Members of the Orbán government love to write letters: One wishes they didn’t

It was in November 2002, after the fall of the first Orbán government, that Celeste A. Wallander (Ph.D. Yale '90), then Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, received an accusatory letter from István Simicskó, assistant secretary of defense in the previous government. He complained bitterly about the temerity of Wallander's writing in a scholarly article entitled "Shape Up or Ship Out" in the November-December issue of the well respected quarterly, Foreign Affairs, that in the previous four years Hungary, among other NATO members, didn't really fulfill its obligations within the alliance. According to an unnamed high NATO official, "the former government's anti-Semitism, its extraterritorial demands toward its neighbors, and its lack of constructive cooperation for the creation of political stability in the Balkans" would be reason enough for NATO drop Hungary from the alliance.

At that point, Simicskó began a campaign against the researcher, intimating that Wallander was an agent of the American military establishment and that she was conspiring with the Medgyessy government to prepare for the new Hungarian prime minister's visit to Washington. He also wrote to the unsuspecting Celeste Wallander herself. It wasn't exactly a polite letter. In addition, Béla Lipták's "Hungarian Lobby," a misnomer for "Fidesz Lobby," began a campaign among its thousands of members to inundate Wallander with complaining letters. In the end I wrote to her and apologized for my countrymen's unspeakable behavior. Because since when does a former undersecretary of a government write a letter to a researcher accusing her of antagonism toward his country?

The real twist in the whole story is that by now Celeste Wallander is U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia and as such surely has some contact with István Simicskó, who is again assistant secretary of defense in the second Orbán government. Somehow I don't think that Wallander has particularly fond memories of her Hungarian counterpart.

Well, that was a long time ago and the members of Orbán's cabinet were younger and inexperienced. Perhaps, one might imagine, today they would handle things better. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case.

You may remember the very negative assessment of the second Orbán government that appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post on July 19, 2010. In it, the paper reminded Orbán that he had become "persona non grata in Washington, despite his country's membership in NATO" between 1998-2002. The editors then listed the moves of the current Hungarian government they thought were not helping the stability of the region. For example, they brought up granting citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries and electing a "nationalist ally" to be the president of the country. They were especially upset over the media law even if at that point they didn't really know the full impact the new law could have on the Hungarian media. The article ended with the following warning: "Mr. Orban's big election victory gave him an unusual amount of authority in a parliamentary democracy. At best, he could use it to push through economic reforms that Hungary needs to revive a chronically lagging economy. If he seeks instead to weaken democratic institutions, he will merely ensure that he once again becomes a pariah in Western capitals."

Two days later I learned from Origo, an on-line newspaper, that Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for communication in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. Interestingly, Kovács didn't release the text of his letter to MTI as is usual in such cases and instead told Origo that his biggest complaint was that "the article called Pál Schmitt a nationalist ally." Checking the archives of The Washington Post there is no sign of Kovács's letter to the editor. Just as well after reading Kovács's masterpiece sent to The Financial Times the other day.

On August 4, 2011 an editorial in The Financial Times had a few very harsh words to say about the Hungarian situation. The title itself is telling: "Orban warfare." It accused the Fidesz government of making every effort "to establish long-term political domination of the country." It mentions "attempts to charge three former premiers with 'criminal' economic mismanagement." Using the two-thirds majority Fidesz secured last year, "Mr Orban's behaviour is reaching the point where it threatens democracy." At the end the editorial called on "Brussels, and other member states … to ensure that [the Hungarian government] upholds the values on whose basis it was admitted to the Union."

Zoltán Kovács immediately wrote the following response.

 Inconsistency mars FT’s criticism of Hungary

From Mr Zoltan Kovacs.

Sir, Your editorial Orban warfare (August 5) on the Fidesz-led coalition government in Hungary raises the question of the basis on which these criticisms are made. The Hungarian government is accountable to Hungary’s voters, not to foreign journalists, even if you decry this as “nationalism”. The government’s support at home remains solid. Hence its legitimacy, derived from the voters, is not in question.

No one likes to be criticised by outsiders and the effect of external criticism is to strengthen support for a government that resists being pushed around by foreigners. This may well be an unintended consequence of your editorial and others like it.

Additionally, your negative comment would have much more force if you had been equally critical of the 2002-10 leftwing Hungarian governments and their disastrous policies. This was not the case, despite occasional tut-tutting, and there is an undeniable whiff of a double standard being applied. Are centre-right governments to be assessed by harsher criteria than leftwing ones? Many people in Hungary see it that way and that inconsistency undermines your criticism in Hungarian eyes. This is what counts.

