Tag Archives: Géza Jeszenszky

Conservative awakening in Hungary

About a year and a half ago I created a folder devoted to “internal divisions” within Fidesz. At that time there were a few signs of differences of opinion among the top Fidesz leaders, which to me signaled the possibility of a chink in the armor of this monolithic party. I was wrong. In no time Lázár, Kövér, Balog, and some others buried the hatchet–if there ever was such a thing as a hatchet in the first place.

This time there can be no question. An internal opposition has emerged, comprised of politicians who had once occupied important positions in Viktor Orbán’s governments. Even earlier, one had the distinct feeling that people like Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who served Viktor Orbán faithfully for eight years, István Stumpf, who served as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office between 1998 and 2002 and since July 2010 as a Fidesz-appointed member of the Constitutional Court, and Tibor Navracsics, former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation (2006-2010), minister of justice and administration, deputy prime minister (2010-2014), who was “exiled to Brussels” in November 2014 to become European commissioner in charge of education, culture, and youth, disapproved of Viktor Orbán’s growing shift to the right, his foreign policy, and his illiberalism. But there was little or no public display of their dissatisfaction. It now looks as if their concerns have become grave enough to overcome their reluctance to turn against the regime they so faithfully supported earlier.

About two weeks ago János Martonyi and István Stumpf delivered lectures at a conference organized by the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum, where  Martonyi took issue with Viktor Orbán’s attachment to “ethnic homogeneity.” In February of this year Viktor Orbán, in a lecture delivered at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, had talked quite openly about “safeguarding the ethnic homogeneity” of the country. Later, during his last trip to Poland, at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, he repeated his vision for Europe and for Hungary that included references to ethnic homogeneity. Martonyi said he couldn’t reconcile Orbán’s concept of ethnically homogeneous nation states with the fact that three or four million Hungarians live outside the country’s present borders. Martonyi is right. Orbán’s ideological struggles with the European Union led him to an irreconcilable contradiction on this issue.

István Stump was even more outspoken. He criticized the limits the Orbán government placed on the competence of the constitutional court. He was specifically talking about the suspension of the court’s competency over economic matters, which he called “an open wound on the body of Hungarian constitutionalism.” He also complained about the practice of retroactive legislation, which “in the long run, eliminates the maneuverability of future governments.”

Then there is Tibor Navracsics, who said that “the Soros Plan is not part of the European Commission’s agenda.” That upset Zsolt Semjén, KDNP deputy prime minister, mightily. In a radio interview he declared that Tibor Navracsics, as a European commissioner, knows that “his colleagues, his surroundings, people as well as organizations, are not only in the hands of George Soros, but also in his pocket.” Semjén accused Navracsics of disloyalty and called on him to decide where his real allegiance lies: with his own country or with the international community. Navracsics didn’t seem to be intimidated and called Semjén’s reaction “hysteria” which leads to wrong political decisions. Semjén’s attacks on Navracsics, however, continue unabated. Only today one could read that Navracsics’s denial of the Soros Plan is being used by the opposition “as a knife in the back of the government.”

One of the harshest critics of the Orbán government is Géza Jeszenszky, minister of foreign affairs in the government of József Antall (1990-1994), who during the first Orbán government (1998-2002) continued his political activities as ambassador to the United States. In 2011 he was named ambassador to Norway and Iceland. In October 2014 he resigned because he disagreed with the government’s attack on the Norway Fund, which achieved nothing and ruined the relations between Norway and Hungary for some time. Jeszenszky is no friend of George Soros who, in his opinion, was “an unfair adversary of the Antall government,” but he finds the anti-Soros campaign “shameful.” He believes that Orbán’s “aggressive” foreign policy is wrong and his pro-Russian orientation dangerous. He gives many interviews in which he doesn’t hide his true feelings about the Orbán government. He even expressed his willingness to help the opposition parties with his advice and support. Naturally, Jeszenszky’s criticisms couldn’t be left unanswered. Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, described Jeszenszky as being “in a state of political dementia.” Magyar Idők was brief and to the point: “Whoever is (was) Géza Jeszenszky, he should be ashamed of himself.”

