Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The Hungarian government’s Anti-American rhetoric: László Kövér and Péter Boross

Two weeks ago Ambassador Colleen Bell returned to the United States to take part in the celebrations organized by the Hungarian Embassy in Washington for the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. One of the events was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit,” which took place at the Pentagon. Here the American ambassador delivered a short but ringing speech about the wonderful U.S.-Hungarian friendship because “the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens. We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.” What a charitable description of the present state of affairs in Hungary.

Official Hungary didn’t seem to appreciate the ambassador’s expressions of friendship and her praise of Hungarian democracy. Only a few days later at least two important political personages attacked the United States in the basest fashion in connection with the celebrations of ’56.

Let me start with Hungary’s elderly statesman Péter Boross, who for a few months in 1993 and 1994 was the prime minister of Hungary and now at least on paper is one of the chief advisers of Viktor Orbán. Anyone wanting to know more about Boross’s “love of democracy” should read my post titled “Péter Boross: No longer the wise man of Hungary?”

It just happened that three days before the anniversary of the revolution the U.S. State Department released a statement that “share[d] the concerns of global press freedom advocates, international organizations, and Hungarian citizens over the steady decline of media freedom in Hungary.” The statement called attention to two recent incidents. One was the ban of 444.hu from the parliament building on October 19; the other, “the sudden closure of Hungary’s largest independent newspaper, Nepszabadsag, on October 8.” The short statement ended with: “as a friend and ally, we encourage the Hungarian government to ensure an open media environment that exposes citizens to a diversity of views and opinions, a key component of our shared democratic values.”

The answer came soon enough. Péter Boross delivered a speech on October 22 in front of one of the several monuments commemorating the events of 1956. He spared no words condemning the United States, specifically mentioning the U.S. State Department’s statement concerning media freedom in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As Boross explained, October 23 is “a sacred day which certain people deride.” For example, “the deputy spokesman of a great power’s foreign ministry who is worried about the state of Hungary’s media freedom.” Somewhere in Washington the last issue of Népszabadság is being exhibited, he complained indignantly, and without hesitation offered the following retort: “Shouldn’t we exhibit a couple of items from the list of the heinous crimes [gaztettek] of the American imperialists?” Well, well, old habits die hard. Or perhaps, as János Dési of Klubrádió wrote in an opinion piece, “Boross was always a useful link in all dictatorships.” Dési’s comment is appropriate because as a youngster Boross was an enthusiastic cadet in a military academy that ended up fighting alongside the Germans.

The bashing of the United States continued a couple of days later when László Kövér delivered a speech in the parliament building where MSZP and DK members and perhaps some independents were conspicuously absent. For Kövér the “lesson of the revolution and war of independence [of 1956] is that without the maintenance and defense of its own self-image, self-determination and self-esteem the whole of Europe, the whole of the European Union may become the tragic victim of the unscrupulous self-interest of great powers outside of Europe and of clandestine powers [háttérhatalmak], operating over and above the states without democratic mandate and supervision.” How he got from an uprising against a Stalinist regime and the Soviet occupation forces to the political and economic encroachment of the United States, because, let’s face it, this is what Kövér is talking about, and George Soros’s Open Society project is unfathomable to me.

Kövér continued, claiming that “the Hungarian ’56” also has a message for the 21st century. Every time I hear a politician say that either a historical occasion or a long-dead historical figure “sends messages to us” I have to laugh because I once read a very funny piece by a blogger who said: “No, my friends, St. Stephen doesn’t send us messages. Neither does Sándor Petőfi nor Lajos Kossuth.” Well, I can add, neither does the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Especially not the kind of confused message that Kövér tries to convey about national sovereignty based on the will of the people which, if tampered with, “will lead to the weakening of democracy, anarchy and subordination of Europe.” Thus, in this context, when the Orbán government defends Hungary’s national sovereignty “it defends the heritage of 1956.” Those who think that Hungarians can be made to abandon the heritage of ’56, their historical ideals and their beliefs underestimate the Hungarian people. “No threat, no lies, no sugar coating” will work.

Of of those Soviet tanks Kövér was talking about

One of those Soviet tanks László Kövér was talking about with Hungarian coat of arms plastered on it

But the above was a mild rebuke in comparison to what followed: Kövér’s reinterpretation of the United States’ role in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. It was on November 1, 1956 that Hungary declared its independence and neutrality. “The next day, on November 2, the foreign ministry of the United States informed the Yugoslav leader, Tito, who was host to the Soviet party secretary [Nikita Khrushchev] at the time, that the United States doesn’t look with favor upon those countries neighboring on the Soviet Union that are unfriendly toward the Soviet Union. It was after that, on November 4, that the Soviet Union attacked Hungary with more tanks than Hitler had sent against Poland in 1939.” In brief, the defeat of the uprising is directly attributable to the pro-Soviet policies of the United States, which assured the Russians of its support of the beleaguered Soviet Union. This is a pretty incredible statement. I have no idea where he found this, for me at least, totally unknown piece of information.

As an antidote I recommend the website of the 1956-os Intézet és Oral History Archívum, especially “Győzhetett-e volna a magyar forradalom 1956-ban?” I also recommend Charles Gati’s highly acclaimed book Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (2007).

October 26, 2016

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.

A critique of a political analysis on Hungary by Stratfor’s George Friedman

In the last few months I have been getting a daily newsletter from Stratfor, a private intelligence and forecasting company. No, I’m not a subscriber, and I doubt that Stratfor has many individual subscribers. Its clients are mostly institutions that feel the need for economic, military, or political analyses and forecasting.

Stratfor’s daily newsletter offers one free analysis chosen by the company. Most of the topics lie outside my field of interest, but today’s “special” aroused my curiosity: “Borderlands: Hungary Maneuvers.” The article was written by George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor. Friedman received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. For almost twenty years he was a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Then in 1996 he decided to quit academe and become a strategic analyst.

Friedman was born in Budapest to Holocaust survivors, but his parents left the country when he was a small child. What he learned from his parents sitting around the kitchen table was that “except for the Germans, the vastness of evil could not have existed.” In his parents’ lessons Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian regent between 1920 and 1944, pretty much got a pass. Friedman continues to believe the history his parents taught him. To his mind, Horthy was a wily geopolitical strategist who maneuvered between Germany and the Soviet Union for quite a while. Only brute German force, blackmail, and threats against Horthy himself opened the door to mass destruction of the Hungarian Jewry.

The first half of the article tries to convince the reader that his vision of Horthy is the correct one while the second draws parallels between the Hungary of today and the times of Horthy. As he says, Horthy’s “experience is the one that Hungary’s current leadership appears to have studied.”

