Tag Archives: Orbán government

Another PISA test, another poor performance

It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.

The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.

In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.

The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.

In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.

The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.

One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.

A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.

November 23, 2017

George Soros’s messages and the Hungarian government’s reactions

George Soros, simultaneously with releasing his rebuttal of the Hungarian national consultation on the alleged Soros Plan, gave an interview to Andrew Byrne of The Financial Times, in which he explained his decision to break his silence. He cannot remain quiet any longer because the Hungarian government about a month ago announced its intention to investigate the so-called Soros network. Under these circumstances, he felt he had to “set the record straight in order to defend these groups and individuals who are going to great lengths to defend European values against persecution.” At the same time he urged EU countries to raise their voices against “Orbán’s treatment of civil society and address fears over the rule of law in Hungary.”

“It is a tragedy for Hungary”

It is hard to know for sure whether this interview and rebuttal by George Soros came as a surprise to the Orbán government or not, but I suspect that it did. After all, the campaign against Soros has been going on for almost two years, yet Hungary’s benefactor hasn’t publicly criticized the Orbán government’s treatment of him and hasn’t come out in defense of the NGOs he has been supporting. During these two years he spoke out only once, thanking the 20,000-30,000 people who demonstrated on behalf of the beleaguered Central European University he founded. The devilish idea of a national consultation on the Soros Plan was born months ago, the questionnaires were sent to eight million voters more than a month ago, yet Soros said nothing. So, I assume Orbán believed that Soros would not engage verbally but would simply take all of the abuse showered on him and the employees of the civic organizations that have been the beneficiaries of his largesse.

A relatively new internet news site called Független Hírügynökség collected all the early responses to the rebuttal and the interview from pro-government sources and came to the conclusion that most of these slavish organs of government propaganda needed a few hours to recover from the shock. As is normally the case, these so-called journalists wait for the word from above. Once the government mantra is handed down, the “parrot commando” takes over. This time the magic phrase is “frontal attack.” It was Gergely Gulyás, the new Fidesz parliamentary whip, who got the assignment of sounding the trumpet. We can be assured that from this time on we will encounter the same phrase in all pro-government publications. According to Gulyás, George Soros until now has attacked Hungary and its government only “through organizations he finances, the European Parliament, and his Brussels allies,” but now he has personally joined the fight. He is attacking the government’s nationwide public survey, “making accusations, threats, and slanders.”

Gulyás, who has shed his gentlemanly demeanor since he became the Fidesz whip, wasn’t satisfied with criticizing Soros’s interview. Obviously he was told that he must announce that the investigation of the NGOs George Soros is worried about might be extended to Soros himself. Here is exactly what he said: “Civic organizations function freely in Hungary within a constitutional framework, but if there is an organized attempt at discrediting Hungary from abroad, this activity must be investigated.”

Let’s step back briefly to the Hungarian government’s “investigation” of the partially Soros-funded civic organizations. It was about a month ago that Viktor Orbán called these NGOs a threat to national security. Last week János Lázár announced that the government had asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to report on the possible dangers these civic groups pose to Hungary. This afternoon Pintér was to report to the parliamentary committee on national security about these alleged dangers. Before the hearing took place, Magyar Idők published an editorial which hypothesized that George Soros had timed his attack on Hungary in order “to divert attention from Pintér’s report” and “ahead of time to discredit it.” That sounded like a plausible theory, but to the obvious chagrin of the Orbán government, Pintér was unable to come up with any national security threats these human rights organizations present to Hungary. According to information that reached Index.hu, Pintér sidestepped the question. Obviously, he cannot go against the government’s position, but at the same time professionally he couldn’t find any national security risks stemming from these organizations’ activities. He apparently simply repeated what he had told the media a few days ago: “I don’t know whether George Soros poses any danger, but ideas he promulgates do not conform to the Hungarian conceptions and to Hungarian law. An open society, a society without borders are not accepted at the moment. They are futuristic.”

Yes, Soros stood up and fought, not so much for himself as for the people who as human rights activists are being threatened by the regime. Once he broke his silence he decided to go all the way. When RTL Klub asked for an interview, he sent a video message in Hungarian which the network immediately put up on its own website. It is a very moving video that lasts maybe two minutes. “It is a tragedy for Hungary that its present government is trying to keep itself in power by distorting reality and by misleading the population…. I’m terribly worried about Hungary; I think a lot about Hungary, and I want the Hungarian people to know that I will continue to do everything to support them.” It’s good to know that there are still people like George Soros around. The RTL Klub’s segment on Soros on its news program can be viewed here.