Meanwhile, more and more former politicians and professionals who used to work for the Antall and earlier Fidesz governments are ready to join the efforts of the opposition to dislodge the present government. Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist at the University of Pécs who used to work for the Fidesz think tank Századvég, announced his intention to run as an independent candidate for parliament if all the opposition parties would support him. Given the disastrous Fidesz administration in the city, I have no doubt that Mellár could easily win one of the two parliamentary seats from Pécs.

Some of the disenchanted conservatives: Attila Chikán, László Sólyom, and Péter Ákos Bod / Source: Magyar Nemzet

Péter Ákos Bod, minister of industry and trade in the Antall government (1990-1991) and later chairman of the Hungarian National Bank (1991-1994), has been a severe critic of the Orbán government for a couple of years. By now he is openly talking about the need to remove Viktor Orbán from power because he fears economic disaster if the present government prevails. In order to appreciate the significance of Bod’s present stance, one should keep in mind that in 2006, when Viktor Orbán was desperate because he realized that his party might lose the election again, he offered the post of prime minister to Bod between the first and second rounds of election in the hope of reversing the trend. So, Bod’s presence at an LMP event where Bernadett Szél announced the party’s cooperation with a small, right-of-center party called Új Kezdet (New beginning) established by György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő since 1994, is significant. It shows Bod’s total disillusionment with Viktor Orbán and his regime. György Gémesi’s decision to work together with LMP is also noteworthy. Gémesi was once an important MDF leader.

Analysts have been saying for years that the Orbán regime cannot be removed only by the left-of-center parties. Disappointed Fidesz voters who most likely would never vote for MSZP or DK must have their place in the sun. The awakening of these conservatives might be the harbinger of a new, truly right-of-center political formation that could help stop those far-right forces that Fidesz let loose on the country.

October 25, 2017

Joining forces? Conservatives raise their voices

I will start this post with a piece of news that at first glance may not seem especially noteworthy.

Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans for rebuilding large portions of Budapest include the creation of a “museum quarters,” part of which would be built in Városliget, the Hungarian capital’s more modest Central Park. The city, especially the Pest side, is very short on green areas, and from the very beginning many people objected to the project on ecological grounds. Others objected to Viktor Orbán’s burning desire to move his office into the historic castle district, within whose medieval walls Hungarian kings once resided. Today parts of the royal castle, built in the nineteenth century, are used to house the National Library and the National Gallery. Among Viktor Orbán’s extravagant plans is the reconstruction of the monstrously huge royal castle, which requires moving both the National Gallery and the National Library elsewhere. The trouble is that there are no suitable buildings where these two important institutions could be relocated. Hence, the idea of a “museum quarters” and perhaps even a new building for the National Library somewhere near the National Museum in downtown Pest. All this would, of course, cost an enormous amount of money and would, in the process, destroy the “city park.”

Until recently the people who were actively opposing these plans came from the ranks of those who were also critical of the political system Viktor Orbán has been creating in the last six years. But dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s regime is spreading, and we find that more and more conservatives no longer think that criticizing Fidesz is tantamount to making a pact with the communist devils. In fact, they have been joining forces. Admittedly, their criticism is limited. They are not ready to admit that Viktor Orbán’s whole edifice is rotten, but they seem to have overcome their passivity and their reluctance to come to grips with the painful truth that they were duped.

The government invited well-known architects, city planners, and museum directors to help come up with a coherent plan but, as usual, members of the government who were in charge of the project went ahead with their own ideas without paying the slightest attention to the experts. Eventually, last December, the invited experts had enough and resigned en bloc. It was this group that began a protest on Facebook against the “takeover of the Castle” and the construction of large buildings in the city park. They approached well-known intellectuals and public personages to join their protest. The list includes such names as József Ángyán, former undersecretary of agriculture in the second Orbán government; Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington and Oslo; Levente Szőrényi, a composer with right-leaning views; Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist; and József Zelnik, a Christian Democrat who is the deputy president of the much-criticized Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, a gathering place of ideologically driven artists. Géza Jeszenszky warned in a radio interview today that there are times when a government must listen to the voice of the people, and it can go against their wishes only at its own peril. The enormous amount of money being spent on this ego trip of Viktor Orbán should instead be spent on education and healthcare.

