Tag Archives: Lajos Bokros

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

George Soros and George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein

Ever since April 1, when thousands of hard-hitting Jobbik billboards appeared all over the country, a poster war of sorts has been going on in Hungary. The Jobbik campaign by all accounts irritated Viktor Orbán to no end, so he made sure that in the future he will not have to face billboards depicting him as a common thief. After some difficulty, Fidesz smuggled in an amendment to an otherwise innocent enough bill about “community image” that forbids political advertising at any time other than a few weeks before national and municipal elections. Of course, the government will be able to post “informational material” anytime it deems necessary. Which is practically all the time. One poster campaign ends, the next begins. This has been going on for over a year.

I must say that the thousands of posters and billboards, which are everywhere one looks, don’t do much for the “community image” or “beautification of the cityscape,” but apparently people on the spot have become inured to them. In the last few months there have been billboards on “More respect for Hungarians,” “Let’s Stop Brussels,” and “Hungary is a strong and proud European country.” Now they can enjoy a new 5.4 billion forint campaign with thousands of billboards featuring an enormous picture of George Soros. In small print the text reads: “99% reject illegal immigration” and in large letters: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”

The first thought that popped into people’s heads when confronted with the billboard was the person of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, who was the principal figure in the programs of the Two-Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of these people was Gábor Török, a well-known political scientist, who quoted at some length from Orwell’s famous novel:

The sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were – in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.

Indeed, Soros has become Viktor Orbán’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Naturally, those who read Török on Facebook—and he has close to 50,000 followers—wanted to refresh their memories of Orwell’s book, which had been available in the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár (MEK). But as of today the Hungarian translation of the work has been removed for copyright reasons. I know this sounds suspicious, but from what I read on the subject MEK might have made the book public without properly checking the copyright status of the book.

Almost all commentaries on the billboard itself start with the observation that the message makes no sense. I disagree. For me it is crystal clear what the creator of this particular political message had in mind. It is a different matter that the message is based on false information and premises. The first problem is the unspecified 99% who say no to illegal migration. It gives the misleading impression that 99% of the whole population voted against allowing refugees to settle in Hungary, when the reference is actually to the so-called “national consultation” in which, according to the government’s own admission, only 1.4 million people participated while 7.1 million people stayed away. As for Soros’s last laugh, I think the message is that Soros wants Hungary to be invaded by millions of Middle Easterners and Africans. Once this task is accomplished, he will have a good laugh. But the present-day Goldstein will be stopped by the brave government of the 99%.

This new anti-Soros campaign elicited some vehement reactions. One of the strongest came from Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and currently chairman of a small opposition group called MoMa, who called the campaign “anti-Semitic propaganda based on lies = fascism.” Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet claimed that Orbán’s system is totally void of value, ideology, and ideas. He simply wants to remain in power. All his political moves are subordinated to this end. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious communities, reacted cautiously to the poster and what’s behind it. In his opinion the poster campaign creates troubling thoughts in the Jewish community, but this was not the intention of the creators of the campaign. But, he added, the posters themselves may prompt anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of society, which is something that should be avoided.

Heisler in that interview expressed his doubts that the government can be persuaded by Mazsihisz or any other group to stop this particular campaign because, for one reason or another, this Soros bashing at top volume seems to be a very important goal of the regime. Here a few examples from yesterday and today. Híradó reported that “Lajos Bokros admitted that he gets his money from George Soros’s university.” Sure, he is a professor at Central European University. “His money” is actually his salary. Bokros’s designation of Orbán’s political system as fascism elicited an answer from the Government Information Center: “Lajos Bokros is a member of the Soros network; he is paid by Soros; he lives on Soros’s money.” János Halász, undersecretary in charge of culture in the prime minister’s office, described Bokros as someone “who is simply George Soros’s political mercenary.”

Because of the upcoming Budapest Pride this weekend, a favorite topic on Lőrinc Mészáros’s Echo TV has been homosexuality. Yesterday three right-wing women discussed the dangers homosexuals pose to society. In no time George Soros was accused of pro-homosexual propaganda through NGOs he supports. It is time to recognize that George Soros’s activities are an open attack against families, they warned. Magyar Idők reported this morning that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, also sponsored by George Soros, is giving “sensitivity training” to judges when “dealing with migrants, homosexuals, and other groups living at the periphery of society.” Once the paper found out about these activities, one of its worried journalists contacted the Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH), which reassured him that of 3,000 judges only 106 signed up for the sensitivity training.

