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[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE — With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

(more…)

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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

(more…)

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Szabolcs Szedlak’s bitter disenchantment led him to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.]

HEVES, Hungary — The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world.

Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they’d become like neighboring Austrians—a BMW in every driveway. Just don’t remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.

Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country’s most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system—especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training.

Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary’s brand of “democracy.” As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the “happiest barrack in the Soviet camp,” is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.

Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled. (more…)

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[The following appeared July 15 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.

When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona [see post just below], an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.

Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.

That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”

My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.

Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic Magyar Garda, or “Hungarian Guard,” in March 2008. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary — While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (more…)

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Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

April 22, 2009

 

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

 

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

 

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

 

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

 

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.” (more…)

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European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

More than 40 European diplomats walked out to protest the Iranian leader’s speech, in which he called Israelis “the racist perpetrators of genocide.”

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 20, 2009 edition

 

GENEVA – A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.

 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.

 

“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”

 

With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.

 

It had been hoped that this year’s UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda. (more…)

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