlighting and exaggeration of opposites. Whoever fails to support us and our basic values, whoever dares to criticize something we have done or said is not just positioning herself/himself as the infallible supreme judge of all deeds, s/he is our adversary in all respects and the enemy of anything good and noble. There are no options and no nuances, there are only good guys and bad guys. In politics, the choice is only between unconditional loyalty, “adoration” and “implacable hatred”.

There is a remarkable connection in how, when the USA is led by a God-fearing, conservative and value-based government, the anti-Americanism of the left-wing elite in Europe knows no limits, but when a government representing the opposite values takes over, the same Europeans suddenly start adoring America. (p. 21)

If Western European left-wing politicians criticize the policies of Hungary, this means also implying that they alone are entitled to judge others’ actions. Voicing criticism of the actions of Hungarian authorities means denying the sovereignty of the Hungarian nation. Diversity of values and cultures, cultural tolerance, the usual blah-blah of Western liberals, means hating one’s own traditional culture or a “war on traditional values”: Schmidt seems to think that appreciating a foreign culture necessarily means despising one’s own. Acknowledging the value of third-world cultures or the wrongs which third-world nations have experienced means, in Schmidt’s interpretation, that these cultures are considered “more valuable”. Similarly, speaking of the universal human rights of refugees means demanding “privileges” for “invaders”, speaking of the crimes of colonial rulers means denying “that mass murders ever happened in other parts of the world”, and fostering religious freedom and diversity of religion is, of course, “an attack against Christianity”.

This continuous simplification of a diversity of issues into one-dimensional oppositions gives rise to an endless parade of straw men. The liberals of Europe, Schmidt claims, want to “delete the borders” and make “unlimited immigration” possible. They prohibit and censor: Schmidt has also found a reference to a statement given by the German journalist Claudia Zimmermann in a Dutch radio broadcast. Allegedly, Zimmermann claimed that the WDR channel had instructed its employees to report about the refugee crisis in a positive tone, in line with the German government (WDR has demented this claim, while Zimmermann has retracted her statement and apologized for the misunderstanding). Schmidt’s army of straw men also includes the popular allegation that Western liberals do not condemn violations of human rights or equality if committed by Muslims. No examples, of course, and no evidence.

Moreover: it is claimed that liberal elites want to delete gender roles and genders or sexes in general. A good old strawman is brought forward again: “men should no more be called men, women should not be called women”. Concerning political correctness, one of the last chapters presents a rich collection of urban legends and fake news. Schmidt, as we are informed, is well acquainted with Anglophone universities which now are devoted to the “self-realization” of narcissist individuals in the spirit of the post-truth era. Wishing somebody “merry Christmas” is now automatically considered a hate crime, says Schmidt. A Canadian professor of psychology is threatened by jail after he refused to use neologistic gender-neutral pronouns in referring to persons of trans- or non-binary gender. (Refusing to conform to the university code of conduct also as concerns the use of gendered vocabulary might in principle be a problem even in the light of the new Canadian criminal code, but nevertheless the claims of prison punishment are grossly exaggerated, jurists say). Schmidt also claims that at the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, philosophers from Plato to Immanuel Kant have been included into the index of forbidden books because they were white and male; in fact, a demand of “decolonising the syllabus” was presented by students at some point but never taken seriously. And, as you may have heard, at university campuses in the English-speaking world normal relationships between men and women have become impossible, says Schmidt, because male students are so often terrorized by made-up charges of rape or sexual harassment…

Owls and sparrows

Already somewhere in the first part of the book, I found myself scribbling not only question and exclamation marks to its margins but also the letter combination BV as a note to myself. In my head, I kept hearing the Hungarian saying Bagoly mondja verébnek, hogy nagyfejű (‘The owl says to the sparrow that it has a big head’), the equivalent of “the pot calling the kettle black”. Take, for instance, the above-mentioned claim about how German journalists are instructed to report on the refugee crisis. How can Schmidt claim something like this while her own government has turned the state-controlled media channels into a propaganda tube of the Fidesz party and redistributed most of the existing traditional media outlets to certain circles close to the government? Or how does the alleged double standard of Merkel’s Germany, friendliness to the West and coldness towards Eastern Europe, differ from the political “peacock dance”, as Orbán himself has called his European policy?