November 21, 2017

George Soros: “Rebuttal of the October 9 National Consultation in Hungary”

November 20, 2017

On October 9, 2017, the Hungarian government mailed a national consultation to all eight million eligible Hungarian voters purporting to solicit their opinions about a so-called “Soros Plan.” The statements in the national consultation contain distortions and outright lies that deliberately mislead Hungarians about George Soros’s views on migrants and refugees. Hungarian government officials also falsely claim that George Soros is somehow controlling the European Union decision-making process. In fact, decisions on how to address the migration crisis are made by EU member states and institutions, including the Hungarian government.

With Hungary’s health care and education systems in distress and corruption rife, the current government has sought to create an outside enemy to distract citizens. The government selected George Soros for this purpose, launching a massive anti-Soros media campaign costing tens of millions of euros in taxpayer money, stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, and employing anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s. The national consultation is part of an ongoing propaganda effort that has been underway since May 2015 that included the “Stop Brussels” consultation in the spring of 2017 and the referendum that vilified migrants and refugees in 2016.

George Soros started his giving in Hungary in the 1980s, establishing a foundation there in 1984. Since then, his support for Hungarians has totaled roughly €350 million and has included scholarships, health care services, and humanitarian efforts, including €1 million for reconstruction after the red sludge disaster in 2010. He also funds current efforts to help educate children with learning disabilities, tackle homelessness, and bring public transportation to the Hungarian countryside.

As a concerned citizen, George Soros regularly publishes commentary in newspapers around the world expressing his views and proposing policy approaches on a variety of topics, including the migration crisis. These are all publicly available on his website: www.GeorgeSoros.com.

National Consultation Statement 1:

George Soros wants Brussels to resettle at least one million immigrants per year onto European Union territory, including in Hungary.

FALSE

In a 2015 opinion piece, George Soros said that because of the war in Syria, the European Union would have to “accept at least a million asylum-seekers annually for the foreseeable future. And, to do that, it must share the burden fairly” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). A year later, when circumstances had changed, he suggested that the EU should make a “commitment to admit even a mere 300,000 refugees annually” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 2:

Together with officials in Brussels, George Soros is planning to dismantle border fences in EU member states, including in Hungary, to open the borders for immigrants.

FALSE

George Soros has clearly stated his belief that “the EU must regain control of its borders.” He believes that “the EU must build common mechanisms for protecting borders, determining asylum claims, and relocating refugees.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 3:

One part of the Soros Plan is to use Brussels to force the EU-wide distribution of immigrants that have accumulated in Western Europe, with special focus on Eastern European countries. Hungary must also take part in this.

FALSE

In his most recent commentary on the refugee crisis, George Soros endorsed “a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees.” He made clear that “the EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 4:

Based on the Soros Plan, Brussels should force all EU member states, including Hungary, to pay immigrants HUF 9 million (€28,000) in welfare.

FALSE

George Soros did not say that Hungary should be forced to pay HUF 9 million in welfare to immigrants. He did say, “Adequate financing is critical. The EU should provide €15,000 per asylum-seeker for each of the first two years to help cover housing, health care, and education costs—and to make accepting refugees more appealing to member states.” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). This would clearly be a subsidy from the EU to the Hungarian government. Last year George Soros announced that he would contribute to the financial effort by earmarking €430 million of his personal fortune “for investments that specifically address the needs of migrants, refugees and host communities.” (“Why I’m Investing $500 Million in Migrants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 5:

Another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 6:

The goal of the Soros Plan is to push the languages and cultures of Europe into the background so that integration of illegal immigrants happens much more quickly.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 7:

It is also part of the Soros Plan to initiate political attacks against those countries which oppose immigration, and to severely punish them.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

November 21,2017

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017

Friction between natural allies: The Orbán government and the Catholic Church

András Veres has been widely criticized ever since he delivered a brief but controversial sermon at the official Catholic celebration of August 20, Hungary’s premier national holiday. Veres, the bishop of Győr and the president of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, is well known for his extreme conservatism. So when I heard that he would deliver the homily, I assumed that he would use the occasion to promote reactionary views of the Hungarian Catholic Church. I was surprised when I read the summary by MTI, the state-owned news agency. The summary was extremely short and devoid of any extremism.

Well, it didn’t take long before it was discovered that MTI had left out all the passages in which Veres was critical of the Orbán government. Magyar Kurír, the official internet site of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, published the complete text, in which this passage could be found:

Brothers and sisters, we must pay attention to an internal danger. A deviously worded law under the guise of good intentions which ignores Christian values furtively is sneaking into the fabric of a Christian-based society, planting the blight of self-abdication. The last time we saw such a thing was in the provision to increase support for the test-tube baby program.

