Tag Archives: Hungarian army

The latest brainstorm: military sports centers to popularize a military career

The other day I came across a Hungarian-language article about a speech delivered by Antoni Macierewicz, the Polish minister of defense. The article claimed that the minister talked at length about the necessity of having an army that would be strong enough to defend Poland’s independence without outside help. His assessment of Poland’s military strength, both now and in the future, sounded far too optimistic to me, so I visited the Polish site where the information came from. There I learned that, according to Macierewicz, if there is national unity and a national government, there is also a strong army. “We hear voices that the Territorial Defense Force is not needed, but it is the Polish army that binds the nation together.” A unitary Polish nation means an invincible army.

The current Hungarian government has been thinking along the same lines. The debate over the military has been going on for years. It has become evident that the kind of professional army the United States and some other countries have doesn’t satisfy Fidesz politicians’ somewhat old-fashioned military ideas. While in 2003 the socialist-liberal government was envisaging “an army for the 21st century,” the present leadership in many ways would like to build a much more traditional defense force. Viktor Orbán and his comrades know that returning to conscription is out of the question because a few days after such an announcement the Orbán government would be a thing of the past. So they have been trying to expand the numbers of recruits. Given the low pay and prestige of the military in Hungary, this project never got off the ground. Then came the idea of building up a force of reservists who, somewhat like the National Guard in the United States, would serve as part-time soldiers. Interest in the program was meager. Even the training of the so-called “border hunters” was intended to serve as a kind of introduction to army life. Just yesterday, however, the Hungarian media reported that a whole class of a police academy was ordered to the border because the number of “border hunters” was insufficient.

In the last year or so the ministry of defense has been looking for ways to make military service more attractive to young men and women. First, we heard that shooting galleries would be attached to schools, and several school principals reported receiving inquiries from KLIK, the center in charge of all state schools. But a few days later the ministry of human resources, which deals with matters related to education, issued a denial. Although there will be more emphasis on “patriotic” education, the talk about the “militarization” of Hungarian schools was nothing but an unfounded rumor. If there was, at one point, some thought of using schools as sources of future military personnel, this idea had been scrapped.

Meanwhile, the ministry of defense was working on a new idea. On February 11 the ministry announced the formation of the National Defense Sports Association (Honvédelmi Sportszövetség/HS) under its auspices. HS’s president is István Kun Szabó, a major general and assistant undersecretary in the ministry of defense. According to the initial announcement, “the task of HS is to renew the relationship between society and the Hungarian Army and at the same time to promote the establishment of a voluntary reserve system on new foundations through leisure sports.” As I suspected, this new military sports association is a backdoor way to try to enlarge the Hungarian Army. There will be plenty of enticements. In the sports centers that will be built, people can learn to shoot, fence, engage in martial arts and strength athletics, even joust. In addition, they can learn to drive and apply basic first aid. The Sports Association will also organize military summer camps. “Ultimately, the goal is to attract as many young people as possible who want to play a role in defending the country by applying for either reserve or professional service.”

The news came on September 6 that the government had set aside 17.5 billion forints (57.1 million euros) to build 40 sports centers. In a second round, another 67 such centers will be established. They will be constructed on land owned by the Hungarian state, and the structures will also be state-owned. The amount of money to be spent on the first 40 centers is considered by commentators to be extravagant. But these centers must be relatively large to accommodate all the different sports offered. In addition, each of the facilities must have a staff. All in all, operating these centers will not be cheap. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those who benefited from the sports facilities will actually enter the armed services. This will most likely be a mighty expensive way of recruiting military personnel.

At one of the military summer camps

Criticism of the plan to establish more than 100 shooting galleries was immediate. Apparently, 98 shooting galleries exist in Hungary now, and all of them are in terrible shape. Some people argue that the renovation of the existing galleries should be the first priority, not building new ones.

There are objections about the overall course of the Hungarian Army from military experts as well. Gyula Kovács, a retired lieutenant colonel and expert of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science), wrote an opinion peace in Népszava on August 18, 2017 in which he described the Orbán government’s military plans under the title “On the road to the 20th century.” Kovács doesn’t believe that István Simicskó, minister of defense, is the right person to lead the Hungarian military. After years of funding shortages, now at last the ministry is getting a sizable infusion of money, which should be spent on reform. The Hungarian Army is still organized according to the old Soviet structure, which by now even the Russian Army has abandoned. When at the moment there are only 38.6 billion forints for development, spending 17.5 billion on sports centers seems a terrible waste of money. Kovács points out that “the main goal of the program is the formation of a territorial defense force of 20,000.” But he doubts that 20,000 young people will be ready to join the army any time soon. Moreover, one wouldn’t need a larger force if the leadership got rid of the bloated bureaucracy (about 20,000-21,000 men and women) when only 6,000-7,000 people are actively engaged in the military. If the army’s structure were at last changed, 12,000-14,000 men and women could produce, given modern equipment, a division of American quality. In short, the whole project is a waste of money. A modern army cannot be built by recruiting youngsters who like to shoot and enjoy martial arts, he claims.

