Tag Archives: Gyula Horn

Jobbik’s checkered past and present

Even a cursory look at the recent Hungarian media reveals Fidesz’s anxiety over every political move Jobbik makes. Fidesz uses every opportunity to discredit the party, to portray it as a duplicitous formation whose turn to the center is nothing more than a sham. Indeed, it is difficult to take the party’s official portrayal of itself as being moderate right-of-center at face value when one of its deputy chairmen, László Toroczkai, at the height of the government’s attack on Central European University, declared that “it should be banned, shuttered, and its ruins should be dusted with salt.” Toroczkai shared these lofty thoughts at roughly the same time that his superior, the chairman of his party, Gábor Vona, in an interview asserted that Jobbik stands for the freedom of education and that the party will not vote for the amended higher education law that was designed to make the university’s continued existence in Budapest impossible. Yet László Toroczkai is still deputy chairman of Jobbik.

It is time to reacquaint readers with Toroczkai’s career because it’s been four years since I wrote about him. At that time I described him as “an infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities.” I wrote these words at the time that Toroczkai was elected mayor of Ásotthalom, a large village near Szeged, adjacent to the Serbian-Hungarian border.

Toroczkai was born László Tóth but changed his name to something more Hungarian sounding. After all, a great Hungarian patriot cannot be called Mr. Slovak (“Tót” means Slovak in Hungarian). He is the founder of the irredentist Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to the number of counties in Greater Hungary. The high point of his career was leading the mob in September 2006 from Kossuth Square to the building of MTV, the public television station, which the crowd stormed, burned, and eventually occupied. During the siege almost 200 policemen were injured. He made a name for himself again in 2015 when, on his own, he began the “defense of the country from the modern-day migration.” It was his idea of erecting a fence along the border that inspired Viktor Orbán, who put the idea into practice.

And yet Gábor Vona, while ostensibly trying to reorient Jobbik along more moderate lines, asked Toroczkai, who at that time wasn’t even a party member, to become one of his deputies. Naturally, Vona was showered with questions about the incongruity of having the radical Toroczkai as a member of his team. His answer at the time was that “there are issues that need radical solutions and there are others that require moderate ones,” which was a pretty lame explanation for his action.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Vona has since regretted his decision, because on almost every issue Toroczkai has taken a position contrary to the party’s official stand, including such an important issue as the government’s refugee quota referendum, which Jobbik didn’t support. A month later Toroczkai was in the news again. This time his town council passed a number of ordinances that forbade building mosques, wearing the burka, all activities of muezzins and, for good measure, the “propagation of gay marriage” and any publicity given to “opinions about the family different from the definition in the constitution of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.” Vona paid a personal visit to Ásotthalom, where he apparently gave Toroczkai a piece of his mind. Toroczkai at that time considered leaving Jobbik, but it seems that the serious differences of opinion between Toroczkai and the more moderate leadership were patched up. At least they were until now.

On October 31 the Toroczkai-led HVIM covered a full-size statue of Gyula Horn (1932-2013), prime minister of Hungary between 1994 and 1998, with a black sack and hung a sign on his neck reading “PUFAJKÁS GYILKOS.” “Gyilkos” means murderer and “pufajka” is a quilted jacket that was part of the Soviet military uniform worn by the paramilitary force that was set up by the new Kádár government in November 1956. Gyula Horn is highly regarded abroad, especially in Germany, because when Hungary let the East German refugees cross over to Austria, Horn was the country’s foreign minister. He is also considered by many to have been the best Hungarian prime minister since 1990. MSZP’s leadership was outraged, but as a Jobbik politician rightly pointed out, László Kövér, the Fidesz president of parliament, refused to name a parliamentary chamber for Horn because of his role in the 1956 revolution. President László Sólyom also refused to give an award to the former prime minister because of Horn’s role in the revolution and because he allegedly didn’t change his views on 1956. Still, considering that it was only a couple of weeks ago that Gábor Vona delivered a speech in which he made overtures to the left, Toroczkai’s assault on Horn’s statue again cast a shadow on Vona’s sincerity.

The pro-government media has been salivating over the possibility of an open split between the moderates and the radicals in Jobbik, which in Fidesz’s opinion would greatly weaken the party. All of the articles I read in 888.hu and pestrisrácok.hu predicted that, even if not now, after the election Jobbik will surely fall apart. Today  pestisrácok.hu heralded the fact that within days the Army of Outlaws and the Association of Identitarianist University Students will organize a new party “where the disappointed Jobbik followers will find their true voice, for which they joined Jobbik in the first place.” The hope in the pro-Fidesz right-wing press is that, as a result of the radical right’s departure from the party, Jobbik will collapse.

