Tag Archives: László Kovács

Let’s have a new enemy: Romania

One can say all sorts of things about Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, just not that he is the paragon of diplomatic virtue. Upon his arrival in Hungary’s foreign ministry, he not only got rid of Hungary’s seasoned diplomats but also used language rarely heard in the world of diplomacy. Szijjártó was groomed for his diplomatic career in the rough and tumble of Hungarian politics, Fidesz style. He tore into fellow foreign ministers, presidents, prime ministers, anyone who dared utter a word against Hungary. Actually, he was just following the instructions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who at his very first meeting with the Hungarian ambassadors told them that they cannot let one “untrue” statement about the country go unanswered. Thus, like diplomats from banana republics, Hungarian ambassadors routinely write letters to the editor of major papers of the country where they serve. A rather distasteful habit.

It is hard to assess Hungary’s relations with her neighbors because they are so volatile. One month Szijjártó sends threatening letters to presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers of Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria and the next month we hear high praise for the same countries from Viktor Orbán. There are exceptions to the rule: Serbian-Hungarian relations seem to be consistently good and Romanian-Hungarian relations, consistently bad. Szijjártó’s latest move will not improve the situation with Romania.

Szijjártó forbade Hungarian diplomats serving abroad to attend the receptions Romanian embassies gave today on the country’s national holiday. It was on December 1, 1918 that the National Assembly of Transylvania and Hungary convened in Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár and decreed “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania.” As the foreign ministry’s spokesman explained to HVG, “the Hungarian people have no reason to celebrate December 1.”

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

Thus no one represented official Hungary at the reception in Budapest where the Romanian ambassador greeted the visitors in both Romanian and Hungarian and where the national anthems of both countries were played. The concert that followed included pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, and George Enescu. The ambassador’s speech, delivered in English, put special emphasis on the 1996 Hungarian-Romanian treaty on “mutual understanding, cooperation, and good neighborliness.” The English-French-language text of the treaty is available online, and its importance is detailed in a recent press release by the Romanian Foreign Ministry on the twentieth anniversary of its signing.

The Romanians’ response was surprisingly mild: “it is hard to understand such a decision because honoring the values and national symbols of a country certainly belongs to the basic precepts of the European Union and the Atlantic community.” As we have had to learn in the last six years or so, however, such “niceties” are not observed by the Hungarian government. Just as Viktor Orbán told the delegates of the Hungarian Diaspora Council on November 30, “political correctness, as a way of speaking, is the instrument of worldwide intellectual oppression,” which he naturally refuses to accept.

The pro-government media naturally greeted the Orbán government’s decision with elation. “At last we’re handling the Romanian national holiday as we should,” opined 888.hu. At last we have a foreign minister who behaves as he should. Leaders of the socialist-liberal governments behaved abominably, according to the news site. For example, on December 1, 2002 President Árpád Göncz, Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, and Foreign Minister László Kovács were among the guests at the reception where they met Romania’s prime minister Adrian Nãstase and representatives of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians, the major Hungarian party in Romania. Fidesz, which had lost the election only a few months before, raised hell. Fidesz sympathizers quickly organized a demonstration of about 500-600 people in front of the Kempinski Hotel where the reception was held. The party, by then in opposition, did everything in its power to create a scandal.

A few years of respite followed when we heard nothing about the treasonous Hungarian socialists and liberals attending the Romanian receptions on December 1. But then came 2010 when Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater whom Viktor Orbán and his friends hated, made the mistake of renting one of the halls of the National Theater to the Romanian Cultural Institute for the event. The most clamorous critics were the politicians of Jobbik and the Christian Democrats, but Fidesz also chimed in, saying that “the leader of one of the most important national organizations should know that the loss of Transylvania for the majority of the nation means trauma with lasting effect” and therefore no state institution should facilitate the reception. Under pressure, Alföldi withdrew his verbal agreement with the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, which naturally is more familiar with Romanian-Hungarian affairs than I am, brings up past occasions when Hungarian patriots inside and outside of Romania were quite happy to celebrate together with Romanian politicians. For example, Jenő Szász, then mayor of Odorheiu Secuiesc / Székelyudvarhely and a great friend of László Kövér, happily celebrated the Romanian national holiday with President Traian Băsescu in 2006. Géza Szőcs, former undersecretary for cultural matters in the prime minister’s office, back in 1990 even made a speech in Alba Iulia praising the democratic nature of the declaration of the National Assembly of Transylvania.