I will not be able to cover the whole article in this post and therefore will concentrate on Friedman’s account of the Horthy era. The appearance of this “revisionist” appraisal of Horthy is especially ill-timed because it was only a few days ago that historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences unanimously declared at a conference that the monument Orbán is erecting, which is supposed to make Germany alone responsible for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, is a falsification of history. Nothing like lending a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s project.

Friedman’s Hungary was a small, weak country that helplessly floundered between the Soviet Union and Germany, all the while trying to remain independent. “Horthy’s goal was to preserve its sovereignty in the face of the rising power of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.” Friedman seems to think that Horthy viewed both great powers with equal contempt. But that was not the case. In fact, until the very last moment he refused to turn to the Soviets to declare his willingness to negotiate a separate peace, whereas he was indebted to the Germans for helping Hungary regain sizable territories in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia between November 1938 and April 1941. (These territories are shown in the Wikipedia map below.)

"Hungary's

As for the Jewish issue, Friedman claims that “Horthy was no more anti-Semitic than any member of his class had to be.” First of all, I’m not sure why Friedman believes there was a social imperative to be anti-Semitic. Members of Horthy’s social class may have been anti-Semitic, but they didn’t have to be anti-Semitic.

Horthy as well as the majority of Hungarian politicians and high officials wanted to rid the country of its Jewish population. Horthy didn’t want an immediate “cleansing” because without Jewish capital and know-how the Hungarian economy would have collapsed. But eventually the Hungarian anti-Semites stripped the Jews of all their worldly possessions and deported them. These Hungarians, including high officials, didn’t particularly care what happened to the Jews once they were deported. There simply had to be “a changing of the guard” (őrségváltás). Non-Jews were to take over positions held by Jews in the professions, business, and manufacturing. None of this seems to have penetrated Friedman’s consciousness.

It is at this point that we reach the crucial date of March 19, 1944, which is described this way: “Horthy fell from his tightrope on March 19, 1944. Realizing that Germany was losing the war, Horthy made overtures to the Soviets.” Let me state right here that Horthy did not make overtures to the Soviets. A small delegation talked to American and British officials in Turkey. They were told to talk to the Russians, something Horthy was reluctant to do.

Friedman’s inadequate knowledge of history is evident in practically all the sentences he writes in this article. According to him, “Hitler forced the Hungarian leader to form a new government consisting of Hungary’s homegrown Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party.” Or, a few sentences later, he writes: “He [Horthy] did not crush the Hungarian Nazis, but he kept them at bay. He did not turn on Hitler, but he kept him at bay. What Horthy did was the dirty work of decency. He made deals with devils to keep the worst things from happening. By March 1944, Horthy could no longer play the game. Hitler had ended it. His choice was between dead sons and the horror of the following year, or living sons and that same horror.” Friedman’s “parents believed that Horthy’s critics were unable to comprehend the choices he had.”

We who are more familiar with the real story realize that the account Friedman heard from his parents in addition to bits and pieces he remembers from Horthy’s memoirs have nothing to do with reality. But Friedman cannot be deterred from his preconceived notions of German-Hungarian relations and the Hungarian Holocaust. He keeps going: “Once the Wehrmacht, the SS and Adolf Eichmann, the chief organizer of the Holocaust, were in Budapest, they found the Arrow Cross Party to be populated by eager collaborators.” Of course, this isn’t true either. The eager collaborators were in fact members of the Hungarian government appointed by Horthy.

The point of this hopelessly inaccurate history is to reframe the present debate about Viktor Orbán’s governance. On the one hand are people like his parents, who blamed the Germans “for unleashing the brutishness in the Hungarians.” On the other hand are nameless people who were harsher on Horthy. This debate, he writes, “has re-entered history through Hungarian politics. Some have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of trying to emulate … Miklós Horthy…. This is meant as an indictment. If so, at the university of our kitchen table, the lesson of Horthy is more complex and may have some bearing on present-day Hungary.”

I suggest that George Friedman take a refresher course.

Attila Ara-Kovács and Bálint Magyar: Can we learn from history?

After so many years, the Hungarian state is finding itself for the first time in a conflict where the external limits to the actions of its voluntarist leaders are determined not by impersonal economic processes but by equally voluntaristic factors the dimensions of which, however, are much larger and cast a shadow much longer than their own. With no pressure from outside, Hungary’s current government has sided with a policy which may seem advantageous from the viewpoint of holding on to its power but run contrary to the country’s interests and long-term objectives. Moreover, it promises that the country will once again end up sharing defeat and disgrace with forces that will be remembered by history with nothing but contempt.

CRIMEA: THE BEGINNING OF AN ERA

What goes on in Crimea today is by no means a result of random incidents but fits perfectly into Russia’s aspirations to resurrect the empire and, on the other, is inspired by the same fateful divisions, fraught with ethnic conflicts, that are as characteristic of Ukraine today as they were in Georgia in 2008. Russia’s re-positioning of its world political influence is justified neither by economic performance nor by military potential in a global context. Just as at the time of the Romanovs in the 19th century or Stalin’s empire-building decades in the 20th, the only factor motivating Russian policy vis-à-vis its neighbors is naked power politics exercised at what it considers its peripheries. Back then, Russia was unable to present itself as a great power of full value, capable of a global performance and holding out the promise of an alternative comparable to that offered by its rivals. Nor is it capable of the same feat today. In fact, there is a reverse relationship: whenever Russia reaches the outer limits of its potential for peaceful growth, parallel with that, its aggressiveness begins to grow. As a consequence, cooperation with the Russian empire in the international arena could never be conducted in a “businesslike” contractual manner but by bargains based on the power conditions, genuine or assumed, of any given time.

It was during the reign of Cathering the Great that Russia annexed the Crime in 1783 Source: Wikipedia.org

It was during the reign of Catherine the Great that Russia annexed the Crimea in 1783
Source: Wikipedia.org

A certain amount of aloofness was always highly advisable for the great powers, whether rivals or allies in a given period, when dealing with a Russia of this character. This was so in the 19th century when Russia was regarded by the world practically as an Asian power, but also in the 20th when forced alliance or openly hostile Cold War policies were predominant. The limited courses left accessible by geographical closeness for nations which did not have the military and economic power to resist Moscow’s designs are a different issue. These nations were doomed to maneuver in a field of force dominated by a provisional alliance between the western democracies and an empire struggling with permanent economic crisis yet unable to “outgrow” its despotism. Seeking balance between the great-power blocs was a failure even when they were in a stable state (perhaps with the exception of interwar Czechoslovakia), but trying to stay afloat in escalating conflicts which promised to last long usually forced them into compromises guaranteeing a losing position. The circumstances are very similar today with the difference that the former Central Europe and the Baltic have since been integrated into the European Union, and their nations are all NATO members.  NATO membership entails their obligatory protection, meaning that their freedom cannot be sacrificed even for the sake of avoiding a world war. The geographic regions still open to bargaining between the great-power blocs have narrowed down and shifted to the east. Russia’s empire-building ambitions aimed at a Eurasian Union are intended precisely to prevent “switching teams” between international blocs, a game that could be more or less openly played by the countries of the region in the past quarter century.

