Tag Archives: Debrecen

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.

Fidesz attack on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and conditions in the Debrecen refugee camp

Just the other day Viktor Orbán’s friend Vladimir Putin signed a new law against “undesirable” NGOs. The law gives Russian authorities the power to shut down foreign-financed organizations, introduce fines, and even mete out jail time of up to six years for those who violate the law. This new law further restricts the activities of NGOs financed in part by foreign donors. The 2012 law affected 60 groups that were branded “foreign agents.”

Hungary is not far behind Russia when it comes to harassment of non-governmental groups that receive foreign financing. Some of them, especially those that deal with human rights issues, are under constant siege. The latest attack is on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission.

The occasion for Fidesz’s assault is a dispute over the origins of immigrants coming from outside the European Union. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t warrant such an outburst on the part of the government party. In fact, the text of the press release reminded Hungarians of the darkest days of the Rákosi regime.

The pseudo-civic Helsinki Commission, which fulfills the political orders of the international financial speculators, brazenly tries to falsify black-and-white facts. As opposed to their lies, the fact is that four-fifths of those seeking refugee status, 35,000 people, don’t arrive in Hungary from war zones. They come only for the money. This year only 17.3% of the arrivals came from war zones, and hence the great majority of those who illegally cross the border are not political refugees.

We call on the Helsinki Commission to stop lying and at least in such an important and serious question not be preoccupied with stuffing their pockets with the money of György Soros.

The terms used here to describe the evil forces of international finance, with their anti-Semitic overtones, could be found daily in the notorious party newspaper of the early 1950s, Szabad Nép.

What makes Fidesz so jumpy that it feels compelled to release a Soviet-style rant about something that may have been a simple misunderstanding? There is a good possibility that it has something to do with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s involvement in the investigation into the circumstances in which refugees are forced to live in the Debrecen refugee camp.

It was about a month ago that Ombudsman László Székely and his associates investigated the situation in the Debrecen camp, and it is likely that the investigation was prompted by a request from the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. The report that was published in April is an indictment of the conditions in the camp. And that was enough for the Fidesz types to lash out at the “troublemakers.”

In the first place, the camp is terribly overcrowded. The facility can handle a maximum of 807 individuals, but right now there are 1,188 men, women, and children living in the former barracks that serves as a refugee camp. Although Viktor Orbán wants to close the Debrecen camp, an association formed to assist refugees and migrants is trying to convince the government to enlarge the facility.

The Debrecen camp has two sections. One is for people who can leave the camp during the day. There is, however, also a closed section, which is actually a glorified jail. The people held there didn’t commit any crime. They are the “lucky” ones whose refugee status is being contemplated by the Hungarian authorities. The rationale for their incarceration is the authorities’ demand that they be available at all times for “speedy decision making.” They can be kept captive for as long as six months. At the time of the ombudsman’s investigation, there were 65 people in this section. All, with the exception of one couple, were families with children from Kosovo.

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

The closed section of the camp is surrounded by a 3m-high solid fence, topped with barbed tape–a mesh of metal strips with sharp edges. The inhabitants are watched 24 hours a day by policemen situated in six guard rooms placed along the inside of the wall. The guards seem to do a thorough job screening new arrivals. For example, women complained that they had to strip naked in front of male guards. Apparently, when a family arrives in the camp, policemen strip search them as a group. So, the father and mother have to strip naked in front of their children. The armed guards even follow the new arrivals to their medical examinations.

There is a room where children can play for a few hours, but even these small children are under constant surveillance. Although the section in which these families are kept has plenty of rooms, the authorities often put two or three families in a single room. There are rooms in which a family with three children, along with a couple without children, have to live. Men can shave for only an hour–from 9 p.m.–and the act is again watched by armed guards. After the men finish shaving, the guards collect the razors. The next day these razors are haphazardly distributed to the “inmates.” Families with children have a hard time keeping clean. Although there is a room where they are supposed to be able to use an old-fashioned washing machine, the officials had difficulty even producing the key to the room. From the look of room inside, it was clear that the place hasn’t been used lately.