“Owls and sparrows” together with diverse logical somersaults of similar character can be found on almost each and every page of the book. For example, Schmidt sneers at the Western elites who whine about their sufferings, without seeing the central role of ritualized self-pity (“boo hoo, our nation has suffered more than any other people in the world”) in Hungarian patriotism ever since the 16th century. The Western Marxist elite (?!) is accused of still concealing and downplaying the crimes of Socialist systems – but this is also done by the Orbán government, which still refuses to publish all the names of collaborator agents in the Kádár era. (According to the historian Krisztián Ungváry, this is already a tradition in post-transition Hungary; different governments have chosen to keep the names secret in order to be able to use the data for political blackmailing.)

The Western Marxist elite, says Schmidt, “will not tolerate debate, open discussion, arguments” (p. 182). Instead of critical thinking, they will repeat mantras and readymade formulations sent in from Berlin (as from Moscow in olden times), because “it is much easier to incite hatred and excommunicate all those who ask and argue than to invest effort into tinkering with the answers” (p. 74). Does it ever occur to Schmidt that this excellently applies to the campaigns against immigration and George Soros as orchestrated by the Hungarian government in the last few years, or to the way in which Orbán and his government avoid all questions and criticism from the opposition? In analysing the programme speech of the rector of the CEU (or “Soros University”), Schmidt points out that Rector Ignatieff will not bother to investigate the flaws of Communism separately but bundles it together with Stalinism – the same accusation, although in the other direction, has also been presented to Schmidt’s own “House of Terror”. And if Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! is an empty and void slogan, not saying anything about what and why (p. 248), in what respect is Orbán’s Magyarország jobban teljesít (‘Hungary performs better’) any better?

Moreover: in criticizing the “immigration business” Schmidt wonders what will happen to the migrants’ countries of origin, as they lose their educated young people to Europe. (Elsewhere in the book, she states that contrary to the expectations of Western liberals, most refugees are illiterate barbarians unable to get integrated.) Now this is a question we could ask of Hungary as well, considering the current exodus of educated and young people which has already led to shortage of trained labour in many areas, not only in the health care system. Schmidt can, of course, make sarcastic allegations to the behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker, “the leader of Europe who is in a very good mood already before noon”, and the notorious unclarities around his taxation. But take Viktor Orbán, who is also known for seldom refusing a good drink, with his rumoured mental health issues and with the dense cloud of suspicions of corruption surrounding him, his family and friends – is he any better?

In Austria, the decades of “red-black” (Social-Democrats and Conservatives) coalitions did lead to stagnation and “pillarization” of society on the basis of opportunistic party membership, but how can Schmidt criticize the role of party membership in recruitment or allocation of state funding in Austria, considering how critical media in Hungary has been almost completely silenced and the holders of numerous positions and offices owe maximal loyalty (and silence) to the ruling party? And when Schmidt writes about the Western elites who have ended up “lightyears away from those who do not belong to their circles, so that they will not understand each other any more” (p. 103), I must think of the strange charity action by Zoltán Balog, the minister for human resources, four years ago: Balog took 40 poor children to a posh restaurant to eat a fancy meal including, among other things, goose breast in calvados sauce.

And in general – Schmidt, as populist politicians and speakers in general, can rage against “elites” or the “upper class” without noticing that she herself, as holder of high academic and political positions, as a protegée of decision-makers, a businesswoman who a year ago bought the weekly paper Figyelő for 240 million forints, is irrefutably a member of the elite as well. Schmidt also confidently condemns the style and behaviour of today’s “left-wing elites” (“they lack good manners and refined style, they do not offer a model”, p. 154), obviously without asking herself how this relates to her own writing style.

The worse for the facts

Schmidt not only exaggerates and sets up strawmen, she also brazenly presents some completely untrue statements. In general, her pamphlet texts seldom argue, present facts or source references, but where there are references to facts or figures, these are sometimes modified or do not correspond to truth at all. For example, in Sweden, she claims, the Muslim immigration has led to a dramatic increase of rape and violence (in fact, the high rape rates in Sweden are due to the high readiness of victims to report these crimes – in contrast to many other countries – and very wide criteria of “rape”) and more than 15% (p. 59) – or “close to ten per cent” (p. 140) – of the population are Muslims. I don’t know where her figures come from, but this looks like a decimal error. According to the statistics of the central organ of religious communities in Sweden, the membership of all Islamic communities in sum amounts to some 140,000 people (less than 1.5% of the population). The Swedish Wikipedia gives inofficial estimates up to 400,000 but notes that these are based on the country of origin or on personal names and will not help to exclude secularized ex-Muslims or people of other affiliations (for instance, Christian immigrants from the Near East).

