The spies who were not; cheap gas that is not; negotiations that will not be

Today seems to be one of those days when it is hard to cover only one event because there are so many items of interest. Let’s start with the most bizarre: the story of an alleged Hungarian espionage ring working on behalf of the United States.

The “Empire” and its leaders

I dealt with the case in March 2016 when the story broke. One of the charges against the alleged leaders of a spy ring called “Birodalom” (Empire) was that they passed documents concerning Hungary’s defense plans to a NATO officer with the help of the U.S. Embassy. I don’t think I have to detail the absurdity of this charge. The other accusation was that in a conversation with a member of the visiting IMF delegation, they revealed details of Hungary’s negotiations for a loan. These alleged crimes took place in 2008, yet the two men were arrested only in December 2015.

Béla Butka and Norbert Maxin, as we learned today, spent eight months in jail, where detectives tried to compel them to acknowledge their guilt. The two men complain about their treatment in jail. Butka’s letters from his family arrived months late, and Maxin had to share his cell with a dangerous convicted murderer. Today, more than two years after their arrest, the two men were found innocent. The prosecutor is appealing the verdict.

Butka and Maxin are convinced that they were the victims of a politically motivated show trial (koncepciós eljárás), but they are unable to give a rational explanation of why they were arrested or to identify the persons behind the action. This is a wild guess on my part, but the dates might give us a clue.

U.S.-Hungarian relations have been rocky ever since Viktor Orbán assumed power in 2010, but after November 2014 they really deteriorated. For a short while there was some hope that with the arrival of Coleen Bell as the new U.S. ambassador relations would improve. But, just about the time of the arrest of Butka and Maxin, she delivered a strong speech on corruption and the lack of transparency. A barrage of attacks on Bell and the United States followed. I can easily imagine that the imprisonment of two men on trumped-up charges was an answer to Washington, intended to show that Hungary is an independent country that can send spies hired by the United States to jail.

The price of  natural gas

Now on to the government’s inflated natural gas price.

By 2013 Fidesz’s support had dwindled. Something had to be done. The party came up with an exceedingly successful remedy that had immediate results and contributed to a second two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014: they lowered utility prices. From then on, the price of natural gas, for example, would be set by the government.

Szilárd Németh got the job of promoting this price cut to the public. His success at turning lower utility prices into votes for the government launched his spectacular career in Fidesz.

While many Hungarians believe that their utility prices are still the lowest in Europe, the price of natural gas on the open market has been falling in the last three years. Experts have been saying for some time that while the Hungarian government is getting gas for less and less money, its frozen official price is way too high.

Yesterday E.ON’s Hungarian unit offered a deal to Hungarian consumers. It claimed that households that are ready to abandon the state-owned utility company could save 13,000 forints ($51) annually on their gas bill. This announcement sent Németh into a frenzy. He accused the company of meddling in the election campaign on the side of the opposition. E.ON was cowed, and by today the company claimed that the announcement had been misleading. Such an apology by a large, powerful firm shows the extent of government intimidation of businesses operating in the country.

But the story doesn’t stop here. It just happened that Bertalan Tóth, the leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, after years of litigation, managed to get the gas contracts from Magyar Földgáz-kereskedő (MFGK), which is in charge of natural gas purchases. On the basis of the receipts, Tóth came to the conclusion that the public hadn’t saved any money; in fact, consumers lost on the deal already in 2013 and 2014. If the price hadn’t been fixed, each household could have saved at least 70,000 forints between 2013 and 2017. Attila Holoda, who was assistant undersecretary in the second Orbán government, believes that the state could easily lower utility prices by 20% and still turn a profit. Well, if the opposition parties have any sense—which I often doubt—they should immediately start a campaign. Surely, a 20% reduction in utility prices could be understood by even the least politically astute citizen.

The Ukrainian-Hungarian negotiations

Let’s start at the end. The talks scheduled for today didn’t take place.

In mid-January Péter Szijjártó was in Washington where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell. About a week ago I reported that the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó most likely dealt with the strained Ukrainian-Hungarian relations as a result of Ukraine’s law on education and that Mitchell probably offered U.S. mediation between the two countries. Mitchell met Szijjártó and Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, in Paris. Negotiations had to take place immediately because at stake was Ukrainian attendance at the meeting of NATO defense ministers on February 14-15.

On February 7 Undersecretary Levente Magyar, after his meeting with Vasil Bodnar in Uzhhorod/Ungvár, announced that “significant steps” had been taken toward the normalization of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. After a three-hour meeting, he said that “this is the first time that there is a realistic chance” for success. He said that on February 14 representatives of the Hungarian community would meet with Lilia Hrynevych, Ukraine’s minister of education, in Uzhhorod.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on February 12 that it agreed with the Hungarian side on ways to address the language issue in western Ukraine. On the same day, Levente Magyar, the Hungarian negotiator, also expressed optimism about the outcome of the negotiations, which would lift the ban on Ukraine’s attendance at the NATO meeting, a ban put in place by Hungary’s veto.

