Category Archives: Hungarian politics

The Rome Declaration: “A Ray of Hope” according to Magyar Idők

On March 3 the prime ministers of the four Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–held a summit in Warsaw. There they agreed on a common platform to present at the forthcoming meeting in Rome celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of the European Union. Magyar Nemzet got hold of the draft document, which showed that these four former socialist countries are against any further political integration and are supporters of a “Europe of nation states.” Yet they agreed that the European Union is their best guarantee in the face of current world problems. The leaders of the four countries hoped that their ideas would be incorporated into the declaration to be issued in Rome.

The Rome Declaration is an upbeat document in which emphasis is placed on “unity” because “standing together is our best chance to influence [global dynamics] and to defend our common interests and values.” As far as the V-4’s proposals were concerned, the Declaration did mention the necessity for secure external borders, but it also included a reference to “responsible and sustainable migration policy, respecting international norms,” which doesn’t exactly correspond to the ideas of the V-4 leaders. There was a passage about the preservation of “our cultural heritage and [the promotion] of cultural diversity.” Cultural diversity is not something the more nationalistic Central Europeans are willing to embrace. The declaration also talked about “a more competitive and integrated defense industry” and “the strengthening of [the European Union’s] common security, also in cooperation and complementarity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Finally, as a nod to the V-4 nations’ concerns, the document included the following sentence: “We will allow for the necessary room for maneuver at the various levels to strengthen Europe’s innovation and growth potential.”

Poland was not satisfied with the text, and until the last minute it looked as if Prime Minister Beata Szydło might not sign the document if “the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland,” as she announced a few days before the opening of the summit. These are: “The unity of the European Union, defence of a tight NATO cooperation, strengthening the role of national governments and the rules of the common market which cannot divide but unite – these are the four priorities which have to be included in the declaration.” Even though not all four of her demands were incorporated in the document, by the end Poland’s ruling PiS party thought the better of it. All 27 heads of state who were present signed the document. Szydło was smart to follow Orbán’s strategy: play to the domestic crowd yet be quite malleable at EU summits. Apparently on March 20, when the final text was being hammered out, the two Polish participants were “very constructive.”

So were the Hungarians, although Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, on the very day that his prime minister was signing the Rome Declaration, argued for the Hungarian position on the refugee question and indicated that “the struggle with Brussels will continue.” He reminded his audience that the Hungarian government “will not forget that the vice president of the European Commission wanted to have a debate with Hungary and Poland about European values.” Brussels is making a mistake when “it wants to conquer the member states and allow illegal migrants to settle.” Finally, he proudly announced that “Hungary has always contributed its share to the success of Christian Europe.”

In Rome Orbán was not as bellicose as his youthful foreign minister, but his statements were still antithetical to the key provisions of the Rome Declaration. He made two points pertaining to the Declaration: (1) we can count only on ourselves if we want a country free from danger and (2) Europe’s problems can be fixed only if each nation provides for the safety and well-being of itself. Although he obviously did not subscribe to the basic philosophy of the Declaration, he had to justify his support of it somehow. And so he said that the final document was a far cry from earlier drafts and that “many of the Hungarian suggestions are now reflected in the text.” This is his normal reaction when, despite his blustering, he signs all the documents put in front of him.

Although on the surface the Orbán government’s view of the European Union seems not to have changed at all, I see signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy. I base my opinion on an editorial that appeared in Magyar Idők. From an editorial in an American, British, German, or French paper we certainly couldn’t draw any conclusions about their governments’ policies, but we can safely say that nothing appears in Magyar Idők that is not cleared ahead of time with the appropriate government official. We learned that from the current head of HírTV, who recalled that regular instructions had come from above on topics to be covered when the station was an instrument of the government.