Tamás Fricz, a so-called political scientist who has a regular column in Magyar Idők, found an article by Bálint Magyar titled “The EU’s Mafia State” published in Project Syndicate, which is, as he put it, “Soros’s own internet site.” Soros also called Orbán’s political system a mafia state and therefore, says Fricz, it is worth looking at these two people’s relationship. Magyar is described by Fricz as an ultraliberal who is against such traditional values as family, churches, and nations. Thus, “Magyar is one of Soros’s favorites.” After this introduction, Fricz accuses Magyar of being the secret agent of Soros who has been publishing book after book spreading the bad name of Viktor Orbán and his government. “Bálint Magyar is a good boy in the eyes of members of the global elite because he is working for [them] against his own country and therefore he gets lots of candy.” Soros has been in such close contact with Magyar that he “by now goes so far as to call the Orbán government a mafia state.” And now Magyar got the opportunity, I guess granted by Soros, to publish in Project Syndicate. The country must defend itself against the network to which these people belong. The fact is that Project Syndicate does receive some money from the Open Society Foundation, but it is funded by many other foundations as well, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is not Soros’s publication. As far as the description of the Orbán regime as a “mafia state,” by now this phrase is so widespread that any kind of mysterious connection between Soros and Magyar is outright ludicrous.

Origo, which practically overnight became a far-right publication, occasionally outdoes Magyar Idők in hate mongering and spreading false news. This time it attacked László Majtényi, president of Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKINT), for organizing all the Soros-funded NGOs under his own EKINT. Majtényi is also a trusted man of Soros, claims the paper. The truth is that Majtényi met Soros three times at large gatherings where he didn’t even have a chance to talk with him. According to Origo, George Soros is also relying on his son Alexander who was in Budapest lately to use NGOs as their instruments against the Hungarian government. Most of these connections described by the government propaganda machine as sinister are based either on nothing or on distorted facts. When reading these concocted stories, one really does have a feeling of total unreality, very much the same way as when one reads about Goldstein in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There have been a few reports of defacement of some of the Soros posters where someone has scribbled the words “büdös zsidó” over his face. (“Büdös” literally means “stinking” but perhaps “filthy” would be a better match here, so “filthy Jew.”) I find such an outcome almost inevitable. This might be especially uncomfortable since Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Budapest in two weeks’ time. At the Israeli request Péter Szijjártó already had to recant Viktor Orbán’s statement that Miklós Horthy was an exceptional statesman. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government wasn’t pleased given Horthy’s indisputable role in the Hungarian Holocaust. In fact, Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party, wrote an opinion piece in The Times of Israel in which he insisted that “if Viktor Orban doesn’t personally and fully apologize, Prime Minister Netanyahu should cancel his visit to Hungary.” And now we have reports about the defacing of the Soros posters. It’s hard to imagine that the propaganda gurus didn’t anticipate such an outcome.

July 5, 2017

The Hungarian government media’s portraits of Macron

Two days ago, when I wrote a post about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and its reception by the Hungarian government, I had rely on the relatively few analyses that appeared in the government media. They didn’t address most of the reforms Macron proposes but were preoccupied with his ire against the Polish and Hungarian governments and his support for a two-speed Europe, both of which concern Hungary directly. Still, the basic message was (and still is) that with Macron’s victory, everything will remain the same. The decline of Europe will continue. The French voted for the wrong person.

Macron has ambitious plans for revitalizing France, especially in economic terms, and even more ambitious ideas for restructuring the European Union. We don’t know whether any of Macron’s ideas will materialize, but nothing is further from the truth than that Macron is a man who is stuck in the present. Here are a few of Macron’s ideas for the Eurozone, premised on a two-speed Europe, as outlined in the Eurobserver. He would like to see a Eurozone parliament, finance minister, and budget, which we already know Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, opposes. Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t seem supportive of Macron’s plans either. He warned that “not all euro member states agree that someone based in Brussels or somewhere else should call the shots on budgets instead of national parliaments.” Macron also wants to have a set of social rights introduced at the European level, setting up standards for job training, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. At the same time he would like to see closer cooperation on defense, security, and intelligence. In brief, he wants “more Europe” than perhaps even Orbán’s “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

