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Home » Democracy Digest: Hungary Celebrates its Expat Nobel Prize Winners

Democracy Digest: Hungary Celebrates its Expat Nobel Prize Winners

by Dmitry Lobzhanidze
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Two Hungarian-born scientists, Katalin Kariko and Ferenc Krausz, won Nobel Prizes this year, one in medicine and the other in physics. Kariko was honoured for her work on messenger RNA, which subsequently led to the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna and is set to revolutionise medicine in various other ways. Krausz was recognised for cofounding attosecond physics, which provides fundamental insights into the behaviour of electrons in atoms, molecules and solids. Hungarian politicians, from the left and right, scrambled to congratulate the winners on social media, with President Katalin Novak quick to note how Kariko is the first Hungarian woman to receive a Nobel Prize. “We are immensely proud that our nation now has another Nobel laureate whose research has probably saved the lives of millions of people,” she wrote.

Yet both scientists work abroad – Kariko in the US, Krausz in Germany – which rekindled an old debate about whether Hungarians can only be successful if they leave their country. Hungary boasts 15 Nobel winners, the same number as Poland, which is relatively high compared to its population, but only two of them lived in Hungary when receiving the award and only one died in Hungary; all the rest were emigrants. Both winning scientists this year were graduates of Hungarian universities, having benefited from the country’s traditionally strong mathematics and science programs, but the media and some politicians question whether such scientific achievements will be possible in 20 or 30 years’ time, given the much lower level of science education due to a shortage of teachers and a chronically underfunded education system, which has only gotten worse since PM Viktor Orban’s time in office.

Meanwhile, Orban welcomed the victory of Smer leader Robert Fico in Slovakia’s general election on Saturday. “Guess who’s back! Congratulations to Robert Fico on his undisputed victory at the Slovak parliamentary elections. It is always good to work together with a patriot. Looking forward to it!” Orban wrote on X (formerly Twitter). Less happily, and therefore largely ignored by the government, was that no Hungarian party representing the 450,000-strong ethnic Hungarian community in Slovakia managed to make it into parliament, despite (or perhaps because of) the aggressive campaigning by Hungarian politicians. Budapest is now hoping that Fico will become an ally for Orban in his attempts to block weapons deliveries to Ukraine and push back on EU policies. Yet he might be disappointed. To form a government, Fico will need the help of other parties, which could tie his hands in many areas. As a foretaste of future Hungarian-Slovak relations, this week the Slovak government announced it was introducing temporary border controls at the Slovak-Hungarian border to curb illegal immigration and the activity of human smugglers. It seems that despite the fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border, Hungary is no longer able to successfully halt migration from the south and human traffickers are crossing the country with relative impunity.

Polls tighten as Polish election looms; growing dissatisfaction at the border

With 10 days before Poland’s general election, the polls remain tight and no party is likely to win an outright majority, making “the likeliest outcome a chaotic stalemate”, as Politico put it. According to the latest poll, conducted by Kantar for TVN, the governing PiS party (together with its allies from the United Right coalition) was polling at 34 per cent, compared with the main opposition Civic Platform at 30 per cent. Confederation, the far-right party that PiS could ally with in order to govern, stood at 9 per cent. The Left Alliance and the Third Way, an alliance between the Agrarian Party and Poland 2050 of Szymon Holownia, reached 10 per cent and 9 per cent respectively in the poll. While the liberal opposition seems to have more when all the percentages are added up, a major concern for the opposition is that the Third Way doesn’t make it past the 8 per cent threshold for coalitions to enter parliament.

In the meantime, the opposition received a nice boost from a massive rally in Warsaw last Sunday. Organised by Civic Platform, it also featured the leaders of the Left Alliance, though Third Way politicians chose not to attend, instead sending messages of solidarity from their campaign events. While Civic Platform estimated the number of attendants at a million, PiS-controlled state TV quoted figures given by the police of below 100,000, which were clearly contradicted by photos. Private broadcaster onet.pl, liberal but independent from Civic Platform, made their own calculations that concluded about 600,000 attended.

The government’s stepping up of controls at the border with Slovakia to contain the flow of migrants from the Balkan Route now passing via southern Poland to get to the West also involved closing some smaller border roads this week. This has angered locals in the area where tourism and cross-border commerce are important sources of income. Under the new measures, which will last initially 10 days from Wednesday, it will only be possible to cross the border at eight road crossings, three rail crossings and 11 pedestrian ones, leaving many small roads closed. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, the Polish government has already agreed to reopen one crossing at Leluchow, following protests by locals. Over the past two weeks of intensified border controls, authorities said they had arrested over 500 people on this border. But the move comes amidst a cascade of other announcements of reintroduced border controls from governments in the region, some of them also in electoral mode: Germany reintroduced controls with Poland, Austria and Czechia; Czechia with Slovakia; and Slovakia with Hungary.