But Magyar’s boss, Péter Szijjártó, most likely on instructions from Viktor Orbán, declared at a quickly organized press conference that the veto will not be lifted because it is the only means Hungary has to defend the rights of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathian Ukraine. Hungary cannot be blackmailed. I assume that what Szijjártó had in mind was that in the last few days both Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, and U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison urged the two countries to sit down at the meeting scheduled for today. Hungary just declared that the meeting has been cancelled.

Hírvonal, a Hungarian news aggregator

Finally, I want to put in a plug for hirvonal.hu, an excellent newsreader, about which I wrote once already in August 2016. For those of us who study Hungarian politics a good news aggregator is a must. Over the years, I have used three different sites, but even the best could be frustrating. From the very first, Hírvonal managed to come up with far more links than any of the others, and by now it is vastly superior to the others. It extracts news from 137 sites. Just yesterday I tested a new feature of the site, searching for my own name. In Hírvonal I found 14 links, while in the others there were none. In brief, it has some very good features that make life a great deal easier.

 February 14, 2018

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17 Comments on "The spies who were not; cheap gas that is not; negotiations that will not be"

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Re the “spies” in jail for a long tim without a trial:
This reminds me very much of Turkey where similar things are happening – now which state is more autocratic?
Hungary cannot be blackmailed.
Of course not, Big O and his henchmen are doing all the blackmailing themselves!

wrfree
Guest

That spy story harks back to a book title surveying a certain political scene:

‘Semmi sem igasz es minden lehetseges.. Nothing is true and everything is possible’. The students perhaps have learned well from the ‘masters’.

Which leads to the hirvonal search capabilities. If and when the ‘new’ politics deems a math change is needed where 2 + 2 is 7 perhaps better and especially tamper -resistant algorithms would help to have truth to be flushed out somewhere in some corner of Internet space. It’s evident .. in some places some believe 2 + 2 is not 4.

So far the hunt can be done. But it’s a wonder how long that window will be open if it already hasn’t been compromised.

Observer
Guest

And just the same way there’s no corruption, no election fraud, no VAT fraud, no abuse of power, etc etc.
(Don’t believe a rumor before it’s officially denied – old journalist rule)

Jean P
Guest

In order to estimate the falseness of the gas price reduction scheme It would be interesting to know whether the reduced price of gas was already too high from the beginning.

Guest

OT but interesting:

Strong words on the OLAF report re Orbán’s corrupt family and his friend Mészáros in the German magazine SPIEGEL:
http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/ungarn-eu-millionen-die-wundersame-geldvermehrung-der-orban-familie-a-1193352.html
Even some speculation that Hungarians might wake up (at least a few …) and make Fidesz lose the projected two thirds majority at the elections …

We’ll see, said the blind man …

dos929
Guest
About the “trumped-up charges”; this kind of treatment of innocent people who for one reason or another became targets for the regime are not unique, but in fact a standard procedure under this regime. The case Béla Butka and Norbert Maxin are typical of the Hungarian ‘un-justice system’ that is the hallmark of tyrannies, not of democratic countries. I must ask; where were and still where are the voices of the EU commissioners against these blatant actions? If such tactics of repressions would occur in any western democracy, the innocently charged and imprisoned victims could sue for millions of €’s compensation. In Hungary no such things will happen. The unashamed continuing imprisonment of Miklós Tátrai and Zsolt Császy of the “Sukoro-saga” is another shining example of the brutal tools used by the Orban-regime. For a perfectly legal INTENT of swapping lands for a development that never took place, no one was cheated out a single cent, no one suffered any financial or any other kind of damage, they were sentenced and locked up… In the meantime Orban et al robbed and are still robbing blind the country and its citizens, whilst the amount of stolen properties and economic interests are… Read more »
Marty
Guest

“I must ask; where were and still where are the voices of the EU commissioners against these blatant actions? ”

Ha, it’s no secret. They’re sipping their lattes in a smart Brussels coffehouse plotting their lucrative consultancy gig with the likes of GE, Siemens, Google, Facebook or whichever corporation needs some generous rubberstamping right now.

No self-respecting Brussels bureaucrat gives a shit about some corrupt Eastern European jackass. They never did and they never will.

Orban like all smart lawyers always knew that the EU was a cruel joke, a liberal myth perpetrated on poor, better-deserving CEE citizens. Slowly the liberals are waking up to reality, I guess better late than never.

The EU is about money, commerce and capital. If you give them bureaucrats the right incentives they will sell their own mother. And Orban, Lazar and their lobbysist give them the right incentives. No surprise Orban and his cronies always prevail and survive everything.