Aerial photograph of Városliget

Aerial photograph of Városliget

A more important sign of change in the attitude of former Fidesz politicians who foresee possible disaster at the end of the road on which Viktor Orbán has embarked can be found in two studies written recently in a volume of essays titled A magyar polgár (The Hungarian citoyen). They were written by Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist, and István Stumpf, head of the prime minister’s office in the first Orbán administration and currently a moderate member of the Constitutional Court.

I will have to postpone an analysis of Tölgyessy’s essay titled “From dead-end to dead-end” because of the pressures of time and space. Today I’ll limit myself to Stumpf’s essay about the metamorphosis of a group of college students. Of course, he is talking about one particular group of students under his care. He admits at the beginning that he is biased because his life has been closely intertwined with the fate of these former college students, so he tries to rely on “Weberian sociology in the interpretation of their behavior.”

When it comes to Fidesz’s early political activities, Stumpf is anything but objective. He finds it difficult to face Fidesz’s “first metamorphosis” from a liberal to a conservative party which, in my opinion, was a radical ideological change that signaled its party leader’s lack of principles and insatiable appetite for power at any cost. He glides through the first Orbán government in which he was deputy to Viktor Orbán between 2000 and 2002, viewing it as a positive period in which the only serious problem was “the style of governing.” I don’t expect István Stumpf to critically dissect the Orbán government’s political moves during this period, but if he were capable of doing so he would discover that the first Orbán government did not “respect the constitutional demands of the rule of law.” The truth, which Stumpf is incapable of seeing, is that the only reason that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts “respected” the constitutional court was that they didn’t have enough power to squash it.

So, what brought about the change in Viktor Orbán’s thinking between 2002 and 2010? “It became clear to him” that “the whole structure of the regime change must be destroyed,” including all its accomplishments. The political failures Fidesz had experienced taught its leaders “to look upon politics as a battlefield and use their majority ruthlessly.” At this point Stumpf sets out a long laundry list describing all those moves that “significantly eroded the belief in constitutional democracy.” Here again, we catch him trying to minimize the sins of the Orbán regime. The Orbán government’s policies didn’t “erode the belief in democracy,” as he claims, but it ate away at democracy itself. The huge problems created by incompetence and the neglect of education and healthcare are described by Stumpf merely as “functional woes which created dissatisfaction even among conservative members of the elite.”

After another paragraph listing accomplishments, this time on the international stage, Stumpf arrives at the most important part of his short essay. “These successes cover like thick fog the tensions that have been brewing in wider and wider segments of society. The majority of the country’s citizens are not in a euphoric mood.” Today Hungary is not an attractive country for its young citizens, and “if a country loses its talented youth, if they feel no affinity for politics, and if instead of knowledge and expertise the path of a career depends on loyalty alone, then Hungary will not become a country with a future.”

I know that many of you will say that this is not much, given the terrible damage that Stumpf’s favorite college boys have inflicted on the country and on the fabric of Hungarian democracy. But, for the time being at least, we will have to be satisfied with it. In the last six years we haven’t heard a peep, at least not publicly, from supporters of Fidesz and admirers of Viktor Orbán. Even a few months ago it would have been very difficult to imagine István Stump’s essay appearing in the same volume as essays by Iván Szelényi, Péter Felcsuti, Péter György, Éva Palócz, Virág Erdős, Zsuzsa Ferge, Krisztián Grecsó, Péter Nádas, and Pál Závada. This is a first step and, as they say, the first step is always the hardest.

March 18, 2016

The Hungarian right-wing media’s attack on the United States and its ambassador, Colleen Bell

Right after Viktor Orbán’s last Friday morning radio interview on October 30, when he mentioned George Soros’s name in connection with civil activists’ work with the asylum seekers, one of the many headlines on the topic read: “Viktor Orbán has taken aim at George Soros instead of Colleen Bell.” The journalist was wrong. Viktor Orbán ordered an attack on both.