Some statements arouse the suspicion that Schmidt is relying on extreme right-wing alternative media with their alternative facts. (As for the so-called mainstream media in Germany at least, Schmidt claims that it has by now deserved the Nazi term Lügenpresse, ‘press of lies’.) At least one such source is mentioned by name: the German Udo Ulfkotte (1960–2017), a political journalist who after the turn of the millennium increasingly published on the alternative fora of extreme right-wing and racist circles. Similar sources are probably behind Schmidt’s statement (which I find difficult not to call a brazen lie) that Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in the Austrian presidential elections of 2016 was “rigged” (p. 152). In fact, there is a vast body of research and reporting on this issue.

The second round of the Austrian presidential elections in 2016, which Van der Bellen narrowly won against the right-wing populist (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, had to be repeated due to “irregularities” or what some would call typical Austrian sloppiness. In some electoral districts, postal vote envelopes had been opened too early, unauthorized people had been present at the counting of votes or observers had signed protocols without reading them. However, these were mostly electoral districts in the countryside where Hofer had won the vote, so that election fraud in the sense of really manipulating the votes would have required an incredibly cunning precision work. In fact, no evidence of manipulation of votes was ever presented, nor did the mathematical analysis conducted at the University of Michigan find any indications of fraud. Hofer and other FPÖ functionaries never presented any official and explicit accusations, but with continuous insinuations, they maintained suspicions of fraud among their supporters. Although Hofer admitted his defeat after the repeated election, the belief in electoral fraud continues to live on some right-wing populist fora, and Schmidt presents it as follows (this is also a nice example of her style):

Also in the Austrian election of 2016, they [= the left-wing elite] made fools of themselves. With organized fraud, although by a very narrow margin, they managed to get a typical Western politician elected, a representative of everything that we find impossible to accept or digest. A man with a Commie past [Van der Bellen has publicly admitted having voted for a Communist candidate back in his youth, at a local election – J.L.], a freemason, who later tried his luck among the Greens, now an “independent” candidate gathered to his supporters, perfectly naturally, all public figures from the past of Austria, to testify to the hopeless stagnation of the country’s political life. The left-wing liberal elite of Austria, which used to seize and still seizes every opportunity to lecture us, is still trying to hide the fact that the election had to be repeated due to organized and massive frauds and irregularities and international observers were invited for the new election round. This was an unprecedented election scandal in Europe. I hereby declare myself available as an observer, and if needs be, I can also give a short informative lecture on the importance of the integrity of free elections.

Language, freedom, and democracy?

The closing chapter is authored by Márton Békés, research director of the 21st Century Institute, a young historian already well known on certain right-wing fora. The chapter starts with these words (italics as in the original):

This book creates a home in the language. It deals with political freedom as an extension of freedom of language, and it restores the original meaning of words. While reinstantiating the meanings of concepts which already seemed to be disappearing, it will realize a conservative revolution and restore their origins. (…) The author joins Orwell in declaring: one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

Nevertheless, I don’t really understand what Schmidt’s book has to do with language. To me, it doesn’t seem very probable that Schmidt or his afterword author Békés have even read George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English language” (1946), from which they quote. In his essay, Orwell chastises the stupidities of political language use of his times: pretentious diction, vague and meaningless formulations, stale or crippled metaphors… He also gives insightfully chosen examples of different types of stupid texts – and the fourth of them, an excerpt from a contemporary Communist pamphlet, shows a haunting resemblance to Mária Schmidt’s writing. Similar pathetically serious attempts at sarcasm with scare quotes (“the best people”), similar exaggeratedly emotional, yet worn-out attributes, similar political or quasi-religious lingo which, in effect, serves to alienate anybody not devoted to the author’s cause. Just read the following example and compare it with the excerpts from Schmidt’s book given above.