So, why this strident move, which will only further erode the already tenuous ties between Romania and Hungary? The most likely reason is Viktor Orbán’s newly found self-assurance which, as far as I can see, has grown substantially since Donald Trump’s victory on November 8. In his speech to the representatives of the Hungarian diaspora he rehashed the points he had made in his speech to the same body the year before. This gave him an opportunity to tout the wisdom of his political views and emphasize his belief that time is on his side. The real proof is “the surprising result of the American presidential election and the expectation that this election ushers in a new era.” The American election “supports [his] earlier view that a major worldwide realignment is forthcoming.” With Trump at the helm “instead of liberal democracy we can return to a democracy whose essence is freedom.”

By now he sees himself as the premier politician of Central Europe who has brought considerable prestige to Hungary. “Central Europe hasn’t had so much influence on European affairs since the House of Árpád or perhaps since King Matthias.” Of course, he is talking about his own influence on the common policies of the Visegrád 4 countries.

Finally, I would like to call attention to Orbán’s comments in this speech on the Hungarian military. We all know that European countries will have to commit a larger percentage of their GDP to the NATO budget. In fact, Hungary has already promised an increase in defense spending. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the following couple of sentences, but they gave me a pause. First, he said that Hungarians settled in a very difficult spot and “our first question is always what kinds of dangers we will have to face next.” Then, a few lines later, he told his audience that the Hungarian army must be beefed up not because of some outside threat but because Hungary “mustn’t fall behind the striking powers of the armies in our region.” I don’t know whether these statements are significant or just the usual imprecise talk.

December 1, 2016

István Hiller, MSZP, and the fence

I know that most likely everybody will want to talk about the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris, but I see no point in adding to the guessing game about the identities of the eight men involved. Of course, I’m also very curious whether the Syrian passport actually belonged to one of the terrorists, and I’m sure that the discussion of the details of the attack will continue in the comments. Today, however, I would like to talk about something else, though it is not unrelated to the refugee crisis and terrorism. It is the surprise announcement by István Hiller (MSZP) that, although he doesn’t like the fence, he doesn’t know “a better solution for the refugee crisis,” a statement that goes against the position of his party.

First, perhaps I should say a few words about István Hiller. He is currently one of the most important active politicians in MSZP. He was one of the founding members of MSZP as a young man of 25 and became chairman of the party in 2004. Two years later he was named minister of education and culture. In the last few months he has indicated his desire to head MSZP, which is in serious decline. I gather he believes that under his leadership MSZP can again become a large, influential party. Otherwise, he is a historian whose main field is sixteenth-century Austrian diplomacy.

One is always suspicious when Viktor Orbán praises someone from the opposite camp, and that is what he did in the case of István Hiller. During his conversations with students of his old dormitory, after dismissing the current political leaders of the opposition parties who are unable to formulate a “national strategy” (nemzetpolitika), Orbán announced that “interestingly there is someone who can at least theoretically achieve that goal and that is the former chairman of the party, ‘a professzor úr,’ Hiller…. He is a man whose heart is in the right place, and this is difficult for someone from the left.”

MSZP politicians were stunned at Hiller’s announcement. Some of them were aware of his opinion, but they didn’t expect him to announce it publicly against the wishes of his party. Some of his colleagues tried to look upon his indiscretion as a well-meaning response to the public opinion polls showing that the overwhelming majority of MSZP voters believe that the fence is necessary to stem the flow of asylum seekers. After all, a party must be responsive to its voting base’s wishes.

But soon enough it was noticed that several former associates of Hiller had quietly received important government jobs in the Orbán administration, and Hiller himself admitted that János Lázár had asked his advice in connection with the Esterházy Center to be set up in Fertőd. Hiller noted that there was nothing unusual about the request because, after all, it was during his tenure that the bulk of the restoration work on the Esterházy Palace had taken place.

Nonetheless, suspicions have solidified: Hiller is planning to make peace with Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. Of course, Hiller denies the charge. Yet there is a danger that Hiller might end up like Katalin Szily, who first kept criticizing her party, later established a party of her own that flopped, and now is an adviser to Viktor Orbán on “national issues” for a million forints a month. As a witty headline said, “If Hiller is clever he won’t become silly.”

A double interview with László Kovács and Ildikó Lendvai, both former party chairmen and people whose personal integrity is beyond reproach, shows what a hopeless party MSZP has become since 2010 when its leadership hatched the idea of “renewal.” Renewal meant getting rid of all the experienced politicians and replacing them with entirely new young faces whom nobody knew and who were not up to the task of renewing anything.