That is the position in which the post-Soviet states “stuck” in the Russian sphere of interest even after 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated find themselves. They have made occasional attempts to break out of their predicament through their “color revolutions”. Of these states, Ukraine is the most important, not only because of its size and economic potential, but also because if, after 300 years, it were to succeed to ultimately free itself from the bonds of co-habitation with Russia, it would eliminate even the appearance of Russia’s great-power status. The events that took place in Kiev’s Maidan have already forced the Kremlin to modify its strategy. 2015 was set as the original target date for the formal announcement of the new imperial union on the construction of which Putin has been working for years. Without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union will never be what it was meant to be according to the Russian blueprint. For one thing, it will grow much more distant from Europe, the entity with which the biggest share of the trade and cultural relations of the Russian Federation has been conducted ever since it was founded. On the other, it will become overwhelmingly Asian, making Moscow more vulnerable to Chinese pressure as well as hostage to the dynamically developing, increasingly dynastic post-Soviet mafia-states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).

DOMINO EFFECT IN THE BUFFER ZONE

1. The occupation of Crimea should therefore be regarded as the beginning only. The reputation of the Russian regime is unlikely to be damaged any further, so what we can expect is most likely the uninhibited assertion of its real or assumed interests. That includes the restoration of the unity of the one-time Soviet military-economic complex for which major supply capacities used to be provided by industrial facilities located in Ukraine. The dress rehearsal for that has already been completed in the shadow of weapons in Crimea with a referendum intimating the Wilsonian principles. Even though the result had not been questionable for a moment; the approval of Putin’s will by the population of the peninsula was shamelessly fraudulent. (Just in Simferopol, the rate of “yes” votes was 123 per cent.) The next moves could be the “soft” annexation of the industrial regions of the Donetsk Basin, the population of which is also overwhelmingly Russian, as well as of Odessa and the coastal area, again in the shadow of weapons. That would practically cut off Ukraine from the sea and rob it of the highly important hydrocarbon repositories of the continental shelf.

2. With the tiny Moscow-supported puppet state of Transnistria announcing its desire to join Russia (the breakaway mini-state, though still formally a part of Moldova, is centered in the town of Tiraspol), we see a new phase of the encirclement of Ukraine unfolding. With the potential annexation of Odessa and with Moscow’s inciting the ethnic minorities, like the Gagauzes, of the southwest Ukrainian areas against Kiev, Transnistria will help establish a contiguous zone under Russian influence, putting Kiev increasingly at the mercy of the Russian empire and placing a bigger price tag on western solidarity with Ukraine.

3. The events in Crimea and especially Transnistria may force the truncated Republic of Moldova to escape into a rapidly established union with Romania. The conditions and prospects for such a union are already openly discussed by Moldovan politicians and analysts. Some see full union as an inevitable prerequisite for instant guarantees by the EU and NATO, for which not only the regional and economic conditions are in place but is also reinforced by tradition ranging from common language to shared national symbols. Others, considering the mixed ethnic background, envision a federal-type community as more viable.

4. In Subcarpathia, the agents of Russian nationalism have already started to provoke the region’s ethnic minorities with mother countries outside the Ukrainian borders (Hungarians, Romanians) into thinking that this might be the right historical moment and manner for their reunification with the mother country. In reality, for them it would be a game of Russian roulette where the player is offered a revolver with all chambers loaded.

At the same time though, due to the threatening presence of extreme nationalists in western Ukraine, the fears of these minorities are by no means groundless. Even if they refrain from raising a strong voice in defense of their minority rights, with no military protection to back them up, they might easily become targeted by frustrated Ukrainians with their national feelings hurt by the Russians against whom they can do nothing. Their position could become even more precarious if their claims could be interpreted as a preparatory stage to secession.

In addition, there is no great power around to remotely support an attempt at breaking away. Even Russia’s interests end at sowing political chaos in Ukraine. On the other hand, every single “mother country” affected is a member of NATO and the EU, both of which rule out meddling with the borders developed after World War II. Also, in 1994 they provided special guarantees for the territorial integrity of Ukraine when the Budapest Memorandum was signed, the very document on the legal strength of which they attack Russia for the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Ukraine, though not an energy producer itself, has a key role in the transport of energy, so any hostility, or even deterioration in relations, might endanger the energy security of a number of European nations, mainly that of Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.

In the light of all this, the extreme nationalist visions of the “return” of territories, fuelled by Russian interests, as broadcasted in Hungary by Echo TV (a television channel owned by circles close to the governing Fidesz party) with their not-so-subtle tone of encouragement are suicidal and threaten the very existence of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia.

5. Another highly sensitive problem is the impact of the afterlife of the Ukrainian situation on Transylvania. In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, sealed by a referendum, the Romanian political elite is already looking with growing concern at claims of regional autonomy for the Szekler region, only made more provocative by personal visits by leading Fidesz politicians and Hungarian neo-Nazi leaders. By likening the position of Hungarians in Transylvania to that of the Crimean Tartars, the former Bishop and future Fidesz MEP László Tőkés poured oil on fire, providing further arguments to all those in Romania, whose goal it is to curtail the rights of that country’s Hungarian minority. In the wake of declarations of this kind by Hungarian political actors and developments in Crimea, aspirations of Szekler autonomy are decoded by public opinion in Romania as a first step on the road to the establishment of political and administrative conditions for eventual secession. In such an atmosphere it will hardly be surprising for the Romanian parties to resist granting any concession, even those which did not appear hopeless before, like giving prevalence to the ethnic-cultural principle in the development of EU regions.

Such fears will not appear altogether groundless to an unbiased observer either—for instance to representatives of the European Union—if, for instance, the major change in Hungarian policy regarding dual citizenship is also noticed. At the beginning, the introduction of dual citizenship was declared by Fidesz to be a symbolic act expressing the belonging together of the Hungarian nation as a cultural community. However, by granting voting rights to dual citizens residing outside Hungary, something which they had earlier denied they would ever do, they turned all those wishing to take advantage of that opportunity into citizens with equal rights of two countries at the same time. With that, these dual citizens have gained an entitlement in which emphasis is laid on their affiliation to Hungary even from the viewpoint of public policy. In certain critical periods like the current one, this poses a serious risk to the social life of the community, raising suspicions in Romanians that they may be facing the possibility of losing Transylvania again. As unrealistic as such a scenario may be, the fears it fosters politically are all the more real.