All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Schmidt and Békés are not attempting to bring about “some improvement”; they are merely seeking the “right” language. Like many non-linguists they naïvely believe that each word has its “true” meaning, that is, the meaning that “we” use (and that who belongs to “us” and who doesn’t is a similarly self-evident issue). “Freedom” means freedom in our sense of the word, “corruption” is something that “they” have but “we” haven’t. And the political credo of our leader is based on “courage”, because we have decided to see things that way. This has nothing to do with the facts that this “courageous” leader has already long ago stopped giving interviews to other than his own trusted journalists (not to speak of risking a public debate with a political adversary), that he will answer an opposition politician’s unpleasant question by simply wishing her merry Christmas, or that he can have the protocols of debated political decisions declared secret (as in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant deal).

Freedom is an often-used decoy for freeing a people of its freedom, as the Finnish humorist Olli (Väinö Nuorteva) wrote already decades ago. There is nothing new in questionable uses of the word “freedom”. More interesting questions arise in connection with the concept of democracy or – this term surfaces a few times in this book – “majority democracy” (többségi demokrácia), which Márton Békés in his afterword connects with the concept of majority-rule democracy in the sense of the American right-wing politologist and philosopher Willmoore Kendall (1909–1967). But I will rather leave this to politologists. As a linguist, I’ll return to my own business, silently wondering how a university teacher and a professional scholar can produce – even in a book written for a general readership – such shallow text which seems to shun all rational argumentation.

December 28, 2017

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

George Soros and the mafia state: The Hungarian reaction

The Brussels Economic Forum (BEF) recently held its annual conference on economics and finance. BEF is a European Commission- sponsored organization where politicians and scholars deliver lectures, and where panel discussions are normally moderated by journalists. It is a truly international gathering. This year’s keynote speech, delivered by George Soros, created an uproar in Hungarian government circles.

The speech was mostly about the European Union’s precarious position given that it is confronted with powers that “are hostile to what [Europe] stands for”–“Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, and the America that Donald Trump would create if he could.” Soros talked about the need for “both salvation and radical reinvention” of the European Union. He addressed Brexit, the Eurozone, the migration crisis, and the banking crisis in Italy. It was at the very end of his short speech that he talked about the resistance of young people all over Europe and Great Britain against undemocratic right-wing parties and governments. He singled out “the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary.” He was most surprised and heartened by the resistance in Hungary to the Orbán government’s attack on Central European University, something he was not expecting. He added: “I admire the courageous way Hungarians have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state Orbán has established, and I am encouraged by the European institutions’ energetic response to the challenges emanating from Poland and Hungary. While the path ahead is perilous, I can clearly see in such struggles the prospect of the EU’s revival.”

George Soros had visited Brussels a few weeks ago to confer with EU politicians about the plight of Central European University, but otherwise he had remained silent on the subject. Nonetheless, for months he has been under relentless attack by the Orbán administration, so it was amusing that the first reaction to his speech from members of the Fidesz leadership was that Soros’s comments were a clarion call for war against the Orbán government. As Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz EP member, put it a few hours after the speech, “if it’s war, let it be war, we are ready.” By the next morning, when Viktor Orbán delivered his Friday morning “interview,” Soros’s critical words about the “mafia state” had become a “declaration of war.” Orbán said that if anything in Hungary can be called “mafia-like,” it is “the Soros-sponsored network of NGOs.” Fidesz filed a complaint with the European Commission, the sponsor of the Brussels Economic Forum. The party is looking for an explanation of how such comments could have been uttered at an event under the aegis of the European Commission.

It has been in the air for some time that certain Fidesz politicians are preparing themselves for renewed anti-government demonstrations sometime in the fall. If trends continue, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if spontaneous or quickly organized demonstrations would take place as soon as students return from their summer vacations. Most likely the Fidesz leaders feel the growing dissatisfaction, and they’re trying to lay the groundwork to counter such events. One way of handling such situations is to blame any kind of anti-governmental movement on a foreign culprit. And, of course, there is no more prominent culprit than George Soros. Antal Rogán, at one of his propaganda campaign stops, indicated that there might come a day when the police will have to use force against the demonstrators, who receive instructions in training camps and who provoke the police. He claimed to know about the existence of such training camps in Hungary. And who is behind these training camps? Naturally, the Soros-financed NGOs.

