Category Archives: Hungarian politics

Who poses a danger to Hungary’s national security? Anyone who lends a helping hand to a refugee

It is hard to describe the hysteria the Orbán government has whipped up over the nonexistent migrant invasion of Hungary. Day after day, they bombard Hungarians with a relentless campaign of fear mongering. Just when I think that perhaps they have finally spent themselves, they come up with yet another salvo. The latest is their decision to ban Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, from attending the parliamentary committee on national security, of which she is a bona fide member.

By tradition, the chairman of national security committee is always a member of the opposition. In this case, the position has been filled in the last eight years by Zsolt Molnár of MSZP. Since 2014 Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), known for his verbal attacks and boorish behavior, has served as deputy chair. On January 15 Németh announced that “those politicians who lie about the national consultation campaign and have been supporting the Soros Plan all along, as LMP politicians do, cannot take part in the discussions of the national security committee, whose task is the prevention of the implementation of the Soros Plan.” Németh charged that in the past Szél worked in a Soros-financed organization that was supportive of migrants. So, Szél was in fact a paid agent of Soros. But that’s not the only sin of  LMP’s candidate for prime minister. She had the temerity to meet with EU Commissioner Věra Jourová in Brussels, who spoke highly of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. When asked by journalists how a member of the committee can be barred, Németh claimed that “she will not be barred,” but “in those sessions where the Soros Plan is discussed, the LMP member will not be able to participate because she holds views on the subject which are not in the interest of the nation.” I hope you understand why Németh is ridiculed for his rational deficiencies.

A few hours later Szél announced on her Facebook page that “the great thinker of Fidesz just admitted that everything I said about the Soros network is true and everything they say about it is a lie.” In an interview with 444 she claimed that the material presented by the secret services was information anyone could have picked up from the internet. Yet this material is declared to be secret. She was trying to convince the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AH / Office in the Defense of the Constitution) to allow it to be made public. Hungarians ought to know the truth, not the kind of reality Fidesz wants to present.

Since all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, announced that “this is madness,” it was thought that this particular stupidity would die a quiet death. So, when a day later, Balázs Hidvéghi, communication director of Fidesz, said that Németh’s utterance was a “political opinion,” people breathed a sigh of relief. At least László Kövér, the president of parliament, would not enlist the parliamentary guard to prevent Szél from entering the committee room. That reaction, however, was premature. Hidvéghi is a young, civilized-looking fellow whose IQ must be a great deal higher than Németh’s, but he is not allowed to utter an opinion that in any way differs from the ukase that comes from above. So, by the end, he basically supported Németh when he said that “we will see whether we will have a session [on the Soros Plan] and then we will see. This is our political opinion.” In effect, though in a mealy-mouthed way, Hidvéghi reasserted Németh’s threat. If there is a session about Soros and his nonexistent plan, “we will see” whether Szél can join the discussion.

If it wasn’t clear after Hidvéghi’s press conference that the government was squarely behind Szilárd Németh, whom Viktor Orbán finds extraordinarily useful in his propaganda campaigns, Híradó’s article yesterday, “Bernadett Szél’s expert failed his security clearance,” left no room for doubt. According to this most official government publication, “in the middle of the migration crisis” Szél nominated an expert to testify before the committee who failed vetting. The expert was born in Kabul, and before he began working for LMP, he had worked for MigSzol, “which is the most pro-migrant organization of Soros.” He was deemed to be a national security risk. Apparently, Szél appealed the decision, but Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, refused to reconsider the decision.

After this introduction came a laundry list of MigSzol’s activities, which obviously the Orbán government considers to be illegal. Here are some of them: MigSzol organized a demonstration in support of Ahmed H., the man who was sentenced to ten years for “terrorism” for throwing a rock (no one knows whether it hit anyone). During the demonstration protesters chanted slogans like “Freedom for Ahmed!” and “Ahmed today, tomorrow you.” MigSzol activists protested against the national consultation by launching boats into the Danube made out of national consultation questionnaires. During the chaos created by migrants at the Eastern Station in 2015 these activists encouraged Hungarians to give money to feed the migrants. The activists of MigSzol have been attending the trial of Ahmed H.; they inform people about the details of the court proceedings on their website; they try to defend Ahmed H. in opposition to the Hungarian authorities; they don’t hide their goal of attaining freedom for the leader of the disturbances at the Serbian border in September 2015. After all that, Híradó adds: “it is now obvious why Szilárd Németh does not want to see Bernadett Szél in the committee.”

