- Associated Press - Monday, April 2, 2012

BUDAPEST (AP) — Hungarian President Pal Schmitt resigned Monday because of a plagiarism scandal over a doctoral dissertation he wrote 20 years ago.

Mr. Schmitt, who was elected to his largely ceremonial office in 2010 for a five-year term, said in a speech to Parliament’s plenary session that he is stepping down because the controversy is dividing Hungary.

“In this situation, when my personal issue divides my beloved nation instead of uniting it, I feel it to be my personal duty to finish my service and resign from my presidential mandate,” Mr. Schmitt said, drawing applause and cheers from opposition lawmakers. “I ask God’s blessing for Hungary and for your work.”

Mr. Schmitt, 69, then quickly left the chamber accompanied by Prime Minister Viktor Orban as lawmakers from the governing parties — Mr. Orban’s Fidesz and the Christian Democrats — gave him a standing ovation.

The resignation comes at a turbulent time in Hungarian politics.

Mr. Orban, who made his name by protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, now is being criticized for pushing the nation toward centralized rule.

The European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, has criticized legislation Mr. Orban’s party passed for limiting democratic principles such as freedom of the press and an independent judiciary and central bank.

Mr. Schmitt was elected president with the support of Mr. Orban and his Fidesz party.

Late in 2011, Hungary surprisingly turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance as its currency fell to all-time lows against the euro. However, official talks with the lenders have yet to start because the EU and the IMF have demanded changes to the some of the disputed legislation, especially the central bank law, a precondition for negotiations.

Last week, Mr. Schmitt’s 1992 doctorate was revoked after a university committee, following up on a report published in January by the Internet publication HVG.hu, found that most of his thesis about the modern Olympic Games had been copied from the work of two other authors. Mr. Schmitt won two gold metals at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics on his country’s fencing teams.

After Mr. Schmitt’s speech Monday, Mr. Orban asked for a parliamentary recess so his party could arrange legislative votes needed to accept the resignation and choose a new president as soon as possible.

“I hope we can decide today on the resignation of the president and this country will have a new president with as little delay as possible,” said Fidesz faction leader Janos Lazar.

Mr. Schmitt’s resignation came one day after he told state radio he would not step down, but pressure on him quickly grew, even among intellectuals and media close to Mr. Orban’s government.

On Sunday, Tivadar Tulassay, the head of Semmelweis University, to which Mr. Schmitt’s alma mater, the University of Physical Education, now belongs, resigned, saying he had supported the decision to revoke Mr. Schmitt’s degree but lost the confidence of the Ministry of National Resources, which oversees educational affairs in Hungary.

For days, Mr. Orban avoided the issue by saying the president enjoyed immunity and that only Mr. Schmitt himself could decide to resign.

During most of his speech Monday, Mr. Schmitt defended his doctorate and said he would appeal its revocation at the university and, if needed, in the courts.

“This is a matter of honor, and my conscience is clear,” Mr. Schmitt said, adding that he was the victim of a political attack and that he would write a new doctoral dissertation about the relationship between sports and environmental protection, including the role of sports in sustainable development.

Mr. Schmitt has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1983. On Friday, the IOC said it will review reports related to Mr. Schmitt’s case and decide whether any action is needed.

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