Tag Archives: Kádár regime

Former PM Péter Medgyessy on the current political situation

Two days ago, when I was covering the negotiations between MSZP and DK, I was initially planning to include a few words about an interview with Péter Medgyessy, who was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. Because I launched Hungarian Spectrum only in July of 2008, readers will find relatively little information on him on this blog. But his name came up about a year ago when we learned that the former prime minister, who owns a consulting firm, had received €600,000 from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year in which the City of Budapest made its decision to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the decision in favor of Alstom, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. This may be so, but receiving a high fee from a firm that was already in some trouble over corrupt business practices doesn’t look good.

Medgyessy comes from an old Transylvanian family and can trace his ancestry all the way back to the seventeenth century. After graduating from Karl Marx Economic University, he became a civil servant, working his way up the ladder until by 1982 he was deputy finance minister. After the regime change, he retired from politics and became CEO of a couple of banks. In 1996 he was named finance minister in the Horn government. In 2002 he was chosen as MSZP’s candidate for the premiership and, after a slim victory over Fidesz, became prime minister of the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government.

Less than three weeks after his inauguration, Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper that had close ties with Fidesz in those days, revealed that Medgyessy had worked as a paid counterintelligence officer under the code name D-209 in the III/II section of the ministry of the interior. SZDSZ demanded that Medgyessy be replaced with someone with a clean record, but MSZP politicians convinced them to support Medgyessy. Two years later, however, Medgyessy lost the support of the coalition partners.When he threatened to resign unless the SZDSZ minister of the economy was dismissed, MSZP refused to stand by him. His resignation was accepted, and MSZP named the young Ferenc Gyurcsány as his replacement.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction, let me turn to the interview itself. Szabolcs Dull of Index visited Medgyessy in his home, where he asked the former prime minister to assess the current political situation. The conversation began with the chances of the opposition parties at the forthcoming election. Medgyessy predicted a Fidesz victory due to the poor performance of the opposition politicians and Viktor Orbán’s superior political instincts. What Medgyessy was referring to here were Orbán’s policies in the face of the migrant crisis. He doesn’t like Orbán’s answers, but he would have done the same thing if he had been in Orbán’s shoes. He also praised Orbán’s public works program. He admitted that the program doesn’t make much sense economically, but it is a good thing to put these people to work, for which they “receive a little bit of money.”

Source: Index / Photo: István Huszti

As for Orbán’s political chances, Medgyessy is convinced that “it will not be the opposition but time that will displace Orbán.” The problem with the opposition politicians, including Gyurcsány, is that “they are made of old stuff,” which is somewhat amusing to hear from a former Kádár counterintelligence officer who served as deputy finance minister in the old regime. They are not only old-fashioned socialist types from Kádár’s times, but “they are also mediocre.” No socialist can successfully take on Viktor Orbán, “who is anything but mediocre.” There is only one person who is up to the task, and that is Bernadett Szél. Medgyessy admits that Szél’s prospects for 2018 are slim, but he believes that she will be ready to lead the country in 2022. Medgyessy’s description of Szél as a person who “can integrate people” is strange considering her categorical and total rejection of cooperation with any other opposition politicians.

At the end of the interview Medgyessy repeated what he had asserted in an interview almost a year ago–that Viktor Orbán can be removed only if MSZP, DK, and Jobbik cooperate. Such a solution might not be a principled political decision, but “what is principled in politics?” The question is not whether the political left likes Jobbik. “There are historical situations which override every other consideration.” As for the problem of a workable coalition government that would comprise left-wing parties and a right-wing Jobbik, Medgyessy’s answer was: “This is the art of politics.” After all, this problem was solved in Austria during Wolfgang Schüssel’s chancellorship between 2000 and 2007 when he formed a coalition government with Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria.

The interview was not well received in opposition circles. The only person who had a high opinion of the interview was László Kéri, who found Medgyessy’s assessment of the present Hungarian situation correct and convincing. His colleague Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider perhaps the best political analyst in Hungary today, had a strikingly different opinion of Medgyessy and his interview. He said that it is hard to forget Medgyessy’s D-209 past and his rather miserable performance as prime minister. Moreover, someone who doesn’t remember the past accurately might not be the best person to predict the future. Here Lakner is referring to Medgyessy’s repeated claim after his resignation that it was a veritable coup d’état organized by Gyurcsány and other MSZP leaders that removed him from office. And with a D-209 past, “he shouldn’t stand on a moral pedestal because it may wobble under him.”

