Can Europe Make It?

Hungarian public employees victimised for connections to the Central European University

Yanis Varoufakis talks here about the nodal systems of the 'deep establishment' that are closing in in Europe. This might be a good example.

Hidvégi-B. Attila
5 May 2017

Csorba Zoltán, a Hungarian civil servant, has recently lost his job because of his political views (own photo).It seems that in Hungary, the official propaganda regarding the struggle between the Central European University (CEU) and the Orban government, has started to have serious repercussions not only on people connected to the University, but other progressive political groups.

Roma news portal Romnet has recently had two cases brought to its attention in which employees in the civil sector were seemingly dismissed in part because of their CEU affiliation. Taken together with another similar and widely reported occurrence that relates to a local civil servant pushed out of office because of his association with the newly formed Momentum Movement, such instances reveal a pattern of unacceptable political pressure on public employees. They are forced to limit their involvement with any institution or political faction disliked by the current Hungarian government on pain of losing their employment.

According to Romnet’s informants, some of whom declined to be identified, the Hungarian government cannot cope with criticism. Those people who don’t fit into its complex system of client-patron relationships and are connected to institutions that are deemed to be anti-government, can easily become persona non grata, and are then removed from any position of influence.

Civil servant leaves Ministry of Human Resources

The most recent, controversial case reported by Romnet concerns Zoltan Csorba, a civil servant at the Hungarian Ministry of Human Resources, who was summarily dismissed a few days ago for his views on the Hungarian government’s policies and his association with the ill-fated CEU. Mr Csorba told Romnet that he had been the target of a sustained series of personal political attacks simply because he voiced professional criticism towards the Ministry’s social integration program and also, as he was openly told, because he worked as a freelance lecturer for the CEU. Following his dismissal, Mr Csorba turned to the courts and the Hungarian Equal Treatment Authority.

He holds a degree in political sciences and since 2014 has worked for an organisation closely connected to the Hungarian Human Resources Ministry as a manager in one of its Roma integration programs, where he voiced a number of views regarded as controversial by his employer. However, a closer look at Mr Csorba’s previous career reveals that he was no stranger to whistleblowing and that he had already suffered for exposing instances of official corruption and wrongdoing.

From 1997 to 2011, Mr Csorba was in charge of the Roma Youth Integration program of Józsefváros, one of Budapest’s local authorities. The program offered after-school activities to hundreds of Roma students, but the local government saw fit to stop the service in the Spring of 2011, a move that our informant believes was politically motivated. ‘A great number of programs that allowed Roma youth to sit higher education exams were terminated suddenly, at the stroke of a pen, in the worst possible moment for our students, right before the university entry examination season’ he complained at the time to news portal Sosinet. Mr Csorba saw the closing of this program as a personal witch hunt against him since he was openly opposed to the policies of the National Roma Minority Self-Government, a government puppet institution dominated by government spokesperson Florian Farkas and his organisation, Lungo Drom. The group has been mired in controversy and accusations of corruption ever since and has recently had to pay back a large amount of European funding because of embezzlement.

After several years of working for a now defunct government quango, the Türr István Training and Research Institute, Csorba was transferred to another government background institution, the Directorate-General for Social and Child Protection (SZGYF), and recently was put in charge of the institution’s Mentoring Network program.  This program was meant to employ 110 professionals, mostly of Roma ethnicity, who would help in the integration of marginalised families at a county level. However, in spite of being a senior manager, Csorba told us that the Director General of SZGYF failed to involve him in any decision-making pertaining to his work and did not allow him access to crucial information such as the initiative’s budget and long term plans.

According to Csorba, his first conflict with his superior came about after he questioned the logic of hiring as local mentors a number of people closely connected to the now discredited National Roma Minority Self-Government, who had almost zero qualifications and experience in the roles, while other, highly qualified and experienced, mostly Roma, candidates were sidelined on what Csorba considers the discriminatory grounds that their diplomas may be ‘fake’. Csorba found it unacceptable that yet again, a program meant to reach the grassroots mainly Roma communities, was turned into a money-spinner for a well-connected political elite.