Member

“Orban like all smart lawyers…” I will assume you are not Szilard Nemeth in disguise (compared to whom even a plank of wood could be considered a “smart lawyer”) and you were being ironic.

Guest

Marty, sometimes you sound ridiculous! As a German who travels around Europe a lot I see the advantages of the EU almost every day:
No borders for travelling, goods etc – compare this with the situation 30 or 40 years ago. Common rules for products and producers etc .
Of course the Balkan countries (yes, that includes imho the V4!) haven’t really arrived there – but they might in the long run, just be patient.
It’s funny in a way that at the same time you complain that nothing is done in Brussels O and his henchmen complain about being a Brussels colony …
Don’t you see the irony?

Observer
Guest

Marty
Please! This Orban “smart lawyer” is offensive to the profession, even if it’s not at a very high level in Hun. Intellectually Orban is a small time trickster, witness how he fared against Gyurcsàny 2006 and why he hadn’t debated since.
Orban knows well his provincial and damaged-soul city suckers and rides them very successfully – a power technician, not much intellect/knowledge there (like Cseausescu, Zhivkov).
Many of these legal fig leaves that would easily be blown away in any Anglo court as their transparent purpose is to circumvent the law.

Marty
Guest

Orban unfortunately has a good point.

MSZP can very easily fall out of the Parliament – thereby handing the coveted 2/3s (the legal ominpotence) to Orban.

This is because MSZP legally joined forces with Párbeszéd which is a Gergely Karácsony’s basically non-existent political vehicle.

This means that MSZP now must cross a 10% threshold in order to get into the Parliament (instead of the 5% threshold applicable to a party going alone).

Obviously Párbeszéd cannot contribute to that 10% since its own popularity is less than 1%.

But MSZP is currently measured at around 8% of the votes (to be) cast, which is below that 10% threshold.

Honestly I never understood why MSZP had to do this formal legal cooperation with Párbeszéd thereby risking falling out of the Parliament – unless this idea was suggested by Fidesz (we know that the top leadership of MSZP is basically instructed from Fidesz on a daily basis). This move could only potentially benefit Fidesz and otherwise it doesn’t make any sense from MSZP’s point of view. Karacsony could’ve been on the top of MSZP’s party list even if the two parties don’t cooperate formally.

Observer
Guest

We DON’T know that the MSZP leadership is basically instructed”. Where do you get this from?
In the Fid case we can’t yet prove the offshore bank accounts, but they all live as if they had fat ones there

Ferenc
Guest

comment image
OT – censorship
Censorship by KOSZ (kormany szerverzett) media: Echo TV deleted videos of their own interview with one of the organizers of the student demonstration. They even started to claim copyright on parts used by others through BugTV (whatever that is), so on youtube appears instead of the video texts like:
“This video contains content from BugTV, who has blocked it on copyright grounds.”
“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Echo TV.”
https://444.hu/2018/02/15/az-echo-tv-letiltatta-a-444-videojat-a-diaktuntetokrol

Why all this sensitiveness from Echo TV? Well first of all the interviewer humiliated the student with his questions, but I suspect most of all they (aka.OV himself) didn’t “appreciate” the mix going around on internet. In it the humiliating questions to the student were mixed with OV’s early December “interview” on Echo TV; and done very good!! So that video had to blocked blocked:

But for who hasn’t seen it, it’s still available at facebook: https://www.facebook.com/103444699707145/videos/1755098701208395/

Istvan
Guest
The NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) meeting at the level of defense ministers was blocked by Hungary as Eva’s post states. But according to the Ukrainian Europeiska Pravda a meeting of the NUC was held in December, where the parties discussed the security situation in Ukraine and the course of reforms for the corrupt Ukrainian army. Hungary did not block that meeting, probably because of a lower-level representation. NATO member countries attended it at the ambassadorial level. Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak may also go to Brussels for bilateral meetings within the next week. It seems to me that some of the Hungarian media and government is playing up the ability of the Orban government to interfere with NATO relations with Ukraine while it is underplaying Russia attacks on Ukraine forces in Donbass which have risen in the last 48 hours or so, in the Luhansk sector where Russian forces launched over sixty 120mm and 82mm shells. At the same time, the Russians accompanied these shelling by using grenade launchers of various types and heavy machine guns with one Ukrainian soldier reported as killed in action and another two as wounded in action. The Russians are also sending up dozens of drones… Read more »
wrfree
Guest

Re: the ‘hot war’

Nothing like constantly ripping Ukraine up with the claws of the bear. And Magyarorszag keeping alive Trianon on its doorstep with Orban using the minorities to keep up the heat.

Ukraine will have a hell of a time restoring whatever sovereignty it has left after dealing with the likes of Putin and Orbán as they involve themselves in worry about their ‘pieces’ of Ukraine. ‘MagyaRus’ sure has the inkling to be ‘sovereign’ in a state surely not existing in one piece.