This nonsense is now being spread far and wide by the government propaganda machine. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of Magyar Idők and one of the most primitive Fidesz propagandists, is warning Viktor Orbán to be prepared for “blockades and the occupation of government buildings.” The organizers of the past demonstrations realized that “rallies with music and dance” are not effective enough, and therefore hard-core violent demonstrations might take place. Gajdics’s fear of such a development was reinforced by George Soros’s “message.” Soros said in his speech in Brussels that “it is not enough to rely on the rule of law to defend open societies; [one] must also stand up for what one believes.” As far as Gajdics is concerned, that is a call for revolution.

The editors of Magyar Idők found the idea of a revolution in the fall organized by George Soros so attractive that, in addition to Gajdics’s editorial, the paper published another opinion piece in which the unnamed author foresees a scenario similar to that taking place in Macedonia. Macedonia, in his opinion, “has been ravaged” by George Soros via his NGOs. There the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that a few days ago a would-be assassin fired three shots at an outgoing minister of the Gruevski government. “We can only hope that [what happened in Macedonia] is not the dress rehearsal for the Hungarian elections [because] the expression ‘mafia state’ wasn’t uttered by accident as the crowning moment of the merciless speculator’s speech.”

It is somewhat surprising how enraged the Orbán government is with the label “mafia state” since the term, as readers of Hungarian Spectrum well know, has been in circulation since at least 2013, when Bálint Magyar published the first article in which he used it. The term stuck abroad as well. I found via Google over 1,000 mentions in English of Hungary as a mafia state. In Hungary about a year ago an opinion poll revealed that a majority of Hungarians describe the Orbán regime the same way.

A couple of days ago I saw a headline claiming that the anti-Soros propaganda campaign is not as successful as earlier Fidesz propaganda efforts had been. Well, equaling or surpassing the anti-migrant campaign would be a difficult task, I admit, but the latest Republikon Intézet poll reveals that this particular Fidesz effort is in fact effective. Only 31% of the population think that Soros does not at all or does not seriously intervene in Hungarian domestic politics, while 28% believe that he has considerable influence on Hungarian politics and 12% think that he has some influence on Hungarian politics, with about 20% not willing to take sides. That means that 40% of the adult population more or less bought the anti-Soros propaganda. Of course, Fidesz voters are especially prone (about 70% in this case) to believing whatever the party tells them. For those who understand Hungarian, I highly recommend taking a look at this video where hard-core Fidesz voters tell the journalist what they think of George Soros and Brussels.

The socialist-liberal-Jobbik group is more immune to the government propaganda: only 30% swallow all the horror stories they hear on television or radio or read on the right-wing internet sites. Indeed, it could be worse, but unfortunately propaganda Orbán-style is extremely attractive because it appeals to patriotic or nationalistic impulses, which are hard to combat.

June 3, 2017

Central European University refuses to be intimidated

Finally I can give you some encouraging news about Central European University. In my last post on the subject I reported on the step taken by Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of the State of New York, who on May 24 “announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government” concerning the fate of CEU. At that time I expressed my doubts that the Orbán government was actually ready to negotiate in good faith. I based this somewhat pessimistic opinion on a couple of sentences that had appeared in Magyar Idők, which indicated to me that any kind of agreement would still require the prior approval of the U.S. federal government, which we know is impossible to obtain.

Of course, we have no idea what the end result will be, but at least the Orbán government didn’t outright refuse Governor Cuomo’s offer. In fact, Kristóf Altusz, the undersecretary in the foreign ministry who is entrusted with the negotiations, got in touch with Governor Cuomo’s office last Friday. That is certainly a positive step.

This development is due to the brave and self-confident manner in which Michael Ignatieff, the rector of CEU, handled the situation. Cowering or trying to appease is the worst possible tactic to take when under siege by governments like that of Viktor Orbán. The university, led by Ignatieff, refused to be browbeaten. I’m convinced that without his determination and his calling worldwide attention to the Orbán government’s assault on a private university, that telephone conversation between Cuomo and Altusz would never have taken place. In fact, Ignatieff himself came to this conclusion, saying that “we are in a stronger position now than we were before because we resisted and said no.”

Central European University will stay in Budapest at least through the 2017-2018 academic year, Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday at a press conference. He wants to send a clear message to the government: CEU will not be shuttered. When a journalist asked him whether he has a plan B if “things get worse,” Ignatieff’s answer was that even if the government puts more pressure on them, they will not move. As he put it, he refuses to get involved in a game of chicken with the Hungarian government. He also made it clear that he is not going to be idle in the interim, which indicates to me that he is ready to continue his efforts to gain an agreement that would include a guarantee of the university’s unfettered existence in Hungary in the future.