On the specifics, your observations about the charges potentially being brought against the former premiers are premature, indeed inaccurate. There has been no attempt to bring charges. Rather, a recommendation has been made to the appropriate parliamentary committee to consider the grounds for charges to be brought. Nor, in the event, would any charges be brought retroactively: Hungary’s constitution would not allow this.

It is ironic that you presume sufficient knowledge of the legal basis to label the government’s actions as “legally spurious”, while at the same time demonstrating that you yourself have a very poor understanding of Hungarian law.

This is how to win friends and influence people! Kovács is a master at alienating people. How can a government choose a man like Kovács to be undersecretary for communications? Unless, of course, Viktor Orbán purposely picked someone as undiplomatic and unsympathetic as Zoltán Kovács. Not only in writing. He was, by the way, the man who compared Trianon to the Holocaust in Washington in front of government officials a few months ago.

But Kovács was not the only one busy writing letters lately. Annamária Szalai also decided to share her opinion about "the mistakes" Thomas O. Melia made concerning the media law. First she expressed her gratitude to the State Department for paying that much attention to the Hungarian media law, but unfortunately, she noted, Melia made several inaccurate statements about the provisions of the law. I guess the sarcasm is not going to be wasted on Mr. Melia. The message is always the same: anyone who dares to criticize is simply ignorant.

It would be time to stop all this antagonistic, undiplomatic, sarcastic correspondence with diplomats, researchers, and journalists. It is becoming embarrassing.

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Guest

It’s that tone that petulant, indignant tone that’s unmistakeable. A gem.

Paul
Guest

If they really didn’t care about outsider’s opinions, wouldn’t they just ignore them?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “If they really didn’t care about outsider’s opinions, wouldn’t they just ignore them?”
But they do an awful lot of damage to themselves as well as to the country. Can you imagine what the opinion of the recipients and the readers must be of these people and the government they represent?

Kirsten
Guest

Éva: “Can you imagine what the opinion of the recipients and the readers must be of these people and the government they represent?”
That these are madmen. But a better reputation will be restored with the next government (provided it is not Jobbik’s).

kormos
Guest

@Ms.Balogh
Re:Béla Lipták’s “Hungarian Lobby,” a misnomer for “Fidesz Lobby,”
and your Hungarian Spectrum is a “misnomer for SZDSZ-(MSZP) Lobby”
Notwithstanding, you have the right to publish whatever you wish, but Paul,s calling for a bloody uprising in Hungary is a bit too much.
Interestingly none of you commented on it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kormos: “Ms.Balogh Re:Béla Lipták’s “Hungarian Lobby,” a misnomer for “Fidesz Lobby,” and your Hungarian Spectrum is a “misnomer for SZDSZ-(MSZP) Lobby”
You don’t seem to know the difference between a blog expressing the author’s personal political opinions and an organization that considers itself a lobby group. They are not lobbying for Hungarian interests in general but only for the interests of a certain party. The two things cannot be compared.

Member
“The government’s support at home remains solid. Hence its legitimacy, derived from the voters, is not in question.” And here is the problem. Fidesz still believes that because they were elected, everything they do should be delivered on stone tablets as the Decalogue, and everyone should follow it because it is the message of the chosen. kormos: “calling for a bloody uprising in Hungary is a bit too much. Interestingly none of you commented on it.” I beg your pardon, but you make me believe that you either do not read the comments (which you should when you post something like this) or that you have selective memory. I for one did comment on it (and I do like Paul straight no nonsense style) “Most unrest of the world breaks out when all countries sit back, and wait what will happen versus taking a pro-active, diplomatic course. So, I am wrong when I hope that International pressure should be applied? For the sound of it you, and others are hoping for a bloody Sunday.” I think it is a very clear message that I do not agree with a “revolt”. Now you see, the difference between me and you is… Read more »
kormos
Guest

@Some1
True, I did not read your comment carefully enough. My apologies about that.
No, I do not wish any bloody intervention neither internal, nor external on any day in Hungary.
@Ms. Balogh
OK. I will not call Hungarian Spectrum a Lobby, but your daily “political opinion” is a supporting mechanism for SZDSZ-MSZP.

