Tag Archives: Debrecen

Open Society Foundation moved to the “provinces”

Let’s step outside of Budapest for at least a day to take a look at local politics as it has been playing out in the “provinces.” In Hungary everything outside of Budapest is in the realm of the “provinces” (vidék), including fair-sized cities like Debrecen, Szeged, and Pécs. In these cities we can see first-hand how “national politics” is being translated into action on the local level. What we witness in these places is a raw, unedited version of political reality in all its brutishness.

The Open Society Foundation’s decision “to get closer” to trouble spots triggered vigorous government counter-propaganda. There are two especially poverty-stricken regions in Hungary: the southernmost areas of Transdanubia and the northeastern region of the Great Plains. Thus, OSF, after looking for civic groups with a lengthy, solid track record, picked two, one in Pécs and the other in Debrecen, to be in charge of allocating money from the block grant they receive to smaller local groups. All grants will be handled locally and independently from OSF. Each of these two centers will receive $130,000, which will be used for projects dealing with poverty, education, and public health. In Pécs, the NGO that will be responsible for the allocation is the Emberség Erejével Alapítvány/EEA (With Force of Humanity Foundation) while in Debrecen the Alternatív Közösségek Egyesülete (Association of Alternative Communities) was chosen for the job.

The local reaction in both places was immediate, with one big difference. Debrecen is a Fidesz city through and through, and therefore the opposition to having a “pseudo-civic” group in town was actually a grass roots movement, or at least it seems to be. Somebody began a Facebook page called “We don’t want a Soros office in Debrecen,” which since December 7 has gained 2,867 followers. Pécs is a different cup of tea. There the local Fidesz leadership has been totally discredited in the last few years, and there is growing opposition to Zsolt Páva, the mayor since 2009, whose leadership practically bankrupted the city. Although Fidesz won the two parliamentary seats from Pécs in 2014, it was only with a slim majority. In fact, if LMP hadn’t entered its own candidate, both seats might have been gone to the joint opposition. As far as I know, there was no enthusiastic popular opposition to the grant given to the Pécs NGO, which has been in existence since 2006 and is well known in town. Fidesz city leaders had to do the dirty work alone.

I’m in luck in my quest for information about local Pécs politics because recently a news site critical of the government was created by two journalists who had lost their jobs after Lőrinc Mészáros took over the local paper. These two inform the world what’s going on in the city. They have paid special attention to the uproar that Fidesz propaganda created around the grant to EEA.

As soon as OSF announced its plans for the two regional centers, Fidesz countered that George Soros’s latest charitable gift is simply money provided to organizations that will be taking an active part in the election campaign against the governing party. The two Fidesz MPs from Pécs instructed Mayor Zsolt Páva to do his best to thwart the Foundation’s plans to hand out money to the poverty-stricken regions around Pécs. Páva gave interviews to local papers and the radio station in which he accused Soros and the “pseudo civilians” of supporting the opposition in the coming election campaign.

I should note in passing that Péter Hoppál, one of the two Fidesz MPs from Pécs who delivered the word from Budapest, has made a fabulous career in national politics since 2010. Prior to that time he was active in local politics. He was trained as a musician, with a concentration in sacred music and conducting, and his field of study is the Hungarian Reformed musical tradition. He was employed as a chorister and teacher at the Hungarian Reformed Gymnasium in Pécs. Eventually, he became the principal of the institution. His choir, by the way, became quite well known, performing in 16 different countries. He could also boast of 14 recordings. Currently, he serves as undersecretary in charge of culture in the ministry of human resources.

On December 7 Hoppál gave a press conference in Pécs in which he announced that the city’s Fidesz organization is planning to submit a draft resolution on December 14 to the city council that will reject in the name of the city’s inhabitants the establishment of a “Soros campaign center” in Pécs. But Hoppál, the good Christian, didn’t stop here; he added that, “if possible, the people of Pécs shouldn’t even rent space” to this charitable organization.

Just as promised, the Pécs city council dutifully voted in favor of the resolution. The council has 27 members, 19 of whom are Fidesz affiliates. The rest is a varied lot: two represent MSZP-Együtt-PM; one, Demokratikus Koalíció; two, Jobbik; one, LMP; and two, a local civic group called “Cooperation for Pécs.” I would have thought that these eight would all have voted against the resolution. But no, they decided not to vote at all. Only the two Jobbik members demanded the removal of the item from the agenda. The LMP city father even suggested modifications to the resolution.

On the very same day, the owners of Nappali Bár on Pécs’s Váci utca, who had verbally agreed with the Emberség Erejével Alapítvány to rent them a gallery above their bar, announced their reluctant decision to rescind the offer at the insistence of the owner of the property, who was afraid of the possible consequences of having EEA’s office in his building. Soon thereafter, OSF published a statement regarding the developments in Pécs, in which they contended that the resolution the Pécs city council passed was an open violation of the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression and assembly. “These intimidating tactics evoke the darkest period of Hungarian history,” the statement concluded. EEA people are convinced that eventually they will have a roof over their heads because they have received offers of office space from several people.

With Force of Humanity Foundation is looking for a roof / Source: szabadpecs.hu

The story didn’t end here. On Saturday there was, by Pécs standards, a fairly large demonstration, a small part of which can be seen on video. In addition, at least two open letters were addressed to the two Fidesz MPs from Pécs and Zsolt Páva. One of the authors was Zoltán Bretter, a political science professor at the University of Pécs, who knows Páva well from his earlier life in politics. Bretter (SZDSZ) was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1998. From Bretter’s letter one gets the impression that Páva was at one point a decent man, who by now has sunk to “cheap Soros-bashing” and who “became one of the glorifiers of Orbán under Conductor Hoppál.” Yes, he wrote, there are people who are toxic, and Viktor Orbán is one of them. Another open letter was signed by 13 well-known public figures who used to or still live in the city. It was addressed to MPs Péter Hoppál and Péter Csizi, whom they call “inglorious executors of the government party’s most disgusting campaign.”