Zsolt Enyedi, the university’s prorector for Hungarian affairs, made a remark which I found significant. He said that “the past few weeks have made us aware that we have a duty to the city and the country. We must remain as long as possible.” This is practically a clarion call to resist the anti-democratic forces that have taken over the reins of government in Budapest. In fact, this stressful episode in the history of the university has only made the resolve of the administration and faculty stronger.

The university will host an international conference on academic freedom on June 22 where the keynote speaker will be Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian writer. At the graduation ceremony former German president Joachim Gauck will receive the Open Society Prize, which “is awarded annually to an outstanding individual or organization whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society.”

The government media published, without any commentary, MTI’s summary of what transpired at the press conference. The only attack in the past two days came from Pesti Srácok, which reported on “the stomach turning anti-family conference” organized by the School of Public Policy/Department of Gender Studies of the university. The conference was obviously an answer of sorts to the mega-conference hosted by the “coalition of conservative organizations from around the globe.” It seems that what made the lectures stomach-turning was that speakers deemed the conservative family model outmoded in our modern society.

A few days ago Magyar Hírlap learned that the evil puppeteer George Soros, who rules the whole world according to the Hungarian government and its media, is coming to Hungary because CEU’s board of trustees will hold its annual meeting on June 24-25 in Budapest, right after the international conference on academic freedom. I don’t know when the decision was made to hold the board meeting in Budapest, but I have the feeling that it was not entirely independent from the recent government attack on the institution. Soros is the honorary chairman of the board. Otherwise, the trustees are a distinguished lot, including such well-known American-Hungarians as author and journalist Kati Marton and George E. Pataki, former governor of New York. The only trustee from Hungary is Attila Chikán, professor of economics at Corvinus University.

We also shouldn’t forget that, thanks to the joint effort of all opposition parties, including Jobbik, the Hungarian constitutional court was obliged to take up the question of the constitutionality of Lex CEU, as everybody in Hungary calls the law designed to expel the university from Hungary. The parliamentary vote took place on April 12. Until today we heard nothing about the fate of the court case. We just learned that, at the suggestion of the chief justice, a special working group will be formed to prepare the case for discussion by the full court. The creation of such working groups is allowed, “in especially complicated cases.” This means that until now the judges haven’t considered the case at all. The fact that the chief justice considers the case so complex that it needs special treatment leads me to believe that there is no agreement within the body about what to do with this hot potato.

May 31, 2017

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017

Is it time for Viktor Orbán to choose sides?

Not surprisingly the Hungarian media is focused on the consequences of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament that calls for launching Article 7(1). Yesterday I could report on the reactions of Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi who laid the blame for the fiasco on, who else, George Soros. Viktor Orbán, who had just returned from China, carefully avoided the topic with the exception of one sentence in a speech he delivered today at Daimler AG’s meeting. In his opinion, “it is foolish to vilify Hungary when it is first or second in the European Union in terms of economic growth; it is here that unemployment diminishes fastest; it is a country where all European fiscal rules are adhered to and the sovereign debt is decreasing.”

One can quibble about the accuracy of Orbán’s claim about Hungary’s economic growth, although it is true that the projection for this year, due to an unusually large infusion of EU convergence money, is very good. But what Orbán conveniently ignores is that the EP resolution to invoke Article 7(1) has nothing to do with Hungary’s economic performance. It is the “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years” that prompted the European Parliament to act.

It is hard to tell whether the Orbán government was prepared for the blow or not. A few days ago I read an interview with András Gyürk, the leader of the EP Fidesz delegation, who admitted that, despite the Fidesz members’ best efforts, “the most important actors” in the European Parliament still don’t understand the Fidesz version of the situation in Hungary. Hungarian opposition MEPs have been saying in radio and television interviews that from their conversations with members of the European People’s Party they gained the impression that as many as half of the EPP members have serious reservations about defending Viktor Orbán and his regime. At first I thought that number was wishful thinking on their part, but the vote pretty well confirmed their claim: 67 of the EPP members voted for the resolution and 40 abstained, so about half of the EPP caucus refused to come to the aid of the Orbán government.