Source: Index / Photo: István Huszti

Híradó’s article also claimed that Bernadett Szél was herself at one point in the pay of George Soros when, in 2002, she was the program director of Menedék—Mingránsokat Segítő Egyesület (Shelter—Association of Migrant Assistance. In an interview yesterday Szél told her audience that at the age of 16 she received a Soros Foundation scholarship to spend six months in the United States. That’s her only connection with George Soros and his organizations. She said that she did work as an activist for the Humanist Movement, which is an international volunteer organization that promotes nonviolence and non-discrimination. She sarcastically added that “it seems that Fidesz at the moment considers it a Soros organization.”

Today Szél gave a press conference in which she labelled press reports on the vetting of LMP’s expert an unlawful disclosure of a state secret. Szél stressed that none of LMP’s experts performs work that is not legitimate. She also said that all the employees of the party are Hungarian citizens who cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their ethnic origin.

This story is a perfect example of how easily the Hungarian authorities can label charitable organizations and protesters threats to national security. It also demonstrates that the Orbán government’s first instinct is to declare people suspect or even guilty on the basis of their national origin. Anyone—and I’m afraid there are many in Hungary—who thinks that the Orbán government’s latest “Stop Soros” campaign is not meant seriously is dead wrong. If that package of new laws is enacted, the MigSzol people who chanted “Today Ahmed, you tomorrow” were unfortunately right.

January 20, 2018

Foreign Minister Szijjártó goes to Washington, and silence follows

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just returned from a three-day visit to Washington where he was to meet Wess Mitchell, the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell is the successor to Victoria Nuland, whom Magyar Idők called, less than a week ago, the “gravedigger of Hungary.”

Mitchell’s appointment was finalized only in October 2017, but the Hungarian government began assessing its possible chances with Mitchell as soon as his name emerged as a potential assistant secretary. The government’s reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was pleased that Mitchell, before accepting the State Department post, had been the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the American think tank that concentrates exclusively on East-Central Europe. Therefore he should be more familiar with the region and hence with Hungarian affairs. However, Index noted at the time that “one of the main research fields of [CEPA] is Russian propaganda, disinformation and the fight against it, which is not a priority for the Hungarian government.” I would call this a gross understatement. In fact, the Hungarian government does a superb job of misinforming the public and gives free rein to Russian disinformation on the pages of the newspapers and internet sites it supports.

Whatever misgivings Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy experts originally had, they eventually decided that Mitchell’s appointment “could mean the beginning of a new chapter in Hungarian-American political relations.” Under the previous administration Hungary “had to face several instances of undue criticism and lack of understanding.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry hoped that, with the appointment of Mitchell, “now is the best opportunity” to establish close diplomatic relations.

Szijjártó arrived in Washington on January 15 to conduct two days of negotiations, which began on January 16 with a conversation with Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, followed by meetings with two White House officials –Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, and Fiona Hill, special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Greenblatt, prior to his Washington job, was chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organization. Hill is a highly regarded Russia expert from the Brookings Institution, who most likely is critical of the Orbán government’s Russia policy and Viktor Orbán’s personal relations with Vladimir Putin.

Szijjártó anticipated that his encounter with Mitchell would “take the form of a long discussion.” One of the topics, I’m sure, was the U.S. State Department’s  “funding opportunity” for support of “objective media in Hungary.” Szijjártó noted that “the Hungarian government views this plan as interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs.”

No one has any idea how long the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó lasted because, since his meetings with the assistant secretary and the two White House officials, Szijjártó has said nothing about the encounters. Not one word. Certain Hungarian news outlets reported earlier that Szijjártó, in addition to having discussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations, was supposed to prepare Viktor Orbán’s visit to the United States in February. As Klub Rádió’s “Tények, Vélemények” (Facts, Opinions) put it, “the Hungarian prime minister is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.” This annual event, which is held at the Washington Hilton, is a gathering of 3,000-3,500 invited guests from 100 countries. Therefore, it is immaterial what Viktor Orbán “is planning.” The question is whether he has an invitation or not. By the way, this event is not organized by the White House. The president is just one of the invitees.

