Tag Archives: Ferenc Kumin

Hungarian Roma dilemmas

I decided to return to yesterday’s discussion on the latest developments in the “Bogdán case” because I think it is a much more complex issue than meets the eye or my short summary of the recent events would suggest. Yesterday I didn’t go into the serious differences of opinion between László Bogdán and some Roma human rights activists over the right way to handle the “Roma problem.” In order to understand the situation in which Bogdán finds himself, it is necessary to hear the criticism they level against the mayor of Cserdi. And then there is Bogdán’s offer of Cserdi as a place where refugee families are welcome which, according to some interpreters, might be the reason for the Hungarian media’s suddenly discovering Bogdán’s run-in with the law in 2010.

Let’s start with the latter because it is easier to sort out. First, some background. Bogdán spent three weeks in the United States in March and April, where among other things he gave a talk about the situation of Roma women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. How did this trip come about? First, in 2015 the Hungarian government made Bogdán Hungary’s ambassador charged with nurturing talented youngsters. Therefore we must assume that the Orbán government considers László Bogdán someone who can represent the country abroad. And indeed, it was Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York, who organized his trip. As Bogdán explained to BaMa, a Baranya County news site, they arranged his program, which included trips to 17 American cities. Of course, the highlight of the trip was his speech at the UN where “as a representative of Hungary [he talked] about the Gypsy community in Hungary and his Cserdi initiative.” He reported from the United States to BaMa that he celebrated March 15 with George Pataki, former governor of New York, and was the guest of former U.S. ambassador Colleen Bell at a charity event.

George Lázár suggests in an article in The Hungarian Free Press that László Bogdán’s recent problems stem from his decision to sponsor a Syrian family’s stay in Cserdi. Lázár points out that Bogdán was the “darling” of the government, whose trip to the United States was organized by high officials of the Orbán government. But, he continues, “Everything changed when recently Mayor Bogdán announced that he would welcome refugee families to vacation in his village.” Suddenly, the media suspected that there was something not quite right with László Bogdán. George Lázár, this morning on Facebook, noted that it is hard to imagine that the Hungarian government was unaware of Bogdán’s conviction in 2014, and it cannot be a coincidence that PécsMa discovered this story just now. Did the Hungarian government know about Bogdán’s troubles with the law when, for example, in 2015 he was appointed “ambassador”? I don’t know. But the conviction became final in 2014, just a year before his appointment to the post. Whether the Hungarian government is behind this story surfacing now is hard to tell.

The other aspect of the controversy surrounding László Bogdán is his standing in the Roma community. Roma human rights activists—and independent experts on Roma issues—have serious objections to Bogdán’s ideas. Shortly after his return from the United States, an article appeared in 168 Óra written by András Balázs, an assistant professor of sociology, criticizing the speech Bogdán delivered at the United Nations. His talk at the UN was about the exploitation of Gypsy women by Gypsy men, who look upon them as baby machines. Early marriages and too many children, and thus by the age of 30 they are grandmothers and at the age of 40 they consider themselves to be old. Balázs asserted that Bogdán’s focus on violent Roma men is “internalized racism,” which only strengthens the prejudice of the majority population. Moreover, when the people of Cserdi gave away produce to needy people, he came up with the slogan “We didn’t steal them from you; we grew them for you.” His paternalistic leadership is not conducive to the development of local initiatives. Balázs also blames the media, whose darling “the ambitious mayor” became, while the true Roma human rights activists’ voices can barely be heard.