Lakner’s colleague Kornélia Magyar, in a comment to the above, wondered why Index found an interview with Medgyessy such a good idea just now. What is the editorial direction of Index? Clearly, she is suggesting an ulterior motive behind the publication of this interview. I assume Magyar was making a mental note of the fact that Index is owned by Lajos Simicska, who has been supporting Jobbik.

Jenő Kaltenbach, former ombudsman in charge of national and ethnic minority rights, was blunt in expressing his befuddlement at “keeping alive these political weathervane-corpses (Szili, Medgyessy). Unless because of Fidesz.”

This last point refers to the fact that in November 2015 Péter Szijjártó bestowed a prize on Medgyessy for his work on developing closer relations between China and Hungary. The ceremony took place shortly after Medgyessy in an interview claimed that corruption was not greater during the Orbán government than it had been earlier. As for Katalin Szili, formerly one of the top MSZP politicians who was president of the parliament (2002-2009), she accepted all sorts of jobs from Viktor Orbán after 2010. For example, she became a member of the Nemzeti Konzultációs Testület in 2011 and in that capacity had a hand in writing the new constitution. Since March 2015 she has been working for the Orbán government as a commissioner representing the prime minister himself, dealing with matters related to Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

What upset MSZP politicians most was Medgyessy’s suggestion of a political collaboration with Jobbik. The party published a statement in which they expressed their opinion that “Jobbik is the party of a billionaire thief while Fidesz is the party of thieving billionaires –one mustn’t vote for either! With these? Never!” Ildikó Lendvai, former party chairman and leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation between 2002 and 2009, stressed in a television interview yesterday that, although she thinks highly of Medgyessy and considers him a pleasant and clever man, she found this interview unfortunate. To work together with Jobbik would be a suicidal strategy. She also took issue with Medgyessy’s support of Bernadett Szél. Although Szél is a very promising and talented politician, one cannot have as the common prime minister of the democratic opposition somebody who refuses to work with others.

All of this shows the predicament in which Hungarian opposition politicians find themselves. Viktor Orbán managed to set up a structure that created a trap from which it is almost impossible to break out.

November 9, 2017

Will communist-era internal security files finally be open in Hungary?

At last the archives of the huge internal security network, currently stored in the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal or AH (Constitutional Defense Office), an idiotic name for one of the many offices dealing with national security, will be transferred to the Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltár/ASzTL (Historical Archives of the National Security Services). On March 6 a lengthy report on the “study of the pre-1990 data preserved on magnetic tapes” was released by a working group of the National Remembrance Committee and the Historical Archives of the National Security Services. Three days later the Hungarian government approved the transfer of the material.

Over the years socialist-liberal governments, at least halfheartedly, supported opening the archives, but right-wing governments categorically rejected the idea. For example, one of the most vociferous opponents of opening the archives of the feared III/III department of Kádár’s ministry of interior was Péter Boross, the arch-conservative interior minister and later prime minister in the early 1990s. As for Fidesz, the Orbán government’s reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that in the last seven years LMP turned in 14 proposals to make all documents pertaining to the workings of the internal security apparatus of the Rákosi and Kádár periods accessible. These proposals never got out of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

The present report focuses on one aspect of the vast archival collection of the secret services: “the study of the magnetic tapes.” The existence of these tapes first came to light in 1995, although the initial reaction was one of denial. At that point I belonged to an internet political discussion group in which one of our members, who had been employed by the ministry of interior, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of such tapes. Once their existence could no longer be denied, those who didn’t want the content of these tapes to be revealed announced that they could no longer be read because the recording was done on by now obsolete equipment. Of course, this was just a diversionary tactic. Years later, in 2007, it was Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsán who at last set up the so-called Kenedi Commission, a group of researchers familiar with the history of the internal security apparatus. It was that commission which asked a group of IT experts to find a way to make the tapes readable. One of these tech gurus gave a fascinating description of how they managed to accomplish the task. By the way, I should mention that the material on these tapes was made secret until 2060. I don’t know which so-called democratic government decided that the “secrets” of the Kádár regime must be preserved until 2060 (when, presumably, everybody who’s implicated will be dead), but I will note that the Kenedi Commission was promptly dismantled by the Orbán government.

