Tag Archives: migrants

Hungarian refugees of 1956 and the current refugee crisis

I have been thinking about the topic of today’s post for a long time, but it was only in the last couple of days that the threads came together to form a unified whole. 444.hu published an article yesterday with the title “Viktor Orbán’s 100 lies,” which prompted me add one of my own about the Hungarian refugees of 1956. That particular Orbán lie has been bothering me for ages, but I had no time to search for the necessary statistical data to prove that, as usual, Viktor Orbán is either purposely lying or is simply ignorant. Today, however, I got my proof. Népszava published a detailed article about the Hungarian Statistical Office’s originally secret compilation of data on people who left the country after the October 1956 revolution. I should also note that the hysteria over the sighting of alleged migrants that erupted in a village provided an added impetus for me to make some observations about the “good Hungarian refugees” as opposed to the “evil migrants,” a contrast that is often drawn by Fidesz leaders as well as the general population. Finally, there are a couple of telling sentences in a new poll about “the Hungarian dream” that may have some relevance here.

So, let’s start with the lie that 444.hu didn’t include in its list. It was about two years ago that Viktor Orbán explained that keeping “migrants” within walled compounds guarded by police was the norm when the Hungarian refugees arrived in Austria. “What do you think? They were free to go anywhere? They were in camps for years until they were properly vetted.” This was essentially Orbán’s justification for creating closed camps for those refugees who arrived in Hungary, after a fence was erected to keep most of the refugees out. According to official Hungarian statistics, 193,748 people left the country between October 23 and the spring of 1957, most of them via Austria (174,057). What happened to these people? Did they stay in closed refugee camps, waiting for years? No. According to the statistics, by March 31, 1957 only 35,250 Hungarian refugees were still in Austria. The rest were moved within months to 35 different countries, which offered them food and shelter until they found jobs.

This was an enormous achievement in and of itself, but there were also many difficult cases that the authorities had to handle. For example, I just read parts of a book about the 20,000 unaccompanied minors who needed protection. Some of them were war orphans who had lived all of their lives in institutions and who had special needs. Many of these children eventually found their bearing in their adopted countries, but some drifted from country to country, or ended up in the French Legion or in Vietnam. Most of the unaccompanied minors, however, were just normal kids, many from white-collar families. Their host countries provided them, among other things, with free education. As we know, among the refugees coming from the Middle East there are many unaccompanied minors, whose arrival is viewed with suspicion. But if you think about it, in the Hungarian case 10% of the refugees were under the age of 18, so these youngsters’ presence in the current migration mix is not unusual.

A Hungarian refugee boy somewhere in Europe in 1957

The other common complaint about the mass of Middle Eastern refugees is the predominance of young men. They should have stayed and fought, the argument goes. What was situation in 1956? Two-thirds of the refugees were men. Not only that, but more than half of them were under the age of 25 and one third were relatively young (25-39 years old). Moreover, the largest category of men was of military age: 10.3% of all 20-year-olds and 9.3% of all 19-year-olds left the country. Although about half of the refugees were from Budapest, the number of men from the capital was especially high. More than 15% of 15- to 24-year-olds in Budapest left the country. Perhaps these statistics could give today’s Hungarians some food for thought, but naturally one cannot expect the officials to enlighten people about the nature of migratory movements.

In fact, any comparison of the Hungarian exodus in 1956 to the present situation is hotly denied. As if all Hungarian refugees were either skilled workers or highly educated intellectuals. No, it was a mixed crowd that included troubled children and common criminals who were let out of the jail. And, of course, many who settled into a comfortable middle-class existence or who achieved fame in their professional lives. I think that, by and large, the host countries  benefited from their initial investment.

Meanwhile, the Orbán government’s anti-refugee propaganda is still going strong, and the results are disheartening. A couple of days ago panic broke out in the village of Kömlő in Heves County, which has a majority Roma population and a Roma mayor who seems to have a lot of common sense. An elderly inhabitant, who happened to be a non-Roma, claimed to have seen a couple of migrants, who actually turned out to be locals. Panic set in. People saw migrants everywhere. They allegedly saw them entering houses and stealing food off the table or out of the refrigerator. Total fear gripped the place. The village has four or five anti-Soros posters but, as the mayor explained, the locals have no idea who he is. It is not the posters that are responsible for the fear that exists in the village but “what they see on television. There is no real danger here, but still that is what the TV tells them all day long.” I wonder what would have happened in 1956 and 1957 if the Austrian government had launched a campaign against the refugees, claiming that they were all communists.