Kovács and Lendvai are top-notch politicians and excellent democrats. They were among the “old guard” booted out from their leadership positions. Kovács made a name for himself already in the last days of the Kádár regime when he, together with Gyula Horn, were largely responsible for the decision to allow the East German refugees to cross over to Austria. He was a successful foreign minister and served as EU commissioner for five years. Lendvai for many years was the leader of the large MSZP delegation of olden days. She is an eloquent, quick-witted speaker and one of the most honest politicians I have encountered.


The interview with these two people appeared in Origo. The headline was taken from something László Kovács said: “at that price I don’t want to win an election.” The discussion that preceded that sentence was about popularity and political strategy. If it is clear that Viktor Orbán’s reaction to the refugee crisis is popular even among MSZP voters, isn’t the correct strategy to move in the direction of popular demands? At this point the following conversation took place:

László Kovács: There are two possible choices for political parties. One is that they follow what is popular and brings more votes. But if MSZP wants to win the election this way, it would have to stand for things that are very far from European values.

Ildikó Lendvai: We might as well revile the Gypsies.

László Kovács: Or we can come up with the reinstatement of capital punishment because a lot of people would support it and thus we would be popular. But I don’t want to win at such a price. If we can win only with offering such inhumane solutions alien to European culture, then I would rather stay in opposition. A responsible politician should not only serve but also influence public opinion.

Those people who can read the whole interview should definitely do so. Both severely criticized István Hiller who, by the way, is planning to run for the chairmanship of the party, and they complained about MSZP’s lack of a clear alternative to Fidesz. MSZP’s platform should not be, to use Lendvai’s words, “Fidesz-light” or, as she said a few sentences later, “the same thing as Fidesz but not in a major but in a minor chord.”

It is hard to tell what will happen to MSZP, but I am convinced that the current leadership should pack up and leave. Otherwise, soon enough there will be no MSZP, and the leadership of the opposition will come from one of the smaller parties or a coalition (or unification) of these parties to replace MSZP.

Béla Pomogáts: A legend’s reincarnation

Béla Pomogáts is a historian of literature and a literary critic whose main field of interest is twentieth-century Hungarian literature, including works by writers living outside the current borders of Hungary. He is the author of the encyclopedic study Newest Hungarian Literature, 1945-1981 (1982) and of several books on Hungarian writers in the neighboring countries. 

Béla Pomogáts began his studies at ELTE in 1953. I followed him a year later. Both of us majored in Hungarian, and both of us became members of the Revolutionary Student Committee during the 1956 October Revolution. While I left and found safe haven in the West, Béla paid dearly for his activities with years of incarceration and unemployment.

* * *

According to the official announcement, on Friday July 17th the earthly remains of Sándor Petőfi, which had been brought back from the Siberian Barguzin, were buried. The story went viral despite the summer heat, when the major players in public life would rather spend their time at Lake Balaton (or on the Adriatic) than at funeral services.

The Barguzin skeleton was discovered a quarter of a century ago in far-away Siberia in a forgotten cemetery of a barely-known settlement by a scientific expedition, whose initiators and experts were Ferenc Morvai, a businessman, István Kiszely, an anthropologist, and Edit Kéri, a former actress. Later they quarreled, and for many decades the Barguzin skeleton became enwrapped in a veil of oblivion more mournful than any shroud.  Twenty some years later a solemn reburial has taken place, and its energetic organizers have by turns been makings statements. I only quietly want to say that among them there is not one person with any professional credentials. The only one who might have been considered to be qualified is the late István Kiszely, an eccentric scientist, who earlier as a Benedictine seminarian in Pannonhalma cultivated an intimate relationship with the Kádárist state security apparatus.

The lunatic fringe at the "reburial." Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

The lunatic fringe at the “reburial.” Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

A quarter of a century ago there was also great interest in the discovery in Transylvanian Hungarian circles, although I don’t remember that the Hungarians of Kolozsvár/Cluj, Nagyvárad/Oradea , or Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureș took the sensational news reports at face value. Both the Hungarian scientific community and public opinion continued to accept the established view that the poet was the victim of a Cossack lancer’s weapon during the battle of Segesvár (today Sighișoara) near Fehéregyháza (Albești). (I myself, as the president of the Hungarian Writers’ Association as well as the president of the Vernacular Conference, have repeatedly paid tribute at the older monument next to the highway and later at the new Petőfi statue erected a few years ago.) I, along with the scholars who have intensively studied the art and life of Petőfi, didn’t think to question the time and place of the death of the poet. Today’s Petőfi scholars unanimously reject the legend of Barguzin.