GW
Guest

I have read and re-read this paragraph, attempting to parse it very carefully and although I have a graduate degree in Linguistics, I can make absolutely no sense of it:
“On the specifics, your observations about the charges potentially being brought against the former premiers are premature, indeed inaccurate. There has been no attempt to bring charges. Rather, a recommendation has been made to the appropriate parliamentary committee to consider the grounds for charges to be brought. Nor, in the event, would any charges be brought retroactively: Hungary’s constitution would not allow this.”
If the constitution does not allow retroactive charges, then why would parliament even bother with “considering the grounds for charges”?

Member

GW: “If the constitution does not allow retroactive charges, then why would parliament even bother with “considering the grounds for charges”?” Furthermore, why and how did they try to push through the retroactive law in 2011 that would of stipulated that 98 percent tax would be levied on severance payments received after January 1, 2005. That was the Fidesz too.
So, actually they do test the water for anything and everything, and if organizations, politicians and Hungarians in general would not try to challenge them, they would push everything through.
ALso, I find it laughable that Annamaria Szalai would dare to try challenge anyone for that matter. With her past and proven morals, she should just keep quite, and try to go under the radar for a while. I hope Orban does not think that she found a new Mary Magdalene in her. Although I have to say, an other Hungarian woman named Ilona Staller from the same business made a great political carrier in italy.

peter litvanyi
Guest
Dear “kormos”, We all need friends in this world. If your friends want you to change: that’s because they wish you well. Perhaps they see something potentially destructive in your behavior that you can’t see because it is so hard to see ourselves. There are many of us around the world who are deeply concerned about the present state of Hungary. Most of us on this site have been through a lot /my feeling/ and we are from all walks of life. What’s happening in Hungary these days is quite extraordinary. I would rather not spend my time protesting; as things are I would ultimately be sorry if I didn’t at least try. In the end /of course/ all of us here not palatable to you can cease our effort of communication. Trust me: we /whom you mistakenly might call the “other side”/ are a very considerable political force. I personally stopped buying Hungarian agricultural items. I would like to see some piece of legislation enacted that relates Hungary’s current human rights violations to our commercial policy with Hungary. I wish you well; I have no animosity left after so many years of living. If I enter a fight I… Read more »
Lutra lutra
Guest

I wouldn’t call this blog or most of its active supporters “a mechanism for SZDSZ-MSZP”, though Fidesz’ authoritarian personality might assume that its critics must be in bed with the opposition.
How I wish a group of European left/social democrat leaders would write an open letter to their colleagues in MSZP, urging them to leave their egos at home and pull together in order to lead the opposition to Orbán and his revisionist ideology.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
*GW* Your comments on the paragraph which begins ** “On the specifics, your observations about the charges potentially being brought against the former premiers are premature,…..” ** I agree with you, it is pure gibberish (and I should know I have spoken fluent gibberish for well over 70 years). What the author is trying to differentiate between is the plan to charge previous premiers with mismanagement of the economy and a plan to see if they can be charge with those crimes. The real problem is that Fidesz feels that it is the ‘Lords Anointed’ and Orban Viktor is their Moses leading them to the new ‘promised land’. Therefore whatever they do is ‘God’s Will’ and cannot be criticised by any one. It also shows once again the isolation of the Hungarian mind due in part to their language, their machismo and their lack of knowledge of the world beyond their borders. My late wife used to say ‘what is the importance of frosts in Brazil to Hungary’. She would then make Coffee. Figure it out she could not do so. Their dream wish to incorporate into their land those fellow language speakers in other lands is total nonsense. I… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kormos: “but your daily “political opinion” is a supporting mechanism for SZDSZ-MSZP.”
You must be kidding. Supporting “mechanism”? What on earth is mechanism in this context? My blog supporting two parties, one of which doesn’t even exist? Moreover, there is freedom of expression. I assume you’re aware of that.

Paul
Guest

What madness is this? I have never called for a bloody uprising, in fact my posts call for the exact opposite: desicive action taken now, before it’s too late, precisely to avoid having a bloody uprising later on.
Arab Spring, not 1956.