Finally, a fascinating poll was taken about the future Hungarians would like to see for themselves. This is not the time to discuss this poll in any detail, but the upshot of the survey is that “Hungarians would like to live about 800 km farther west, somewhere close to the Austrian-Swiss border, and live in the predictability and the social equality of the Kádár regime but with western standards of living.” This conclusion didn’t surprise me, but what grabbed my attention was a comment from one of the respondents: “We should reach Western Europe economically but not culturally.” Apparently, Hungarians dream about some “specific Hungarian road within the Union.” As Tamás Boros, one of the researchers who worked on the study, noted, they dream about “a rich and egalitarian but ethnically homogeneous country.” Hungarians have been chasing a “Hungarian road” in vain for almost one hundred years. The combination they are dreaming about is unattainable and most likely also undesirable.

November 4, 2017

From football to fear: Recent opinion polls in Hungary

Today is devoted to polls. Please don’t worry, the post will not be full of numbers. I will concentrate on the big picture.

My first topic is Hungarians’ feelings for football. I think that talking about football today is especially timely because, as 444.hu’s sportswriter put it yesterday, the Swiss team “walked all over the Hungarians,” whose game was apparently full of “glaring mistakes.” It was only during halftime that the Swiss didn’t score a goal, as he put it sarcastically. Hungarian football is apparently not worth watching, and there is a point when even nationalism isn’t enough to keep interest alive. Just as there comes a time when the lure of a better life outside of the country cannot keep an awful lot of Hungarians at home.

Ever since 2010 an incredible amount of money has been spent on sports and sports facilities in general, but naturally  Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport, football, received the most. 24.hu calculated the amount of money spent between 2011 and 2017 on five sports– football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey–from just the so-called TAO offerings. Large companies, in lieu of taxes, can donate money to support one of these five sports, but given Orbán’s penchant for football, half of the 415 billion forints of TAO money went to football clubs. And then there are all those football stadiums, 32 of which will be built by 2020 and will cost 215 billion forints. Yet all that money didn’t improve the quality of Hungarian football, and consequently there are mighty few Hungarian fans at games.

Given the enormous outlays for football, does it serve any useful purpose? We know that the quality of play hasn’t improved and that the number of fans who show up in these new stadiums is small. Republikon Intézet conducted a poll to find out how people feel about Hungarian football. The pollsters asked two questions: (1) How true is the following statement: “I follow Hungarian football and I’m proud of it” and (2) Do you think it is worth investing in sports facilities in Hungary? The result most likely greatly saddened Viktor Orbán: the people are not grateful. Even Fidesz voters are not that proud. More than half of them are decidedly not proud, and they don’t follow the games at all. Only 22% are enthusiastic. And if that is the word from the Fidesz voters, you can imagine what the left-liberals think: 73% of them want nothing to do with the sport. Two-thirds of the Jobbik voters are also left cold by Hungarian football.

When it comes to the stadium-building mania of the prime minister, the figures are not at all encouraging. It seems that Viktor Orbán was able to convince 37% of Fidesz voters that investing in sports facilities is worthwhile, but 27% of them think it’s a waste of money. The majority of Jobbik and socialist-liberal voters disapprove of the incredible spending on stadiums and other sports facilities. What’s amazing is that Orbán, who is normally very sensitive to public opinion, seems to be utterly oblivious to the unpopularity of spending taxpayer money on his personal hobby.

Another poll that aroused my interest was conducted by Medián. The goal was to measure the extent of endangerment Hungarians feel when it comes to the perceived threat from the “migrants,” George Soros, “NGOs financed by foreigners,” the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Respondents were able to choose among five possibilities, ranging from “no threat at all” to “very big threat.” I’m sure that no one will be surprised to hear that 49% of Hungarians absolutely dread the migrants, while only 6% are not afraid of them at all. George Soros is greatly feared by 32% of the respondents. Even the mild-mannered members of NGOs are greatly feared by 17% and somewhat feared by an additional 20% of the population. The amazing finding is how successful the Orbán government has been in convincing Hungarians that Putin’s Russia poses no danger to Hungary. This is especially surprising given the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military aid to the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Only 9% of respondents consider Putin’s Russia a serious threat, the same percentage that consider the United States a serious threat.

