Tag Archives: Endre Aczél

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

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baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016

Viktor Orbán at a crossroads: Alone or together?

By all objective standards Viktor Orbán’s refugee policy is a resounding failure. The hastily constructed fence, as predicted, is useless. This past weekend almost 9,000 refugees arrived in the country. The Hungarian government’s handling of the crisis has been roundly criticized, and by today Germany with the assistance of Austria decided to bend the rules and deal with the situation in a “flexible manner,” which meant taking over the registration of the would-be immigrants from the incompetent and malevolent Hungarian government.

Yet, from the point of view of the Orbán government the outcome of the protracted refugee crisis may not be a total loss. Yes, a lot of money was spent on anti-refugee propaganda and western powers are horrified at the heartless measures introduced and/or contemplated by the Hungarian government. But according to the latest public opinion poll by the Republikon Institute, as a result of the “firm” attitude of the government regarding the refugee issue, the downward slide of Fidesz’s popularity has stopped. The anti-refugee propaganda also reinforced the xenophobic tendencies of Hungarians to the point that, by now, 66% of the population believe that “the refugees pose a danger to Hungary and therefore they shouldn’t be allowed” into the country. Only 19% think that “it is the duty of Hungary to accept them.”

The most vociferous opponents of a generous immigration policy are the Fidesz voters (79%). They even surpass followers of Jobbik (71%). But even supporters of the opposition parties are not too keen on foreigners. For example, 64% of MSZP voters and 52% of LMP supporters harbor anti-immigration sentiments. DK voters polled lowest, at 47%, but this number is still surprisingly high given the liberal disposition of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s followers. Thus, one can safely say that a large majority of Hungarians would recommend strong measures against the influx of refugees and support Orbán’s categorical refusal to accept any refugees whatsoever.

It is another matter, however, whether the policies that have been introduced thus far satisfy the expectations of the electorate. Again, by objective standards, they shouldn’t because the results of these efforts, legislative and otherwise, are zilch. Yet I don’t think that Fidesz’s attempt to gain political advantage from the immigration crisis is in jeopardy. The government can always blame the European Union for its failures. Laying the blame on Brussels is a relatively easy task given the total confusion that reigns in the capitals of the member states and in Brussels itself.

Today’s events are a perfect example of that confusion. Yesterday the ministry of interior categorically announced that without a passport and a valid visa nobody can leave the country. Never mind that in the last few months more than 100,000 people left without either of these documents. This morning the same ministry claimed that there will be plenty of space in Hungarian jails for “illegal immigrants.”

By midday the Hungarian government blamed Germany for the situation that had developed at the railway stations in Budapest and elsewhere. András Giró-Szász, one of the government spokesmen, not without justification complained that Hungary has followed all of the Dublin III regulations governing immigration procedures when it is now Germany that has shown “a more permissive attitude toward Syrian refugees … which has raised hopes among the illegal immigrants who possibly come from Syria.” He asked the German government “to clarify the legal situation.”

Then something happened at the Eastern Railway Station (Keleti) between six and seven this morning. Within an hour all the policemen who were supposed to make sure that no refugee gets on any train heading west disappeared. Within minutes the news spread that Syrian refugees can embark on their journey to Germany where they are being welcomed. That meant a sudden reversal of Hungarian policy, which was undoubtedly prompted by a telephone call from Angela Merkel to Viktor Orbán. The Austrians stopped the two trains carrying the refugees at the border, but after making sure that the trains were not overcrowded they let them proceed to Germany.

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border,August 31, 2015

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border, August 31, 2015

I’m not sure whether, after the German change of policy, the Hungarian government will proceed with its plans to modify the criminal code, which would lay the groundwork for declaring a state of emergency. This might be incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union. It seems, however, that the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia will hold a mini-summit in Prague on Friday. It was expected that these countries would stand together in their refusal to take any refugees. But Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Poland announced today that, given the changed situation, Poland is ready to accept far more than the 2,200 refugees it had offered at the time the quota system was originally discussed. So the staunchest holdouts may be limited to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

As 444.hu said, a Kulturkamp has broken out between Western and Eastern Europe over the refugee issue. While the west wants to return to a discussion of quotas, the former socialist countries are refusing to accept any such solution. The tension is palpable. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner used strong words today. She announced that “pressure should be put on those countries” that refuse to cooperate. In her opinion, Brussels might reduce the amount of support for the recalcitrant member states.

