Tag Archives: Zoltán Balog

Adolf Hitler: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”

I’m going to talk about a topic some people might consider totally irrelevant, Viktor Orbán’s nonexistent dog Nárcisz (Daffodil). Nonexistent dog? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Viktor Orbán doesn’t have a dog, and the fanciful story he told about the family dog’s happy life in Felcsút is one big fat lie. His penchant for telling lies has always been a problem, but lying about a nonexistent dog may mark a new low.

How did Nárcisz get into the picture? On February 20 about 6,000 people gathered in Budapest to demonstrate against animal cruelty. In a country where it is very difficult to convince people to demonstrate, the size of the crowd indicated that a lot of Hungarians feel very strongly about the brutal treatment of animals which occurs far too often, especially in the countryside. Organizations against animal cruelty are also dissatisfied with the response of the police and the courts when dealing with cases of animal abuse.

Four days later a heartwarming article appeared in Blikk, a tabloid through which Orbán often sends messages to his people, about Nárcisz. Orbán told the reporter that six years ago Nárcisz was found half dead in the backyard of their house in Felcsút. The Orbán family’s vet managed to save her life. She lost an eye, but otherwise she is fine. In fact, a short while ago Nárcisz had a litter of twelve puppies. Orbán added that he himself will do everything he can to respond to the questions and suggestions of the animal welfare organizations. In fact, he said, he had already talked to the minister of justice about the problem. After all, he had, through Nárcisz, personally experienced the dreadful deeds committed by cruel men against innocent animals. For good measure his publicists made sure that Orbán together with Nárcisz made it to his Facebook page with the following caption in both Hungarian and English: “Both Nárcisz and I agree with the goals of animal rights activists.” The picture seems to have been taken specifically for the occasion.

The official “state news,” hirado.hu, a couple of hours later picked up the story of Nárcisz: “Viktor Orbán stands by animal rights activists together with his own dog.” But the problem is that no one managed to find any other picture of Nárcisz, who has allegedly been living in Felcsút for the last six years. Reporters found two or three pictures on which one could see Orbán together with dogs, but none of them was Nárcisz. In fact, in 2013 Orbán told Bors, another tabloid, that he would like to have a dog but a dog needs a lot of attention and he simply doesn’t have the time.

Eventually it was discovered that the registered owner of the dog is Gáspár Orbán, the son of the prime minister, who has been living on his own in a Budapest apartment at least since 2013 (I hope not sharing it with a litter of twelve). As a puppy Nárcisz was badly injured, but it is unlikely that some strange man managed to get into the backyard of Orbán’s “fortified” residence. A more plausible scenario is that she was run over by a car.

Narcisz

The long and the short of it is that Viktor Orbán doesn’t own a dog and the animal doesn’t live in Felcsút, as he claimed. What motivates this man to lie constantly? Especially about such a banal topic as the presence of a dog in the household? Why is he risking being unmasked? Why is he adding to the general perception that he is an inveterate liar or, even worse, a pathological one? Why do his advisors allow him to engage in these dangerous games? Don’t they warn him of the dangers involved in his constant lying? Are they that afraid of him?

Orbán plays fast and loose with the truth, especially when he gives interviews to foreign correspondents. In Hungary he has an easy time. He simply doesn’t allow reporters to ask him questions and he doesn’t give interviews, because his appearances on Fridays in the studio of the state radio station cannot be called interviews. During his first administration he was quite open about the fact that he would sit down with only one particular reporter. Naturally, it was someone who wouldn’t ask him anything that might be difficult to answer.

When he talks to foreign correspondents, however, he is in his element. He knows that no matter how well prepared the journalist is, he doesn’t know the ins and outs of Hungarian affairs. There are a few foreign correspondents who have been living in Hungary for years and who can speak the language, but he avoids them because they could question such statements as “there are one million [Ukrainian refugees] in Poland and almost 100,000 in Hungary. Nobody is talking about that anymore in the EU,” as he told Kai Diekmann of Bild-Zeitung. Ukrainian refugees in Hungary? Where are they? Of course, Diekmann didn’t question the veracity of this claim because it was highly unlikely that he knew the exact status of these so-called Ukrainian refugees. It is true that Ukrainian-Hungarians who lived next to the border area took advantage of the opportunity to become Hungarian citizens, but with their new Hungarian passports they moved farther west. These ethnic Hungarians became “economic migrants.” As for the numbers, the whole Hungarian population of Carpatho-Ukraine is about 200,000. So the figure Orbán cited is simply unimaginable. But do the readers of Bild or Business Insider know this? Of course not.

