Tag Archives: University of Debrecen

Putin’s award: 50s-style investigation of protesting Debrecen professors

Let’s continue with the Russian theme today: in this case, the scandal that has been growing ever since the senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed the title of Civis Honoris Causa on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” But the University of Debrecen is already the recipient of a sizable grant from a Russian foundation called Russkiy Mir, a soft power initiative created by decree by Putin in 2007, which aims at promoting the Russian language and “forming the Russian World as a global project.”

The University of Debrecen is not the only Hungarian university to receive grants from Russkiy Mir. ELTE was the first beneficiary, and the University of Pécs also got money from the Russian foundation. But, according to Dániel Hegedüs, a political scientist specializing in Russian penetration into western institutions, the University of Debrecen’s arrangement with Russkiy Mir is fundamentally different from the others because of the intensity of the relationship. For example, a new Russian center was established recently where students can have tuition-free Russian language instruction. The university has close contacts with many Russian institutions: Tyumen State Medical Academy, Belgorod Agricultural Academy, ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russian State Social University, and the Chuvash State University.

According to people familiar with the scene, pro-Russian sentiment is quite strong at the university. A young historian who represents undergraduates and graduate students in the senate, for example, voted for Putin’s award and expressed pro-Russian views, including an endorsement of the Russian occupation of foreign territories by means of arms. Mind you, this same student is keeping a portrait of Miklós Horthy in his room, which he intends to take home once he no longer has an office in the university.

It took only a few days after the announcement of the award for a handful of departments at the University of Debrecen to object to bestowing an honorary title on an autocrat whose rule in Russia is dotted with grievous attacks on democratic institutions and who is most likely behind the murders of politicians and journalists who are in his way. It was these professors whom the rector of the university, Zoltán Szilvássy, called “balfácánok,” which is a somewhat milder synonym of “balfaszok” (two-left-handed pricks). It means “blundering dolts or simpletons.” Who is this cultured academic?

In 2013 it wasn’t Szilvássy who won the most senate votes when three professors were vying for the job of rector of the university. In fact, he received less than one-third of the votes, which didn’t please the Orbán government. The vote was followed by two and a half months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and deals, resulting in the appointment of Szilvássy. At that time, the Oktatói Hálózat/OH (Faculty Network) protested against the violation of university autonomy. OH asked President János Áder not to affirm Szilvássy’s appointment, of course to no avail. In fact, since then “he was reelected with an overwhelming majority,” as Origo put it. What a surprise, especially since this time no other “balfácán” bothered to challenge him.

Since it was the Orbán government that placed Szilvássy in his position against the express wishes of the majority, he gladly does everything the government wants. One such occasion was the granting of another honorary doctorate, this time to Lajos Mocsai, a handball coach whom the government wanted to name rector of the University of Physical Education. As a handball coach he didn’t have any higher degrees or academic achievements, which were requirements for the job. (One could argue the merits of the case, but once the Magyar Testnevelési Főiskola under Semmelweis University became a separate university at Viktor Orbán’s insistence, the rules applicable to universities in general had to apply to this new creation as well.) So, Mocsai had to have a degree, and if he didn’t have a real one, an honorary degree would do. Szilvássy was ready to do the dirty work. In a ten-person committee only one person voted for the handball coach, but a month later, through some clever finagling, Mocsai received the honorary doctorate, which was accepted as a real one. Today he is a professor and the rector of the University of Physical Education.

There is relatively little available about Zoltán Szilvássy’s academic career, but it seems that, although he is an M.D., he moved over to the field of pharmaceuticals. In addition to his university duties, he also has several quite profitable business ventures. According to an anonymous commenter, who claims to be a former student and instructor at University of Debrecen, Szilvássy is by now a very rich man who “with disgusting mafia-like means carries out the cruelest professional personal decisions. He destroys professional careers with the typical vengeance of petty and untalented people.” These harsh words might not be unwarranted because, in the throes of the upheaval created by Putin’s honorary degree, an associate professor who heads the department of infectious diseases and child immunology returned an award she had received from Szilvássy in 2014 because the rector “together with his subordinates destroyed in a mafia-like manner” her department. She asserted that what’s going on in the university is “an unprecedented evil destruction” of the university’s scientific reputation. These words are quite similar to the ones used by the anonymous commenter on Index’s Fórum. The general opinion of the man is that “he completely lacks the modern European point of view based on democratic values.”

Szilvássy was furious at those who dared to criticize his decision on Putin’s award. He instructed his chief-of-staff—because a Hungarian rector does have such a thing—to call in the rebellious “balfácánok” one by one for something that in the 50s was known as self-criticism. The faculty members were smart enough to say “no” to that suggestion. They were, however, ready to meet the dean of the faculty of science and technology, and a time was set for the meeting. But when the 50-60 professors showed up, they were faced not with the dean but with the same chief-of-staff, József Mészáros, whom they had refused to deal with earlier. Mészáros is an old Fidesz apparatchik and a good friend of Lajos Kósa, the former mayor of Debrecen. He gave each person a piece of paper with a number of questions on it, aimed at finding out who the initiators of the “rebellion” were. After the faculty members answered the questions and signed their piece of paper, he was going to have a talk with them, one by one. Well, at that point patience ran out. The professors refused to answer the questions and accused the university’s administration of using 1950s methods. Some tore the piece of paper into bits right there, while others gave it back without signing their names. A member of the department of constitutional law gave a legal lecture to Mészáros, and the former rector expressed his opinion that the questions led him to believe that they want to pin the blame on him and the department heads as the organizers of the protest.