The only record so far of the meeting between Szijjártó and Mitchell is a photograph taken of the two men shaking hands, but it doesn’t look as if they were standing in the State Department. Klub Rádió’s guess is that the photo was taken at the Hungarian Embassy, a rather strange arrangement if true.

In any event, Szijjártó’s silence indicates to me that wherever this important meeting took place, it was not a success, that the anticipated breakthrough didn’t materialize. The usual explanation for the still icy relations between the two countries is that the holdover diplomats from the Obama administration continue to run the show in the State Department. The hope in Budapest is that soon enough Donald Trump’s people will be in charge and that they will appreciate the American president’s kindred soul in Europe. But Orbán’s diplomats are overlooking a major stumbling block: the worrisomely close relationship between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, which, given the climate in the United States, is not the best recommendation for closer ties with the Orbán regime.

MTI /EPA/ Photo: Georgi Licovszki

On the very day of Szijjártó’s negotiations in the United States, Magyar Idők ran an article on its front page with the following headline: “Lavrov: America is not doing any favor to the world.” Lavrov, according to the article, accused the United States of using illegitimate means to maintain its waning supremacy in a multi-polar world. Not the best way of endearing oneself to the United States, claimed the commentator from Népszava. This editorial, I’m afraid, is a bit naïve. Diplomats of the State Department don’t need the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery to be aware of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations. They are fully cognizant of them and find them troubling. Mátyás Eörsi, former undersecretary of foreign affairs and former leader of the ALDE-Pace Group in the Council of Europe, wrote an excellent opinion piece in HVG about the Orbán administration’s total incomprehension of the futility of trying to build a close relationship with the United States under the present circumstances.

I agree. Orbán will have to choose: either Putin’s Russia or the United States. There is no middle ground now. I also suspect that as the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election process unfolds, more suspicion will be focused on Hungary as a client state and Viktor Orbán as a Trojan horse. These are not the best recommendations in Washington today or in the foreseeable future.

In recent days the Orbán government welcomed a letter written on January 11 by ten extremely conservative members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Tillerson, urging him “to strengthen the strategic cooperation between the United States and Hungary,” claiming common threats from an unnamed source. They suggest “high-level meetings between the leaders of [the] two countries in order to build mutual trust.” The leader of the group, Andy Harris, must have received word from Connie Mack III, Orbán’s lobbyist in Washington, that one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest desires is to be invited to the Oval Office. At this point we don’t even know whether he will be one of the 3,000-3,500 invitees at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 8.

January 19, 2018

Sebastian Gorka: gun charges on two continents

Although Sebastian Gorka’s warrant on gun charges in Hungary is all over the news, I believe I can add some information about the former White House adviser’s past in Hungary. Earlier, I covered Gorka quite extensively, beginning in February 2017, shortly after he became deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, and following that up with several posts on various aspects of his case. But naturally, I couldn’t cover everything that I learned about him over the months I was researching our mystery man. Among the things I didn’t cover at all was Sebastian Gorka’s fascination with guns and his subsequent problems with the police in both the United States and Hungary.

In mid-January 2017 newspapers reported that the man Donald Trump was expected to appoint as his deputy assistant had been arrested on January 31, 2016 as he tried to board a plane at Ronald Reagan Washington International Airport in Arlington, Virginia with a weapon in his carry-on bag. Under Virginia law, carrying a weapon into an airport terminal is a class one misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a fine of $2,500. In addition, a weapon that is illegally transported into the airport terminal must be forfeited. Gorka pled guilty to the gun charge, and sentencing was scheduled for February 3, 2017.

Sebastian Gorka’s “everyday carry” from Recoil magazine

The day of sentencing arrived, but Sebastian Gorka didn’t appear in person in the courthouse. His lawyer represented him. He told the presiding judge, who happened to be the chief judge of Arlington County’s Circuit Court in Virginia, William T. Newman, Jr., that “Dr. Gorka made a mistake. He started carrying a licensed, concealed weapon after he got death threats against his family. He regrets that mistake. Dr. Gorka wants to put this matter behind him and get back to the very important national security work he’s doing,” said the attorney. The judge obligingly dropped the charge under an agreement that resulted in no conviction as long as Gorka stayed out of trouble for six months and paid a nominal fine.