A couple of days ago I covered in broad outline the attack on George Soros. And earlier I reported on U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell’s speech, which seemed to have come as a surprise to the Hungarian government. Or at least this was the impression government propaganda tried to convey. Slowly, however, the truth has come out. Bell informed Jenő Megyesy, Viktor Orbán’s American-Hungarian adviser, about the kind of speech she would be delivering at Corvinus University. Moreover, as it turned out, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Ambassador Bell frequently consult by phone, sometimes several times a week. Surely, the American position couldn’t have been a secret to either the officials of the ministry of foreign affairs or the prime minister’s office.

Only two important government officials commented on the speech: Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. Both accused the United States of meddling in another country’s internal affairs when it calls the Hungarian government’s attention to its abandonment of democratic norms. But does the United States transgress the boundary of diplomatic rules when such criticism is leveled against Hungary? Not at all. Here I would like to thank Professor Kim Scheppele for calling my attention to the Moscow Document. In 1991 all member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed to the following statement: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” Hungary was a signatory to this document.

Even if government officials try to ignore references to Colleen Bell’s speech, instructions surely have reached the new government media. As we know from the new editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, before the falling out between Orbán and Simicska its staff was instructed by the government, sometimes twice weekly, about the “proper” presentation of the news and the tone of the editorials. So, we can be sure that whatever we read in publications like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, or 888.hu reflects the opinion of the Orbán government.

diplomacy

The first attack on Colleen Bell came from Magyar Idők, which learned “from American sources” that Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, is dissatisfied with Ambassador Bell because she is not tough enough on the Orbán government. That’s why she is being called back to Washington for consultation. Well, no she isn’t being called back. She is going on a private visit, and naturally while in the United States she will pay a visit to the State Department.

This article, written by László Szőcs, formerly of Népszabadság, was outright polite in comparison to another piece that seems to reflect the opinion of the editorial staff. This second article is full of surprises because here Victoria Nuland is portrayed as the accomplice of George Soros. What is the connection? Believe it or not, it is Ukraine. The leading lights of Magyar Idők, who come from the hard-core Orbán worshippers at the old Magyar Nemzet, are fiercely pro-Russian and thus anti-Ukrainian. In this article both Nuland and Soros are accused of supporting the “bloody revolution of Maidan” in order “to build true democracy in Ukraine.” Soros, according to Magyar Idők, wants a similar fate for Europe. He wants to “bring the Arab Spring to our continent and change the current political systems of individual countries.” And he’s trying to achieve his devilish plan with the help of Viktoria Nuland.

Ottó Gajdics, one of the editors of Magyar Idők, was chosen to deliver an ugly personal attack on the U.S. ambassador, accusing her of having a low IQ. He also points to the Orbán-phobia of Victoria Nuland. In fact, Hungary is “one of the best allies of the United States in the region,” but these people find two serious problems with Hungary. One is that it is right-wing and nationalist, and as such is not ready to “serve the global ambitions of the superpower.” Their other problem with Hungary is that its government has too strong a legitimacy. Ever since 2010 the United States has done its best to foist upon Hungary a policy that would serve the interests of the United States. “But the country has resisted these most shameless attempts at interference by the giant who believes itself to be the policeman of the globe.”

Right after the Bell speech that made such waves in Hungary, Professor Charles Gati gave an interview to Gábor Horváth of Népszabadság. In it, Gati expressed his bafflement over the Orbán government’s foreign policy. As he put it, “There are two countries which are important from the Hungarian perspective. One is the United States, which guarantees the country’s security through NATO. The other is Germany, which is of key economic importance. Both countries are quite popular among Hungarians and yet the government lately has been attacking both. I simply don’t understand Hungarian foreign policy when the government rants against Chancellor Merkel and the United States. This is not in Hungary’s national interest.”

