Tag Archives: Mária Vásárhelyi

Mária Vásárhelyi: George Soros’s foundation in Hungary

It was in July 1988 that my youngest child was born at the First Gynecological Clinic with serious respiratory and visual problems. When I visited her in the unit where premature babies were being cared for, on the incubator in which she was lying was a sign: “this instrument is a gift of the Soros Foundation.” The doctors explained that previously the hospital didn’t have such up-to-date equipment despite the fact that the greatest danger for premature babies is possible blindness as a result of too much pressure being applied in the neonatal ventilator. This new machine, on the other hand, constantly measures and regulates the air pressure. Possibly it was this machine that saved my daughter’s eyesight. Before and after my child, hundreds of premature babies began their fragile lives on this ventilator. They all had the same chance: the premature child of the poverty-stricken Roma, the worker from Csepel, the party functionary, or the street vendor who had his own business. These families had not the foggiest idea that their newborns could become healthy children thanks to the support of the George Soros Foundation.

Today, when the name of George Soros together with the concepts of an open society and liberalism have become dirty words and when newly formed civic organizations are eager to announce that they are in no way supported by the satanic billionaire, it is worthwhile recalling in what ways George Soros helped Hungarian society before the regime change and after. Because it is unfair that when George Soros’s name is being mentioned in connection with his activities in Hungary, even those who try to defend him recall only the support he gave to the members of the opposition to the Kádár regime, including Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians. I don’t think that Orbán and his associates owe Soros any gratitude for the scholarships they received. The Soros Foundation helped the members of the opposition because their goals aligned with the objectives of the Soros Foundation: democratizing  Hungary and building the institutional structure of an open society. Neither George Soros nor the board members of the Soros Foundation expected any gratitude for the support given. Moreover, it is particularly unfair that in connection with Soros, pro or con, only those scholarship recipients are mentioned who later became well-known politicians when the activities of the Foundation from the very beginning were much more diverse. The assistance given to organizations and members of the democratic opposition was insignificant in comparison to the amount of money spent on public education, medical science, and educational institutions in addition to cultural and scientific life.

Over two decades (1984-2004) the Soros Foundation spent 150 million dollars (worth today at least 100 billion forints) on the development of the rule of law and civic society, the convergence of disadvantaged groups, Roma integration, education, healthcare, public education, science, and the arts. During those twenty years 40,000 of 90,000 applicants received assistance based on the evaluation of 500 associates of the Foundation and as many outside experts.

During the first five years of its existence, the Foundation supported authors, educators, researchers, and projects deemed worthwhile with grants totaling 3 million dollars (approximately 3 billion forints today). As George Soros said in an interview, “we didn’t pay people for what they had done, we only helped them attain what they wanted to accomplish.” Half of the annual 3 billion forints was given in dollars, the other half in forints. Most of this money was spent not on scholarships but on Hungarian healthcare and educational facilities.

Between 1984 and 1988 the Foundation spent 800 million forints for business management training, 800 million forints for copy machines, 600 million forints for medical equipment, 800 million forints for English language training for high school students and their teachers, 500 million forints for video equipment for educational and scientific institutions, 200 million forints for the propagation of Hungarian culture abroad, 180 million forints for audio libraries for the blind, and 270 million for Hungarian scholars to attend foreign conferences. And these are just a few items that couldn’t have become a reality without financial assistance. For example, in 1987 175 English teachers and English-major college and high school students could study in the United States. In the same year, the Foundation spent 1.5 million dollars on the purchase of medicine available only outside Hungary. The Foundation had a key role to play in the blossoming of Hungarian periodical literature (which by the way has since been destroyed by the present government) by assisting publications regardless of their ideological affiliation. It assisted scores of publications from Beszélő, a famous samizdat publication in the Kádár era, to Vigilia, a Catholic publication. It also assisted specialized colleges attached to universities where talented students received extracurricular instruction by financing the organization of discussion forums, enabling them to invite guest lecturers for their lecture series and so on.