Gorka’s explanation for this unfortunate mishap, as reported by Breitbart News, was that he regularly goes to the shooting range. While hurrying to the airport, he grabbed the bag he normally takes to the range, which happened to have an unloaded 9mm gun in it. This explanation might have impressed the judge, but as we know from other sources Gorka carries a gun or perhaps even guns everywhere he goes. He had a long interview with Recoil, “the ultimate firearms destination for the gun lifestyle.” Gorka later tweeted that the write-up was the “best most accurate interview” he had ever had and added that he loved “watching Lib heads explode in response!” According to the Recoil interview, as described by Huffington Post, Gorka’s “everyday carry”—meaning the items persons carry with them—includes two pistols, two flashlights, a knife, a tourniquet and a copy of the U.S. Constitution.”

Sebastian Gorka’s photo on the police blotter

And that takes us back to Gorka’s encounter with the Hungarian police. 444, a Hungarian news internet site, reported this morning that the Hungarian police have had an active warrant out for Gorka’s arrest ever since September 17, 2016. It was filed in Budaörs, a prosperous small town adjacent to Budapest. The charge was “firearm abuse.”

The warrant was active, of course, during the seven months that Gorka was a member of the White House staff. And when Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó met and conferred with him at the opening of the Hungarian Embassy’s new building in Washington. I suspected that at that point that the Orbán government was hoping to use Gorka as a conduit between Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, whose eagerness to meet the American president is legendary.

Following up on the Hungarian news, Buzzfeed tried to get in touch with Gorka, who told Hayes Brown, the publication’s world news editor, “Don’t waste your time. I don’t talk to Buzzfeed, thank you.”

Public warrants of general interest

The incident in Budaörs may have occurred in 2009; at least this is what the file number (1310/3894/2009.BÜ) indicates. But we know from various sources, including Sebastian Gorka himself, that he officially left Hungary in 2008. Of course, it is within the realm of possibility that for one reason or another he returned to Hungary and that the incident may have occurred at that time. In any case, Gorka didn’t confirm or deny the existence of the warrant, although he reasserted that 2008 was the date of his departure.

The text of the warrant

A year ago, when Sebastian Gorka’s name was all over the media because of his alleged affiliation with right-wing organizations in 2006 and even earlier, I received a private e-mail from one of my readers. He had information that Gorka, during a roadside encounter with a fellow driver, pulled a gun on him to give weight to his words. My reader didn’t want to share this piece of information in the comment section of Hungarian Spectrum because public disclosure would have revealed the identity of the informer. I have kept this intelligence to myself since. I assume that he was talking about the incident that prompted the warrant for Gorka’s arrest.

But why was this old warrant activated on September 17, 2016 when the incident happened in 2009? I have one possible explanation for this anomaly. While I was doing research on Gorka in the spring of 2016, I found an interview with him with Magyar Nemzet, published on September 10, 2016. Although the interview could have taken place by telephone, Skype, or e-mail, from the tone of the interview I  assumed all along that it was a personal interview that took place in Budapest. My impression was reinforced by an American journalist who told me that, as far as he knew, Gorka made several trips to Hungary during 2016 and asked me to investigate.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything other than this one interview in September 2016. I must admit that I found it strange that Gorka, while already an adviser to Donald Trump, would be making a private trip to Budapest. And if one can believe Gorka, it was a private trip because during the interview he emphasized that he has no official contact with anyone from the Hungarian government. Considering that his relationship with Viktor Orbán was seriously strained prior to his departure for the United States, he was most likely telling the truth.

About a month ago I read on one of the Hungarian internet news sites that Sebastian Gorka’s book Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War was just published in Hungarian by Patmos Records, which is the publishing house of Hit Gyülekezete (Assembly of Faith), whose fundamentalist leader Sándor Németh is a strong supporter of Israel and a fierce opponent of Islam and Muslim settlers in Europe. At that point, it dawned on me that Gorka’s visit to Budapest was most likely in connection with the Hungarian translation and subsequent publication of his book.