444.hu, which commissioned the poll from Medián, rightly points out that “the government propaganda is working perfectly because people are afraid of exactly those things Fidesz wants them to be afraid of.” Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the propaganda campaign is a pair of questions. One is about the threat to Hungary from the European Union and a second, from “Brussels.” Since the European Union is popular among Hungarians and because the Orbán government didn’t want to be too blatantly antagonistic to the EU in its anti-EU campaigns, they used “Brussels” instead of the European Union in their propaganda campaigns. And behold, 37% of the respondents are afraid or very afraid of “Brussels,” while only 25% fear the European Union. This is how effective propaganda is.

As for those feared NGOs, László Földi, one of the three “security experts” used by the state and Fidesz media to frighten the population to death, is ready to do them in. Földi, I’m convinced, is not quite of sound mind. He is a former intelligence officer from the secret service apparatus of the Kádár regime who spreads his outlandish views not just on the refugee question but on Hungary’s security in general. In Földi’s view, the world is full of spies, internal as well as foreign, who are trying to undermine the present government of the country.

Well, a few days ago Földi was the guest of Echo TV, which was purchased recently by Lőrinc Mészáros. Mind you, the change of ownership from Gábor Széles to Mészáros made no difference. The station has been a hub of far-right journalists and commentators all along. The conversation was about Islam in Hungary. In passing, Földi talked about the “migrants” and those civilians who try to help them, specifically the Helsinki Committee and Migration Aid. Földi came out with the following absolutely mind-boggling statement: “We are at war and these people are collaborators, war criminals, traitors, and so on. This is a very different conceptual system. A human trafficker in war is not a human trafficker but in effect a saboteur who has no legal status. In brief, they can be freely liquidated. This is what the code of war says: we don’t take spies or saboteurs to court but we immediately eliminate them.” He is an adviser to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Enough said.

October 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán on solidarity and financial assistance

In happier times Hungary wasn’t a prolific source of sensational news items for the international press. With the appearance of Viktor Orbán on the political scene in 2010, however, hardly a day goes by without some juicy story about what the Hungarian prime minister is up to. The avalanche of news items on Hungary at the moment is more impressive than usual. There are two reasons for this sudden interest in the country, and both are related to the “migrant issue.”

First, Viktor Orbán surprised Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with a letter in which he demanded a hefty contribution to the fence he unilaterally decided to build along the Serbian-Hungarian border in order to prevent refugees and migrants from using Hungary as a transit route toward Western Europe. Second, the European Court of Justice just dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy. This is considered to be an important victory for the European Union and a blow to Viktor Orbán and his allies in Eastern Europe.

Today let’s tackle the controversy that has developed since August 31 over the issue of the cost of the fence and Orbán’s monetary demands. I will stick closely to the texts of the letters exchanged between Juncker and Orbán. All three letters are available in their entirety.

“I am contacting you regarding the protection of the external borders of the European Union and European solidarity,” begins Viktor Orbán’s initial letter to Juncker. As far as he is concerned, “Hungary followed the Schengen rules requiring the protection of the external borders” all along, and by that act Hungary “is protecting not only itself, but the whole of Europe against the flood of illegal migrants.” Orbán claims that the cost and maintenance of the fence is 270 billion forints or €883,000,000, half of which should be paid by the European Union. He closed his letter by saying that “we agree that solidarity is an important principle of the European community. When Hungary had to protect the common external borders, we started with immediate action and not a request for help. I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission, acting on behalf of Member States, will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

It was unlikely that Orbán seriously expected a positive answer from the European Commission. In a sense, he gave himself away in that last paragraph when he admitted that Hungary “started with immediate action and not [with] a request for help.” It was the sovereign decision of the Hungarian government to go ahead and build a fence along the country’s southern border. As for the cost, both opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary are in total darkness when it comes to the real cost of the fence. Most suspect that the figures are greatly inflated.

Hungarian media commentators were certain from the very first moments after the announcement of the demand that the European Commission would not be impressed by Orbán’s arguments. It took only a few hours after the Hungarian government made the content of the letter public for the Commission’s spokesman to announce that the European Union is not “financing the construction of fences or barriers at the external borders.” As for Orbán’s appeal to European solidarity, the spokesman noted that “solidarity is a two-way street, and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of à la carte menu where you pick one dish.” The spokesman then summarized all the benefits Hungary received, for example “over €93 million in funding for Hungary, both from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. It also awarded Hungary an additional €6 million in emergency funds.” He reminded his audience that in 2015 Hungary refused to be labeled a front-line state and rejected becoming a beneficiary country, like Greece and Italy. Instead, it opted to build a fence.