I can only concur. I simply cannot believe that this trick will produce a large number of recruits. And Gyula Kovács is most likely also right in saying that Hungary doesn’t need such a large force. A smaller and more modern one would suffice, but that would require serious changes, which the big brass would undoubtedly be loath to implement.

September 10, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

Hungarian army recruitment: modern-day impressment?

An outcry followed an article that appeared in Kisalföld, a regional paper serving the county of Győr-Moson-Sopron in the northwestern corner of the country. The newspaper learned that people who are currently employed as public workers had received notices to appear at the Hungarian Army’s recruiting center in Győr. If they do not oblige, their names will be deleted from the list of those seeking employment.

Following up, a reporter for the paper got in touch with the recruiting office. He was told that at the recruiting center public workers will receive information about careers in the military and will be given the usual tests. If a person is fit to serve and refuses, he will lose his public work status and therefore his job. Well, that sounded very much like eighteenth-century British impressment. Moreover, within a few hours it became known that public workers in other counties as well will have to pay a visit to the recruiting office. It seems as if the ministry of defense is planning to involve the whole country, hoping to get new recruits this way.

The ministry of defense didn’t outright deny the story reported by Kisalföld. The ministry’s statement stressed only that “acceptance of service is not compulsory. It is merely an opportunity.” That’s fine and dandy, but since it is the ministry of interior that is in charge of the public works program, any retaliation would come from that ministry. After all, according to the rules and regulations, if a public worker declines a job offer, he loses his public works job. But today the ministry of interior assured the public that as long as the public worker shows up at the recruiting office, he will have fulfilled his obligation and will not have to worry about his job in the public works program.

kozmunkasok

We know that the Hungarian Army, according to some estimates, needs an additional 8,000 men and women, but this doesn’t strike me as the best way to beef up the numbers. Yes, at least in theory, military service could benefit those young men and women who lack the skills necessary to get steady, good-paying jobs. Ideally, the army could offer them an opportunity to learn useful skills. But the Hungarian army is not that kind of a place. Moreover, the pay is low.

It is hard to get exact figures on the pay of military personnel. In 2012 Csaba Hende, then minister of defense, in an answer to a socialist MP, said that enlisted men and women on average receive 137,425 forints a month, non-commissioned officers 191,157, and officers 389,522. The take-home pay is about half of these amounts, that is only $246 for an enlisted soldier. In 2011 a career advisory site outlined possibilities for youngsters if they chose a military career. According to information the site provided, 4,800 people visited the recruiting centers in 2011 but only 1,170, among them 80 women, got to the point of actually submitting an application, and only 837 were accepted. According to the career advisory site, a private first class’s basic pay was only 106,000 forints, a corporal made 119,000, a buck sergeant 130,000, and a sergeant 142,000 forints. No wonder that interest in signing up is minimal.

At the very end of 2014 the government at last announced a 30% hike in salaries, starting July 1, 2015, and it promised that by January 1, 2019 salaries will be 50% higher on average than now. The government loves to talk about what they call “életpálya,” which simply means “career,” usually used with an adjective like “katonai életpálya” (military career) “pedagógus életpálya” (teaching career). I came to the conclusion that having a career in their vocabulary means earning “a salary one can live on.” Even with all the wage hikes, the ordinary enlisted man will not have a military “career.”

Despite all the rhetoric, the Orbán government, instead of allocating more money to the military, systematically reduced its funding. For the latest wage hikes the ministry simply had no money. The added expenses were covered by the prime minister’s office.

Hungary is supposed to have a military force of 29,700 men and women. In June 2014 Csaba Hende talked about 5,921 unfilled jobs in the army. And, he said, past efforts at recruitment had yielded meager results. Since then another 2,000 or so have left the army. Thus, the size of the Hungarian army at the moment is only 22,000. Therefore, at the end of 2015 the decision was made to increase the intensity of recruitment in 2016. The army began advertising on the internet and decided to launch mobile recruiting centers, I assume in smaller towns and villages.