As opposed to other post-communist countries, Hungary allows only extremely limited access to communist-era documents. The East German archives were opened immediately after the regime change. Somewhat later both the Czechs and the Slovaks put all their material online, and anyone can comb through it to his heart’s content. Knowing the “enthusiasm” of the Fidesz government for transparency, I doubt that such a situation will exist in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister.

The present system is quite restrictive. Individuals can ask for their own file if such a file exists. If in that folder he finds a cover name, he can ask for the informer’s real name. But an ordinary mortal can conduct “research” only if he can prove that the person he is researching is a public figure. And only approved historians who can demonstrate a real need to do research in this field are allowed to use the stored archival material. Details of the procedure and the appropriate sections of the 2003 law are given on ASzTL’s website.

Even if one gets permission to do research on public figures to find out whether they were informers, the 2003 law governing accessibility to this material was written in such a way that even if it is perfectly obvious that X or Y was an informer, it is almost impossible to prove it. The law demands supportive material that more often than not is simply not available. For example, the law requires a signed agreement between the security services and the informer or a handwritten report from the agent. It has often happened in the past that the “maligned victim” dragged the historian to court and won because these demands were not met. Historian Krisztián Ungváry claims that as long as the 2003 law is in force nothing will change. For the time being all public figures can rest easy: their “sterling reputations” are being protected by the Hungarian government.

The procedure a historian must go through at ASzTL reminds me of my own experience in the Hungarian National Archives in the 1960s. One had to define one’s research topic quite narrowly–in my case, the foreign policy of the Friedrich government in 1919. I wanted to look at the transcripts of the cabinet meetings. Instead of giving me the full transcripts, the staff extracted only those parts that dealt with foreign policy. One was at their mercy. I assume the situation is similar at ASzTL. Let’s assume that in order to get a full picture of a specific case one needs to look at files on others. Surely, according to the present rules, this is not allowed.

Some people claim that nobody is interested in the issue. Who cares? people say. It was a long time ago. Why disturb the past? It is over with. At one point Bence Rétvári (KDNP), at the time the political undersecretary of the justice department, came up with the brilliant idea that the whole archives should be dismantled and that anyone who has a file should just pick it up and take it home. This kind of talk totally disregards the fact that the history of those 40 years requires an understanding of the enormous network which over the years might have had about 200,000 members. Ever since 1990 the issue has been discussed back and forth, committees have been formed, but governments made sure that the public would know as little as possible about the potentially checkered past of present-day politicians.

In 2002, after the public learned that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a paid officer of the counter-intelligence unit of the ministry of interior, a committee was set up that became known as the Mécs Committee after Imre Mécs (SZDSZ), its chairman. The commission, because of Fidesz’s obstruction, got nowhere. But apparently those members of the commission who had access to the files found at least ten politicians from the post-1990 period who had worked for the internal security forces.

In fact, as far back as 1990 Miklós Németh, the last prime minister of the old regime, was said to have handed over a long list of former informers who had important positions in the newly formed parties and later became members of parliament or members of the Antall government. This list of informers was leaked by someone called “Szakértő 90” in 2005 and is still available on the internet. In the interim historians have published several articles about the shady past of public figures–for example, János Martonyi, foreign minister in the first and second Orbán governments. He was one of the people who successfully sued Krisztián Ungváry.

It would be high time to set the record straight, but I have my doubts.

March 12, 2017

Viktor Orbán discovered the culprits of bolshevism in western europe

At last we have a Viktor Orbán speech that contains something new, not merely his usual mantra of the declining West which, let’s face it, is becoming pretty tedious. Although the speech was still about the West, Viktor Orbán–this time as a self-styled expert on political philosophy from a historical perspective–decided to enlighten his audience about one of the West’s gravest sins. With admirable virtuosity he managed to make the West responsible for the Soviet system as it developed after 1917 in Russia. For good measure, he added that Western Europeans should be ashamed for not placing equal blame on communism and national socialism.

The speech was delivered on February 25, which Orbán’s government declared in 2000 to be the “Day of Victims of Communism” as “befitted a Christian-national government.”

