Tag Archives: László Bartus

What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés

At the end of February and the beginning of March, I spent a considerable amount of time on Momentum, the new political movement that, with a successful signature drive, managed to force the government to scrap its pet project of holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. I was enthusiastic about this group of young men and women, who struck me as an intelligent lot. What I found especially attractive was that the members of this civic group realized that they could best effect political change by becoming part of the political process. They announced early on their desire to form a political party.

Admittedly, I was worried about their categorical announcement that they would refuse to cooperate with the “political elite,” whom they obviously despised. It was equally worrisome that the chairman of Momentum, András Fekete-Győr, didn’t seem to make a clear distinction between the political system prior to 2010 and the one after. As if this young firebrand wanted to throw out the totality of political change that has taken place since 1989. He talked about instituting an entirely new political system once his party is in power. This statement unfortunately reminded me of Viktor Orbán’s promise in 2010 that his “revolution in the ballot boxes” was the beginning of true democracy in Hungary.

Because Momentum worked so assiduously on collecting signatures for a referendum on hosting the Olympics, the leaders of the movement had little time to give interviews and to share their political ideas with the public. Since then, the chairman of the new party, called Momentum Mozgalom (MoMo), has been giving interviews galore. From these interviews a sad fact emerges: András Fekete-Győr hasn’t got a clue about politics. If he faithfully represents the goals and platform of MoMo, we can forget about this new political formation and the 140 people who apparently make up the party at the moment.

The interview tsunami began on March 6 with Györgyi Szöllösi of “Hungary Live” on Hír TV. In the course of the interview Fekete-Győr triumphantly announced that Momentum is planning to win the election single-handed in a year’s time. Mind you, a few days earlier he admitted that 2018 was too early a date and announced that his party would concentrate on the 2022 election. No probing questions about the feasibility of such an improbable feat could shake Fekete-Győr’s self-confidence. They will be ready to form a government as a result of their impressive electoral victory. The reporter reminded him of an earlier remark: “We haven’t lost our minds and think that we alone can replace the present government.” So, what happened? asked the reporter. Fekete-Győr simply denied that he had ever said such a thing.

From here he moved to even shakier ground when he said that “the Hungarian Left doesn’t have a positive vision of the nation (nemzetkép).” As we know, this is the favorite accusation of Fidesz against the opposition. Therefore, it was inevitable that the reporter would want to know more about Fekete-Győr’s interpretation of “nemzetkép.” Within seconds it became patently obvious that Fekete-Győr had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually he came up with a totally meaningless answer: in his opinion, it means “political peace.” Let’s not even try to interpret this brilliant observation.

Well, that was bad enough, but a day later another interview, which appeared in 24.hu, prompted uniformly negative responses from responsible opposition commentators. First, let’s see what we can learn about Fekete-Győr’s political past from this interview. First, he most likely voted for Fidesz in 2010 when he was 21 years old. “What made Fidesz attractive for me was the fact that it had several convincing characters like Viktor Orbán, Tibor Navracsics, János Lázár, and János Áder.” Let’s not comment on Fekete-Győr’s choice of convincing politicians. Instead, I will be charitable and chalk up his strange taste to his youth. He still thinks, however, that “Orbán is a helluva talented politician who can speak the language of the common man about his coherent worldview.” He supports Orbán in his efforts to keep the refugees out, but it should be done “not so aggressively.” He also approves of the centralization of public education, “but KLIK is not a good answer.”

Otherwise, throughout the interview Fekete-Győr was so arrogant that the reporters eventually asked him: “What feeds this arrogance with which you reject the approach of all the opposition forces, be they Ferenc Gyurcsány or Tibor Szanyi?” Then came the answer: “We are not as arrogant with everybody—if you can call it arrogance—but I have no idea what the hell Ferenc Gyurcsány is still doing in politics. It would be high time for him to get lost.”