Gorka’s interview with Magyar Nemzet on September 10 and the refiling of Gorka’s old warrant on September 17 may well have been causally linked. There is the good possibility that the person on whom Gorka pulled a gun read the Magyar Nemzet interview and decided to inform the police of Gorka’s presence in the country. I assume, however, that by that time the future deputy assistant to the U.S. president was long gone.

January 18, 2018

Launching a new action plan, “Stop Soros”

In an article that was written yesterday but appeared only today in the early morning edition of Magyar Idők, the well-informed government paper reported that “an action plan is being formulated against George Soros and his network.” This action plan necessitates amendments to already existing laws. The paper got wind of two such impending legal changes. One would allow the assessment of dues or levies on nonprofit organizations that “support migration.” The other action that needed a legal basis was banning George Soros’s entry into Hungary. According to Magyar Idők, the government sought a way to ban dual citizens who pose a national security risk to the country. Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., a far-right so-called constitutional lawyer whose opinions are almost always legal nonsense, suggested a solution that would allow the expulsion of dangerous dual citizens who live abroad on a permanent basis. The other expert to whom Magyar Idők turned for his opinion was Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, director of the pro-government Nézőpont Institute. Mráz is a great deal more intelligent than Lomnici. He opined that the proposed law is “only a symbolic defense instrument.” In brief, it is a propaganda ploy serving domestic political purposes in preparation for the election to be held on April 8.

If Mráz is correct, I’m afraid the Orbán government is assuming a great deal of risk in the international arena with this proposed piece of legislation. After a cabinet meeting this afternoon, the Hungarian government released an article in English on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office, About Hungary. Here are the most important provisions of these bills:

  1. Every organization that supports illegal immigration by using foreign financial resources would be registered and obliged to report on its activity.
  2. A tax would be imposed on the foreign funding of organizations supporting illegal immigration. This public income would be invested in border protection.
  3. It would be possible to issue restraining orders against those who take part in organizing illegal immigration. In essence, such restraining orders would apply in any area that is within 8 kilometers of the Schengen border. In special cases, a third-country citizen would be subject to a restraining order anywhere within Hungary. This measure would remain in force until the end of the migration crisis.

It is instructive to compare this English text, obviously intended for foreign consumption, with the one Index published in Hungarian.

  1. Every organization that supports illegal immigration by using foreign financial resources would be registered and obliged to report on its activity.
  2. Over and above the registration, those organizations that receive more money from abroad than from Hungary will be obliged to pay 25% of their support as a levy. The money will be collected by the National Tax Authority. If the organizations don’t fulfill their duties, the prosecutor’s office must take action against them. If the prosecutor’s office finds unauthorized activity, it will appeal to the court.
  3. A new kind of restraining order will be introduced: implicated foreign nationals will be barred from Hungary while Hungarian citizens will not be able cross an eight-kilometer border zone next to the Schengen borders.

During a joint interview given by Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Undersecretary Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of communication, a few more bits of information were dropped. For example, to my astonishment I discovered that those NGOs that are guilty of assisting illegal migrants will have to “acknowledge their complicity on their own.” If they fail to do so, they will be sanctioned. So, if I understand it correctly, the whole scheme is based on self-incrimination. I’m therefore not surprised that some people believe that the government has no intention of actually adopting these measures.

As far as the banning of George Soros from Hungary is concerned, it seems that the government thought the better of it. In fact, to my great surprise, Pintér announced that “George Soros doesn’t carry out illegal migration activities,” and therefore he has nothing to fear. However, Kovács added that if he ever does so, the law will apply to him just as it does to everyone else. The report published by Eurobserver claimed that “UN personnel and diplomats would not fall under the possible restraining order, and MPs who have reason to be in the area will also not be excluded from the border zone.”

The targeted NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, charged that these proposals are not only confusing but also most likely unconstitutional. They go against past rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice. I’m no lawyer, but Orbán’s own Basic Law guarantees the free movement of citizens anywhere in the country.