Another passage that was deemed unimportant by MTI was the one that dealt with relations between church and state. What Veres had to say on the subject, in my opinion, amounts to asserting the supremacy of the church over the state.

We Christians cannot abdicate our duty of shaping society according to the value system of the gospel. On the one hand, because we know that we serve the good of all people and, on the other, because if we renounced that task we would not fulfill our mission of baptism, that is, we wouldn’t be building the kingdom of God.

It took a couple of days before the real meaning of the words on the test-tube baby program sank in, but when it did, the outrage was widespread. Something unusual happened in a country of enormous political divisiveness: it mattered not whether people support the government or are in the opposition, they found Veres’s words unacceptable. When I read an open letter addressed to András Veres by László Szentesi Zöldi, I realized the depth of the rejection of the position of the Catholic Church on the subject. Szentesi Zöldi is a journalist who is usually the first to defend the Catholic Church. And yet in this letter he took it upon himself to teach the prelate about true Christianity.

András Veres, bishop of Győr

A long list of well-known personalities expressed their disappointment over Veres’s position. Some commentators couldn’t understand why Veres chose this particular occasion to get involved with such a controversial topic. But there is a fairly simple explanation that got lost in the emotional outcry against the church’s official doctrine. From the snippets of information that we have, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP), which considers itself to be the political arm of the Catholic Church seems to be extremely unhappy with the government’s decision to enlarge the test-tube baby program. As of now, the state funds the birth of 6,000 test-tube babies a year, but because of outside pressure as well as the government’s interest in increasing the number of births, it promised enough funds to double that number to 12,000. My suspicion is that behind the scenes Fidesz is encountering opposition from KDNP at the urging of the Catholic Church.

The question of expanding the program has been on the table for far too long. It was during the second Orbán government (2010-2014) that Miklós Szócska, undersecretary of health, commissioned a study that came to the conclusion that the expansion of the program might produce 10,000 new babies every year. His successor, Gábor Zombor (June 2014-September 2015), continued advocating for an expansion, and this time the government actually approved the measure. But its implementation was postponed. This spring his successor, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, brought up the issue once again, but those eager would-be parents who might benefit from the expansion of the program are still waiting.

I fear they can wait for a while, because I’m quite certain that the “discussion” between Fidesz and KDNP hasn’t been settled yet. In fact, if we can trust Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), former undersecretary of education (2010-2014), the fight over the issue is raging at the moment. According to her, “the test-tube baby program can be continued, but because of the Catholic Church’s objection there will still be a lot of debate on the issue.”

An article published today confirms my suspicion of the raging debate between the government parties. The author of the article calls attention to the fact that there is “total chaos surrounding the test-tube baby program.” For example, two undersecretaries in the ministry of human resources hold diametrically opposed positions on the issue. Katalin Novák (Fidesz), undersecretary in charge of family affairs in the ministry of human resources, distanced herself from Bishop Veres by emphasizing the enormous help the program gives to infertile parents. She reiterated that the expansion of the program will be approved soon. On the other hand, Bence Rétvári (KDNP), political undersecretary in the same ministry, did not stand by the program and was extremely vague on the details. Rétvári, who is a typical member of a party that considers itself to be the arm of the Catholic Church, suspects that the promoters of the program support the idea because it gives extra work and income to those institutions that specialize in this particular medical procedure. Whether the public outcry will tip the scale in favor of doubling the program we don’t know yet.

András Veres subsequently gave interviews explaining the church’s position, and the more he said the worse it got. Since the church believes in birth only through natural means, infertile couples just have to cope with their lot. Or, as a remedy, they could adopt a child, which would relieve their anxiety so they could eventually produce a child of their own. No one seems to be convinced.

As for Veres’s second statement, about the duty of the church to shape society, no has taken notice of it yet, although it might be a much more weighty statement than the church’s views on test-tube babies. After all, 80% of women pay not the slightest attention to the Catholic church’s views on reproduction. The shaping of society according to the value system of the Catholic church is a much more frightening prospect, especially in a country like Hungary where state and church are far too close as it is.

August 25, 2017

Hungarians oppose the Orbán government’s policy toward ethnic Hungarians living abroad

Originally, I considered writing about the “gala interview” that László Kövér gave to Magyar Idők yesterday. I must admit that this decision was based mostly on the couple of reactions I read, which insisted that Kövér’s interview was the craziest he has ever given, that it’s becoming apparent to everyone that the president of the Hungarian parliament is not quite normal. Index, ahead of the interview’s publication, was sure that the interview would have “exciting” parts, while a journalist from Pesti Bulvár, a liberal internet site, was flabbergasted after reading it.