Already in a meeting back in February to discuss this matter, Zsolt Bátori, Director of SZGYF indicated that he was considering dismissing Csorba since ‘highly positioned politicians have objected to his status within the project’. Further Mr Bátori thought that it was a problem that Mr Csorba had stood for local elections in the past; and that in a previous job application for a management job with a Budapest-based government organization dealing with Roma Education and Culture (FROKK), he had formulated a strong critique of the political decisions taken by local politicians in Budapest’s 8th district local government. Mr Csorba also said that his employer, SZGYF objected to the fact that he worked as a freelance language tutor for the CEU, as the Ministry’s background institution had recently been subject to ‘significant pressure’ in this respect.

Due to internal restructuring, Csorba’s employment with SZGYF was subject to a recent contract, and at the time of his dismissal he was on probation. He found himself under intense pressure to resign because of what he regards as politically motivated objections to his work. Finally he did so under duress, knowing that within weeks, his employer would formally dismiss him anyway due to his known connections with the CEU.

Sacked because of his connections to the CEU

Romnet recently reported another case in which a manager in a Hungarian state institution felt obliged to comply with real or imagined official directives by sacking an employee simply because he had a Masters degree from the beleaguered CEU.

A reader and personal acquaintance of Romnet, who declined to make public his identity, informed the portal that a week ago he was called in to meet with the head of his institution where he was told that his contract will be dissolved because the organisation cannot employ people who are in any way connected to the Central European University. The employee reported that his manager regretted the decision, but felt obligated to let him go as a result of an official directive. The manager also promised that he would help find his employee a new workplace through his own contacts.

The employee who had acquired his Masters at the CEU between 2010-2014 (during the ‘second Orbán regime’), said that he had not made any political comments at work, and that in the past his managers had been happy with his performance. Due to his extensive knowledge of foreign languages (English, German and Italian), he had been frequently asked to represent his institution abroad, so he was completely confounded by the decision of his superiors.

Although for now the Romnet reader chooses not to disclose his name or that of his employer, he has also said that later he would be willing to go public with his story because he finds in unacceptable that leaders of state institutions are in a position to threaten or bring reprisals against an employee simply because of their need to comply with the current government’s line.

He considers his dismissal illegal and a clearly political decision, linked to the fact that he studied at the university that the government refers to simply [and erroneously] as the ‘Soros University’. He feared that hundreds of graduates could be similarly dismissed within days since many CEU graduates work in the public sector, including government spokesperson Kovács Zoltán. Romnet’s informant also commented that he feared more public institutions will start reprisals against such ex-CEU graduates who have taken part in the recent demonstrations to support their alma mater. Romnet’s source said he would turn to the courts for unfair dismissal.

Job lost for collecting signatures on a public petition

Recently the Hungarian media has also covered widely the case of one of the members of the Momentum Movement, András Pencz, who was dismissed from his workplace, the local authority of Budatetény, for collecting signatures in the recent NOlimpia campaign against Budapest’s 2024 Olympic bid. Thanks to the great number of signatures collected from the citizens of Budapest, the Momentum Movement erupted into the limelight by scoring what some see as a major victory against the FIDESZ government.

Pencz had worked for the local authority for more than a year when he was dismissed shortly after Momentum delivered the anti-Olympics petition to the authorities. In his written dismissal notice Mr Pencz was told ‘You are an excellent colleague and we are happy with your work. However, this issue [that you are involved in] is important for our municipality. [Given that we are] a small town, we cannot maintain this relationship [with you] because of the Olympics’.

These are no isolated cases in Hungary’s current political climate. Although it is not at liberty to disclose the details, Romnet has knowledge of other citizens, even elected political representatives, who have been subjected to severe pressure from the authorities and have had to modify their political behaviour under threat to their personal and professional life.

These events, taken together with the open attacks on liberal institutions and civil society, paint a grim picture of life under the Orbán government, one where the public’s right to free speech is under sever threat and where being in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as any kind of opposition political activism can land one in big personal trouble.

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