It took only a few hours for journalists to comment on this interview. One of the first was my favorite Árpád W. Tóta, who is both astute and witty. He began his opinion piece, titled “Moment, bitte,” with “Neither Right nor Left? And the Left not national enough? Please, tell me something really new.” Yes, we are grateful for not having the Olympic Games in 2024, but “gratefulness is not a blank check or a free ride.” In the rest of the essay Tóta accuses of Fekete-Győr of being utterly devoid of any serious vision and  contends that what he is trying to sell is at best a collection of banal clichés. Tóta is certain that if Fekete-Győr had to explain what a “positive national vision” is, which is missing on the Left but exists on the Right, he would be at a loss. As we could see from his Hír TV interview, Tóta was correct. The self-confident leader of MoMo failed. He couldn’t mutter out an intelligent sentence on the topic because, as Tóta rightly observes, the “concept” is an empty phrase, something Hungarians call a “lózung.” Tóta also visited MoMo’s website where he found the party’s “program” on education and healthcare, which they call their “vision.” There is nothing wrong with the direction, but the program is full of clichés that have been more intelligently developed and more fully proposed over the last three years by several parties on the Left.

Another devastating critique came from László Bartus of Amerikai Népszava, who called attention to some of the most objectionable statements in Fekete-Győr’s interview. I think Bartus is right when he criticizes the young politician’s admiration of Orbán’s ability to speak the language of the common people, which is mere populist drivel. Moreover, Hitler and Mussolini also knew how to speak the language of the people. How can he call Orbán’s illiberal, far-right, anti-Western pseudo philosophy a “worldview,” asks the editor-in-chief of Amerikai Népszava. Bartus finds Fekete-Győr so objectionable that he even defends Ferenc Gyurcsány against his ill-tempered attacks, and Gyurcsány is not exactly Bartus’s favorite. After all, as the reporters reminded him, the electorate decides who stays in politics and for how long, not Fekete-Győr. Anyone who wants politicians to pack up and clear out of public life is not a democrat, says Bartus. Moreover, he continues, “this helluva talented politician who is currently robbing the country blind is not Ferenc Gyurcsány. It was not Gyurcsány who abolished the constitution but Orbán.”

A day after the 24.hu interview came another interview, this time with Antónia Mészáros of ATV. A somewhat chastened Fekete-Győr tried to explain away his ill-tempered and inappropriate comments about the former prime minister. Mészáros, who is known for her sharp intellect and insistent interviewing style, was all sweetness and light. She handled the chairman of MoMo with kindness. I guess she knew that Fekete-Győr didn’t need her help to make himself ridiculous. Perhaps he didn’t realize it, but as a commentator said, “tonight Antónia Mészáros had Fekete-Győr for supper, and once she was full she leaned back and smiled. Her prey didn’t even realize that he was almost completely consumed.”

March 11, 2017

Sebastian L. von Gorka’s encounter with the Hungarian National Security Office

I’m sure that many of Hungarian Spectrum’s readers were expecting me to write about the Putin visit to Budapest, but only a few hours after Putin’s airplanes, all three of them, landed at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport I cannot say anything meaningful about the much heralded visit except that it cost the Hungarian taxpayers an immense amount of money. The cost of official visits must be borne by the host country.

It is hard to know precisely what benefits Vladimir Putin expects to reap from his Hungarian visits. As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, however, they must boost his ego. It doesn’t happen too often that the Russian president pays an official visit to a member state of the European Union. In fact, it is extremely rare. In the last two years there were only two such visits: in February 2015 to Hungary and in May 2016 to Greece. The Greek visit, just like, I believe, Putin’s trip to Hungary today, had something to do with Putin’s eagerness to have the crippling economic sanctions against his country lifted. Perhaps he was hoping for a Greek veto as now he is hoping for Orbán’s assistance. Whether he succeeded this time around in convincing the Hungarian prime minister to veto the renewal of sanctions against Russia is not at all sure. Orbán usually talks a lot about the sanctions’ harmful effects on Hungary, but when the chips are down he votes with the rest of his colleagues in the European Council.

