Hearts and Minds

The Rise of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Hungary and Abroad
Budapest, books

Kimberly Farmer and Raquel García on Unsplash, created by DM

The Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) is a Hungarian organization, which – according to its website – “is the leading talent promotion institution in the Carpathian Basin”. However, it is much more than that. Nowadays, the Mathias Corvinus Foundation offers an immense collection of educational programmes, publications, with a network of businesses and think tanks abroad, having a significant lobby power. Some might deem it a boondoggle, others as a way of funnelling public money to the pockets of cronies, yet the organization is not without merit.

MCC was founded in 1996 by the Tombor family in order to further the education of talented Hungarians from high school upwards. It organized programmes, established a residence hall and mostly kept to its purely educational goals not getting itself involved in national, let alone global politics.

In 2020, the Hungarian parliament with its Fidesz supermajority awarded MCC 10 % of the shares of MOL (a Hungarian multinational oil and gas company) and with the same percentage of the Richter shares (a pharmaceutical company). The whole amount of these benefits reached an overall value of 280 billion Forint (EUR 666.212.300), which was higher than the total amount of state benefits for disabilities and rehabilitation services, or unemployment benefits and public work schemes combined, both spent in 2020. In addition, MCC received 94.5 billion Forint (EUR 242.150.535) from the state, which was preceded by another pile of money that amounted almost to a third of this sum from the Economy Protection Fund. Furthermore, MCC received several real estates, and now has several addresses all over the country and abroad. In fact, the total amount of finances MCC received from the state is higher than the amount state had spent on higher education in the whole year. Around this time, the management of MCC changed to the Mathias Corvinus Foundation, whose chairman is Dr. Balázs Orbán, the Political Director of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (not related). Since then, MCC and its related organization and foundations no longer focus on mere educational matters. They started to increase their business interests. For instance, MCC bought a share in the largest bookstore in Hungary, after which the shelves were filled with MCCs own publications and books.

Nomen Est Omen

If you ask a Hungarian, who his favourite Hungarian monarch is, the king Mathias Corvinus would be among the first. Folk stories of him are galore, extolling romanticized merits of the king, who has been monikered as “the Just”, who donned commoners’ garment and plucked himself among his subjects to observe their everyday lives and who dished out equitable rulings causing admiration of his people. It is therefore always a shrewd decision to use his name as a brand.

The wisdom and support of the sciences by the king, whose name the MCC uses in its Latin form with a more academic sound to it, is well established in the Hungarian psyche. This lends credence to the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which is now an ubiquitous Hungarian institution establishing itself abroad. Yet just as the king and just as about anything in Hungary, it suffers from an almost self-contradictory duality.

Hungarian Duality

The beloved King Matthias Corvinus was not such a benevolent ruler, as portrayed by the folk-stories. In fact, he raised taxes to stomach-churning heights in order to fuel his wars. At the time, Europe was constantly threatened by the Ottoman Empire, with whom King Mathias fought lukewarm battles, mostly making use of the military fame of his father. Despite the threats from the Ottomans, who yearned to conquer all the lands, he attacked his Western European neighbours, thus weakening Europe’s fragile alliance against the Ottomans. All this financed by taxpayers' money. With the help of disinformation and propaganda, Matthias Corvinus spread unverified claims that Vlad Tepes (commonly known as Dracula), who fought the Turks, was in fact an ally of the Turks and that is why Corvinus imprisoned him. It is ironic how the shortcomings of Matthias Corvinus, such as high taxes, turning against the West, and fake news propaganda happens again in Hungary today.

The Hungarian duality, that always puts Hungary on the verge of East and West, freedom and authority, progress and orthodoxy, defines MCC as well. The organization, as it is much more than a mere college, aims to redefine conservatism and raise the next generation of conservatives – in line with the conservatism promoted by the Hungarian governing party, the self-proclaimed conservative Fidesz. Although MCC claims that it is “ideologically independent, but not value-neutral”, it is rather telling that many of its leading representatives are closely tied to the government. Even the courts agree, according to a lawsuit, that MCC can be rightfully called as the training facility of Fidesz.

Let's take a look at Fidesz’s interpretation of conservatism. The party that initially started as liberal, supporting free market, civic liberties, and strongly opposing Russia’s influence in the region, now brands itself as conservative and opposes its former ideas. It is better not to get bogged down in the definition of conservatism, for instance discussing the role of free market and enterprise. Suffice to say that a party, whose government nationalizes, kowtows to communist dictatorships, and hinders enterprise, erodes the rule of law and democratic principles and follows economic policies that had already proved untenable during socialism, is by no measure or definition conservative, only by the definition created by the party itself. It is more akin to illiberalism and populism.