Viktor Orbán was terribly upset when some members of the European Parliament dared to bring up the treatment of Hungarian refugees in 1956. He indignantly announced that those 200,000 people who fled after the Soviets decided to quell the uprising “escaped from Soviet tanks.” Well, let’s face it, most of those refugees left Hungary in the hope of a better life. There were of course some who could be considered bona fide political refugees, but relatively few.

As for the treatment of the 56ers, let me give you a few examples from my own experience. In Eisenstadt, which was a major collection center, I was asked whether I would like to go to Wienerneustadt or the Alps. It was not a difficult choice. We received train tickets to the Carinthian Alps, where a Volkswagen bus took us to Weißensee, the highest mountain lake in Austria. There we were housed in a comfortable Gasthaus. There was only one couple with us, and naturally they received separate quarters. From our mountain resort we used to go to the nearest village, where the owner of the movie theater made it a point to order films with Hungarian themes. He never accepted any money from us. Once two of the boys returned from the village with brand new shoes because the owner of the local store had noticed that their shoes were in bad shape. When in Vienna, we didn’t have to pay for tickets on streetcars and buses and received a weekly stipend. We received meal tickets in restaurants owned by the city of Vienna, where the food was as good as any decent restaurant. Compare our welcome in Austria to the way the miserable people in the closed section of the Debrecen camp are being treated.

But since the Hungarian Helsinki Commission had the temerity to call attention to the unacceptable conditions in the so-called refugee camp, they must be part of an international conspiracy.

Spread of indifference and hate in Hungary

The events of the last few days have been shocking reminders that something has gone very wrong in Hungary in the last few years. Hungarian society has been poisoned by monstrous ideas. And it seems that the more the present government feels threatened, the more vicious it becomes in the hope of appealing to the beast in all of us.

Sometime ago I read about a study of the Orbán government’s social policy which appeared in the prestigious Journal of European Social Policy. It was written by a member of ELTE’s Faculty of Social Studies, a faculty whose existence has been threatened by the latest “university reforms.” She maintained that the present Hungarian government has no coherent social policy. One finds elements of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and etatism, all at the same time. She came to the conclusion that “the only aim of the government is the punishment of the poor.” What an indictment.

In a recent editorial in HVG, “Hate the weaker!,” the author recalls those instances when the Orbán government incited hatred against the homeless, the unemployed, and now the refugees. This government went so far as to change the constitution to legalize punishment of homeless people. The government pared back unemployment insurance benefits to only three months. Welfare payments have been cut to practically nothing, while public works programs are used to influence electoral outcomes. And now here are refugees arriving with only the clothes on their backs.

The government is inciting the population against foreigners in general even though in January 2014 only 1.4% of the population consisted of foreign nationals. Although the government talks about the huge numbers of applicants for refugee status, in 2014 only 360 political refugees received permission to stay in Hungary. These incitements are intended to divert attention from the incompetence (and worse) of the government, but their negative effect on the psyche of the population is immeasurable.

A lack of compassion is discernible among Fidesz politicians, even when working-class Hungarians are the victims. The other day a 21-year-old girl was murdered while working in one of the stores allowed to sell tobacco products. Her murderer, a young boy as it turned out, killed her for 22,000 ft. ($80.00). The interiors of these stores cannot be seen from the street. Their windows are covered; the doors are solid and cannot be left open. All that in the mistaken notion that young people, just by glancing at packs of cigarettes through the shop window, will take up smoking. As a result, the number of robberies at these stores has been far above the average. But at least until now no shopkeeper was killed. But here we have the first victim of this ludicrous new law. The owner of the store where the tragedy happened had enough. He decided that he is taking off the protective material from the shop windows of all his stores. He cares not whether it is against the law. He will not endanger the lives of his employees. One death was more than enough.