So, instead of the Putin visit, I am returning to the Sebastian Gorka story. There are details about Gorka’s life in Hungary that might shed additional light on the qualifications and trustworthiness of Donald Trump’s new deputy assistant.

Gorka himself has revealed very little about his life in Hungary, although he spent 16 years in the country, arriving in 1992 and leaving in 2008. In 2002, however, his name was all over the Hungarian media. There were strong suspicions that Gorka was a spy working for British counterintelligence. How did such rumors emerge?

It was in June 2002 that Magyar Nemzet, then affiliated with Fidesz, which had just lost the election, revealed that Péter Medgyessy, the new prime minister of the country, was a counterespionage officer in the 1980s during the Kádár regime. Fidesz naturally insisted on setting up a special parliamentary committee to investigate Medgyessy’s role as a counterintelligence officer. Fidesz recommended Sebastian Gorka as one of its experts on such matters. The other recommendation was Gábor Kiszely, a right-wing historian whose favorite subject was the history of freemasonry. For the job the participants needed security clearance. The National Security Office (Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal/NH), however, was suspicious of both Gorka and Kiszely. It eventually refused to green light the two experts.

Gorka naturally denied the truthfulness of the media reports. The undersecretary in charge of national security, however, assured the public that, as a precaution, Gorka hadn’t had any opportunity to get to top secret documents in the absence of such clearance. The expert delegated by the government party sailed through the vetting process, but the clearance of Gorka and Kiszely was nowhere. Gorka suspected that the security officials were simply dragging their heels in order to delay matters until the competence of the committee expired in August. To Origo he explained that he had never had anything to do with counterintelligence because he was only “a uniformed member of the British army’s anti-terrorist unit.” As we know from his Wikipedia entry, this was not the case because there we can learn that “at university, he joined the British Territorial Army reserves serving in the Intelligence Corps.” His only duty, he told Origo, was “to measure the possible dangers posed by terrorists,” such as members of the Irish Republican Army. Moreover, Gorka misleadingly renamed his unit “Territorial Army 22 Company” instead of “UK Territorial Army, Intelligence Corps (22),” the correct name, given by Népszabadság at the time and also given in Wikipedia, at least for today.

Now let’s see how László Bartus, currently editor-in-chief of Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, remembers Gorka from those days. Bartus was working as a journalist in Hungary at the time. He claims that it was discovered that Gorka had never attended any institution of higher education. This may have been the case in 2002, but it certainly wasn’t true in 2008 when he received his Ph.D. for a dissertation titled “Content and end-state-based alteration in the practice of political violence since the end of the cold war: The difference between the terrorism of the cold war and the terrorism of Al-Quaeda: The rise of the ‘transcendental terrorist.’” His dissertation adviser was András Lánczi, Viktor Orbán’s favorite political scientist, who became notorious after announcing that “What [the critics of the Orbán regime] call corruption in practical terms is the most important policy goal of Fidesz.” More about Lánczi can be found in my post “András Lánczi: What others call corruption is the raison d’être of Fidesz.” I may add that on the dissertation Gorka’s full name is given as Sebastian L. v. Gorka. So, the brief appearance of his name in Wikipedia as Sebastian Lukács von Gorka was not a mistake.

Kiszely and Gorka were barred from displaying their expertise in counterintelligence because, as some right-winger readers claimed in their comments, they were dual citizens. As for his citizenship, Hungarian newspapers claimed at the time that in addition to his British citizenship, he was also a citizen of the United States. Considering that he got married to an American woman in 1996, he could certainly have held U.S. citizenship by then. However, he hotly denied being a citizen of the country that he now wants to help make great.

Bartus sums up the Hungarian opinion of Gorka: “Then the unanimous opinion was that this man is a fortune hunter and a conman, who wriggles his way in everywhere, where he convinces everybody of his extraordinary expertise, when actually the only thing he is an expert on is extremist incitement. This picture of him among those who knew him in Budapest has not changed since.” Bartus is not surprised that Trump and Gorka found each other since “birds of a feather flock together.”

