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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 article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It’s the third of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

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[This article appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague. It was republished Sept. 16 on Roma Transitions, and republished Sept. 22 on The Mantle.]

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

By Michael J. Jordan 15 September 2011

BUDAPEST | Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

Angela Kocze (Photo: mjj)

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[This “Dispatch” appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

(more…)

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[This podcast aired on Oct. 5, 2010, by the World Policy Institute.]

World Policy on Air podcast: Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, a journalist based in Central Europe and author of “The Roots of Hate,” published in the World Policy Journal’s Fall 2010 edition, believes that the ruling Fidesz party, the overwhelming winners in Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, must now make good on their promises for prosperity and jobs if they are to cement their center-right hold on their nation.

At the same time, they must also reconcile Hungarian distrust of the Roma with obligations to the European Union. He also discusses the factors leading to the power of the right-wing in Central Europe. Finally, Jordan describes his experiences in Hong Kong teaching mainland Chinese journalists how to blog.

Jordan is a guest of World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman on the weekly World Policy on Air podcast.

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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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[The following appeared June 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungary's 19th-century Parliament ... now stands in Slovakia. (Photo: mjj)

 

BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election season, even better.

The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing Slovakia’s upcoming June 12 elections. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Lands,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.

The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.

This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.

Preserving identity at the Hungarian school in Bratislava: Viki M, Viki V, Dia, Mate, Andrea. (Photo: mjj)

Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital during the first half of the 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon with a short walk from my home to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the Magyar alapiskola es gimnazium – the Hungarian-language primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old building dominates an entire block downtown.

It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.

“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I just listened to a podcast in which a popular American sports commentator, Bill Simmons, interviewed the co-creator of “Lost,” a TV show whose fan base is so rabid, some have created websites in which they dissect and critique every plot twist.

The host and guest both seek audience feedback, and they agreed on one point: happy fans tend not to take the time to comment. Instead, it’s typically the “loud minority” that does. (As opposed to Nixon’s “silent majority.”)

Of course, there’s no way to prove how representative any comments section is. Which raises the question: do their often angry voices add any value at all?

This strikes a chord, as my Hungarian wife translated for me a batch of reader comments to my May 7 commentary in the major Budapest daily, Népszabadság. (See post below.)

I knew it would raise hackles: it was about the escalating incitement of hatred against the Hungarian Roma and Jewish minorities, and why I doubt the new government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will reverse this trend.

The very first of the 203 “komments” caught my eye: a super-sleuth pasted a link to my bio that appeared in a Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles. The message: “Ah-ha, a closeted Jew! Only a Jew would criticize us.”

OK, maybe I read too much into this, but I know the machinations of some Hungarians. (For more of the flavor, I also accepted onto my blog a May 5 comment from Hungary, which creatively called me the “idiot son of an asshole.” He nailed us both, Pops!)

Many of the remaining comments were negative as well, yet I pestered my wife to translate them. Sure, I can be as thin-skinned as any journalist, but I was curious to know if anyone had addressed the substance of my critique, on Hungarian hatred. Many, in fact, did not. (more…)

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[Note: The following commentary, entitled “Hatred and Democracy” appeared May 7, 2010, in the leading Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. For the English version, see the post below.]

Gyűlölet és demokrácia – Orbán most is hallgatni fog?

Michael J. Jordan

A Fidesz az általa megszerzett hatalmas többséggel, a politikáját elgáncsolni képes ellenzék hiányában – vagy megújítja Magyarország gazdaságát, vagy nem. Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa.

A Fidesz kétharmados többsége vagy javít, vagy nem a határon túl kisebbségben élő, zaklatott magyarság helyzetén azzal, ha a párt tartja magát ígéretéhez, és állampolgárságot ad nekik.

Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa. És vajon a Fidesz elsöprő többsége jót tesz-e majd a magyar demokráciának, különösen a demokrácia minőségének? Nos, erről már van tanulságos példánk: Orbán Viktor első miniszterelnöki ciklusa.

Éppen ez az, ami nyugtalanít engem, a több tucat magyar rokonnal bíró amerikait, aki külföldi tudósítóként hat évig Budapesten élt, négy éve pedig a szomszédos Szlovákiából tudósít.

