Tag Archives: irredentism

Belligerency rarely works in diplomacy: Hungary and Ukraine

The Budapest Beacon published an article today in which Ben Novák called attention to a brief address by Michele Siders, acting deputy chief of mission and director of the Office of Resource Management at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was a speech to welcome Lamberto Zannier, an Italian diplomat, as OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities. In this speech there was one mysterious paragraph: “We support your comment regarding the need to respect confidentiality in the pursuit of quiet diplomacy. One participating State knowingly misrepresented your recent comments regarding education issues in Ukraine. We are concerned that this does not contribute to the Permanent Council’s goal of rebuilding trust. A statement from your office clarifying your findings on this issue would be helpful.”

What does Siders mean by rebuilding trust among the nations represented by OSCE? In 2016 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked about the necessity of “rebuilding trust among participating States and maintaining efforts for achieving a political solution to the conflict in and around Ukraine.” In her speech Siders said that one of the member states had violated this effort.

Who is that guilty state? I’m afraid it is most likely Hungary, whose foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, apparently “knowingly misrepresented” Zannier’s comments on the contentious Article 7 of the Ukrainian law on education. Szijjártó was attending OSCE’s Mediterranean Conference in Palermo in late October where, after talking to Zannier, he informed MTI by phone that so far OSCE had been “the most helpful international organization” of those whose assistance Hungary had solicited in connection with the Ukrainian education law, which the Hungarian government finds unacceptable. The statement released by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry indicated that Zannier would soon visit Ukraine, where he would most likely represent the Hungarian point of view on the language issue. Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, went even further. In his blog, About Hungary, he stated that “OSCE is throwing its support behind Hungary in relation to Ukraine’s education law.”

But articles that appear on OSCE’s website show that OSCE is taking a much more balanced approach. The High Commissioner is paying attention to concerns expressed by the national minorities, but he “has also taken note of the Ukrainian government’s assessment that the low level of state language knowledge among school graduates … impedes their effective participation in public life.” OSCE apparently “constantly recommended” the adoption of balanced views that would preserve and promote the minorities’ language and identity and, at the same time, would foster the integration of society through the teaching and learning of the state language.

Zannier is trying to mediate between the two sides, but the Hungarian government is unwilling to engage in any dialogue with Ukraine. In the meantime, the other countries involved are already close to an understanding with the Ukrainian government.

Graduation at a Hungarian high school in Ukraine

Although Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin visited Budapest at the beginning of October, the talks with Szijjártó led nowhere. Magyar Nemzet reluctantly agreed to publish an opinion piece by Klimkin in which he asked for “considered dialogue.” He especially called attention to the exodus of young Hungarians from Ukraine because their lack of knowledge of Ukrainian prevents them from entering university. Therefore, they go to study in Hungary where at first they are welcome, but these students most likely will never return to the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, and this in the long run is not in the interest of Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, this time fully supported by the opposition parties, unleashed irredentist sentiments in far-right circles. Lóránt Hegedűs, a Hungarian Reformed minister, organized a demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy in which he demanded “the right of self-determination of the Subcarpathian region.” The region is officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, where only about 12.1% of the population is Hungarian. The Hungarian foreign ministry dutifully informed the Ukrainian Embassy about the impending demonstration, in response to which the Ukrainians asked whether “Budapest is supporting separatism” of the region. Pavlo Klimkin, in a statement of objection, expressed his hope that Hungary will honor the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The rigid Hungarian attitude has turned even some American conservatives against Budapest. Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, called on Viktor Orbán to “stop meddling in Ukrainian politics.” Gonzalez approves of Orbán’s policies on migrant issues and praises him for his vigorous defense of his nation’s sovereignty, but “he’s at his worst … when interfering in the self-determination of other sovereign nation-states around him.” According to Gonzalez,“Orbán is stirring up trouble with Ukraine and Romania.” What’s the issue? he asks. “You can put many different names on it—minority rights, multiculturalism, diversity—but some would say it borders on ‘irredentism.’” This article originally appeared in Daily Signal, a publication that is described by the Media Bias Fact Checker as strongly biased toward conservative causes.

