An open letter to American Hungarian Federation president Frank Koszorus, Jr.

January 16, 2016

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In addition to “vigorously promot(ing) democracy by supporting the rights of religious and national minorities, including the rights of the Hungarian minorities living in countries bordering Hungary,” isn’t it time for the American Hungarian Federation to vigorously promote democracy and civil rights in Hungary itself?

What about the rights of Hungarian citizens not to be persecuted for criticizing the government?  Or for failing to espouse illiberal views?  What about their rights to be treated equally in the eyes of the law?  Or not to have their property confiscated or their livelihood destroyed?  What about their right to speak their minds and stand up for their beliefs without losing their jobs or being publicly vilified by state media?

Does it not seem to you that lurking under the dark surface of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” democracy is a generous, big-hearted people who know damn well what happened seventy years ago and are determined to see nothing like that ever happens again?

Dear Mr. Koszorus:

In my letter to the editor of Hungary Today of 5 January 2016 I did not mean to suggest you were not sincere in your advocacy of the rights of Hungarian minorities living in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.  I am therefore amending the final sentence as follows:

Koszorus’ claim that “Hungarian historical communities living in the Successor States are . . . forced to live in a stifling status quo that threatens their cultural existence, if not their very survival” fundamentally misrepresents the situation.

Apart from gradual assimilation, Hungarian historical communities are threatened by low birth rates and economic migration.  The distribution of tens of thousands of Hungarian passports to Hungarian minorities living in the Ukraine and Serbia merely facilitates their migration to the European Union.

Recognizing this, the government of Hungary recently announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the economic development of Vojvodina and Transcarpathia. However, one cannot help but question how much of this will simply end up in the offshore bank accounts of leading government officials and their supporters.

All the countries of eastern Europe suffer negative population growth. The low birth rate of Hungarian minorities living in Hungary’s near abroad cannot be explained in terms of discrimination as Hungary itself has one of Europe’s lowest birth rates: 9.49 per 1000.

In the decade following the fall of communism the economies of Slovakia and Romania suffered from high unemployment and low productivity. Desirous of a better life, between 1989 and 2004 (the year Hungary and Slovakia joined the EU), some 48,000 people migrated from Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania and Serbia to Hungary, the majority of them Hungarians. Between 2005 and 2007, the year Romania joined the EU, 18,000 Romanian citizens, mostly Hungarian, moved to Hungary.

Since joining the EU, hundreds of thousands of Slovaks, Romanians, and Hungarians have migrated to northern and western Europe in search of jobs and a higher standard of living.

The rights of Hungarian minorities living in successor states

The issue is complex as the situation varies from country to country and from region to region.

Generally speaking, Hungarian couples living in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia have little difficulty raising their children as Hungarians, having access to Hungarian language public kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary schools.  There are even colleges and universities for those wishing to continue their studies in Hungarian.  Granted, there are faculties, such as law, that require the ability to do coursework in languages other than Hungarian.  But there is nothing to prevent Hungarian minorities from enrolling in colleges and universities in neighboring Hungary.

Hungarians living in the near abroad have access to a rich variety of Hungarian language newspapers, magazines and books, as well as Hungarian language radio and television programming.  There are numerous cultural institutions, organizations, societies, and clubs devoted to Hungarian culture (theatre, literature, folk dancing, etc.).  Even local chapters of international organizations such as the Boy Scouts conduct their proceedings in Hungarian.

There are no limitations on the right of Hungarian minorities to organize politically or to vote in national and municipal elections.  Hungarian political parties regularly return delegates to parliament.  In Romania, the Democratic Alliance of Romanian Hungarians (RMDSZ) is frequently invited to join the government.

If, as you suggest, the litmus test of minority rights is whether they may conduct all their affairs in their mother tongue and hold second passports issued by neighboring countries, then Slovakia would seem to fail this test.  But just as Hungary has national security concerns over allowing foreigners to settle in Hungary without paying for the privilege, Slovakia has legitimate national security concerns over so many of its citizens being issued Hungarian passports.

You are right that Slovakia ought to annul the Beneš decrees and the ordinances of the Slovak National Council (SNR) concerning the status of ethnic Hungarians.  But that alone will not induce Slovakian Hungarians to have more children or prevent them from moving to Germany or the United Kingdom in search of a better life.

Autonomy for Transylvania

Transylvania enjoys a high degree of autonomy within Romania.  Whatever the merits of granting the Hungarian parts of Transylvania political autonomy, over 80 percent of Romanians are opposed to the idea–a political reality no Romanian government can ignore regardless of what may have been promised one hundred years ago.

On the subject of the “despoliation of Hungarian cultural objects”,  the occasional defacement of Hungarian road signs does not compare to the bombing of a synagogue in France or the demolition of Christian heritage sites in the Middle East.

