Tag Archives: Ministry of Human Resources

The fate of Gergely Prőhle: From diplomat to museum director

At the end of August came the news that the new director-general of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum) will be Gergely Prőhle, who is best known as a diplomat. He began his diplomatic career in 1998, and by 2000 he served as Hungary’s ambassador to Berlin. Fidesz’s loss of the election in 2002 didn’t put an end to Prőhle’s career. In 2003, during the Medgyessy administration, he was named ambassador to Switzerland. He left the diplomatic service only in 2006. The socialists were certainly nicer to him after 2002 than Péter Szijjártó was in 2014, who as the new minister of foreign affairs unceremoniously fired him from his job as assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, together with about 300 career diplomats who were not considered to be faithful enough servants of the Orbán regime. Prőhle, the father of four, was apparently desperate. His career was so closely intertwined with the Orbán regime that it was difficult to imagine what he could possibly do outside of this charmed circle.

But, as is well known, Orbán is good to those people who were once useful, faithful servants of his regime but who for one reason or another become outcasts. So, in the last minute, Prőhle was offered a job in the ministry of human resources as assistant undersecretary in charge of “international and European Union affairs.” It looks as if the position was created specifically for Prőhle. The ministry has two undersecretaries: the “administrative undersecretary,” who can be compared to Britain’s “permanent undersecretary,” and the “parliamentary undersecretary,” who normally represents the minister in parliament. The parliamentary undersecretary is in fact the deputy minister. For some strange reason, the position created for Prőhle was placed directly under the parliamentary undersecretary, although the two positions had nothing to do with one another. In fact, it was difficult to figure out exactly what Prőhle did in this ministry. In any case, now that he is becoming a museum director, the ministry decided to change the structure. Prőhle’s successor, who is coming from Századvég, will report to the undersecretary in charge of family and youth.

The move from undersecretary to museum director was a simple procedure considering that Zoltán Balog, Prőhle’s boss in the ministry, is also in charge of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. It was on his recommendation that the committee picked Prőhle. The museum, which was established in 1954, has become the most important depository of material related to Hungarian literature. For the past ten years it was headed by Csilla E. Csorba, who has written extensively on literary history and the history of art. In literary circles Prőhle’s appointment created quite a stir. What does he know about literature?

Actually, Prőhle has a degree in German and Hungarian literature, but then he moved on to Corvinus University to became a student of international relations and diplomacy. He was director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation between 1992 and 1998, but he has no other experience running a large institution with well over a hundred employees. But, I guess, one can always learn, as he has already begun to do. Although he will start his new assignment only on January 1, 2017, he is spending the coming months getting acquainted with the work of the museum.

What are the museum’s plans for the coming years? The staff is already working on a large exhibit on the life and art of János Arany (1817-1882), for which Prőhle expects the help of the current director. But he himself has a couple of new ideas, which he apparently outlined in his application for the job. One is an exhibit on Albert Wass (1908-1998), the other on Lajos Kassák (1887-1967). An interesting juxtaposition of political and literary careers. The former is a nationalistic, anti-Semitic writer who is considered to be a literary mediocrity. The latter is a poet, novelist, painter, essayist, editor, and theoretician of the avant-garde. He was one of the first genuine working-class writers in Hungarian literature, closely associated with the socialist movement.

Prőhle’s plan for an Albert Wass exhibit raised quite a few eyebrows, given the man’s controversial reputation. But the newly appointed director defended his choice with the following spurious justification: “If a writer has so many statues in the country, we will have to do something with the phenomenon.” He wants to know why Wass has such a cult in Hungary. “Why doesn’t Dezső Kosztolányi have 200 statues and why does Wass?” For those unfamiliar with Hungarian literature, Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) is one of the mainstays of twentieth-century Hungarian literature, a writer of both poetry and prose. The question Prőhle poses doesn’t belong to the world of literary inquiries. It is clearly political and sociological.

One of the more hidious Wass statues in Csepel

One of the more hideous Wass statues, in Csepel

András Bozóki, minister of culture in the first Gyurcsány government, would love to see more characters of the Orbán regime “in museums.” Péter Krasztev, a literary historian, described Prőhle as a “party soldier” who serves where he is placed. István Kerékgyártó, a writer, sarcastically noted that “actually we can be grateful for this appointment because this government could just as easily have decided to close the museum altogether because they are not interested in literature. After all, it is not a place where too much money can be found to steal.”

Finally, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian, wrote an opinion piece on Prőhle’s appointment titled “Jóindulat” (Good will), the upshot of which is that he is trying not to be suspicious and hopes that Prőhle will be satisfied sitting in his office and will not interfere with the work of professionals who know something about literature. He is also hoping, although he has some fears, that the planned exhibition on Wass will be a balanced evaluation of Wass’s work, which Kálmán considers ”abominable and junk.” It is possible that Prőhle wants to stage “problem exhibits.” In this case, the “director doesn’t want to celebrate Wass but wants to reveal the phenomenon, the cult, the damage that cult inflicts on society or perhaps the possible virtues of the writer.” But, he adds, “we have every reason to suppose that the exhibit will not deal with the Wass problem but with Wass’s celebration.”

