Tag Archives: György Konrád

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

György Konrád’s “Human flow”: An analysis

György Konrád, a highly respected Hungarian writer whose first book, The Case Worker (1969), brought him international fame, wrote an article “Human flow” (Emberfolyam) in the March 25 issue of Élet és Irodalom. It is an argument against the influx of Muslim refugees. Konrád, to the great disappointment of many of his admirers, hasn’t hidden his negative views on mixing cultures and religions in Europe. For at least a year he has been voicing his opinions in the public media and, in fact, went so far as to write an op/ed piece for The New York Times in which he praised Viktor Orbán for his farsightedness in recognizing the danger of the “migrants.”

The influx of over a million refugees to the territory of the European Union is, of course, the subject of fierce debate. Many people who are not at all xenophobic fear the consequences of such a sudden, large influx of people coming from a different culture. They are convinced that the refugees cannot be absorbed by the mainstream and foresee “parallel societies” developing within the European Union. On the other side are those who, for both practical and humanitarian reasons, argue that the refugees should be accepted and assisted. The practical consideration is Europe’s aging population due to its low birthrate. Most of these newcomers are young people, as is the case in any mass movement of this kind.

Konrad2

As I noted earlier, we have known Konrád’s views for quite a while. But this was the first time that he put his thoughts into writing, aside from the short English-language piece in The New York Times. If I read the general reaction of Konrád’s admirers correctly, it is one of total dismay over the message he delivered. The opposition media has acted as if the article had never been published. Only Magyar Idők and Pesti Srácok talked about Konrád’s “conquering immigration” in an approving way. So, I decided to tackle certain parts of the text in an attempt to decipher Konrád’s views on Islam.

This is not an easy task because a great number of Konrád’s assumptions about the Muslim refugees are just that, assumptions. He also paints with a broad stroke. He doesn’t distinguish between the moderate form of Islamism and the ideology of those jihadists whom we see on TV beheading their victims. For him, all varieties can be called “Islamofascism,” a controversial term which, according to most scholars, should be avoided. Yet Konrád chooses to draw a direct parallel between Islamism, Nazism, and communism. All three are enemies of democracy. He admits that not all Muslims are jihadists, “only their minority, but the majority of Muslims are Islamists.” Hence the majority of the arrivals are Islamists “who possess a totalitarian mindset and who are ready to employ ruthless measures against those standing in their way.” These are most likely completely wrong assumptions about the refugees, who in many cases escaped from precisely those relatively few jihadists of whom Konrád is rightly afraid.

What other characteristics does Konrád attach to the refugees, with whom he has had no direct contact whatsoever? According to him, “most of the Muslim totalitarians feel oppressed, and because of their backwardness due to a lack of freedom they have a good dose of resentment.” At the beginning they are grateful, but “once they become stronger they will present their demands.” They will not integrate easily because “they don’t consider European culture and humanism superior to their own.” Konrád believes that in Muslim societies “communities exist not next to each other, but the order of communities is vertical: one is either above or below.” Once they are the majority they will be on top and the Jews and Christians beneath them. So, most Muslim refugees look down on European civilization and democracy and consider Islam superior. Eventually, they will want to change and take over the land that welcomed them and gave them shelter.

A refugee or immigrant should be eternally grateful: “in the olden days immigrants greeted the natives politely, not like now.” As these people settle, they become more self-confident and actually want to “change the skyline.” That means they want to build mosques. Those Europeans who took these people in will notice that “the newcomers are not so grateful anymore; they demand more and more. And the immigrants will realize that the natives are not so kind anymore.” So, if I understand Konrád correctly, immigrants can never really be members of the accepting society with the same rights as natives. Immigrant communities shouldn’t be able to worship in their own churches. Well, let’s leave the Muslim community for a moment and, in a thought experiment, apply these same measures to Russian and Polish Jews or for that matter to the downtrodden Slovak and Hungarian peasants who arrived in the United States before World War I. They eventually had the temerity to build synagogues and churches where their own rabbis, priests, and ministers looked after the immigrant flock. What would we think of a society that made a distinction between immigrants and their descendants and the so-called natives who must be politely greeted? A preposterous view.

Konrád also shares his view of the nature of the “human flow.” Although he is certainly right that integration will be more difficult than if only 10,000 people had arrived in Germany, it is shocking to discover that Konrád’s ideas are practically identical to those of László Földi, the Islamophobic intelligence officer from the Kádár era who is convinced that these masses have been sent to Europe by their Islamist leaders. As Konrád puts it, “with the newly arrived migrant masses came their superiors” who will keep them in the fold. A little later he is quite explicit. “The wandering masses don’t follow the authorities of the countries they are heading toward, but they are regulated by those under whose guidance the march is conducted.” Moreover, “the immigrants are not individuals but parts of the extensive Muslim nation who will become members of a minority parallel society.” This is a total denial of these people’s individuality and free will. Their “superiors” move them about as if they were pawns on a chess board.