At the same time the Foundation never made a secret of the fact that its primary objective was the support of cultural and communal pursuits that would be the basis of a future civic society that would promote the country’s democratic development. These objectives are antithetical to all dictatorial, autocratic powers, including the current Hungarian government.

The five-ten per semester scholarships that were awarded, although they fit into the Foundation’s philosophy, amounted to a very small portion of the amount spent by the Foundation. They were given primarily to people who, as the enemies of the dictatorship, couldn’t travel abroad and who, for the most part, lived in deprivation and insecurity, being unable to get a job. These foreign scholarships provided them time for peaceful work, for self-improvement and information gathering, in addition to a few months of existential security. Naturally these scholarships created the most political conflict because they widened the opposition’s room for maneuverability and limited the totalitarian power’s pressure on the opposition.

The assistance given to members and organizations of the opposition irritated the functionaries of the dictatorship just as today it irritates the representatives of the illiberal state. But at least the functionaries of the dictatorship had enough sense to realize that “the Soros Foundation’s activities are in a sector where our possibilities have always been limited and which in the future will be even more so…. If we don’t allow the Foundation to function, its termination would create a gap that would produce unmet needs. Creative research possibilities of interesting people would come to naught,” wrote János Knopp, a ministry of interior police officer, in his report to the “Agit-Prop” Department of MSZMP’s Politburo in September 1987.

In 1989—as a result of the political changes—the structure of the assistance itself changed. U.S. law forbids the financing of political parties, and consequently the Foundation’s primary task became the strengthening of the civic underpinnings of the newly-born political parties. In that year, over and above the three million dollar annual budget, Soros provided another million for assistance to democratic organizations and communities in this transitional period. Civic bases of both left- and right-leaning parties received an equal amount of assistance. The person in charge of this particular project was László Sólyom, who led the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) at the negotiations that resulted in regime change. With this program, the Foundation helped bring to life hundreds of self-governing communities and civic groups. Parallel with this project another one million dollars was spent on a program to provide foreign currency for small businessmen to purchase necessary equipment. (At that time the Hungarian forint was not convertible.)

After the formation of the first freely elected parliament, the assistance structure of the Foundation was once again altered. Although in the 1980s George Soros didn’t want charitable programs to be a major part of the work of the Foundation, after the change of regime, facing rapidly sharpening social tension after the mass impoverishment and marginalization of millions, the focus increasingly shifted to public education, healthcare, unresolved social problems, and Roma integration.

The first large social project was the distribution of free milk to school children, starting in 1991. Every needy child, initially only in Budapest, received at least one glass of milk and a fresh bun daily. The founder insisted, however, that other sponsors and individuals, like better-off parents, should also help with the project. This outside sponsorship not only fizzled out after a few months, but the project was under fire from the right, which accused the project of serving only to popularize Budapest’s liberal leadership. It was also a sad lesson that “in many schools the teachers didn’t want to cooperate, or if they did, they didn’t want to do the work without extra pay, and therefore the delivered milk and baked goods remained undistributed.” A couple of years later the project was revived, and by 1993 134,000 children across the country received a regular free breakfast at school. The history of the milk project says a lot about the attitude of right-wing parties and the majority of the middle class toward those who live in dire poverty. It is not a coincidence that the project, later taken over by the government, was eliminated recently by the Orbán government, surely in the spirit of Christian charity.

The two important projects in the period between 1993 and 2000 were raising the quality of education and Roma integration. During this period the Foundation spent at least 15 billion forints in today’s terms on integration programs. At the beginning the Foundation concentrated on Roma organization projects, which were intended to promote self-governance, the preservation of Roma culture, and a decrease in inequality. Over the years, however, the emphasis shifted to the education of Roma students. During this period 1,691 Roma teachers and students received scholarships within the Teacher-Student Program, 1,212 received rewards for outstanding scholarship, 1,286 Roma families received financial help to continue their children’s education after the compulsory eight grades, and more than 3,000 Roma college students received scholarships from the Foundation.

Another 15 billion forints was spent between 1994 and 2004 on the development of Hungarian higher education. Assistance was extended to college students as well as professors for study abroad, and a considerable amount of money was spent on the development of innovative teaching methods, the creation of alternative schools, assistance to disadvantaged and disabled children, and a number of other projects aiming at the modernization of education.