Fidesz’s merciless attack on civil society here and there still finds brave souls who oppose it, but, unfortunately, fear is spreading everywhere. In the “provinces” civic life seems even more threatened than in the nation’s capital.

December 17, 2017

On George Soros and from George Soros

George Soros took up the gauntlet on November 20 when he published a rebuttal to the national consultation on the so-called Soros Plan, an act which, I believe, was long overdue. Soros’s character assassination in Hungary shouldn’t have remained unanswered for that long. Yet some talking heads questioned the wisdom of getting engaged in any kind of debate with Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. They argued that Soros’s rebuttal and his video appearances only extend the government’s campaign against him. I think they are profoundly wrong. Knowing the Orbán regime’s modus operandi, the Soros-bashing will go on as long as the powers-that-be find it useful. And since the whole election campaign has been built on the migrant danger brought about practically single-handedly by George Soros, the anti-Soros campaign will last at least until the election. Perhaps even longer, because migration into Europe will not stop any time soon.

In any case, I’m no fan of cowardly behavior, and I must say that practically all of the opposition parties fall into the cowardly category when it comes to defending George Soros. True, they criticize the government’s policies, but I haven’t yet seen a really brave defense of the man. There is always a qualifying phrase about Soros’s business activities. I assume that in the back of their minds is the notion that one can become rich only by dishonest means.

Instead of a joint condemnation by all Hungarian opposition parties distributed to all major newspapers of the world, only four brave lecturers at a small Methodist college, training future ministers, stepped forward. In fact, they recommended that George Soros receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Here is their letter.

To the Nobel Peace Prize Committee
Oslo, Parliament

 Dear Mr. President,

We propose George Soros as the next Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is well-known that by his relentless and systematic support offered to the Hungarian, Czech and Polish opposition in the 1980’s, Soros had had a major contribution to the creation of democracy and to the break-up of the Warsaw Pact. Founded and chaired by him the Open Society Institute supports the cause of democratic transition everywhere in the world. Founded and supported by Soros, the Central European University has trained at high international standards thousands of students committed to democracy. By their openly anti-Soros propaganda campaigns governments in Belorussia, Hungary after 2014 etc., infamous for their anti-democratic activities, also reinforce the conviction of such forces about the symbolic significance of his person. In the issue of Foreign Policy published on July 19, 2016 he elaborated his position regarding the European migration crisis, which has been the most complex conception of the topic to date.

Iványi Gábor, priest
Lukács Péter, researcher of education
Majsai Tamás, theologian
Nagy Péter Tibor, sociologist
Szilágyi Gál Mihály, philosopher

That Soros would actually receive the Peace Prize is a very long shot, but the letter is an important gesture and a brave move. Admittedly, Gábor Iványi and his church have nothing left to lose thanks to Viktor Orbán who, according to Iványi, is destined for eternal damnation.

In addition to the rebuttal, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) just announced the expansion of its activities in Hungary. OSF will spend large sums of money in two of the poorest regions in Hungary: Southern Transdanubia and the northern regions of the Great Plains, with headquarters in Pécs and Debrecen. The plan is to distribute grants to civic groups that will work on community building and helping the downtrodden. The idea is to bring the foundation “closer to the people.” In plain language, they are planning to counteract the antagonistic propaganda campaign against George Soros and the foundation.

The first government reaction to these plans came from Péter Hoppál, one of the two Fidesz members of parliament from Pécs. He reported that the local Fidesz organization is working on a statement in which it will reject “in the name of the inhabitants of the city” the establishment of a “Soros campaign center” in Pécs. The local Fidesz leaders asked the inhabitants not to rent space for the foundation’s headquarters. I have the feeling that the local Fidesz bigwigs are barking up the wrong tree because Fidesz has already lost all its appeal in the city, which the Fidesz leadership managed to bankrupt over the last eight years. Moreover, the Fidesz majority in these districts was very small in the first place. They were two of the twelve districts that would have gone to the opposition if LMP had joined forces with the other opposition parties.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is one of those partially Soros-funded organizations that have guts. Statement #5 of the national consultation of the Soros Plan reads that “another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder sentences for crimes they commit,” and in the Infobox the government claimed that the Helsinki Committee was one of those organizations that argued that “the use of serious sanctions in the case of illegal border crossing is troubling.” The Helsinki Committee sued, accusing the government of libel by claiming that they defend people who commit illegal acts. The appellate court of Budapest ruled in the Helsinki Committee’s favor. The government can no longer distribute any material that contains this statement.

As for the anti-Soros campaign, here is a good example of Fidesz’s lost moral compass. One of the Fidesz MPs republished on Facebook a photo he received from Transylvania. The good Szeklers were having great fun at a pig killing festivity with a dead pig lying on the ground. The message on its back reads “Ő VOLT A SOROS!!!” The sentence could be translated either as “It was his turn” or as “This was Soros.” The great Fidesz mind added: “One fewer pig over there. Bon appetit!” He was, however, greatly offended when a journalist from 444.hu confronted him with this tasteless photo. It had nothing to do with George Soros, he claimed. The Open Society Foundation said that the post was a “shocking attack” and that the photo fits into “a long and dark tradition of anti-Semitic imagery dating back to the Middle Ages.” No comment is necessary. Only total disgust.