The easterners keep repeating that they want to remain Christian countries. Robert Fico is perhaps the least bashful in expressing this view, saying that Slovakia is willing to take 250 immigrants but they must not be Muslims. But the Poles, Estonians, and Czechs feel the same way about “refugees who come from a different cultural background,” as Miloš Zeman rather politely put it. As a result, in the Western European countries one often hears about the “heartlessness” of East Europeans while they stress their own humane attitudes. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls yesterday recited Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Italy, Austria, and Germany have indicated that if there is no common solution, free movement within the European Union cannot be maintained.

Four days ago an opinion piece,”The price of zero,” appeared in Népszabadság by the excellent veteran journalist Endre Aczél. He begins his piece by saying that he wasn’t at all surprised that it was Germany that first decided to abandon the “Dublin Convention” and not to send refugees back to the countries where they reached the territory of the European Union. The Germans remember their own post-World War II history when 14 million Germans were forced to move from east to west. The Germans, the French, and the Italians contemplate a pan-European solution. But Thomas de Maiziere, German minister of the interior, “quietly” mentioned the possibility of guarding national borders in the future. “Anyone, like Orbán, who declares zero acceptance of immigrants should think twice: What would be the benefit or advantage from limitations to Hungarians’ free movement within the European Union?” Of course, it would be a terrible blow. If it came to that, Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be prime minister of Hungary for long. One wouldn’t even have to wait for the next scheduled election.

Week-long demonstration in Budapest was not in vain

Many people labeled the dogged effort of a small group of protesters against the erection of the proposed  monument to the victims of the German “occupation” of Hungary a waste of time and energy. What will they achieve? Nothing. They dismantled the barricade around the proposed site ten or eleven times, but work on the foundation for the monument continued unabated. The monument showing Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle will be in place before the end of May. They achieved nothing.

Well, this seems not to be the case. The protestors on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) accomplished something, after all. This morning the US Embassy in Budapest released a statement in which the United States urges the Hungarian government “to seek an honest, open, and factual assessment of the Holocaust in Hungary [which] includes soliciting and considering the opinions of all segments of Hungarian society, and especially those who are rightly most sensitive to the government’s plans during this 70th anniversary year.” The statement also reminded the Hungarian government that it “had indicated in February it would resume dialogue after Easter with stakeholders concerned about Memorial Year plans.”

Hard at work / Népszabadság

Hard at work / Népszabadság

It took no more than a couple of hours for The Wall Street Journal to report on the US initiative which, by the way, coincided with Mazsihisz’s own effort to resume dialogue with the Hungarian government. We have no idea what will happen, but perhaps the US’s unequivocal support for those who object to Viktor Orbán’s high-handed attitude toward Hungarian guilt may help focus the dialogue. The controversy is more than a debate over some fine points of history. The 7oth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust could provide an opportunity for Hungarian self-assessment. Unfortunately it is precisely that self-assessment which the current Hungarian government wants to prevent.

Meanwhile there were a couple issues in connection with the demonstrations that caused quite a furor. One was an interview with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who seemed to be in an even worse mood than is his usual wont a couple of days after the election. He should have been elated because, after all, his party managed to receive more than 5% of the votes and thus he and five of his colleagues will be able to take part in the work of the parliament. Yet he was morose. When asked by Olga Kálmán what he had to say about the work that had begun on the monument in spite of Viktor Orbán’s explicit promises, Schiffer answered that he had nothing to say. He called the response “disproportionate hysterics.” The opposition shouldn’t waste its energy on this monument. Instead, they should busy themselves with the current very serious problems of the country. Kálmán was so stunned that she committed a  journalistic mistake: she let her own feelings interfere with her professionalism and expressed her disapproval of Schiffer’s response, which she obviously considered callous. Right-wing papers were delighted that András Schiffer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shared their view on the issue and pointed the finger at Olga Kálmán. Others, mostly in opposition circles, were horrified at Schiffer’s response.

Here I would like to quote Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist with a vast knowledge of foreign affairs, domestic politics, history, and sports. Aczél remembered an old political-literary event from 1937. In that year the cream of Hungarian literati decided to issue a proclamation protesting artificially inflamed anti-Semitism. Milán Füst (1888-1967), who happened to be Jewish, refused to sign it. These were the words he used explaining his reasons for not joining his fellow writers: “There is the Jewish question and perhaps it could even be solved. But it is not the most important question of the country because there are more burning questions. . . . I will not allow all our troubles to be pilfered on account of the Jewish issue.” A year later the first anti-Jewish law was enacted. The moral of the story is obvious.