Not only does the boss lie, his underlings do too. In September 2015 Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, claimed at a conference in Paris that Hungary had given shelter to 1,000 Coptic Christians from Egypt. This is how he tried clear Hungary’s name in connection with the country’s steadfast refusal to admit any refugees. The problem was that the small Coptic community in Hungary knew nothing about these people. Nonetheless, a few days later Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó repeated the lie.

Péter Györkös, the new Hungarian ambassador to Germany, came out with perhaps the biggest lie of all on German public television station. Györkös was installed in his new post only a few months ago, allegedly because his predecessor wasn’t “aggressive” enough. Györkös was a bit more modest than Viktor Orbán when he referred to the “tens of thousands” of Ukrainian refugees who are currently in Hungary. But what really raised eyebrows in Hungary was his claim that Hungary has a whopping 20% ethnic minority, which is burden enough on the country. This was his excuse for refusing to allow any refugees into the country.

It is a well-known fact that Hungary is an overwhelmingly monolingual country. Ninety-nine percent of the 9,896,333 inhabitants speak Hungarian. As for nationalities, there are 38,574 Romanians, 16,987 Germans, 11,820 Ukrainians, 8,852 Chinese, and 8,246 Slovaks. In brief, insignificant numbers. What Györkös did was to pull a totally false figure out of his hat when he claimed that the Roma population of Hungary is close to 20% of the population. First of all, according to the 2011 census fewer than 190,000 people declared themselves to be Gypsies. That is 2% of the population. The rest consider themselves to be Hungarians. As for the total number of people of Roma background there are only guesses, but it is unlikely to be more than 7% of the population. Klubrádió called the ambassador’s lies hair-raising, while DK said that the new ambassador brought shame to the country. The Roma community was equally if not more outraged. After all, they were offered as an excuse for Hungary’s inability to help the refugees.

Most likely the vast majority of his German listeners had no idea that the “aggressive” new Hungarian ambassador was lying. So he got away with it. In the “means justify the ends” world of Viktor Orbán, lying is an effective strategy for promoting his policies, one that the prime minister and his government will continue to pursue unless the opposition and the media fact check their every statement and counter all their falsehoods.

March 3, 2016

The Orbán government’s sigh of relief was too hasty: the teachers are not appeased

I must say that last night, after reading some of the early reports on the results of the “negotiations” at the roundtable discussion convened by the ministry of human resources, I was certain that the Orbán government had again managed to quell the widespread dissatisfaction of teachers, parents, and students over the dismal state of Hungarian education.

A few days before the planned mass demonstration of teachers, bus drivers, and railroad workers Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of education, hastily called together the representatives of diverse organizations. In addition to those with skin in the game, like representatives of the teachers’ unions and the organizers of the current protest, members of civic groups that either have nothing to do with education, like the Hungarian Academy of Artists, or are unknown entities, like the Nemzeti Iskolai Tanács (National School Council), which doesn’t even have a website, also attended. Representatives of organizations that are known to be staunch supporters of the present government, like the parents’ association representing large families, got invitations. But no one from the Diákparlament (Student Parliament), which stands by the teachers in the present conflict, was invited. In brief, Balog made sure that supporters of the government’s position were in the majority around the table.

Those familiar with the Hungarian educational scene were surprised to learn that László Mendrey of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, which is normally highly critical of the government, decided to attend. By contrast, Piroska Galló of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) announced her union’s boycott of the first meeting of the roundtable. A last minute invitee was Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium in Miskolc, where the movement to change the current educational system had its roots.

After the meeting Balog tried to give the impression that the representatives invited to the roundtable discussion could actually make decisions. But, as Piroska Galló of PSZ pointed out, she received an invitation to “a talk” and not to “negotiations.” The government’s plan is to listen to the complaints and then change as little as possible in the current flawed system. Balog also wants to avoid dealing with scholars whose field is education because he knows that most of them are against the educational philosophy espoused by the Orbán government. So, he made sure that only those experts would be welcome “who have something worthwhile to add to the topic.” That in Fidesz parlance means: only those who agree with us.