Deciding whether the amount of money George Soros spent supporting Hungary’s democratic transformation, the strengthening of its civic society, culture, science, arts and education was a lot or a little depends on your viewpoint. If we compare it to Soros’s total wealth or to the amount of money the government spends on these areas in toto, it wasn’t much. But if we compare it to the amount of money the government spends individually on these areas or if we consider that the amount of money Soros spent on Hungarian society would make Soros one of the ten richest men in the country, then it is a lot. If we keep in mind that in Hungary—where the culture of giving, solidarity, and philanthropy even considering the country’s economic development is very low—no other single individual contributed as generously as George Soros did in the last 100 years, then we can surely state that this was more than a lot. We should add that the Foundation’s finances were totally transparent, and during its existence not a shadow of corruption ever fell on it. It can be said that the Soros Foundation, currently under the crossfire of political attacks, was both in its philosophy and its activities an exemplary institution, serving modernization and social solidarity.

It is not only immoral and distasteful of Viktor Orbán and his oligarchs to incite the hate campaign against George Soros because many of them were recipients of the Foundation’s grants but because—over and above hate’s destructive force—to the best of my knowledge up to now none of them gave a penny for the common good and the well-being of Hungary from their own money grabbed from the public purse. We know only too well how government politicians and their family members amassed immense wealth and how János Lázár declared that “mothers with girls should realize that their children can be a very good match” for some eligible young man in twenty years’ time. But I have never heard them say that they would have supported a child who lived in deep poverty in order to make his life a bit easier in the future.

Sometime in the 1990s the brother of George Soros, Paul, who is also one of the richest Americans, said in a documentary film that he gives money only to countries that were hit by epidemics and/or natural disasters. To attain political goals—however noble they may be—he never extends help because sooner or later they take a different turn and become weapons against the donor. At that time I listened to these words with some incomprehension, but by now I have a much better idea what he meant.

March 5, 2017

Despite an all-out effort, enthusiasm for the referendum is shrinking

A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.

tudta-kampany

The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.

Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.

Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.

Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.

Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.

Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote ‘no.’”

Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.

Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.

The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.

DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.

MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.

A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.

September 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

Mária Vásárhelyi: An open letter to Mrs. Annette Lantos

vasarhelyi mariaMária Vásárhelyi is a sociologist whose main interest is the state of the media. She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001) who served as the press secretary of the second Imre Nagy government. As a result he and his family, including the three-year-old Mária, were deported together with Imre Nagy and his family to Snagov, Romania. Miklós Vásárhelyi received a five-year sentence for his activities during the 1956 Revolution. I should add that Mária Vásárhelyi is one of my favorite publicists in Hungary.

* * *

Dear Mrs. Lantos,

Although we have not met personally, your late husband and my late father, Miklós Vásárhelyi, used to hold each other in high esteem; therefore I take the liberty to write this letter to you.

The tie between your husband and my father was not only based on common historical experience and mutual personal sympathy; they also shared some values that were manifest in moral and political issues that both of them found crucially important. And both of them bravely took a stance whenever they saw those values endangered. Among these principles the idea of freedom was of primary importance, as well as the representation of human rights, or responsibility for the situation of the minorities and the oppressed. Both fought in the Hungarian armed resistance against the fascist occupation; they worked to bring down the state socialist dictatorship; they stood up for the rights of Hungarian communities beyond the borders; and also spoke out after the democratic transformation, when racist and anti-Semitic views came to the fore on the political scene.

As far as I remember, among Hungarians living abroad, your husband was the first to protest when István Csurka’s anti-Semitic pamphlet “Some Thoughts” was published. He also raised his voice in 2007 when the Slovak Parliament reaffirmed the infamous Beneš Decrees. Your husband was most determined in his condemnation of the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, an anti-Roma and anti-Semitic organization, whose purpose was to intimidate and publicly humiliate the minorities in Hungary. To my knowledge, when he last met Viktor Orbán he made a point of expressing his dismay about how several politicians from Fidesz gave support to the foundation and activities of the Hungarian Guard, with Fidesz as a party not distancing itself unambiguously from that paramilitary organization.