András Schiffer’s response resembles what Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994), had to say in an interview on HírTV despite the fact that Boross is a right-wing nationalist and an apologist for the Horthy regime while Schiffer is allegedly a democrat.  I wrote an article about Boross’s seemingly sudden political shift after Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010. Formerly, Boross acted like a true conservative who was afraid of the extreme right. He kept bringing up stories from the 1930s and talked about the consequences of this dangerous ideology. But in the last four years Boross showed himself to be a reactionary right-winger, in many respects sharing the views of the Hungarian extreme right. So, it’s no wonder that Boross considers the demonstrations no more than a hysterical reaction of the left-leaning intelligentsia. The demonstrations are not really about the memorial; they reflect “the hatred of the left fed by their loss at the election.” In an interesting twist he accused “the demonstrators of inflaming fears, especially in older people who went through those terrible years.” So, if I understand him correctly, the demonstrators are the ones who are frightening the Jewish population who, as he added, want to live in peace. “This is an intellectual crime.” And, he added, it is these Budapest intellectuals who are partly responsible for the critical voices from abroad as well. I think, knowing Péter Boross’s ideology, that we can safely replace the adjective “Budapest” with “Jewish.”

I have no idea whether Mazsihisz’s latest effort at continuing a dialogue with the government will succeed. I don’t even know whether the United States government’s statement addressed to the Orbán government will achieve anything. But at least we can say that the efforts of the people who were on that square every afternoon were not wasted. They drew attention once again to the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge–and to accept Hungary’s responsibility for–heinous actions of the past.

Potpourri: Forex loans, the duped MSZP, and outraged patriots in Stockholm

I decided to touch on several topics today instead of concentrating on only one. The reason? All three recent political events are still in flux. We have no idea how and when they will be settled.

Two of the three topics I’m going to talk about are not new to readers of Hungarian Spectrum. One is the story of the fraudulent video taken in Baja after the repeated by-election at one of the polling stations. The other is the continuing saga of the Swedish TV program on Hungary. And finally, today’s news is that a decision was finally made on the fate of Forex debts that over 100,000 people are unable to pay back.

Let me start with the last topic, the government debt relief scheme. Today’s announcement of the impending government action came unexpectedly and, in usual Fidesz fashion, the measure will be passed by parliament tomorrow. It seems that in the last minute the Orbán government got cold feet and didn’t dare go ahead with their original, radical plan that would have made the banks bear the entire burden. Critics warned that if the government followed through on the plan the entire Hungarian banking system would collapse. So, it seems that they settled for a less onerous solution. As I understand the proposed plan, people with mortgages in foreign currencies will be able to temporarily repay them at below-market exchange rates. Mortgages denominated in Swiss francs can be paid in forints at an exchange rate of 180 forints instead of the current 241. Those with mortgages in euros can convert them at 250 forints instead of 296. The difference between the spot and discount rates will be held in a temporary account, with the banks and the government splitting the interest and some of the costs involved. Mortgage holders will have five years in which to repay the exchange rate difference. Anyone who would wants more details of the plan should consult Margit Fehér’s article in The Wall Street Journal.

Now let’s go back to Sweden. I mentioned in an earlier post that Swedish public television broadcast a program about Hungary on October 23 which, in the opinion of the Hungarian government, contained factual errors and generalizations that reflected badly on Hungary and its people. They found it especially galling that this “anti-Hungarian” documentary was broadcast on the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

In my earlier post I called attention to Viktor Orbán’s order to the ambassadors to defend the good name of Hungary every time there is an alleged attack on the country. As one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Gergely Prőhle, said on ATV yesterday, “the ministry’s employees are a disciplined lot” and therefore they took Orbán’s words seriously. Since Prőhle had earlier been ambassador to Switzerland and Germany, he was asked what he would have done had he been in Lilla Makkay’s shoes. It seems that Prőhle, who is among the more moderate voices in the Foreign Ministry, feels compelled to follow the official line. He announced that Ambassador Makkay did the right thing and that he would have done the same thing. He emphasized that Makkay was polite and spoke in Swedish.

