Euro-Atlantic assault on the Hungarian government’s undemocratic ways, Part II

It seems that Hungarian journalists have finally discovered that they themselves can interview important foreign officials. They don’t have to learn about the opinions of Thomas O. Melia, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, through Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary of foreign affairs in Budapest. Until recently Hungarian reporters tried hard to find out what had transpired between U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during their conversation in October. Did she or didn’t she present a démarche? Was it given to Orbán in writing or only verbally? They didn’t receive satisfactory answers from Hungarian officials. Now, they have realized that they can go to the source and receive a straightforward answer from the American officials in Washington who are in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Specifically those who deal with the region.

After the appearance of Paul Krugman’s article outlining his fears about Hungarian democracy, three different Hungarian journalists approached Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of comparative constitutional law at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, and thus three different interviews with her appeared in Népszabadság, Origo, and HVG in the last three days. Origo and HVG decided that if Americans are so approachable, why not get in touch with Thomas Melia, who became famous nationwide thanks to Tamás Deutsch’s remarks about him on Twitter? The two interviews appeared practically simultaneously.

 

Thomas O. Melia

Naturally the contents of the two interviews overlap somewhat, but both convey “the deep concern” of U.S. diplomats about the Orbán government’s policies. In the HVG interview Melia talked in general about the cardinal laws which are being passed at lightning speed without any consultation and about the general concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people around Viktor Orbán. Both are disturbing. Péter Zentai, HVG‘s reporter, specifically inquired about the new law on the fate of Hungary’s central bank which seems to worry the State Department just as much as it does the governor of the European Central Bank.

To the question of whether Washington sees any change for the better since Hillary Clinton’s visit in July the answer was no. “On the contrary, the situation has worsened.” According to Melia, following the Clinton visit people in charge of American diplomacy talked with their Hungarian counterparts on many levels. He specifically mentioned the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington, György Szapáry. In addition, he alluded to Gergely Prőhle who indeed had a conversation with Melia in Washington at the end of October. In addition, “there was consultation on an even higher level” but it seems that none of these conversations brought any results. The higher level, I assume, refers to János Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister.

 

János Martonyi

 But what can expect from Martonyi who in his answer to Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis in Heti Válasz   (available only in summary on the Internet) inserted a veiled warning to the United States? He emphasized that dialogue between friends is important but “it must remain within the framework customary between allies.” Otherwise, he warned, “the best intentions might backfire.” This sentence is between quotation marks in the summary MTI published on December 14. Interestingly, Heti Válasz‘s own online summary that appeared today omits the sentence. Thus, I’m afraid, U.S. officials can go as far as the foreign minister but they shouldn’t expect any change in the political climate in Hungary. Martonyi is either too weak to influence Viktor Orbán, or, and in my opinion there is a strong possibility of this, he actually agrees with the way Hungary is being governed.

In the HVG interview Melia tried to dispel the commonly held view that within the State Department there is no unity of official opinion about the Hungarian situation. Indeed, I for one have often argued on this blog that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis is perhaps not representing the views of the State Department forcefully enough. Since we are unable to listen in on her conversations with János Martonyi, Gergely Prőhle, or Viktor Orbán, we will not be able to assess her resolve in conveying the opinions of the State Department until the American diplomatic papers become public. However, one thing is sure. In Washington there is no difference of opinion about Viktor Orbán’s commitment to democratic values.

Melia, as all others involved with American-Hungarian relations, realizes that “increasingly power is concentrated in the hands of a very small group.” The government fills all the important positions with its own men. One of the worst examples is the head of the National Judiciary Office. Melia doesn’t mention her by name or spell out the exact relation of Tünde Handó to József Szájer, the “father of the new constitution,” a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, and one of the founders of Fidesz. On top of all that she is a close family friend of the whole Orbán family. “I’m asking you,” Melia continued, “under such circumstances how can the judiciary’s independence be real?”

As far as the Hungarian National Bank is concerned, which according to plans will be subordinated to another organization whose head will naturally be a man close to Fidesz and personally approved by Viktor Orbán, it is just as serious a problem “because the independence of the most important organization in charge of the proper functioning of the free market economy is being undermined.”

In the interview with Origo the question of the law on churches and religions also came up. We know that this law was squarely condemned by members of the U.S. Congress. Melia himself talked about the law before a congressional hearing a few months ago. Origo‘s reporter noted that a few hours before the interview took place János Lázár announced that parliament had abrogated the law because of concerns over its constitutionality. Melia was pleased to hear the news but cautiously remarked that he will decide whether the issue is satisfactorily settled when the revised bill is ready and signed.