And that leads us to the fateful meeting between the leadership of the Roma Parliament and László Bogdán on September 25, where the first alleged assault on the mayor took place. The video is available on YouTube, included here. At the meeting there was a clash between two entirely different views. The chief aim of the human rights activists is to reduce the majority community’s prejudice. László Bogdán, by contrast, maintains that the prejudice against the Roma is not entirely unwarranted and that in order to minimize or eliminate prejudice the Gypsy community must change. They must become hard-working and responsible members of society. His opponents consider some of his ideas outright racist. During the two-hour meeting Bogdán received a lot of criticism from Roma leaders who don’t share his vision. Aladár Horváth, who is the president of the Roma Parliament, opened the meeting by comparing the Cserdi model to Jobbik’s Érpatak model, where a bizarre character, Mihály Zoltán Orosz, runs the show “with an iron fist.” As I wrote in a post about Érpatak, “law and order dominate” the village. After this less than complimentary introduction, Bogdán delivered a speech in which he praised the Cserdi model which, one must admit, works very well. In the question and answer period there were some sticky questions about his conviction, and several people compared Bogdán’s ideas on Roma issues to those of Jobbik. There were people who called him a Nazi. At the end, Jenő Zsigó, an important Roma human rights activist, rose and delivered a powerful speech.

Jenő Zsigó at the Roma Parliament meeting, September 25, 2017

Jenő Zsigó, unlike Bogdán, has a stellar background. He comes from a family of musicians, a group that was always considered to be the aristocracy of the Gypsy community. He received two diplomas from ELTE, one in education and the other in sociology. Both of his theses were related to questions about the Roma community. He has been especially active in propagating Roma art and folk music.

In his speech Zsigó compared Bogdán to Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. He accused him of developing a “system of dependency,” a kind of “feudalistic system” where in Cserdi everything depends on him. When Bogdán says that “there is no need for human rights advocates,” he denies the rule of law. When Bogdán says that there is no need to break up the Gypsy ghettos, he is promoting segregation. The speech was an indictment of the things that the human rights advocates find reprehensible in Bogdán’s model.

Unfortunately, Bogdán had to leave, and therefore we don’t know what kinds of arguments he would have used in the face of Zsigó’s criticism. But he promised that, if invited, he would gladly return. I suspect that if Bogdán had had the opportunity, he would have said: “And how much have you managed to achieve with your human rights advocacy? Is there less prejudice today than 30 years ago? I at least can show a village that is thriving.” As a friend remarked to me: “Zsigó is an excellent civil rights and minority leader, who is very convincing. In turn, Bogdán is also an excellent man with real results. The question is which is better in improving the life of the Gypsy community. Both positions have their weaknesses. Zsigó’s fight for equality and tolerance meets head on with the majority’s pejorative opinion, while Bogdán’s talking about ‘good Gypsies’ (people of Cserdi) and ‘bad Gypsies’ (the overwhelming majority) only adds to the prevailing racism in Hungary.”

November 6, 2017

Ferenc Kumin again demands correction of a non-existent gross distortion

You may recall that, shortly after the formation of his cabinet, Viktor Orbán practically ordered Hungary’s ambassadors to respond immediately and forcefully to all unfounded criticism in their “local” media. I’m pretty sure that the foreign ministry also directed Hungarian ambassadors to perform this task, but Viktor Orbán, who has taken away more and more of the competence of the foreign minister and his diplomats, gave some of his own men the task of keeping an eye on the foreign media’s depiction of Hungary and the Hungarian government.

One such man is Ferenc Kumin, about whom I already wrote in connection with a documentary film shown on Swedish television. In this instance Hungarian interference on the ambassadorial level backfired. Since then at least two other television programs have dealt with problems in today’s Hungary. Moreover, Hungary was also the topic of a radio program broadcast on Sweden’s public radio station.

Kumin has quieted down somewhat since his inglorious encounter with Ágnes Heller and was satisfied with only a modest comment affixed to an article that appeared in Maclean’sthe foremost Canadian weekly, about Ákos Kertész, who recently received political asylum in Canada. The author of the article was Anna Porter, the well-known Canadian publicist, who wrote several books on Eastern Europe. What did Kumin object to this time? Interestingly, he didn’t try to deny the harassment of Ákos Kertész by the authorities and by people who were offended by his bitter criticism of his own people, the Hungarians, but concentrated instead on the following lines in Anna Porter’s article:

The far-right Jobbik party demanded that Kertész be stripped of his honours and distinctions; the prime minister agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with “such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.”