I don’t blame either Makkay or Prőhle. After all, they are representatives of the Hungarian government. I do, however, blame the Orbán government which instructs the country’s ambassadors to interfere with the media of western countries. I also blame this government for creating an atmosphere that encourages the right-wing press to write an open letter to the Swedish ambassador in Budapest. We know that if Zsolt Bayer, Ur-Fidesz, opens his mouth, the consequences are always dire. I bet that after someone translated Bayer’s open letter the Swedish ambassador no longer had any doubts about whom she was dealing with. And if someone added that he is an old friend of Viktor Orbán, I’m sure she was just thrilled.

Kumin’s letter, Makkay’s scolding, and her invitation to journalists to come to the Hungarian embassy didn’t achieve anything. Or, rather, it did but not exactly what the great defenders of Hungary’s reputation had hoped for. The same program that broadcast the documentary on Hungary in the first place returned to the subject a week later and told its audience what had happened during the last week. The Hungarian government and its representative in Stockholm looked ridiculous.

confusion2And finally, there is the ongoing story of the fraudulent video. Whoever hired the four or five Roma to stage the gathering that was supposed to prove that Fidesz bought Roma votes at the by-election picked the wrong men. Their stories not only made no sense initially, they couldn’t keep their stories straight. One of their claims, that a MSZP politician ordered the tape from Róbert G., seems to have been disproved. At least this is what the politician’s polygraph test indicates.

Of course, the real question is who was behind Róbert G. and the others. It’s possible that local Fidesz politicians, Róbert Zsigó, and Csaba Kovács, hired the Romas. Some evidence points in that direction. In a conversation with Olga Kálmán shortly after the second round of voting Zsigó told her that on Saturday, that is a day before the election, he received information that the opposition parties were planning to create a video that would implicate Fidesz in vote buying. He added that he immediately went to the police with the information. A few days later Máté Kocsis repeated the same story on one of MTV’s evening programs. As we know by now, the video was created on Monday. Strange, isn’t it?

In any case, Ildikó Lendvai was right when on Sunday in an interview on ATV she said that “we were duped,” adding that no one likes people who are considered to be saps. Endre Aczél wrote two excellent short articles about the case entitled Csali and Csali–II (The bait). I think that the scenario Aczél outlined in his first article is most likely very close to reality. But if that was the case, it was a dangerous game to play. On the other hand, no scandal is ever big enough to have much effect on Viktor Orbán, his party, or his 1.5 million strong followers.

Metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán?

A few months ago I had a debate about Viktor Orbán’s metamorphosis from liberal to right-wing populist with someone who has known Viktor Orbán ever since the beginning of the democratic opposition’s struggle for regime change. I insisted that no one can change that much and that fundamentally, and therefore, I submitted, Orbán was never a democrat. My friend, a well-known member of SZDSZ, insisted that yes, Viktor was a true liberal but power had a terrible effect on his psyche. I wasn’t convinced.

Lately I have been noticing a change of heart among those who worked closely with Orbán or who as members of the media have been following those Hungarian political events in which he played a prominent role.

Just today Endre Aczél, a seasoned journalist with vast experience with MTI in the 1970s and MTV in the late 1980s, wrote one of his short but sharp-eyed opinion pieces in Galamus. In it he expressed his “suspicion” that it was at least fifteen years ago that Orbán abandoned the idea of the “rule of law.” He recalls a speech by the freshly elected young prime minister that was delivered before the yearly meeting of the country’s ambassadors. Orbán suggested to Hungary’s representatives abroad not to emphasize the “rule of law” but to stress the “law and order” that his government wants to re-establish.

The orange is rotting. That's all / faszkivar.blog.hu

The orange is rotting. That’s all. / faszkivan.blog.hu

Tamás Bauer, an economist, former SZDSZ politician, and today deputy chairman of DK, also remembers the day when he knew that Viktor Orbán was not a democrat. It was also in 1998, on July 6, when during the debate on the government program in parliament Orbán said: “I ask everybody who wants to re-establish order and security; everybody who wants a child be important not only to the family but also to the state; everybody who wants to belong to the Hungarian nation; everybody who wants to make Hungary a country that cooperates with other European nations to vote for the program of the government.” It was at this point that Bauer truly understood, although he had had an inkling before, how Orbán imagined the exercise of power. Because Orbán made it clear that he envisaged himself as the man who alone represents the nation and who considered the opposition a group of people who don’t belong to the nation. After all, in normal parliamentary democracies, the opposition doesn’t vote for the government program.