Although there are several more outlandish assertions in Konrád’s article, I will close this post with his not at all original argument that these people are not really refugees because, if they were, they would stay in the countries neighboring Syria. But no, they want to settle in countries with high living standards. Therefore, one becomes very suspicious of their motives.

If we compare the present flow of refugees to the Hungarian case after 1956, it becomes evident that this argument is unsound. The 1956 refugees were quite numerous, all fled within a couple of months, and if the Hungarian and Russian forces hadn’t managed to close the borders by the end of the year more people would have packed up and tried to cross into Austria. Where did most of these Hungarians go? To the United States and Canada and other “rich” countries. I very much doubt that a Hungarian refugee, if he could have chosen, would have picked Colombia over Canada, the United States, or Germany. If one has the choice one will pick the country considered to be most advantageous. This is human nature. It has nothing to do with the Muslim psyche.

Moreover, in Konrád’s view their decision to settle in “rich places” might backfire. “They heard this and that, but they don’t know what is waiting for them.” Although he doesn’t spell out just what it is that awaits them, he writes that “to bear homelessness in richer Western European countries” is more difficult than elsewhere. This is so even for those “central Europeans who are looking for better paying jobs in these countries.” I don’t know where Konrád gets the idea that Hungarian immigrants in Germany or the United Kingdom have a particularly difficult time and that perhaps their integration would be easier in Poland or Romania. The newcomers’ “natural habitat is the Near East and North Africa,” where they should have stayed. Similarly, Hungarians and Poles also have their natural habitat where they feel at home. Thus, Konrád practically ties people to their homelands and claims that life outside a certain geographic area is unnatural and in the final analysis goes against human nature.

As I said at the beginning of the post, there has been a deafening silence in the Hungarian opposition media since the appearance of Konrád’s article. But I saw an interview that Krisztina Bombera conducted with him. At the end of the interview she asked Konrád whether those Orthodox Jews who escaped to America from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia were not in a similar situation to the Muslims arriving in Europe today. They also came from a very different culture. Didn’t Konrád see parallels here? No, he didn’t.

I’m sorry that Konrád felt compelled to write this article.

April 5, 2016

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

The “miracle piano” and the Hungarian entrepreneurial spirit

January 22 was designated the Day of Hungarian Culture in 1989. Why January 22? Because it was on that day in 1823 that Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838) wrote the final version of his poem “Hymn” (Himnusz), which became the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem composed by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) in 1844.

This year the event was used by employees of cultural organizations, libraries, archives, and related organizations to express their dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s cultural policies. As we have discussed earlier, education and culture (unless, as the prime minister suggested, sports are part of culture) don’t enjoy governmental support. In fact, with each passing year cultural and educational institutions receive less money. The organizers gathered in front of the National Academy of Sciences, moved on to the Museum of Folklore, from where they went to the ministry of human resources to turn in a petition for higher wages and greater financial resources for education and culture. It was a nice idea, but only a few hundred people showed up. As formerly enthusiastic participants of these demonstrations now believe, too many small demonstrations are actually counterproductive.

The other event that was scheduled to coincide with the Day of Hungarian Culture was the long-awaited public unveiling of the “miracle piano,” a Hungarian invention described by Reuters as a “space-age piano.” A four-man team developed the new piano conceived by Gergely Bogányi, a Hungarian pianist. The piano bears his name. Some experts are enthusiastic about the sound of the “Boganyi” and there seems to be some interest in the Hungarian invention, but no buyer as yet. The piano was financed mostly by money coming from the European Union (New Széchenyi Terv) that gave the developers 217 million forints. The Hungarian National Bank contributed another 60 million. Apparently the four men put 75 million into the project from their own pockets.

Considering the financial involvement of the Hungarian government, it was predictable that Viktor Orbán would deliver a speech in the Ferenc Liszt Academy. In preparation for his arrival the police closed off two whole streets for a day and a half. The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.

In the speech he “with due modesty but with pride” pointed out the number of “cultural sanctuaries” that his government either built or renovated. What he neglected to mention was that all of the projects, like the Ferenc Liszt Academy where the gala performance took place, were financed with EU money. He described culture as “the thread that weaves together parts of the nation that drifted to or were torn away to different parts of the globe.” Somehow he must talk about the unification of the nation across borders. A space-age piano is good enough reason.

According to Orbán, “in this miracle piano there is everything that characterizes the Hungarians: ceaseless entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, a restlessness of the Hungarian spirit that strives for perfection and is never satisfied with what exists at the present.” I guess all that with “due modesty.”