February 2, 2017

László Bartus on Gordon Bajnai’s road to failure

In the wake of the stalled negotiations between Együtt 2014-PM and MSZP several opinion pieces appeared. I found most of them less than inspiring. This morning, however, I happened upon László Bartus’s article in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, a paper Bartus bought after he emigrated to the United States. The Amerikai-Magyar Népszava is the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, established in 1891. Within a few years Bartus managed to transform a backwater ethnic weekly into an Internet outlet that not only covers Hungarian news but also offers a rich digest of American politics. The paper that had only a few thousand readers ten years ago today has a significant online presence. Amerikai-Magyar Népszava has many devotees from Hungary who never fail to send me links to some of the more important articles published in the paper.

László Bartus is a controversial man. There are those who think very highly of him while others dislike his style. One thing is sure: Bartus doesn’t beat around the bush, and therefore he can rub people the wrong way. He has decided opinions, and I guess if someone holds equally strong opposing views the clash is inevitable. I’m pretty sure that this editorial will also be controversial. Although Bartus and I don’t always see eye to eye, I happen to agree with some of his analysis in “Road to failure” that appeared in yesterday’s Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. I found his criticism of Gordon Bajnai’s strategy especially on target.

The article is an indictment of Viktor Szigetvári, the chief adviser of Gordon Bajnai who, in Bartus’s opinion, is largely responsible for Bajnai’s political failure. In Bartus’s assessment Bajnai, given the poisonous political atmosphere in Hungary, was lucky that he managed to survive a year as prime minister of Hungary without serious political damage, which gave him a real advantage over some other politicians. But then he “committed all the mistakes that a politician can commit.” Bartus doesn’t remember one good step Bajnai has taken since October 23, 2012. We often make the mistake of blaming advisers of people whom we find decent and attractive but in this case, Bartus claims, the “bad adviser” syndrome is genuine. He considers Viktor Szigetvári “one of the most noxious characters of Hungarian public life since the change of regime.”

Like me, Bartus finds the Hungarian version of “political scientists” (politológusok) injurious to politics. Szigetvári is one of those “ventriloquists” who try to convince the rest of us that they are “in possession of some secret knowledge that other ordinary human beings simply cannot understand.” Some of them appear on radio and television programs and “talk a lot of nonsense only adding to the general confusion,” but there are others who are much more dangerous because they sell their “advice” for good money. Eventually these “advisers” become convinced that they themselves should be politicians because after all they are in possession of that secret knowledge. This is what happened in the case of Viktor Szigetvári who by now is co-chairman of Együtt 2014. But even before, Szigetvári had political ambitions and held high positions during the Medgyessy, Gyurcsány, and Bajnai governments. Under Bajnai, he was in charge of the prime minister’s office.

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Bartus is amazed how it was possible for Szigetvári to survive unscathed even as everything he touched went sour. He was for a while in charge of MSZP’s communication, which was anything but admirable. He was somewhat of an odd bird among the socialist party leaders. I myself mentioned in April 2009 that Szigetvári graduated from the famous Piarist High School in Budapest which normally produces Fidesz cadres and not MSZP comrades. In addition, he wrote his dissertation under Tibor Navracsics. “He joined MSZP when it served his interest and when not he left it.” He calls himself a “conservative liberal.” Szigetvári’s “natural place would be on the “Christian-national right.” And perhaps that is why Szigetvári led Bajnai to the wrong strategy of trying to find allies on the conservative right which, according to most people, really doesn’t exist in Hungary.