A few days ago three foreign policy experts got together at Corvinus University to discuss Hungarian foreign policy: Géza Jeszenszky, foreign minister (1990-1994) and ambassador to Washington (1998-2002); Péter Balázs, foreign minister (2009-2010); and Tamás Magyarics, ambassador to Ireland (2010-2014). They all agreed that having bad relations with the United States and the European Union is not smart. Perhaps the best description of Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy came from Péter Balázs, who likened the Hungarian government to a teenager going through puberty: insecure and oversensitive, confused. “Like a troubled teenager who turns against his family, makes friends with the wrong kind of people, neglects his studies, loses touch with his cousins who live beyond the borders, and is friendly with those who actually treat him badly.”

Unfortunately, I don’t see any inclination on the part of the Orbán government to change its course. If anything, the opposite is true. The attacks multiply and the volume is being turned up every day. Instead of finding common ground, Orbán hopes to change the atmosphere in Washington by courting Republican lawmakers with the assistance of Connie Mack, a former congressman and now lobbyist. Millions of dollars are being spent on Mack’s meager achievements. After all, the administration is still in Democratic hands, and criticism of the State Department by a few Republican congressmen will not make the slightest difference. But more about this tomorrow.

The man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement: Ernő Keskeny

A few days ago a fascinating article appeared about the diplomatic impasse in which Viktor Orbán finds himself. It was written by Szabolcs Panyi of Index. Most of the information the journalist received seems to have come from disgruntled diplomats who either have already lost their jobs or fear that they will in the near future.

Earlier I wrote about the massive firings that took place last year. The first round of pink slips were handed out after the arrival of Tibor Navracsics as interim minister of foreign afffairs. The second, when Péter Szijjártó became the new minister.

It is customary to make personnel changes when there is a change of government, and therefore it was not at all surprising that in 2010, after the formation of the second Orbán government, the newly-appointed minister, János Martonyi, got rid of many of the top diplomats of the earlier socialist-liberal governments. The cleanup was thorough, more thorough than is usual in Hungary.  So, the diplomats who today are complaining about the direction of Hungarian diplomacy are not socialist or liberal leftovers. On the contrary, they are people who wholeheartedly supported the Orbán government’s foreign policy. At least until recently.

Panyi’s article covers many topics, each of which deserves deeper analysis. Today I am focusing on what–or, more accurately, who–is responsible for the present state of Russian-Hungarian relations. In the opinion of the more seasoned diplomats, “the lack of knowledge of Russia in the government is astonishing.” The Russia experts in the ministry were systematically excluded from any decision-making. The prime minister made decisions on the basis of personal contacts. One key player was Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador to Kiev.

Anyone who wants to go beyond the bare bones biographical data about Keskeny available on the website of the Hungarian government should visit the Russian-language website Regnum. Apparently this news portal employs a fair number of former secret service experts who presumably are quite familiar with Keskeny. He is described as something of a country bumpkin “without diplomatic education or foreign diplomatic gloss” who comes “from the bottom of Hungarian society.” His education began in a vocational school. Later he studied in a pedagogical institute in Nyíregyháza. Eventually he received a university degree from ELTE, as Regnum notes, “in absentia.” Years later he received his Ph.D. in Russian Studies, also at ELTE. Apparently, it was Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky who helped him get a job in the ministry (1990-1994). By 1995 he became head of the Hungarian consulate in St. Petersburg. During the first Orbán administration he was ambassador to Moscow.

Keskeny is known as a rabid Russophile and as someone who knows Vladimir Putin quite well, most likely from the years he spent in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Apparently, he was the one who arranged the first meeting between Putin and Orbán in November 2009, and ever since he has been promoting close relations between the two countries. He is described by Regnum as not too smart but a “reliable workhorse” who looks “more like a bandit than a diplomat.” Keskeny seems to be the chief adviser to Viktor Orbán on Russia.

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Between 2010 and 2014, when he was in the Foreign Ministry, he was head of the department dealing with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Later he was also named to be ministerial councillor in charge of the Commonwealth of Free Nations. Keskeny was known in the ministry as an unwavering supporter of a pro-Russian policy. As early as 2010 he tried to convince Martonyi to turn toward Russia, but at that time Martonyi could still prevent such a diplomatic move. As time went on, however, Keskeny gained more and more influence. As one of Index‘s sources put it, “everything concerning Russia went through Ernő Keskeny without any transparency or control.”

