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Farewell Country

On the evening of April 8th, in the Champions League quarter-final, Liverpool FC played its first match against Chelsea FC at home, in the renowned Anfield Stadium. Already, on the previous night, Liverpool supporters from all over England converged on local hotels with their families – that is to say, along with many underage fans in red jerseys. The following day, Anfield Road teemed with 6- and 8- and 10-year-olds dressed in red T-shirts bearing the numbers 8 and 9 (those of Torres and Gerrard), a mixed group of boys and girls accompanied by fathers and, more often, by mothers. Afterwards, depending on their temperaments, they either cheered on the team like their parents; or, with wise and indulgent smiles, they watched the excited adults, who sang, raved, ranted, and waved their scarves.


Liverpool FC did not play the second-leg match against Chelsea on April 15th. Indeed, speaking on behalf of Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, its captain and one of the team’s icons, requested that UEFA move the match to the 14th; for, ever since April 15, 1989, that day has been one of mourning for the club, its supporters, all of Liverpool, and England as well. It is the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed or trampled to death at the beginning of a Liverpool-Nottingham match in the overcrowded central pens of the Hillsborough Stadium of Sheffield.

On this year’s anniversary, the 20th of the tragic event, in the Anfield Stadium, packed with relatives and fans, they held a memorial that was emotional and dignified, as well as sensible and wise. Where possible, it was even liberated. There was not only room for mournful words and songs, but also cheering for the players, the team, and the manager. For reasons not to be specified here, the Prime Minister, one of the speakers, was interrupted by song (not whistling, but singing!). There was even room to roar out a wholehearted, full-throated team anthem. In other words, the sorrowful event addressed not only the memory of the victims, but also a sense of community. After all, the catastrophe did not just initiate a reform of Brittish football; it began a process that ousted English football hooliganism from home stadiums and other European football venues at the time.

In Liverpool, the Hillsborough tragedy, the shocked grief, and the series of public rememberances that persists to this day have helped create and maintain the sort of ‘positive’ fan ethic where ‘hatred’ of the enemy does not overwhelm enthusiasm for the team. Excesses may break out (as we know they can), but never hold sway over the conduct of the entire contingent of fans. As a result, the stadium has been a safe place (as well as public transportation and the streets before and after matches) for the many small Torreses and Gerrards ever since.


What happens in Hungarian stadiums during a match, on the streets of big cities and on public transportation after a match, I have only learned from newspaper and TV reports over the past two decades. That is how I learned that, at the world championship qualifying match between Albania and Hungary on March 28th, Hungarian supporters on a spree in the Tirana stadium held aloft signs with “Justice for Hungary” (1) in Gothic letters and, amid Naci arm gestures, sang the national anthem for the greater glory of their nation. Similarly, last November, Hungarian fans popped over to Dunaszerdahely (2) with a map of Greater Hungary (3) and a sign reading “We were, we are, and we shall be.” Later they demonstrated on the streets of Budapest with placards that read, “Down with Trianon,” “Slovakia is Shit,” and “Slovakia is a Transient State,” all the while roaring, “Make my day, stinking Slovak” or “We hate you, shitty Slovakia.” (Viktor Orbán put it in a more diplomatically, “They’re a clever people, in their own way,” as though they were struggling to catch up with us.) On splendid occasions or national holidays, a rabble, said to be football supporters, causes damage and commits arson across the capital, shouting anti-Semitic and anti-Roma statements the length of Andrássy Avenue (4), even once following behind the President of the Republic’s entourage and demanding that Gyurcsány and the Jews be shot into the Danube. (5) They act with impuntiy, practically with the unspoken support of half the country. Currently in Hungary, it is possible to build a strong community ethic around racism, hatred of others, abasement, exclusion, and verbal and physical violence. Consequently, those who take their children to football matches (and Fidesz rallies (6) ) in today’s Hungary could find themselves standing before a judge for endangering minors.