September 11, 2016

Guide book to embezzlement of European Union subsidies. Part I

Today and tomorrow I will look at three recent corruption cases in Hungary, all of which involve money received from the European Union.

Two Hungarian politicians are currently spending a lot of energy uncovering corruption cases. One, Benedek Jávor (PM-Együtt), is a member of the European Parliament who sits with the Greens. The other is Ákos Hadházy, a veterinarian from Szekszárd who began his political career as a Fidesz member of the city council. Once the corruption of the Fidesz members of the council became apparent, he resigned his post and quit the party as well. He is now a member of LMP.

Both men are doing a splendid job. Jávor is in an infinitely better position than Hadházy because he receives information from the EU and its anti-corruption arm, OLAF. Jávor has made a real impact, especially concerning the Paks II nuclear power plant and its most likely illegal financing. Hadházy, on the other hand, is at the mercy of the Hungarian authorities or the police who simply ignore his inquiries and/or criminal complaints. Although he has been working tirelessly on dozens of cases, he is unable to show any results. Hadházy is now hoping that if he and his fellow LMP politicians regularly make corruption cases public, they will be more difficult to ignore. Thus, every Thursday he will reveal one case. He claims that he has enough cases to keep “Corruption Info” going for at least a year.

Today I’ll focus on Hadházy’s first case, presented at the launch of “Corruption Info.” I will devote tomorrow’s post to Benedek Jávor’s successful efforts in Brussels.

Ákos Hadházy arrived at the press conference with a recording of a conversation between Rezső Ács, the mayor of Szekszárd, and Péter Máté, a Fidesz member of the city council. The conversation took place in 2012. It was about the decision of the city council to entrust a particular job to a company that charged considerably more than its competitors. Here is a portion of the conversation:

-Eighty-five percent support!

-Yes, yes, but this is a good offer. The price is high, but it can be done in such a way that the person who does it will finance the whole thing and therefore it will not cost us anything.

-Is it overpriced?

-Yes. This is how the tendering procedure works today in Hungary. He comes and tells me that he will do everything. He will win the tender, but he will bring everything. And if not, then he will go to the city next door. Because he has a quota which he can divide. This is how it is behind closed doors.

I’m sure that we all need an explanation of this cryptic description of the process. First of all, the ministry responsible for the tender has a certain number of businesses that have a chance of receiving these EU jobs. Each of them is allotted a quota, so if Szekszárd doesn’t grab the opportunity, the owner of the company will go to the next town. And if Szekszárd makes the mistake of awarding the tender to someone else, they most likely will either get no funding or they will have to put down 15% before the work begins. But one of the privileged companies will promise “to do everything”:  the application as well as the work itself. Only large, well-off companies are able to participate in this game because they have enough capital to wait for payment until the very end of the project, when the money from Brussels arrives. In the case of the project discussed on the tape, the company who did the project charged 115 million forints as opposed to 60 million, which would have been the price without the ruse devised by the Hungarian ministry officials and their corrupt business associates. By the end, with overruns, the cost turned out to be 130 million, paid in full by the European Union.

Ákos Hadházy at his first "Corruption Info"

Ákos Hadházy at his first “Corruption Info”

According to Hadházy, what’s going on are criminal acts of a mafia-like network that reaches and is perhaps even orchestrated by the ministries. He mentioned the prime minister’s office and the ministry of human resources as the main sources of this criminal activity. Apparently, 12 trillion forints worth of tenders subsidized by the European Union are offered by these two ministries.

The reaction of the prime minister’s office was typical. The real culprit is Ákos Hadházy, who sat through this discussion and kept the recording secret instead of going to the police immediately after the discussion took place. Thus, Hadházy is an accessory to a criminal act. According to the spokesman of the prime minister’s office, LMP, instead of holding weekly press conferences, should go to the police immediately and report all suspicious cases they know about.

The prime minister’s office underestimated András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who although not my favorite is a very good lawyer. Naturally LMP made sure that everything was professionally prepared. First of all, as soon as the project was finished and paid for, Hadházy filed a criminal complaint concerning the case. That was two months ago. Since then he received a letter from the police saying that they could not find any reason to investigate the Szekszárd case because they found nothing that would indicate abuse of office or misappropriation. However, the police sent the case over to the National Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). The case bounced back from NAV, which stated that the case has nothing to do with budgetary fraud. It is a case for the police.