After this announcement on September 1, there could be little doubt that Jean-Claude Juncker’s reply to Viktor Orbán would be a firm rejection of the Hungarian prime minister’s specious reasoning. The tone of the letter, however, was polite and expressed an openness for cooperation if there is a willingness on the other side. First, he reminded Orbán of the events of 2015 when Hungary was greatly affected by the refugee crisis and the European Union proposed that an emergency relocation scheme would apply to Hungary, similarly to Italy and Greece. Hungary rejected this offer of “concrete solidarity, declining the possibility to benefit from relocation of up to 54,000 persons and decided to return nearly 4 million euros of EU funds pre-paid by the Commission.” Shortly after that, Hungary “challenged the validity of the Council decisions on relocation before the Court of Justice.”

Then came a list of all sorts of benefits Hungary received from the European Union in connection with the refugee crisis. The last item on the list was “another form of European solidarity [which is] represented by the EU’s regional funds. Hungary is the 8th largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds in the period 2014-2020 with an allocation of 25 billion euros. This represents more than 3% of Hungary’s GDP annually, the highest of any Member State.”

Finally, Juncker “welcome[d] the call in [Orbán’s] letter for more Europe in the area of migration and border management.” He also assured him that he is “committed to working together with Hungary towards a more efficient and fairer European migration and asylum policy based on responsibility and solidarity.”

Yes, it was a polite letter, although it contained a fair description of the European Union’s objections to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. And there was one sentence in this fairly lengthy letter that must have sent Orbán into a rage, as we will see from his answer. That was Juncker’s reference to Hungary’s being the eighth largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds. So, let’s turn to that crucial part of Viktor Orbán’s answer to Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would like to inform you that we are confounded by the part of your letter that creates a link between the question of immigration and cohesion funds. Such a relationship does not exist and is not permitted by the current EU acquis. According to the view of the Hungarian government, a significant part of the resources provided by Cohesion Funds landed at the companies of net contributor countries. The economies of major EU member states have thus greatly benefited from the use of cohesion funds, as they have benefited from opening the markets of new member states.

Viktor Orbán delivered a speech this morning in which he rejected the widely-held view that Hungary’s economic growth derives largely from the funds received from the European Union. I don’t have the complete text and therefore have to rely on MTI’s summary, but his argument was that Hungary’s yearly budget is 18,000 billion forints while the EU subsidies amount to only 1,000-1,500 forints. What Hungary has achieved in the last few years is “our success.” However, according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics, Orbán’s figures are wrong. Between 2006 and 2015, Hungary received 2,400 billion euros. During the same period the Hungarian economy grew by only 4.6%. Without the EU funds that figure would have been -1.8%.

Another topic that irritates Orbán is the European Union’s interpretation of solidarity. He didn’t elaborate on it, but he claims that Juncker’s “interpretation of solidarity is not in accordance with European Union legislation.” More critically, “it is not in accordance with Hungarian historic traditions either.” This difference in interpretation is explained by the fact that “in contrast some of the major member states of the EU, Hungary has no colonial past.” These countries, because of their colonial past, have become immigrant countries, but Hungary is not an immigrant country and does not want to become one. “The interpretation of the principle of solidarity described in your letter is in essence the transformation of Hungary into an immigrant country, against the will of the Hungarian citizens. In my view, this is not solidarity, this is violence.” Finally, Orbán said that he is “stunned and puzzled” that the European Commission refuses to provide funds for the fence. At the end he repeated his demand for half of the €883 million euros which, according to him, is the cost of the building and maintaining the 175 km fence.

Just a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. Last night, Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of extreme political views, wrote an opinion piece for Magyar Idők that appeared in the early morning edition of the paper. He also argues that Hungary cannot be compared to countries that are situated in the West. Half of Western Europe countries, for certain periods of time, were colonial powers. These countries occupied large parts of the world where “they destroyed the culture and civilization they found. They killed the inhabitants; they carried away their treasures and raw materials. Those who survived were made slaves. This is the glorious history of the West. That’s how it became rich. That is how it became strong. It is from these treasures that they built their democracy. It is from this position that they began to look down on the people of Eastern and Central Europe who have never had any colonies. The people of those colonial empires are now going to their former slave owners and submitting a bill.”