So, when Tamás Ulicza in Magyar Hírlap claims that “Macron’s answers are the same as all the earlier unsuccessful attempts to date except only to a higher degree,” he is misrepresenting Macron’s position. In Ulicza’s view, the European Union is still heading toward the abyss. Macron’s election is only giving the leaders of the EU a false sense of security. Le Pen, Ulicza writes, almost certainly wouldn’t have led France out of the European Union, but “she wouldn’t have swept the existing problems under the carpet.” Macron lacks a political vision for his own country; “he can think only in terms of Europe,” he insists, although even Híradó, the official news that is distributed to all media outlets, fairly accurately reported on his plans for revitalizing the French economy. Macron proposes cuts to state spending, wants to ease the existing labor laws, and wants to introduce social protection for the self-employed.

Magyar Idők offered no substantive analysis of Macron’s economic or political ideas. The editors were satisfied with a partial reprinting of a conversation with György Nógrádi, the “national security expert,” a former informer during the Kádár period about whose outrageous claims I wrote several times. I especially recommend the post titled “The truth caught up with the ‘national security expert,’ György Nógrádi.” But at least Nógrádi did tell the television audience, accurately in this case, that Macron wants to reduce the size of the French government by letting 120,000 civil servants go.

Perhaps the most intriguing article appeared in the solidly pro-government Origo with the title “We are introducing the French Gyurcsány.” According to the unnamed journalist, “the career of the former banker and minister of economy eerily resembles the life and ideology of Ferenc Gyurcsány.” As we know, there is no greater condemnation in Orbán’s Hungary than comparing anyone to the former prime minister. What follows is a description of the two politicians’ careers, starting with both entering the political arena only after successful careers in business in the case of Gyurcsány and banking in the case of Macron. Both, the article continues, are followers of third-road socialism, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder.

One thing is certain: both believe in an eventual United States of Europe. They believe there should be a European government with a prime minister and a strong parliament and a second chamber made up of the heads of the member states. “Neither of them stands by the idea of strong nation states.” The article claims that both men belittle the culture, history, and heritage of their own countries. Macron, for example, stands against the view that French culture is superior to all others. Mon dieu! And what did Gyurcsány say? In 2007, when Merkel visited Hungary, he told her that the Holy Crown’s place in not in the parliament. Macron has a disparaging opinion of boeuf bourguignon, a favorite of the French. Gyurcsány is guilty because “to this day he would take away the voting rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.” And what was obviously his greatest sin: in a speech delivered in 2013 he said that “we [the democratic opposition] are the real patriotic heirs of St. Stephen.”

It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, are totally committed to the European Union. Only a few days ago DK organized a conference in which Frank Engel (EPP), Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), and Josef Weidenholzer (Socialists and Democrats) participated. DK’s slogan as a counterpoint to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign is “Let’s catch up with Brussels!” Gyurcsány would like to see a new European constitution, dual citizenship, joint border defense, and common social security. The final goal is a United States of Europe.

As far as Macron’s ideas on the economy are concerned, he seems to me a combination of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros.

Of course, Viktor Orbán also wants to reform the European Union, but what he would like to achieve cannot be called “reform.” He would like to go backwards, taking away the present prerogatives of the European Commission and Parliament and giving more power to the 27 member states. The EU does need reform, but not the kind that Poland and Hungary are proposing. Macron might not succeed in everything he hopes to do, but he is correct in his belief that the solution lies in more, not less integration.

May 10, 2017

Attack on Central European University is part of an ideological struggle

In the last couple of days I have received several telephone calls from journalists. They wanted me to offer reasons for the attacks against George Soros, Central European University (which he founded), and the handful of non-governmental organizations that receive a few thousand dollars from him. Journalists who are less familiar with the Hungary of Viktor Orbán find the whole thing baffling, if not downright incomprehensible. What nonsense, one of them told me, to endow Soros with the power to move millions of refugees half the length of the continent in order to infiltrate the European Union and thereby change its ethnic composition. This is madness, he said.

As usual, ever since the news broke that the very existence of the Central European University is in jeopardy, all sorts of fanciful explanations for the government’s action have surfaced. One that gained some traction came from Lajos Bokros, chairman of the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom party. According to him, Vladimir Putin expressly demanded the shuttering of Central European University (CEU). Apparently, this theory circulated widely in the Russian media, which is where Bokros picked it up. Putin noticed that in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian administrations there are just too many graduates of CEU, which seems to specialize in educating free thinkers and opposition leaders.