Rezső Ács, the Szekszárd mayor, went further. He blamed the socialist-liberal administration for the city council’s decision to offer the job to a company in 2012, two years after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz won the election.

Tomorrow I will relate stories of criminal activities committed by the Hungarian government in its direct dealings with the European Union.

To be continued

January 29, 2016

Hungarian doctors ask public support for improvements to healthcare

I must admit that over the years I have developed a somewhat negative attitude toward what Hungarians call the “orvostársadalom,” that is, the members of the medical profession, especially its leading lights. In the last 25 years they managed to thwart all attempts at reforming the whole rotten system. The hysteria that surrounded the suggestions of the ministry of health under the leadership of Lajos Molnár was outright disgusting. Hospital directors refused to collect minimal co-payments even if the money would have benefited their hospitals. So did the Fidesz-infatuated family doctors, although the money would have helped keep their own chronically underfinanced practices afloat.

I don’t know what these people expected from Viktor Orbán, but what they got must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The state of Hungarian healthcare is worse than ever. The old directors with few exceptions were dismissed and in their stead came doctors who in the past had expressed loyalty to Fidesz. For the most part these people are now quiet. Some of them even try to defend the current situation. At the government level, undersecretaries in charge of healthcare come and go. Gábor Zombor, the great hope, threw in the towel after a year or so, and the new one, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, seems to be hiding somewhere. Meanwhile, István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association, gives the occasional interview in which he complains that doctors don’t get enough money.

And what are the physicians doing? Emigrating. Between 2003 and 2011, 12% of Hungarian doctors left the country, most of them after 2010. Sixteen percent of MDs simply abandon their profession and work in the pharmaceutical industry or in fields completely unrelated to medicine. According to some calculations, if the salaries of doctors were raised by 40-50%, the outflow of Hungarian doctors could be stopped. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe this optimistic prediction when physicians in Western Europe can earn seven to ten times more than physicians in Hungary. Moreover, the problem is not only financial: there are not enough nurses, many of the buildings are in terrible shape, hospitals don’t have enough money to replace instruments critical to the work of the staff, and often the attitude of superiors toward people of a lower rank in the hierarchy is outrageous. I read about one maniac who writes weekly instructions to his staff demanding, for example, to be greeted first. If not, there is punishment.

Given the miserable working conditions, the amazing thing is that neither the doctors nor the nurses have been speaking out. Yes, Mária Sándor, the nurse in black, has been fighting for her fellow nurses ever since May, but she is unable to gather sizable crowds for her demonstrations. Since she is considered to be a troublemaker, she is unemployed at the moment. Although there is incredible shortage of nurses, she can’t get a job. The doctors don’t rally behind the nurses, who cannot live on their salaries and who often have to take second or third jobs to make ends meet. Mária Sándor asked the Hungarian public to support their cause. But although most Hungarians constantly complain about the state of Hungarian healthcare, no one paid the slightest attention to her.

In the last month or so, however, there are some signs that dissatisfaction is rising to the surface. Doctors are so fed up that they now openly talk about the deplorable situation that exists in Hungarian hospitals. First came the revolt of six anesthesiologists who gave notice to the administration of the Saint Imre Hospital in Budapest. Their complaints were manifold: shortage of nurses, low salaries, too long hours. They no longer felt that they could do a decent job under the circumstances. Sixteen doctors gave an ultimatum to Jenő Rácz, director of the Ferenc Csolnoky Hospital in Veszprém: either the woman doctor under whom they have to work goes or they will. But as Index correctly remarked, in each of these cases the directors defended the correctness of their decisions while the doctors remained quiet.

This situation is changing, it seems. Sixty-four doctors gathered and organized a Facebook group called “1,001 doctors without gratuity.” For those of you who are not familiar with “hálapénz,” perhaps I should say a few words about it. The habit of slipping a few forints into the pockets of doctors became widespread during the Rákosi regime when doctors became state employees who worked for a pittance. The Kádár regime continued underpaying physicians because the party leaders knew that the gratuity payments were amply supplementing physicians’ salaries. Or at least it was supplementing the salaries of certain doctors, like surgeons and obstetricians. And the tradition continues. The poor anesthesiologists normally receive nothing. So they have to work 300-400 hours a month to have a salary that befits their station in life.

These 64 men and women want to make gratuities illegal, arguing that maintaining the system serves only the interest of the government, which can point to these gratuities as a justification for not raising salaries. The new undersecretary, in one of the few interviews he gave, expressed his hope that with time gratuities will simply disappear from the system, no intervention necessary. Well, that’s unlikely given current salaries. Here is one example. A specialist receives an hourly net wage of 1,000 ft or €3.00.

doctors

An earlier demonstration organized by residents

The open letter they wrote to the undersecretary is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian healthcare. The Hungarian text is available online. The reaction from the ministry is not encouraging. Zoltán Balog said that “we pay as much as we can” while Bence Rétvári, the parliamentary undersecretary of the ministry, insisted that doctors make good money.