I know that Orbán and his minions are too young to have lived through the Rákosi era, when Hungary had so-called “border zone” (határsáv) along the Yugoslav and Austrian borders, but still they ought to know that the comparison will be inevitable. In those days a special permit was required to enter this restricted zone. Most of the peasants who were forcibly removed from their villages, stripped of all their possessions, and deported to the Hortobágy region of the Great Plains came from villages inside the zone. The word “határsáv” has a very bad ring to it.

In the opinion of the spokesman of TASZ, it is also illegal to impose dues on money received from abroad because one cannot make a distinction between monies from domestic and non-domestic sources. I’m also sure that as the proposals are put into more final form, legal experts will offer even more criticism.

Some commentators think that Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz’s embarrassing revelation to the Times of Malta and the subsequent fallout at home prompted this latest “Stop Soros” action. The new action is, they argue, an attempt to divert attention from what someone called “the Orbán government’s Őszöd,” referring to Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech to the MSZP parliamentary caucus in 2006 in which he admitted that, although they knew about the sad state of the economy, they kept it a secret because of the forthcoming national election.

Altusz, in response to insistent questioning about Hungary’s refusal to admit any refugees,  blurted out that “last year alone Hungary took about 1,300 refugees, but, very often, such cases were not publicized by the government as it could put the beneficiaries in danger.” For more than two years the Orbán government sought to convince the Hungarian people that it wouldn’t allow a single migrant to settle in Hungary, and now it turns out that 1,300 “Muslim invaders,” to use Viktor Orbán’s words from his recent interview with Das Bild, have received shelter in Hungary.

One family among those who received asylum in Hungary

The Orbán government is building its entire election campaign on the migrant issue, and now it seems that, after all, there is a difference between illegal migrants and refugees, as Altusz explained. Moreover, the argument that a refugee must settle in the closest safe country is now in tatters. The government just admitted in an indirect way that Hungary is obliged by the Geneva Convention to give shelter to refugees, even from faraway Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

Hungarians have heard nothing else in the last two or three years but how dangerous these people are; they are terrorists who will kill them and rape their daughters. Just recently, Orbán ordered mayors to organize resistance to settling nonexistent migrants in their cities. And now we learn that the government, behind the frightened people’s backs, allowed 1,300 of these dangerous people to settle in their country. The overeager Kristóf Altusz delivered a serious blow to a carefully crafted political construct and rallying cry.

If Viktor Orbán decided to launch the “Stop Soros” campaign in order to divert attention from this uncomfortable slip by a junior diplomat, I think he is making a mistake. These issues touch upon the very essence of European Union values. To flout them for the sake of an electoral victory, which everybody predicts will be his, is foolhardy.

January 17, 2018

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

Surprise, surprise! OLAF found “serious irregularities” on Orbán’s home turf

On January 12 The Wall Street Journal reported that, after a two-year investigation, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is recommending legal proceedings over “serious irregularities” found in a company that was co-owned by the son-in-law of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, between 2011 and 2015.

I have been following the rising fortunes of István Tiborcz, the 32-year-old millionaire businessman who married Orbán’s eldest child, Ráhel. A couple of journalists began investigating Tiborcz’s business dealings in the summer of 2014 after Ráhel Orbán boasted on Facebook that she and her husband don’t need her father’s assistance in paying her lofty tuition fees in Switzerland because they “stand on their own two feet” financially. It was this comment that inspired András Becker and Babett Oroszi, two investigative journalists from Átlátszó, to look into Tiborcz’s business affairs. After a few months of hard work they produced a thorough article, published shortly before Christmas 2014. On the same day I wrote a post titled “How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” The two journalists found that Tiborcz’s firm, Elios Innovatív Zrt., bid and won, more often than not without any competition, 2.9 billion forints worth of government contracts, mostly financed by the European Union. In addition to serious irregularities in the bidding process, OLAF also found “evidence of conflict of interest.” As we have known since 2014, Endre Hamar, a business partner of István Tiborcz, was the owner of a company that “helped municipalities prepare the tender process.”