I very much doubt that Mike Gonzalez is familiar enough with Hungarian affairs to talk about this issue with authority, but he put his finger on something that is not very far from reality. Tamás Bauer, a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics, sees dual citizenship as “a partial revision” of the peace treaties. Since there is no possibility of territorial revision, Orbán has brought about a “population revision.” I may point out here that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of national issues, just announced that the number of new citizens has reached one million. That means that about half of the Hungarians living beyond Hungary’s borders have been amalgamated into the Hungarian community.

English-language government publications talk about “cross-border Hungarians,” which is interesting by itself, but the Hungarian designation is even more suggestive. A few years ago the ministry of human resources published a list of designations that must be used and others that must be avoided. Hungarians must call their compatriots not “külföldi magyarok” but “külhoni magyarok.” The former is the mirror translation of the German ausländisch. “Külhoni,” according to the dictionary, means the same thing, except it sounds a bit old-fashioned to my ears. But then why do Hungarians now have to use “külhoni” instead of “külföldi”? I suspect the reason is that “hon” is a somewhat poetic word for “homeland.” Another related word is “otthon,” which means “at home.” Thus these Hungarians don’t live abroad but in a homeland that just happens to be across borders. I know that this distinction might be too subtle and perhaps many people don’t grasp its significance, but I consider it a sign of what’s going on in the Fidesz leaders’ minds.

November 16, 2017

A week in Hungary: worrisome developments

There is no silly season or “uborka szezon” in Hungary this year. In fact, I could easily write three or four times a day about not at all silly stories. Today I decided to catch up and offer a smorgasbord of “illiberal” news.

Let’s start with Zoltán Balog’s unfortunate statement about the Gypsy Holocaust on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the murder of thousands of Gypsies in Auschwitz. Balog, minister of human resources and a very close associate and spiritual adviser of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

On Sunday morning Balog was interviewed on the state radio’s program Vasárnapi Újság. This program, even during the socialist-liberal government, was known for its far-right tendencies, but it was a favorite of Viktor Orbán who often appeared there. Balog was asked to say a few words appropriate for the occasion. Instead of paying tribute to the Roma victims of the Holocaust, he began ruminating about the proper historical interpretation of the deportation of the Hungarian Gypsies while showing a total ignorance of the details. He said that there are a lot of uncertainties–for example, the  number of victims–and offered up the nonsensical excuse that “no Hungarian Gypsies were ever deported from Hungary. Only from Austria.” He also had some advice for the Roma. They shouldn’t dwell too much on tragic events because Gypsy culture is already prone to portray its members as victims, as people who are at the bottom of society. And such an attitude hurts their chances of success.

The reaction in opposition circles was uniformly negative to this latest Balog faux pas. A lot of people interpreted Balog’s words as Holocaust denial or at least a diminishing of its importance. Historians expressed their astonishment that the minister in charge of Hungary’s Roma strategy knows so little about the details of the events of 1944 and the fate of about 5,000 Hungarian Roma who perished and the tens of thousands who were deported.

As usual came the standard excuse: his adversaries misinterpreted his words, although this time he added that he could have expressed himself more clearly. Instead of admitting his mistake, however, he launched into an attack against his political opponents. It is not he “who has to explain himself but the Left under whose governance Gypsies were murdered in Hungary.” As if the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments were responsible for the serial murders of several Gypsies.

Now let’s move on to another story that broke a few days ago. Some eagle-eyed journalist found an interesting picture on the front page of the publication of the Hungarian Medical Association. It was taken in the enormous study of Viktor Orbán in the parliamentary building when the president and the vice president of the association paid a visit to the prime minister. In the background a poster depicting the crown and the Hungarian colors reads: Győzelem (Victory).

A few telephone calls to historians revealed that the poster was designed by Sándor Légrády (1906-1987), who made quite a name for himself as a designer of Hungarian stamps. The poster Viktor Orbán so proudly displays in his office was done in 1940-41 to commemorate the Hungarian army’s entry into the territories Hungary received in the Second Vienna Award (August 30, 1940). I might add that Légrády was a politically committed person who in 1941 became an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office ( Bárdossy government, April 1940-March 1942) and who was later transferred to the ministry of defense. Because of his posters extolling the war he was briefly detained in 1945 but was acquitted two years later.