But this may not happen. B. György Nagy wrote an article titled “Arabs, Greens, Jobbik” in which he called attention to the fact that when a party embarks on a major shift in political direction its popularity can drop precipitously. A good example is Fidesz’s own experience in 1993, when the party had a commanding lead with 30% of the votes, which by the 1994 election shrank to 7%. But Jobbik hasn’t lost much support. It is holding onto its usual 20% share of committed voters. Moreover, there is a fascinating dynamic to this support. One-third of Jobbik supporters are new recruits, while 30% left the party, most likely heading to Fidesz. This means that Jobbik has a reserve among currently uncommitted voters.

A Fidesz caricature of Jobbik’s anti-Semitism / 888.hu

And so Fidesz has to weaken Jobbik in some other way. One line of attack is establishing a connection between ISIS and some far-right groups, like the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal/MNA) and the Army of Outlaws, who are now being investigated by the parliamentary committee on national security as well as the prosecutor’s office. The reason for the investigation is that a Hungarian version of a video promoting ISIS, its cause, fighting methods, etc. was found among the documents of MNA. The problem for Jobbik is that at one point Jobbik had a loose organizational connection to the Army of Outlaws, and Toroczkai to this day has close ties with Zsolt Tyirityán, its leader. Apparently Jobbik no longer supports Toroczkai’s HVIM financially, but Toroczkai is still deputy chairman of the party. Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee, instructed the national security people to investigate and report in two weeks on their findings. If a link between these extremist groups and Jobbik can be established, Vona’s party will have to weather some very hard times between now and the election.

November 10, 2017

Bálint Magyar on the failures of the socialist-liberal governments

After two edited volumes on the post-communist mafia state (Magyar Polip, 2013 and 2014), Bálint Magyar came out with a book of his own, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), which offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the failings of the socialist-liberal coalition government that led to the “revolution in the voting booth.” His thoughts on the matter are especially significant since Magyar himself was a member of three of these governments. He was minister of education between January 1996 and June 1998 in the Horn government and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments between May 2002 and June 2006.

As Magyar says, although “the Third Republic wasn’t killed by the left and the liberals, they had a share in adding to its vulnerability.” After listing the usual reasons for their failure–corruption, loss of credibility, overspending, and strategic mistakes, Magyar concentrates on the deeper reasons for the current sad state of the liberals and the socialists. He points to a “loss of identity” due to a lack of recognizable symbols associated with the left. “The democratic forces had neither a public ethos nor a modern vision of society.” (p. 39)

One reason that the democratic forces couldn’t come up with an identifying symbolism was that the socialists and the liberals “didn’t speak the same language,” and therefore they couldn’t formulate a common policy. The socialist politicians didn’t understand the importance of creating a spiritual link to their electorate. In times of plenty, perhaps such a link can be dispensed with, but in times of trouble only those politicians can ask for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” who themselves have a vision over and above the promise of a slightly higher standard of living. By contrast, Fidesz, after 1993, easily revived the old “ideological instruments of the right”: God, country, family. These were simple phrases that could offer a framework in which the Hungarian everyman could find solace and hope.

There were few meeting points between the socialists and the liberals, but there was at least one question on which they could easily agree: the separation of church and state. Both considered religion part of the private sphere. But Gyula Horn’s decision in 1998 to negotiate with the Vatican, resulting in special privileges for the Catholic Church, put an end to that accord. In Magyar’s opinion the leaders of MSZP looked upon the church the same way that politicians did in the Kádár regime–as “an institution that can be influenced and bought.” The socialists didn’t realize that by the 1990s the Catholic Church was no longer fighting for its survival; it strove for a more prominent political and social role. Because the Church’s leaders had been compromised by virtue of their cooperation with the Kádár regime, they had no intention of cooperating with the democratic socialists. Horn hoped that the Church would stand by the socialists in the election campaign as a result of his generous financial settlement. Of course, they didn’t. They helped Fidesz with its “God, country, family” slogan, which fit the Church better anyway.

Already in 1990 the liberals and socialists lost the parliamentary debate over the concept of a modern, democratic nation. The conservative parties made August 20th the national holiday, a day that emphasizes events eleven hundred years ago:  the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, the establishment of the state, and the acceptance of Christianity. The liberals and socialists wanted March 15th to be the national holiday, the day when a modern, democratic Hungary was born. They lost. They also lost the debate over the question of the coat-of-arms, which was the heraldic symbol of the Kingdom of Hungary. Eventually the left even lost the battle for the left-inspired 1956 revolution, which in the interpretation of the right has since become “the revolution of right-wing radicals.”