So, the West is responsible in a way for the migration of the former slaves. They deserve what they get. And as for the financial assistance coming from the West, it is no sign of generosity because in the end all that money ends up in the pockets of western multinational companies. So, politicians of Western European countries have nothing to complain about. At least this is what Viktor Orbán thinks.

September 7, 2017

Hungarian state media about life in the West: What happened in Leipzig?

I assume not too many people know that between July 19 and 26 the 2017 World Fencing Championships were held in Leipzig. The Hungarian team did reasonably well, ending up in fourth place after Italy, Russia, and South Korea. Although Hungary has some very good fencers, their accomplishments received relatively little coverage since they were competing for media attention with the World Aquatic Championships, held in Budapest. It wasn’t until the fencing competition was almost over that it became hot news. Unfortunately, the story had nothing to do with fencing.

Gábor Boczkó, a silver medalist at the 2004 Summer Olympics, is the newly appointed secretary-general of the Hungarian Fencing Association. Although I don’t know much about Boczkó’s political views, I assume that he is sympathetic to the present government because he was awarded a prestigious decoration (Magyar Érdemrend tisztikeresztje) on March 15, 2016. People who are known to have political views not in line with those of the Orbán government never receive any decoration whatsoever from the present regime.

For a number of years Boczkó worked as the marketing director of the Hungarian Fencing Association. About a month ago he was appointed secretary-general of the organization. At the same time he was named to the 13-member board of the European Fencing Association.

Boczkó accompanied the Hungarian fencing team to Leipzig. The championships were not quite over when Boczkó was interviewed by M1 of Magyar Televízió (MTV). Boczkó complained that the Hungarian team was unable to concentrate on the competition because of the dreadful situation that exists in the city of Leipzig. In fact, the situation was so bad that the members of the team didn’t dare to walk alone on the streets, especially not after dark. They always made sure that they were moving about in groups. Boczkó recalled that in front of their hotel there were constant disturbances, most likely by migrants. For example, they saw a man who was brandishing a machete, and “they witnessed a black man in the middle of trying to kidnap the two-three-month-old baby of a white woman.” In order to further emphasize the dangerous situation that exists in Germany, M1 included some videos of the Munich and Berlin terrorist attacks.

By now non-governmental media outlets are suspicious of practically everything the government propaganda machine puts out. 444.hu is usually the first independent news site to fact-check stories like the one Boczkó told about the situation in Leipzig. After looking at German papers, including ones published in and around Leipzig, and finding nothing approximating Boczkó’s stories, they approached the City of Leipzig, whose spokesman assured them that Leipzig is a safe city where people freely move around day and night. No one knew anything about a person brandishing a machete or about a stolen white baby. The spokesman for the Leipzig police also knew nothing about these alleged crimes. He added that in a local park there was an argument between a North African couple but no crime was committed.

It took only two days for the Leipziger Volkszeitung to discover Boczkó’s description of their fair city and to publish a lengthy article about the unflattering report of the Hungarian fencing team. The article said that the hotel where the Hungarian and nine other teams stayed is not in the best part of Leipzig. It was described by the paper as a crime center and an area drug users frequent. Perhaps, with his head full of Orbán propaganda about criminal migrants, Boczkó simply assumed that any unsavory characters he saw were terrorists who had descended on Germany.

The Seaside Park Hotel in Leipzig where the Hungarian fencers stayed

But Hungarian state television normally doesn’t let sleeping dogs lie. They refused to admit that the information received from Boczkó was at best inaccurate or at worst a falsification of facts. The station called on a secret service agent from the Kádár period, who has since become a useful “expert witness” for the government side of any such argument. He again performed well by announcing that in cases like the ones Boczkó described, the German police is inclined to cover up the real facts and lie when receiving media inquiries. In addition, M1 also got on the telephone with the German police whose spokesman “admitted that there was a baby affair because a North African couple got into an argument.” (Sorry if this sentence is not comprehensible. It wasn’t in the Hungarian original either.) The “expert” then went on and on about Sweden and Great Britain where the police also suppress negative news about migrants. He even talked at some length about Donald Trump’s tweet about Sadiq Khan. (“You have to be kidding me?!: Terror attacks are part of living in big city, says London Mayor Sadiq Khan.”)