László Mendrey made a huge mistake by attending the conversations initiated by the government. Members of his union are now demanding his resignation, and some of them have already quit. Their dissatisfaction stemmed from his comments after the meeting that “the conversations were encouraging” because the government officials were ready to discuss even the most sensitive issues, which means that in the next round they will be able to talk about the role of the state, the autonomy of the institutions, and their economic independence. After the upheaval on Facebook and elsewhere by PDSZ members and teachers in general, the other leader of PDSZ who was present tried to explain what went wrong. The union’s original idea was to leave the meeting immediately after the first negative answer to one of their key demands. The government, however, outfoxed them and was ready to talk about anything. Therefore, they had no occasion to get up and leave. Well, talk is cheap, and it should have been clear to Mendrey that convening the roundtable a few days before the planned demonstration had only one purpose: to prevent the demonstration and a possible strike. With the passage of time and the promise of a few bones perhaps the teachers will calm down.

Another clever move was to invite Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. The ministry officials must have known that he doesn’t fully share the opinions of his teachers and that, after a little sweet talk, he would support the government’s position of very limited changes to the current system. (The principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium in Budapest, who appeared in several television discussions and who stands squarely behind the teachers’ demands, was not invited.) Madarász got the royal treatment. He sat at the head table alongside Zoltán Balog, Péter Horváth of the National Teachers’ Corps, and László Palkovics, the new undersecretary. Balog had a little tête-à-tête with the principal, and the rest is history. He expressed his total satisfaction with what transpired at the meeting. Balog asked Madarász to convince the teachers in and around Miskolc to participate in the forthcoming negotiations. Afterward, in an interview with Olga Kálmán, he expressed his ambivalence about attending the demonstration after such a successful conversation with Balog and Palkovics.

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium

So, although last night it seemed that the government had won this round, then came today. The original organizers of the movement in the name of the 737 schools which supported them published a statement in which they succinctly presented their demands. At the same time they disavowed the principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium who, they claimed, spoke only in his own name.

  1. The government should declare that it considers the present law on education temporary and immediately should begin talks with the proper representatives of public education to create a new law on education.
  1. We demand that the discussions on the new law on public education should deal with the professional basics.
  1. We demand that the government spends 6% of the GDP on education.
  1. We demand immediate changes in the rules and regulations that make the situation of students and teachers unbearable.

It was signed by Katalin Törley, Ferenc Kölcsey Gymnasium, Budapest; Olivér Pilz, Ottó Herman Gymnasium, Miskolc; and István Pukli, principal, Blanka Teleki Gymnasium.

Meanwhile Piroska Galló explained why her union decided not to attend the meeting called together by Zoltán Balog. At the moment there exists a strike committee in which both PSZ and PDSZ participate. It is Zoltán Balog who represents the government in these negotiations, but during many meetings the minister’s position has been entirely negative with regard to the teachers’ demands. Therefore she can’t imagine what use such a roundtable discussion could be unless it is to pacify the teachers and pull the wool over their eyes. On Friday the strike committee is scheduled to meet Balog, and Galló is curious whether Balog’s “rigid position” changed or not as a result of his conversations with the invited representatives. In my opinion, there will be a change in the government’s position only if the demonstration turns out to be a real show of force.

February 10, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s education system “carries serious political risks”

If Zoltán Balog, minister in charge of education, thought that the teachers, who have had enough of Viktor Orbán’s educational experiments, would be appeased by promises to lift some of the administrative burdens that make the lives of both teachers and students a living hell, he was sorely mistaken. The government is now groping in the dark for some kind of solution. I have the feeling that they still haven’t realized that the government will have to offer substantial concessions to avoid a major confrontation.

The administration is promising to call together representatives of teachers and students to find a common solution to the problems. But how can they trust Balog and his undersecretary, Mrs. Czunyi, when the meeting is supposed to take place at the same time as the demonstration organized by the teachers’ unions? Or when the ministry instructed schools to hold parent-teacher conferences today, when demonstrations were scheduled in several cities? Surely, under these circumstances the good faith of the government can be seriously questioned. Or, adding to their sins, when Pesti Srácok, which 444.hu calls “the revolver newspaper of the Fidesz caucus,” suspects that it is György Soros and Ferenc Gyurcsány who are behind the “teachers’ revolt.” How? One of the organizers was once a member of a group that in 2012 received a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Gyurcsány is implicated, according Pesti Srácok, because one of the members of Oktatói Hálózat (Faculty Net) of university professors that supports the teachers is Zsuzsa Ferge, the “favorite sociologist” of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Incredible, isn’t it?