Will the government change the law which clearly serves no purpose and endangers lives? A reporter for Hír24 was all set this morning to ask the opinion of Fidesz politicians as they arrived in parliament. One after the other, starting with the prime minister, they went by without a word and without the slightest sign of sympathy for the victim. A few muttered that they had no time to say anything. Up to now over 200 comments have appeared commenting on this video, and practically all of them are highly critical of the whole Fidesz lot. One recurring accusation is that they were elected by the people and have an obligation to answer reporters’ questions. Another charge is that these Fidesz politicians refuse to answer because they haven’t yet received their orders from above. They simply don’t know what the “right answer” is. And finally, there are many who believe that Viktor Orbán and his minions are incapable of admitting that their decisions could be wrong. These people also predict that the law will not be changed.

How much does Fidesz’s anti-immigration policy stem from racist prejudices? The first reaction is that it has nothing to do with prejudice. Fidesz is not a racist party. Viktor Orbán is just using the anti-foreign card for political purposes. It is only Jobbik, the far-right neo-Nazi party, that owes its popularity to openly racist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. But then what can we make of what happened today at a press conference given by László Pósán, a member of Fidesz since 1992 and a member of parliament from 1998?

Pósán is a historian who became an associate professor of history at the University of Debrecen after receiving his Ph.D. in 2000. He is a medievalist who specializes in the German principalities and has written a book on medieval Germany. This illustrious professor of history told journalists that to allow people of different cultural backgrounds to settle in Hungary would have very serious consequences. After all, what would parents think if their child, returning home from school, “was surrounded by six African blacks making threatening gestures?” Naturally, he fully supports Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration. If this isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

For good measure he told a few horror stories about the Debrecen internment camp for political refugees. According to him, at one point there was a fight inside of the camp that was so serious that “600 policemen had to be called to the scene.” Well, being a historian myself, I  looked into the 2013 incident in the Debrecen camp. Apparently the camp was terribly overcrowded. Some of the inmates didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. They had to be satisfied with a mattress on the floor of the cafeteria. The fight broke out as a result of a football game between two different groups. As for the number of policeman, Index heard about 100-150, but they could not confirm the number. So much for Pósán’s 600 policemen.

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

On the other hand, while I was searching for details about the fight in the Debrecen camp, I found a 2009 article, also by Index, which perhaps tells us more about the real state of affairs than Pósán’s exaggerated story. It was about an Afghan refugee who jumped from a second-floor window, trying to commit suicide. He didn’t die but broke an arm and a leg and damaged his spine. He was to be sent back to Greece and, when the police arrived for him, he jumped. He was first caught in Greece, from where he escaped to Serbia. He was arrested in Serbia and spent 70 days in jail. It was at that point that he headed to Hungary, where he asked for refugee status. He was promised that after ten days he would be sent to Debrecen as a refugee waiting for approval or rejection of his case. Instead, on the thirteenth day after his arrival he was told that he would be sent back to Greece. Apparently, the treatment of refugees in Greece is much worse than in Hungary, and he certainly didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan where he feared for his life. He claimed that his father had already been murdered by the Taliban, and he was afraid that he would be next. His long journey from Afghanistan to Greece, Serbia, and Hungary indicates to me that he was most likely telling the truth. He was not a “megélhetési bevándorló” or, to use Miklós Haraszti’s English rendition, an “occupational immigrant.” A few hours after the suicide attempt 27 Afghan refugees began a hunger strike to protest against and try to escape the fate of deportation.

It took eight years but apparently the Hungarian police found the murderer

Today, for a change of pace, I’m turning to a high-profile murder case in Hungary.

Way back on April 2, 2011 I wrote about a murder that had been committed in 2007. Irma Balla, a local Fidesz politician in Debrecen, was brutally murdered in her home. The police investigated for a whole year, after which they decided that the murderer must have been the woman’s son, Sándor Schönstein, even though he had an iron-clad alibi. He was at a picnic miles away at the time of the murder. Alibi notwithstanding, Schönstein was immediately incarcerated.