So the editorial by Zoltán Kottász that appeared in today’s issue of Magyar Idők, titled “A Ray of Hope from Rome,” may well be significant in trying to figure out the government’s foreign policy. For weeks we could read nothing in this paper but praise of Russia, condemnation of Angela Merkel and her migrant policy, and antagonistic attacks on the European Union. And now “a ray of hope.” According to the author, the European Union is the best of all possible structures for keeping peace in Europe.

And he continued. The European Union in the last 60 years has proved that it is an effective instrument and, as a result of cooperation, the standard of living in Europe has been steadily improving. There were occasional difficulties, but “despite the various problems, disagreements, and divisions, common sense prevailed.” Europe needs closer cooperation than at any time before. There are problems in the Balkans, “Turkey is moving away from us, and China and Russia have gained power and strength that put an end to the unipolar world order with consequences no one can predict. Therefore, Europe must be self-sufficient in all respects to be able stand on its own feet.”

I could scarcely believe my eyes. Is this the beginning of a new era in the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán or just an aberration? Did the Orbán government realize that the Eastern Opening was a bust and the friendship with Putin’s Russia might not be beneficial to Hungary under the present circumstances? Perhaps it has dawned on Viktor Orbán that Trump’s presidency might actually be a threat to the European Union of which, after all, Hungary is still a part.

One could of course argue that one shouldn’t put a lot of faith in an editorial, even if it appeared in Magyar Idők. But there are other signs of possible change in the offing. At a conference over the weekend the director of the pro-government think tank Nézőpont opined that, despite the unanimous approval of the Declaration of Rome, there is no reason to celebrate because of the crisis engulfing the European Union. Szabolcs Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, disagreed. There is every reason for celebration because the joint declaration allows for the reformulation of the values of European integration.

Thus, there are signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy, but we will have to wait to see whether there is any follow-through. We can, however, be pretty sure of one thing. From here on, the Merkel bashing will stop because the Hungarian government is fearful of a new German government with Martin Schulz as chancellor. In fact, Zoltán Kottász in his editorial sees such an event as the first step toward the disintegration of the European Union.

March 27, 2017

Karl Pfeifer: The Orbán regime takes Horthy’s Hungary as an example

I have known the dark ages of Hungary. As a child, during World War Two, I experienced first-hand Hungarian ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. I managed to avoid deportation and murder in Auschwitz by fleeing to Palestine in 1943, along with 49 other Jewish children.

Decades later, I returned to Hungary during the years of Communism. As a journalist writing for major Austrian newspapers, my reporting included interviewing dissidents. As a result, the Kadar regime expelled me four times from the country, the last time in 1987.

This personal history makes me extremely sensitive to current developments in Hungary and the shadows that are once again rising there.

Consider, for example, the current government campaign against the work of the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations has given more than $200 million to Hungarian groups since the fall of Communism, supporting a host of humanitarian issues—including independent groups that support human rights and are often critical of the government.

As a result, George Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.

Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.

Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

This goes beyond the attacks on Soros. When Orbán refers to “ethnic homogeneity” as a factor of prosperity for the country, I am worried. This reminds me of a 1941 law that banned all forms of sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, in the name of ethnic purity. This was done under the rule of the ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy. In Horthy times, anti-Semitism was a national policy. It is not the case today, but hatred against Jews has free flow and conspiracy theories are clearly targeted at the Jewish community, the largest one in Central Europe.

This poisonous rhetoric is the product of a political system that has grown increasingly authoritarian under Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz government, and it is being used by that government to strengthen its control. The Fidesz government and its allies own the majority of media outlets, including all of the TV and radio stations which have large audiences in rural Hungary, where the vast majority of the party electorate resides. Media outlets presenting views in opposition to the government are not accessible to the average Hungarian, therefore most people believe what the government propaganda tells them. And that message is straightforward: if you criticize the government, you are an enemy of the nation.

The government is now seeking to extend its power with a new law tightening controls on the funding of groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—rights groups which receive some of their funding from…yes, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Semitism is being deployed to serve the government’s ultimate political aim of consolidating its control – while supposedly remaining a democratic member of the European Union.