Finally, let me reprint here George Soros’s latest article, which appeared today in Project Syndicate under the title: “The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian government has released the results of its “national consultation” on what it calls the “Soros Plan” to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

In October, Hungary’s government mailed questionnaires to all four million of the country’s households asking for peoples’ views on seven statements describing my alleged plan to flood Europe, and Hungary in particular, with Muslim migrants and refugees. The government made seven assertions about what it calls the “Soros Plan.” I rebutted each and every one based on my published statements or the lack of any published statements that could substantiate them.

Now, the government has released the supposed results of its “national consultation” on my phantom plan, claiming that the exercise was an unprecedented success. I leave it to the Hungarian public to decide whether and to what extent the figure of 2,301,463 participants (out of a population of 9.8 million) was inflated. It should be possible to inspect the list of those who took part and check if they did indeed participate. Instead, I want to focus on the campaign’s substance.

The national consultation and the release of the results are the latest elements of a massive ongoing propaganda campaign funded by Hungarian taxpayers to benefit a deeply corrupt government seeking to deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ legitimate aspirations, particularly in education and health care. The campaign started in the summer by flooding public spaces with posters featuring a close-up of my grinning visage with the words “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”

Other posters portrayed me as the puppet-master of opposition politicians. As many have pointed out, the entire campaign carries the unmistakable odor of anti-Semitism.

The government would have you believe that I am an enemy of the Hungarian people. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first opened my philanthropic foundation in Hungary in 1984, when the country was still under the domination of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has provided more than $400 million to strengthen and support the country of my birth.

In the 1990s, as ordinary Hungarians struggled with the transition from communism to a market economy, the foundation funded free milk for elementary school children in Budapest and supplied the first sonogram machines for Hungarian hospitals. More than 3,200 Hungarians have received academic scholarships from the foundation. Many of them have completed their graduate studies at the Central European University (CEU), which I established in Budapest in the early 1990s. CEU now ranks among the top 100 universities in the world in the social sciences – a remarkable achievement for an academic newcomer.

Another element of the propaganda campaign has been to twist the meaning of “open society.” So allow me to clarify what I mean when I use the term. I do not mean open borders and mass migration aimed at destroying the supposedly Christian identity of Hungary, as the government contends.

The open society is based on the idea that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth, and that to live together in peace we must respect minorities and minority opinions. Above all, it is a society based on critical thinking and vigorous public debate about public policies. That is why today my foundation – among many others including the European Union – supports groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which protect and promote the values and principles on which the EU was founded.

The government also claims that I control the European institutions in Brussels, and that I am using that control to impose the nefarious “Soros Plan” on EU member states. This is nonsense. Decisions about how to address the migration crisis are made by the EU’s member states, including the Hungarian government. It insults the intelligence of the Hungarian people to suggest otherwise.

I do have deeply held beliefs about how Europe and the rest of the developed world should respond to the refugee crisis, and I have been a vocal advocate of those views. My beliefs are born out of personal experience. I arrived in Britain from Hungary in 1947 as a refugee. I have never encouraged others to become refugees. My parents, together with 200,000 Hungarians, left the country after the defeat of the 1956 revolution, and they received asylum in the United States.

I first published my ideas on the refugee crisis in September 2015, and I have revised them over time, as the facts on the ground have changed. In 2015, I asserted that the developed world should be able to accept at least a million refugees annually; later I reduced that global figure to 500,000, of which I suggested Europe could take 300,000.

My guiding principle is that the allocation of refugees within the EU should be entirely voluntary. Member states should not be forced to accept refugees whom they don’t want, and refugees should not be forced to settle in countries where they are not wanted.

Member states that refuse to accept refugees can make an appropriate contribution in many other ways, but the refugee crisis is a European problem, so it needs a European solution, not 28 separate solutions. It is this set of policy recommendations that the Hungarian government has deliberately distorted and labeled the “Soros Plan.”

Unfortunately, the EU has not adopted my ideas, and the toxic political atmosphere created by Hungary (and Poland) has reduced Europe’s capacity to receive and integrate refugees. I do not blame the Hungarian and Polish governments for refusing to accept refugees they do not want; but I do hold them largely responsible for impeding a European solution.

I remember what happened during World War II, when another group was scapegoated for Europe’s problems. The wounds of the past have left deep scars that have not yet healed, and which today are being reopened. The true purpose of the government’s propaganda campaign is to stoke fear and hatred in the Hungarian people and render them indifferent to the suffering of others.

I am pleased to report that the government’s propaganda campaign has been a dismal failure. Despite the Hungarian government’s concerted efforts, the public was not taken in. My short speech on Hungarian television attracted more than a million viewers, and social media platforms were flooded with outpourings of sympathy and support.

I am greatly heartened by this response. I pledge to devote the remaining years of my life to supporting free thought and expression, academic freedom, and the protection of minorities and minority opinions – not only in my native Hungary, but all over the world.

December 8, 2017

Food for thought: Poverty, charity, and civil society

It was almost three years ago that the Ministry of Human Resources compiled a long list of words that were deemed unsuitable for use by ministry employees. Among the hundreds of words, one of the first was “szegény” (poor). “Poor settlement” was banished; in its place ministry employees were supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” A “poor person” was no longer poor but “rászorult” (in need). To learn more about this modern Hungarian newspeak, you might want to read my post on the subject from February 2015.