And if that weren’t enough, András Bencsik, editor of the far-right weekly Demokrata and one of the chief organizers of the Peace Marches that allegedly saved Viktor Orbán from being ousted by foreign powers, accused Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), of being the daughter of the notorious security chief of the Rákosi era, Gábor Péter (1906-1993). Bencsik didn’t bother to check the most basic facts before he spread this lie all over the Facebook. In reality, Ms Galló’s father was Ferenc Péter, a university professor, and not Gábor Péter, who together with his wife was serving a life sentence at the time of Galló’s birth.

While I was focusing on the brewing teachers’ revolt and the government’s attack on the judiciary, I neglected to talk about another rash announcement by János Lázár. For the sake of efficiency and economy he wants to eliminate thirteen and amalgamate another sixty ancillary institutions. These institutions are a mixed bag, but many of them are important independent organizations supporting the various ministries. The researchers of these institutes are supposed to give objective, honest, professional advice to the civil servants and politicians working in the ministries. If most of these institutions are placed under the direct supervision of the ministries, their independence will no longer be assured.

Let’s take the Oktatáskutató és Fejlesztő Intézet (Educational Research and Development Institute / OFI), which is one of the think tanks destined to be shut down. One wonders whether the decision has anything to do with a report OFI released last year, which can be read in its entirety here. In early January Undersecretary Czunyi talked only about reorganizing OFI. On January 5 she announced that great changes will take place in the ancillary institutions dealing with educational matters. For example, OFI’s role will be limited to the development of textbooks. A month later Lázár was already talking about the elimination of the entire institute.

What prompted this decision? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the criticism that can be read on practically every page of the study. The researchers wanted to assess the results of the nationalization of schools and the creation of the Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), which is supposed to run 4,000 some schools across the country. The authors’ conclusion is devastating. Those who know the language should take a look at the whole report. Here I don’t want to go into the details, which are pretty similar to the complaints of the teachers and students, but I will call attention to one warning: “The passive-aggressive overcentralized system carries serious political risks.” The researchers of this ancillary institution seemed to have the well-being of the government in mind. They warned the ministry of the political dangers inherent in the system Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann created in the last five or six years. What was the government’s answer? Let’s just close the whole institute.

The suspicion is of long standing: Rózsa Hoffmann and Piroska Galló in October 2011

The suspicion is of long standing: Rózsa Hoffmann and Piroska Galló in October 2011

As I said at the beginning, we don’t know how the government will handle this problem. Of course, a lot will depend on the strength of the movement, which local Fidesz authorities are trying to dampen. For example, where Fidesz is very strong, like in Debrecen, the teachers either don’t want or don’t dare to join their colleagues elsewhere.

Piroska Galló, the leader of PSZ who was severely criticized in Magyar Narancs for being far too malleable, is showing her radical side at the moment. PSZ prepared a list of 25 demands, which basically call for dismantling the entire edifice built in accord with Viktor Orbán’s educational vision. Right now she insists that the government accept the package in toto, a demand that most likely will have to be trimmed down. The question is by how much? Given Viktor Orbán’s personality, I suspect that his first reaction will be to reject most of these demands because he finds it very difficult to admit his mistakes. But if I were in his shoes, I would keep in mind what the researchers of OFI predicted already last year–that his educational system carries huge political risks. And after all, for him, staying in power is priority number one.

February 3, 2016

Social media and political change: The case of the Hungarian “teachers’ revolt”

I am following with fascination the Orbán government’s reaction to the “teachers’ revolt” that originated with a single complaining letter from a high school in Miskolc, a town that’s not exactly the center of Hungarian liberalism. The movement caught on mostly because another school’s teachers decided to start a webpage on which like-minded teachers and parents could join the Ottó Herman Gymnasium’s staff in demanding a change in Hungarian public education. The emphasis was not on salaries but on the quality of education, which has suffered immeasurably since the government decided to turn public education upside down, creating a monster that can barely function.

A handful of teachers started something that might usher in a new era: a successful grassroots movement to battle the regime Viktor Orbán created in the last six years. Of course, we are still at the very beginning: to date 23,286 individuals and 382 schools have joined the teachers of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. But that was enough to get the government’s attention.