It’s worth remembering that under the Horthy regime too there was a parliament, and it was possible to express critical views in a handful of opposition papers. Yet that did not make the regime a democratic one.

Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the club of conservative parties in the European Union. But Fidesz is not a conservative party. Conservative parties do not mobilize mass rallies to defend the “sovereignty of the Hungarian nation,” unlike in 2012 when 400,000 people took to the streets of Budapest at the urging of the government media – with the infamous anti-Semitic journalist Zsolt Bayer marching in the front rank. Conservative parties do not touch private property, unlike Fidesz, which nationalized pension funds in 2010 to finance the state’s expenditures. Conservative parties do not falsify history, unlike in Hungary where the state established the national think tank “Veritas,” downplaying the participation of Hungarians in the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

The upcoming law on NGOs will further silence the last opposition voices in a member state of the European Union. The government propaganda plays with the fear of “the other”: the migrants, the Jews, foreign capital. But who pays attention to Hungarians? Who is concerned about the disastrous state of healthcare and education in the country? By annihilating critical voices, the anti-NGO law will spring the trap on the real victims of the government: ordinary Hungarians.


Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian-born journalist of Hungarian Jewish origin and a member of the board of the Archives of the Austrian Resistance.
He is author of several books. A movie about his life can be seen at https://vimeo.com/124834106

March 26, 2017

Eradicating György Lukács’s heritage

György (Georg) Lukács (1885-1971), the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, might be controversial, but he was an important figure in twentieth-century western philosophy. Because of his life-long affiliation with the communist movement of the Soviet variety, however, the two far-right parties, Fidesz and Jobbik, have been doing their best to obliterate his name from the country’s collective memory.

These two parties found a willing accomplice in this task in József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences between 2008 and 2014. Pálinkás, who earlier was a member of the first Orbán government and later a Fidesz member of parliament, is one of those who find any remaining vestiges of liberalism or socialism in Hungary abhorrent. He is no friend of the United States either. As soon as Fidesz won the national election and a few months later the municipal election in Budapest, Pálinkás’s first act was to start a campaign to remove FDR’s name from the public square where the Academy’s building stands. That move launched a frenzy of street renaming, with the removal of all those names the Fidesz and Jobbik city leaders found suspect. It was the Pálinkás-led Academy that eventually came to the help of those hapless mayors who couldn’t, for example, decide on their own whether a street could retain the name “Peace” or “Constitution.”

It was just a question of time before Pálinkás and his right-leaning friends in the Academy would find something very wrong with Lukács, who had left his library and manuscripts to the Academy. The understanding was that the collection would remain intact in the apartment in which he and his wife lived for decades. The apartment didn’t belong to Lukács; he rented it from the municipality. So, after his death, it was the Academy that paid the rent on the apartment, which was open to researchers from all over the world who were interested in Lukács’s work. After 2010, however, it was becoming clear that the government wanted to put an end to this arrangement. A group of philosophers who once upon a time were close to Lukács were harassed and accused of misappropriating research funds. Rumors circulated that the Academy wants to break up the collection and close the Lukács memorial center.

Apparently, a decision on the matter was reached during Pálinkás’s tenure, i.e., before 2014, but it was handed down only in March 2016. By that time the Academy had a new president, László Lovász, a Hungarian mathematician best known for his work in combinatorics. Unlike his two predecessors who were committed to the ideology of the right, Lovász tries to be politically neutral, no easy task in Hungary today.

Just as predicted, it was decided that the collection will be broken up, with the books eventually being moved to a library that hasn’t been built yet and the manuscripts being moved to the archives of the Academy. Those who would like to save the collection as it is now received help from the International Lukács Association with headquarters in Germany. Soon enough 3,500 signatures were collected worldwide to support the effort. At the moment the fate of the collection hangs in the balance.