Slovak PM says border controls will be in vain; fixing the finances

Slovakia reintroduced border checks with Hungary on Thursday morning after Poland, Czechia and Austria decided to tighten their borders with Slovakia due to the high number of illegal migrants coming from the Balkans and crossing Slovakia to get to Western Europe. Even so, acting PM Ludovit Odor argued this measure will be in vain as it cannot stop the illegal migrants, only a joint European solution or the weather can do that, he opined. In September, the Slovak police said that temporary border checks reintroduced by Czechia last year did not stop illegal migrants from trying to get to Germany. Even if Czechia detained and returned them to Slovakia, they all managed to reach Western Europe in the end. On Wednesday, the PM said Slovakia would not have reintroduced border checks if Poland wasn’t playing political games during an election campaign where illegal migration is one of the key issues. Border checks will remain in place in Central Europe for 10 days, though they can be extended. Slovakia will pay 1.4 million euros for guarding 35 border crossings shared with Hungary along their 655-kilometre border. Smer leader and winner of the September 30 election Robert Fico warned three weeks ago about Czechia reintroducing border checks with Slovakia if Slovakia did not protect its border with Hungary. Poland had been checking suspect cars on the Slovak-Polish border for a few weeks before announcing border checks. More illegal migrants started to arrive in Slovakia after they learned the country issues a document that allows them to stay in Slovakia temporarily. However, the migrants mistakenly believe the paper allows them to move around the border-free Schengen Area.

PM Odor has repeatedly warned that Slovakia’s public finances are unsustainable, meaning any post-election government will have to come up with a credible plan to fix them. On Wednesday, the Finance Ministry and experts helpfully published a number of measures worth about 9 billion euros that could go some way to helping to solve that. Slovakia’s debt stands at 57 per cent of GDP, which is not too bad, but economic growth is worryingly slow and that debt level could rise to 70 per cent of GDP over the next three years if no measures are taken. One of the proposed measures is to raise VAT from 20 per cent to 22 per cent. The next government could also increase property taxes, though this is politically sensitive given that 90 per cent of Slovaks own their home. The ministry also proposes higher taxation on investment flats. Higher taxes on cars, alcohol, gambling, tobacco and sweetened drinks, cancelling free trains for students and pensioners, reducing the number of public holidays from 15 to 14, and laying off 10 per cent of employees in public administration were also recommended by the ministry. 

More workers needed in Czechia; plan to double renewables; haircut reparations

Czechia will give 40,000 migrants work visas in January to help alleviate a labour crunch, but it won’t be enough claim business lobbies. Manufacturing, agriculture, construction, healthcare, hospitality – all are reported to be desperately short of workers. Government programs to boost the number of qualified immigrants target Ukrainians and Filipinos; Mongolians and Vietnamese; Moldovans, Georgians and Bosnians. Arriving Ukrainian refugees should add to the labour pool. But the total of 40,000 due to arrive next year still only constitutes two-thirds of the workers needed in the construction industry alone. The Chamber of Commerce suggests a further 60,000 nurses, drivers, cooks and other professionals are lacking. Yet even if the government were ready to open the gates wider, say lobbyists, the immigration system would struggle to keep up without full digitalization – a move that won’t happen until 2026.

Meanwhile, the government is mulling plans to double renewable energy production by 2030. Submitted by the Environment Ministry for cabinet approval, the national climate-energy program would boost the share of solar and wind power in the energy mix to 30 per cent. The strategy would need support in the form of both financing and legislative amendments, says Environment Minister Petr Hladik. Environmental NGOs have called for more ambition. The EU target is for renewable energy to provide 42.5 per cent of the bloc’s energy mix by the end of the decade. The main plank of Czechia’s strategy to dump fossil fuels is the expansion of the nuclear fleet to provide over 50 per cent of the country’s energy, up from the current 35 per cent. The government should make a decision on the proposal next week. If approved, the plan would then be sent to the European Commission for approval.

The Supreme Court has overturned the convictions of 14 men who were jailed in 1966 for protesting against regime-enforced haircuts. The “manicek” protests saw hirsute youths demonstrate against a program, carried out allegedly on the instructions of a hygienist of the Interior Ministry, that saw long-haired men detained, questioned and treated to a short back and sides by state security. “In reality, of course, it was a mass persecution of those who were suspected of disapproving of the regime of the time by their appearance,” notes the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Over 100 protestors gathered to chant “Give us back our hair!” or “Down with the barbers!”. “The contested decisions must be considered incorrect and illegal, as they do not respect the basic principles of a democratic society,” the court ruled. The men will now be able to apply for compensation, although only six remain alive.

Source : Balkan Insight

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