ADVENTURISM CLOAKED IN NATIONALISTIC RHETORIC 

There is little doubt that Hungary does not have any interest served by nationalistically loaded, provocative policies. Still, the Fidesz government is pursuing precisely such policies. Why is it doing that? The reason is that the mafia state absolutely needs the tense atmosphere of conflicts, genuine or made-up, internally as well as in its relationship with its neighbors. On the world political stage too: it continues its game of doublespeak with the European Union and its allies. It drags its feet in reacting to Russian aggression while sucking up to Putin’s imperial authoritarianism. A part of the Hungarian leadership—the head of state whose role is exclusively ceremonial and the impotent foreign minister—is reassuring the world about the government’s full solidarity with the trans-Atlantic alliance, while Orbán, the real source of all power makes decisions contrary to that solidarity. A secretary of state of the Foreign Ministry summons the Russian ambassador to express his concern over the annexation of Crimea while the same Russian ambassador is ensured by another secretary of state that the whole thing is nothing but a smokescreen or pure theatricals. And indeed, the nuclear energy deals signed recently with the Russians are to stay in force, as has been declared by Orbán, their fulfillment being—and remaining—a priority for the government.

A state of permanent mobilization, bellicose talk and the cult of seeking enemies all serve for Orbán to win a mandate (with a two-third parliamentary majority, if he can) for a long-term suspension of law and morality, and thus for stabilizing his rule. By pursuing such policies, however, the country is once again ending up on the wrong side, the side of the losers, while its international credibility is being further reduced.

In the sharpening conflict between East and West, quite to the contrary of what Orbán says, the region will never become the manufacturing centre of European industry but is far more likely to turn into a collision zone in which there is no economic growth, democratic traditions are diluted and the solutions of an eastern-type autocracy prove practicable. This is exactly the kind of place which not only foreign capital is fleeing from but talented people with an enterprising spirit also leave behind.

As a part of the region, owing to its internal conditions and external circumstances Hungary may find itself stagnating or on a downward slope for a long time to come. The damages that follow can be neither prevented nor reduced without a clear-cut, unequivocal and unmistakable commitment to the west, the type so characteristic of Poland, for instance. Particularly if in the meantime Orbán collaborates with the extreme right, the neo-Nazis, undisturbed. In the thinking of Fidesz, however, such considerations of genuine national policy are overwritten by the direct power and financial interests of the adopted political family of the mafia state. For them, therefore, the adventurism cloaked in nationalist rhetoric with which they react to a situation the seriousness of which they fail to recognize, is perfectly suitable.

A brief history of the subcarpathian region of Ukraine; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 4″

Way back I wrote an M.A. thesis in Russian and East European Studies at Yale University on the nationality problems of the revolutions of 1918-1919. Therefore I spent quite a bit of time studying the area of Subcarpathia which today belongs to Ukraine. Since there is so much talk about the region nowadays, I thought you might be interested in the area’s modern history.

According to the official statistics of 1910, there were almost 500,000 Ruthenians living in Hungary, scattered in several counties which today belong to Ukraine and Slovakia. The languages spoken in the area were dialects of Ukrainian, called lemko, boiko, and hutsul. The indigenous population called itself Rusyn. According to the same statistics, at that time there were only 542 persons whose mother tongue was Ruthenian in all of Hungary practicing “intellectual professions.” Most of them were actually Greek Catholic priests. Only 1,264 Ruthenians lived in towns, and only 50.8% of them above the age of six were literate. So, we are speaking of a very backward area.

The Károlyi regime (1918-1919) belatedly tried to appease the nationalities and Oszkár Jászi, who was an expert on the nationality question, began negotiations with several nationalities, including the Ruthenians. As a result, the Ruthenians were granted territorial autonomy under the name of Ruszka Krajna. It was on December 25, 1918 that Ruszka Krajna officially became an autonomous region within Hungary with its own parliament (seim) chosen on the basis of universal suffrage with the capital in Mukachevo (Munkács).The seim was granted autonomy in matters of language, religion, education, and justice. In addition, there was a separate ministry dealing only with Ruthenian affairs, headed by Dr. Oreszt Szabó, apparently of Ruthenian nationality. Augustin Stefan, the governor, was also supposed to be Ruthenian. Unfortunately, by the time the election took place on March 4, 1919, most of Subcarpathia was occupied by foreign troops, with the exception of Bereg County.

Ruthenians

Ruthenian folk costumes
Source: Wikipedia.org

After the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Ruszka Krajna retained its autonomy, and on April 2 a Ruthenian constitution appeared in Rus’ka Pravda, a Ruthenian newspaper published in Budapest. The constitution was a reworked version of the one enacted by the Károlyi government. All this effort was in vain, however, because within a month the whole area was occupied by Czechoslovak and Romanian troops. Recognizing a fait accompli, a newly established national council voted in Uzhgood/Ungvár on May 8, 1919 for the unification of the Ruthenian autonomous region with Czechoslovakia.

Edvard Beneš, foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, admitted that Czechoslovakia was not really entitled to this area on the basis of nationality but, considering the situation in Russia and the Soviet danger, Czechoslovakia assumed the role of temporary caretaker of Ruthenia until it could be safely attached to Russia. In the Czechoslovak period Ruthenian autonomy was “nominal.” All Ruthenian legislation was made subject to approval by the president of the republic, and the governor of Ruthenia was nominated by the president. As a result, even the constitutional provision for autonomy was never implemented; the Ruthenian parliament was never convened. Ruthenians were not happy with their lot in Czechoslovakia, and they kept looking outside for remedies. The Russophiles envisaged Ruthenia as part of the Russian nation; the Ukrainophiles considered Ruthenia part of the Ukrainian nation, and the Ruthenophiles said that Carpatho-Ruthenians were a separate nation and therefore they wanted to develop a native Rusyn language and culture.

On March 15, 1939 the Ukrainophile president of Carpatho-Ruthenia, Avhustyn Voloshyn, declared its independence as Carpatho-Ukraine. On the same day Hungarian Army regular troops began to occupy the new state. It was from this area that 22,000 Jews were deported to Kamenets-Podolskii in July 1941.

In 1944 the Soviet Army occupied the area, and in 1946 it was annexed to the Ukrainian SSR. During the Soviet period Rusyn as a separate nationality was not recognized. Nowadays the majority of the population of the Zakarpattya Oblast consider themselves Ukrainians.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part IV: The New Electorate (in which Some are more Equal than Others)

 Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University

Hungary’s governing party Fidesz didn’t just rewrite the rules for the upcoming Hungarian election. The governing party changed the electorate as well. Different categories of citizens can now vote in different kinds of ways, which creates the very real possibility of unjust discrimination.

The 2014 election features two new voting systems that restructure the electorate and its options.

One permits each major nationality (i.e. minority) group in Hungary to elect a representative of its group to the parliament on a “preferential” basis that requires only one-quarter as many votes to claim the mandate. This system of positive discrimination may look admirable, but in practice limits rather than expands voting options of minority populations, as we will see.