Melia has every right to be cautious. Apparently, the government got wind of the fact (not terribly difficult when people like István Stumpf and István Balsai, close party associates of Viktor Orbán, are new members of the Constitutional Court) that in a couple of days the Court would announce that the law on churches and religions is unconstitutional. According to people in the know, Fidesz’s plan is to make some very slight changes and resubmit the bill within a couple of days. By the time this revised bill gets back to the Constitutional Court, the Court will not hear it since all cases that were submitted before January 1, 2011, the date the new constitution goes into effect, will be thrown out. As they say in Hungary, they all go into the shredder. Actually, the Hungarians use “kuka,” a word for a special kind of garbage truck that was introduced in Hungary from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Gábor Iványi, the head of the Hungarian Methodists, called the plan the product of “evil cleverness.”

Perhaps we are all wrong and a letter from a number of U.S. Congressmen will change Viktor Orbán’s mind. The letter was dated December 16. About fifteen members of Congress expressed their “deep concern about Hungary’s new ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities.'” They are deeply troubled that “the new religion law will ‘de-register’ all but 14 of the more than 350 religious groups currently registered.” The Congressmen point out that this law “contravenes the human rights norms, standards and instruments of the European Union (EU), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations, and it ignores the relevant decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.” In closing, the Congressmen urged Viktor Orbán’s “government to make substantive revisions to bring the new law into conformity with the Hungarian constitution and the international human rights instruments Hungary has signed and ratified.” 

What do you think will happen?

P.S. Professor Kim Lane Scheppele began a website on which she is collecting material on Hungary. I understand she will post Viviane Reding’s letter to Tibor Navracsics and also the letter of the U.S. Congressmen to Viktor Orbán. Here is the link: http://lapa.princeton.edu/newsdetail.php?ID=63

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Paul
Guest

It’s as typical as it is depressing that, with all the atrocities happening in Hungary at the moment, the one thing that gets American Congressmen excited is the limitation of the number of religions.
Civil rights? No. The economy? No. The destruction of democracy? No. The new constitution? No.
A law that dictates which forms of superstitious ceremony are recognised by the State? Oh yes, we get very worked up about that.
I thought we’d moved into the 21st century, but obviously I turned over a few pages of the calendar together eleven years ago.

Paul
Guest

Éva – I’ve just tried your HVG link and I get a weird list of news items from a year ago in basic text. I tried Googling it and got a better looking site, but still the latest news is a year old – the second headline is “Three dead in toxic sludge spill”!
Is it just me, or Has HVG stopped its English service?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “I’ve just tried your HVG link and I get a weird list of news items from a year ago in basic text.”
Hmmm. I tried both HVG links and they worked.

kormos
Guest

Re:.'” They are deeply troubled that “the new religion law will ‘de-register’ all but 14 of the more than 350 religious groups currently registered.”
What …350??I could not believe that there were so many useless organizations sucking the financial tits of the so called “socialist governments”.
I wonder now how many religious groups are supported by the US Government, since they are so concerned.

An
Guest

@kormos: The issue is that the government cannot support some religious groups and not others. That is discriminatory. Either it shouldn’t support any, or support all of them. The government and the law should treat all religious groups the same.
I am all for it shouldn’t support any, by the way.

Member

@Kormos “I wonder now how many religious groups are supported by the US Government”
None. And all. Unlike in Hungary none of them get direct financial contribution from the US government or from the states for that matter. But charitable non-profit organizations get tax benefits and churches qualify almost automatically for that. This tax exempt status is abused by some – scandals pop up time to time, keeping the IRS investigators busy, but many of the churches really contribute to the community.
In Hungary the problem is the money, the Mammon – the churches get money from the Hungarian state. If this wouldn’t be the case and the churches would be supported by their congregations only the whole “religious law” circus wouldn’t exist.
An is absolutely right. The state shouldn’t support any with direct financial contributions. It’s a madness. I also cannot shake off the feeling that in Hungary Orban’s state expects something in return: votes.

Paul
Guest

I don’t understand it, Éva, I’ve cleared the cache but I’m still getting headlines from a year ago.
Also, on the main HVG site, I can’t find any option for switching to English.
And if I put ‘HVG english’ into Google, I get the same site (with year old headlines) that I get from the HS link.
Can anyone help?

Member

The point about the new law on religion is that the government wants to loft itself above God! Orban and his buddies decided that they will be the ones who make a decision what God people can believe, what God they can worship and what way. The difference between different religions is just that, the worship of a higher power (imaginary or not) by various ways.
Now Orban says, they will be the ones who decide what God to worship, and if one God does not have enough worshippers then that religion is out. THat is all OK, but you cannot keep pumping money (one way or another) to only those churches that have enough “subscribers”, even though that every member of the Hungarian population do support financially all religious groups. It is like saying that we only listening to people who agree with the Fidesz 100%. Oh wait! Orban is already saying that.