And now we come to the most frightening aspect of Keskeny’s role in Russian-Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. In November 2014 he was named ambassador to Kiev. One really wonders what message this is meant to send to the Ukrainian government. Keskeny’s devotion to Mother Russia is well known. Why did Orbán post him to Kiev? As one of Index‘s informers put it, sending Keskeny to Kiev is like sending him to Siberia. He will not be able to move an inch there. No one will talk to him. He will be totally useless in the Ukrainian capital. What worries people in the foreign ministry is that sending Keskeny to Kiev is “a gesture toward Russia.” Another source who is less antagonistic toward Keskeny thinks that he was sent there because he is “a hard worker” and the post in Kiev is not an easy one, a hypothesis that agrees with Regnum‘s description of the man.

Index learned who some of the more important pro-Russian people are in the ministry: Csaba Balogh, deputy undersecretary in charge of the Eastern Opening; János Balla, the new ambassador to Moscow; and Péter Györkös, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, permanent representative of Hungary to the Council of the European Union. Today there are still approximately one hundred graduates of the Moscow Diplomatic Academy who work in the Hungarian foreign ministry. Not all are pro-Russian, of course. But the ministry faithfully carries out Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy.

Index‘s sources believe that by now Orbán realizes that his policies have led to isolation, but I would disagree. Today in the presence of the visiting Turkish prime minister he was still clinging to his ideas for a Turkish-Macedonian-Serbian pipeline.

Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. At least not according to a Hungarian judge

First, before I recount the encounter of László Karsai with Jobbik, I should perhaps refresh your memory of the man. He is best  known as a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, but his field of competence is much broader. He even wrote a book about the nationality question in France and another on the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. He studied the question of the Hungarian Gypsies between 1919 and 1945. If  readers of Hungarian Spectrum know his name it may be because I wrote about a controversy that erupted as a result of his refusal to attend a conference in Norway on Raoul Wallenberg. Karsai was one of the invited guests, but he backed out after he learned that Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Norway, was one of the sponsors. Géza Jeszenszky wrote a university textbook on national minorities in East-Central Europe, and his chapter on the Gypsies was full of inaccuracies and reeked of prejudice.

Karsai can be controversial. For example, at the moment he is working on a biography of Ferenc Szálasi, the founder of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party. He discovered a number of new documents that prove that the generally accepted scholarly opinion of Szálasi might not be accurate. Especially with respect to Szálasi’s views on the Hungarian Jewry. On the other hand, he is convinced that Miklós Horthy knew more about the death camps than he later claimed. So, he does what a good historian should do: he tries to seek the truth even if it might not please some people.

As I noted earlier (more or less in passing), László Karsai is once again in the limelight. This time Jobbik sued him because in December 2011 Karsai called it a neo-Nazi party. He made the statement in the course of an interview on ATV’s early morning program called “Start.”

Jobbik’s leadership took its sweet time before deciding to make a court case out of the “incident.” It took Jobbik half a year to discover that its good reputation had been damaged by Karsai, but then they demanded satisfaction. One reason for the delay may have been that Karsai uttered his half a sentence on Jobbik’s ideological makeup in the course of discussing the emerging Horthy cult. The discussion wasn’t so much about Jobbik as about Jobbik’s attitude toward the Horthy regime.

Jobbik sought a verdict that would find that the party’s reputation had been impinged upon by Karsai; moreover, they demanded an apology from the historian. Karsai’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the nature of a party’s ideology is not a question that can be decided by court proceedings. It belongs to the free flow of scholarly debate within the historical community.

Jobbik tuntetok

Jobbik categorically denies that it is a Nazi or neo-Nazi party although there is extensive proof that the leading members of the party made no effort to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. Some of the organizations Jobbik has strategic alliances with proudly call themselves national socialists. Kuruc.info, which may be Jobbik’s publication, often talks about Adolf Hitler in laudatory terms.

The real question, however, is not whether Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party but whether this historical question can be debated publicly and whether judges are the ones who should decide this issue.