Viktor Orbán's study with the controversial poster in the background

Viktor Orbán’s study with the controversial poster in the background

What is such a poster doing in the Hungarian prime minister’s office? The official account is that he received the poster as a gift after the 2014 parliamentary election. A Fidesz politician explained the significance of the poster. Viktor Orbán began his infamous speech in Tasnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad by thanking the Transylvanian Hungarians for their support. Their votes gave Fidesz that one extra seat in parliament that ensured the continuation of the two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows Viktor Orbán to continue his rule unchecked. About 100,000 people who may never have set foot in the country decided the fate of Hungary for four years if not for longer.

This explanation is believable, but one must question the decision to display such an irredentist poster in the prime minister’s office. The year 1941 marked Hungary’s entrance into World War II. It was the year Germany attacked the Soviet Union. It was the year the United States entered the war. It is an affront to Romania, to Russia, and indirectly to all the countries who fought Nazi Germany and her allies–including, of course, Hungary. Just like his spiritual adviser, Orbán has no sense. A few years ago he proudly displayed a Greater Hungary decal on his car!

I would also like to mention that since leading American newspapers raised their voices in critical editorials against Viktor Orbán’s designs to transform Hungary into an illiberal state, the whole right-wing media has begun an anti-American campaign. At least three leading Fidesz opinion makers spoke out–István Tamás (Nemzeti.net, July 30), Tamás Fricz (Magyar Nemzet, August 4), and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap, August 6). Soon I will devote a full post to the Orbán government’s anti-American propaganda campaign.

Here is another timely topic: the fate of some Roma families in Miskolc. On June 25 I wrote about the local Fidesz leadership’s plans to evict Roma families from their homes in order to make space for a new football stadium. The city was ready to pay 2 million forints to each family if they moved out of Miskolc altogether. Well, the evictions have begun. A young couple with a small child were the first victims. Then came an older woman who is disabled. Roma activists are trying to prevent the forceful removal of hundreds of families, but I doubt that they will be successful.

And finally, the situation of the NGOs. Viktor Orbán declared war on them in his speech and he was not kidding. Only yesterday papers reported that, although the Hungarian government made some concessions concerning the distribution of funds, the Norwegian authorities refuse to release the funds until the investigation of these NGOs stops. Viktor Orbán is not backing down. A criminal investigation of Ökotárs Alapítvány, the firm that distributes the Norwegian funds to NGOs, has begun. The charge is embezzlement.

László Toroczkai: Quite a career from the siege of MTV to the mayor of a small town

Hungarian media and the public attuned to politics have been unable to recover from the shock of a by-election in Ásotthalom, a larger village near Szeged, close to the Serbian border. László Toroczkai, an infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities, became the new mayor of the borough. How could this have happened?

“Political scientists” offered some highly unlikely explanations for this outrage, but these people rarely move from their desks in Budapest and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of local  politics and the politicians who more often than not influence the outcome of these elections. Moreover, they rarely bother to delve into the background of events they try to analyze. I who couldn’t just drive down to Ásotthalom had to gather information from at least two dozen sources before I had a fair idea of what was really going in that village.

Two of these political scientists, Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progresszív Intézet (which is becoming less and less progressive) and Zoltán Ceglédi of Republikon Intézet, blamed the democratic opposition for not coming up with a candidate of their own and thus letting Toroczkai be the sole challenger of Ferenc Petró, the former mayor who was just ousted by four of the six members of the council. Let me add that Ferenc Petró has been the mayor of Ásotthalom for sixteen years. Earlier he ran as an independent although the locals knew that he was a Fidesz man. In 2010 Petró decided that there was no longer any reason to hide behind the “independent” label and ran officially as the candidate of Fidesz.