The response came quickly enough. On January 23 the incompetent top brass of the department in charge of public education, together with Zoltán Balog, minister of the monstrously large Ministry of Human Resources, organized a press conference. This hastily called press conference was held on Saturday, a day before Viktor Orbán left for Mongolia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Balog was instructed to act immediately. I am also sure that the minister was told how far he can go in appeasing the dissatisfied teachers. Not very far, as we will see.

So, Zoltán Balog assembled the troops: Mrs. Czunyi, the undersecretary, who inherited the mess from her predecessor; László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of higher education; and Péter Horváth, president of the government-created National Teachers’ Association. The promises were meager. Balog claimed that they have been diligently working on reducing the administrative duties of teachers. I don’t know what Balog expected, but the announcement was not greeted with enthusiasm by the teachers and their unions. At long last the two teachers’ unions, the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) and the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), decided to move into action. PDSZ is the more radical of the two unions, and until recently the two groups were unable to work together. Union leader Piroska Galló (PSZ) considered László Mendrey’s PDSZ too brash. By now, however, she has realized that her methods no longer work. And so Galló is refusing to accept anything less than a restoration of the autonomy of schools and a return of principals’ competencies. Negotiating with the ministry leads nowhere. Perhaps it is time to consider a teachers’ strike.

During the last week or so more and more teachers reported that KLIK, the “employer” of the teachers, was putting pressure on principals of schools that signed the manifesto of the Miskolc teachers. In turn, the principals put pressure on the teachers, several of whom, after signing the petition, asked that their names to be removed from the list for fear of  reprisals. Under the present system if a teacher is fired from his current job, he will not be able to be employed in any of the schools under the supervision of KLIK. A teacher’s fate is entirely in the hands of the state.

Despite all the threats, the number of protesters kept growing. A press conference wasn’t enough. So, three days later, on January 26, in a surprise announcement Balog said that he and his colleagues would visit Miskolc to talk things over. Moreover, he promised that they would pay several visits to various parts of the country to listen to the teachers’ complaints.

Well, the first meeting took place in Miskolc today. Although details of the gathering are sparse, I gained the distinct impression that Balog was forced to realize that the whole educational system as it was devised by Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann is unacceptable to the teachers. It is not something that can be remedied with a few concessions. Otherwise, Balog’s comment–“let’s not act as if everything was perfect before”–doesn’t make sense. The teachers’ demand that schools should again be operated and maintained by the same organization means that they want the present dual scheme, which splits the two functions between the central and the local governments, to be abolished. That would mean dismantling KLIK and the centralized state system of education. At the moment that seems out of the question. The nationalization of schools, which makes the curriculum uniform across all schools, was one of Viktor Orbán’s pet projects.

Zoltán Balog in Miskolc. To his right Ákos Kriza, mayor of the city

Zoltán Balog in Miskolc. To his right Ákos Kriza, mayor of the city

The struggle between the government and the teachers is just beginning. Next door, in Slovakia, a teachers’ strike is underway right now, and if the government is not careful, the same thing might happen in Hungary. My feeling is that although the administration believes that some minor adjustments will suffice, as time goes on Viktor Orbán will have to give up several of his ideas about the ideal education for Hungarian schoolchildren, including the centralization of education.

Today we learned that Fidesz’s approval rate is growing steadily as a result of the government’s migration policies. Yet there are serious problems with the economy, healthcare, and education. The employees of the state railways are on the verge of striking. The government just announced that about 6,000 state employees will lose their jobs due to the closure of several ancillary institutions that served as professional advisory bodies to the ministries. One suspects that there are cash-flow problems because state employees often receive their wages late. Hospitals can’t pay their bills. The whole governmental edifice is crumbling. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, the whole thing might disintegrate.

Nationwide organization is very easy in the age of the internet. Enterprising teachers at the Ignác Zimándy Elementary School in Törökbálint began a countrywide protest movement simply by starting a website where people and institutions could join the initiative of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. That’s all that was needed. I understand that a social internet site is being tested at the moment to serve as a platform for those who would like to join others in starting a movement that might lead to the dethroning of Viktor Orbán and the eventual demise of his undemocratic regime.

January 27, 2016

The doctors have also had enough

Yesterday I wrote about teacher dissatisfaction stemming from the government’s centralization and reorganization of the educational system. About a week ago the teachers of a gymnasium in Miskolc made public a letter sent to the ministry of human resources, which remained unanswered. Since then thousands of people have joined the crusade for a return to the system in which individual schools had a great deal more autonomy and the teachers had greater freedom in their classrooms.