The Lukács library and archives are not the only Lukács-related institutions that have been under fire. Jobbik politicians who have been active in eradicating Lukács’s name from Hungarian history decided to go to court, arguing that the György Lukács Foundation bears Lukács’s name illegally. When the Academy’s Historical Institute was instructed to rule on the question of forbidden street names, Lukács’s name was on the list. Therefore, the suit contended, no foundation can bear his name either. The judge in charge was at a loss, but at least he had the good sense to turn to László Lovász, president of the Academy. Until then Lovász had said nothing about the Lukács case, for which he was criticized. But once, at the request of the court, he had to take a stand, he opted to defend Lukács. He emphasized Lukács’s place in the history of philosophy and stressed the indispensability of nurturing his intellectual heritage. The foundation serves this purpose. If it were deprived of the name of the philosopher, it would lose the very rationale for its existence. The court accepted his opinion and ruled against Jobbik. You can imagine what the anti-Semitic kuruc.info had to say upon hearing the news. Lukács, the author wrote, was “a Jewish Marxist philosopher” and the judge’s ruling was an example of “anti-Hungarianism.”

It will be removed soon

But that’s not the end of the Lukács story. Lukács still has a statue in a park in District XIII, where the socialist party is very strong. Right-wing politicians have been eyeing the statue for some time. The Fidesz-KDNP candidate for district mayor actually campaigned on the issue in 2014. If he becomes mayor, he said, Lukács will go. When that came to naught, local Jobbik leaders asked the socialist mayor to remove the statue, which he naturally refused to do. In fact, these Jobbik politicians were knocking on the wrong door because the land on which the statue stands is under the jurisdiction of the Budapest Municipal Council. Here they naturally had a much better chance. Mayor István Tarlós loves removing names of political undesirables. Marcell Tokody, Jobbik member of the Budapest City Council, proposed removing the statue to make space for a new St. Stephen statue for the 980th anniversary of St. Stephen’s death, obviously a very important anniversary. Of course, the overwhelmingly Fidesz City Council voted for it with enthusiasm: 19 city fathers supported Jobbik’s proposal, and three members–two from the Demokratikus Koalíció and one from MSZP–voted against it. One member abstained.

At this point, the socialist mayor of District XIII asked István Tarlós to allow the statue to be erected on soil that belongs to the District. Tarlós pointed out that it is not his decision but that of the City Council. He added, however, that he would not support such a move “because of [Lukács’s] oeuvre [munkásság],” as if Tarlós had the slightest notion of Lukács’s oeuvre. So, kuruc.info didn’t have to worry that District XIII will provide a place for “a rat’s statue.” Actually, Lukács wasn’t the only “rat.” Kuruc.info also included in this category Árpád Göncz, the beloved first president of the Third Republic (1900-2000). This whole sorry story tells us a lot about the state of Hungary at the moment.

March 25, 2017

The dangers of being a historian in Orbán’s Hungary

Something extraordinary happened yesterday. László Tüske, director of Hungary’s National Library, launched disciplinary action against János M. Rainer, head of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (’56 Institute), and three of his colleagues. Two were charged with making their views public on the factually inaccurate billboards used to advertise the sixtieth anniversary extravaganza staged by Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt. This was the by now infamous case in which a fourteen-year-old boy who was one of the “pesti srácok” (urchins of Pest) was misidentified. A third was charged with complaining about photoshopped images used in the anniversary celebration. The fourth was charged with behaving improperly during Viktor Orbán’s speech on October 23.

Before I return to the story of this boy, let me say a few words about the ’56 Institute. It was officially established in June 1989 as a private foundation with very limited resources. In the mid-1990s the institute’s financial problems were seemingly solved when it became a publicly supported institution. Its financial security, however, was dependent on the whims of governments. As soon as Fidesz and the Smallholders won the election in 1998, the promised 60 million forints for the coming year was reduced to 6 million, largely because the right-wing government’s views on the events of 1956 differed radically from those of the majority of historians inside and outside the ’56 Institute. The Institute survived the four lean years and kept publishing literally hundreds of first-rate books on the revolution and related subjects. After the change of government in 2002 the Institute again received proper funding. But then Viktor Orbán returned, and this time he was ready to abolish the Institute altogether. At the last minute a compromise was reached, and the Institute was placed under the supervision of the National Library. Its historians became employees of the library.