So, let’s see how he moved from the Soviet Union and its satellites to the guilty West. “It is no longer customary to say that those ideas that led to tyranny were born in Western minds. Communism, just like national socialism, came into being as a Western intellectual product. It didn’t see the light of day in Moscow, Cambodia, or Havana. It came from the west of us, in Europe, from where it proliferated over half the world.” The West was also responsible for this “through and through Western idea becoming the bitter lot of Central Europe.”

The numbers on the lectern designate the three parcels in which the remains of the heroes of 1956 are buried / MTI/ Photo: Zoltán Máthé

The transgressions of the West don’t end here. “Even today there are many people in the West who try to excuse the sins of communism, and the European Union itself is reluctant to condemn it.” After the war, sentences were meted out to war criminals in a military court, but after the fall of communism “the representatives of the free world didn’t impose such a severe verdict” on the perpetrators of crimes in the former communist countries. So, it’s no wonder that “Western Europe has a bad conscience.”

Orbán’s critics are up in arms. What an incredible leap from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Lenin and Stalin. Accusing Western European politicians and intellectuals of being responsible for Stalinism or Maoism just because in the second half of the nineteenth century a German social scientist and philosopher developed a social model which years after his death was transformed in Russia into something that had nothing to do with Marx’s theories is preposterous. Marx’s original hypothesis that the lot of the proletariat would worsen turned out to be wrong and therefore, as the years went by, Marx’s ideas were transformed. Modern social democracy developed. Soviet Bolshevism had more in common with Russia’s Tsarist past than with Karl Marx. Viktor Orbán should know that only too well. His generation had to study Marxism-Leninism and, as far as we know, he was an enthusiastic member of KISZ, the Communist Youth Organization, while his father was party secretary at his workplace.

Other speakers representing the Christian-nationalist government elaborated on Orbán’s theme, further distorting the past, burying it under their ideological garbage. Zoltán Balog went so far as to claim that “European unity and real dialogue [between East and West] will be possible only if Western Europe is willing and able to look upon the sins of both communism and Nazism as the shame of Europe.” This contention–that underlying the profound differences of opinion between some of the Central and East European countries and the western members of the European Union is the refusal of Western Europe to own up to the sins of communism–is staggering.

Other Fidesz politicians turned instant historians came up with bizarre versions of Hungarian history in their desire to make anti-communism a trademark of Hungarian existence during the Kádár regime. János Potápi, undersecretary in charge the government’s “national policy,” said that with the arrival of communism Hungary “had to say goodbye to a world based on law and order.” As if the Horthy era had been a model political system that was worth preserving. We also learn from him that “the political system founded on tyranny failed because there were secret little islands, fortresses of souls and ideas that paralyzed” the dictatorship. This is the fruit of Mr. Potápi’s imagination. With the exception of a handful of “dissidents” in the 1980s who were the future founders of SZDSZ there were no fortresses or islands of resistance in Hungary to speak of. And those few who resisted the regime and were ready to face the serious consequences of their actions are today considered to be “enemies of the people” by Viktor Orbán.

László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, is inclined to see communist ghosts everywhere, although he himself came from a family that was closely associated with leftist politics. His grandfather, as a young man, served in Béla Kun’s Red Army, and his father was known to be a faithful member of the party. Yet he considers the communist system to be the greatest curse of history, which ruined the lives of generations. It seems that Kövér discovered God and now as a religious man is worried about the “godlessness and inhumanity that are manifest in communism, which may under a different name and in a different shape return at any time.” Such a tragedy must be thwarted by reminding people of the evils of communism.

Gábor Tamás Nagy, the mayor of Budapest’s District I, claimed that in essence there was no difference between the Rákosi and the Kádár regimes, adding the total nonsense that “the communists didn’t learn anything from 1956 and didn’t forget anything. That was the reason for their downfall.” At first I thought that perhaps the mayor is a relatively young man who knows nothing about the Kádár regime. But no, he was born in 1960 and thus spent 30 years in Kádár’s Hungary, which he equates with the terrors of Mátyás Rákosi. They didn’t learn anything from 1956? Just the opposite. The memory of the revolution was foremost on their minds, and they adjusted their policies accordingly. It was precisely the lessons of 1956 that eventually led to Kádár’s goulash communism.

All this falsification of history only postpones a real reckoning with the past, be it 1944, 1956, or 1989-90.