Not only the socialists but also the liberals “were deaf” when it came to the necessity of symbols in political discourse. Members of the democratic opposition, including Bálint Magyar himself, were suspicious of anything that might limit the freedom and autonomy of the individual. This secular intellectual elite’s self-assurance seemed like an “arrogance of rootless individuals.” The socialist-liberal government even missed the opportunity to support women’s issues and work out a concept of a modern family where women can be useful members of the national economy. In brief, they failed at the reinterpretation of spiritual, national and familial communities, and therefore “the road to national populism was wide open.”

imagination

Meanwhile Hungarian society went through some very rough times after the change of regime. Instead of the hoped-for welfare state came high unemployment and inflation. Neither the socialists nor the liberals had any viable answers. The socialists could offer only paternalistic solutions while the liberals clung to their belief in the invisible hand of the markets. They looked insensitive to the hopelessness of those who were victims of the change of regime.

Another problem was the quality of the personnel in the ministries. By the second half of the Kádár regime the quality of the higher echelon of the ministries was high in comparison to the other socialist countries. Since then, the quality of the leading government officials has deteriorated. In addition, every four years each new prime minister decided to reorganize the whole government structure. Magyar is especially critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision in 2006 to eliminate the position of “administrative undersecretary,” the person who was in charge of the everyday running of the ministry. Gyurcsány also made the mistake of placing the police under the ministry of justice, which “the doctrinaire liberals” liked because it fulfilled their desire to have control over the police, but in the fall of 2006 the minister of justice, a former professor of law, turned out to be unfit for the job.

Finally, Magyar bemoans the weakness of the Hungarian system of institutions that were supposed to provide those checks and balances that guarantee the democratic functioning of the state. Way before 2010, racist talk and action became commonplace and was tolerated. And, Magyar asks, didn’t László Sólyom’s silence after the formation of the Hungarian Guard in 2007 contribute to the increasing acceptance of racism? Or, when he reacted far too late to the serial killing of Romas in 2008 and 2009? Or what about the courts that waited until the Hungarian Guard had grown into a sizable force and then took years to disband it?

The Constitutional Court also played a role in the demise of the Third Republic. Magyar mentions two milestones in the twenty-year history of the court. The first, when in 1995 the court ruled against a large portion of the austerity program of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, which wanted to put an end to the populist policies practiced in Hungary. With this act the Court made “equitable and rational political discourse” impossible. And in 2008 the Court gave its blessing to a Fidesz referendum question on the annulment of college tuition fees and co-payments at doctor’s offices. Some members of the “independent” Constitutional Court were politically motivated in this case. Their decision heightened the population’s “unrealistic expectations and paralyzed the government’s capacity to act.” Indeed, this was the last nail in the coffin of the Third Republic.

The Horn government and NATO: The Blinken memoirs, Part II

This is something of an extended footnote to my book review of Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return. There I quoted Donald Blinken as saying that “Hungary’s swift action demonstrated in a manner no words could express that the country was intent on being taken seriously as a candidate for NATO membership.” Alex Kuli, one of our regular commenters, remembers the events differently. According to him, “the Horn government did plenty of hand-wringing over NATO membership. Around 1995 or thereabouts, Horn proposed a referendum on NATO membership as a stalling tactic, saying he wasn’t sure Hungarians wanted to be a part of a new military alliance so soon after the Russian military had departed.”

I decided to revisit Hungary’s accession to NATO. I refreshed my memory and came to the conclusion that Ambassador Blinken’s rendition of the story is accurate. First, let me quote from an English-language article of László Valki, a professor of international law at ELTE, that appeared in European Security and NATO Enlargement: A View from Central Europe, edited by Stephen J. Blank (1998). In it we read that before the Madrid meeting in the summer of 1997, when Hungary was finally invited to join NATO,

a rather odd psychosis seemed to have overcome Hungary. The politicians in Budapest were looking dreamily toward NATO, plucking flower petals, and murmuring—loves me, loves me not. Every political act, every event had been assessed according to whether it furthered the accession of the country to NATO or hindered it. Hungary had been making enormous efforts to prove that it was fully fit to be admitted.  (pp. 91-92)

We learn from Valki’s article that most parliamentary parties built their foreign policy programs around NATO accession and that their positive attitudes to accession became part of their legitimacy. (p. 95) Naturally, that also included MSZP. “One of the planks in the Socialist Party’s 1994 election platform was in favor of Hungary joining NATO and it included a commitment to holding a referendum on the issue.” (p. 108) So, Horn’s later references to holding a referendum had nothing to do with any kind of stalling tactic. He was simply reiterating the socialist promise of a referendum. As for the outcome of the referendum, according to Váli “the parties did not fear rejection but they were worried about low turnout.” Public support before the Madrid invitation was  61%; after, 69%. The actual results were even higher: 85.3%.