On the subject of the failure of the Romanian government to return property confiscated from the Catholic Church under communism, I do not see how this limits the ability of national communities to practice their faith as there is no shortage of Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, or Reformed churches or clergymen in Romania.

Hungary’s democracy deficit

In March 2013 you testified before the United States Helsinki Commission that the American Hungarian Federation supports “liberal democracy, human and minority rights and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe”. In light of efforts undertaken by the current government to turn Hungary into an “illiberal” democracy and the serious erosion to the rule of law that has taken place under the second and third Orbán governments, I question whether you still believe “the legislative agenda of the current government . . . does not rise to the grave level of putting democracy at risk.”

Whitewashing history

In your article “Reflections on 19 March 1944 and its aftermath: a perfect storm of tragedy and folly” appearing in the 14 March 2014 edition of Hungarian Review, you write that “care should be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes” and that “any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.”

Fair enough. But when an essay purporting to advance the cause of historical accuracy fails to mention that Hungary was a willing ally of Nazi Germany for most of WWII, or that some 50,000 Hungarian Jews had been killed even before the first German soldier stepped foot on Hungarian soil, it calls into question the author’s commitment to “not abusing history for political purposes”.

The fact of the matter is that the “catastrophe” of which you speak started long before the first German soldier arrived in Hungary–two decades before with the passage of the first of some one hundred anti-Jewish laws, including twentieth-century Europe’s first anti-Jewish law, the numerus clausus act of 1920.

Little wonder Hungary’s Jewish and German communities (neither of which were consulted beforehand) adamantly opposed the erection of a memorial to the “Victims of the German Occupation of Hungary” at the beginning of 2015–so much so that its installation was completed under cover of night and resulted in Hungary’s Jewish community boycotting official Holocaust memorial events planned for 2015.

What about the rights of Hungarians living in Hungary?

In addition to “vigorously promot(ing) democracy by supporting the rights of religious and national minorities, including the rights of the Hungarian minorities living in countries bordering Hungary,” isn’t it time for the American Hungarian Federation to vigorously promote democracy in Hungary itself?

What about the rights of Hungarian citizens not to be persecuted for criticizing the government?  Or for failing to espouse illiberal views?  What about their rights to be treated equally in the eyes of the law?  Or not to have their property confiscated or their livelihood destroyed?  What about their right to speak their minds and stand up for their beliefs without losing their jobs or being publicly vilified by state media?

What about the rights of Hungarian citizens to vote in elections that are both free and fair?

Were you not shocked by the confiscation of private pension plans that took place shortly after Fidesz returned to power in 2010?  Or the nationalization of the textbook and tobacco retailing industries?  Or the government takeover of schools and hospitals (which has been disasterous)?

Were you not shocked by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision at the beginning of 2014 to award a USD 13 billion no-bid contract to Russia to build new reactors at the Paks atomic energy plant without first consulting members of his own government, let alone parliament? Or his receiving Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin in Budapest even as Russia continued to support armed separatists in eastern Ukraine?

Were you not shocked by the attack on civil society and the media which took place in the summer of 2014?  Or the defunding of social welfare programs targeting poor households in March of last year?

Are you not shocked by the strong reluctance shown by Hungarian prosecutors to indict government officials for corruption?  Or the fact that a company owned by the Prime Minister’s son-in-law won millions of dollars worth of public tenders?

Were you not shocked by reports that Hungary paid Washington lobbyist, former Republican congressman Cornelius McGillicuddy the fourth (AKA Connie Mack IV) $5 million to serve as Prime Minister Orbán’s official spokesman in the United States?

As a citizen of the United States, are you not concerned about the enormous resources the Orbán government devotes to lobbying members of Congress and manipulating public opinion?  As you had the decency not to appear before last May’s scandalous House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on the future of US-Hungarian relations, I think I know the answer to that question.

As a professed proponent of liberal democracy, were you not shocked by last year’s xenophobic “National consultation on immigration and terrorism” culminating in the vicious attack on defenseless asylum seekers by Hungarian authorities at Röszke on September 16th, 2015?

When attending the unveiling of your father’s statue in Budapest last summer, did you fail to notice the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers camped out in public squares and parks without access to food, water, or public facilities?  Or the complete absence of international aid organizations, the Hungarian government having forbidden the Red Cross and others from assisting asylum seekers outside of the understaffed, overcrowded refugee camps?

Were you not moved when thousands of Hungarian civilians from all walks of life came to the assistance of strangers in need? Were their actions any less commendable than your father’s?

Does it not seem to you that lurking under the dark surface of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” democracy is a generous, big-hearted people who know damn well what happened seventy years ago and are determined to see nothing like that ever happens again?

Sincerely yours,

Richard Field