Interestingly, Jenő Kamuti, a former Olympic fencer and vice president of the Hungarian Fencing Association who was also in Leipzig, didn’t notice anything unusual. The city, he said, is calm; the world championship is well run and safe. He didn’t encounter any disturbances involving migrants. But Boczkó wouldn’t let the affair die a quiet death, and the Hungarian Fencing Association produced several videos and photos that were supposed to prove that he was right about the dreadful conditions in Leipzig. On one of them “a policeman holds a long knife in his right hand.” The statement of the Hungarian Fencing Association assumes that this piece of equipment was taken from a suspect the police tried to restrain. The same expert who gave long descriptions of the reluctance of western police forces to share information about migrants was again asked to comment on these photos. He dramatically asked the audience: “Do we want to live like that?”

But that wasn’t quite enough. Yesterday another “expert,” the German-Hungarian Georg Spöttle, was questioned on the situation. He claimed that the citizens of Leipzig stood by the Hungarian fencing team’s secretary-general, as is clear from the hundreds of comments accompanying the article about city hall and the police denying that anything is amiss in the city. Leipziger Volkszeitung, which published the article, doesn’t seem to allow comments. It would be interesting to check whether such comments actually exist. Having some familiarity with Spöttle, I am inclined to doubt that they do.

According to Spöttle, the area where the Hungarians stayed is “in the hands of the Muslims.” It is a real “no-go zone.” Spöttle also claimed that, after Berlin, Leipzig is the second most crime-ridden city in Germany. Admittedly, the list I found of the safest and most dangerous cities in Germany is three years old, but it doesn’t bear out Spöttle’s figures. The “most dangerous” list is headed by Frankfurt am Main, followed by Cologne. Berlin is third, and Leipzig had to be satisfied with eighth place. Spöttle also rattled off some statistics about the crime rates in these two cities, but I suspect that they are most likely wrong as well.

The squabble between M1’s Híradó and 444.hu might seem petty. But then I read in today’s privatbankar.hu that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade just released a statement in which they urge Hungarians traveling to Western Europe to register at Hungarian embassies and consulates because of the extreme danger due to migrants and terrorists. This should be done even if Hungarian citizens visit one of the Western European countries only for a couple of days. This way the Hungarian authorities can easily reach them and offer assistance in case of need.

That reminds me of those years in the 1960s and 1970s when we Hungarian refugees were first allowed to visit our relatives. I don’t know about other western countries, but Canada and the United States definitely advised visitors to countries behind the iron curtain to go to their embassies and register. But today, advising people to register because of the presence of migrants in Western Europe is surely nothing more than yet another attempt to reinforce the Hungarian population’s fear of strangers invading the continent. Perhaps the safest course of action would be to go nowhere and to hermetically seal the borders.

July 30, 2017

A new declaration of war: Justice for Hungary!

I had no intention of writing about Trianon today. The truth is that I had completely forgotten about the “Day of National Unity” until I began skimming the Hungarian media’s headlines this morning. Some of these headlines piqued my curiosity and prompted me to read further. What I found astounded me.

I assume that most people even vaguely familiar with the history of modern-day Hungary know that the Treaty of Trianon was the peace treaty between the by then independent Kingdom of Hungary and the Allied and Associated Powers. It was signed somewhat belatedly on June 4, 1920, almost two years after the end of World War I. The demand for a day of remembrance originally came from Jobbik, but it was promptly adopted by the new Orbán government.

My decision to read an assortment of articles on Trianon turned out to be wise because I found some real gems among them. From the interpretations there emerges a fascinating sociological and psychological portrait of the Fidesz regime. It’s not pretty, but it may help us to understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. In light of the official government announcement by János Lázár, this particular Day of National Unity may be a turning point in the Orbán government’s handling of the Trianon issue.

The first problem is the false historical background these far-right, nationalistic authors present in their writings. The general thesis is that Hungary was the blameless victim of those nationalities that Hungary’s rulers allowed to settle in Hungary at various times over history. In their interpretation, the nationalities in pre-1918 Hungary had extensive rights, and their continued national existence was in no way threatened. In fact, it was the cursed liberalism of the Hungarian political elite that was responsible for the growing number of non-Hungarians at the expense of Hungarians. This statement, by the way, is erroneous.