I think it is also useful to see what Gyula Horn himself had to say on the subject since he was present when the decision was reached in Madrid to extend an invitation to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join NATO. The quotations below come from Gyula Horn’s memoirs titled Those 1990s (1999). Still in Madrid, Horn promised to keep the Hungarian people fully informed and announced his government’s decision to hold the referendum soon, adding that “if the referendum brings negative results then we don’t deserve membership in the alliance.” (p. 454)

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid after the NATO invitation to join

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid

On July 15 he made a speech in parliament from which I will quote a few sentences to give some sense of Horn’s thoughts at the time. He called NATO

an alliance, a community that has been in existence for forty-eight years and which has been defending democracy, human rights, the freedom of political and economic enterprises, the foundations and instruments of prosperity. NATO that invited us never attacked anyone at any time anywhere … and at the same time it defends peace and freedom. … The organization asks us to defend together with them ourselves, Europe, the world against the enemies of democracy, against dictators and nationalists. …

NATO doesn’t command but invites us. A rare occurrence in our history… Accepting the invitation is our sovereign decision. Let’s take advantage of it…. At last we don’t show ourselves as a self-pitying nation…. Now we cross the threshold of a long and promising process that will hopefully lead, with our contribution, to the predominance of democracy in Europe and all over the world. We cross a threshold that will hopefully lead to a time when no one will be able to force regimes on nations that violate human dignity, human rights and free will ….

If we miss this opportunity and if we don’t realize this hope, then we can’t forgive ourselves, and our children and grandchildren will never forgive us. (pp. 455-456)

Honest to goodness, I never thought I would consider Gyula Horn a standard-bearer of democracy, but after four plus five years of Viktor Orbán, Horn comes across as the epitome of a western democratic statesman. One can only lament the sorry state of Hungarian democracy less than twenty years after this speech was delivered.

The leader of the Hungarian Roma community under scrutiny

In the last few days several investigative articles have appeared about the growing scandal at the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ), the representative of the Hungarian Roma minority. Although Ákos Hadházy of LMP called attention to corruption in one of the programs under the supervision of ORÖ in early February, the prosecutors didn’t find sufficient cause to investigate. After a while, however, it was impossible to ignore the case because the evidence of wrongdoing was overwhelming. At last an investigation began in early May. NAV, the tax authority, appeared at the headquarters of ORÖ and began collecting documents and computers.

Back in February I wrote about the case and wondered whether the former head of ORÖ, Flórián Farkas, would be investigated this time and whether, if found guilty, he would finally be punished. Until now he has always managed to avoid prosecution. In that post I very briefly outlined Farkas’s run-ins with the law. Here I would like to concentrate on his shady political career.

Flórián Farkas has had assistance from both the left and the right. Currently, he is one of the signatories of the Fidesz-Lungo Drom Alliance; the other signatory is Viktor Orbán. But he also had excellent relations with MSZP during the 1994-1998 period when an MSZP-SZDSZ coalition was in power. It seems that both Gyula Horn of MSZP and Viktor Orbán of Fidesz overlooked Farkas’s misdeeds since, for some strange reason, both thought that he could deliver the Roma vote. Whether he did or not nobody knows.

In every regime, under all governments, Farkas managed not only to survive but to ascend the political hierarchy. According to an article that appeared recently in Népszabadság, he was already active in Roma organizations during the Kádár period, but it was only in the early 1990s that he established Lungo Drom, which eventually became the favorite Roma organization of the Antall government as opposed to the Roma Parliament, which József Antall considered to be too radical. By 1993, among the various Roma organizations, Lungo Drom received the most financial assistance from the government.

Although there had been questions even at that stage about the finances of Lungo Drom, it received the support of the Horn government after 1994. Over the next four years Farkas got into all sorts of scrapes, which an ambitious investigative journalist, Attila B. Hidvégi, tried to learn more about. When Hidvégi was working on a 1995 case involving Farkas, two associates of the Hungarian secret service visited him and told him to stop digging around. He gave up. Farkas obviously had important friends in high places. Another time, when it looked as if his case would end up in the courts, President Árpád Göncz got a phone call from the ministry of justice more or less instructing him to grant Farkas clemency, which meant that the case never went to trial. Moreover, documents pertaining to the affair were declared to be top secret for 30 years.