The deep, principled understanding and mutual appreciation between your husband and my father was testified to by the speech Tom Lantos made in the House of Representatives on October 6, 2005, in which he emphasized my father’s “significant contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy,” as someone “who played a critically important role before and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, in the struggle to transform Hungary from a one-party communist state into a multi-party democracy.”

In the light of these facts I am certain you will understand why I find it so important to write to you about the House of Fates, on whose International Consultative Board you were invited to be a member. I am convinced that this institution, rather than serving its officially proclaimed aim of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and drawing the public’s attention to the tragedy of child victims, would serve the falsification of history, the politically motivated expropriation of historical memory, and purposes of party propaganda. The policies of the Orbán administration during the past few years, and its ambivalent (to put it mildly) relations with the extreme right; its policy of ignoring the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary; as well as all that we know about the project so far – its contents, the circumstances of its establishment, the name itself, the location selected and the deadline chosen for its construction, the person in charge, the choice of the trustees – tend to suggest that the real purpose of the new European Educational Center is to downplay whatever responsibility Hungary had for the Holocaust and to mend the damaged international reputation of the current right-wing government.

During the past few years there have been more and more acts of desecration of Jewish symbols, prayer houses, cemeteries, and attacks on individuals whom the attackers took to be Jewish. A series of international and Hungarian sociological surveys give evidence of an extraordinary growth of anti-Semitism within Hungarian society; at least one fourth of the population openly declares it has anti-Semitic views, and many more people are simply prejudiced against the Jews. Everyday anti-Semitic discourse (zsidózás) is quite common in the streets and other public spaces. The same surveys make it clear that while the economic crisis played a role in the increased number of these occurrences, its effect has been boosted in the right-wing and extreme-right political context. Meanwhile, according to comparative research conducted in nine EU member states, it is Hungary where people of Jewish descent feel the most threatened. In 2012, 91% of the members of the Hungarian Jewish community said anti-Semitism had recently worsened to a smaller or larger degree; it is the largest portion among the countries surveyed. During five years, the number of those who consider anti-Semitism a serious social problem has nearly doubled. I am, of course, aware of the fact that anti-Semitism has become more widespread in most European countries, but it is still revealing that while only 11% of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom thinks of anti-Semitism as “a very big problem,” in Hungary 49% hold this view. In the UK 18% of those identifying themselves as Jews have contemplated emigration because of “not feeling safe as Jews”, while in Hungary this ratio is 48%.

I also believe that Viktor Orbán and his party are heavily responsible for the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s reputation is rapidly worsening in the eyes of the democratic world, and this is largely due to their particular responses to ever-growing racism and anti-Semitism as well as some of their decisions concerning personal appointments and cultural policy, which gave fuel to such vicious emotions. Falsification of Hungary’s history, whitewashing the crimes of the Horthy era, elevating well-known anti-Semites (public figures, politicians, writers) to the national pantheon, while throwing mud at brave and honest left-wing and liberal patriots, are all features of the current government’s cultural and heritage policies. Parts of the media, which this government supports morally or financially (in direct and indirect ways), are full of overt and covert racist or anti-Semitic statements. Several of the figureheads of the pro-government press openly incite hatred against homosexuals, Jews, and the Roma. In the first rows of the so-called “Peace Marches,” demonstrations organized to prove that there is mass support behind Fidesz’s policies, there are well-known anti-Semites. One of the leaders of the quasi-NGO responsible for these marches used to be a founder and intellectual leader of the Hungarian Guard; another one, an emblematic figure in Fidesz, is a journalist whose work can be legally criticized as anti-Semitic, according to a court ruling. Still another leading figure of the Fidesz-related media can justly be called the father of Holocaust relativization in Hungary.

The government uses doublespeak. On the one hand, the deputy prime minister at the conference of the Tom Lantos Institute, Hungary’s ambassador at the United Nations, or, most recently, the President of the Republic, have used words of humanism and solidarity commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and admitting in unambiguous language that the Hungarian state and public administration bore responsibility for the murder of 600,000 of our Jewish compatriots. On the other hand, the government itself and government institutions have made countless gestures to the far right, relativizing the Holocaust, and denying that the Hungarian state apparatus was responsible to any degree.