Those few government officials who spoke about the debacle emphasized the size of the EPP contingent that stood fast behind Viktor Orbán. Pro-government commentators keep repeating the optimistic predictions of “political scientists” of Fidesz-sponsored think tanks like the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ) and Századvég that “there is no chance” of the procedure getting to the second stage because, given the present political makeup of the European Parliament, the necessary two-thirds majority is unachievable. But I wouldn’t be so sure, especially if it becomes evident that the Orbán government has no intention of following the recommendations of the European Parliament to, for example, “repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad.” Because the way it looks, the Orbán government has no intention of changing anything in the law on border security, as Szijjártó and others made clear already yesterday. Today we learned that the government will not give an inch on the issue of Central European University either.

László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, was giving a press conference in Debrecen on another subject when, in answer to a question on the fate of CEU, he made it clear that the law on higher education will not be changed. It is a law that is applicable to all universities, not just CEU. It stands the test of constitutionality, and it conforms to the values of the European Union. The decision by the majority of the European Union was a “political act.” I should add that constitutional scholars have a very different opinion on the matter.

A couple of weeks ago the government indicated that it would form a working group to start negotiations with the administration of CEU. Today a large group of middle-level bureaucrats arrived, representing practically all the ministries, but after an hour and a half it became obvious that they had no decision-making powers. In fact, they were totally ignorant of the government’s position and plans. Neither Palkovics nor Kristóf Altusz, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, was present. Zsolt Enyedi, vice-rector, got the impression that Altusz, who was supposed to “negotiate” with the U.S. government, did no more than ascertain that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this case. And so he was told to negotiate directly with the university instead. The present “negotiations,” Enyedi believes, are the government’s answer to an American suggestion. No one knows whether the government has any intention of seriously negotiating with the university in the future. My guess is that it doesn’t.

János Lázár’s usual Thursday press conference gave journalists an opportunity to hear more about the government’s reaction to yesterday’s vote. He concentrated on the migration issue and said that “the Hungarian government will not meet the European Parliament’s request to terminate either the legal or the physical closure in place. The security of the Hungarian government is much more important than the political dogmas set by the European Parliament.”

This reference to the “political dogmas” of the European Union brings me to a brief press conference Viktor Orbán gave in the middle of his trip to China which, according to 24.hu, was, despite its brevity, a fuller explanation of his thinking on democracy and related matters than at any other time since his illiberal speech three years ago. The prime minister was obviously impressed by what transpired in Beijing and praised Chinese plans for the Belt and Road project. In this connection he insisted that the East has by now caught up with the West and therefore “the old model of globalization” is over. From here on money and technology will flow from East to West and not the other way around. But here comes the interesting part. According to Orbán, “most of the world has had enough of globalization because it divided the world into teachers and pupils. It was increasingly offensive that some developed countries kept lecturing the other, greater part of the world about human rights, democracy, development, and market economy.” Orbán, according to the journalist commenting on this short interview, thinks that “the time has come for Hungary to choose sides.”

Orbán’s complaints about developed nations lecturing to less developed ones about human rights and democracy provide a window into his psyche and the motivating forces of his actions. Unfortunately, Orbán’s human failings have serious, adverse consequences for the people he allegedly wants to save.

May 18, 2017

Medián: Serious loss for Fidesz, gain for Jobbik

The latest findings of Medián published in HVG bore the witty title “Universal Decline,” reflecting the pollsters’ belief that the drop in Fidesz’s popularity is largely due to Viktor Orbán’s decision to launch a frontal attack against Central European University.

This reversal in the fortunes of the party is considerable. While in January 37% of the electorate would have voted for Fidesz, that percentage has now shrunk to 31%. This amounts to the loss of almost half a million voters. Underlying this drop is a general dissatisfaction with the governing party. Medián usually asks its respondents to name the one party they would under no circumstances vote for. In January only 37% of the respondents named Fidesz, but by now 46% of those surveyed said they would never cast their vote for the government party. In January half of the electorate were satisfied with the work of the government; today it’s only 40%. In January 46% of the people were hopeful about the future. Today that number has plummeted to 33%, with 57% expecting worse times to come. The percentage of those who want a change of government in 2018 has increased from 48% to 52%.