Before the 1998 election Farkas managed to convince Gyula Horn that he would be able to deliver the Gypsy vote at the forthcoming election. Horn was certainly courting Lungo Drom. He attended its congress in January 1998 where he delivered a speech, which he included in his book Azok a kilencvenes évek… (Those 1990s). In it Horn told his audience that the Roma community has to shape up and do its share in changing the situation of the Gypsy community. Some other Roma communities criticized the prime minister but, as Horn put it in 1999 when the book was written, “Flórián Farkas and I continued to work to realize the programs that had been started.” (p. 472)

Great was the surprise within MSZP when at the end of 2001 Fidesz and Lungo Drom signed an agreement to cooperate politically. This time Farkas misjudged the situation, which was not at all surprising because almost all the opinion polls predicted an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Fidesz lost but Viktor Orbán made sure that Farkas’s name was placed high enough on the party list that he would easily become a member of parliament, where he served for two terms as a member of the Fidesz caucus.

Since 2010 Farkas’s influence has grown considerably, especially after he signed a formal alliance with the government to craft the country’s Roma strategy.

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

A few days ago, Magyar Nemzet suggested that perhaps the greatest task Hungary has to undertake in the coming years is to find a solution to the problems of the Hungarian Roma community. The author of the article estimated that 20% of all Hungarian children under the age of five are Roma. If this new generation cannot be rescued from the kind of poverty and low educational attainment the Roma community currently experiences, the future of the Hungarian economy will be in serious jeopardy. The article accused the so-called Roma elite of betraying their own people. But in the final analysis, I believe, Hungarian politicians, past and present, are perhaps even more responsible for the prevailing situation. They were the ones who handed over billions and billions of forints coming from the European Union to corrupt Roma leaders.

The Roma politicians around Fidesz have their own enablers in the Orbán government. Index learned that Tamás Köpeczi-Bócz, an assistant undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, is a suspect in the case involving the financial manipulations of ORÖ. He is in charge of the coordination of EU funds, including a sizable amount of money for Roma affairs. Apparently, it is thanks to him that no investigation of the affairs of ORÖ took place until now because he informed the prosecutors that all expenses were absolutely legitimate. In brief, it seems he is part and parcel of the fraud that has been perpetrated for years.

Magyar Nemzet learned that Farkas has the exclusive right to choose Roma politicians to fill certain government positions. That’s why, claims the paper, Lívia Járóka, a former member of the EU Parliament, was dropped by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, take a look at her biography in Wikipedia. One has to wonder why she was shipped off to Brussels in the first place. And why, after two terms, did she disappear into nothingness? The Wikipedia article ends with this sentence: “As of September 2014 she is no longer listed on the European Parliament site as an MEP.” Can Hungary afford to dispense with a Roma politician of this caliber? Viktor Orbán obviously believes that it can.

Commentators think that Flórián Farkas has never been closer to being indicted, especially since there are signs that the Orbán government might stop shielding him. János Lázár announced that if Farkas cannot clear his name, the prime minister will withdraw confidence in him. Népszabadság noted that Lungo Drom is no longer mentioned as an ally on Fidesz’s website. But who will come after  him? Offhand, I don’t see any serious, reliable candidate for the job.

Mária Schmidt is on the warpath again

Last summer I wrote at least five posts about Mária Schmidt, a historian of the Holocaust and director of the controversial House of Terror museum established during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). Why is Mária Schmidt so important? Why is it necessary to spend time on a historian not held in high esteem by her colleagues? It is true that as a historian she would not deserve much attention, but as the chief adviser to Orbán Viktor on matters of modern Hungarian history her ideas cannot be ignored. I don’t think I exaggerate when I claim that Schmidt’s interpretation of German-Hungarian relations in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s is crucial to understanding the Hungarian government’s reevaluation of the Hungarian Holocaust. The newly erected memorial to “all the victims” of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 was a direct result of Mária Schmidt’s views on the period.

The other reason that I give her so much space is that every time she opens her mouth, or puts pen to paper, she says something outlandish. She begins radio and television interviews with syrupy sweetness and ends with shrill diatribes.

She has been lying low on Holocaust issues since last summer, most likely because it looks as if János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s deputy, decided to remove her from the job of spearheading the creation of a new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. The government realized that no compromise could be reached between the administration and the Jewish community as long as Schmidt was in charge of the project.

They are working on the building of the House of Fates but the concept is still missing

The construction of the House of Fates is proceeding apace

She refocused her attention on more recent events. Last month she wrote an essay on “geopolitical games” between Russia and the United States in which she didn’t spare the U.S. This was not a topic that excited too many people in Hungary.