Whether they still sing the cheer “The train is leaving for Auschwitz” in stadiums, I cannot say. I know, however, that they sang it for at least fifteen years and even until a few years ago. Then, too, they did so with impunity – why, even with the support of the government (either tacit or explicit) during several periods in the short life of Hungary’s democracy. (7) That is, until 2003. Then the newly-appointed Sports Minister (8) at one of his first press conferences came out with the statement to let everyone be informed that the train for Auschwitz was not departing Hungary ever again. It was an unprecedented statement after four years of havoc wrecked upon intellect in Parliament by the anti-Semitic Csurka Party, which, as a token of their shared political interests, was continuously legitimized by Fidesz, the largest party in Hungary’s then ruling coalition. In a sane country, in response to such a statement, believers in human dignity and a healthy community spirit would breathe freely again. Supported by a swell of determination from an effective government, they would mount a counterattack against racism, inside and outside football stadiums. Not so in our country. The statement, the determination that lay behind it, and the measures that followed from it had no power to mobilize in our country, because their intrinsic value was lost. Nothing is valued upon its merits any longer, only in a partisan context and by the place it occupies on the scale of hate-mongering.

For many years, the reason seemed complicated, but by now I feel is simple to see through and formulate. The reason is Viktor Orbán’s greatest political victory – namely, that he has rendered Hungarian society powerless against him. Orbán permanently and irrevocable committed himself to the easier path (the one apparently better suited to his nature) after the 2002 elections (9) when he decided to make vengeance and discreting the enemy the most important element of his politics, with all the consequences that that entailed. The more difficult – and from the point of view of Hungarian society, the only healthy – path would have been to consider politics his occupation (let us say his profession and not his calling) and to observe its rules more or less. He should have been able to recognize the problems that awaited solutions in concrete matters and conflicts, to take a stand on issues according to the promptings of his political and world views, to offer suggestions how to solve them, and in that spirit to challenge his opponent’s positions and solutions. Naturally, this does not preclude power struggles, even manipulation of voters, only the order of priorities is not the same. Waging a battle for power based on reasonable and intelligent dialogue is not the same as denouncing a political organization’s every manifestation to such an extent – not only to drive it out of power, but to make all its intelligent approaches appear worthless, unnecessary, even shameful. In a constant struggle for power, the doubts and altercations (not to mention calculation) have an expressly pernicious effect. Such times call solely for unconditional devotion and a deeply antagonistic disposition. Orbán and his party devoted their entire political existence to arousing these moods. Day after day, over long years, they steered the Hungarian public away from reason, sober problem-solving, and opportunities for conflict resolution – in other words, away from every tool, reflex, and instinct that ensures the healthy functioning of a community. It was never their intention to bring citizens closer to the acceptance or rejection of proposals offered by politicians. That the citizens should understand the problems at hand, should comprehend their own affairs, this was never their aim.

Ferenc Gyurcsány belongs to the world of normalcy, in the Western sense of the word.

He embarked from a certain point and arrived somewhere. His point of departure, the steps he took, and his current position can all be judged and analyzed. Ferenc Gyurcsány did not lie to the country any more than other politicians lie to their constituents. He conducted the very sort of election campaign made possible by the the circumstances of the country where he wished to win. Later, he turned his back on his own election lies, just like all responsible European politicians disavow their prevarications at the beginning of a new 4- or 5-year term.

Ferenc Gyurcsány has a vision for the nation; he views it a certain way and would like to move it somewhere. His perceptions and intentions can be criticized. He has well-considered proposals to address the nation’s problems. These proposals can be good or bad. They can be salvagable or botched from the start. However, they are always open to debate. Ferenc Gyurcsány analyzes, argues, criticizes; therefore, it is possible to refute him with other analyses, arguments, and criticism. He is capable of learning, so debating with him is worthwhile. There is an intellectual rigor behind his politics; therefore, he can be supported or attacked by intellectual means. He speaks a cultured language, which, in line with the rules of civil discourse, must be answered in a cultured tone. According to my understanding, this is the essence of normalcy, together with all its potential and essential nuances.