This intention of downplaying Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust is most apparent in the preamble of the Fundamental Law (Constitution), promulgated in 2011 under the Fidesz government, which states, “our country’s self-determination [was] lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944”. Which means that Germany as the occupying power must bear full responsibility for the deportation and wholesale murder of Hungarian Jewry. Apart from the fact that it was not an occupation in the international legal sense (the German armed forces did not occupy any Hungarian territories against the will of the Hungarian government), plenty of historical evidence and the testimonies of the survivors prove that the Hungarian authorities’ zeal and effectiveness in organizing the deportations shocked even the Germans, including high-level SS officers, while a significant part of the population watched the deportation of their fellow citizens with utmost indifference. The narrative that the government suggests through the text of the Fundamental Law is, therefore, an utter lie. Similarly, the planned 70th anniversary commemorations of the Holocaust are marked by an intention of falsification and lies – including the establishment of The House of Fates European Educational Center.

The name House of Fates is evidently an allusion to Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, but its message is quite the opposite. It suggests that being murdered in a concentration camp was the fate of those children, but, although they lived through it, the fate was not theirs. As Kertész writes, “if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible (…) if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate (…) That is to say, then we ourselves are fate.” (English translation by Tim Wilkinson) This is how the main protagonist of the novel, Gyurka Köves, formulates the key to his own story, when he realizes that whatever happened to him was not his own fate, although he himself lived through it. The name House of Fates is not just a play on words but a complete misinterpretation of the essence of the Holocaust. And not just the name but also the site is a telling sign of the intellectual emptiness behind the lofty and bombastic use of the Holocaust as a political instrument. Holocaust researchers and survivors all agree that the Józsefváros Railway Station is not a symbolic site of deportation, and no children were taken from there to Auschwitz. The historian in charge of the project’s concept – who once happened to call the Horthy régime, which presided over the Hungarian Jews’ total deprivation of rights and exclusion, “a democracy until 1938” – is not a Holocaust expert. During the past 25 years, she has not produced any publications of scholarly merit on this subject but was at the center of quite a few scandals.

The plans that have been leaked out indicate that the central message of the Educational Center would not be the tragedy of innocent children but the rescuers, those brave and honorable citizens who put their lives at risk in their efforts to help and save their persecuted compatriots. Naturally, there should be monuments commemorating their bravery and sacrifice, but why must the plight of many thousands of murdered children be used for that purpose? This is the dishonest betrayal and political utilization of the child victims’ memory.

Dear Annette Lantos, living thousands of kilometers away from Hungary you may not be aware of all this. That is why I felt it was my duty to inform you of these issues and draw your attention to some aspects of the cause in support of which your late husband’s memory and your own name are being used. I ask you to reconsider whether you want to participate in the Consultative Board’s proceedings.

Respectfully yours,

Mária Vásárhely

Mária Vásárhelyi: The Renaissance of Homo Kádáricus

Today I will summarize an article by sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi that appeared a couple of days ago in Élet és Irodalom. The article is another attempt at defining the political order that has developed in Hungary in the last three and a half years.

There are at least three good reasons for making the gist of the article available on Hungarian Spectrum. First, because relatively few people can read it in the original. Second, because even those who can handle Hungarian might not be able to peruse it because ÉS is nowadays available only to subscribers. And third, because I hold Mária Vásárhelyi’s work in high regard. The media is the focus of her research, but in this article she talks about the pervasive influence of János Kádár’s regime. We must keep in mind that the Kádár era lasted more than a generation, to be precise 33 years.

She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, a close associate of Imre Nagy who became the spokesman of the second Nagy government on November 1, 1956. When the Soviet troops began their offensive against the rebels on November 4, Vásárhelyi and his family, including his children, joined Imre Nagy and others in the Yugoslav Embassy and after November 23 in Romania. Eventually Vásárhelyi was sentenced to five years in jail.