But then came an exchange of letters between Schmidt and the office of the German chancellor that she made public on February 4. Since the publication of this exchange she has given two interviews, one to György Bolgár on Klubrádió and another to András Kovács of Origo.

Let’s start with a summary of Mária Schmidt’s letter, dated January 20, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it Schmidt invited Merkel while in Hungary to a reception in the House of Terror honoring “ordinary citizens who [in 1989] risked everything as opposed to the political leaders of the regime who were only following the lead of the heroic civilians.” Of course, she was talking about the East German refugees in Hungary. In addition, she expressed her hope that together they “could light a candle for the victims of communism.” The answer from Councilor Maximilian Spinner, on behalf of the chancellor, was brief and to the point: “Unfortunately, such a visit is impossible due the limited amount of time available.”

I have the feeling that even if Angela Merkel hadn’t had such a tight schedule she wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with the reception Mária Schmidt organized. The Germans ever since 1989 have repeatedly said how grateful they were to the Hungarian government at the time, and here is an event that belittles the role of the Németh government and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, whom the Germans revere. And that government, whether Schmidt likes it or not, was the last government of the Kádár regime. By that time the dictatorship had mellowed to such an extent that it was not a brave, heroic act to help the East German refugees. Thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens lent a helping hand alongside the Hungarian government. Schmidt’s invitation was something of a trap, which I assume the Germans noticed and wanted to avoid.

Well, Schmidt was furious. She called Angela Merkel “the heartless chancellor.” She accused the Germans of never thanking these “brave civilians,” of thanking only the Hungarian government that existed “during the still functioning communist dictatorship.” Not only did Merkel not go but no “official representative” of Germany made an appearance when Schmidt gave memorial plaques to the few people she found worthy of the honor.

And then came the interview with Origo. She accused Merkel of “insolence,” which ought to “shock all well-meaning Germans.” According to Schmidt, “the chancellor obviously did not know what country she was visiting.” Otherwise, surely she would have wanted to meet ordinary citizens. She also found Merkel’s words about democracy, freedom of the press, and civic groups puzzling. In her opinion, Merkel talked like a “left-liberal” instead of a Christian Democrat.

Schmidt had a few not so kind words for the United States as well. According to her, M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires until the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell, “misunderstood his role and became enamored with his media appearances.” Everything has changed since the arrival of the ambassador, a claim that is most likely based on Colleen Bell’s frequent appearances at markets or social events, which of course may not indicate a policy change.

According to Schmidt, Hungary is a true ally of the United States and “it would be very sad if there were people in Washington who would like to disrupt that bond.” She is certain that Hungary would like to restore good relations between the two countries, but “we must not forget that the Hungarian nation is a proud one that does not like it if an American diplomat comes here and tells us how we should or should not remember our past,” a not too subtle reference to the memorial that on Viktor Orbán’s insistence was erected despite international protest, a memorial that falsifies the history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, at the moment Schmidt is organizing a conference, “Test of Bravery” (Bátorságpróba). The odd title seems to be lifted from a well-known picture book for children suffering from cancer. The conference will focus on the second Orbán government’s accomplishments between 2010 and 2014.

The House of Terror’s director is a tireless supporter of the government despite the recent slight she suffered when the much contested House of Fates projet was removed from her hands and taken over by the prime minister’s office. Her “concept” remained, however. It is, in the words of László Karsai, a Holocaust researcher, “two hundred pages of nothing.”

Is Viktor Orbán a coward?

As I was writing yesterday’s post on Viktor Orbán’s March 15th speech and came to the part where he talked about bravery as an essential ingredient of a nation’s success, my mind wandered to one manifestation of his own lack of bravery (admittedly, most likely wise risk management on his part). It was in 2006 that he made the mistake of agreeing to have a television debate with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who headed the MSZP ticket. Score (being charitable): Gyurcsány 1, Orbán 0. Since then he has systematically avoided head-to-head encounters with his opponents.

Prior to 2006 Orbán had two public debates, one in 1998 with Gyula Horn and another with Péter Medgyessy in 2002. The first debate was a clear win for Orbán, who at that point, following U.S. practice, thought pre-election debates were a capital idea. Gyula Horn, who had had a long political and diplomatic career in the Kádár regime, was no match for the young and more dynamic Viktor Orbán. Although Horn is considered by many the best prime minister of Hungary since 1990, on that occasion he looked unprepared and tired. In a major miscalculation, I don’t think he took the debate seriously.