The other gives the right to vote to ethnic Hungarians who never had permanent residency in Hungary. These are people to whom the new constitution has given a route to expedited citizenship upon application. New Hungarian citizens can now register and vote more easily than citizens who have permanent residency but who are abroad on election day. As a result, new dual citizens with the most tangential relationship to Hungary can more easily influence the election than can long-standing citizens whose primary political identity rests in Hungary.

In both cases, these voters with new options are being herded toward Fidesz-friendly results and away from support for the united opposition both because of the new rules and because of the confusing and misleading communications issuing from the offices in charge of running the election. Let’s take these new sorts of voters one by one.

In a move welcomed by the Venice Commission, the new election framework lays out a system in which members of 13 designated ethnic minority groups may vote for a “nationality list.” Though it is called a list, in practice it consists of one person because each minority group can only elect one representative in this new “preferential” way, while all subsequent representatives from the group are elected according to the more demanding conditions necessary to elect a representative on a party list.

While Germans, Romanians, Ukrainians and other registered groups possess the right to elect a minority representative in theory, the Roma constitute the only group who are likely to be able to muster the numbers to elect such a representative in fact.

This new system of nationality representation, however, comes with a number of catches.

First, members of minority groups who want to take advantage of this possibility must sacrifice their ability to use their second vote for a party list when they use their second vote to elect a nationality representative. This system therefore limits the incentives for political parties to court minority voters since minority voters cannot vote for parties if they vote for the nationality representative, further marginalizing them.

Then, minority voters must register in advance to take advantage of this option. According to the Electoral Procedure Law (Law XXXVI of 2013), minority voters must register at least two days before the election. Once they register, they cannot change their minds on election day itself to vote for a party list instead.  (They can change their minds before the registration deadline.) The only choice that the registered minority voters have when election day comes is to vote for the representative of their group on offer, or to fail to cast their second ballots. This system, as a result, locks in the minority vote before the end of the campaign. Unlike the situation for any other voter, minority voters cannot decide in response to the full campaign whom to support.

Finally, and most consequentially, the specific candidate chosen to stand for election as a representative of the minority group must be, by law, selected by the national minority self-government, a body that was elected by each minority group in a special election four years ago. (These self-government organizations have been elected periodically since the mid-1990s to ensure representative decision-making bodies for minority affairs.) But the national minority self-government for the Roma at the moment is run by a group called Lungo Drom, whose leader, Flórián Farkas, is a Fidesz MP.  

In short, if Roma choose to vote for a nationality representative, they cannot vote for a political party and their only choice is to elect a Fidesz MP, using their second votes that could have been used for any party list. Registering to “vote minority” therefore gives Roma no party choice at all. They must vote for a governing party representative.

Roma don’t have to register to vote for the nationality list if they don’t want to. But a letter sent in January from each local Election Office to all voters announced on the first page that Roma would have to register if they wanted to vote, and only on the second page explained in not-entirely-clear prose that Roma had to register only if they wanted to vote for the minority representative. In even more confusing language, the letter revealed that in doing so, Roma would lose the ability to use their second vote to for vote a political party.

When the letter went out, Roma started to register to vote in substantial numbers, largely unwittingly, for the minority representative. So far, the Election Office has not issued any correction, raising questions about what it was doing with its initial letter telling Roma to register to vote. Given that Roma who registered would find themselves excluded from being able to vote for the party lists on election day and would only have the option of voting for a Fidesz MP instead, this mix-up is worrying, especially when the governing party staffed the new Election Office.

The Election Office seems to be contributing to the confusion over the system for Roma voting in other ways as well. While the law clearly says that the nationality voters clearly have until two days before the election to lock in their vote for the nationality candidate (Law XXXIV of 2013, section 249), Ilona Pálffy, the head of the National Election Office announced in a press briefing to the Hungarian International Press Association on 29 January 2014 that nationality voters would have to register no later than eight days before the election and could not change their minds after that.

In fact, when I was interviewing officials and party representatives in Budapest about the new election framework recently, I often got different answers from different people about what the law required. When one gets an answer from the head of the National Election Office that differs so strikingly from the plain wording of the law, however, that is especially alarming. Will Roma be told, if they try to change their minds in the last week and “unregister” from the nationality list, that they can’t do so even though the law says otherwise? I hope that the National Election Office clarifies just what they believe the rule is – before the election.

It’s not just the Roma who have new rules about voting this time. The other newly registered group of voters consists of ethnic Hungarians living abroad who were given the right to apply for citizenship under the new Fidesz constitution. For historical reasons, the only Hungarians whose ancestors lost their citizenship en masse were living in the territories that had been part of historic Hungary but that were allocated to neighboring states by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.  (Hungarians who left Hungary for other countries before or since retained their citizenship unless they explicitly renounced it.) This constitutional change made millions of ethnic Hungarians eligible for expedited citizenship, the vast majority still living in the neighboring countries.

As a result of the new citizenship law, about 575,000 Hungarians, primarily from the Trianon territories, have become citizens in the last year. (I’ll call them the Trianon Hungarians.) And as of mid-February, about 150,000 of them had registered to vote. But the deadline for registering to vote is 22 March so only then will it be clear how many of the new citizens will be new voters as well.

In three of Hungary’s neighbors, Ukraine, Slovakia and Austria, dual citizenship is not permitted. Ethnic Hungarians from these states who acquire Hungarian citizenship would lose their first citizenship if a second citizenship were discovered. (There is an exception for Austrian-Hungarian dual nationals who were refugees in 1956 and whose dual citizenship is specially protected by a treaty, but other Hungarians are not included under this treaty.)

To protect its nationals in the neighboring states, then, the Hungarian government has decided that the non-resident citizenship rolls should remain a state secret. As a result, the associated voter list remains secret as well. But how can a government run a fair election with secret voter rolls?

After opposition protest, the government agreed to allow members of the National Election Commission (including representatives of the parties running national lists) as well as international observers to see the foreign voters’ registration list (Law XXXVI of 2013 on Electoral Procedure, amended by Law LXXXIV of 2013). But the opposition parties and international observers are not permitted to take notes on the list or reproduce it in any way. Given these limitations, however, how anyone apart from the election officials check the list against the voters who actually vote or and how can political parties outside the government locate these voters to send them election materials? One cannot memorize hundreds of thousands of names and their identifying characteristics. So it is not clear if this level of access to the secret voter lists will be enough to ensure a fair vote.

The logistical problems raised by the non-resident voters don’t end there. In particular, there are few checks on either the process of voter registration or on the actual voting so as to ensure that those casting ballots are who they say they are, or that the ballots faithfully reflect what these voters decide. While applying for citizenship requires an appearance at a consulate or embassy, registering to vote does not. In fact, nowhere in the process does any official have to see precisely who it is that is either registering to vote or voting.