In addition, it was also a mistake to use the so-called “civic movements” Milla and Solidarity because there is no politics without parties. It was wrong of Bajnai to offer himself as the leader of an alliance when he himself didn’t even have a party.  It was a mistake to define this alliance in opposition to the left. It was wrong to mouth some of the lies of Fidesz, including the Fidesz interpretation of the events of September-October 2006. Bartus “in place of the chairman of MSZP [Attila Mesterházy] would have gotten up and stopped all further negotiations with them at that very moment.”

Szigetvári’s strategy to create a centrist party led Bajnai into dangerous waters, For example, he talked about Cardinal József Mindszenty and István Bibó as if these two were on the same side in October-November 1956. Bartus objects to Bajnai’s views on the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, viewing them as no more than an echo of the Orbán government’s propaganda. Bartus is of the opinion that one cannot make peace with the Orbán ideology because it is impossible to rebuild democracy hand in hand with those who managed to destroy it.

While Bartus considers the Orbán regime fascism pure and simple, he also has a very low opinion of MSZP, even in its reformed and renewed form. What he would have suggested to Bajnai is to find a new “third road policy.” But Bartus’s third road is very different from the ideas of the populist/narodnik/népies writers. For him the “the road” means to be against both Orbán’s fascism and MSZP’s corruption. To bring true democracy, the rule of law, and a well regulated capitalist system at last to Hungary. As far as Bartus is concerned, MSZP is incapable of leading Hungary in this direction. In Hungary “the only possible partner in such a quest is Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK, which best represents these principles. Behind DK stands the majority of  the modern, enlightened grey matter of the country. . . . The real adherents to the rule of law.” Bartus admits that the supporters of  DK are not numerous, but still “these are the natural allies of Bajnai and not the careerist former students of Jesuits and socialists who cling to their corrupt ways.”

I happen to agree with László Bartus that Gordon Bajnai’s natural allies should be the members and supporters of the Demokratikus Koalíció, but one must ask whether Bajnai could have been any more successful if he had turned to Ferenc Gyurcsány and sought the support of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Unlikely. DK may one day become an important political force, but it certainly is not at the moment.

Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. At least not according to a Hungarian judge

First, before I recount the encounter of László Karsai with Jobbik, I should perhaps refresh your memory of the man. He is best  known as a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, but his field of competence is much broader. He even wrote a book about the nationality question in France and another on the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. He studied the question of the Hungarian Gypsies between 1919 and 1945. If  readers of Hungarian Spectrum know his name it may be because I wrote about a controversy that erupted as a result of his refusal to attend a conference in Norway on Raoul Wallenberg. Karsai was one of the invited guests, but he backed out after he learned that Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Norway, was one of the sponsors. Géza Jeszenszky wrote a university textbook on national minorities in East-Central Europe, and his chapter on the Gypsies was full of inaccuracies and reeked of prejudice.

Karsai can be controversial. For example, at the moment he is working on a biography of Ferenc Szálasi, the founder of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party. He discovered a number of new documents that prove that the generally accepted scholarly opinion of Szálasi might not be accurate. Especially with respect to Szálasi’s views on the Hungarian Jewry. On the other hand, he is convinced that Miklós Horthy knew more about the death camps than he later claimed. So, he does what a good historian should do: he tries to seek the truth even if it might not please some people.

As I noted earlier (more or less in passing), László Karsai is once again in the limelight. This time Jobbik sued him because in December 2011 Karsai called it a neo-Nazi party. He made the statement in the course of an interview on ATV’s early morning program called “Start.”

Jobbik’s leadership took its sweet time before deciding to make a court case out of the “incident.” It took Jobbik half a year to discover that its good reputation had been damaged by Karsai, but then they demanded satisfaction. One reason for the delay may have been that Karsai uttered his half a sentence on Jobbik’s ideological makeup in the course of discussing the emerging Horthy cult. The discussion wasn’t so much about Jobbik as about Jobbik’s attitude toward the Horthy regime.

Jobbik sought a verdict that would find that the party’s reputation had been impinged upon by Karsai; moreover, they demanded an apology from the historian. Karsai’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the nature of a party’s ideology is not a question that can be decided by court proceedings. It belongs to the free flow of scholarly debate within the historical community.