After the first debate, I’m sure Viktor Orbán was looking forward to taking on Péter Medgyessy in 2002. Medgyessy was not known for his eloquence; in fact, people made jokes about his difficulty with long Hungarian tongue twisters. Orbán was dynamic, Medgyessy very low-key. Moreover, according to all the polls, it looked like easy sailing for Fidesz at the election. Orbán had nothing to lose. But in the debate Orbán looked and sounded like a bully while Medgyessy came across as a modest everyman with whom people could sympathize. As it was, the Hungarian electorate had had enough of the incessant government attacks on everyone who didn’t support them. Orbán lost the election, a result he never quite accepted.

Then came the debate of 2006 with Ferenc Gurcsány. It is something Orbán will never forget or forgive. I’m convinced that his hatred of Gyurcsány dates from that day. I watched the debate and immediately proclaimed it a rout. (The debate is available on YouTube.) Orbán was demolished. Interestingly enough, some people in our group who were exchanging e-mails during the debate were not as sure as I was. Later polls confirmed my first impression. Even Fidesz supporters had to admit that Orbán had lost the debate. Since then Orbán has been trying to pay Gyurcsány back for his humiliation. If it depended on him, he would send Gyurcsány to jail for life. Orbán may be on top of the world right now, but he still considers Ferenc Gyurcsány a threat. Moreover, it seems that after 2006 he got permanently cold feet when it comes to public debates.

He refused to debate Attila Mesterházy in 2010 and it looks as if he has no intention of debating this year either. There are different excuses each time. Four years ago he claimed that there were too many candidates. This year he listed several reasons for refusing to debate. First was that “to this day we don’t know who the real leader of the opposition is: Ferenc Gyurcsány, Attila Mesterházy, or Gordon Bajnai.” Well, this sounds like a lame excuse to me. After all, the united opposition’s candidate for premiership is Attila Mesterházy. Mesterházy called on Orbán to debate several times; in his blog he even dubbed Orbán a coward for refusing to measure the Fidesz program against the opposition’s. Of course, the fact is that Fidesz has no party program unless one considers the decrease in utility prices a program. That is why the following “manifesto” that appeared on the Internet is so apt. In 1848 Sándor Petőfi and his young friends had a list of twelve demands, including freedom of the press, an annual national assembly in Pest, national army, civil and religious equality before the law, equal distribution of tax burdens, and abolition of socage. Viktor Orbán had the gall to compare his lowering of utility prices to the abolition of socage and serjeanty, feudal dues. As you can see, Orbán’s 12 points in this “Orbán” version of the twelve demands are all the same: “utility decreases, utility decreases” twelve times over. Thus it would be rather difficult to have a debate on party programs.

rezsicsokkentes

A take-off on the Hungarian nation’s demands in 1848

It would be uncomfortable to answer questions about the Putin-Orbán agreement on Paks or the incredible corruption. If Mesterházy were well prepared, he could demolish Orbán’s economic figures. And what about the ever larger national debt? All in all, Orbán will not debate because it is not to his advantage. Moreover, his admirers don’t even demand any program. They seem to be perfectly happy with the government’s performance in the last four years and look forward to four or even eight more years of the same.

Another reason that Orbán gave for his refusal to debate is that in his opinion there is no political formation today outside of Fidesz-KDNP that is fit to govern (kormányzóképes). Such labeling in a democracy is unacceptable. It just shows what kind of democracy we are talking about in Hungary.

András Schiffer of LMP would like to have a debate with Orbán, Mesterházy, and Vona (Jobbik). As you know, Schiffer is not one of my favorites, but he is a good debater and could score extra points if given the opportunity. I’m sure that Orbán will not be game, and I understand that Mesterházy will agree only if Orbán also participates. So, we can be pretty sure that there will be no debate in 2014. The opposition will remain invisible.

Gyula Horn’s reminiscences of his role in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

I indicated in one of my comments to the discussion on Gyula Horn that I would touch on his controversial role after the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of  1956 when for five or six months he served in the militia that was set up to keep order.

But first I would like to call attention to an obituary written by the director of the House of Terror and a friend of Viktor Orbán, Mária Schmidt. It is a most positive assessment of of Gyula Horn’s career. Schmidt thinks that Horn was a great statesman and a patriot “who did what the homeland asked him to do.” Most of us are familiar with Mária Schmidt’s political views. She is a fierce anti-communist. If I wrote something that glowing about Horn I would be called a Bolshevik by some of the right-wing readers of this blog. I highly recommend that they read her words.

In addition to Horn’s autobiography I discovered in my library a book, Here we are, Europe!, that is “a portrait of Gyula Horn.” It was published in 1990 with an introduction by Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In it I found a Hungarian translation of a very long article by Georg Paul Hefty from the February 1990 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which is as eulogistic as the obituary of Schmidt. I might also mention that  Hefty is a true conservative who to this day is a fierce supporter of Viktor Orbán.