Instead, Trianon Hungarians can register on the internet, filling in a form that asks for information that is quite widely known about a person, especially in tightly knit communities. All you need to provide to register are your name, your maiden name (where applicable), the town and district where you were born, either your date of birth OR your personal ID number, and your mother’s name.

How does the National Election Office that registers the applicants know if the person actually named on the form was the person who filled out the registration request? Nowhere in the process is there an official check of identification or even the requirement of a signature, photograph or other validating evidence. (The general problem is captured in that famous cartoon where a dog sits at a computer and says “On the internet, no one can tell if you’re a dog.”) And, as we will see, the information doesn’t even have to strictly match what the Election Office has on file for that person.

Ballots will be sent out to whoever registers in the name of a citizen without any way to definitively tell whether it is the citizen herself who registered or whether the address to which the ballot will be sent is in fact the address of the voter. Given that voting will reveal that one has taken out dual citizenship in some countries where it is illegal, a voter might well want the ballot sent somewhere other than her home address in any event.

In fact, the Trianon Hungarians are the only ones allowed to vote by mail ballot, which longtime elections observers know is always the easiest place for fraud to sneak into an election operation. Hungary plans to use the usual double-envelope safeguard – where a voter fills in an attestation of identity attached to an outer envelope while the ballot itself is sealed in in an anonymous inner envelope that can be separated from this attestation once it is confirmed. So far, so good.

But there is precious little control over the envelopes themselves as they make their way to be counted. Not only does the ballot not have to be actually mailed, but the law permits bundlers to go around collecting ballots and then delivering them en masse to an embassy, consulate or other designated location. There are no checks on what these bundlers do with the ballots in their care and nothing to check whether they in fact they turn in all of the ballots they were given. There is even no way to tell whether bundlers who may well know the personal details of voters are filling in the ballots themselves or changing what they were given. Self-appointed bundlers can show up at any of the designated locations and deliver votes in unlimited numbers.

The number of ballots delivered to or cast at the polling places in the neighboring states must by law be registered each day in the run-up to the election, which means that consulate staff must tally the number of votes each day without anyone present from an election committee to supervise the opening and checking of the ballot boxes. Given how few checks are in place to check potential foul play in the foreign votes (or simply to give assurances that no foul play was attempted), this could be quite serious.

But surely these foreign ballots can’t really influence a national election? In Hungary, perhaps they can. Hungary has about 8 million registered voters, but only 5.1 million voters actually cast ballots in 2010. If most of the 500,000+ new citizens register to vote and actually vote, Trianon Hungarians could account for up to one-tenth of the electorate. These voters can only cast one ballot for the party list and cannot vote in a single-member district, which limits their impact on the overall result. (And it is another site of inequality.) But given that so much of this process of foreign-voter balloting is unverifiable in any rigorous way, even a modest effect on the election casts some doubts on the process.

The fairness of this system for counting foreign votes is made worse when one considers the other group of foreign-based voters who are treated differently from the Trianon Hungarians. Citizens who still have permanent residence in Hungary, but who are living abroad, must cast their vote in a decidedly more onerous way. Let’s call this latter group the Expat Hungarians.

Rather than permit Expat Hungarians to vote by mail, as the Trianon Hungarians are allowed to do, the government has insisted on sticking with the old system in place since 2006 for such voters: they have to vote at embassies or consulates.   As a result, Expat Hungarians living or working in the UK, for example, must go to London, no matter where in the UK they live. Ditto with German-based Hungarians who have to travel to Berlin, Dusseldorf, or Munich. Expat Hungarians living in the US must travel to Washington, New York or Los Angeles. How much easier (and less expensive) it would be to vote by mail! But they are not allowed to do so.

Moreover, unlike the Trianon Hungarians, Expat Hungarians are not allowed to vote unless they show up in person and present ID (a passport, for example). Since Trianon Hungarians can vote without ever seeing an election official, no in-person identification is ever required of them. But such identification is required of the Expat Hungarians.

How many citizens are in the Expat Hungarian group? The government says at least 300,000 – but other estimates say as many as 500,000 – Hungarians are living or working outside the country without having given up their official permanent residence in Hungary. This, too, could be a substantial voting bloc, especially as their status gives them the chance to cast two votes just as if they were in the country. (One of those votes goes for the party list and the other for the constituency in which they are still registered.) But they have a much harder time casting their votes because they have to travel, often long distances, to do so.

Not surprisingly, however, the two groups of Hungarians living abroad have different political profiles. Hungarians in the Trianon territories would cast their votes overwhelmingly for Fidesz, if the polls are to be believed. A recent poll said 80% of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, for example, would vote for the governing party.

By contrast, Expat Hungarians are more likely to support the united opposition, or at least so the united opposition believes. While Expat Hungarians are no doubt a diverse group, the people most likely to move are probably the Hungarians who know languages and have networks, which implies that they may be younger and/or better educated. While young people are divided in their political views, the better educated voters are much more likely to vote for the united opposition. Either way, the sheer number of Expat Hungarians and the onerousness of the procedure for voting combine to depress voter turnout, which as we have seen, will benefit Fidesz.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union working with Együtt/PM (Together-Dialogue for Hungary, now part of the Unity Alliance) has challenged this disparate treatment of the two groups of foreign voters before the Constitutional Court. But even though the petition was filed in November 2013, the Constitutional Court has not yet decided. (A reminder: The Constitutional Court now has a solid majority since the government was able to name the 8th judge out of 15 in April 2013.) So it appears that the election will go forward with this double standard for Hungarians living abroad.

As the election nears, there are reports of worryingly bad advice for these foreign voters coming from election officials. Consulates in the US were given flyers prepared by local election offices that provided voting instructions for Expat Hungarians in the US. But these flyers specified the wrong election day. While election day in Hungary is 6 April, Hungarian voters in North America have to cast their ballots on 5 April, because of the time difference, in order to meet the deadlines set out in the law. If they followed the instructions they were given by their election office, they would be disqualified from voting.

Expat Hungarians in the UK were sent letters by their local election offices that gave them the wrong location of the London polling station. It turns out that, even though Expat Hungarians are generally supposed to vote at embassies and consulates, in some places (like London) voters actually have to go someplace else. But they were not told the correct location.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has protested these flyers and asked that they be recalled.

The head of the National Election Office admitted that mistakes were made. But she did not apologize. Instead she said, rather oddly, that she “simply does not trust some of her colleagues.”

Coming on top of the confusing letter sent by the Election Office to all voters in Hungary about Roma registration, a letter that seemed to imply that all Roma had to register to vote at all, these flyers misinforming US and UK voters about when they need to cast their ballots causes particular concern.