Marton
Guest
The letter by Zoltán Kovács is a good example of the diversion tactics and sophistries used by Fidesz to defuse criticism. Whenever foreign politicians or journalists object to another particularly egregious move made by Fidesz, without missing a beat one of their talking heads dismisses such criticism by pointing out some technical error in it as an alleged proof of the critic’s ignorance and bias. This is also how Fidesz reacted to foreign criticism of the media law and of the new constitution. The tactic is quite effective (although GW is right to point out the patent absurdity of Kovács’s letter: if the constitution disallows retroactive charges why should parliament even “consider the grounds” for them?). Given the incessant barrage of new laws and unprecedented initiatives, it is impossible even for Hungarians to keep up with the Fidesz juggernaut, let alone for concerned foreigners. No wonder technical errors slip in every once in a while, which then provide the regime with a convenient pretext for blanket dismissal. The sensible response to this diversionary tactics, in my opinion, is to insist that what is at stake is not this or that technical detail but the manner in which Fidesz decides such… Read more »
kormos
Guest

@Ms.Balogh
No, I am not kidding.The ghost of SZDSZ-MSZP is all over in your blog.
I never questioned your freedom of expression. I do not want you or anyone to stop writing in your blog. Your blog is useful and informative as I stated multiple times before. Actually your writings are not too offensive. You are careful about that. Some of the contributors use stronger language, like “fascist wasteland”(Peter Litvanyi). Paul calls for “Arab Spring and decisive action”.Who the hell is going to finance it?

Member

@Kormos “The ghost of SZDSZ-MSZP is all over in your blog.”
Like liberal, cosmopolitan, left wing views? Or just plain disagreement with the Orban government? The world doesn’t make sense to you without using your own “derogatory” terms. Imagine: there are people who are plain liberal. No connection to you favorite bugaboos.
What do you mean by “financing” the protests?

kormos
Guest

@Mutt
I do not believe in saints, thus I do not believe in “plain liberals” I also do not believe SZDSZ-MSZP (members as well as the party) were legislating policies according to “liberal, cosmopolitan,left wing views” Similarly I do not see the present Hungarian Government as the perfect one. There is room for great improvements.
What do I mean by financing the protest? I am sure you understand that ammunition, warfare, food etc.cost money.Obviously the fighting “workers” do not produce. So what gives?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest
Kormos: “The ghost of SZDSZ-MSZP is all over in your blog. I never questioned your freedom of expression…. Actually your writings are not too offensive. You are careful about that.” Let me make myself clear. I find your accusations stated here offensive. I’m an academic who tries to be completely honest and independent. I’m not paying attention to not being “offensive” as you put it. I’m not trying to hide anything. What I’m saying here is the same as I think in general about the world and Hungary. You can take my words at face value. As for the alleged “shadow” of SZDSZ-MSZP all over, I resent this turn of phrase also. If my ideas happen to be close to that of some former SZDSZ politicians it doesn’t mean that I’m under their influence. I just happen to share some of their values. As for MSZP, especially its left-wing, it is totally alien to me. However, I sympathize with the ideas of the Democratic Coalition headed by Gyurcsány, Molnár, Vitányi, and some others. The problem with the current government is much more serious than your understated “there is room for great improvements.” No, the whole ideology behind Fidesz is wrong.… Read more »
Member

I think what Eva is saying is true for me too. I wish there would be a great alternative for Hungary versus Fidesz, but I cannot see it. Now, if I would have to choose between MSZP and Fidesz, I would choose MSZP, and I would stay very critical with what they do. For that matter I was critical in my own circle about what the MSZP did, but I did not come across with Eva’s blog just yet to went my frustration. I am not a fan of MSZP, but at his point it is them and LMP that are available as the best alternatives.
Democracy does not to be aligned with any party. Democracy is not partial to any party. Democracy can be given and can be taken advantage of. Democracy can started and stopped, and misinterpreted, and misrepresented. The core of democracy to conduct business in full transparency while providing all the tools (knowledge, education, information) to (and) allow citizens to make informed decisions.
Fidesz fails to provide any of the above, so they are simply not democratic. I would choose almost any party who stays true to democracy.

Guest

It’s really strange:
Like many (?) Hungarians and Americans (or rather US citizens) kormos seems to equate liberal = left, which is obvious nonsense!
In Germany we’ve always had a strong liberal party which did coalitions with the right (conservative Christian Democrats) but also with the left (Social Democrats – not socialists!) whenever the opportunity or necessity arose – and coalition means compromise, which seems unknown in Hungarian politics …
PS: I felt so happy when I heard about the results in the British elections – now for the first time in a hundred years or so we find a coalition government in Britain.
PPS: The Fidesz/KDNP (is that the correct name for these **** ?) is not a coalition!