February 27, 2017

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

♦ ♦ ♦

baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016

Zsolt Bayer: It’s all the Jews’ fault

I have been waiting ever since February 27 for Zsolt Bayer to finish his magnum opus titled “Intolerable,” a series of articles railing against the “fact” that Jews tell the Hungarian people how to interpret their own history. I hoped that after two or three articles Bayer would wrap up his harangue against the evil influence of Jews in Hungarian history, but there is still no end in sight. Today he delivered his fourteenth installment and the third that deals with literary figures’ attraction to Nazi Germany: Ezra Pound, Louis-Férdinand Céline, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Knut Hamsun. All this to prove that anti-Semitism or an affinity with the Nazi ideology shouldn’t be a disqualification for the recognition of greatness. Earlier he quoted anti-Semitic writings from Hungarian classics in defense of the government’s decision to erect memorials to Hungarian interwar politicians like Bálint Hóman and György Donáth. The analogy of course is false because, in the case of Hóman and Donáth, we are talking about active politicians. And surely one cannot compare the groundbreaking modernist poetry of Ezra Pound to Bálint Hóman’s work on numismatics.

Bayer, however, insists that anti-Semitism after 1919 was a “natural” state of mind because of the Jewish preponderance in the leadership of the Soviet Republic. And with this assertion he absolves all anti-Semitism between the two world wars, which admittedly was widespread among writers, especially the Hungarian version of “narodniks” (népiesek). András Nyerges documented this anti-Semitism in Színrebontás (Color separation). Nyerges painstakingly combed through newspapers and periodicals of the interwar period looking for famous writers, especially those who became favorites of the party during the Kádár regime, and found plenty of evidence for both anti-Semitism and in some cases strong sympathy for the Nazi regime. Bayer wants to know why it is that “we forgive the anti-Semitism evoked by the Red Terror and the ‘revolt of the Jews’ of the best, the smartest, the most educated but we can’t forgive the same of the [ordinary Hungarian] people.”

Bayer defends the anti-Semitism of Hungarian villagers. “It is therefore time to ask the question: why are we surprised that the simple peasant whose determinant experience was that the Jews broke into his village, beat his priest to death, threatened to convert his church into a movie theater, why do we find it shocking that twenty years later he watched without pity as the gendarmes dragged the Jews away from his village?” Let’s look at the historical facts. First of all, the “Lenin boys” who showed up in the villages came from various religious backgrounds. For example, their leader, József Czerny, was a Protestant. In fact, of the 14 Lenin boys who were condemned to death on December 18, 1919, only three were listed as “izrealita.” Second, Chief Prosecutor Albert Váry claimed that there were 590 victims of the Red Terror, but later research proved that this number was far too high. Some of the listed victims actually died in battles between “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries.”

A group of Lenin boys

A group of Lenin boys

A victim of the White Terror

A victim of the White Terror

On the other hand, Miklós Horthy’s detachments killed about 1,200 people. How many of the victims were Jewish it is hard to tell, but from Pál Prónay’s diary we know that he and his detachment were actively looking for people who in their opinion were Jewish. But a lot of poor peasants who found the communist regime, especially at the beginning, attractive were also among the victims. Gergely Bödők’s article “Vörös és Fehér,” available online, reflects the most recent research on the Red and White Terrors in Hungary.

Claiming a causal link between the activities of the “Jewish” Lenin boys and the callous attitude of the Hungarian peasantry when their neighbors were dragged away is preposterous. Yet Bayer places this link at the center of his view on anti-Semitism in Hungary. The connection between the Red Terror and the peasants’ emotionless reaction “is important when we ponder the question of anti-Semitism, which poses further questions. For example, who can have a statue in this country and who can make such a decision.”

Bayer finds “the canonization and glorification of the Hungarian Soviet Republic” one of the greatest sins of the Kádár regime. I who did a lot of research on that period can attest to the fact that the “proper” interpretation of the Soviet Republic had to be strictly observed in those days. By the end of the Kádár period there were few historical taboos, but Béla Kun’s regime was one. Simple facts such as the weakness of the communist party in Hungary at the time couldn’t be included in an article, as I found out from personal experience. Setting things straight after the change of regime would have been easy enough and actually such corrections have taken place through several articles, including one on the Red and White Terrors mentioned earlier. But let’s hear what Bayer has to say on the topic. “We had the misconception following the regime change that everything would be tipped in the right direction. But that’s not happened. The whole thing is simply incomprehensible.”