That article was so hard hitting and so thoroughly researched that in February 2015 Csaba Molnár, DK member of the European Parliament, turned to OLAF in connection with the shady business affairs of István Tiborcz. By March even the Hungarian police had begun investigating Elios’s business transactions. The Orbán family council must have realized that the situation was serious and that the best thing was to get rid of Elios as quickly as possible. By May 2015 Tiborcz “sold” his company to one of his father-in-law’s oligarchs. In July Csaba Molnár announced that OLAF had found the information he provided sufficient grounds for investigation. In fact, as it turned out, the irregularities were so serious that OLAF is suggesting the return of €40 million to the European Union, money that it claims was illegally obtained.

The Wall Street Journal noted that these “allegations could prove embarrassing for Mr. Orbán, an outspoken critic of the EU in recent years.” Indeed, every effort is being made in the pro-government media to minimize the significance of OLAF’s findings regarding the possible misappropriation of funds by Tiborcz’s company. Magyar Idők published an editorial shortly after the appearance of The Wall Street Journal article that tried to give the impression that there is a direct connection between the forthcoming national election and OLAF’s suggestion of an investigation by the appropriate Hungarian authorities into Elios’s business affairs.

The best that Zoltán Kovács, the communication wizard, could come up with was that “it has been possible ever since 2004 to use EU resources for the development of public lighting.” Moreover, he continued, “the objects of the OLAF investigation are tenders that were initiated during the tenure of the Bajnai government.” In brief, it was Viktor Orbán’s predecessor who was responsible for the current prime minister’s son-in-law’s allegedly fraudulent business practices by offering an opportunity to develop public lighting in Hungarian cities. Gordon Bajnai couldn’t resist and wrote the following comment on his Facebook page: “Perhaps we should have been more careful and indicated on the application forms that applicants are obliged to follow the seventh and government spokesmen the eighth of the Ten Commandments. Of course, we thought that it is enough if it is in the Bible.” In case some of you need a refresher course, the seventh commandment says “Thou shalt not steal” and the eighth, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

As for the alleged connection between the forthcoming election and the OLAF investigation, the Hungarian government seems to be exceedingly well-informed about all the alleged recent decisions and moves of OLAF. Magyar Idők claims that in the last few months OLAF rushed to complete the work on this particular case. They were in such a hurry that “they neglected to ask for the comments of the concerned party.” In brief, the announcement was timed to coincide with the start of the election campaign. OLAF is giving the opposition an opportunity to use the case against Fidesz and the Orbán government.

Ottó Gajdics, editor of Magyar Idők and a particularly distasteful character on the far-right Echo TV, took upon himself the task of writing an opinion piece on the OLAF investigation. In his interpretation, the real culprit in this affair is the opposition. “They pounced on the object of their hatred” and “in their usual sly ways, they entrusted their foreign agents” to do the dirty work. But, he continued, one ought not to be terribly worried about this whole affair. It will take months for the prosecutor’s office to investigate the case. It is “in our interest not to allow anyone to take advantage of these investigations in this base political game.” Indeed, I am sure that Mr. Gajdics is right. The prosecutor’s office, a veritable Fidesz bastion led by Péter Polt, will do its utmost to see that nothing comes of the investigation. Viktor Orbán and his son-in-law have nothing to fear.

January 15, 2018

Miklós Haraszti: Countering illiberal usurpations of democracy

In my post about the visit of the European Parliament’s rapporteur to Budapest, I noted that coincidentally, in Brussels, there was a book launch for a new work by NGOs from Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. The title of the book is Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe. The study is now available online in English, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. It documents the workings of illiberal governments through the experiences of the most important NGOs in the various countries. Hungary is represented by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The book has five chapters dealing with various aspects of the problems facing civil society in these countries: traditional values and illiberal trends, a case study of illiberal governments, human rights and the rule of law, practices and strategies to inspire civil society, and laying foundations for civil society to resist.

Miklós Haraszti wrote the foreword (“Countering Illiberal Usurpations of Democracy”) to the book, which is republished below. Haraszti is an author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University. In the past he wrote two articles for this blog, and, since he is a faithful follower of Hungarian Spectrum, he often contributes discerning comments to our discussions.


In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.

The spreading of these restrictive regulations is a clear sign of the degradation of the freshly attained liberal constitutionalism toward illiberal or outright authoritarian governance. It is more than just a side-effect: the crusade against “unofficial” civil associations is basic household cleaning for illiberal regimes. They have set out to transform democracy from a cooperative and pluralistic enterprise into a disguise for a game where the winner sets the rules.