Kirsten
Guest
kormos, I will also respond to your suggestion that the ghost of two parties is over this blog. I also suspect that this “ghost” is that the blog is critical of the current Hungarian government (because the strong points of the two parties you mentioned – if they currently have any – are certainly not in the shared ghost called “two parties, one will”). I understand your worry that given this very low propensity to cooperative behaviour in Hungarian politics, this blog may perhaps not try hard enough to “build bridges” to or find more common ground with Fidesz. But apart from the question whether this is possible at all if it is Fidesz’ politicians who repeat over and over that they need not care for anyone’s opinion because they have the support of the “majority”, it is also not the idea in setting up a blog. A blog can be set up to be “partial”, and this does not need to be related to a party but simply to a set of values. You are free to personally dislike these values. Such as other people may dislike values that Fidesz stands for. And certainly it is not this freedom… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Marton: “what is at stake is not this or that technical detail but the manner in which Fidesz decides such technicalities and what this manner of governance shows about the Orbán regime’s attitude towards political power and democratic institutions.”
My worry was that this speed of enacting new laws might be considered “efficient” or “forceful”, and actually be quite “liked” by many people. (You need not do anything, Fidesz and OV care for you.)
“how are ordinary citizens, let alone foreign journalists, to remain well-informed when even Fidesz MPs often anonymously admit to their puzzlement about the bills that they rubber-stamp?”
I really feel with these Fidesz MPs, but perhaps if they think long and hard enough they might find out why this is all so “puzzling”. But in earnest, I also think that a place where information on all these currently introduced reforms and procedures can be gathered would be of great value but certainly such a place already exists and it need not be only in lawyers offices.

GW
Guest

Wolfi wrote:
“The Fidesz/KDNP (is that the correct name for these **** ?) is not a coalition!”
Absolutely true, in that they ran for parliament as a single party, not allowing voters to distinguish between the two, but then sat in parliament as two factions, thus earning all the benefits of faction status twice. Any law-and-order conservative ought to be scandalized.

Member

” Fidesz MPs often anonymously admit to their puzzlement about the bills that they rubber-stamp?”
I really feel with these Fidesz MPs, but perhaps if they think long and hard enough they might find out why this is all so “puzzling”. ”
There is no puzzle. they are being used. THey are part of a machine and their role is to raise their hand, when there are votes are taking place. THe work is done, not on the floor of the parliament, but at the place of convenience for some insiders. I know they want to believe that they are important part of the decision making, but let us see what would happen wit the one who would not vote on one of the ad-hoc proposals Fidesz comes up with in 30 minutes prior to vote…

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kristen: “his blog may perhaps not try hard enough to “build bridges”
Building bridges to the Hungarian right is a hopeless undertaking. I did try for a number of years. Believe me, it’s a waste of time.

Kirsten
Guest

Eva, this is my impression currently, too.
But independently of that, there will be such a thing as a post-Fidesz and post-MSzP Hungary. You wrote at some other time that this strong division of the society is a post-1990 phenomenon (so it is not a “national habit”). Any alternative to the current situation must make it possible to overcome this division in its present form, and given the strength of dispute even among people who are probably only weakly attached to any specific party, I cannot imagine how this reconciliation could be brought about. Which does not at all mean that this is the job of your blog, I read it because I find your judgement a very helpful guide to Hungarian politics.

Marton
Guest

Kirsten: I’m afraid the division you are writing about is not just a post-1990 phenomenon. The conflict that resurfaced during the transition years can be directly traced back to 1919, if not further. It has very deep roots in buried resentments, traumas, taboos, and delusions. But it would be mistaken indeed to conclude that this division is “a national habit.” No, it emerged under specific historical circumstances and it will eventually become irrelevant under changed circumstances. Even if the current regime collapses, as it is bound to do sooner or later, democracy in Hungary is not going to be restored and stabilized until this division is left behind. So even though I have no illusions as to the chances of candid and rational exchange with hardcore Fideszniks, I think it is important NOT to reject engagement with decent and democratically minded people on the right who remain susceptible to arguments (and many of whom are increasingly critical of the Orbán regime).

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

I think Kormos hit a nerve… While I think Eva truly believes she is intellectually honest and writes writes her blog as she sees the facts, it is also a fact that her views coincide statistically far more with the MSzP and LMP than with Fidesz. In fact I have not heard her say a single positive comment about Fidesz since I read her blog.
She is entitled to her views. This is her blog, expressing her viwews and opinion.
I also think that Bela Liptak, although writing with a different purpose (to influence governments in Washington and Budapest), also believes that he is a good Hungarian, with the interests of Hungary and Hungarians at heart. And yes, his positions are far more often match the Fidesz position, although -having followed his activities for many years – he has clashed on occasion with the Fidesz position.
I see no value in questioning either Eva’s or Bela’s motivation for publicizing their views. I read them, think about them and make up my own mind about them and I defend their right to publish them

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