So, Mária Vásárhelyi’s democratic credentials cannot be questioned. One can’t argue that she or her family was in any way associated with the Kádár regime and that thus she tries to minimize its responsibilities. I heard an interview with her some years back in which she described what it was like to be the daughter of “that Vásárhelyi.”

The article’s title is “The Renaissance of Homo Kadaricus.” It is thus clear from the beginning that Vásárhelyi seeks the roots of the present political system in the Kádár era. She begins on an optimistic note. She is sure that Orbán’s system will collapse because “it is not viable economically, in social terms it is terribly unjust and morally depraved.”

Many analysts have tried to describe and explain the phenomenon of Orbanism. How it was possible that within three short years Orbán and his minions managed to undo the democratic achievements of the regime change that occurred between 1989 and 2010. Explanations naturally vary: the lack of a democratic tradition, centuries of foreign domination, or the lack of a robust middle class. Others argue that in Hungary right-wing influences, especially strong during the Horthy regime, made such an impression on the Hungarian psyche that a large, if not predominant, portion of Hungarian society sympathizes with the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán.

Mária Vásárhelyi, without doubting that all of these influences are important, sees “the largest role in Orbán’s successes in the reminiscences of the Kádár era and the anomalies of the regime change.”

Those who have studied the Kádár regime or who experienced it first hand know that on the surface the period between 1963 and 1985 was considered by many to be the golden age of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Most people were totally satisfied with their lot and expected that every year they and their families would live better. There was a kind of unspoken arrangement by which the people didn’t poke their noses into politics and, in exchange, the party and the government made sure that their material yearnings would be more or less satisfied. Most people had no idea about the serious economic problems that existed already in the 1980s and, even if they did know about them, they didn’t think it was their business to get involved in any way. János Kádár and the others would take care of everything.

The overwhelming concern of most people was material, to which all else was subordinated: morals, compassion, democracy, freedom, human intercourse. They had little sympathy for the practically starving Poles or the oppressed Hungarians in Ceaușescu’s Romania. If they heard about the democratic opposition’s activities, they condemned them because, in their opinion, “they endangered the peace and order of Hungary” or because “they served the interests of the Great Powers.” Today’s Hungarians are to a great extent the products of this age and outlook.

Kadar 1959

János Kádár among his own, 1959

Vásárhelyi thinks that the Orbán regime’s Horthy cult is only an “eyewash” to keep those right-wingers whose vote is necessary to remain in power. Vásárhelyi is convinced that for the great majority of Hungarians the Horthy era means nothing. Some of them can’t even place it in time. Orbán’s real popularity lies in his success at being able to speak the language of the Everyman of the Kádár regime and his appeal to the selfishness of the middle classes that dread their loss of standing. Even “the nationalist rhetoric is no more than the mortar that helps to activate and organize these attitudes into a whole.”

I find Mária Vásárhelyi’s argument compelling–another piece of the puzzle that is the Orbán government.

Public opinion research in the Kádár regime

While Viktor Orbán is showing his compassionate side to the participants of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest I’m moving back for a day to the Kádár regime and its anomalies. One of the oddities not normally associated with one-party dictatorships was a center where sociologists studied public opinion. The work they produced wasn’t made public. Some of it was done at the behest of Magyar Rádió and Television (audience preferences). Other studies were commissioned by the Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agit-Prop) of MSZMP.

The Mass Communication Research Center (Tömegkommunkációs Kutatóközpont) was established in 1969 under the aegis of the Hungarian Radio. They wanted to know what the Hungarian public wanted. Considering that radio and television were a vital part of the everyday life of Hungarians in those days, it was essential that the authorities produce programs that met demands. Eventually, however, the competence of the research center was widened when the party realized that it might be to the advantage of the leadership to have a sense of the mood of the country. However, according to Mária Vásárhelyi, who is largely responsible for the fact that the material the Center produced didn’t perish, the people who worked in the Agit-Prop Department didn’t realize either the work’s value or its possible dangers. She has the feeling that few people ever bothered to look at the highly technical studies the Center produced.