According to Kumin,

The author has misquoted Prime Minister Orbán and distorted his comment about the proposed law. It’s simply incorrect to say that he “agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with ‘such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.'” In fact, the prime minister was talking about when it is appropriate to respond to offensive, insulting statements and when it’s better to simply ignore them. He said, unfortunately, one has to handle statements that are often “ignoble, silly or racist” (“nemtelen, szamárság, rasszista”)…. Also, he said that when the parliament considers the law on state honors, it should debate whether it is a good idea to be able to withdraw such honors and, if so, on what conditions. A misquote as serious as this would ordinarily merit a correction.

Kumin gave a link to Viktor Orbán’s answer to a question addressed to him by Sándor Pörzse, a member of Jobbik, the Hungarian anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party. But before I give the exact wording of the prime minister’s answer, I would like to recall a few events that preceded this exchange on October 24, 2011.

On September 10 the Fidesz caucus of the Budapest City Council proposed withdrawing Ákos Kertész’s “Freedom of the City” award because he called Hungarians genetically servile. A Jobbik member of the City Council agreed and further suggested that the President should consider taking away Kertész’s Kossuth Prize, which he received in 2008.  And indeed, “President Pál Schmitt requested that the government examine the possibility of withdrawing state awards from those who had become unworthy.” The Orbán government seemed to have supported the idea because János Halász, undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, agreed: “If Kertész doesn’t apologize, the government won’t consider him to be worthy of the Kossuth Prize.” In plain language, they will take it away from him.

On September 21 Kertész was stripped of his “Freedom of the City” award by a vote of the Jobbik-Fidesz majority on the City Council. Three days later the Kertész affair got to the Hungarian parliament. It was on October 4 that Orbán rose and answered Jobbik’s Sándor Pörzse in connection with Kertész’s Kossuth Prize.

Orbán said:

We, right-wing Christian politicians, must get accustomed to ignoble, silly, racist comments which revile Hungarians and we must carefully choose when we pick up the gauntlet, when we hit back and when not…. As far as the concrete issue is concerned, clearly it makes one unhappy that a writer who received the Kossuth Prize entertains us with such stupidities. But there are worse cases than that. For example, Ernő Gerő is still on the rostrum of Kossuth Prize winners. This only shows that in the last twenty years we didn’t have enough steadfastness to scrutinize the law on state prizes and decorations and discuss the question in this House whether a prize already awarded can or cannot be withdrawn, and if it can be, under what circumstances its withdrawal is or is not desirable. Soon the law concerning prizes and decorations will be before the House when we hope we will have the opportunity to discuss soberly and  dispassionately, quite independently from racist stupidities that offend Hungarians, the whole question. 

Orban a parlamentben

But Kumin didn’t quote the rest of the exchange. Pörzse had an opportunity for a follow-up question, and he asked Orbán to take the initiative of stripping Ákos Kertész of his prize. He emphasized that he should take that “symbolic step.”

Orbán’s answer must have been soothing to the ears of the Jobbik MP. The prime minister stressed that the “solution” is not in his hands. “We will bring the bill here, we will discuss it, and the Hungarian government will follow” the law that is enacted. Galamus‘s headline read: “Orbán reassured Jobbik.”

You can decide whether or not Anna Porter grossly distorted Viktor Orbán’s comments. I don’t think so. I think she summarized Orbán’s statements on the subject quite accurately.

Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.

How did less money become more? Viktor Orbán’s historic success in Brussels

This afternoon the new session of parliament began with a brief “victory speech” by Viktor Orbán. He described the “historic success” he managed to achieve for Hungary during the European Union’s summit that hammered out the new 2014-20 budget.