Before I move on to Horn’s controversial role in 1956, I think I should say something about his family background. Horn’s father joined the Red Army in 1919 and spent four years in jail after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  He got married shortly thereafter and sired one child after the other. As Horn says, one every three years.  Altogether Horn’s mother gave birth to eight boys, out of whom seven survived. The family lived in extreme poverty.

Throughout the interwar years Horn’s father was in and out of jail although he didn’t seem to have especially close relations with the illegal communist party. Perhaps he just had a big  mouth. After the German occupation of Hungary (March 19, 1944), he was taken prisoner and killed near Sopron. Horn’s oldest brother Géza lost his eyesight in one eye as a teenager because two policemen beat him so brutally, apparently for no good reason. As Horn remembers, the two policemen didn’t like “prolis,” an abbreviation of “proletarians” and a derogatory term. He himself was beaten badly by a traffic cop because, while carrying two or three boxes for delivery, he wasn’t crossing the street fast enough.

Géza Horn joined the illegal communist party early on. It was he who served as a kind of teacher to Gyula, supplying him with Marxist-Leninist literature. After the war, during the coalition period, the Hungarian Communist Party immediately began recruiting adherents and party workers and the Horn family, given their association with the party even before 1945, was much favored.

The mother was sent to party school while Géza and Gyula were sent to a quickie course that gave them a high school diploma in one year. Both of them were then sent to university in the Soviet Union. Gyula studied finance and received a “red diploma” for earning straight As.

After returning to Hungary he got a job at the ministry of finance. His job involved checking VAT payments, which meant a lot of traveling all over the country. He saw the misery the Rákosi regime had inflicted on the country and the Hungarian people. He also sensed the growing dissatisfaction of the populace. Even his oldest brother Géza, who was truly committed to the cause, kept saying “this is not what we were fighting for.”

On the day the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out Horn happened to be in Szeged. He had a rather hard time getting back to Óbuda where his wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child. A sidenote, just to give you an idea of the fluidity of the political situation during the revolution, one of Horn’s younger brothers joined the revolutionaries and eventually became one of those 200,000 refugees who fled and settled in the West.

Horn himself was a member of the National Guard created by the Imre Nagy government. He patrolled the streets with an ID in hand bearing the signature of General Béla Király. I read somewhere that Horn and some of his friends briefly contemplated leaving the country. They even had a truck ready for the journey.

On the other hand, Géza, though not totally satisfied with the Rákosi regime, kept worrying about the future of the socialist state. After the failure of the revolution he helped organize the new communist party, Kádár’s MSZMP.

The Hungarian militia / mult-kor.hu

 Hungarian militia men / mult-kor.hu

Once it was all over, on December 12, Horn and six of his colleagues in the ministry of finance–among them all those who had studied in the Soviet Union–were asked to join a new battalion that was set up by the Budapest Police Captaincy. They were supposed to guard the bridges across the Danube because there were rumors that the revolutionaries wanted to blow them up.

The next day a terrible tragedy befell the Horn family. Géza, by then a film director and always Gyula’s favorite brother, was bicycling to work when a truck purposely struck him and he was subsequently beaten to death. They never found the perpetrators.

After about a month of guarding bridges at night Horn’s team was given a new job. The police recreated the “R Group,” originally used after 1945 to check the growing lawlessness during the very hard times. Horn and his colleagues were sent to this group not so much to apprehend criminals as to act as guards at pubs, railroad stations, and other public places.

Eventually, however, they ended up in investigative work. It turned out that one of these investigations also included beating the suspects.  Horn and his best friend in this group tried to intervene, but they were accused of betraying the cause. Soon enough came an investigation of the case by a high-ranking police officer.  Horn allegedly told him that “we didn’t sign up for this kind of work.” The police officer promised an investigation, but as Horn laconically remarks, “it is not known what happened to the promise, but it is a fact that we were no longer ordered to take part in this type of work.” He was demobilized in July 1957.

In the 1990 publication he told the reporter, Sára Pogány, whose interviews make up the bulk of the slim volume, that “we never used force against anyone.” When Pogány asked him whether he had any appetite for revenge, Horn categorically denied it. One can believe him or not. Mária Schmidt rightly points out that during the Kádár regime it was in his best interest to exaggerate his role in 1956-57 while after 1989 it was in his best interest to belittle it. But, as she notes, we don’t have historical evidence one way or the other. It is possible that Gyula Horn wasn’t important enough to leave behind much of a footprint. So, for the time being we will have to be satisfied with what he himself told us.