In almost all these writings journalists and politicians portray present-day Hungary not terribly differently from the “victim” that was being torn apart by hostile neighbors in 1918-1919. At least one of the commentators, György Pilhál of Magyar Idők, who labels the members of the Little Entente hyenas, considers Hungary’s present neighbors just as antagonistic toward Hungarians as their people were 100 years ago. Hungary is still being besieged and unfairly treated, just as in the past.

Moreover, Pilhál continues, cataloging Hungarian woes, before Trianon there was the Mongol devastation in 1241, the Battle of Mohács in 1524 which signaled the beginning of 150 years of Ottoman rule, and the surrender at Világos in 1849 after a lost war of independence. Pilhál ends this greatly distorted historical summary with the following remarkable words: “Do you want to flood this mutilated, blood-soaked remainder of the homeland with migrants? No, No, Never!” Thus, the migrant question today is being elevated to the level of the most significant dates in Hungarian history. Just as Hungarians had to face the Mongols, the Turks, and the hostile Austrians and Russians, now if they don’t stand fast they might end up being victims of the onslaught of migrants, which would be the equivalent of a second Trianon.

György Pilhál’s son Tamás, who works as a journalist for Pesti Srácok, also wrote an opinion piece that in some ways is even more interesting than his father’s. He also has some harsh words for members of the Little Entente, but in his eyes the real perpetrators were the allies. “The West, with capital letters, cut our hands and feet and threw us among to-this-day antagonistic neighbors that had been fattened by our body parts.” These new neighbors hate the Hungarians because they know that they were conceived in sin and received their territories as a result of unforgivable injustice. Therefore, they don’t feel secure within their own borders. They are not really robbers or thieves, “they are only fencers of stolen goods.” The real criminals obviously are the western powers. “The West is Trianon itself. They have never apologized, they have never tried to rectify their sins and lessen the damage.”

How can Hungary regain its former position as a mid-sized power in Europe? Just as the historian of the Trianon Museum suggested, Hungarians must “repopulate the Carpathian Basin.” Well, he used a more amorous, untranslatable expression “szeressük vissza Magyarországot!” which more or less means getting Hungary back by love-making. This is not a very different formulation from the one Szilárd Németh, Fidesz vice-chairman, uttered a while back, according to which the world belongs to the nation that populates it. So, the only way of getting back Hungary’s former glory is through “the modification of the national scale.” And the horizon is not the “mock borders” of Trianon but at least the confines of the Carpathian Basin.

The third piece is by István Stefka. His ideas might strike readers as outright bizarre, but he fervently believes everything he says. It was about a week ago that I saw him on a television program where three other journalists, including a conservative one, tried to convince him in vain that his theories are untenable. He too sees a second Trianon coming through the activities of George Soros, who is “the Béla Kun, György Lukács, Oszkár Jászi, and Mihály Károlyi combined, who with his civic organizations wants to ruin the country.” Hungary 27 years ago regained its sovereignty, but “now not with weapons, but with scheming, lies, ignominy, hard financial influence, and paying off internal enemies” Soros and like-minded people want to take away Hungary’s mastery over its own affairs. If the Hungarian socialists and left-liberals don’t stand by the people and follow Soros and Co., “they can no longer be considered part of the nation.” In that case, they are also working toward the destruction of Hungary.

Let me now turn to a more official source: the second most important man in the Orbán government, János Lázár. In a speech yesterday he sent the following message to Brussels: “It’s time for our neighbors and the leaders of Europe to acknowledge and adjust their policies accordingly: the Hungarian nation is the victim of Trianon and not its originator and perpetrator.” It is unacceptable that the only thing the leaders of the neighboring countries can say is that it’s time for the Hungarians to get over their old grievances. “The Hungarian nation should receive if not material at least moral reparations for the greatest injustice in world history.” He added that “we don’t want any change of the borders and especially not ethnic tension … new wars in Europe … but that doesn’t mean that we will tolerate the provocations, the repeated violations of our national sensibility for another 100 years. Yes, we can say even now: “Justice for Hungary!” which was the cry for revision after 1929.

I strongly suspect that these new words were not born in the heat of a fiery nationalistic speech. The Orbán government seems to have decided to open another front in its war against Europe, this time for a reinterpretation of the Treaty of Trianon. This is a serious turn of events that may not bode well for peace in the region.