Now the ministry has gone even further in trying to hide poverty and human misery. For years civic organizations have been feeding thousands of people in Budapest and other larger cities. The best known such group is “Ételt az életért” (Food for life), which was established by the Magyarországi Krisna-tudatú Hívők Közössége (Community of Krishna-Conscious Believers of Hungary). The activists from this community are most visible on Blaha Lujza Square during the Christmas holidays, at Easter, and on October 17, which is the international day for the eradication of poverty. In addition, the group distributes 1,800 meals every day at various locations. One needs a permit for food distribution and a permission from the district to hold the event outdoors. People line up for a warm mid-day meal every day between Monday and Friday. According to the organizers, a few years ago the “customers” were mainly homeless people, but by now whole families, unemployed people, and pensioners also frequent the Krishna group’s food distribution centers. According to the leader of the Debrecen group of “Ételt az életért,” by now only 30% of those seeking a meal are actually homeless; the others are “poor” people or “in need,” if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources, prefers that designation.

Source: MTI / Tibor Illyés

It has been noticed for some time that municipalities were increasingly reluctant to grant permission to distribute food outdoors. The city of Debrecen has gone further than that. The Fidesz majority voted to require those nonprofit civic groups that distribute food to pay a fee for the space they occupy. Admittedly, they asked for a ridiculously small amount of money, altogether 350 Ft., which cost the sender 750 Ft. in postage, but for a charitable organization to be required to pay, however little, to distribute food to the needy is truly outrageous. Suspicion has spread that the government has plans to put an end to this kind of charitable activity on the part of civic groups.

And indeed. Népszava learned on November 25 that the ministry of human resources has been busily preparing a modification of a ministerial decree on food distribution. The word was that the changes have already been agreed upon and that at the moment the ministry is circulating the modified decree among other ministries for comments. The gist of the new decree is that only governmental, municipal, and religious organizations will receive permission to distribute food.

Civil activists suspect that the long lines of clearly not homeless people irritate the Orbán government to no end. Contrary to the incessant success propaganda, people see the darker side of Hungarian reality when lines of hungry people form on the streets. The latest Eurostat data attest to the fact that 26.3% of the population, or 2.54 million people, are considered to be poor. A subset of that group–16.2%, or 1.4 million people–lives in deep poverty in Hungary. The number of Hungarian children threatened by deep poverty is the fourth highest in the European Union, after Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In addition to its reluctance to allow these people to gather on the streets, waiting for a meal, the Orbán regime is also on the warpath against civic groups that are involved in such activities. The Fidesz leaders are most likely not mistaken when they see adversaries in those who gather in these civic groups.

Népszava got in touch with the ministry of human resources, which took its sweet time in confirming or denying the information the newspaper had received about the impending modification of the law. Earlier, the paper had inquired about the government’s use of money received from the European Union for that purpose. In Hungarian it is called “Rászoruló Személyeket Támogató Operatív Program” (Operative program for the assistance of needy people). At that time Népszava was told that the Hungarian government has 34 billion forints for this program, out of which 4 billion will be spent on feeding the homeless. Since the ministry certainly didn’t want to talk about the issue at hand, it repeated the old story about the 34 billion forints Hungary had received from the European Union, emphasizing that, in addition to the homeless, “food packages are distributed to old people and families with small children.” The ministry refused to confirm or deny the claim that the government intends to forbid the food distribution activities of charitable organizations.

The founder of the “Budapest Bike Mafia,” another civic group that is involved in food distribution, rightly said that “this whole thing is nothing but folly. To announce such a thing before Christmas would be the greatest mistake.” Moreover, he added, “one cannot ban helping people.” Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. Fidesz folks are quite capable of forbidding this type of charity, and I’m convinced that they have every intention of doing so.

Any kind of individual incentive is suspect in the eyes of the current political leadership. In the last eight years they have done their darndest to put an end to all local efforts. Just like in the Kádár regime: the population should remain inactive and quiet while the government takes care of everything. That might, however, be too generous a comparison. A lot of people critical of the Orbán regime are convinced that these people are so single-minded and self-serving that they don’t care about anyone else, especially not the poor and downtrodden. There might be some truth to that.

December 3, 2017

Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and his Hanukkah greetings

Today Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, managed to retain his position despite opposition from András Schiffer and the admittedly ineffectual smear campaign of the Fidesz-inspired media. Hadházy’s internal critics accused him of jeopardizing LMP’s firm policy of not cooperating with any other party when he talked about the necessity of dialogue among opposition forces.

I’m convinced that deep down Hadházy knows that the party’s current strategy is doomed to failure, but with a brave face he is trying to pretend otherwise. At the press conference after the party congress Bernadett Szél somewhat pointedly remarked that the party’s election strategy had already been decided earlier: LMP will be on its own at next year’s election because “there is no party in parliament that LMP could work with.” Hadházy took the easy way out by emphasizing that LMP doesn’t want to attract voters from the left but rather “hopes to convince voters of the government party that change is necessary.”

Now to the main topic of today’s post.

A few weeks ago the government launched a smear campaign against Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, which, as I indicated earlier, didn’t achieve its aim. In fact, the methods used to demonize Vona were so primitive and base that I got the distinct impression that the campaign actually resulted in some sympathy for Vona, even on the left.

Thus, new tactics were required, which Gábor Vona himself offered to Fidesz when he decided to write Hanukkah greetings to the various Jewish religious communities, including Slomó Köves’s Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Köves is a supporter of Orbán. Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government he became chief rabbi of the Hungarian armed forces.

Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were obviously part of Jobbik’s new strategy, which includes shedding the party’s anti-Semitic past. The problem is that that past was laden with so many sins against Hungarian Jews that a quick turnaround couldn’t be accepted by Köves or any other Jewish religious leaders. Köves wrote a lengthy letter in which he listed some of Jobbik’s most outrageous anti-Semitic statements. After a few famous sayings from the Old Testament, such as “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Köves suggested that instead of sending Hanukkah greetings, Jobbik leaders should voice their new convictions, if they are genuine, at forums where previously “not light, but hatred, ignominy, and darkness reigned.”

Köves made his letter public, which in turn elicited a public response from Vona. Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is Vona’s explanation of how he ended up on the wrong side. He “inherited” his anti-Semitism because he found himself in an environment in which “one side called Hungarians Nazis, while the other labeled Jews traitors.” Since then, he “has come to the realization that this doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Vona’s answer didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, which was justifiably offended by his occasional juxtaposition of Hungarians and Jews instead of Christian and Jewish Hungarians. At the same time, it also outraged the more radical members of Jobbik who, I’m convinced, have been getting ample support in their opposition to Vona’s leadership from Fidesz.

Origo has been closely following the reverberations within Jobbik after the Hanukkah affair. The first story of some import came from Vecsés, a town just outside the city limits of Budapest. Vecsés at one point was the center of the Army of Outlaws movement, whose leader is a friend of Gábor Vona. Otherwise, Jobbik claims that the party and this neo-Nazi group have nothing to do with one another. On the local level, however, there seems to be cooperation despite the denial. Or, at least this used to be the case. The only Jobbik member of the town council was, or perhaps still is, affiliated with the Army of Outlaws. This man, Imre Orbán, has a reputation for being a troublemaker and has distinguished himself as a fouled-mouthed anti-Semite. This time he placed a post on Vecsés’s Jobbik Facebook page in which he accused Gábor Vona of making a fool of Jobbik members by turning to the rabbi with his apologies. He added some four-letter words in his discussion of Hanukkah. This incident was taken seriously by the party and Vona promised to investigate.

The official “state news” Híradó reported a few days ago that the Jobbik leadership in Vámosmikola, a village of 1,600 inhabitants, also criticized the leadership because of the Hanukkah greetings and the subsequent exchange of letters. Jobbik cannot be strong in Vámosmikola since in the 2014 municipal elections it didn’t even have a candidate for mayor or the town council, but even the smallest protest is big news in the right-wing press.

Pesti Srácok gleefully reported that a former member of the Magyar Gárda, once the paramilitary arm of Jobbik, since dismantled, demanded the vest that was part of their uniform from Vona, who proudly wore it at the opening of parliament in 2010. By trying to build bridges between Jews and the party, Vona “became unworthy” of this precious vest, claimed the former member of the Magyar Gárda.

Yesterday Magyar Idők called attention to a demonstration of disappointed Jobbik members that will take place in Debrecen, where the organizers are expecting Jobbik sympathizers from four counties. These people not only complain about Vona’s Hanukkah letter but also about Jobbik’s abandonment of its earlier radical political strategy. A closer reading of the article, however, reveals that most of these people are no longer members of the party. As the chief organizer, Erika Ulics, a lawyer, explains, 35-40 local leaders who will gather in Debrecen already left the party after Vona, in 2014, decided to scuttle the party’s former ideals. Ulics herself was expelled from the party, allegedly because she leaked inside information to Népszabadság.

Ulics, by the way, is a notorious neo-Nazi and an admirer of Ferenc Szálasi, who was executed for war crimes in 1946. In addition, she is a racist who suggested that all Gypsies should be forced to join the army and attack Romania. “If we win, Transylvania is ours. If we lose, Hungary is ours.” Those with strong stomachs should visit the news sites Cink and 4024 for more quotations from this vicious neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.

The government-sponsored sites are so eager to spread news of the imminent collapse of Jobbik that they are resorting to fiction. According to alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official site 888.hu reported that the entire ten-man Jobbik group in Nemeshetés, population 320, resigned in protest over Vona’s new pro-Jewish policies. It turned out that Jobbik doesn’t have a local cell in the village. Since then, the article has been taken offline.

Yesterday afternoon Ulics’s demonstration did take place. It is hard to tell from the picture just how many people attended, but as far as I can judge, there were mighty few. It certainly didn’t shake Jobbik to its very foundations as, I’m sure, some Fidesz leaders hoped.

The sign, by the way, is an Albert Wass quotation: “The surest weapon against mendacity and falsehood is truthfulness. This is our weapon.” And one shouldn’t miss the doctored photo of Gábor Vona and Ágnes Heller walking hand in hand. It is unlikely that Heller received this distinction because these people are such admirers of her accomplishments as a philosopher.

All in all, I tend to agree with the political scientist Attila Ágh, who in a recent interview said that Vona’s new strategy, for the time being at least, hasn’t resulted in any spectacular growth in the party’s popularity. On the other hand, it hasn’t collapsed either. The opposition to Vona is small, and he still has the party leadership behind him. Most supporters have remained faithful to the party, but it is difficult to predict whether Vona’s new strategy can achieve its aim of attracting voters from the left and from the large group of the undecided.

January 15, 2017

The deadly embrace of Hungarian television propaganda

Yesterday, while waiting for the results of the anti-refugee referendum, I decided to take a look at Channel M1, one of Magyar Televízió’s four or five channels. This particular channel is devoted to news and political discussions. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to watch it before, though of course I knew that since 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election, MTV had become a servile mouthpiece of government propaganda. I heard all the jokes about its being the Hungarian version of North Korean Television and that anyone who has a cable connection avoids M1 like the plague. Insufferable, unwatchable, disgraceful; these were the verdicts coming from Hungary. And then, yes, there’s the astonishing €160,191,200 yearly budget on channels few people watch, although MTV can be received across the country and beyond. (Of the private stations, only RTL Klub and TV2 have nationwide coverage.) Well, yesterday I took the plunge.