I for one doubt that such a conversation between Putin and Orbán took place, but I think we can safely assume that Viktor Orbán finds Vladimir Putin’s template attractive. The Russian president’s harsh measures against NGOs resonate with the Hungarian prime minister. Let’s face it, the Helsinki Commission, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International are thorns in his side. He has every reason to be angry: they keep winning cases against the Hungarian government and are therefore considered to be enemies of the present political system. How much easier the life of the Orbán government would be if all these organizations simply disappeared.

The only reason the Hungarian prime minister didn’t move against them with full force until now was his fear that the United States would put roadblocks in his way just as it did in December 2015 when several high-level U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest. They told Orbán that there would be serious consequences if he went through with his plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Minister of Education Bálint Hóman. He caved. And most likely viewed the encounter as one of greatest humiliations of his political life.

When it comes to CEU, the reason for the government’s antipathy toward it is not as direct as in the case of the NGOs, but I’m sure it has been an irritant all along. First of all, in only 25 years this university has come to be regarded as one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Europe, whereas none of the other Hungarian universities managed to crack the top 500 on the World University Rankings’ list. This fact alone must rankle the Hungarian government. Moreover, CEU has an endowment of $888 million, making it one of the wealthiest universities in Europe. This means that, unlike the teaching staff at the other Hungarian universities, the 300 faculty members who come from more than 30 countries are very well paid.

CEU’s prestige in the region and even beyond aroused jealousy in certain Hungarian academic circles. They began to look upon the university’s faculty and students as a bunch of privileged snobs. The very fact that the language of instruction is English annoys some people to no end. András Bencsik, editor of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and a strong supporter of Fidesz, expressed his irritation by pointing out that, after all, the official language of the country is Hungarian. (Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, whose languages are spoken by too few people had the good sense to use English as the language of instruction in their universities.) Orbán, who recently announced that he wants to see only Hungarians in Hungary, would naturally recoil from the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-language group of teachers and students using English as the language of instruction. What right-wing critics of the university don’t want to realize is that, in large measure, it is the language of instruction that made CEU’s entry into the top tier of European universities possible.

Another reason for Orbán’s dislike of CEU is that it is a private university in whose internal affairs the Hungarian state cannot easily meddle. Moreover, Fidesz politicians are certain, and not without reason, that the great majority of the students and faculty do not sympathize with the present Hungarian government. In fact, Fidesz and KDNP politicians expressed their belief that CEU is a university whose graduates are their enemies. As Péter Harrach (KDNP) said about the massive Sunday demonstration, “an international crowd demonstrated for a university that serves international goals. It has become obvious that [the university] is part of an ideological and political struggle and that it is the officer training school of an army that fights a hard fight in Hungarian society. This is the gist of it.”

Demonstration in front of the parliament building, April 4, 2017

And so, however despicable it may be, the Orbán regime’s hatred of George Soros and the people who believe in an open, pluralistic society is both rational and understandable. The antipathy is not new. Orbán has been harboring these feelings for a very long time, but only in the last couple of years was the international climate conducive to a frontal attack on George Soros. The refugee crisis offered Orbán an opening, especially since Soros was outspoken on the subject. Soros’s larger presence in Europe gave Orbán the opportunity to turn up the volume on his condemnation of Soros, who is meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary by helping his enemies. And, of course, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States further emboldened the Hungarian prime minister, who was an early and ardent supporter.

People who are critics of the Orbán government are stunned. In a few hours parliament passed the amendments to the law on higher education, which make the existence of CEU in Hungary impossible. Although Fidesz spokesmen keep insisting that this was just a small administrative adjustment, this is not the case. CEU is supposed to fulfill two obligations. One is to establish a brand new university practically overnight in the United States. The other is that a bilateral treaty must be signed between Washington and Budapest, without which the university cannot accept any students after January 1, 2018. Neither demand can be met.

The insistence on a bilateral treaty prompted Hungarian opposition politicians and commentators to conjecture that the attack against CEU was manufactured for the sole purpose of forcing direct contact between the Trump administration and the Orbán government. These same people recall that Péter Szijjártó failed to meet anyone of importance at the State Department. That might be true, but he did manage to speak with two people who are very close to the president–Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former lawyer and now U.S. special representative for international negotiations.