What is Bayer talking about? There are no taboos today. Free-wheeling historical debates go on unabated. What is it that Bayer finds lacking in interpretations of the Hungarian Soviet Republic? He wants to emphasize the Jewishness of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and to exonerate the White Terror and the anti-Semitism of the interwar period as an understandable reaction. At the same time he would like to see historians rewrite the history of the Horthy regime, which in his opinion was unfairly dealt with by historians of the 1970s and 1980s. But the “liberal” historians today, and they are in the majority, resist the pressure of the Christian-national Orbán government. This is what bothers Zsolt Bayer.

Bayer would like to remove from the Hungarian historical canon not only those who were involved in the Soviet Republic and later in the illegal communist movement but even such greats of Hungarian progressivism as Károly Polányi, Ervin Szabó, Oszkár Jászi, Ilona Duczyńska, and others who were members of the Galilei Circle. I’m pretty sure that he is not alone in Fidesz in holding this view. Since Viktor Orbán formed his government there were several attempts to obliterate these names from the national consciousness. I was actually most surprised to find a couple of streets in Szombathely and Miskolc that bear the name of Oszkár Jászi. If it depended on Bayer, his name would be removed without a second thought. The very fact that streets are named after these people or that Budapest’s public library system is named after Ervin Szabó, who was its first chief librarian, is unbearable to Bayer. These are “tormenting questions.” But what is truly excruciating is how it can happen that “the sins of a real murderer, as long as he is a left-winger and a communist, are forgiven.” The “murderer” to whom he is referring is George Lukács, the philosopher and literary critic who happened to be born in the same year as Bálint Hóman.

March 14, 2016

A new year: roll back the clock

László Kövér, president of the Hungarian Parliament, has a unique ability. Even if he utters only a couple of sentences he manages to squeeze several outrageous comments into them. Can you imagine when he has a whole hour to share his complaints about the modern world, which is rotten to the core and will be even more awful with each passing day? Unfortunately, on January 1, he did just that on Echo TV, a far right channel. Kövér’s interlocutor was the like-thinking Zsolt Bayer, who sighed at frequent intervals whenever he thought that the weight of the issues was close to unbearable.

During this hour an awful lot of nonsense was uttered by these two men, but the overwhelming impression they left us with is that they are very unhappy because Hungary is no longer what it was when they were growing up. Kövér was born in 1959 and was 31 years old at the time of the regime change. Bayer was born in 1963 and so was 27 years old in 1990. Their formative years were spent in the consolidated Kádár regime. It was, they recall, a time of simple pleasures, close family ties, often two generations sharing the same apartment or house because of the lack of available housing. Interestingly, the ideal woman in this conversation was not the mother who most likely worked in some office or factory by then but the grandmother who looked after her grandchildren. This grandmother worked all day long without complaint. She wasn’t frustrated; she wasn’t bitter; she wasn’t depressed. She gladly sacrificed her life for her brood. Or at least this is how Zsolt Bayer envisaged the life of his grandmother. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this idyllic time could come back.

As for the future, it is bleak indeed. “Homo sapiens,” especially in the most developed parts of the world, seems to have lost its instinct for survival while in poorer regions, like Africa, more and more babies are being born. It looks as if “only the European white race is capable of committing suicide,” Kövér claimed. This downward spiral started with the introduction of old age benefits, which made children superfluous as providers in later life. This bemoaning of such intrinsic parts of the welfare state as old age benefits and perhaps even health insurance leads me to believe that these people feel utterly out of place in the 21st century. It is not a coincidence that the conversation about the past centered on Bayer’s grandmother who, judging from the time of her death, was born sometime around 1910. If it depended on these men, they would lead us back to the time of the Horthy regime, specifically into lower-middle class families in which the wife remained at home, looking after the children. These people would, if they could, simply get in a time machine and fly back a good hundred years, just as Bayer indicated, in one of his recent articles, he would gladly do.