Jobbik tuntetok

Jobbik categorically denies that it is a Nazi or neo-Nazi party although there is extensive proof that the leading members of the party made no effort to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. Some of the organizations Jobbik has strategic alliances with proudly call themselves national socialists. Kuruc.info, which may be Jobbik’s publication, often talks about Adolf Hitler in laudatory terms.

The real question, however, is not whether Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party but whether this historical question can be debated publicly and whether judges are the ones who should decide this issue.

The historical community itself is divided on the question. Rudolf Paksa, a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Hungarian extreme right, claims that “Jobbik is definitely not a neo-Nazi party in the scientific sense. It is anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic, but all these together still do not make it a neo-Nazi party. After all, there are no indications that Jobbik wants to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, which is an absolutely essential characteristic of national socialism.” At the same time Paksa found it outrageous that Jobbik wanted to decide the issue in a court of law. Paksa testified back in January that he hoped the judge would respect the freedom of expression and opinion.

After hearing the arguments, the judge decided to postpone the decision. It wasn’t until March 22, 2013 that the verdict was handed down by Péter Attila Takács, the presiding judge. According to Takács, Karsai besmirched the good name and reputation of Jobbik by calling it a neo-Nazi party. Karsai will have to pay 66,000 forints in court costs and within fifteen days he will have to apologize in writing, an apology that Jobbik may make public.

Why did Takács rule this way? The rationale for the verdict is, to my mind, peculiar to say the least. The problem, Takács wrote, is that the characterization of the party by Karsai didn’t take place as part of a scholarly discussion about the ideological makeup of Jobbik but in the context of the developing rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Therefore it cannot be considered part of a scientific exchange.

Since then the verdict has become available in Beszélő (March 26, 2013) and I read with some interest that the judge, among other things, forbids László Karsai “from further infringement of the law.” How can one interpret this? Does it mean that in the future he cannot call Jobbik a neo-Nazi party if the conversation is not about Jobbik itself? Or that in certain circumstances he can label it as such without breaking the law? It’s hard to tell.

The important thing is that the judge found Jobbik’s arguments well founded and cited two paragraphs of the 1989 Constitution that was in force at the time of the incident. Paragraph 59(1) stipulates that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone is entitled to the protection of his or her reputation and to privacy, including the privacy of the home, of personal effects, particulars, papers, records and data, and to the privacy of personal affairs and secrets.” In addition, the judge cited paragraph 61(1)  that states that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone has the right to the free declaration of his views and opinions, and has the right of access to information of public interest, and also the freedom to disseminate such information.” I find the second line of reasoning truly outrageous. Jobbik has the right to the free declaration of its views and opinions but not László Karsai. Absolutely brilliant.

Naturally, László Karsai is appealing the verdict. Reading it, I had the feeling that Judge Takács might not have been the most impartial judge. Here are a couple of telling details from the verdict. Jobbik’s history is described in the most benign terms as a youth movement whose goal was “to unite young people committed to the national ideal.” “Well known people supported them: Mária Wittner, Gergely P0ngrácz, Gy. László Tóth, István Lovas, Mátyás Usztics.”  The judge forgot to mention that these well known personalities all belong to the extreme right. Jobbik wanted to offer “an alternative for radical right-wing voters.” Jobbik’s parliamentary caucus is the second largest after Fidesz-KDNP, and they have representation in the European Parliament. So, there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. This decision is a boost to Jobbik and the extreme right.

I might also mention that unfortunately Hungarian courts do not subscribe to the tenets of case law. If the judge had followed precedent, Karsai should have been exonerated because in 2010 Gábor Vona sued László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York. Bartus called Jobbik “a rotten, fascist, Nazi” party. The court dropped the case against Bartus, claiming that the editor simply exercised his right to free expression. The vagaries of Hungarian jurisprudence. It will always remain a mystery to me.