Therefore Bauer knew way before 2010 what kind of rule Orbán was going to introduce, especially once he achieved the much coveted two-thirds majority. Although according to some interpreters the original Orbán constitution of 2011 was still a democratic document, Bauer disagrees. A constitutional committee was set up, but the majority of the members came from the two government parties. Thus the new constitution reflected the will of the government and the party, Fidesz-KDNP. There was no use participating in this farce. It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who first called for a boycott and his call was followed by MSZP and later by LMP. That constitution was about as legitimate as the 1949 communist constitution. After all, the 1949 constitution reflected only the will of the Hungarian communist party, and the 2011 document was similarly created by and for Fidesz-KDNP.

Yes, both commentators claim, Viktor Orbán hasn’t been a democrat for a very long time. Perhaps he never was, I might add.

In the last few days there is a video that has been making the rounds on the Internet. It originally appeared on the website of Népszabadság. The video was taken at the demonstration organized to urge János Áder not to sign the amendments to the constitution. The speaker is Péter Molnár. Perhaps not too many people remember him, although he was one of the founders of Fidesz and the group at István Bibó College where Fidesz was born. He even spent four years in the Hungarian parliament as a member of the Fidesz caucus. And then he left the party and politics. On the video one can hear him telling Áder: “That is not what we dreamed of, Jánó!” A few days ago I quoted Tamás Deutsch’s tweet claiming that this is exactly what they were dreaming of back in the late 1980s. Surely, this was an answer to Molnár.

I first encountered Molnár’s name in György Petőcz’s book Csak a narancs volt (It was only the orange / Élet és Irodalom, 2001). He was one of the contributors to the volume. He and the four other contributors left Fidesz completely disillusioned in 1993-1994.

What are Molnár’s recollections of the early days of Fidesz and Bibó College? According to him, László Kövér managed to create a lot of tension even in those days. At every meeting he insisted that all members of the college–there were around 80 students–must be politically active. Kövér and Orbán worked together and wanted to rule the community according to their own ideas. Molnár recalls that in the college there was a feeling of unity and solidarity but “Viktor’s political management destroyed it just as he destroyed [the original] Fidesz.” A good example of how this “solidarity” worked in Fidesz land. Once a member of the college group said that “Viktor can be certain that he can rely on his old friends in Bibó College.” Two years later the old buddy of Viktor lost his high position in the party and the government because he dared to disagree with him. “Solidarity existed only as long as the person followed the ‘correct’ policy. It didn’t matter whether he belonged to the inner circle or not, if he disagreed with Laci Kövér and Viktor, he was finished.” Does a democrat behave this way?

Let’s return for a moment to Endre Aczél’s opinion piece that appeared today. Its title is “Order? My own!” No,  Orbán hasn’t changed his stripes.

Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan: empty promises

Perhaps “narancsblog” was right when he announced that it really doesn’t matter what Viktor Orbán said yesterday in front of invited guests about the state of the country. He is right. It makes no difference. It is also immaterial what the adoring fans of Viktor Orbán thought of the speech. Népszabadság‘s reporter was there, microphone in hand, and asked the same questions he asked a year ago, starting with: “What did you think of the speech?” Not only were the questions the same but the answers were as well: “Everything is wonderful, everything is going in the right direction.” They feel richer than ever and how nice that they will have to pay 10% less for natural gas. Nothing could change their minds. “What about the GDP? What about the drop in real wages? What about unemployment? What about the almost half a million Hungarians who live and work abroad?” The answer: statistics cannot be trusted.

As for the commentators, they couldn’t come up with anything terribly new either. Many labelled Orbán’s speech a pack of lies. They pointed out that Orbán again mixed up two famous Hungarian writers, Géza Ottlik and Sándor Márai, and that he recycled his jokes. They also emphasized that instead of talking about the present that is, let’s face it, unpleasant and even painful, he decided to look back over the past one hundred years and look forward to what will happen in 2030.

Viktor Orbán came out with a most ambitious “twenty year plan” (presumably already being implemented). Even Nikita Krushchev, as we were reminded by Endre Aczél, dared to plan for only seven years when in 1959 he promised that the Soviet Union’s GDP per capita would surpass that of the United States. And then came 1966 and no one remembered his boasting any more. Not only was the plan forgotten, Khrushchev himself was gone.