This case lets us see Viktor Orbán’s system more granularly. This is how intimidation works at each level, in each school, in each hospital, in each university, and even in private companies if the boss or the supervisor is a Fidesz man or woman. Fear is spreading, and not without reason.

September 22, 2017

The strangest encounter: Vladimir Putin in Budapest

I believe that in the past I’ve called attention to the troubling fact that the Hungarian public more often than not learns from foreign sources what its own government is up to. This is definitely the case when it comes to Russian-Hungarian relations. The other country that comes to mind is Iran, and I suspect that in both cases there are some weighty reasons for the secrecy.

We have known for some time that Russian President Putin, a black belt judo champion and honorary chairman of the International Judo Federation, was planning to attend the World Judo Championship held in Budapest on August 28, but it was only from a statement issued by the Kremlin that we learned a few hours before Putin’s arrival that it was “at the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán [that] the head of the Russian state will visit Budapest.” It looks as if, for one reason or another, Orbán didn’t want to publicize the fact that the World Judo Championship was, at least in part, an excuse for the Russian president to make his second visit to Budapest this year. Since 2010 this is Putin’s seventh visit to Hungary. As Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, noted, Putin visits only dictatorships like Belarus and Kazakhstan that often.

While Putin was in Hungary the Senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed upon him the title of Civis Honoris Causa. Because of Putin’s busy schedule, the honorary degree was handed to him in Budapest. The university awards this degree to individuals for outstanding public and/or artistic achievement. Individuals who contribute in some way to the reputation or the financial well-being of the university are also eligible. Putin allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” There is apparently an arrangement with Rosatom that the university will create a center to train Hungarian engineers in atomic technology.

The University of Debrecen gave the first such honorary doctorate in 2012 to George Habsburg, the grandson of Charles IV, the last Hungarian king. In 2016 the recipient was Rudolf Schuster, the former president of Slovakia. A couple of days ago László Majtényi, head of the legal think tank EKINT, sarcastically inquired when the university will bestow its fourth Civis Honoris Causa to Recep Erdoğan.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin at the World Judo Championship

Some time ago the Hungarian government promised 3.5 billion forints for the restoration of Russian orthodox churches. This pleased Putin to no end, but little work has been done on the buildings. A few days prior to Putin’s arrival the government decided to expedite matters by buying the old orthodox church in Tokaj from the municipality for 313 million forints. After this purchase the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church will be able to begin restoration work on the building. The money for the restoration also comes from the Hungarian government.

Political scientists who got together yesterday to discuss Russian-Hungarian relations pretty much agree on what Russia’s foreign policy aims are and how it uses Hungary to achieve its goals: weakening of the European Union and NATO, achieving acceptance of the annexation of Crimea, and ending sanctions against Russia. But when it comes to the question of Hungarian policy toward Russia, the analysts are stymied, mostly because the Orbán government doesn’t communicate in a transparent manner on the subject. They noted that the relationship between Putin and Orbán seems to be close and friendly, although others are convinced that the great friendship between the two leaders doesn’t really exist and that perhaps there is even friction between the two men.

Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz is one of those journalists well versed in foreign affairs who finds this visit worrisome. He called attention to the fact that no statement was released about the visit on the government website. The only notice on the visit was released on August 28 at 2:00 p.m. by MTI, the Hungarian wire service. It quoted the press secretary of the prime minister, who announced that “after the successful Aquatic World Championships another sports event will begin in the Hungarian capital…. The prime minister on the day of the opening and on the following days will have discussions with sports and state leaders, for example with Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation; with Vladimir Putin, the honorary president of the International Judo Federation and president of Russia; with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee; and with Kaltma Battulga, the head of the Mongolian Judo Association and president of Mongolia.” Well, if that release isn’t strange I don’t know what is.

There’s no question that the Hungarian government was trying to minimize the visit as much as possible. I am not sure why, but this statement was truly bizarre. Mentioning Putin only after the president of the International Judo Federation and placing his position in the Federation ahead of his political status borders on the ludicrous. The Russian government refused to be a partner in this minimizing game and said that in fact it was the Hungarian government that invited the Russian president to Budapest.

Vörös also noted that the total cost of the Paks project was supposed to be about 12 billion euros, 80% of which, 10 billion euros, would have been covered by the Russian loan. In February, however, during Putin’s last visit, at the joint press conference the Russian president announced that Russia is willing to lend 100% of the cost of the project, “but then we must change certain parts of the contract.” It looks as if these changes have been made because Putin yesterday was talking about a Russian loan of 12 billion euros. Putin has been very eager to get the project underway as soon as possible and has been putting pressure on the Hungarian government, or to be more precise on Viktor Orbán. Some people fear that Putin is in possession of compromising information on Viktor Orbán, which the Hungarian politician certainly doesn’t want to become public knowledge. One thing is sure. Orbán, who before 2010 was a rabid anti-Russian politician, suddenly became a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

Aside from the nagging question of compromising information on Orbán, there is another problem. We know next to nothing about the details of the deal. Who knows what these changes in the contract entail? Why did the two men have to meet, especially since their meeting was extremely short? Why did they arrange this whole charade? We have no idea. In any case, if we can believe Péter Szijjártó, work on the Paks project will begin in January.

August 29, 2017