But there are other problems as well. The doctors claim that there are not enough professors in the medical schools, whose accreditation might be in jeopardy. Nurses who are being humiliated either leave the profession or the country. They talk about the falling plaster, the mildewy walls, and the inedible food in the hospitals. They bring up the inadequacy of medical care in general. For example, among cancer patients Hungary has the highest death rate in the European Union. The number of CT and MRI machines per 100,000 people is half that of Slovakia or the Czech Republic. These doctors want clear answers to their questions and demands from the ministry.

Suddenly the Hungarian Medical Association woke up from its years of slumber and is urging doctors to sign the petition. Moreover, Éger promised to stand behind the doctors’ demands.

What is the reaction in the ministry? Not very promising. The claim is that they have been regularly consulting with the profession, that the government is ready to listen to all opinions and is committed to high standards and the betterment of working conditions. The undersecretary insists that the exodus of doctors has slowed lately. The answer included references to higher wages for 43,000 nurses and 18,000 doctors in addition to extra pay for residents and specialists.

Today the government switched into high gear. MTI reported that the hospital in Siófok received 3 billion forints, the Pécs hospital 20 billion, and the Mohács hospital 1.1 billion. Yesterday Bence Rétvári called attention to the fact that in the last five years the government spent over 500 billion forints on healthcare which sounds terrific until you compare it, for example, to expenditures on sports and specifically on football.

The problems of Hungarian healthcare are so massive that I don’t expect any discernible change in the near future. The government is highly unlikely to embark, two years before the beginning of the election campaign for 2018, on any reform of the healthcare system. They’ll just let the whole thing rot for as many years as the Hungarian public allows it because, as everybody knows by now, touching healthcare can be political suicide.

A plagiarist educator? Yes, she will be the next principal of a Budapest high school

The following scandal might be a tempest in a teapot, but it typifies who gets ahead in today’s Hungary.

At the end of this school year the tenure of the current principal of the Antal Budai Nagy Gymnasium in Budafok / District XXII is coming to an end. According to the law, Mrs. Kiss, née Beáta Prim could be reappointed without an open application procedure if she is supported by the faculty, the students, and the parents. There is certainly no problem here. Kiss is liked by her colleagues: 42 of the 44 teachers gave her their support. So did the students and the parents. Yet on December 8, in a closed session, the city council at the suggestion of Deputy Mayor Zoltán Németh voted to have an open competition for Kiss’s job.

In addition to Mrs. Kiss’s application, there was an application from Mrs. Manolovits, née Orsolya Erdőközi, who turned out to be friends with both Deputy Mayor Németh and Mrs. Judit Bertalan Czunyi, undersecretary in charge of public education in the ministry of human resources. Czunyi is Rózsa Hoffmann’s replacement and unfortunately doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement. From the story that emerges, it looks as if Czunyi and Németh came to the aid of Manolovits, who a year earlier had failed to get a job as principal of a high school in Érd. The opportune moment was the end of Kiss’s term, which everybody believed would be automatically extended. Not so. An open application process began.

There is no question, Mrs. Czunyi, née Judit Bertalan is a faithful Fidesz loyalist

There is no question, Mrs. Czunyi, née Judit Bertalan, is a faithful Fidesz loyalist

The city council deemed both applicants’ qualifications and vision for the school’s future excellent, and therefore the final decision lay with the ministry. Faculty members and parents of the students by this point had no doubt that Malonovits, Czunyi’s friend from their university days, would be the winner. Petitions were sent to the ministry, demonstrations were organized, long debates were held during which a lot was learned about Malonovits. She was no stranger to the school. A couple of years previously she had taught Hungarian literature there. Apparently, she was not exactly an ideal colleague. Teamwork was not her forte. At one point she was appointed to lead the school’s literary society where she was supposed to work in tandem with the other Hungarian teachers, something she obviously was incapable of doing. Tensions rose and eventually she was removed from the position. At this point, giving no notice, she quit her job, leaving her graduating class high and dry just before their matriculation examinations.

Of course, what is happening in the Antal Budai Nagy Gymnasium is not unique. Ever since the nationalization of the schools the same routine has been followed. The tenure of a principal is up, but regardless of whether the person is doing an excellent job and could be automatically reappointed, he/she is removed and replaced by someone who has, as Népszabadság put it, “political tail-wind.” In fact, the appointment became infused with party politics when one of the Fidesz members of the council, head of the education committee, claimed that “one group of parents hand in hand with opposition parties stir up tension.”