June 4, 2017

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

Another summit, another battle: Viktor Orbán forges on

In this post I’m covering an unfinished story: the Brussels summit of the European Council that is taking place today and tomorrow. I believe, however, that I have enough Hungarian material to make some tentative predictions about the outcome as far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned.

First, I want to emphasize that today’s summit looks very different from Budapest than it does from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. The western media considers this particular meeting to be “a minefield” of “sensitive, explosive” stuff, but the topics so identified bear no resemblance to the ones described in the Hungarian press. The top challenges, seen from the West, are sanctions against Russia, the situations in Ukraine and Syria, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Naturally, the migrant crisis will also be on the agenda, with the discussion centering on how to stop further migration from the Libyan coast to Italy.

Someone who relies exclusively on Hungarian sources would be surprised to hear this because Viktor Orbán’s clever propaganda machine has shifted the emphasis to topics that best serve his political interests at home. He is moving onto a battlefield populated with his self-created phantoms.

What do I mean by this? Orbán has been making sure that everybody in Hungary understands that he will wage a life and death struggle against compulsory quotas. Every important government official in the last few days has stressed that the “pressure” on Hungary is tremendous. The prime minister left Hungary this morning with the firm resolve to veto such a resolution. He will fight to the bitter end. Since the question of compulsory quotas will most likely not be on the agenda, it is an empty resolve. He can come out of the meeting and announce to the few Hungarian journalists waiting for him that he successfully defended the country from the Muslim peril, at least for the time being.

Orbán obviously thinks that the idea of Hungary, a small country but one that can threaten the mighty European Union with a veto, resonates at home. He made sure that everybody understands the significance of such a move. The Fidesz and KDNP parliamentary delegations specifically asked the prime minister to veto such a resolution if necessary, reinforcing the gravity of the situation. Of course, it was the prime minister’s office that gave the orders to the delegations and not the other way around.

For good measure, Orbán also threw in another issue he was going to fight for in Brussels: the European Union’s alleged decision to abolish government-set prices for electricity retailers. Initially, the plan was to lift price controls over a five-year period, but lately the word is that, once the proposal is accepted, it will be introduced immediately. Such a move would tie the hands of the Orbán government, which in the last three years has been using price controls as an effective way to lower prices and thus gain popularity. But as far as I know, the issue will not be discussed at the meeting. And for the time being, it is just a proposal. To become law the support of both the European Parliament and the qualified majority of the European Council is necessary.

Once Orbán arrived in Brussels he immediately began to trumpet his own importance to the Hungarian journalists waiting for him. Back in October in Vienna he proposed the establishment of guarded refugee camps under EU military control, an idea that was flatly rejected by the countries present at the meeting. Since then he has somewhat modified his original idea and is now just talking about refugee camps financed by the European Union situated in Libya and Egypt. He admitted during this short press conference that his proposal hasn’t been accepted yet by the majority, but he indicated that he is optimistic that his suggestion will soon be supported by most of the member states. He is equally optimistic about another suggestion of his: “the return of migrants rescued from the sea to wherever they came from.” The defense of borders he demanded was once a “forbidden point of view,” but by today attitudes have changed and “it has become a recognized common task.”

Viktor Orbán enjoying the limelight / Source: MTI/EPA

Orbán’s Hungarian critics believe that the prime minister has arrived in Brussels significantly weakened after his recent domestic setbacks. Despite the incredible amount of money spent to achieve a valid referendum on the compulsory quota question, Orbán ended up with a large majority but, because of lackluster voter turnout, an invalid referendum. Nonetheless, he went ahead with his plan to amend the constitution, allegedly to prevent the settlement of large numbers of unwanted foreigners in the country. But he was thwarted in this effort by Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, an extremist party that has been trying with varying degrees of success to become a respectable right-of-center party.

Orbán therefore can’t portray himself as the voice of a groundswell of anti-migrant sentiment. The Hungarian voters didn’t give him a mandate, nor did the Hungarian parliament. And the Visegrád countries are no longer solidly behind him.

Instead, Orbán seems to be grasping at straws. For example, he urged Hungary’s mayors to sign a letter addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, which the mayor of Kaposvár, Károly Szita, a devout Fidesz loyalist, would like to hand to the president of the European Commission in person.

Perhaps tomorrow we will learn how much of Orbán’s agenda was approved by the European Council. Personally, I don’t think it’s a cliffhanger.

December 15, 2016