Watching Channel M1 while the voting was in progress was a shocking experience. The intensity of the propaganda could easily be compared to the times of Mátyás Rákosi–if, that is, Hungary had had television broadcasting in those days. Friends of mine who worked as journalists during the last two decades of the Kádár regime tell me that, despite the limitations imposed on them by the regime, they had more freedom than those journalists who still work at MTV. The better ones were fired years ago; those who remained do what they are told.

I hate to think how much money MTV spent on this last-minute campaigning for a valid and successful referendum. One reporter was sent to Belgrade to interview “migrants” who are stuck there. Another went to France. Another was dispatched to the “capital of Székelyföld,” which is a fiction of the Hungarian right since there is no way Romania will grant autonomous status to the two counties where Hungarian-speaking Szeklers are in the majority. Another journalist stood in front of a former refugee camp in Debrecen.

The anchor at intervals asked for the latest developments in Belgrade. The correspondent there reported that the “migrants” are breathlessly waiting for word on the outcome of the referendum. If it is not valid, they are planning to storm the Hungarian border first thing Monday morning. Ten or fifteen minutes later the anchor got in touch with the reporter in Belgrade again for “the latest developments.”

Then came the turn of the reporter from France. She was in the village of Allex in southeastern France where, as several French- and English-language papers reported in mid-September that“furious villagers have plunged France’s asylum system into chaos after demanding a vote on whether to kick out migrants re-homed in their neighborhood.” Allex had to take 50 refugees and the locals, egged on by the Front National, created a situation that became explosive. They demanded a referendum, which couldn’t be held because localities cannot decide on immigration issues. This news was picked up by right-wing Hungarian internet sources like Origo, 888.hu, and Pestisracok.hu around September 15. So MTV sent a special correspondent to this village to record a conversation with the mayor about “the lack of democracy” in France.

The reporter in Csíkszereda told MTV’s audience in Hungary about the great enthusiasm among the Szeklers for this referendum. Népszabadság’s Bucharest correspondent, who was also in Csíkszereda, reported otherwise. According to the Hungarian consul-general, 17,525 people asked for ballots and instructions to vote on Sunday but 11,820 (67.45%) didn’t bother to pick them up. In Cluj/Kolozsvár the situation was a bit better. All in all, there was not much to see in Csíkszereda. Most people had already voted by mail and, as we know, more than 16% of the ballots were invalid. According to the National Election Office, 30,705 ballots came from Transylvania before October 1.

Then came the story of all the atrocities that “migrants” had committed in the last year or so in Hungary. The reporter stood in front of the by now empty barracks that used to house refugees in Debrecen. The whole neighborhood was ruined, there was litter everywhere, fighting broke out over some dispute about the Koran, every time they wanted something some migrants climbed up on a tower and threatened to jump if their demands were not met. In short, it was sheer hell and, if migrants were allowed to enter Hungary, the whole country would be like that. The story then continued with the “terrorists” in Röszke who threw rocks at the policemen, people at the Keleti Station, and the march toward Vienna. A long litany of atrocities committed by the “migrants.”

Finally came a series of interviews with politicians and ordinary citizens who all voted no and who explained their weighty reasons for doing so. These stories were packed into one hour of non-stop propaganda, which was outright stomach turning.

television-propaganda

I decided to write about the hour I spent on the state propaganda channel of a so-called democratic country because the defeat of Orbán’s referendum is even more momentous when viewed in the context of this government attempt at brainwashing voters.

Although most foreign and domestic observers consider the result a colossal failure for the Hungarian government, the Fidesz leadership gathered stone-faced in front of a small and somewhat artificially enthusiastic crowd to announce the government’s great victory. Journalists were forbidden to be present. In a short speech Viktor Orbán shamelessly claimed that nine out of ten Hungarians voted for the sovereignty of Hungary. “Brussels or Budapest. That was the question and we decided that the right of decision lies solely with Budapest.” Although I often get confused with numbers, I’m pretty sure that 2,978,144 is not 90% of 8,272,624 eligible voters.

As for his future plans concerning a change of the constitution, it is about as illegal as the referendum itself was. I know that Jobbik will support it because Gábor Vona’s original suggestion was a simple change of the constitution, which Fidesz refused to consider and instead launched the referendum campaign. We don’t yet know whether the democratic opposition parties will present a common front. So far DK and MSZP have announced that they will boycott any parliamentary action concerning an amendment to the constitution. The small Magyar Liberális Párt also expressed its disapproval of changing the constitution on account of the refugee quota issue.

Tomorrow I will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated issue of the relationship between the referendum and the constitution. Meanwhile we will see how Orbán handles this new situation. I suspect with belligerence and even more hateful speeches against both the refugees and the opposition. 444.hu recalled today an interview with Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, in Story magazine a couple of years ago. She told the reporter that her husband is unable to lose and gave a couple of examples. When they run together, he pretends that he is close to chocking and is far behind, but in the last minute he revives and sprints ahead, beating her. Only once did it happen that they took part in a ski competition where she came in first and he second. By the time the results were announced Orbán had arranged to separate the sexes, and thus he was first in the men’s category. He is always ready to change the rules of the game. I think this is what we can expect.