So, foolish me, I thought this interview would give us new insight into Kövér as well as into the latest mindset of the Fidesz leadership. Perhaps I have developed an immunity to everything that comes from the characters who are running the country at the moment, but I found nothing new in this “gala interview.” I guess what shocked the journalists of Pesti Bulvár was that Kövér announced that he wouldn’t be surprised if the European Union collapsed in his lifetime. Kövér is 58 years old, so the timetable is pretty tight. Aside from this prophecy, Kövér repeated his belief in the conspiracy of certain clandestine powers (háttérhatalmak) that, at the time it was first floated by Viktor Orbán a year ago, consisted of the U.S. government, the Clintons, George Soros, and the civic organizations financed by him. By now the composition of this group of evil spirits has changed somewhat. After the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, “a certain segment of the intellectual, political, and economic elite” joined the conspiracy because “they are trying their best to hamstring the democratically elected president.” So, instead of the U.S. government, Kövér considers the American liberal elite part of the hidden powers that run the world. I fail to see what is new in all that.

On the other hand, there is something that is worth discussing. A new poll was just released showing that Hungarian citizens living in Hungary have serious reservations about the financial assistance given to ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries. They also reject their participation in Hungarian elections.

Those of you who follow the discussions among readers of Hungarian Spectrum may recall that only a few days ago I expressed my personal misgivings about giving voting rights to people who have possibly never set foot in the country. They don’t live and work there, but now they have the right to determine the political fate of the country, possibly at the expense of those who have to carry the political and economic burden of it. Ex Tor especially took exception to my position, saying that there can be no citizenship without voting rights. At that time I looked at the electoral laws of several European countries and found that most of them do in fact grant voting rights but that there are exceptions. In any case, I believe that the Hungarian situation is unique, if for nothing else but the large number of votes expected from the neighboring countries. If the government’s plans materialize, about ten percent of all votes cast would come from abroad.

Now let’s see the results of the poll Publicus Institute published for Vasárnapi Hírek. Just as I said earlier, my hunch was that Hungarians wouldn’t mind giving citizenship to those who can prove Hungarian ancestry but who were born and still live in another country, be it one of the neighboring countries or countries such as Canada, the U.S., France, or Germany. The majority, however, object to certain privileges these ethnic Hungarians receive at the moment. They resent the sizable amount of money that is being spent on projects in the neighboring countries to benefit ethnic Hungarians. They oppose their entitlement to various social benefits in Hungary. They have serious objections to the voting rights of dual citizens. They consider the present law, which makes a distinction between new dual citizens and Hungarian citizens who work abroad, discriminatory and unfair. And when it comes to spending billions on the football academy in the Szekler-inhabited area of Romania, they are really up in arms (-81%).

Anyone who’s interested in all the details of the poll can visit Publicus’s website. Here I will summarize only the most important findings. On the whole, there is strong support (68%) for granting dual citizenship to those who want to become Hungarian citizens, but backing for the legislation that granted it varies greatly, depending on party affiliation. Fidesz and Jobbik are strong defenders of the measure, while the majority of MSZP voters object even to dual citizenship as a concept. (Publicus has the habit of putting all left-liberal parties under MSZP.)

The situation is entirely different when it comes to the fabulous amount of money the Orbán government spends on ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Slovakia. The majority of respondents disapprove of the policy of providing social benefits similar to the ones they receive to people who have never lived in the country. People feel strongly against providing dual citizens with pensions, paid leaves for new mothers, travel discounts, and welfare benefits (60-70%), but somewhat strangely 55% would provide them with healthcare. When it comes to the reasons for Fidesz’s generosity toward ethnic Hungarians, the majority of the Hungarian voters cannot be fooled. Or at least only Fidesz voters (57%) believe in their party leaders’ altruism. The most skeptical bunch are the Jobbik voters (77%), closely followed by MSZP (74%), but uncommitted voters are not far behind (63%). The fact that new dual citizens can vote via mail as opposed to Hungarian citizens working abroad, who must travel miles to reach the embassy or a consulate, is considered to be discriminatory and unfair by 81% of the people. On the crucial question of voting rights, 57% of the respondents indicated their opposition to the present practice.

Although the Orbán government’s “national policies” (nemzetpolitika) are unpopular, the government considers the “investment” worthwhile, as is obvious from its frantic spending on Hungarian ethnic groups lately. The government spends hand over fist on those “sisters and brothers” abroad who are squarely in the Fidesz camp. The extra votes Fidesz expects to receive from them are considered to be crucial in the forthcoming election. Moreover, since there is no independent oversight of the incoming ballots, their numbers can be manipulated, depending on need. Let’s not forget that Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in 2010 was announced after the foreign votes were counted. It was highly suspicious then, and it will be equally suspicious if a similar situation occurs in 2018.

August 20, 2017