The slogan that was plastered all over the podium read “Hungary is performing better.” As it turned out in the course of Orbán’s address, this means that in all respects Hungary is doing better now than at any time since 1990. A quick look at economic indicators, however, reveals that actually the opposite is true: Hungary’s economy is in shambles. But then I guess these are just more untrustworthy statistics.

Ferenc Gyurcsány summarized Orbán’s performance in a single phrase: “empty head, empty speech.” Others were even less charitable. A blog writer called him “the national bullshit generator.” Klára Ungár, Orbán’s former friend and colleague in Fidesz, made a witty remark in which she quoted from Erzsi Gazdag, a poet who often wrote children’s verse. One of her best known poems is “A mesebolt,” a store that sells tales:

Volt egyszer egy mesebolt,
abban minden mese volt.
Fiókjában törpék ültek,
vízilányok hegedültek.

I’m not going to try to translate it, but basically in that “tale store everything was a tale.” So, in Orbán’s speech there was not word of truth.

Another truckload of political promisesBy les mois de l'année / Flickr

Another truckload of political promises
By les mois de l’année / Flickr

In his brief reference to the last one hundred years he compared Hungary’s situation to an old folk ballad about Mrs. Kelemen Kömíves. A fairly gruesome story about twelve bricklayers who are hired to build the walls of the Fortress of Déva (Deva, Romania). Whatever they build during the day collapses overnight. So, they decide that the first wife who comes to visit will be killed and her ashes will have some miraculous powers to keep the mortar strong. According to Orbán, whatever “our great-great grandparents built was taken away by World War I and the peace (békerendszer) that it brought; what our great grandparents built was taken away by World War II and the system of peace created afterward; what our grandparents and parents built was taken away by the communist system.” The message is that, considering everything, Hungary’s situation is not at all bad. (I don’t know who the sacrificial lamb is supposed to be in this analogy.) I think I should also point out that from Orbán’s grandparents and parents nothing was taken away by the communists. The opposite is true. The Orbán family was a beneficiary of the socialist system.

After spending only a little time on his accomplishments he quickly moved on to his grand design, his “master plan” as he called it. Miracles will take place. By 2030 Hungary will not be financially dependent, although I’m not quite sure what he means by financial independence. The central government will not have to borrow money? Will not have to issue government bonds? Hard to imagine. No country works that way and the country that tried it, I have Romania in mind, had a sorry end. “We will end our energy dependence” by that date. Furthermore, everybody will be saved from “the slavery of indebtedness in foreign currencies.”  The population will stop decreasing. Everybody will find work who wants to live in Hungary. Hungary will be among the thirty most competitive countries in the world. From these sentences it is clear that Viktor Orbán envisages himself as prime minister of Hungary at least for another eighteen years because he and his team will carry out this master plan.

“By a reindustrialization of the country Hungarian industry will be linked to the German industrial complex (a magyar ipart összeépítjük a némettel)…. We will build up ten thousand middle-size companies that will be competitive in the export business. Fifteen to twenty large Hungarian multinational companies will strengthen the global expansion of the Hungarian economy…. Four to five percent of the country’s GDP will be spent on research and development. Several of our universities will be among the top 200 in the world…. The living standards of Hungarian families will surpass the European average. We will achieve all this with carefully prepared plans, with a reorganized state, with committed experts, and with a society that wants and is able to work.

Shortly before Viktor Orbán delivered his speech came the news that the European Commission has its doubts about Hungary’s ability to hold the deficit under 3% in 2013. Commentators tried to guess what the prime minister would say about this piece of news. Would he say anything? Well, he did. Let me quote:

You shouldn’t be troubled by the European Union’s economic prognosis. For example, as far as the budget is concerned not once did they manage to guess it right. We keep fingers crossed that perhaps this time they will manage. We will help them because this year the deficit will again be under 3%.

Of course, what Orbán neglected to tell his adoring audience is that during 2012 the budget had to be rejiggered time and again to remain below the magic 3%. And surely, he didn’t want to tell them that most likely the EU prediction for 2013 is correct and that to remain under 3% new austerity measures will have to be introduced.

But Fidesz supporters can hang on to those twenty-year dreams and sleep unencumbered by the realities of today.