As for blaming the democratic parties (MSZP, Együtt14 and DK) for Toroczkai’s victory, that is total nonsense. The inhabitants of Ásotthalom are known to be super loyal Fidesz voters. At the 2010 national election Fidesz-KDNP received 1,261 votes while MSZP got a mere 205. And yes, there were 164 Jobbik voters. Not an overwhelming number. Petró, the mayor ever since 1998, always won handily. He never had less than 55% of the votes, and there was at least one year when he received 70% of the votes. I would like to see a candidate of the left challenge this Fidesz mayor, however unpopular he is at the moment.

So, what happened? Ásotthalom’s budget shrank due to the policies of the Orbán government and the mayor of the village had to introduce austerity measures. Half of the staff of town hall was let go. Petró was heard making critical remarks about the government’s policies concerning municipalities and had conflicts with the district’s Fidesz member of parliament. According to some sources, Fidesz no longer supported Petró and perhaps even encouraged the four disaffected members of the council to dissolve it and force a by-election. Rumor has it that they had their eye on one of the Fidesz members of the council who in the last minute decided to drop out of the race. That left the door open to our neo-Nazi Toroczkai who moved into the village just this summer. He won with 71.5% of the votes. Mind you, only 37.4% of the voters bothered to go to the polls.

I wrote several times about this young man. He was involved in so many far-right, neo-Nazi organizations that I’m sure one could spend days listing them all. Looking through the laundry list, I’m convinced that in a western country this man would already be sitting in jail instead of running for office.

toroczkai, MTV

László Toroczkai’s great moment in front of the building of the Hungarian Television on September 19, 2006

Toroczkai was born with the pedestrian name of László Tóth, but surely such a great Hungarian patriot cannot be called Mr. Slovak. (Tót means Slovak in Hungarian.) He picked the name Toroczkai, allegedly because his ancestors came from the town of Torockó/Râmetea, naturally in Romania. After all, someone who established the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties, must find his origins somewhere outside of the Trianon borders.

As a high school student Toroczkai had a lucrative business smuggling alcohol and cigarettes from Subotica in Serbia to Szeged where he lived. He began his political career in 1998 at the age of twenty as a candidate of MIÉP. In the same year he became parliamentary reporter for István Csurka’s anti-Semitic Magyar Fórum. On the side, he organized a paramilitary organization called Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and a couple of years later in 2001 he set up HVIM, which became one of the most important organizations on the far right. He became known nationally when he led the mob from Kossuth Square to the building of MTV in September 2006. The crowd he led stormed, burned, and eventually occupied the building. During the siege 190 policemen were wounded, some of them seriously. The damage to the building was considerable, costing millions to repair. There were two attempts to charge him for his role in the attack, but both times he was acquitted. Nothing happened to him even when he threatened to murder Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

After Fidesz won the election Toroczkai kept a low profile. And once in Ásotthalom he took on a whole new persona. He frequents the local Catholic Church. The parish priest, who didn’t like the former mayor because he didn’t let the public workers cut the grass of his parish, supported him. Toroczkai is married by now to a Romanian woman from Moldavia and the two have a child. The inhabitants of the village consider him a devoted and caring father. He also seems to have business interests in and around the village where a number of his voters managed to get jobs. In brief, he is popular, especially since he assured the people of Ásotthalom that there will be no austerity program and he himself will work for minimum wage. Moreover, according to a reporter of Népszabadság from Szeged who visited the village, it is almost certain that the majority of the voters have no idea of Toroczkai’s neo-Nazi career and his anti-Gypsy, anti-Jewish, anti-gay and anti-lesbian past and most likely present. The few videos I saw of him showed a young, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who takes his job seriously.

What will happen now? The town hall of Ásotthalom was in a great hurry to make sure that the borough’s website was immediately updated. Toroczkai’s name is already there for everybody to see. Toroczkai has no administrative experience, and the same is true about the new members of the council. Also, one doesn’t know what Toroczkai’s real plans are over and above those soothing words about the great future Ásotthalom will have under his leadership. At one point he wanted to create “a parallel state” in Hungary. I wonder whether it is his secret plan to set up one in Ásotthalom.