Considering that initially Hungary was going to receive about 30% less in European subsidies than in the previous seven years, one can be grateful that the actual monetary loss was only 20%–from 26 billion euros to 20 billion. However, for Viktor Orbán it is never enough to say: “We are very happy that the cuts were less substantial than we had feared.” He has to come up with a mathematical trick that can make less more. The trick lies in the fact that when the Hungarian prime minister announced his phony figures he was calculating in forints per capita. According to him, while between 2007 and 2013 660,000 forints per capita arrived, between 2014 and 2020 that sum will be 712,000 per capita. Sure, but when Hungary received that money in 2007 one euro was worth 252 forints while today the exchange rate is to 1:292. And then there’s the very high Hungarian inflation rate that further reduces the purchasing power of the allocated funds.

While collecting material for today’s post I realized that Ferenc Kumin, a fairly recent acquisition in the Office of the Prime Minister from Századvég, the Fidesz think tank, has changed his focus in the last few months. As assistant undersecretary for international communication he was first entrusted with making propaganda in the United States. Among other things, he paid a visit to the Democratic Convention, acting as if he were an important guest there. But now Kumin seems to be a spokesman for the government in connection with Hungary’s position vis-à-vis the European Union. In this capacity he extolled the virtues of international cooperation. Hungary, together with Poland, Romania, and France, lobbied hard for high agricultural subsidies. He naturally didn’t mention that Poland, Romania, and Slovakia received more money than in the previous seven years. Hungary was also pleased that the share of EU monies remained 85% instead of 75% of the total cost of projects, as had been talked about earlier. As it  is, the Hungarian side has difficulties coming up with its 15% share, and thus a lot of available money is never used.

But there is another way of looking at the “historic success” that is much less encouraging. While the overall EU budget was reduced by only 2%, Hungary lost 20% of its subsidies. In fact, Hungary could have done much worse because the sums allotted were based on a percentage of the countries’ GDP, and Hungary’s GDP actually shrank in the last few years. If the EU had adhered to this principle Hungary would have been deprived of a huge amount of money, a move that Brussels considered too extreme.

jackpotAnd now let’s see how wisely successive Hungarian governments have used these subsidies in the past. Not wisely at all. A great deal of the money was spent on swimming pools, wellness centers, and repaving and redoing the central squares of practically all mid-size towns in the country. And no one should think that there is any major change being contemplated for the future use of cohesion funds.

The latest brainchild of the Orbán government is a “museum quarter” around the present Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts). Only yesterday Zoltán Balog announced this huge project, which will be completed in five years. It will involve the complete renewal of Budapest’s City Park (Városliget) and the construction of several new buildings to bring practically all important galleries and museums currently scattered around the city into one “Museum Quarter” (Múzeum Negyed). The government is planning to spend 120 billion forints on the project, which will make it “the biggest cultural development in a hundred years in Budapest.” The area will look like at last “what the city planners dreamed of in 1898 at the time of the millennial celebrations.”

Indeed, it will be a big project: new buildings will be needed for the Museum of Ethnography, the Hungarian Museum of Photography, a new National Gallery, the Museum of Hungarian Music, and the Hungarian Museum of Architecture. In addition they plan to restore a wing of the Museum of Fine Arts that was badly damaged during World War II. This time the government promises an international competition given the importance of the project.

For the buildings of the Museum Quarter the government is planning to spend 70 billion forints. But, don’t fret: 90% of this sum will be “financed from EU sources.” Another 50 billion will be spent on the City Park where they will enlarge the zoo. In addition they will redo the Petőfi Csarnok (Petőfi Hall) which in the future will be a kind of Disneyland, Hungarian style, for youngsters.

This project, like practically all others, will undoubtedly be carried out by Hungarian companies favored by Fidesz. How much of the EU monies will actually end up in the coffers of the party no one knows. Yes, the project will employ people in the building industry, which has been badly hit in the last five years. But, beyond this, it is hard to justify spending EU monies for such an undertaking. The man who is in charge of the project claims that the very existence of the City Park and the Museum Quarter will bring 1-1.5 million tourists to Hungary. I very much doubt that claim.

Meanwhile the towns cannot keep up their new stadiums and swimming pools, the fancy stone pavers in the main town squares are becoming loose and starting to look shabby. These projects might make town centers a little more attractive, but they do not facilitate Hungary’s cohesion to the more developed parts of the European Union.