Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives

As visitors to this blog will know I have writen a fair amount on Hungary in the past and if I am doing a little less at the moment it is because Éva Balogh’s excellent Hungarian Spectrum website  has dedicated itself to the politics of the country and does a much better job of it than I could. I am saving my blog or press powder for occasions when I feel particularly concerned or when matters need extra amplification. In the meantime I continue to link to Hungarian news on Facebook and Twitter.

It is very rare to get a whole one-day conference in the UK (what is, at any rate for now, the UK) on the theme of Hungary so when one is organised its remit is likely to be large. This one covered three areas: Politics, Language & Literature, and Culture & Society. (The PDF of the programme can be downloaded here). It was in Glasgow because Zsuzsanna Varga is supervising a number of PhD’s there and her students were bright, ambitious and hard-working enough to organise it with her. Many congratulations to them. 

Those who gave the papers were all either PhD students or post-docs. It was a pleasure to be with them.

My own invitation was to give one of the two keynotes, the theme being left to me. I agreed to go with the  usual warning that I am not a specialist or even a scholar and that treading on other people’s fields of expertise may be not only supererogatory but annoying to them. This post won’t be dealing with my speech, though I might reflect on it in another. Nor wiill I try to discuss every paper given though I did pay close attention and take notes on each. I’ll just touch on matters in each session. The wording in each case is my interpretation or reading of what was said. That interpretation may be wrong. 

I’ll write three quick posts, one on each session. This is on the first session.

Session 1: Politics

Three papers here: one on the “Institutional causes of democratic regression”, one on problems with anti-bribery legislation and one on the EU’s response to political conditions in Hungary.

It was interesting to learn, in the first, that according to studies Hungarians rank highest in the preference for democracy while, according to other studies, the country has suffered the worst decline in democracy. The term ‘veto players‘ was new to me.  To have the power of veto is an important element in a democracy: it appears there are no veto players left in Hungary so Fidesz can do exactly what it likes and when it likes. It can, for example, restrict the freedom of the press because the media council is stuffed full of Fidesz members.

We had a working definition of corruption in the second paper as the use of positions of power to generate personal assets and gain influence, chiefly through bribery of one sort or another. In 2009 70% of Hungarians questioned considered the country to be highly corrupt..The chief problem seemed to be with government procurement, It was costumary, the speaker said, for teachers and doctors to be offered bribes for better marks or better care.

The third paper considered EU criticisms of Hungary and possible sanctions of one sort ore another. The criticism involved rewriting the contstitution without any consultation with interested parties, and with the use of members of parliament to introduce amendements that would also bypass the need to involve interested parties. There was the fixing of the ‘basic law‘ entirely in favour of Fidesz and the use of new citizenship votes for Hungarians in surrounding countries. There was the increase in numbers on the constitutional court by exclusively Fidesz supports. There was also the problem of retrospective laws. There was some mention of Orbán’s defence of such changes as being necessary “in an emergency situation”. The problems of EU response is that Article 7 that could restrict voting rights would be difficult to get through the European Parliament. Financial sanctions were suggested instead. Orbán is preparing for this possibility through attempts to form financial agreements with states like Russia, outside the EU and by ratcheting up anti-EU rehetoric, by depicting the EU as a colonialist force.

Personal comment

As with all the papers something of the groundwork was familiar to me, especially in the third paper, but the articulate and detailed presentation was very valuable.

I had read something about corruption as discussed in the second paper though there was some discussion of the nature and range of bribery particularly in medical surgeries and schools (the latter strenuously denied by some who actually had children in school). Giving gifts to doctors was not considered bribery by some because gifts had long been given to supplement a low income, not in the hope of gaining some specific advantage. All this shows how difficult it can be to distinguish social practice and gift giving from gifts as a form of gaining advantage over others. A relatively harmless social habit may lay the ground for bribery proper on a very big scale. Those vast procurements, and the greasing of palms for positions of major influence are the greater concern.

The first paper revealed a good deal about attitudes and pressures in Hungary. It was good on power concentration and the way power can be - and has been - manipulated. It also showed the confused state of public opinion in the country.

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