It was becoming obvious that the parents would not be able to prevent Malonovits’s appointment, but they weren’t discouraged. They, most likely with the help of faculty members, became suspicious that Malonovits’s application might not be entirely her own creation. Members of the anti-Malonovits team turned to the Internet and, with the help of a plagiarism checker, found what they were looking for. Two years ago a Mrs. István Győri applied for the job of elementary school principal in Tiszaalpár, described as a larger village with a population of 5,000. That 2013 proposal was since placed online and hence was easily accessible. It looks as if Undersecretary Czunyi’s friend, who needed some help with her application, found it in Mrs. Győri’s prose.

Here are a couple of passages. You can decide for yourselves whether the new principal of a Budapest high school is a plagiarist.

Malonovits: I’m convinced that in today’s economic and social situation a leader must follow the managerial direction. Supporting the given institution and its environment, safeguarding its existence must be one’s primary function. I wish to emphasize professional innovation, the development of the given possibilities, outreach programs, and public relations. I especially consider it important to make our successes be known and to defend the institution’s interests.

Győri: I’m convinced that in today’s economic and social situation a leader must follow the managerial direction. I wish to emphasize professional innovation, the development of the given possibilities, outreach programs, and public relations. I especially consider it important to make our successes be known and to defend the institution’s interests.

There are several longish passages which Malonovits copied out from Győri’s application. In Népszabadság one can read them all, but here I think these short passages will suffice.

What was Mrs. Czunyi’s reaction? The ministry has neither the time nor the expertise to look into the case, she announced. In any case, it is too late. Mrs. Malonovits has been appointed. József Hanesz, the new director of the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), the giant employer of all Hungarian teachers, took an interesting position on the case. On the one hand, he admitted that the texts were practically identical, but since Malonovits claims the text to be her own, it is not plagiarism. With such an acute mind it’s unlikely that he will be any better at running the show at KLIK than his failed predecessor.

What did Malonovits have to say about the accusation of plagiarism after the story broke? Nothing. On July 23, she released a statement in which she announced that her application was written in good faith and she is serious about working together with everybody. She is hoping that there will a mutual understanding of each other’s point of view. Otherwise, she wished everybody a nice summer vacation.

The parents, as of yesterday, still insist on pursuing the case which in their opinion endangers the recent academic achievements of the school under the leadership of Mrs. Kiss.

Hungarian students demand autonomy of universities

The Orbán government wants to reform higher education so that it will advance the material well-being of the Hungarian nation. Its primary purpose should be to contribute to areas such as manufacturing and agriculture, to the production of physical products.

Last November I wrote about László Palkovics, the latest undersecretary in charge of higher education, who announced early in his career as a member of the government that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.” After reading a long interview with the man, I came to the conclusion that Palkovics was planning to transform Hungarian higher education into one “huge engineering school.”

It seems that the presidents of Hungarian universities had the same misgivings about Palkovics’s “reforms” as I did. The Hungarian Conference of University Presidents (Magyar Rektori Konferencia) pointed out “the flaws of a concept that concentrates exclusively on economic matters.” As usual, the presidents’ objections were ignored. By mid-April rumors circulated that a large number of subjects taught at the bachelor’s level would be eliminated from the course offerings. “Communication” and “international studies” were prime targets; the government wanted to get rid of them as undergraduate majors. Vh.hu seemed to know that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade wasn’t happy about the proposed elimination of the study of international relations, which usually attracts very bright students. After all, some of these young people contemplate a diplomatic career.

On the afternoon of April 17 the government at last made its new plans for higher education public. Isn’t it interesting that momentous decisions that the government suspects will meet with resistance are usually released late on Friday afternoon? The hope, I assume, is that by Monday the outrage will subside. Well, it didn’t work out that way this time, especially since the document indicated that not only would certain social science fields, like international relations, no longer be available for B.A. students but that the very survival of the faculty of social sciences was at stake.

Today students and faculty members of several universities met in “forums” to discuss the government document. First I heard about the forum held by Eötvös Lóránd Tudományegyetem (ELTE) students and professors of the Faculty of Social Sciences. A few minutes later I learned that other universities were joining the “revolt.” The revolt continued on to the Budapest Műszaki Egyetem (MBE/Budapest Engineering School), where László Palkovics was holding the fort against irate students who accused him of not knowing what he was talking about.

Given the centralized nature of Hungarian higher education, I suspect that this decision would affect all universities and colleges, although at the moment the talk is only about ELTE, Corvinus, and the Catholic University. The government’s plans, by the way, are not based on financial considerations. As it now stands, students who want to major in international relations must pay their own way, so the government saves no money whatsoever by getting rid of the discipline. The reason for the decision is most likely political. The Orbán government doesn’t like the way ELTE and other universities teach the subject. Fidesz has no problem with offering a major in international relations at the undergraduate level at the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (NKE/National Civil Service University), where the regime educates its own elite. By the way, some people call NKE “the university for future janissaries.”