Orbán certainly didn’t endear himself to the U.S. State Department with this move. Its spokesperson announced on March 31 that “the United States is concerned about legislation proposed by the Government of Hungary … that imposes new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities.” The United States urged the government of Hungary “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.” After the passage of the amendments, the U.S. embassy in Hungary issued another statement today, saying that “the United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States.”

It is possible that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s relative neglect of Viktor Orbán, who so far has not received any special treatment as a reward for his support. Just today we heard that Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador in Washington, will be recalled soon. 24.hu learned from diplomatic sources that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with Szemerkényi’s performance because she didn’t manage to convince the State Department of the legitimate and non-discriminatory nature of the legislation regarding Central European University. We don’t yet have confirmation of these reports. When ATV’s journalist asked Viktor Orbán whether it is true that Szemerkényi will be recalled, he answered: “I don’t handle entanglements with women” (nőügyekkel nem foglalkozom). The crudity of the man never ceases to amaze me.

P.S. While I was writing this post, thousands of people were demonstrating in front of the parliament building.

April 4, 2017

The sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution

Today, on the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, there were two gatherings in Budapest, with the usual speeches: the official one in front of the parliament building and the one organized by the opposition parties. As could have been predicted, no one said anything about what really happened on those autumn days sixty years ago. The speakers on both sides talked a lot about freedom-loving Hungarians, but these are words that sound hollow today.

The ideological strains of ’56 were eclectic and fluid. The original program called for a radical reform of the Soviet-type political system, but in it one could find traces of Titoism and western-type social democracy. As János M. Rainer says in his new book on the October revolution, “the common platform was patriotism, national independence. This is the common positive content of October 23.”

Since the Soviets decided not to wait for the final outcome of the uprising, ’56 has remained an unfinished story. We have no idea what would have emerged from the sometimes conflicting strains of thought, so politicians can use those events to their own advantage. But one thing is sure. Those who lived through ’56 consider it the most important time of their lives. They believe it was a special gift of fate that allowed them to witness an event which can, I believe, be compared to 1848-49 in significance for the nation. All other important historical dates–1918-1919, 1945, 1989–pale in comparison.

So, let’s see what politicians did to 1956 this year. Let’s start with the official celebration. The government, which spent over 13 billions on a “proper” celebration of the national holiday, grossly overestimated the interest in Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, and Viktor Orbán, even though a serious effort was made to ensure a full house. Fidesz mayors all over the country were urged to bring busloads of people to fill not just Kossuth tér but also Alkotmány utca, all the way to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út. At least this is what the placement of the loudspeakers all along the street indicates. As a result, the over-magnified voices of the speakers echoed in the half empty square and the totally empty Alkotmány utca. According to those who were present, they couldn’t make out anything from the speeches.

The organizers hired a private company, whose employees were dressed in civilian clothes, to ensure order. I guess the idea was that having hundreds of uniformed policemen on hand wouldn’t be good for the government’s image. Those demonstrators who followed the call of Péter Juhász of Együtt were kept outside of a cordon set up for the occasion. The cordon didn’t prevent some elderly amazons from attacking the whistlers. One poured beer on a woman who wasn’t showing the same reverence for the great man as she did. A few burly men smashed faces and then ran away. One of the victims was Krisztián Ungváry, the well-known historian.

In a way Péter Juhász triumphed. The whistling was loud, continuous, and quite audible on the video I watched. (I don’t know whether state television can filter out the whistling and booing.) The whistling had to be a great embarrassment to Viktor Orbán. As we know, he is a vain man with very thin skin. Unfortunately, he is also vicious. Who knows how he will try to hit back and punish those people he considers traitors.

Orbán began by claiming that the lesson of ’56 was that “communism can be conquered.” By the end of his speech he had moved on to the possible “Sovietization of Brussels,” which, you have to admit, is an incredible feat. He called on “the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels” from the fate of Sovietization. In between, in a way, he reinterpreted the meaning of the word “freedom” by insisting that “without freedom we can become only a nationality.” Hungarians hold onto their national heritage, as the Soviets learned the hard way in ’56. This sounded like a warning to Brussels of what to expect if they insist on curbing the sovereignty of Hungary. But, of course, the parallel is deeply flawed. After 1949-1950 the Rákosi regime imposed on the country a slavish imitation of the Soviet model. It was suffocating and led to a massive rejection of Soviet ways. Nothing like that is going on today. If Hungarians are adopting the customs of other European nations or the United States, it is the result of a natural development. Or when Orbán talks about diluting ethnicity, this is a natural trend due to the freedom of movement within the European Union.