Last November I wrote a post titled “An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter.” You may recall that the Orbán government’s new “take” on the 1956 Revolution is that the only heroes of the revolution were those urchins and adults who actually fought against the Soviet troops on the streets. All others, including disillusioned party functionaries, journalists, intellectuals, and students, played a minimal role. Their presence didn’t make a substantial difference in the course of the events. So, for the sixtieth anniversary, new heroes had to be found from the groups of street urchins.

An actor with unlimited imagination came forth who created a hero of himself. He even found proof: a photo that appeared in Time Magazine at the time. Mária Schmidt, the organizer of the ’56 Memorial Year, was delighted. Giant billboards covered the country with this photo, and the boy depicted was identified as László Dózsa, an actor of modest talents. There was only one problem: the boy on the photo was not Dózsa but Pál Pruck, whose family came forth and proved, at least to my satisfaction, with family photos that it was indeed their father plastered and falsely identified all over the country. Both Dózsa and Mária Schmidt insisted that they were right and the Prucks were lying. Schmidt was especially adamant.

Since Schmidt didn’t let go, the “controversy” went on for weeks. During the debate contemporary pictures of both Pruck and Dózsa were displayed, and it was obvious that the boy in the Time Magazine photo was Pál Pruck. I suspect that Dózsa himself also knew that the boy in the photo was someone else. It is pretty difficult to mistake oneself for someone else regardless of the number of years that have gone by. For example, I found a picture of myself in the company of three of my classmates on Fortepan.hu, a fabulous collection of old photographs turned in by volunteers. I was unaware of the existence of this photograph, taken by someone without our knowledge. I had no difficulty identifying myself and my classmates. I was 16 at the time, Dózsa was 14 in 1956. Yet Schmidt in her usual shrill manner kept insisting and insisting, even when the facts were staring her in the face. As far as I’m concerned, she made a fool of herself. And now she’s making an even greater fool of herself by instructing the director of the Hungarian National Library to discipline the historians who “dared” question her judgment.

From left to right: László Eörsi, János M. Rainer, Réka Sárközy, and Krisztián Ungváry

While I could care less that Mária Schmidt is making a fool of herself, I do mind very much that Hungary has by now become a country where historians are “disciplined” for making their views public. This is another low in the history of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal state.”

János M. Rainer’s sin was that he placed an interview on his Facebook page in which he explained that no one from Schmidt’s committee had asked the opinion of the historians of the Institute about the decorations Dózsa received in recognition of his role in the revolutionary events. Dózsa did receive all sorts of state decorations for his alleged heroism, but according to László Eörsi, the second disciplined historian, none of his stories could be verified. Eörsi was in fact quite diplomatic when he called Dózsa’s stories unverifiable. I, who went through the events, find them figments of his imagination. His stories are simply not believable. A third historian who was disciplined is Réka Sárközy, whose specialty is film history. She talked to 168.hu about her reservations over how the committee in charge of the memorial year was falsifying original photos. Obviously, expressing her opinions on “photoshopping” was also forbidden. Krisztián Ungváry’s specialty is not the revolutionary events of 1956, and his case is not connected to Dózsa. He was punished because on October 23, 2016 he whistled during Viktor Orbán’s speech. As he said, “I went there as a historian to demonstrate against the falsification of history.”