Not that I’m keeping fingers crossed for Viktor Orbán and his government, but I thought that perhaps in the last few months they had learned a thing or two, that they would tamp down their zeal for reform and stop annoying people at every turn. I can assure Mr. Orbán that it is dangerous to push students too far. Look at what happened in 1956 when forums were held at ELTE, BME, and Szeged and a few days later Mátyás Rákosi was gone. Orbán’s government is teetering at the moment. In his place I wouldn’t tempt God.

The protest at ELTE’s faculty of social sciences began on Facebook, and thousands signed up to attend a meeting today at 6 p.m. A list of five demands was ready by mid-morning.

1. We demand the autonomy of universities. We demand free choice of university and majors.

2. There is a need for specialists with a knowledge of the social sciences, of the European Union and international relations.

3. In the 21st century it is not the state that decides the future professions of people. It is not the state that decides what specialty exists and what doesn’t. The state cannot forbid any specialty or monopolize it for the university of the government.

4. The impact studies behind the decisions should be made public. We demand transparency, discussion, and professionalism.

5. With the elimination of these majors the government goes against international and European trends, undermines our future, and completely ruins the possibility of Hungary’s success in the world.

At this point the Ministry of Human Resources tried to calm the situation and claimed that nothing has been decided yet, that it was the opposition parties who were responsible for whipping up emotions against the government. The ministry insisted that “before the May introduction of the decisions there will be an opportunity for all affected by the new system to express their opinions.” Unfortunately past experience teaches us that such promises are not worth the paper they are written on. The ministry explained that the changes to be introduced “serve the interest of the students” and “strengthen the effectiveness of teaching.” The students not surprisingly don’t seem to agree.

This morning at ELTE the professors, instead of giving their scheduled lectures, used class time for a discussion of the planned changes. It was during these student-teacher discussions that they came up with their five demands. Moreover, the university administration is on their side. Both the president and the dean of the social science faculty were present and made speeches at the “forum” held this afternoon.

The engineering students also gathered for a discussion, and again they seem to be backed by the faculty and the administration. The government, though generally pro-engineering, wants to abolish the teaching of design engineering. László Palkovics, who is an engineer and who actually taught at BME, was present and the students gave him a hard time. One student point blank asked him whether he has any idea what design engineering is all about. The students wanted to know why he thinks that the work of design engineers is superfluous. The best he could come up with was that design engineers earn 100,000 a month less than other engineers. As usual, the claim is not true, or at least a company manager who was present said that in fact on average they are more highly paid than their colleagues.

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

After the forums were over the ELTE students marched to BME, and from there a fairly large crowd proceeded to the building of the ministry of human resources with the promise of returning if the ministry doesn’t withdraw the plans by Wednesday. I have the feeling that in the interim other universities will join the ELTE and BME crowd, but I doubt that a complete withdrawal of the “concept” is in the offing. In his speech at the forum the president of ELTE expressed a modest expectation. He said that he is hopeful that the international relations major might be saved. But, let’s face it, this is not enough. Indeed, the autonomy of the universities should be restored. That will not happen as long as the Orbán regime is in power, but I very much hope that a total overhaul of Hungarian higher education will take place after the fall of Viktor Orbán.

Yesterday there was an interview with Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist who with László Solyóm, former chief justice of the constitutional court and president of the republic, crafted the constitution that functioned well until in 2012 the second Orbán government replaced it with its own. In the interview Tölgyessy said something that caught my imagination. The Hungarian people are rarely aroused to revolt. They are fine with practically any regime so long as it leaves their private spheres alone. But when the government forces itself upon them by wanting to change their lives, then Hungarians stand up and say no to their overlords. János Kádár knew that. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, wants to change everything, including his subjects. Tölgyessy is sure that in the long run Orbán’s plans will fail.

Modern Hungarian Newspeak

Two days ago the internet news site vs.hu got hold of a 13-page list of words that are deemed unsuitable for use by the management of the Ministry of Human Resources. The list covers all the fields this mammoth ministry is responsible for, from education to culture and health as well as religious and family matters. The initial response was hilarity, but those people who found this list funny may have forgotten about George Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984, the purpose of which was “to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.” The main purpose of this list was to banish concepts by eliminating the words that refer to them.

Obviously, the political leaders of Hungary are not bothered by the striking resemblance between their list and the notorious Newspeak of Orwell. Actually, I would be surprised if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, ever read the book. He is old enough to have received his education during the Kádár regime, when Orwell’s works were on the list of forbidden books.