He spoke in the name of love

He spoke in the name of love

Of course, he himself wants to lead the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels, but, as I said a couple of days ago, with the exception of two or three East-Central European countries, he is attracting no followers. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem to be discouraged. For him, the dates 1956, 1989, and 2016 reveal a pattern: Hungary becomes an important player on the world stage every 30 years or so. His closing the borders of the country in 2016 can be compared in significance to the revolution of 1956 or the end of the one-party system in 1989. Thus, by the end of his speech Orbán managed to portray himself as a central figure on the world stage today. As important a figure as the leading lights of ’56 or the Soviet and American politicians who managed to lift the iron curtain. The man is certainly not known for his modesty.

As for the joint demonstration of the democratic opposition parties, minus LMP and Együtt, the size of the crowd was disappointing, as were most of the speeches. Gyula Molnár is unfortunately not an inspiring speaker. Ferenc Gyurcsány is, but this speech was not up to par. Lajos Bokros was a breath of fresh air. By contrast, I found Gergely Karácsony’s reference to October 23, 2006 most unfortunate. He essentially repeated the Fidesz line, that Budapest witnessed a brutal attack on peaceful demonstrations. As one of the journalists who was there said, his remarks about the events of ten years ago were followed by total silence. Karácsony should know full well that the country is deeply divided over what happened that day. It is not something that should be brought up at the first joint celebration of the more or less united opposition. It was a huge error. I just don’t understand how it is possible that some of these younger Hungarian politicians have so little political sense. On Friday I heard Karácsony say that he didn’t know what he was going to talk about. Perhaps he should have thought a little longer about it and/or talked his intentions over with others. Blaming the politicians of MSZP and DK for crimes against democracy is not an auspicious beginning for a united democratic opposition.

Returning to Viktor Orbán’s speech. He once again tried to show off his great Biblical and classical learning. In a muddled image, he compared Hungarians to the young David who defeated Goliath because they are like “the ancient Greeks who were in possession of olden knowledge” and who claimed that “the secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” I would like to remind Viktor Orbán that Thucydides also said something else: “Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.” That situation might come sooner than he thinks.

October 23, 2016

The Orbán regime’s reaction to the scandal at the Hungarian National Bank

The Hungarian National Bank cagily released the documentation on its foundations’ grants and contracts Friday night after 5 p.m., but the timing didn’t help much. The outcry was immediate. And ever since, more and more revelations have been adding fuel to fire, from the grants given to relatives of György Matolcsy to the extra money that went to the wife of Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt. (In addition to her regular job as one of the department heads of the bank she also sits on the boards of several foundations.) The opposition, including Jobbik, is up in arms. All parties demand an investigation as well as the abolition of the six foundations which, by all accounts, were established illegally.

News travels fast, especially nowadays. The Financial Times carried the story of the resignation of the journalists at vs.hu on its front page. The New York Times and the Washington Post also covered the story.  Bloomberg had a complete rundown on Chairman Matolcsy’s machinations with the almost one billion U.S. dollars that was moved from the assets of the National Bank to private foundations. If something like this had happened in western Europe, it would undoubtedly have resulted in the resignation of the chairman of the central bank and perhaps even the whole government. In Hungary, however, nothing of the sort will happen. As Lajos Bokros, the former finance minister, put it when asked about the consequences, “I have no illusions. As long as we are saddled with the Orbán regime, nothing will change.”

Despite the many juicy stories surrounding this case, we shouldn’t get bogged down in details. The important thing to keep in mind is that the very establishment of these foundations was illegal. Bokros in a post on Facebook summarized the legal objections to Matolcsy’s “unorthodox” handling of the assets of the central bank. (1) All money that is accrued over the fiscal year by the bank must be put into the budget of the Hungarian state. Matolcsy, in office now for three years, has not been doing this. (2) The National Bank cannot establish foundations because by doing so it siphons public funds from the budget. (3) The Bank cannot utilize funds for public purposes because the utilization of public funds can be done only with the approval of parliament. (4) The Hungarian National Bank cannot get involved in the formulation of fiscal policy. Its only job is the formulation and execution of monetary policy. (5) The National Bank cannot attempt to transform public money into private funds because that is intentional theft and fraud.