In addition to this longing for an imagined past, they have a strong belief in Hungarian exceptionalism, which stems from the socialist era in which these two men grew up. Those fifty years, which Kövér simply calls Bolshevism, are the source of all of Hungary’s problems, which the last twenty some years of democracy couldn’t remedy. So, one would expect that he and Bayer would reject the whole period. But this is not the case. In their opinion, those years kept Hungarians as well as other countries of the Soviet bloc real Europeans. Old-fashioned Europeans who adhere to Christian, national values as opposed to the westerners who went astray: they became liberal, they are politically correct, they don’t believe in family values, they allow same-sex marriages, they don’t want to save Christianity from the Muslim migrants, and above all they are helping the United States and the multinational corporations destroy the nation states. Bayer goes so far as to claim that by now Hungary is the only truly European country. Kövér is a bit more generous: the Visegrád4 countries could be included in this small community of real Europeans.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs in Europe? The answer, in Kövér’s opinion, is simple: the multinational companies, whose interests dictate the destruction of families and nations. I would perhaps understand why multinational corporations would like to see fewer regulations that vary from state to state, but for the life of me I can’t fathom why they would want families to disappear. In any case, these multinationals want to weaken national governments because “they want to govern.” In this dirty work they receive help from “useful idiots and paid agents among the European political elite.” If you add to these two categories the “cowards,” they already hold a two-thirds majority in Brussels. These people are “the mercenaries of the United States; they are swindlers or at best unfit idiots who try to turn us out of office in the most dastardly, the most cunning, and the most boorish way.” Hungary is a besieged fortress attacked by the mercenaries of the United States. Or, less elegantly put by the boorish president of the Hungarian parliament, it is a country whose prime minister, like a pig on ice, must somehow stay on his feet while others try to trip him up.

If the Orbán regime shapes its domestic and foreign policies based on the muddled views expressed in this interview, they will be guaranteed failures. Time machines are figments of the imagination, and any attempt to turn back the wheel of time is a hopeless undertaking. The same failure is guaranteed if the Orbán regime bases its relations with the European Union on the mistaken notion that Western European political mercenaries in the service of the United States are intent on overthrowing the government in Budapest.

As for this relentless war against the multinationals, it will only result in decreasing foreign investment in the country. I know that this is no threat to Kövér, who has infinite trust in the ability of Hungarian entrepreneurs to replace the foreign companies currently in the country. But whether Kövér and Orbán like it or not, in today’s global economy they cannot be dispensed with, at least as long as Hungary is part of the European Union. To suggest otherwise is just idle talk.

Mária Vásárhelyi: “Self-appraisal”–The failure of the regime change

Now that for almost two weeks political life in Hungary has pretty well come to a standstill, I have time to read some analyses of topics of current interest. That’s why I decided to summarize the article of János Széky on the parallels and dissimilarities between the Polish and the Hungarian regimes the other day. Another article that appeared in the December 18 issue of Élet és Irodalom that piqued my interest was Mária Vásárhelyi’s probing look at Hungarian society’s seeming indifference to the destruction of democratic institutions by Viktor Orbán’s government. The article bears the title “Szembenézés–önmagunkkal,” which perhaps can best be rendered as “Self-Appraisal.” She is seeking answers for the failure of the 1989 regime change and assesses the role of intellectuals in the years that led to 2010 and after.

Hungarian society displays deep and widespread despondency in the face of changes introduced by Viktor Orbán’s government. Many people know that these changes, both in the short and in the long run, are injurious to the country. Yet they seem unable to take a stand against them, most likely because they no longer have any hope for a better life. Some people talk about the Hungarian psyche, which is inclined toward melancholy and pessimism; others bring up national tradition as an obstacle to an energetic response in the face of adversity. What Hungarian intellectuals don’t want to realize is that the democratic accomplishments they view as great achievements of the regime change are not considered as such by the public. “However painful it is, we must face the fact that for the majority the regime change is not a success story but a failure.” Achievements are dwarfed by losses. The values inherent in democracy and personal freedom cannot be measured against the shock of lost security and existential perspectives.

Vásárhelyi, a sociologist who already during the Kádár period was part of a team that conducted opinion polls, recalls that in the 1980s the great majority of the people considered a secure job, material advance, and free and widely available healthcare more important than such moral values as freedom, democracy, equal opportunity, and justice. The Kádár regime, with the help of foreign loans, ensured these material benefits. Exchanging these material pluses for abstract moral values was not what these people expected. But this is what more or less happened between 1989 and 2015. Between 1990 and 1994 one million people lost their jobs, Hungary’s industrial production decreased by 40% and its agricultural production by 30%. Hungarians never fully recovered from the shock of those years. Moreover, since 2010 the situation has grown worse.