Left–red: total population; green: electorate; orange: active voters. Right–after the list of parties come the categories “doesn’t know,” “doesn’t tell,” “definitely will not vote”

After looking at these figures, one can safely say that Viktor Orbán’s decision to take on George Soros and CEU was politically unwise. At yet it’s fairly easy to see how and why it came about. Orbán and his strategists, when developing their political moves in preparation for next year’s election, were most likely convinced that their winning card was Viktor Orbán’s very successful handling of the migrant issue. Whether we approve or disapprove of his methods, from his own point of view his refugee policy was a roaring success. An overwhelming majority of the population fully support Orbán’s policies, including many who did not previously vote for Fidesz. Thus Orbán and his strategists quite logically opted to continue the same loud anti-migrant rhetoric. Everything else–the personal attacks on George Soros, on Central European University, on the NGOs, and on Brussels–were meant to serve this purpose. Unfortunately for Orbán, the grand strategy turned out to be a bust domestically, and his government’s standing in Europe has sunk to its lowest level in the last seven years.

By the way, the Medián poll debunks a widely held view that outside of Budapest (and the Budapest intellectual elite in particular) people are largely ignorant about the anti-government demonstrations and their precipitating cause–the attack on CEU. Among those surveyed, about 80% had heard of the demonstrations, and half of those named the attempted closing of CEU as the cause of the protests. They didn’t even need any prompting; they offered the information on their own. People in the countryside (vidék) are just as well informed on this issue as the inhabitants of Budapest. The great majority of Hungarians think it would be a shame if the government shuttered CEU. Only 32% think that CEU is in a privileged position vis-à-vis other Hungarian universities and that therefore the government is justified in its efforts to close it down.

While we are on the subject of CEU, I would note that there seems to be total disarray in government circles about their plans to deal with this issue. Péter Szijjártó this morning, in an impromptu press conference, was still talking about an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the United States even though it had been made crystal clear to Budapest that the U.S. federal government is not authorized to negotiate with a foreign power on the fate of an educational institution. Undersecretary László Palkovics, who has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, published a highly insulting article in the conservative Canadian National Post titled “Calling out Michael Ignatieff.” He accused the president of CEU of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary.” In the article he repeats the old Hungarian demand of “a bilateral agreement between the institution’s country of origin and Hungary.” As if nothing had happened in the interim. Viktor Orbán is refusing to answer questions on CEU. He sent ATV’s reporter to László Trócsányi, minister of justice, who is supposed to come up with some clever legal answer to the European Commission’s objections. At the moment, however, he is “extremely uncertain” as to the legal underpinnings of the EC’s position on the issue. One thing is sure. The Hungarian government will wait until the last possible moment to respond to the European Commission on the CEU case.

To round out this post, let’s go back to the Medián poll to see who benefited from the drop in Fidesz support. The real winner was Jobbik, which gained four percentage points. In January 10% of the electorate would have voted for Jobbik. Today it is 14% which, given Jobbik voters’ enthusiasm for going to the polls, means that the party would receive 20% of the actual votes cast. This sudden jump in popularity is most likely due to the highly successful Jobbik “You Work—They Steal” campaign.

Collectively, the parties on the left also gained four percentage points. Those who expected miracles from László Botka’s announcement of his readiness to head MSZP’s ticket in preparation for the 2018 election must be disappointed. MSZP’s 9% is nothing to brag about, especially since Botka has been canvassing the country for the last month. MSZP’s standing is practically the same as it was in January. As for his own popularity, his name by now is widely known, but his popularity hasn’t moved upward. The two great losers in the popularity ranking are Viktor Orbán (-9) and János Áder (-11).

One more interesting item. Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos, who coauthored the article on the Medián poll, state that “the extrusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány … proved to be divisive. Two-thirds of MSZP voters would still like to see him ‘in an important political role.’ On the other hand, it is true that Botka … is considered to be a qualified candidate for the premiership by 54% of the DK voters.”

I’m curious what Viktor Orbán’s next step will be. So far there has been a reluctance to drop the divisive and damaging CEU affair, which is eating away at his support. Moreover, he is being confronted with a growing anti-Russian sentiment and charges of Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Viktor Orbán. László Kéri, an astute political observer, is certain that today “we live in a different world from the one a couple of months ago.” He predicts that the decline of the Orbán regime is inevitable. He compared the current governmental chaos to the last days of the Gyurcsány government. But, of course, Orbán is no Gyurcsány, who, although perhaps too late, resigned. A similar move from Viktor Orbán is unimaginable.

May 3, 2017