The Election Office website doesn’t even appear to be neutral. On its site, the Election Office features a video from an unclear source, containing much nationalist imagery – and not so coincidentally Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself. It tells voters that “the nation” (meaning ethnic Hungarians) can vote on 6 April – a thinly veiled appeal to voters who overwhelmingly support the governing party (when they are not supporting Jobbik). Just why the Election Office has such a partisan message on its website has so far not been explained. The link is here to a website less likely to take the video down under criticism so you can see it for yourself.

From anecdotal evidence, the Election Office seemed to be making it easier for Trianon Hungarians to register to vote than for Expat Hungarians to register to vote abroad. Expat Hungarians were reporting that their registration was refused if they missed a diacritical mark, omitted some details of their home address, and failed to match the exact form of their mothers’ name that was in the official register. In fact, the complaints from Expat Hungarians were becoming so numerous that it caused us to go back and look at the law.

And sure enough, right there in paragraphs 84 and 92 of the Electoral Procedure Law (Law XXXVI of 2013), we see the reason. Election officials were explicitly told in this law to ignore typos, spelling mistakes, different forms of writing (e.g. Cyrillic), the use of foreign names to denominate geographical locations, or the provision of names, birth place, birth names and mother’s names in a different language. If any of those things are wrong with the form, so that the form does not in fact match the government’s register of citizens, the form must nonetheless be approved.

But this easy registration – permitted even with mistakes on the form – holds true only for the Trianon Hungarians. Expat Hungarians have to provide information that matches exactly the information in the government’s database. Hence the large numbers of rejections when Expat Hungarians tried to register to vote.

By the start of the political campaign on 15 February, more than 150,000 Trianon Hungarians had managed to register to vote, but only 5,000 Expat Hungarians had been able to do so, according to the MTI national news service. (Remember the two groups of voters are now roughly the same size.) The Election Office admitted that it had rejected at least 10% of the Expat applications. Expats who have been sharing notes abroad believe that number is actually much higher.

Hungary now has two different and quite large groups of foreign voters operating under two different systems of rules. And not surprisingly, the voters more likely to vote for Fidesz will have a much easier time casting their ballots than the voters who have less clear political affiliations or who are clearly more likely to vote for the united opposition.

Discrimination among different classes of citizens is therefore endemic in the new election system. Roma voters are forced to choose between voting for a nationality representative or a party list, and they are locked into their choice ahead of the election, which other voters are not. Trianon Hungarians can register to vote online with many mistakes in their application, and yet will be issued a ballot to vote by mail while Expat Hungarians have to meet the exact letter of the data in the government’s database in order to register. Then these Expat Hungarians have to show up in person at an embassy or consulate (or some other unannounced location) to show further identification in order to be able to vote. That is all assuming, of course, that they are given correct information about where and when to vote.

It’s not an equal system. And given that so much of this system will be new for everyone, the election offices’ bungling of instructions again and again raises a real cause for concern. It should cause special concern because so far, all of the “bungles” point in one direction – toward getting Roma to register to vote for the Fidesz MP, toward giving Fidesz-friendly voters the easiest possible path to voting and toward giving those of opposition or uncertain political leanings every roadblock imaginable, from refusing their registration on technical grounds to giving misinformation about voting dates and polling places.

As George Orwell famously said in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The same is now true of citizens in Hungary.

The siege of Budapest: Neo-Nazis remember the “breakthrough” of February 11, 1945

Every year around this time the Hungarian press is full of stories about far-right groups celebrating the “breakthrough” of German and Hungarian forces on February 11, 1945 from the city of Budapest, which was surrounded by Soviet troops on all sides.

If you can get hold of Krisztián Ungváry’s book entitled Budapest ostroma (1998), which was also translated into English (The Siege of Budapest) and German (Die Belagerung Budapest), by all means do so because it is a fascinating book and the story of the “breakthrough” is gripping. Here I will very briefly relate what happened.

The siege of Budapest, which lasted 64 days all told, was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war. Hitler forbade the German military to abandon the city or to try to escape before the total encirclement of Budapest took place. The German commander of the city was Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, who was not brave enough to defy the Führer until it was too late.

Between December 24 and December 27 the Red Army managed to surround the Buda side of the city. The Soviets reached Pest in January and by January 17 they liberated the Pest ghetto. The siege of Buda started on January 20 and lasted until February 11. It was on that day that Pfeffer-Wilderbruch finally decided to try to break through the enemy lines.

Here are some figures to give you an idea of the desperate situation in which the German and Hungarian troops found themselves. On December 24, that is before the total encirclement, there were approximately 79,000 soldiers in the city. During the siege of Pest 22,000 were either captured or killed. In Buda the number of dead and captured was approximately 13,000 prior to February 11. On that fateful day there were only 43,900 soldiers left, and of that number 11,600 were wounded.

During the breakthrough attempt 19,200 soldiers died. Only 700 managed to join the Germans west of the Soviet line. Pfeffer-Wilderbruch, the German commander, was captured by the Soviets and in August 1949 was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. After Stalin’s death, however, he was released to West Germany along with 10,000 other German prisoners of war. The Hungarian commander, Iván Hindy, was also captured and subsequently was sentenced to death by the Hungarian People’s Courts. In 1946 he was executed. A neo-Nazi Hungarian site, by the way, lists all those who were executed for war crimes by Hungarian courts in 1946.

So, this is the day Hungarian neo-Nazis remember every year in early February. This year, however, talk about the “breakthrough” began even earlier. In January someone discovered on a list of walking tours sponsored by the City of Budapest Kitörés 60,  a tour organized every year on the anniversary of the “breakthrough” during the weekend closest to February 11. Participants follow the route of those 700 individuals who managed to break through the Soviet lines. According to the information on their website, the walking tour is over 57 km, which participants must complete in 18 hours. Just to give you an idea of how popular this tour is, last year more than 1,000 people paid 2,000 forints each to participate. According to their Internet site, the walking tour is organized “every February in remembrance of those Hungarian and German soldiers who in World War II heroically defended Budapest and Western Europe from the Bolshevik Red Army.”

Participants are gathering for their yearly tour following the German and Hungarian troops "breakthrough" on February 11, 1944

Participants are gathering for their yearly walking tour following the route of the German and Hungarian troops’ “breakthrough” on February 11, 1945

“Kitörés 60” didn’t attract too much attention until now, although the walking tour has been held since 2005. If they hadn’t made the mistake of listing themselves together with other walking tours sponsored by the City of Budapest, most likely no one would have paid any attention to these neo-Nazi enthusiasts.