András Dienes, Petőfi in the War of Independence (1958)

Dienes’s book is the most authentic and detailed work on the poet’s activities in the last year of his life. One reason that I’m referring to Dienes’s book is that he was my much respected older colleague in the Literary Studies Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Before the war Dienes was a gendarme officer who at the end of the war joined the anti-fascist resistance movement. After the communist takeover he spent long years in Mátyás Rákosi’s prison on trumped-up charges. He was rehabilitated in 1957 and from there on dedicated his scholarly life to the study of Sándor Petőfi. While writing the book, he also did research in Romania. It turned out that the mass grave which most likely contains Petőfi’s remains is inaccessible because a large-scale industrial site was built on top of it.

The transylvanian contingent / Nészpabadság / Viktor Veres

The Transylvanian contingent. Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

Although it is unlikely that Petőfi’s remains will ever surface, Dienes relied on testimony and historical documents that indicated the date and place of the poet’s death.  There are many such documents: Hungarian army officers, Austrian generals, the contemporary press, and memoirs all support the literary historian’s chronicle of Sándor Petőfi’s last hours.

Testimony of the Petőfi literature

Since the appearance of András Dienes’s book, several studies by literary historians have tried to clarify the circumstances of Petőfi’s death whenever public interest re-focused on the subject. After many decades of calm, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s a kind of “literary retrial” took place, which inspired people’s imaginations. In September 1988 Edit Kéri, earlier an actress in Győr who was imprisoned after the 1956 revolution, approached Ferenc Morvai, a businessman of means whom the media nicknamed the “boiler king,” and asked him to sponsor an expedition to Siberia to find the poet’s earthly remains. According to Kéri, the poet didn’t die on the battlefield near Segesvár but, along with many other Hungarian soldiers, was captured by the Russians. In the Barguzin cemetery, she claimed, there are a number of graves belonging to these captured soldiers. The idea of a Siberian expedition prompted fierce debates and a host of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) publications.

Articles that appeared in periodicals and newspapers reported the news about the excavations in Barguzin as a genuine scientific sensation. The Hungarian public learned that the members of the expedition even found the name of the poet–Aleksandr Petrovics, the original family name of the poet–on one of the graves In 1990, Edit Kéri summarized the results of the expedition in a book titled Petőfi in Siberia?! I must admit that Kéri did report some of the doubts surrounding the remains, but she still considered the skeleton to be that of Petőfi. Soon after, another book by Géza Szabó detailed the history of the excavation of the grave itself. A few months later a real Petőfi scholar, Sándor Fekete, felt that it was time to raise his voice and published a book with the title Siberian Contagion: Resurrection of the Petőfi Legend and Its Reburial. It was serious re-examination of the existing evidence, and it debunked the newly created Petőfi legend. Soon enough more works appeared, among them Lajos Szuromi’s Petőfi’s Russian Poems?, Miklós Veszprémi’s How Did Petőfi Die? and, in Russian, A. Tivanenko’s Petofi v Barguzine. Two publications that I would call “academic” came out subsequently. One was a series of essays edited by László Kovács titled Not Petőfi!, in which well-known Petőfi scholars such as Sándor Fekete, József Kiss, Imre Lengyel, László Harsányi, and several Russian academics wrote studies. In 2003 László Kovács appeared with a book of his own titled Illusion: The Fiasco of the Siberian Petőfi Research, which is the best summary of the history of the whole affair.

Two quotations, two publications

The first quotation is from Sándor Fekete’s Siberian Contagion: “The book which is in the hands of the readers is a document and a medical history of an age. … We cannot take up the examination of the bizarre and irrational ideas which have made such an impact on the repressed national consciousness, the result of outside and domestic influences. This time we should just concentrate on this particular case.”

The second work, a thorough and convincing monograph by László Kovács, presents all the legends that are related to Sándor Petőfi’s death and his alleged Siberian exile. “All the findings of the social and natural sciences contradict the false identification, but the decisive argument is the poet’s spirit that he left for us in his writings…. Whether the supporters of the Siberian legend knew or felt this I have no idea. I can only conclude that they submerged the topic in demagogic nationalist sentiments and shaped it into a political question…. They called those who stood against this falsification of history the enemies of the nation,” demanded a referendum, and wanted to turn to the European Court of Justice.

Finally, I would like to call attention to the latest issue of Rubicon, a historical magazine for interested laymen in which there is a collection of instructive and readable articles about “Petőfi of Barguzin.” In particular, I am thinking of two articles by Róbert Hermann, “Segesvár–Death of Petőfi,” and “Did they take them or not? The fate of Hungarian prisoners-of-war of the 1849 Transylvanian campaign.” I also found László Kovács’s “The phantom of Barguzin” and Balázs Gusztáv Mende’s “Alexander Petrovics of Barguzin” useful. Here we learn that the Russian army didn’t take prisoners-of-war to Russia. In fact, they turned them over to the Austrians.