The historical community itself is divided on the question. Rudolf Paksa, a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Hungarian extreme right, claims that “Jobbik is definitely not a neo-Nazi party in the scientific sense. It is anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic, but all these together still do not make it a neo-Nazi party. After all, there are no indications that Jobbik wants to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, which is an absolutely essential characteristic of national socialism.” At the same time Paksa found it outrageous that Jobbik wanted to decide the issue in a court of law. Paksa testified back in January that he hoped the judge would respect the freedom of expression and opinion.

After hearing the arguments, the judge decided to postpone the decision. It wasn’t until March 22, 2013 that the verdict was handed down by Péter Attila Takács, the presiding judge. According to Takács, Karsai besmirched the good name and reputation of Jobbik by calling it a neo-Nazi party. Karsai will have to pay 66,000 forints in court costs and within fifteen days he will have to apologize in writing, an apology that Jobbik may make public.

Why did Takács rule this way? The rationale for the verdict is, to my mind, peculiar to say the least. The problem, Takács wrote, is that the characterization of the party by Karsai didn’t take place as part of a scholarly discussion about the ideological makeup of Jobbik but in the context of the developing rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Therefore it cannot be considered part of a scientific exchange.

Since then the verdict has become available in Beszélő (March 26, 2013) and I read with some interest that the judge, among other things, forbids László Karsai “from further infringement of the law.” How can one interpret this? Does it mean that in the future he cannot call Jobbik a neo-Nazi party if the conversation is not about Jobbik itself? Or that in certain circumstances he can label it as such without breaking the law? It’s hard to tell.

The important thing is that the judge found Jobbik’s arguments well founded and cited two paragraphs of the 1989 Constitution that was in force at the time of the incident. Paragraph 59(1) stipulates that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone is entitled to the protection of his or her reputation and to privacy, including the privacy of the home, of personal effects, particulars, papers, records and data, and to the privacy of personal affairs and secrets.” In addition, the judge cited paragraph 61(1)  that states that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone has the right to the free declaration of his views and opinions, and has the right of access to information of public interest, and also the freedom to disseminate such information.” I find the second line of reasoning truly outrageous. Jobbik has the right to the free declaration of its views and opinions but not László Karsai. Absolutely brilliant.

Naturally, László Karsai is appealing the verdict. Reading it, I had the feeling that Judge Takács might not have been the most impartial judge. Here are a couple of telling details from the verdict. Jobbik’s history is described in the most benign terms as a youth movement whose goal was “to unite young people committed to the national ideal.” “Well known people supported them: Mária Wittner, Gergely P0ngrácz, Gy. László Tóth, István Lovas, Mátyás Usztics.”  The judge forgot to mention that these well known personalities all belong to the extreme right. Jobbik wanted to offer “an alternative for radical right-wing voters.” Jobbik’s parliamentary caucus is the second largest after Fidesz-KDNP, and they have representation in the European Parliament. So, there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. This decision is a boost to Jobbik and the extreme right.

I might also mention that unfortunately Hungarian courts do not subscribe to the tenets of case law. If the judge had followed precedent, Karsai should have been exonerated because in 2010 Gábor Vona sued László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York. Bartus called Jobbik “a rotten, fascist, Nazi” party. The court dropped the case against Bartus, claiming that the editor simply exercised his right to free expression. The vagaries of Hungarian jurisprudence. It will always remain a mystery to me.

“Democracy and Human Rights at Stake in Hungary”: The Report of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Index published an interview today with Bjørb Engesland, chairman of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). The occasion for the interview was the appearance of the NHC’s second report on Hungary. The first one was published last year, after they became aware of a political situation in Hungary that “caused concern.” Interestingly enough, so far there has been no reference to the latest report in any other publication. Or at least that was the case about an hour ago.

After the NHC’s first report appeared, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, Géza Jeszenszky, criticized it for failing to take into consideration the points of view of government officials. So the representatives of NHC returned to Hungary three times during 2012 to make sure that they had wide contact with members of the government. They not onlyvisited Budapest and made a side trip to Gyöngyöspata, the village where far-right military troops intimidated the local Roma population.