Not only in the case of the trains to Auschwitz did Ferenc Gyurcsány wish to banish burning instinctual life and heaped-up passion from the public sphere. Even later, he formulated his very platform in line with all his ambitions as Prime Minister – several times, in fact, on the basis of a clear, determined, well-considered scale of values. He wanted a civil Hungary, in the Western sense, with sovereign, self-sufficient, achievement-oriented citizens abiding by the rules of fair-play primarily for their own sake, and also responsible for their communities, both large and small. He wanted to crush the patterns of thought that had been ingrained over decades or even centuries. He understood what the dear, late László Antal (11) said one hundred times, that reforms are reforms insofar as they transform people’s conduct, when people begin to think and act according to different rules. If anyone would take the trouble to compare Ferenc Gyurcsány’s notion of a future Hungary with the reforms he initiated and considered important, then perhaps it would not be necessary to construe his concrete reform plans, the inadequacies and flaws in their elaboration and relization, as such total failures. Yet, from pundits whose field of vision does not extend beyond pension benefits, GDP, state debt, and tax rates; from intellectuals who, in a mockery of their vocation, fall prey to a series of delusions (that the only proof of their independence is not taking a clear stance on any political measure affecting society, that behaving as a citizen means turning against “the powers that be,” and that their intellectual self-worth depends upon disparaging others’ ideas); from journalists who drag their very profession through the mud, making and destroying kings, indulging their base passions, luxuriating in the freedom to insult, as they consider respectable reportage an unworthy occupation; from an opposition whose only goal is that every one of the thousand problems emerging in society, without exception, should stir up the public’s bile, thus reducing the citizen to a pawn in the battle for power – from these entities, a clear evaluation could not be expected. In this country, Gyurcsány’s personality, talent, creativity, and determination could not help but fan tempers, evoking jealousy and scorn, the destructive and self-defensive rage of the talentless, substandard, puny masses incapable of self-development.

First, with persistent effort, his detractors managed to transform the truthful speech he delivered at Balatonőszöd into a pack of lies. (11) Then, they managed to eradicate completely Ferenc Gyurcsány’s vision of Hungary, by virtue of the judgment passed upon his governance and reforms. The opposing camp – consolidated into one aggressive, determined, implacable mass – was so successful that they now make do with a dismissive wave of the hand: he was not capable of ruling. In opposition to them?!

I would not wish for them, still less for myself, the alternative scenario – that instead of a partner relationship, which they failed to develop with a worthy man and politician, they would be forced to suffer Orbán’s Hungary, built upon individuals who are dishonorable and shifty, aggressive and lying, pushy and retaliatory. They would have to bear the arbitrary measures, the intimidation, the public brandings, the boorish rule, the domination of collectivity over the individual, the shameless abuse of political tools – in short, everything that was worth breaking with in 1989. So, too, would they have to stomach László Köver (12), who is already speculating whether the Roma-hating Jobbik Party (13) – which organizes paramilitary units and stridently rouses the prejudiced, aggressive, and homicidal (14) Hungary – would be as worthy a parliamentary partner to a ruling Fidesz Party as was the anti-Semitic MIÉP, which filled that role between 1998 and 2002.


I would like to live in a country where the grandstands are packed with little Torreses and Gerrards; where responsible adults – be they politicians, officials, shapers of public opinion, or simply citizens – are willing to make sense of their joyous and agonizing experiences, are capable of learning from them, and are able to bring this wisdom to bear in their own lives; where we would celebrate our capacitiy for self-correction, as opposed to a talent for ruining our own fate, since we would know, or simply feel, that our security in the stadium, on buses, and on the street depended on it.

In April 2009, it was not Ferenc Gyurcsány who failed, but all of us, collectively and individually; and with us, we dragged down Hungary – a country which, thanks to 1989, we had a chance to create. Now many a little Hungarian Torres and Gerrard will have to wait a good deal longer before another such opportunity comes along.