Is there a  lesson to be learned?

In my opinion every scientific debate, even the ones that include pseudo-scientific views, is useful, including the polemics surrounding the case of “Petőfi in Barguzin.” The reason for the usefulness of this debate is that it touches not only on the credibility of theories about historical events but also on the interpretation and assessment of Hungary’s place in the community of European nations. The credibility of historical writing is an absolute necessity in a nation that must not be jeopardized by pursuing seemingly interesting but hazy notions. Sándor Petőfi’s life ended with the defeat of the war of independence: it is in this way that his life is complete and whole. The poet’s life, and especially his death, is therefore not simply a series of facts or data but a very important motif in Hungarian national identity. An adult nation does not need legends, especially if they have been long refuted. We don’t have to search for, celebrate, and build statues in honor of Petőfi Barguzin. Rather, we must think of him as Petőfi of March 15, the revolution, the Transylvanian campaign, the poet, the politician, and the martyr of Segesvár.

Translated by Eva S. Balogh

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.

The long shadow of Viktor Orbán: Tibor Navracsics’s nomination as EU commissioner

Tibor Navracsics’s nomination to be one of the commissioners of the European Commission met with negative reviews from the start. Andrew Gardner of European Voice, a regular commentator on European affairs, wrote a scathing article about Navracsics and the man behind him on July 31. Hungary was eyeing the post of Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, but in Gardner’s opinion that would be precisely the post Navracsics should not get. “Reforms relating to the rule of law–including fundamental values–are now the alpha and omega in the EU’s enlargement talks…. [and] Navracsics would not be a credible spokesman for those principles, both given the record of Orbán’s government and Orbán’s stated intent to experiment with a different approach to democracy.” It is even more worrisome, he argued, that “Navracsics could choose to spin elements of enlargement talks to promote Hungary’s own rancorous policy agenda with its neighbors.” In addition, Gardner continued, “Orbán and Navracsics are using Ukraine’s multi-headed crisis to increase Hungarian influence and push an agenda that, as Orbán’s speech on Saturday suggests, is not an agenda based on liberal democracies’ advocacy of minority rights.” As the headline in Stop said, “Navracsics [is] in the shadow of Orbán.” And it’s a very dark shadow.

In comparison to some other high Fidesz politicians, Navracsics even seems moderate, but one cannot forget what was going on in the Hungarian judiciary under his watch as minister of justice. The chief prosecutor’s office staged dozens of politically motivated trials, and hundreds of laws were introduced without any serious discussion in parliament. The Constitutional Court was stripped of most of its power. It was with Navracsics’s assent that the Azeri murderer was freed from his Hungarian jail cell and returned to Azerbaijan. So, it was no wonder that DK immediately objected and announced that they found the nomination unacceptable. The same argument is now being used by Tibor Szanyi, one of the two MSZP EP members, who claims that the whole socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics. Of course, the opposition’s objections did not deter Viktor Orbán from nominating Navracsics, and it was most unlikely that Juncker would not accept Orbán’s choice. So, the only question was what kind of portfolio he would get.

It was clear from day one that the desired portfolio of enlargement and European neighborhood policy was out. An early, preliminary chart showed Navracsics as the possible commissioner of trade, which is an important position. Commentators treated that piece of information with caution. A few hours later Magyar Nemzet reported that Navracsics will most likely be Commissioner of Taxation, Customs, Statistics & Anti-Fraud, which is considered to be a lowly position in the Commission. You may recall that between 2004 and 2009 that position was occupied by László Kovács (MSZP), who was originally nominated for the post of commissioner in charge of energy, a very important post, which in the end he didn’t get because of his dismal performance at his hearing. Kovács claimed that Fidesz EP members did their best to discredit him. It will be a cruel fate if Viktor Orbán’s nominee receives the same post that Kovács occupied.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Whether the socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics’s nomination is difficult to say at the moment because there is no official word on the subject, but it looks as if the Fidesz EP members are somewhat concerned. They called upon the four Hungarian members of the socialist caucus–two MSZP and two DK members–to support Navracsics’s nomination. They called attention to the fact that if Navracsics’s nomination is vetoed the fate of the whole commission will be in jeopardy. The European Parliament votes for all the members of the commission en bloc.  If Navracsics is rejected, the whole procedure must be repeated. Népszabadság made fun of Fidesz’s argument in a headline: “Europe can be terrified if Navracsics does not become commissioner.”