Péter Róna, another economist and banking expert, in a conversation with György Bolgár on Klubrádió this afternoon added that the only assets Matolcsy could have used to buy works of art, musical instruments, or even to establish foundations were the bank’s private “income” from dues paid by banks and entrance fees to view the bank’s numismatic collection, which when Róna was a member of the board of directors a couple of years ago was no more than 4 billion forints a year. The foundations received 260 billion forints, more than 17 billion went for real estate, and an incredible amount of money was spent on artwork, including a picture by Titian for 4.5 billion forints.

From the general silence, it is apparent that members of the government and Fidesz-KDNP MPs find the whole scandal most unfortunate. When journalists asked questions of László Kövér and Viktor Orbán in the corridors of the parliament building, the politicians just kept going, eyes fixed on the floor. They refused to utter one word. Some of the lesser characters tried to act dumb. The excuse of one of the Fidesz deputy chairmen, Szilárd Németh, was that since he has only a simple cell phone, not like the journalists with their smart phones, he had heard nothing about the whole thing. I suspect that they were told to remain silent in the hope that eventually the whole scandal will just die down. However, I would like to remind Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán, head of the propaganda ministry, that this kind of strategy didn’t work in President Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism case.

Behind the stony silence I suspect fear because journalists of four independent organs were told yesterday that they will not be able to enter the parliament building for an unspecified duration. The four publications are Népszabadság, HVG, Index, and 24.hu. Letters notifying the editors-in-chief of the decision asked the editors to instruct their colleagues to obey the rules governing the presence of journalists in the parliamentary building “in order to maintain your publication’s parliamentary accreditation.”

In addition to the silence, the decision must have made somewhere high up, most likely in Fidesz, to leak a ten-year-old story according to which Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary (2002-2004), received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom while he was serving as “traveling ambassador” for the country. After Medgyessy resigned, his successor Ferenc Gyurcsány named him to the post as a kind of consolation price. At the same time, however, Medgyessy returned to his old consulting business. Magyar Idők claims that the money Medgyessy received from Alstom was not compensation for his consulting services but a bribe in connection with Alstom’s bid for the metro cars for the new M4 metro line negotiated in and around 2006. Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $750 million in bribes to government officials around the world in December 2014. To make sure that the story sticks, a few hours later Magyar Idők also published a tabloid-like editorial.

Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, announced that “no prime minister in the 25 years of our democracy was accused of such a crime. Péter Medgyessy must give an account of that sum.” The prime minister’s office immediately joined the chorus, and its spokesman promised an investigation into how “this money is connected to the governance of the left.” They will investigate not only the affairs of the former prime minister but also those of former Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky. As for Medgyessy, he admits that he received almost 600,000 euros from Alstom through a Danish and Austrian company but claims it was all on the up and up.

Of course, at this stage we have no idea what transpired, but I must admit that 600,000 euros for a consulting fee is pretty steep. I heard Csaba Molnár (DK) contemplate the possibility that the reason for Medgyessy’s rather sympathetic attitude toward the Orbán government of late might have something to do with Fidesz’s holding this information over his head. Of course, this is just speculation, but it was rather embarrassing when a few months ago Medgyessy claimed in a radio interview that the Orbán government’s corruption is no different from corruption during the socialist-liberal period. I guess this also included his own two years as prime minister.

I’m sure that the pro-government media, including state TV, will keep this issue alive while an investigation will immediately begin into the bribery charge against Medgyessy and perhaps even against Demszky. Meanwhile, of course, nothing will happen on the Matolcsy front.

April 26, 2016

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition

I stumbled on today’s topic this morning when I read one of András Stumpf’s vitriolic articles that appeared in Mandiner on February 12. It was about a piece on a relatively new blog called Nyugati Fény (Western Light) which, according to Stumpf, referred to him, along with Zsolt Bayer and András Bencsik, as “a Fidesz propagandist nobody.” The author specifically objected to an article by Stumpf in which he talked about the “hysteria” that was created by the opposition around the topic of “child hunger.” Stumpf called the description of his article unfair because Nyugati Fény portrayed his attitude toward child hunger as cynical. After reading Stumpf’s original article, I came to the conclusion that Nyugati Fény’s comments were largely justified.