It is on the level of enlistees that shortages are acute. According to military analysts, the shortage of personnel could easily be remedied if the army would change the balance among officers, non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and civil servants. As it stands now, the percentage of professional officers in the force is 30%. If their numbers were reduced to 10%, a great deal of money would be freed to pay the enlisted soldiers and the non-commissioned officers better. Apparently, a healthy mix would be 10% officers, 30% non-commissioned officers, 50% enlisted men and women, and 10% civilians. But such a move would meet stiff resistance from the officer corps, especially the “untouchable” general staff. As long as a more reasonable balance cannot be introduced, the recruitment effort will not be successful.

But let’s return to the deal between the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior. As it is, the public works program is used, especially in smaller places, as a political weapon. Most of those who take part in the program are at the mercy of the mayors, who decide who will and who will not be hired. In smaller places, although voting is secret, it is easy to figure out whether the fairly large public works crew voted for Fidesz. These small-town mayors behave like feudal lords during the reigns of weak kings, who carved out large regions where they acted like “kiskirályok” (little kings). In fact, people refer to these local tyrants as little kings.

The people who have no way to earn money outside of the public works program are in a subservient position economically and politically. I suspect that the ministries of defense and interior thought that some form of impressment was a capital idea, a policy that would fly under the radar. I do hope that the assurances coming from the ministry of the interior are for real because otherwise Hungarians are in bigger trouble than we think.

July 26, 2016

Hungary is preparing for a possible terrorist attack

Naturally today’s topic must be the horrific terrorist attack carried out at three locations in Paris, which so far have resulted in 129 dead and 350 injured. We still know few of the details, but according to the latest intelligence the attack was carried out by three teams of terrorists. One team may have included a man with a Syrian passport who arrived in Greece in early October. His identity should be easy to ascertain since, according the Greek minister of interior, local authorities fingerprinted him on the island of Leros. Evidence indicates that among the accomplices there might be some men in Brussels. And the German police are investigating the case of a man who was arrested last week with weapons in his car and his GPS set for Paris. (Modern technology can be dangerous.)

President François Hollande declared three days of official mourning. The flags of the European Union will be lowered and black flags will fly next to them. High officials of countries from all over the world sent condolences to President Hollande.

France is in a state of emergency, and military troops are patrolling the capital. This is understandable since the French government considers the assault on its citizens “an act of war.” The attack is most likely a response to France’s military involvement against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Africa.

What is less understandable is the Hungarian government’s reaction to what happened 1,500 km away. The Orbán government is acting as if the terrorist attack occurred in Budapest. Just like in Paris, soldiers were ordered into the capital where they are patrolling downtown streets with machine guns at the ready. At the government’s prodding the Hungarian Football Association tried to cancel the Norwegian-Hungarian match in Budapest tomorrow, but FIFA vetoed the idea, claiming that the crowded schedule would make rescheduling the game very difficult. Thus, the game is being held, but extraordinary precautions will be taken. Tickets will be checked against IDs, and packages will be opened and inspected.

Heavily armed Hungarian soldiers patrolling the streets of Budapest

Heavily armed Hungarian soldiers patrolling the streets of Budapest

It may not have been possible to cancel the soccer match, but Fidesz postponed its congress originally scheduled for tomorrow because the government declared a day of national mourning. I checked whether any other country declared an official day of mourning for the French victims but didn’t find any that followed Hungary’s example. Which suggests that Viktor Orbán is making as much political hay out of the tragedy in Paris as he possibly can. Not that the Hungarian public needs more incitement against the refugees. At the same time, Orbán had to admit that there is no data suggesting any direct threat to Hungary.

Condolences were offered by Viktor Orbán, President János Áder, Fidesz, and the Christian Democratic Party. They all assured the French people of their sympathy. Among the opposition parties two responses were less boilerplate: Jobbik’s and DK’s. Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, felt it important to add to his soothing words that “what happened is what we have been afraid of.” At the other end of the political spectrum was Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of DK, who told his followers that “it is almost impossible not to respond to such hatred with hatred. Yet we must attempt to maintain our humanity.”

The Hungarian government hasn’t yet begun blaming European politicians for the terrorist attack, but I suspect that it will soon. For the time being only a pro-government national security expert and former intelligence man considers the attack “the responsibility of the politicians of the European Union.” But even on the right there are some sane voices. For example, György Pápay in Magyar Nemzet warned readers not to fall for either of two extreme positions: to accept all newcomers or to turn inward and exclude everybody. The golden mean must be found. “We can only hope that what happened in Paris will make the leaders of the continent realize that Europe must show unity.” This sounds like a call for Viktor Orbán to stop his destructive activities and to help solve the problems facing the European Union. Unfortunately, I have little hope that Pápay’s wish will be fulfilled any time soon. I suspect that the tragedy in Paris will only fortify Orbán’s conviction that his strategy is the correct one.