Guest

Paul~~no help. I got what you did.

Member

Paul is right. The HVG English service is dead ( http://hvg.hu/english )
The links in Eva’s post are working, but they are Hungarian.

Wondercat
Guest

No forint collapse yet — indeed, over the week-end it firmed by nearly 1% against the pound sterling.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

After reading Gretchen’s letter I tried again. Both links to HVG work for me. I don’t understand. But I will ask around.

Guest

OT re KUKA:
Kuka is the name of a German company from Augsburg in the Schwab part of Bavaria that is famous for its advanced robots. These are also used in several Hollywood films and in the Harry Potter theme parks …
Kuka built the first automated garbage trucks in Europe – probably these surprised Hungarians so much that Kuka became a synonym for modern garbage collection.

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

With the death of Kim Jong il, I fear that the Mighty Viktator is once again off the hook. The USA will now be focusing their considerable attention of North Korea. Just in case the North Koreans start something. Most of their artillery, which consists of some 11000 pieces, is within 30 km of the border with the South. This means that within the first 24 hours they could flatten the northern part of South Korea including much of Seoul.
These problems will also distract all of the leadership of Europe. So the problems of Hungary will not even be left on the stove.
The Viktator has either the ‘Luck of the Devil’ or The North Koreans kept death of Kim Jong il quiet until a few days before Christmas to delay the response to whatever nastiness they are going get up to and the Viktator knew this.

Gabriella
Guest

Odin’s Lost eye: These problems will also distract all of the leadership of Europe. So the problems of Hungary will not even be left on the stove.
At one point Viktor is going to hit the wall. Right now the feeling that he can do whatever he wants be it luck, or circumstances is not bad, he will be getting bolder and more defiant, and that could lead him directly to hell.

Paul
Guest

“and that could lead him directly to hell.”
Much as I’d love to believe this, I can’t see it happening.
The only people who can get rid of Orbán are the money men behind the party, and they’d have to be damn sure any alternative was viable, if not better.
I can’t see anyone at the moment who could take over Fidesz and keep the party together – and assume Orbán’s status as Messiah amongst the Party faithful.
Almost whatever he does, he is invulnerable.
And he knows it – the worst possible of all worlds a megalomaniac leader who really does have complete power.

Paul
Guest

wondercat – weird, isn’t it?
Can anyone explain why the Forint hasn’t collapsed? Surely it can’t just be Christmas??
Do these oh-so-bloody-clever money people actual believe that Orbán knows what he doing?!

Wondercat
Guest

@Paul: If my opinions on how and why currencies fluctuate against one another were worth anything — well, I’d be rich.
Which I’m not.
With that disclaimer: Might financiers take heart from the thought that OV / Fidesz are likely to be hobbled and bridled, and see new opportunities for the forint in that thought?

Ron
Guest

Paul: Can anyone explain why the Forint hasn’t collapsed? Surely it can’t just be Christmas??
There are many reasons why the forint did not collapse. One is that Simor is defending the currency and also his objection towards this new law.
http://www.portfolio.hu/deviza_kotveny/akk/szep_csendben_visszaerosodott_a_forint.160221.html
However, it may also be that the speculators are waiting for the result of the interest meeting, which suppose to take place tomorrow.
http://www.portfolio.hu/gazdasag/minden_az_imf-megallapodason_mulik.160227.html

Wondercat
Guest

The chorus is growing.
http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2011-12/ungarn-mediengesetz
Spaet kommt er, doch er kommt.

Ron
Guest

It seems that Barroso wrote a letter to Victor Orban two withdraw the two laws.
http://www.origo.hu/uzletinegyed/20111219-barroso-levele-orban-viktornak-az-mnb-es-a-stabilitasi-torveny.html

Gábor
Guest

It seems the Barroso letter is also a reiteration of the EU’s position with the statement that Hungary’s problems are in fact generated by its own policy mistakes and not by the external environment. The Commission certainly raised the stakes and shows willingnes to call Orbán’s bluff. It also lends credence to the information that the EU member states made preliminary arrangements rgerading the community’S position to Hungary.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gábor: “t seems the Barroso letter is also a reiteration of the EU’s position with the statement that Hungary’s problems are in fact generated by its own policy mistakes and not by the external environment.”
Put it that way, I wouldn’t like to be in Viktor Orbán’s shoes.

Paul
Guest

Well, at least you’d be a few centimetres taller, Éva!

Guest

Really ? Does Orbán wear Bugarri shoes ?
http://www.bugarrishoes.com/index.php?languageID=en

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