This article appeared in the May issue of the Hungarian periodical Mozgó Világ


(1)       A slogan of contemporary Hungarian irredentists, it originates from movements that demanded the reversal of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which closed World War I. As a result of that treaty, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and more than half of its population.
(2)       A Slovakian town which was once a part of Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon. The Slovak police used heavy-handed tactics against radical hungarian football fans who attended the match of a local club on November 1, 2008. The event gave rise to diplomatic tensions and a political skirmish in Hungary.
(3)       The ma pof pre-Trianon “Greater Hungary” is another symbol of the irredentist movement.
(4)       Budapest’s “Champs-Élysées,” it was completed in 1876. It was eventually named after one of its initiators, Count Gyula Andrássy, Sr., who was a foreign minister at the time of its inauguration.
(5)       The incident occurred on October 22, 2006, during a ceremony that marked the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
(6)       Following a rally that Fidesz organized in the heart of Budapest on October 23rd – a month after extremists set fire to the Hungarian Television building and successive demonstrations in the capital – participants wishing to return home ran into radical demonstrators who committed arson, damaged public property, and clashed with riot police. Since then, any justifiable police tactic to disperse a crowd has been labeled by Fidesz and extremist elements as “the police state’s use of excessive violence against peaceful citizens.”
(7)       Propagating an anti-semetic platform, István Csurka and some like-minded politicians were first members of MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum), the party the led the first coalition government from 1990, after decades of one-party rule. Then, they left to form MIÉP (Hungarian Party for Justice and Life). In 1998, MIÉP made it to Parliament and cooperated with the coalition governmnet, led by Fidesz.
(8)       Between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2004, Ferenc Gyurcsány was Sports Minister under Péter Medgessy’s administration. Gyurcsány became Prime Minister in September 2004.
(9)       Viktor Orbán, president of Fidesz, was Prime Minister of Hungary between 1998 and 2002. At the 2002 and 2006 elections, the Socialist Party defeated him at the polls. Alleging “electoral fraud” in 2002, he organized a nationwide network of local cells (so-called “citizen circles”) to speed the fall of the government. As leader of the opposition, he has committed himself to this single goal.
(10)     Laszló Antal, an eminent economist and a friend of the author, died in 2008.
(11)     On May 6, 2006, one month after the Socialists’ electoral victory, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a speech for members of his parliamentary party behind closed doors at a holiday resort in Balatonőszöd. He wished to garner support for the forthcoming sweeping reforms. He spoke in strong terms, occasionally using profane language. The centerpiece of his speech was a call to put an end to the lies that had infested political life in Hungary. Under circumstances that have never been clarified, unidentified persons made a recording of this speech, from which a collection of tendentious excerpts was compiled and sent to numerous editorial offices on September 17, 2006. As though carefully orchestrated in advance, radical demonstators instantly took to the streets of Budapest demanding the resignation of the government. Months of demonstrations followed, and Fidesz was eager to keep tensions high. Viktor Orbán was quoted as saying that he opened a bottle of champagne when the leak occurred. Ever since the Balatonőszöd speech, Orbán has been demanding early elections and, up until the time Gordon Bajnai replaced Gyurcsány as prime minister on April 14, 2009, he persistently referred to Gyurcány as “liar.”
(12)     Since its founding in 1988, Laszló Kövér has been one of Fidesz’s leading personalities and the chairman of the party’s national steering committee. The style of his political rhetoric is notoriously aggressive. He has drawn parallels between the ruling Socialist Party and the Communist dictatorship in Hungary during the 1950s.
(13)     Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, became a political party in 2003, with the eager backing of Fidesz. Many of its senior officials were transfered from Fidesz’s ‘civil’ organizations. The two parties cooperate actively at the local level in several places. Jobbik is an extreme right, racist party, known especially for its hatred of Roma. It has also founded the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary movement, whose uniform and greeting recall those of the Hungarian Nazis during World War II. Units of the Hungarian Guard regularly stage marches in rural Hungary to spread fear among the local Roma population.
(14)     In the past year in Hungary, a dozen or so armed attacks were perpetrated against Romas, some of which ended in fatality. To this day, the identity of the attackers remains unknown. Small children have also been among the Roma victims.