Norwegian helsinki committeeThe new report, entitled “Democracy and Human Rights at Stake in Hungary,” describes how the Orbán government is centralizing power, undermining the independence of courts, and putting media freedom under pressure. According to the press release published on the website of NHC, the Orbán government tried to convince their representatives that “the transition from communism to democracy was not done properly in Hungary,  and [therefore] it has been necessary to eradicate old structures once and for all.” It seems that the Norwegians were not buying the government propaganda. “If the aim really is to overcome the communist past, important measures would be to ensure division of power, the independence of the judiciary and a framework that supports media freedom and pluralism…. The Orbán government has gone in the opposite direction.”

The report offers a number of recommendations to the government of Hungary, the European Union, and the Council of Europe.  It recommends that Hungary establish a national democracy commission that would include representatives of a wide range of institutions and civil society organizations. The commission’s task should be to propose initiatives to strengthen democracy, including securing more transparent party financing and mechanisms to fight political corruption.

The report deals extensively with the new constitution and its shortcomings as pointed out by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. In addition, it touches on the “reform of the judiciary” that in the Venice Commission’s opinion “threatens the independence of the judiciary.” The report was published before the extensive–fourth–amendment to the new constitution. To give you an idea of the extent of the changes it is enough to note that the constitution itself is 25 pages long and the changes take up 15 pages! As far as I know, Professor Kim Scheppele is planning to write a critique of the constitutional changes in the near future. Since she knows a great deal more about Hungarian constitutional law than either the Norwegian Helsinki Committee or I do, I’m waiting for her analysis.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee also deals with the electoral system, but they didn’t touch on the greatest potential for electoral fraud, counting the “foreign” votes. As things now stand, a government appointed board will alone be in charge of authorizing and counting the votes coming from abroad. Anyone who wants to understand the depth of the problem should read the Democratic Opposition’s appeal published earlier on this blogNaturally, NHC’s report covers the sad state of the Hungarian media and spends considerable time describing the government’s concerted effort to close the only independent radio station, Klubrádió.

A separate chapter is devoted to the growth of the extreme right with special emphasis on Jobbik, but the report neglects to detail the close connection between Jobbik and Fidesz. Because Fidesz would like to receive those votes that were cast in 2010 for Jobbik, Fidesz is trying to outdo Jobbik. The party’s effort has not been in vain. Today Jobbik’s share is only 6%. Those who left Jobbik moved over to Fidesz, which might explain why Fidesz hasn’t lost as many voters as might be expected under the circumstances.

Another chapter deals with “international criticism and the government’s response.” The report gives a good summary of the efforts made to call the Hungarian government’s attention to the concerns of the European and world community: the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It points out that “the government and the parliament have so far failed to adjust its course to fully follow [the required] standards.”

Answers to criticism usual consist of evasion. One favorite is that criticism is “a conspiracy of the national and/or international left and thus politically motivated.” At other times, criticism was portrayed as a “misunderstanding due to bad translation.” Finally, government officials counter that “equally bad laws” exist in other European countries.

The visit to Gyöngyöspata had to be an eye opener. The report describes the public works program that was initiated in the town as a pilot program. Some of the Gypsy workers told the visitors that “they were afraid to complain and that the program gives a lot of powers to the mayor.” What the report fails to mention is that the mayor of Gyöngyöspata is a member of Jobbik.

Hungary is a party to all major human rights treaties, including the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to article 7, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work”–among them, “remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum” and “fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind.” As we know, Hungary violates this treaty by paying people in the public works program less than the minimum wage. The general hopelessness of the Roma community is well covered in the report.

In conclusion, the report points out that “several European institutions and organisations were alarmed by the direction and pace of these reforms, seeing them as undermining some of the key requirements of a fully-fledged democracy, including independence of the judiciary, free media, as well as fair elections. Among stakeholders in Hungary, reactions were even stronger. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee met with a wide range of Hungarian politicians, representatives of non-governmental organisations, journalists and academics who all expressed serious concerns.” The report quotes several Hungarian critics of the regime.

I especially recommend taking a look at the very extensive list of sources at the end of the report. It is a useful tool for those who would like to have a bibliography of English language sources on Hungarian politics and economics.