October 3, 2016

The first stop in the European Union: Refugees keep arriving in Hungary

The refugees keep coming despite the fact that the Hungarian parliament passed amendments to the law on refugees, making it a great deal more stringent. The government is so eager to have this piece of legislation in place that it asked János Áder to sign it as soon as possible. It can’t, of course, solve the refugee crisis either in Hungary or elsewhere in Europe.

A headline in one of the Hungarian papers proclaimed: Leaders of the Catholic Church offer their help to the government in solving the refugee problem. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I read the whole article. It was the Czech Catholic Church, not the Hungarian. The latter, as far as I know, has done nothing. The same holds true for the Calvinists. The only exception is the small Hungarian Lutheran Church, which gave a modest amount of money to one of the few charitable organizations involved. And, as usual, Gábor Iványi, head of the Methodist Magyarorszáagi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség, not officially recognized as a church in Hungary, became involved.

There are charitable and kind-hearted Hungarians

Concerned citizens who find Viktor Orbán’s hate campaign against the refugees unacceptable have organized and begun collecting food and clothing for the “unfortunate people” (szerencsétlenek), as volunteers usually refer to them. The first such group was formed in Szeged, close to the Serbian border, where the refugees usually start their journey either to Debrecen or more often toward the West by train. MÁV, the Hungarian State Railways, made the refugees’ stay in Szeged difficult by locking up the waiting rooms for the night. That meant that the refugees, often with small children, had to spend the night outside, trying to sleep on the pavement. It was at this point that concerned citizens, many of them from the university with English-language skills, came to the rescue. At first there were no more than a handful of people, including a professor of medicine who is of Syrian origin, but by now hundreds are at work who have given food and clothing to those in need. The babies received diapers and the children toys.

What the refugees also need, and what the Hungarian authorities don’t provide them with, is information. After they are registered, they receive a document written only in Hungarian that allows them to board a train to one of the refugee camps. But how to get there is sometimes unclear even to the natives. For example, in Szeged the volunteers who call themselves Migráns Szolidaritás, or MigSzol, didn’t know that in order to travel from Szeged to Debrecen one has to change trains in Cegléd. Or, I heard about lost refugees who were supposed to travel to the Western Station in Budapest, but no one told them that because of renovations the station is closed and the train stops elsewhere. The result was that a group of refugees wandered around the station, not knowing where they were and how to get to their destination.

A group similar to MigSzol was formed in Cegléd. The Szeged and Cegléd groups are in constant communication. The Szeged activists phone ahead to Cegléd, telling them when the refugees will arrive, and the Cegléd group waits for them at the railroad station. These groups already have more than 2,800 members on Facebook. They have helped at least 700 people in Cegléd alone.

Amnesty International just released a report titled Europe’s borderlands: Violations against refugees and migrants in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary which states that “refugees who make the perilous journey [via the Balkan route] are met with both violence and indifference by the authorities.” The refugees, greeted with such kindness on the part of Hungarian volunteers, are extremely grateful.

Neo-Nazis’ hate campaign against the refugees

This is the laudatory side of Hungary but, unfortunately, there are many who loathe the refugees, especially since the prime minister has for months been inciting hatred and fear of the refugees and has repeated time and again that he will defend the country from these intruders.

On Sunday night Jobbik organized a demonstration near the Debrecen refugee camp where Gergely Kulcsár, a Jobbik MP, spoke. As a reminder, it was Gergely Kulcsár who spat on the shoes placed on the bank of the Danube in memory of those Hungarian Jews who were shot and thrown into the Danube in late 1944. Although the demonstration was peaceful, according to one journalist who was present, right after the singing of the national anthem a few people complained loudly about the “black apes” inside the camp.

In Szeged 50 or 60 members of another neo-Nazi organization called the Army of Outlaws (Betyársereg) decided to put the fear of God into those civilians and refugees who are staying around the railroad station. I wrote about this group in 2011. Fortunately, in Szeged, unlike in Cegléd, the policemen guard both the refugees and the activists 24/7. Since there were about as many policemen as outlaws, nothing serious happened although, according to the report, the situation was tense for a while. The Szeged group has been in existence only for eight days, but there have already been three incidents around the railroad station.

Members of the Army of Outlaws arrived in Szeged

Members of the Army of Outlaws arrived in Szeged

The policemen cannot be everywhere, and in one of the villages along the border there is a young mayor, László Toroczkai, who is doing his best to stir up sentiment against the refugees. Toroczkai’s career began in MIÉP, an anti-Semitic far-right group, in 1998, but on the side he also organized a paramilitary organization, Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and later the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties. Because of the irredentist propaganda he conducted in Serbia and Romania he has been banned by both countries. In 2013 he was elected mayor of Ásotthalma in a by-election. I wrote a post about Toroczkai’s career, from the siege of the television station where he was one of the leaders of the football hooligans to the mayoralty.

Toroczkai is now in his element. He seems to know English because I’ve encountered him in several foreign-language articles as someone who informs journalists about the situation along the border. He is also busy on Facebook, where he writes not always truthful stories about the alleged atrocities committed by the refugees. One of his posts on Facebook described a situation in which a group of migrants sat down under a tree on the property of a farmer. According to Toroczkai, the mother who was alone in the house with two small children asked them to leave but they refused. An incredible number of hateful comments appeared immediately after Toroczkai’s short description of the alleged encounter. A reporter for a local paper visited the farmer’s wife, and it turned out that the family actually gave the refugees food and water who then peacefully settled in the shade of the tree and waited peacefully for the police to arrive.

And the “experts” in service of the government

But there are more dangerous propagandists who can influence public opinion through the media. One is György Nógrádi, a university professor and an expert on national security matters. He is a great supporter of a fence or a wall. He gives dozens of interviews and is the favorite man of the state radio and television stations. Even the liberal ATV made the mistake of inviting this windbag for a so-called conversation with another expert on national security.

