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.