Azokban az elemzésekben, amelyek megpróbáltak magyarázatot találni a Jobbik feltűnő térhódítására, kevés szó esett az elmúlt évtizedben a sajtóban és a parlamentben egyaránt elburjánzó uszításról és gyűlöletről a kisebbségekkel és a politikai ellenfelekkel szemben.

Az én hazámban, az Egyesült Államokban is átitatja a társadalmat az egyes politikusok, kommentátorok szájából áradó gyűlöletbeszéd, mely a hallgatóság legmélyebb félelmeit mozgósítja, és a félelem új forrásait fakasztja fel. A különbség az, hogy Washingtonban még néhány felelősen gondolkodó republikánus is fellép ez ellen, és kimondja: „Van egy határ, amit nem szabad átlépni”.

Amikor majd a parlament üléstermében a Jobbik ott liheg a nyakában, tesz-e majd Orbán bármit, hogy csillapítsa a démonizálás szenvedélyét, amely szétszakítja a magyar demokráciát? Miként reagál majd, ha reagál egyáltalán, amikor a Jobbik rádobja az első verbális gránátokat a „cigány bűnözőkre” vagy az „izraeli tőkésekre”. Nehéz derűlátónak lenni, mivel tíz évvel ezelőtt maga Orbán is szította az efféle szenvedélyeket. (more…)

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[The following is the original English version of a May 7 commentary published in the Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. See post above.]

BRATISLAVA – The Fidesz super-majority may or may not rejuvenate Hungary’s economy, without a pesky opposition to block its new policies. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

The Fidesz super-majority may or may not improve life for harassed ethnic Hungarians across the borders, if the party follows through on its vow to grant them citizenship. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

But will the Fidesz super-majority enhance Hungarian democracy? Specifically, the quality of its democracy? For that, we do have precedent: Viktor Orban’s first run as prime minister.

That’s what concerns me, as an American with dozens of Hungarian relatives – and as a foreign correspondent who lived for six years in Budapest, then the last four next door in Slovakia.

Among all the analysis I’ve read that tries to interpret the remarkable rise of Jobbik, I see little mention of the incitement and hatred that has flourished over the past decade: whether against minorities or political opponents, whether in the media or even on the floor of Parliament.

As in my country, the United States, the drumbeat of hate speech from certain politicians and commentators now permeates society, stoking the audience’s deepest fears – or creating fears they never had before. The difference between here and there, though, is that even some responsible Republicans now stand up to say: “There’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”

When Jobbik is breathing down his neck from across the aisle of Parliament, will Orban do anything to extinguish the flames of demonization that tear at Hungarian democracy? How will he react, if at all, to the first verbal grenades that Jobbik lobs at “Gypsy criminals” or “Israeli investors”?

I find it difficult to be optimistic, since Orban himself fanned those flames ten years ago. (more…)

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[The following appeared April 20 in The Mantle.]
 
MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – The Hungarian restaurateur in a Harley Davidson jacket wants you to know he’s not a fascist. Nor a racist. And certainly no anti-Semite. He has a Jewish friend, he says, and expresses sympathy for his Holocaust-surviving father.

“Zsuzsa!” he suddenly calls out to one of his restaurant workers – a Romani woman wearing a white cap, t-shirt and apron. “How do you feel here?” he asks tenderly, touching her shoulder. “Does anyone bother you?”

“No, never!” she says, flashing a smile, but with a look of understandable bewilderment.

“That’s good,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt you.”

As she walks off, the restaurateur leans in, lowers his voice. “And she’s one hundred percent Gypsy,” he says. “If I’m a Nazi, why would I hire Gypsies?”

Miklos and Maria Kraz, in the doorway of their shop, like the new right-wing combo. (Photo: mjj)

With his anti-racist bona fides out of the way, the man dives back into the topic at hand.

“Why do we never hear about Slovak criminals, or German criminals, or Greek criminals,” he asks, “but we only hear about Gypsy criminals and Jewish criminals?”

The businessman is a zealous supporter of Jobbik, the hard-right party that for two solid years has demonized the Roma and Jewish minorities, who comprise some 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, of a population of 10 million.

The Jobbik message strikes a chord. On April 11, the party raked in a stunning 17 percent of the vote in national elections – a record high for such parties in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially the 10 that are now members of the European Union. (more…)

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Hungarian Guardsman garb on Election Day. (Photo: AP)

[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.

Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.

However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. (more…)

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