Duality is in the very core of MCC. It claims to be “a private educational institution”, but given all the public money that is poured into it and its leadership involving people close to the prime minister Orbán, its "private" status comes into question. Last time, when the speakers of an MCC conference were invited to speak with the Prime Minister, an international scandal was caused. Firstly, Dr. Balázs Orbán said during the conference that whoever rules the media, rules the country. This is very true as Fidesz went on to establish a majority in the media, and MCC’s Director General, Dr. Zoltán Szalai, is coincidentally the Director of a pro-government magazine Mandiner. Then, at the meeting with the prime minister, the head of government allegedly called Ukraine a no man’s land. This caused an uproar in Ukraine, which is not exactly on good terms with Hungary, since the Hungarian government is opposing sanctions against Russia and the government media here spews out Russian propaganda. The PM Orbán went on with scathing remarks about the EU, even admitting that Hungary’s EU membership is painful to him. Yet Orbán still continues to beg for more money from Brussels to fuel his Eurosceptic rhetoric.

Despite allegations that Brussels is a loathsome place, MCC opened an office there to shake up the stale NGO scene there. Of course in line with the Hungarian duality, the conservative think tank is led by Frank Furedi, a Hungarian born professor from the UK, who founded the Revolutionary Communist Party 45 years ago.

How exactly MCC Brussels plans to shake up Brussels is not entirely clear, but apparently they want to do real research, and not be part of the technocratic bubble. According to their website, MCC Brussels will “attempt to acquaint and influence European policy makers with its distinct approach towards the political, socio-economic and cultural issues of our time.” Young visiting students will have the opportunity to get to know the “policy and decision-making process in Brussels.” Looking beyond the boilerplate sentences MCC Brussels’ website offers, the real goal is probably to plant a lobby group into the heart of the EU, to set up a hub around which illiberal populist can unite.

MCC is often marked by scandals. For instance, a guest speaker has been accused of being a Russian spy and MCC allegedly works as a lobby group in the grey zone in foreign countries, such as the US. One example for all can be the US Trumpist Republican Tucker Carlson, who was a guest speaker at an MCC event and who nurtures a close relationship with PM Orbán. There was even held a CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in Hungary last year. MCC lures conservatives all over the world, such as the German conservative Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, just to name one example from many.

Hearts and Minds

The Hungarian government established itself quite well within the Hungarian politics, business, legislation and basically all walks of life during its tenure since 2010. In order to win elections, many conditions need to be met. Tempering with the election laws certainly helps. Having an inept opposition is definitely a bonus. However, in order to win, one has to win the hearts of the voters, at least to the extent of proving that one is better, or at least not that bad as the other. Winning hearts is not an easy task, although possessing the majority of media by the government is a big help. But this is only temporary. Emotions change. New generation grows up. Therefore, in order to secure a long-term rule, one has to win the people's minds as well. To do this, having a strong influence in education is paramount. The Hungarian educational system is failing. Teachers are on strike due to dismal working conditions, long working hours and extremely low wages.

MCC provides an – at least nominally – private alternative to the failing public education. MCC now provides education even in primary schools, offers help for the Roma minority and for talented people even if they can’t afford expensive private education.

This is similar to healthcare in Hungary, which also suffers from large problems, and the private sector, which is being taken over by government cronies, provides an alternative. So the government influences both the private and the public sphere.

The liberal leaning Central European University, which was the largest and the best private university in Hungary has been forced out of the country, leaving an empty space for demand for private education, filled by MCC, which propagates a Fidesz-style conservative agenda. So what? Of course it does. Having educational institutes with biases is nothing new. CEU was liberal. MCC caters for the government, is funded by the state, and of course wants to nurture future young professionals to work for the government. Yet becoming a Fidesz supporter is not a criterion for the acception to a training. Nor is it a requirement when graduating.

Having conservative (as Fidesz understands it) speakers at an event is no surprise. Let us face it, most liberal events only feature liberal speakers. Despite its bias, its propaganda, and ties with the regime MCC provides quality trainings.

The titanic amount of public money for MCC is not illegal. The democratically (albeit with tempered laws) elected parliament made sure to make constitutional changes to ensure that public funds lose their public status on the way so no oversight on their spending is needed when they land at MCC. The resulting lobby power might be in a twilight zone, but it is also not illegal.

The way to overcome MCC’s influence is not by exposing their funds, their activities or the people behind it. Liberals might get upset over it, but there is nothing to do about it. Liberals should focus more on winning debates, not only in their ivory towers but also among the general population. Win hearts and minds and battles over illiberal populism on their own battlegrounds, rather than to whine over changing laws, being outfunded and outsmarted. If liberals don’t focus on winning over the next generation, don’t be surprised that they will be bested in the race for hearts and minds.

About the Author

Máté Hajba is the Director of the Free Market Foundation, which advocates economic freedom, civil rights and tolerance. He is also the Vice President of Civic Platform, which runs anti-racist campaigns and promotes democratic values. He is interested in the relationship between the state and the individual and in the concept and history of liberty. He writes for international press on issues such as intolerance in Hungary and international relations. To promote the concept of individualism, liberty, tolerance and free market, he co-founded a youth organization named Eötvös Club.

Máté Hajba