The Boganyi piano

The Boganyi piano

Most of the speech was the usual fluff, but there were a couple of sentences that were particularly objectionable. He talked about “our greatest scientists, Ede Teller, Jenő Wigner or János Neumann who were born and went to school in Budapest but somehow (valahogy) could not make good use of their knowledge in Hungary.” Somehow? All three were of Jewish background and all three left Hungary in the 1920s. They ended up first in Germany and later, after Hitler’s rise to power, came to the United States. Their reasons for leaving Hungary were diverse, but they were a combination of the anti-Jewish numerus clausus law that severely limited the number of Jewish students in Hungarian universities, the general anti-Semitism prevalent in Hungary, and the superiority of German universities over Hungarian institutions. This constellation of reasons for young people to leave Hungary is not so different today. A lot of Hungarian Jews don’t feel at home in Orbán’s Hungary, and if a bright Hungarian student has the choice, he/she will choose a British, American, or German university over the domestic fare.

It is one thing to build or renovate concert halls, museums, or theaters, and another matter to have a cultural policy that fairly distributes resources among worthy recipients: writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. What is going on in Hungary is a “Kulturkampf” that aims at, on the one hand, rewriting the history of all facets of cultural endeavor and, on the other, creating a set of favored contemporary writers and artists. A good example of the latter is the establishment of a new academy of the arts that is now enshrined in the constitution itself. Its members are recruited from a group of artists in sympathy with the current regime and, as a gift for their loyalty, they receive generous annuities. As for the rewriting of the history of Hungarian literature, we have seen many cases where extreme right-wing writers of modest talents are dredged up from the period between the two world wars and elevated to the ranks of the Hungarian literary greats.

Just the other day I heard an incredible story from György Konrád, the well-known writer. He and his family live near Tapolca, a town in Veszprém County. Konrád often visits a small local library named after János Batsányi, a poet and philosopher, who was born in Tapolca in 1763. He was a radical who was an admirer of the French revolution and later of Napoleon, whom he followed to Paris. After the emperor’s fall he was taken back to Vienna and thrown into jail. He is considered to be one of the most radical representatives of the ideas of the Enlightenment in Hungary.

Well, a few days ago Konrád paid a visit to the library and what did he find? The library was renamed the Elemér Vass Library. Elemér Vass was a relatively minor painter about whom few people know anything, while everybody who ever went to high school can recite Batsányi’s warning to the Hungarian nobility:  “Cast your eyes toward Paris!” Perhaps it was the Enlightenment that bothered the local potentates. Hungarian libraries, it seems, are not meant to enlighten but to indoctrinate.

“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)

fate

Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.

The European Parliament’s debate on Hungary

I spent almost three hours watching the debate in the European Parliament on the Tavares report. We discussed this report at length at the time of its passage in the LIBE Commission of the European Parliament. In addition, I published Rui Tavares’s letter to the Hungarian people both in English and in Hungarian. So, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware that the report is a thoroughly researched document that in many ways echoes the findings of the independent judges of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

I found two good summaries of the debate, both in Hungarian. One appeared in Népszabadság and the other on the new Internet website called 444! But it is one thing to read a summary and another to see the debate live. Just to watch Viktor Orbán’s face was itself educational. Sometimes he looked vaguely amused, but most of the time his smile was sardonic. Who can forget that disdainful expression on Orbán’s face when one of his critics, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, mentioned the name of  György Konrád, “the great Hungarian writer”? And when he heard something he didn’t like, Orbán raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He considered all criticism utterly baseless and, through body language and facial expressions, made no secret of it. It’s too bad that most of the people in the chamber didn’t see all that since Orbán sat in the front row.

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Unfortunately the camera didn’t show Orbán when several people tried to explain to him that his concept of democracy is peculiar. He believes in the “dictatorship of the majority” or “majoritarian rule.” Verhofstadt even invoked John Stuart Mill’s words on the subject in his work On Liberty. In fact, one of the major criticisms centered around the nature of democracy and whether Hungary can still be called a democracy. If one were to ask Verhofstadt he would say: “No, Hungary is not a democracy anymore but ‘demokratúra’ as György Konrád called it.” Several other critics agreed with Verhofstadt although they may not have been so explicit.

A second core topic was the question of freedom and the Orbán government’s “war of independence” against the European Union. Several people expressed their bafflement at the very idea of defending the country from a Union to which Hungary belongs. Actually, here again two worldviews clashed. The one held by Viktor Orbán and his entourage maintains that nation states are the only legitimate formations and that they shouldn’t be superseded in any way by a supranational entity such as the European Union. If one holds this view, as Orbán does, then it is perfectly understandable that he defends his nation against the encroachment of the European Union. The problem is that Hungary joined the European Union of its own volition and thereby its government is obliged to follow EU rules. Orbán attempts to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that the Union is overstepping its authority, and therefore he has every right to resist its attempt at a “guardianship” that he will never accept.