The opposition papers were also gleeful over the fact that Navracsics may have to be satisfied with a less than weighty post. One online portal noted that the Hungarian nominee was grouped together with the nominees of Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and Portugal, which are considered to be less important countries. Stop, a newspaper close to the socialists, made fun of his possible position on the commission, saying that “Tibor Navracsics may putter around with taxes,” forgetting that the socialist Kovács filled the same post a few years back when the socialists certainly did not think that he just puttered around.

In any case, the list is complete and on Friday Jean-Claude Juncker sent it to Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, the country that is the current president of the European Union. On Tuesday we should know what post Navracsics is getting.

But he still cannot be entirely confident that the “shadow” of Viktor Orbán will not dampen his chances. The European socialists might play the same game as the Fidesz EP members did in 2004 when they made Kovács appear totally unqualified for the post of commissioner for energy matters. There is nothing in Navracsics’s background that is remotely connected to taxation, customs, or statistics. I’m sure that he can be made to look inept and unfit for this post.

If Navracsics encounters serious opposition in the European Parliament, we can be pretty certain that the real cause is Viktor Orbán’s relations with the “bureaucrats in Brussels.” Just yesterday at the traditional Fidesz picnic in Kötcse that he claimed that “if there is unity, we will conquer the crisis, the flood, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the financial powers and the banks.” He is ready to take on Brussels. Is Brussels ready to take him on?

The exit of Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian socialists

The drama was of short duration. On Tuesday Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party, seemed to be certain that he would remain the leader of MSZP and the whip of the party’s parliamentary group despite the disastrous showing at the EP election on May 25. He thought he could rely on the people who were considered to be his steadfast supporters and on whom he had depended throughout the last four or five years.

Mesterházy believed, and he was not alone in the party, that the secret to the revival of MSZP lay in the rejuvenation of the party. Here the word “rejuvenation” is used in its literal sense: getting rid of the older, more experienced leaders who were allegedly responsible for past mistakes and bringing in new faces. Preferably young ones. Closer to 30 than to 40. So, as far as the media was concerned, MSZP had a face lift. But cosmetic surgery was not enough. According to people whose opinion I trust, most of these new faces were only faces. Nothing substantive behind their countenances. These newly recruited people who were elevated to important positions gave the impression of mediocrity at best and total incompetence at worst.

Old hands in the party, especially lately, made it clear what they thought of Mesterházy’s new young crew. At first just quietly, but lately ever more loudly. Perhaps the most outspoken on the quality of the Mesterházy leadership was László Kovács, former chairman, foreign minister, and European Commissioner, who when asked in an interview on what basis these people were chosen, answered: “You ask the chairman of the party.” Or just lately another old-timer, Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman and very effective whip, said, alluding to Mesterjázy’s centralization of power, that “what we need is not a small Fidesz in a worse version.” After all, no one can achieve, even if he wanted to, the one-man rule of Viktor Orbán.

According to people familiar with the internal workings of MSZP, Mesterházy was very good at developing a structure within the party that served his personal ambitions. He was also good at playing political chess, which usually ended with his winning the game. He managed to organize a party list of the United Alliance which greatly favored MSZP at the expense of DK and E14-PM. As a result, the other two parties, each with four MPs, couldn’t form official caucuses, which would have greatly enhanced their own voices and would have strengthened the joint forces of the democratic opposition parties.

Mesterházy was accused by some of his colleagues in the party of playing games with the party’s by-laws. By not resigning himself but only offering the resignation of the whole presidium (elnökség), he was able to postpone an election of all the officials, which is a very long process in MSZP. That would have ensured the continuation of his chairmanship and the existence of the current leadership for months. It was at this junction that the important personages in the party decided to act. At least one well-known socialist politician apparently told the others that if they postpone the election process, card-carrying party members will join DK in hordes because they have had enough of the paralysis that the party leadership has exhibited for some time.

Perhaps it was the Budapest MSZP leadership that was most affected by the results of the EP election. Let’s face it, MSZP lost Budapest. Csaba Horváth’s candidacy for the lord mayoralty is dead; Zsolt Molnár, who headed the Budapest MSZP organization, has resigned; and here was Mesterházy who, in their eyes, was making it impossible for them to recoup in Budapest before the municipal elections. The first group in Budapest to revolt against the chairman was the XIIIth district where MSZP was always very strong. Csepel, once an MSZP stronghold, followed suit. Dissatisfaction spread, and very soon all twenty-three district centers expressed their misgivings and demanded Mesterházy’s resignation.