The illiberals have a reason. Civil activism is the nearest thing to the raw energy that fills and regenerates freedom in any society. Citizen activities are both the beginnings and the finest fruits of a democracy. When we see them purposefully hindered, cynically vilified, and even criminalized, this is in fact done to stop them from reaching out to society or from monitoring the government. We should remember that both these public roles are inherent in their independence.

Because populist power grabs are ‘democratically’ justified (“we have elections, don’t we”), it is not immediately clear for the public just how central the assaults on civil society are for the illiberal outcome. The watchdogs need to be silenced so the illiberal actions can go on: the elimination of transparency in the use of public money; the subordination of all branches of power to the executive; the systematic thwarting of autonomies; the streamlining of the judiciary; and the curtailing of the rights to free assembly, association, and media pluralism.

I suggest we take the rage of the illiberals against independent civil society at surface value. When the illiberal rulers stamp NGOs as foreign agents, they do not simply seek to diminish criticism using a nationalist ideology. The illiberals want the citizens to see the government not just as temporary and partial representatives of the nation – they want the government to be identified with the nation, and squeeze out independent activism as alien and even hostile to the nation.

So let’s react accordingly. Civil power, unhindered NGOs – just as a pluralistic media –are the ultimate frontiers in defending freedom in society. Unfortunately, under illiberal regimes, the traditional political process is not anymore able to correct the systematic distortion of competition rules, or put checks and balances back to work. This is because the populist illiberals and autocrats have utilized those very guarantees to first get to the top and then to eliminate the built-in barriers to absolute power.

Where can help come from, when the economy has been turned into a nepotistic fiefdom, political parties into parliamentary padding, and the media into mere decorations of preordained elections? Change could only come from the remaining unchecked, globally rooted social forces, the mercurial civil society, and its increasingly Internet-based communications strategies.

Importantly, the freedom of civil society and free media are growingly the same cause as internet-based connectivity becomes a fact of life. Can you tell apart what the illiberal rulers are angrier with: the fact-finding activities of the watchdog NGOs, or their communications-based ability to actually convey their findings to all citizens, despite that the rulers have occupied all traditional media? Russia’s Alexei Navalny or Hungary’s Márton Gulyás have practically reinvented public-service media, as part of their civic activity, illuminating the way to a reinvented, post-illiberal democracy.

One main weapon of the illiberals is the slogan of ‘internal affairs’, the notion of sovereignty utilized to push the management of global developments back into a territorial matter. Think of the laws aimed to domesticate the global Internet or sometimes simply to stall the growing bandwidth.

The illiberal regimes wage a two-level battle against any form of international togetherness of worldwide civic aspirations. One is, paradoxically, through the established intergovernmental organizations and legal instances. In such fora, they perfectly team up with all other governments that want to send internationalism back to hell. But the words they internally use for mobilization belie the elevated arguments about sovereignty. Domestically, the illiberal rulers are just plain nationalist populists. Their science consists of enhancing and weaponizing the explosive force of age-old basic instincts: ethnic or religious exclusivism and xenophobia.

Therefore, all international friends of civic freedom have to remember what is at stake here: the fate of universal human rights and ultimately, the guarantees of peace. Immanuel Kant, the reclusive philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), is right on target, more now than ever. His triple formula of ‘eternal peace’ suggested that, for global peace to materialize, it is necessary but not sufficient to have democracies in all countries. Not even an international alliance of democracies will be enough to secure that goal. The final guarantee of peace must be, he said, the international enforceability of individual human rights.

See the new Berlin Wall erected: the ‘foreign agent’ type anti-NGO regulations. This time, the divides are built of legal provisions, not concrete and steel. But their function is the same: to eliminate the indivisibility of human rights, proclaimed by the international community after WW2 – and in fact, the main lesson of WW2.

I hope this handbook will help us deeper cultivate the rationale for civil society: freedom in peace, at home and worldwide. And that it will make us more mindful in countering the illiberal usurpations of democracy, at home and worldwide.

January 14, 2018