Another important topic of discussion was Orbán’s interpretation of the criticism of his government as an attack on Hungary and the Hungarian people. Several critics rejected this view, making it clear that their criticisms are directed against the Orbán government and not the Hungarian people. In fact, some of the speakers argued that in their opinion it is the Hungarian people who must be shielded against the authoritarian behavior and laws of their own government.

As for Viktor Orbán, he had two opportunities to speak. At the beginning, right after Rui Tavares and Juán Manuel Barroso, and at the end, just before the leaders of the various parliamentary caucuses could answer him. In his first speech he was quite polite and a great deal less aggressive than is his wont. However, after listening to the debate where the Christian Democratic and Conservative voices were drowned out by speeches delivered by the liberals, socialists, and greens, Orbán returned to his true self. As Gabriella Zimmer (a German socialist) said, Orbán didn’t come to Strasbourg “to debate”; he came to express his anger at what he considers to be interference in Hungarian domestic affairs that are within the sole jurisdiction of the Hungarian government, parliament, and courts. He finished his speech with a refusal to accept tutelage from Brussels. For good measure he accused them of  having double standards and of defending the multinational corporations and banks. I had the feeling that by that time Orbán believed that he had nothing to lose. It was no longer necessary to try to mollify the EU parliamentarians. No matter what he does, I suspect he reasoned, the vote will go against him.

And a few more words about the performance of Fidesz and Jobbik MEPs. What can I say? It was embarrassing. Szájer’s comments were the most outrageous. He was not on the list of official speakers but he asked to be recognized perhaps three times. In the first instance he outright lied when he announced that foreign investment was never greater in Hungary than in the last two or three years. Then he claimed that the members of the European Union are afraid of the truth and that’s why they don’t want to give Orbán the opportunity to speak. Both Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz, the president of  the EP, corrected Szájer. After all, they were the ones who asked Viktor Orbán to come to the plenary session of the European Parliament. But that was not enough for Szájer. He retorted that even in Stalin’s show trials more time was allotted to the accused than to the accusers. Well, that’s when Martin Schulz’s patience ran out. He reprimanded Szájer for making any comparison between Stalin’s show trials and the European Union. But Szájer is not the kind of guy who knows when to stop. He got up again and tried to explain away his unfortunate remark. He repeated his reference to Stalin’s show trials and added that it was only the time limit that he had in mind. Schulz was not impressed and rebuked him again. Szájer did a disservice to the Fidesz cause.

Kinga Gál, another Fidesz MEP, was one of the official speakers. She didn’t fare any better than Szájer. In her speech she challenged the democratic nature of the European Parliament that voted in committee for the Tavares report. Schulz gave her a piece of his mind. He told her that it is impossible to claim that majority rule in Hungary is perfectly legitimate while questioning the democratic nature of majority rule in the European Parliament. After all, the majority of LIBE members voted for the Tavares report.

The third Fidesz MEP, Ágnes Hankiss, asked to raise a “question.” It turned out that she in fact planned to deliver a lecture on the injustices of the Tavares report. Schulz interrupted her, saying that she was abusing the privilege of posing questions. Hankiss tried to go on but was stopped.

And if that weren’t enough, we had the privilege of listening to Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) twice. No EU parliamentary caucus accepted Jobbik and therefore they sit as unaffiliated members. Thus she had the privilege of speaking twice, just as the other leaders of the various parties. She sported a blouse adorned with Hungarian folk motifs and held up a sign reading “HUNGARY ≠COLONY.” Otherwise, although Orbán emphasized that he is the one who is most fiercely attacked by the far-right Jobbik, Morvai defended Fidesz and its policies all the way while accusing Viviane Reding of meddling in Hungarian affairs. Her second speech was especially remarkable. She recalled her days working with battered women who often thought that they could change their abusive husband’s behavior by pleasing him, working harder, and being the best of housewives. But eventually when the husband’s behavior remained the same, they came to the conclusion that there was only one remedy: divorce. So, Hungary should pack up and leave the Union if this abuse continues. After that ringing defense of Fidesz it will be difficult for Orbán to maintain his fierce opposition to the far right. After all, they speak the same language and Jobbik fights alongside Fidesz for the “honor of Hungary.” Frank Engel (Luxembourg EPP member) sarcastically remarked immediately afterwards that he hoped that “Ms Morvai has not just offered to go into coalition with Fidesz.”

The vote will take place tomorrow at 11:30 European time or 5:30 EDT. I will be watching.