Another interesting bit of information came to light in connection with this walking tour. Zoltán Moys, son-in-law of Sándor Lezsák (Fidesz), deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, is the founder of a group called Börzsöny Akciócsoport which is behind the tours. Zoltán Moys has a company that produces television shows for the public, actually state, television stations MTV and Duna TV. He is behind such far-right programs as “Hagyaték (Inheritance) about which I wrote earlier. My post’s title was “Neo-Nazi/Jobbik programs on Duna TV: The Orbán government has no objection.” At that point I didn’t know that Lezsák’s own son-in-law was the producer of this unspeakable program where Sándor Szakály also makes frequent appearances. I place Lezsák at the very far right of the ideological spectrum of Fidesz; he would actually find himself much more at home in Jobbik.

This year some Hungarian neo-Nazis planned another, more modest celebration. The Budapest anti-Fascist group learned about it and went out to protest. The celebrants were supposed to have gathered on Clark Ádám tér at the Lánchíd. But the police, fearing a clash between the neo-Nazis and the anti-Fascists, closed off the square and with it the bridge from Pest to Buda. A lot of the participants managed to get to Buda only in a roundabout way. Eventually they gathered on Kapisztrán tér. They marched the short distance from Kapisztrán tér to Dísz tér and back to the tune of World War II German and Hungarian marches. Speeches at the gathering lauded the heroes who died “for Christian Europe.” Meanwhile the anti-Fascists gathered on Dózsa György tér and walked to the Castle district with a police escort. To keep the two groups away from each other the anti-Fascists were stopped in front of the German embassy.

Actually, if I were one of the members of the Budapest anti-Fascist group, I would be much more worried about the walking tour organized by the man who produces falsified accounts of Hungarian history from a far right perspective than the gathering of a few skinheads with swastikas tattooed on their necks. The neo-Nazi Zoltán Moys and his friends who produce programs for the state television stations are much more dangerous to Hungarian democracy than the few guys marching in military formation.

János Kornai and Marxism

A few days ago I promised to write something about a short essay by János Kornai, the famous Hungarian economist, on his encounter with Marxism. The essay, entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual), appeared in a volume of Kornai’s collected essays, Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról: Négy tanulmány (Thoughts on capitalism: Four essays) (Budapest, Akadémia, 2012).

Kornai in this essay describes his road to Marxism and his discovery of some of the fundamental flaws of the Marxist system. He had just turned eighteen in 1945 and was open to the ideas of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) after going through  a war, losing his father in Auschwitz and his older brother somewhere in the Soviet Union where he served in a labor battalion. He was attracted to the party that was most resolutely opposed to the Horthy regime and all that it entailed.  So he began his study of the works of Karl Marx in the original German because at that time no Hungarian translation was available.

János Kornai / www.kornai-janos.hu

János Kornai / www.kornai-janos.hu

He began with Das Kapital and was struck by the sharp logic and the precise formulations of his ideas. These attributes appealed to Kornai because he himself is “a maniac for order and precise thinking.” Moreover, eventually he began to surmise that Marxism had universal application. It was just as applicable to the evaluation of a theatrical production as it was to economic problems. Here Kornai steps back a little and observes that “young people desire some kind of universal explanation for all worldly phenomena.” In addition, Marxism appealed to him emotionally because of the German philosopher’s passionate commitment to the oppressed and the dispossessed.

But then came the disillusionment. This process occurred not on an intellectual plane but on moral grounds. It happened when he met an old communist who has been arrested and tortured. His faith in the system was shaken. He had encountered critical voices against Marxism earlier but refused to take them seriously. Once his faith in the moral superiority of the system started to waver, however, he began noticing things that he didn’t want to see before. Problems with the practical application of  socialism. In vain did he look for answers in Marx’s works. It was not that Marx gave wrong answers to these questions, like wastefulness, low quality products, the constant scarcity of goods. The real problem was that it never occurred to him to pose any of these questions in the first place.

Once Kornai’s faith was shaken he began studying Marx more critically and found that there are some really fundamental precepts of Marxism that have proven to be dead wrong in the years since Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. One of these was Marx’s insistence that as a result of the capitalist mode of production the lives of workers will become more and more wretched. It was enough to look around in well-developed capitalist countries to see that this Marxist prediction was wrong. Exactly the opposite was true: the living standards of the proletariat were steadily improving. Without going step by step through his mental processes, the final result was that even before the 1956 Revolution Kornai had become a critic of the socialist system.

So, eventually he had to pose the question to what extent Marx was responsible for what was going on in the Soviet Union of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, in the China of Mao Zedong, and in other socialist countries. What is the relation between the theoretical ideas of Marx and the historical reality of the socialist system? Here I will quote Kornai verbatim: “I will try to answer concisely: the socialist system realized Marx’s plan.”

Kornai is aware that some people might counter that this judgment goes too far. But in Marx’s opinion a market economy doesn’t work. The market is anarchy and chaos. In its place a planned economy must be introduced. Moreover, private property must be abolished and it must be replaced by commonly held ownership. Both of these very basic Marxist doctrines became a reality in the socialist countries. When Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and others invoked Marx’s name and work to defend their policies, they were correct. They had every reason to appeal to him. They were the ones who realized Marx’s dreams.

Kornai also finds Marx “guilty” of rejecting “empty, formal bourgeois constitutionalism, the parliamentary system, and democracy.” He didn’t seem to realize that once a market economy and individual initiatives are gone the system must be directed from above and that very fact results in the repressive apparatus of the state or the ruling party. So, Marx is responsible for what happened in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries, but it is “intellectual responsibility.”

Finally, Kornai briefly analyzes what we still can learn from Marx. After the collapse of the socialist system the belief spread in intellectual circles that Marxism was dead. But in the last few years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the opposite has been true. Marx is in vogue again. “Prophets” have arrived who predict that capitalism is dead, a view Kornai doesn’t share. Yes, capitalism right now is going through a deep crisis but it is alive and will most likely live for a very long time.

Nonetheless, Kornai believes there are some valuable Marxist teachings that are still applicable. One of these is the overextended expansion of credit and production that far surpasses demand. Marx talked about these problems in the first and third volumes of Das Kapital and called attention to the grave consequences of these phenomena. Today we see the results of the irresponsible granting of credit all too clearly. As for the balance between supply and demand, Marx was especially interested in imbalances in the labor market. Today the imbalance in the labor market poses serious problems in the developed world. Marx was one of the pioneers in discovering this danger.

In addition, Kornai also looks upon Marx as the first person who tried the develop something Kornai calls a “system paradigm” (rendszerparadigma). He was an economist, a sociologist, a political scientist, and a historian who tried to combine all these disciplines. Today we call this an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world which attempts a comprehensive understanding of society as a whole.

Kornai ends his brief essay by saying that he is not a Marxist but neither is he a Keynesian. He doesn’t belong to any school or -isms. He considers himself to be an eclectic economist who was influenced by Joseph A. Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Marx “who in this list is always mentioned in the first place.”