Since we are talking about language, specifically about semantics, on occasion I will have a difficult time explaining the subtle or not so subtle differences between the original word for a concept and its suggested replacement. Let’s start with the easy ones. “Tuition” does not exist. There is no suggested alternative. Employees of the ministry are simply supposed to repeat: Hungary has “tuition-free higher education.” Of course, this is an outright lie. About half of the university and college students pay a steep tuition fee. Or, here is another easy task: “reform” is out. In its place they suggest “structural reconstruction, “fine tuning,” or simply “implementations.” The word “szegény” (poor) is a word this regime does not want to see anywhere. “Poor settlement” is out, and instead ministry employees are supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” And now we come to a concept change that will be difficult to explain. A “poor person” is no longer poor but needy (rászorult). Why “rászorult” is better than “szegény” I’m not quite sure. Perhaps because “szegény” indicates a level of permanence whereas a needy person’s situation might be temporary? Instead of “szegénység” (poverty) there is another suggestion besides “rászorultság” (in need)–“nélkülözés,” which literally means something like going without; the dictionary definition is privation, indigence, need. Instead of saying “to decrease poverty,” from here on we should talk about “societal convergence.”

The word “segregated” is to be avoided by all means possible, although we know that most Gypsy children attend segregated schools and that most Roma live in villages which for all practical purposes are segregated. To get rid of this word/concept was too great a task for the wordsmiths of Balog’s staff. The best they could come up with was “peripheral,” as in “peripheral settlement,” or even better “kiszorult,” which means superseded, driven out, supplanted. What these words have to do with “segregation” or “segregated” is beyond me.

Interestingly enough, the word “work” (munka) is not a favorite of the regime despite its claim to be building a society based on work. “Voluntary work” becomes “voluntary activity.” Well, perhaps work must always be something you are paid to do, but then what about the work women do in the home? Do they no longer have to work, just be active? The word for domestic violence, which in Hungarian is family (családi) violence, is out. Instead, they are to talk about violence among people who know each other (kapcsolati erőszak). A “sokgyermekes család” (a family with many children) should be called “többgyermekes család” (a family with more children), I guess because there can never be too many children in a family.

Instead of “Kulturkampf” we ought to use “discussion of values.” Why “idősödés” is better than “öregedés” I wouldn’t know. Both mean “aging.” “Equal opportunity” seems to be a dirty word too. The government is offering only an “opportunity for equality” (esélyteremtés). Some will presumably have more of an opportunity than others. “Equality” in general is troublesome in their eyes. “Equality of the sexes” is frowned upon. One should say “societal equality of women and men” or “more harmonic cooperation between women and men.” For these politicians the ideal is still a woman who stays at home and looks after her husband and children. Sexual differences for them override any abstract notion of equality.

Instead of “people” in the sense of “Hungarian people,” we should always talk about the Hungarian nation (nemzet). Instead of “society” (társadalom) we should use “community” (közösség). The difference between these two concepts is obvious. A community is tied together by a special fellowship and identity while members of a society are not so linked. Perhaps this is a more explicit way of banishing people who are not like-minded from the community or, at best, relegating them to the periphery.

Let me mention a few real oddities. One is the word “vak,” which should be used instead of “világtalan.” I don’t know what will happen to the saying: “Vak vezet világtalant,” meaning “blind leads blind.” We also learned that “stadium” is a word to avoid. Instead it should be called a “sports complex” or “sportcsarnok used for many functions.” Oh, yes, let’s stop calling the nation’s attention to the fact that the prime minister of the country has been spending taxpayer money, a lot of it, on football stadiums.

Perhaps the most surprising suggestion is to avoid the word “Jew, Jewish” (zsidó). The ministry suggests that we go back about a hundred years when, as I mentioned in one of my comments on the 1910 Hungarian census this morning, the followers of Judaism were described as “izrealiták.” This is an old-fashioned and nowadays never used word. It denotes only religion, not ethnicity. There are few practicing Jews in Hungary, so I assume the rest of the Jewish community has just lost its identity.

szegeny

There are so many Hungarian literary allusions to poverty and poor people in both concrete and figurative terms that bloggers couldn’t help making fun of the suggestion to rid the language of the word ” szegény.” Yes, perhaps if we banish the words for “poor” and “poverty” all those poor people, all four million of them who live in “underdeveloped settlements” and attend “peripheral schools,” will simply disappear. And, by the way, Hungary will no longer have a Roma “minority” (kisebbség). It will have a “Roma nationality” (Roma nemzetiség), which I don’t think will make their situation any better. For example, they will no longer get “compensation” (kártérítés), as in the case of the victims of the serial murders, but will receive only “mitigation of damages” (kárenyhítés).

I think other ministries should get on board. Just think of all the words that could be eliminated–words like corruption and lying on the one hand and democracy and free speech on the other.

The new ethics textbook for Hungarian fifth graders

What can one say about the newly introduced ethics textbook for Hungarian fifth graders? For starters, it is not, strictly speaking, an ethics text.  Ethics is not a branch of religion, and being ethical is not the same as following the law or adhering to societal norms. So a textbook that lauds religious virtues and advocates unquestioning civil obedience doesn’t belong in an ethics class.