Then there is László Földi, a former intelligence officer, who poses as an “expert on the secret service.” He is certain that the present refugee crisis is actually part of a war between the Islamic State and civilized Europe. In his opinion the leaders of IS want to conquer and convert the entire world. Their first move is to invade Europe. “This is war,” which can be handled only by warlike methods. This nonsense was uttered on, of all places, Olga Kálmán’s “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). Kálmán, looking grave, kept nodding. Mind you, Földi was also certain that last fall’s demonstrations were organized by the CIA to overthrow Viktor Orbán’s government.

People like Nógrádi and Földi are more dangerous by virtue of being “experts” in their chosen fields. I’m greatly disappointed in ATV, which gave a platform to these hatemongers.

Unprepared Hungarian government facing a refugee crisis

Yes, there is a refugee crisis in Hungary. No question about it. Thousands cross the Serbian-Hungarian border every day and the Hungarian government is totally unprepared. The number of refugees/migrants has grown, especially in the last few days, ever since the news arrived south of the border that the Hungarian government is planning to erect a 13-foot-high fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border. According to rumor, the Macedonian authorities are in fact facilitating the departure of the refugees still in their country to make sure that they reach the Schengen border before the fence is built. Some of these people must be truly desperate. An Afghan woman just today gave birth in Szeged, which means that she must have left Kabul seven or perhaps even eight months pregnant.

According to Gábor Gyulai, who is responsible for the refugee program of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, by 2012 it became clear that the migration routes were shifting and that, as a result, more refugees would arrive in Hungary in the near future. The Hungarian government, however, did nothing in anticipation of such a development. Not enough money was spent to develop a functioning, efficient system. Instead of spending billions on a national consultation, anti-immigration billboards, and fences, the government should have expanded the facilities that house temporary and permanent migrants. And they should have beefed up the Office of Immigration and Citizenship, which simply doesn’t have the manpower to handle the number of cases before them.

But if the Hungarian government is that ill-prepared, why don’t relief organizations step in to help? I’m afraid I can’t find a reasonable explanation for their lack of involvement. Their most common excuse is that “the government didn’t ask for help.” In the case, however, of the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service/Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat, a Catholic organization, I detected a reluctance to get involved. This was the organization that played a large part in the 1989 escape of East Germany refugees across the Austro-Hungarian border on their way to West Germany. Father Imre Kozma, the head of the organization, outright forbade the employees of the service to say anything to the media about the new refugees “as long as such a hysterical atmosphere exists in the country.” I have a strong suspicion that Father Kozma’s charity is somewhat biased toward Christians. He is not alone, I fear. Robert Fico, who shares Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration attitudes, reluctantly said on the Slovak public television after his return from Brussels that “Slovakia is ready to take in a few Christian families.” How generous.

Then there is the Ecumenical Assistance Service/Ökumenikus Segélyszervezet, which is the favorite charity of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife. She can occasionally be seen collecting toys for children or helping with food distribution. Their answer was that “they could consider involvement only if the government specifically asked them to participate.” Otherwise, the spokesman for the organization simply repeated the wisdom of Viktor Orbán: they believe in “solving the problems in the countries of origin.” But when asked whether the Ecumenical Assistance Service is involved in such work in Syria or Libya where most of the refugees are coming from, the answer was “no.” Earlier they had a program in Iraq, where the organization’s primary mission was assistance to the Christian minority.

Not only did the government do practically nothing to prepare for such a large number of refugees, it has done everything in its power since February to incite the population against the asylum seekers. And their hate campaign has borne fruit. Polls indicate that Hungarian xenophobia has grown measurably and that the antagonism of the majority of the population toward the refugees has greatly increased. In Debrecen, where there is a refugee camp, about 200 people, including some local Fidesz politicians, demonstrated “to show their solidarity with the people who live in the neighborhood.” But even MTI had to admit that neither in 2014 nor in 2015 was there even one reported complaint about the refugee camp.

Anti-refugee demonstration in Debrecen / MTI / Photo solt Czeglédy

Anti-refugee demonstration in Debrecen / MTI / Photo Zsolt Czeglédy

Fidesz politicians exacerbate the population’s fear by stressing the large numbers of permanent refugees that Hungary is expected to absorb. Lajos Kósa, who is unbeatable when it comes to verbal extravagance, talked about 200,000 newcomers to Hungary, a country that, as we know from Viktor Orbán, should remain purely Hungarian. As a result, fear and tension has been growing on both sides.

The government is doing nothing to diffuse this tension. In fact, the anti-refugee propaganda is growing. While the relief organizations are reluctant to volunteer, neo-Nazi football hooligans are eager to assist police efforts at rounding up refugees along the Serbian border. It’s no wonder that Magyar Narancs suggested that “now that they managed to send even the neo-Nazis to the front line, it is time to stop and take a deep breath.” Such a turnabout would mean a loss of face for the belligerent Hungarian prime minister, but it is possible that he will be forced by circumstances to follow Magyar Narancs‘s advice.

Political analysts suspect that, although in the short run Viktor Orbán’s strategy might work, if the Hungarian government’s efforts to stop the refugees at the borders fail, trust in Orbán’s solutions might evaporate and with it the newly regained political support. The “beneficial effect” of the anti-immigration propaganda on Fidesz’s popularity might come to an end in two or three months unless the government’s efforts are successful. And people familiar with refugee issues very much doubt that Orbán’s “solution” can be a winning ticket for achieving long-term popularity.