The Hungarian army will soon receive its marching orders

It looks as if the Orbán government will introduce a state of emergency on September 15, when a new era will begin, at least according to Viktor Orbán.

I wouldn’t venture to predict what exactly that state of emergency will entail because the Hungarian government doesn’t seem to be in control of the situation. A decision that was made yesterday is often scrapped today.

The idea of having transit zones on Hungarian territory that are open toward Serbia but impassable toward Hungary was considered to be a capital idea. The great legal wizard of Fidesz, Gergely Gulyás, in a lengthy interview assured the public that this plan couldn’t possibly be challenged by the present laws of the European Union. But then someone with more legal acumen came to the conclusion that since these transit zones will be built on Hungarian soil, they cannot be considered extraterritorial areas as another great legal expert, László Trócsányi, the minister of justice, claimed.

The picture that is emerging of Viktor Orbán not just in Hungary but in the world

He brought shame to the country: The failed immigration policy of Viktor Orbán

So, no more transit zones, only the fence where the thousands who arrive every day will be stopped by Hungarian police and, from September 15 on, by the Hungarian army. The refugees will, I guess, ask for asylum across the fence. The Hungarian authorities will then decline their requests within three days. There will be no exceptions because none of those who are trying to enter Hungary from Serbia are considered to be refugees. Serbia is, according to the Hungarian government, a safe country that could provide them asylum. There is no need for them to cross into Hungary. The whole thing will be a charade. The scenes the world can watch online of Hungarian police chasing refugees around the refugee camp don’t bode well for the future. But the government hopes that the army’s presence will achieve miracles.

And that brings me back to the sudden resignation of Csaba Hende, who had served as minister of defense since 2010. In the past he was often the butt of jokes because of his less than military physique and his lack of knowledge about military matters in general. His critics considered him incompetent. They were certain that he would not be reappointed when Viktor Orbán formed his third government last year. But Hende remained in his post. Orbán couldn’t have been that dissatisfied with him. But then why the decision to resign? It happened right after a meeting of the ministers directly involved with national security issues.

There are at least three stories circulating in Budapest about the circumstances of Hende’s resignation. The first is that Viktor Orbán fired him because the fence that was supposed to keep the refugees out of the country was not ready by August 15. The second story goes something like this: during the meeting Hende received a lot of criticism of his handling of the crisis and, after a heated debate, Hende decided that he had had enough. The third explanation is that Hende, being a lawyer by training, objected to the use of the army for domestic purposes without amending the Hungarian constitution. In addition, his generals also objected to the government’s plans. Hence, the resignation. My hunch is that there is a kernel of truth in all three versions.

So now Hungary has a new minister of defense, István Simicskó, whose encounter with Celeste A. Wallander, currently special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council, I recalled two days ago.

Simicskó, I’m sure, feels on top of the world at the moment. I don’t know how long he has been dreaming about this job, but at least since 2002. In 2010 he was sure that his dream would be fulfilled, but then he ended up as the second man under Csaba Hende. The two of them didn’t get along, and after two years Simicskó resigned and became undersecretary in charge of sports in the ministry of human resources. He is an avid practitioner of martial arts.

In Simicskó Hungary will have a minister of defense who is very taken with the military. Although his college degree was in hotel management, he subsequently got a degree in economics and finally a Ph.D. in military science. So, he seems well prepared for the job, at least on paper.

There are, however, a couple of things in his bio that should give us pause. Simicskó was the only member of parliament of the 365 present who voted against Hungary’s joining the European Union. Mind you, Viktor Orbán simply didn’t show up that day.

For years Simicskó has been a dogged promoter of a Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. National Guard. Originally, he proposed calling it “Magyar Gárda,” but that name was subsequently taken by Jobbik’s paramilitary organization, which was eventually banned. In 2004, after compulsory military service was abolished, he campaigned for summer military training for eighteen-year-old boys. In 2007 he changed the name of his proposed organization to Honi Gárda (Home Guard), which he wanted to employ in the fight against terrorism. It is possible that now, as minister of defense, Simicskó will be able to achieve his goal.

Last year journalists noted that not all was well with the figures in Simicskó’s financial statements. According to journalists who pay attention to such matters, among Hungarian politicians Simicskó is the sloppiest. When they inquired from him about the discrepancies, he was rude. He accused them of besmearching his good name and of taking instructions from above–that is, from politicians of the opposition.

Simicskó was also accused of buying votes by distributing 10 kg sacks of inexpensive potatoes. And he was caught handing out orange-colored gym socks with bars of chocolate in them. All in all, he is considered by many to be a shady character.

His work is cut out for him. One just hopes that no tragedy will befall the frustrated asylum seekers at the hands of the armed military.