The authors of this non-ethics textbook are Ferenc Bánhegyi and Mrs. Olajos Ilona Kádár. Bánhegyi seems to be a favorite of the Orbán government because he is also the sole author of the history book intended for fifth graders. Perhaps the best introduction to Ferenc Bánhegyi’s worldview is his outline for a forthcoming history textbook. The dominant theme of the book is the unjust attacks on Hungary and Hungarians through the ages. His goal is to refute these charges and to blame foreigners for Hungary’s misfortunes. Pity the poor student who has to give the “right” answer to such questions as why Mihály Károlyi was viewed favorably in the West and given a villa in France. Or, in a similar vein (and with, I presume, a similar answer expected) why Ferenc Gyurcsány is more acceptable in Western Europe than Viktor Orbán.

Surely, the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Human Resources, in particular Rózsa Hoffmann and her crew, knew about this man’s predilection for both historical falsification and anti-Semitism and racism. One of Bánhegyi’s history textbooks already had to be withdrawn in 2000. It seems that the first Orbán government was less forgiving than the second one.

Admittedly, there was some serious editing of the new ethics textbook. Here’s one notable passage. The original read: “The Hungarians are one of the most welcoming people in Europe. They are hospitable and friendly. This was the case from the time of Saint Stephen until the beginning of the twentieth century when the lost war and the many different people whom Hungarians welcomed helped to break up the country. Our people even after that remained welcoming and hospitable, but the deep wound Trianon caused still hasn’t healed.” That’s how the text read in May when reporters of 444.hu got hold of it. In the final product the text was changed to: “The Hungarians are one of Europe’s hospitable nations. We know that King Saint Stephen urged our ancestors to welcome strangers and honor other people.” Quite a difference. Of course, today’s Hungarians are among the most xenophobic people in Europe; just lately whole villages were in an uproar over plans to build shelters for political refugees in their vicinity.

The parents who didn’t want their children to receive religious education and who opted for ethics as the lesser evil are not better off. Perhaps worse. The whole book sounds like a guidebook to Christian-national conservative ideology. The book is full of religious references and praise for Christian communities. Thus virtue figures large in the textbook. Among the virtues the Bánhegyi-Olajos textbook lists are patriotism, religiosity, pride, heroism, and strength. Moreover, we learn from this book that “the greatest act of a brave man is martyrdom.” I hope that none of the children take that too seriously.

The line between religion and ethics is blurred: “religious communities provide values, order, security.” The authors bemoan the fact that relatively few young people seek the help of the clergy in solving their problems. I might add here that the only religious communities the textbook refers to are Catholic and Hungarian Reformed. The textbook claims that religious people are more caring than others and that “religious communities can greatly assist in the development of deep and close friendships.” It blames the media and the free market economy for the deterioration of public morality.

Michelangelo's Seven Virtues, Uffizi Gallery

Michelangelo’s Seven Virtues, Uffizi Gallery

However objectionable all this may be, it is a marked improvement over Bánhegyi’s earlier ethics textbook that caused quite an upheaval in 2004 when it came out. That book contained such sentences as “the communist leading members of the Hungarian Soviet Republic came from the Jewry who were responsible for many people’s death.” Or, “the Roma came from India and spread all over the world. Because of prejudice and of their own attitude they were forced to the neglected far ends of the villages where they just manage to subsist. Many Roma children finish school without sufficient knowledge and thus unfortunately the mass of unschooled and uneducated children will get reproduced.”

Bánhegyi’s troubles with at least two of his earlier textooks may actually have been a plus as far as Rózsa Hoffmann was concerned. Religiosity and nationalism are the two pillars of the current Orbán government.  The Bánhegyi-Olajos textbook serves this purpose perfectly. After all, “the goal of morality is to make our nation strong.” Read that sentence again and weep. The present government surely must be satisfied with the book’s emphasis on law and order and its claim that all laws must be obeyed. Laws presumably are never immoral. Or at least the laws enacted by the Orbán government aren’t.

The authors don’t hide their prejudices. Just like Rózsa Hoffmann they complain about the widespread use of the English language; they don’t understand why the American dollar is used worldwide as a reserve currency; they find it objectionable that American films are popular. They don’t like computer games and contend that older games were better. They expect youngsters always to ask the advice of adults, and they insist that today’s youngsters are not as moral as their predecessors. They hold old-fashioned views on the family and consider modernity the source of many evils in this world.

In brief, the book doesn’t pose questions about ethical issues but tells the children what, according to currently dominant Hungarian ideology, is right and what is wrong. It reminds me of books written for teenage Catholic boys in the 1930s that gave advice on how to become an ideal Catholic youth. To mangle Tennyson, theirs not to reason why, theirs just to accept and comply.