Some of the old-timers offered solutions on how to change the leadership without getting involved in a complicated and lengthy election of new officials. László Kovács suggested an interim governing body that would be made up of politicians who in the past had showed that they had the trust of the electorate. That is, they won elections on their own. He could think of 6-8 people who could take part in that body. In addition, he would ask László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who has been able to be elected and reelected even in the most difficult times. Kovács also suggested three former chairmen of the party: István Haller, Ildikó Lendvai, and he himself. Mesterházy’s defiant answer to Kovács’s suggestion was: “It is not Lendvai and Kovács who are the bearers of the message of the future.”

Yesterday the party leaders of Budapest were ready for compromise. If Mesterházy resigns as chairman he can still be the whip, a position very dear to his heart. At least he made a case for occupying that post regardless of the fate of the chairmanship in a television interview. But after seeing Mesterházy’s stubbornness, the Budapest leaders and others wanted to strip him even of his parliamentary position. Some MSZP politicians were in fact ready to expel him from the party if he doesn’t play ball. Under these circumstances he had no choice but to resign. Today at noon he held a press conference and announced his resignation both as chairman and as whip of MSZP’s parliamentary group. He added that at the next election of officials he will not seek any position in the party leadership.

Photo: MTI

Photo: MTI

There was a sigh of relief, I’m sure, in the inner circles of the party. However, as one party official said, “this is not the end of the road but its beginning.” The party leadership, he added, “has to eliminate the heritage of the Mesterházy era.” And that will not be easy. For example, the MSZP parliamentary delegation is “Mesterházy’s caucus.” Some people within the party leadership think that each MP who gained a mandate from the party list should offer his resignation. This is not a realistic scenario. These people cannot be forced to offer their resignation and they would be unlikely to resign willingly. The pro-Mesterházy MPs, however, might not be a genuine problem because, according to the latest rumors, even his hand-picked MPs have abandoned him.

As for a successor, many names are circulating at the moment: László Botka, József Tóbiás, István Haller, to mention just a few. I have the feeling that what most people have in mind is an interim “collective leadership” until the party can have a full-fledged congress that would officially elect a new chairman and fill the other top positions.

I think that time is of the essence if MSZP hopes to recoup for the municipal election, although I myself doubt that they will be able to substantially increase their support either in Budapest or elsewhere. On the other hand, I see a good possibility that DK and E14-PM will be able to attract new followers. Success breeds success. I heard, for instance, that DK is getting a lot of membership applications. Yet, just as Ferenc Gyurcsány emphasizes, the three parties must cooperate in the municipal elections. Otherwise, they have no chance of capturing Budapest where at the moment Fidesz is leading in spite of the relatively good showing of DK, E14-PM, MSZP, and LMP. Although the media close to Fidesz intimate that DK is out to capture former MSZP voters while E14-PM is trying to lure former LMP voters, both parties claim to stand by MSZP in its present crisis. In fact, DK politicians keep emphasizing that their interest lies in a strong MSZP. I’m sure that at the moment this is the case. Eventually, however, it is inevitable that these parties will be pitted against one another for the future leadership of the left-of-center forces in Hungary.

Rearrangement on the Hungarian left? It looks like it

Although there are many topics we could discuss today, I would like to return to party politics. I’m interested in the analysis of intra-party developments because of my fascination with personalities and their interactions. My other reason for taking up the topic is that in my opinion we will most likely witness major changes within the democratic opposition soon.

I don’t think that I ever hid the fact that I consider the arrangement that was sealed by Attila Mesterházy of MSZP and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt14-PM unsatisfactory. And, it seems, the potential supporters of this “electoral association” feel the same way as I do. Admittedly, how we feel about a certain occurrence is always influenced by our own likes or dislikes, and therefore it is not the best barometer of the effectiveness of a political action. The real problem, however, with the agreement between E14 and MSZP is that it didn’t bring the expected results. That is a fact that is hard to deny. Surely, the signatories hoped that even a loose coalition would rally the anti-Fidesz forces. It didn’t happen. On the contrary, E14 effectively lost about half of its potential voters.

Looking back on the events of the last half year, I’m actually surprised that the politicians of these two parties ever thought that the arrangement that was achieved only with great difficulty would ever work. You may recall that E14 refused to negotiate until they had their nationwide campaign. E14 politicians were obviously hoping to sit down to negotiate with MSZP from a position of strength. You may also recall that this hoped-for outcome didn’t materialize. Between March and October E14 support  hovered between 3 and 5% in the electorate as a whole. No amount of campaigning helped. Mind you, MSZP didn’t fare any better. The party was stuck between 14 and 15% among all eligible voters. Meanwhile valuable months were wasted.