Stumpf was deeply offended and immediately began to search for who could possibly be behind Nyugati Fény. It didn’t take him long to find his answer. Back in December the right-wing Pesti Srácok reported on a tweet by Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt (Together), claiming that Nyugati Fény is DK’s “party blog,” written by three prominent DK politicians: István Vágó, Zsolt Gréczy, and Viktor Mandula. Szigetvári repeated his accusation on Facebook.

This time Nyugati Fény tore into Viktor Szigetvári. The occasion was Szigetvári’s negative comments on Ferenc Gyurcsány ideas about political strategy that he decided to share with the editors of Magyar Idők. In his Facebook note he claimed that Ferenc Gyurcsány himself admitted that the “communication team of DK” supervises Nyugati Fény and another new blog called Európa Kávézó. According to Szigetvári, Gyurcsány even organized a meeting for him with Viktor Mandula, who during their talk suggested that if Együtt stops criticizing DK, the anonymous blogs will cease their abusive comments against his party and Szigetvári himself. After this revelation he immediately attacked DK, whose behavior he considered dishonorable.

Illustration accompanying the article against Viktor Szigetvári in Nyugati Fény

Illustration in the article against Viktor Szigetvári in Nyugati Fény

I believe this single incident speaks volumes about the state of the Hungarian opposition. As for whether Nyugati Fény is in the service of DK or not, I doubt it. Several articles published there simply don’t fit the picture we have of Gyurcsány’s party. As Júlia Lévai, a frequent blogger herself, pointed out in a comment to Szigetvári’s post, such articles as “The liberal migrant policy is clearly a failure” couldn’t possibly have been written by one of the politicians of DK. Or, what about an article in which the blogger attacked György Kakuk, one of the leading members of the party? István Vágó himself wrote a comment to Szigetvári’s post in which he recalled that he had written several times that he has nothing to do with Nyugati Fény, but “it seems that Mr. Szigetvári writes his posts without paying any attention to the comments.” As for Európai Kávézó, it is most likely written by someone who is an uncritical DK supporter. For example, one of the articles is titled “Gyurcsány shows the way.” But, of course, this doesn’t mean that the blog is the product of DK’s communication team.

There is friction among all the parties on the left. Magyar Idők gleefully announced on February 3 that “the left wants nothing to do with Gyurcsány’s program.” Szigetvári made a statement to the government paper in which called his party’s solutions, unlike those of Gyurcsány, “sober and moderate.” “We don’t believe in free water or a flat tax.” There can be no collaboration on the basis of such a program. Együtt has its own program, its own alternatives, and its own candidates. Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM/Dialogue) announced that it is not interested in the programs of other parties. Keep in mind that each of these two parties has only one percent support. The socialists (MSZP) also said that they pay no attention to the other parties. In fact, Chairman József Tóbiás talked about this in an interview he gave to the government mouthpiece.

The depth of the division among opposition parties is highlighted in an article about a roundtable discussion organized by the Republikon Intézet on the topic of holding primaries ahead of the elections, during which possible candidate for the premiership could emerge. As the reporter said, “after about half an hour the representatives of MSZP, DK, PM, and the liberals were exchanging personal attacks.” Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) told Bence Tordai of PM that he should be more modest because he talks as if his party had 40% of the electorate behind it. Tordai shot back: “perhaps more modesty should be shown after the last twenty-five years.” Soon enough it became evident that these people are incapable of cooperation even though they know that alone they are incapable of winning the election. Szigetvári’s Együtt didn’t even send a representative. That LMP wasn’t there surprised no one.

And I haven’t even talked about the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MOMA) of Lajos Bokros. Bokros was severely criticized lately by the other opposition parties for organizing a demonstration on his own protesting the planned amendment to the constitution that would allow the government to declare a state of terror threat and assume widespread powers. Again, the parties pointed fingers at one another. MOMA charged that the other parties simply didn’t support it, while the others claimed that MOMA never asked them to participate. The number of demonstrators was predictably small.

The sad part of all this is that when one encounters these people individually in interview situations they come across as sympathetic, intelligent, and reasonable. Their views are not terribly far apart. Yet when they begin to denounce each other, one feels frustrated and loses hope that they will ever be able to form a united front against the present regime.

It may be Valentine’s Day, but love is not in the air in the Hungarian opposition.

February 14, 2016