Today it is time to move on to healthcare, where the situation is as bad as if not worse than in education. In the first place, the government doesn’t spend enough money on healthcare, and the little it spends it spends irrationally. The system is both flawed and underfunded, resulting in a general deterioration of the infrastructure and a lack of basic services to many patients.

Until recently the only sign of serious dissatisfaction was the emigration of large numbers of doctors and even larger numbers of nurses. These professionals are being enticed to move to western European countries, where there is a shortage of doctors and nurses and where salaries are much higher. By contrast, most teachers are more or less tied to the country. Many simply leave the profession.

A functioning hospital somewhere in Hungary / Photo Zoltán Balogh, MTI

A functioning hospital somewhere in Hungary / Photo Zoltán Balogh, MTI

Beginning last month one started to hear about doctors in this or that hospital who threatened to quit because they claimed that the conditions in the hospital were not adequate for them to do their jobs properly. They claimed that the lives of their patients were in jeopardy. One of the main problems is the shortage of nurses. Apparently, right now there is a shortage of 5,000-6,000 nurses in the Hungarian healthcare system.

The first news about doctors revolting against the system came from the Saint Imre Hospital in Budapest where 11 doctors, all anesthesiologists, quit. A few days later 16 physicians in Veszprém threatened to do the same, but eventually the director of the hospital managed to appease them. But by the second half of December 64 doctors from Szeged decided to write a letter to the new and suspiciously quiet undersecretary, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, in which they called his attention to the critical situation in which Hungarian healthcare finds itself after years and years of neglect. These brave souls belong to a Facebook group called “1001 doctors without gratuity.” I think that most readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the corrupt system without which, according to some analysts, the whole healthcare system would have collapsed a long time ago. Hungarian patients believe that without paying extra to the attending physician they wouldn’t receive decent treatment. Because the government assumes that the doctors receive quite a bit of extra untaxed income in the form of gratuities, they don’t feel any necessity to raise their salaries to a level commensurate with their education and responsibility.

These people consider gratuities to be the canker of the healthcare system. In their letter to Ónodi-Szűcs the doctors claimed, among many other things, that the practice of gratuities negatively affects the quality of care provided and “renders the training of younger doctors impossible.” This last claim might not be immediately understandable to those outside the profession, but I have an inkling of what these doctors have in mind. Doctors higher up on the totem poll make sure that they perform all procedures that might bring a large gratuity, and thus younger doctors have only limited opportunities to perform certain operations. This was the case already in the Rákosi period, and it looks as if it hasn’t changed since. Naturally, doctors in high positions who are the beneficiaries of the system want no change.

Dinner in a Hungarian hospital

Dinner in a Hungarian hospital

It was at this point that Zoltán Balog, in an interview on Mokka, an early morning show on TV2, expressed his surprise that the doctors think that “gratuities are not good for them.” Later in the conversation he added that in the last four years the government has regularly raised doctors’ salaries, but “we can’t expect to raise salaries tenfold in order to catch up with the west.” Moreover, the situation can’t be that bad, he claimed. After all, “in the last 25 years we have kept saying that Hungarian healthcare is close to collapse, but it has continued to work just fine to this day.”

None of the supporters of the group found Balog’s answer acceptable. They were especially offended by the fact that “Balog talked about the gratuity as if it were a natural ingredient of healthcare.” They demanded answers to specific questions. How long will gratuities be accepted in healthcare? When will the government convene a group of experts to discuss matters with the doctors? What kinds of concrete steps does the government expect to take in 2016 to improve the financial well-being of doctors and others in the healthcare system? The fact that the Hungarian Medical Association urged its members—and membership is compulsory–to join the group will ensure that many more doctors will add their support.

By early January 781 doctors signed the letter of the “1001 doctors without gratuity.” By January 12 the numbers swelled to well over 2,200 when 1,500 pediatricians joined the group.

It is telling that the slavishly servile Magyar Idők, which supports all of the government’s actions, decided that it could not back Balog and his undersecretary on this issue. An editorial that appeared on January 5, titled “Doctors and nurses on the waiting list,” expressed the belief that it was time to raise salaries substantially. Otherwise, a strike might be unavoidable, especially since a new union has been formed and the likelihood of doctors, nurses, and teachers creating a united front is likely. But more about that tomorrow.

January 17, 2016

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

Hungarian doctors ask public support for improvements to healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctors

An earlier demonstration organized by residents

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

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

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

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

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

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