After the debacle of the October 23 opposition rally and the phony Baja video scandal I hate to think what the next opinion polls will tell us about the state of these two parties. One doesn’t have to be a political genius to see that something went terribly wrong. But it seems that neither Bajnai nor Mesterházy has been willing to admit his mistake. They keep sticking to an untenable position: no renegotiation, no compromise. Everything is peachy-pie as is.

At this point, I was just waiting for the palace revolutions. I didn’t have to wait for long. Two days ago Péter Kónya, leader of Solidarity, was the guest of Olga Kálmán where the careful listener could discern deep trouble within E14.

Solidarity is part of E14-PM, but Kónya hasn’t been given much exposure despite Solidarity’s fairly extensive nationwide base. You may recall that it was Kónya who came up with the idea of an Orbán styrofoam statue imitating the Stalin statue that met its maker on the very first day of the October Revolution. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy timidly repudiated the action, which only gave further ammunition to the hypocritical outrage on the right. At this point I tried to imagine myself in Kónya’s shoes, who steadfastly refuses admit his “mistake.” I would have been furious as I believe Kónya was. Right now, he might be facing a charge of disorderly conduct. Yet he refuses to back down and told Kálmán that he was ready to go to jail if necessary.

Changing leaves

Changing leaves

It was at the end of the conversation that the really important piece of information could be heard. Yes, said Kónya, there are internal disputes concerning strategy in E14. Although at the top of the hierarchy the party leaders refuse to negotiate with Ferenc Gyurcsány, on the local level Solidarity activists are working hand in hand with DK members.  Concurrently with this interview Népszabadság ran an article with the title “Solidarity demands greater influence: Sharp criticisms.” From the article it became clear that Kónya wants a closer working relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció.

And what one cannot read in the newspapers or hear from the politicians themselves: apparently local E14 members have been leaving the party in droves and joining DK. Apparently there are localities where E14 centers no longer exist. Surely, something must be done.

The situation is not much better in MSZP, although we know less about the inner workings of the party. The first inkling that not all’s well at Mesterházy’s headquarters came from Ildikó Lendvai, legendary whip of MSZP and later chair of the party who decided not to run as a candidate. Her decision, as we learned today, was based on her belief that she was considered one of those old timers the new leadership wants to see disappear. Mind you, Lendvai is one of the most sympathetic and smartest politicians in MSZP, and her quick mind and wit made her one of the best leaders of the MSZP parliamentary group. László Kovács, another old timer, was also on his way out. Their places were taken by second-rates.  One such lightweight was interviewed on ATV two days ago. Olga Kálmán managed to make him look like a fool.

In any case, about a week ago Lendvai gave an interview to Heti Válasz from which we could learn that she holds different views on party strategy from those of the chairman. Very diplomatically but clearly, she indicated that given the strengthening of the Demokratikus Koalíció and the weakening of E14 some kind of renegotiation of the terms of the agreement between MSZP and E14 will have to take place. She suggested that one of the problems standing in the way of a mutual understanding between MSZP and DK is that MSZP couldn’t decide on its attitude toward the party’s record during the Gyurcsány era. The way I read the abbreviated version of the interview online, Lendvai indicated that MSZP should have proudly embraced some of the accomplishments of the period between 2004 and 2009.

And then came the bungled video case. I’m sure that there were already rebels within the party who were not too pleased that Mesterházy was unable to handle the situation at the October 23 rally. An experienced politician would have been able to respond to those who demanded “unity.” Instead, Mesterházy stubbornly stuck to his prepared text just as now he stubbornly holds to the view that the agreement works splendidly when it is obvious that it doesn’t. The handling of the video was, I think, the last straw. By now it looks as if Mesterházy isn’t the master of his own house.

Yesterday came the news that some MSZP leaders, for example Gergely Bárándy and Zsolt Molnár, tried to deny that Ildikó Lendvai and László Kovács will be “advisers” to Attila Mesterházy. Today Lendvai was interviewed by György Bolgár* where she candidly shared her own views as to what strategy MSZP should pursue for participation in a unified democratic opposition. She added that this is her own private opinion that many people within the party don’t share. Clearly, she stands on the side of those who think that MSZP cannot stick with a mistaken agreement that has led nowhere. It was a mistake at the moment of its signing and since then it has become what looks like a blunder. Somehow the wrong must be righted. Now the question is: will Attila Mesterházy listen to the “oldies”?  I have the feeling he has no choice.


*For those of you who understand the language I highly recommend listening to the Lendvai interview with György Bolgár available here: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-155854.mp3 The interview begins at 27:32 in the first part and continues in the second part: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-162853.mp3