The Center was closed in 1991 and part of its material eventually ended up in the Open Society Archives attached to the Central European University founded by financier George Soros. Currently 500 sociological studies and public opinion polls from the 1969-1991 period are available for study.

newsjunkiepost.com

newsjunkiepost.com

The first question we must ask is whether one can take subject responses at all seriously; after all, Hungarians were living in a dictatorship and might not have been forthcoming. Sociologists who either worked there or who are familiar with the sociological methods used then claim that the results can be considered scientifically sound. Surely, there were taboo topics, like the Soviet troops in Hungary, multi-party political systems, and the nature of dictatorship, but the sociologists simply avoided such questions until the second half of the 1980s. At that point they even inquired about a possible political change in Hungary. By 1989, 70% of the population considered the rule of Mátyás Rákosi deleterious for Hungary while only 40% thought the same about the Horthy regime.

Here are a few interesting findings. First, as to Hungarians’ self-image. It is known that most ethnic groups have a favorable opinion of themselves. But, given all the talk about Hungarian pessimism, it might come as a surprise that “there was no sign of pessimism anywhere” in the 1970s. When asked to describe Hungarians they answered in positive terms: jovial people who like to drink and eat; they like parties; they are friendly and hospitable. They also like to work and are diligent. The respondents admitted that Hungarians tend to be jealous of one another and that they are selfish. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t want anything to do with politics.

In 1971 91% of those questioned were proud of being Hungarian. What were they proud of? That Hungary became a “beautiful industrial country from a formerly agrarian one.” That Hungary can boast “a world famous cuisine, musicians, and animal husbandry.” “Because no other country has such a beautiful history.” “We struggled for centuries until we reached this height. We even have a role in world politics.”

What were they not proud of? Hungary’s role in World War II (32%), the human failings of Hungarians (21%), those who left Hungary illegally (15%), 1956 (11.5%), the reactionary regimes of the past (8.1%), the mistakes after the liberation (7.5%), and finally, the territorial losses (5.0%).

It is somewhat surprising that the MSZMP’s Agit-Prop Department was interested in people’s views of Trianon. The question had to be formulated very carefully. Eventually it read: “The defeat suffered at the end of World War I in its way ended the crisis that pried open the framework of the multinational Hungarian state. Do you know about the Peace of Trianon and if yes what do you see as its cause?” It turned out that 61% of the adult population didn’t know what the Peace of Trianon was all about. Mind you, 44% of them didn’t know what the Warsaw Pact was while 21% had wrong information about it; 40% had no idea about the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon either. 64% didn’t know what the words “nationalist/nationalism” were all about and 76% didn’t know the meaning of antisemitism. Oh, those were the days!

It is not true, despite Fidesz propaganda to the contrary, that during the Kádár period people didn’t even know that there were Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. An overwhelming majority did know. However, they didn’t consider them to be part of the nation. Many, especially people in their twenties, felt no kinship with them.

By 1985 the research center cut its ties to Magyar Rádió and changed its name to Magyar Közvéleménykutató Intézet (Hungarian Public Opinion Institute). Why did the Antall government decide to close it in 1991 and disperse its archives? According to Mária Vásárhelyi, there were at least two reasons. One was that the Antall government (1990-1993) was rapidly losing popularity and the Institute’s results reflected this uncomfortable political reality. The government might also have thought that its researchers were just a bunch of communists whose findings were influenced by their political views. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true. Because these people were in the forefront of sociological research, which itself was a taboo discipline in the socialist countries, most of them were close to the opposition forces of the late Kádár regime. The second reason was practical. The Institute occupied a very valuable building in downtown Pest which the state sold to a German bank. It was at this point that Mária Vásárhelyi rushed to Domokos Kosáry, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who being a historian immediately realized the value of the material gathered by the sociologists between 1969 and 1991. He was the one who rescued the material which otherwise would (at best) have ended up in a cellar.

By now all the material is digitized and researchers can study the dominant opinions of Hungarians during the last two decades of the Kádár regime. Historians claim that it is an invaluable collection that will help us understand not only the Kádár period but, perhaps even more, the present.