His lawyer, the well-known György Magyar, continued battling with the investigators, whom he considered incompetent and negligent. Magyar was clearly frustrated, and at one point he became a kind of Perry Mason, the TV lawyer who together with a private investigator had to solve cases in order to get his clients acquitted. Magyar began his own investigation and found a plausible suspect, Lajos D. Lajos D. had been questioned as a witness because he happened to be working next door at the time of the murder. He already had a criminal record and was, in fact, in jail when he was questioned. During his testimony he gave a fairly accurate description of the interior of Balla’s house. When asked how he could possibly know all this, he claimed that while working on the house next door he could see all the details from a reflection in an open window. György Magyar and his private detective ascertained that Lajos D. was not telling the truth. No matter the time of the day or the weather, one couldn’t see much from the reflection in the window. When a bit more pressure was put on Lajos D., he confessed to the murder twice, only to withdraw his confessions a day or two later. In any case, the police didn’t seem to be interested in him.

Sándor Schönstein and his laywer, György Magyar

Sándor Schönstein and his laywer, György Magyar

In 2009 Schönstein was sentenced to twelve years for the murder of his mother. In 2011, when I wrote my post, the appellate court had taken up the case and had some harsh words to say about the investigation, the prosecution, and the judges of the lower court. The court declared the earlier sentencing null and void. The whole court proceeding had to be repeated. In November 2012 Schönstein was acquitted due to lack of evidence. A year later the appellate court of Debrecen agreed with the lower court. But meanwhile, Schönstein, a university student, had spent two years in jail. Ever since he has been trying to receive compensation for his suffering from the Hungarian state.

I guess everybody thought back in 2013 that this was the end of story. In late 2014, however, dehir.hu learned that the investigation hadn’t been abandoned. But instead of the Keystone Kops of Debrecen, Hungary’s top investigators from the headquarters of the national police force in Budapest descended on the city.  A few months later, in early March 2015, they were prepared to press charges against the same Lajos D. that Schönstein’s lawyer, from the very beginning, had thought was the culprit.

Lajos D. seems to spend more time in jail than not. When the Schönstein case was heard in 2009, Lajos D. was once again in jail. György Magyar insisted that he be a witness at the trial. On this occasion he again confessed to the murder and specifically mentioned the crowbar which he used to break Irma Balla’s neck. The Debrecen police didn’t take the confession seriously. They figured that Lajos D. had confessed in order to get out of jail a few times during the court proceedings. Brilliant, isn’t it? And, by the way, Lajos D. is in jail again. This time he is serving an eight-year sentence for robbery. Finally, he has been charged with the murder of Irma Balla.

So, what happened? The whole case was taken out of the hands of the Debrecen police who made too many mistakes to list. Those who want more details should read the article in dehir.hu. The panel of judges was also either incompetent or negligent. Perhaps both. During the trial Lajos D. had two people testify on his behalf, but their testimony was anything but exculpatory. For example, a friend of his told the judge that when he asked Lajos D. whether he had anything to do with the murder, he paused for a while and did not give an unequivocal answer. Lajos D.’s half brother, contrary to his earlier statement, admitted during the trial that Lajos was not at home during the night of the murder. All that was ignored by the court of Hajdú-Bihar County. I might add that in June 2013 the judge who sentenced Sándor Schönstein to 12 years was promoted because of his outstanding professionalism.

So what did the Budapest detectives find that the Debrecen cops missed? Lajos D.’s DNA, which apparently was found on a blanket under Irma Balla’s body. According to Népszabadság, some new technique made the discovery possible. Of course, I have no idea about the progress in DNA research over the last few years, but I’m a bit skeptical. This story sounds to me like a ploy to mask the total incompetence of the Debrecen police. But at least now Sándor Schönstein can be found not guilty not just because the court couldn’t find evidence that he committed the murder but because, it seems, the murderer was somebody else.