During the four years of the second Orbán government the gap between rich and poor grew enormously. Consumer spending today barely reaches the 1988 level. In 1987 51% of the people reported that they had no serious financial problems, another 44% were able to make ends meet, and only 5% didn’t have enough money to make it through the month. Today one-third of households struggle to put food on the table and the remaining two-thirds barely manage. In the Kádár regime two-thirds of families could afford a summer vacation, today only one-third can. The middle class, instead of expanding, is shrinking.

I'm remaining a democrat and I am staying in Hungary

Mária Vásárhelyi: I’m remaining a democrat and I’m staying in Hungary

Not surprisingly, 80% of people with leftist leanings and 42% of Fidesz voters think that Hungary’s situation was better under socialism than it is now. Among the East European countries, Hungarians feel the most dejected and disappointed, which can partly be explained by the relative well-being of the population during the second half of the Kádár era. Another reason for the greater disappointment in Hungary might stem from Hungarian wariness of capitalism and private ownership of large businesses and factories. Already in 1990 half of the population opposed privatization, but today almost two-thirds are against private property on a large scale. Not only do Orbán’s nationalization efforts meet no resistance, they are most likely welcomed.

The situation is no better when people are asked their opinion of political institutions. At the beginning of the 1990s trust in the new institutions was quite high: on a scale of 0 to 100 the average was around 65 and none was under 50. Today not a single democratic institution reaches 50. Two-thirds of the people have no trust whatsoever in parliament and in politicians. Only 25% have any trust in politicians, parliament, government, or the opposition. Only 20% of them think that politicians want the best for the country and for the people. They don’t trust the media and the financial institutions. They have even lost faith in the judiciary, the police, the churches, and the scientific institutions. More than half of the population believe that the leaders of the country don’t care about their fate. Two-thirds are convinced that one cannot succeed by being honest. Almost 75% think that the laws serve only the interests of those in power and that they have nothing to do with justice.

“Thus it is not at all surprising that not only the democratic institutions but democracy itself has lost its importance.” According to a 2009 poll, three people out of four agree with the statement that the change of regime caused more harm than good to the country. Only every fifth person is convinced that regime change will bear fruit in the long run.

It was on this general disappointment with capitalism and democracy that Viktor Orbán built his electoral strategy in 2010 and managed to acquire a two-thirds majority in parliament. In Vásárhelyi’s opinion

It was not the right-wing values, the restoration of the Horthy regime, not even the anti-communist slogans that attracted the majority of the voters to Orbán but the violent anti-regime rhetoric studded with overwrought nationalism. He convinced his voters that he would redress the injustices and the wrongs of the regime change. … It was the promise of a new change of regime, the restoration of the state’s dominance in the economy, the compensation for losses suffered, calling to account those who illegally benefited from the privatization of public property that the people voted for when they cast their votes for Fidesz.

And because for the majority of people the democratic institutions held no great attraction the systematic  destruction of these institutions didn’t meet with any resistance. The rule of law, freedom, equal opportunity were popular points of reference in the first few years [after 1990], but when the promises of the regime change didn’t materialize they lost their appeal. What followed was mass impoverishment, closing of channels of social mobility, dramatic differences between rich and poor, segregation, the narrowing of opportunities in the small villages, and the hopelessness of breaking out from disadvantageous positions, all of which started well before 2010.

Therefore, I consider those ideas that look for a solution to the crisis of Hungarian democracy in the revival of the traditions of the regime change and the reconstruction of the democratic institutions mistaken. Those political and cultural values that the non-right-wing elite considers important clearly don’t speak to the majority of Hungarians…. They don’t even attract those who are victims of all that has happened since 2010 and who are greatly disappointed in the Orbán regime. These people are actually in the majority. According to the 2014 European Values Survey, almost half of the population believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only 25% of the electorate are satisfied. Twice as many people look toward the future with trepidation than with hope. The former group are those who will have to get rid of Orbán’s autocratic regime, but it is obvious that they can only be inspired by a more attractive alternative than the elite democracy that developed after 1989.

Is there an alternative to the fundamentals of the democratic changes or the introduction of a market economy, which were the promise of 1989-1990? I don’t believe there is. What has to be changed are not the fundamentals but their implementation, so that a growing prosperity will be shared by all the people of Hungary, not just the upper crust with political connections, which is the strategy of the Orbán government. Any other economic policy is doomed to failure.