According to the Index article on this disgraceful case, the director of the National Library did what he did because he felt it was the only way to defend the historians against Schmidt’s wrath. Schmidt’s original idea was to put an end to the very existence of the Institute by subordinating it to one of the institutes Schmidt herself runs. It even occurred to her that the Institute should be merged in some form or other with the Veritas Historical Institute, where the “truth,” according to Orbán, is being sought by mostly right-wing historians.

György Gábor, a philosopher and a former classmate of László Tüske, finds the director’s decision to work hand in hand with the powers that be “disgusting and unacceptable.” It reminds him of the years of the one-party system. I would go even further. In the last ten years of the Kádár regime such blatant interference in matters of history was uncommon. This “disciplinary action” reminds me more of the Rákosi regime’s favorite way of handling such cases. In less serious matters, party functionaries from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the lowly Pioneer leader demanded a public “self-criticism” for one’s perceived misdeeds. I guess if these four historians had humbled themselves and apologized to Mária Schmidt perhaps they could have saved themselves from disciplinary action. Instead, I understand, Krisztián Ungváry has already turned in a formal complaint against the ruling.

March 24, 2017

Medián: Support for László Botka

In the last few days two opinion polls have been published that focus on the qualities and popularity of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. The juxtaposition of the two is somewhat arbitrary because Ferenc Gyurcsány is not a declared candidate while Botka is. The comparison was most likely prompted by László Botka’s steadfast opposition to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s active participation in the political process. Moreover, given the paucity of political talent on the left, Botka and Gyurcsány are the two who stand out in the crowd.

The first poll, conducted by Závecz Research, was published two days ago. In my opinion it was based on a disappointingly simplistic methodology. The pollsters asked 1,000 eligible voters who they find more capable of defeating Viktor Orbán–László Botka or Ferenc Gyurcsány–and concluded that the former is four times (44%) more likely to stand a chance against the strong man of Fidesz than the latter (11%). Forty-five percent of the sample had no idea who would do better.

In the second question Závecz Research wanted to know whether people sensed or didn’t sense a decrease in antipathy toward Gyurcsány. This question reminded me of those food experts of the Orbán government who wanted to assess the differences in quality of products sold to Hungary as opposed to, let’s say, to Austria by relying on tasters’ palates. Or of a relative of mine who decides on the popularity of different parties based on her encounters with acquaintances on the street. Well, 51% of the people surveyed thought that the animosity toward Gyurcsány hadn’t subsided whereas 30% thought it had. Needless to say, this was music to the ears of the anti-Gyurcsány factions.

Yesterday, only a day after the publication of the Závecz poll, Medián came out with a much more sophisticated and revealing poll. First of all, Medián recognized that a poll that samples the entire electorate will give skewed, misleading results about the popularity of opposition politicians. Medián therefore concentrated on those voters who “want a change of government,” i.e., those who would not vote for Fidesz. Moreover, Medián focused on Botka and touched on Gyurcsány’s role only tangentially.

According to Medián, 43% of voters would prefer change as opposed to 48% who would stick with the Fidesz government. This disappointing result may be due in large part to the disarray among the fractured opposition forces.

Only half of the anti-Fidesz group thought that Botka would be a competent prime minister, 21% thought he was unqualified, and 29% had no idea. Botka’s support was of course highest among MSZP voters (70%), but a majority of DK voters were also ready to support him. (The poll was taken at the end of January, so it is possible that the relative enthusiasm of DK voters for Botka has since waned as a result of his categorical rejection of Ferenc Gyurcsány.)

When it came to passing judgment on Gyurcsány, 37% percent of the anti-Fidesz forces thought that his participation in the political process would lower the likelihood of removing Orbán from power, 23% thought it wouldn’t, and 40% were undecided. Among MSZP voters, 30% were against Gyurcsány’s involvement while 29% had no objection to his presence in the political arena. Although Endre Hann in his article on the subject didn’t label the third category, I assume that 41% had no opinion.

According to Endre Hann’s summary of Medián’s findings, Botka is the most popular politician on the left.

Respondents were given the opportunity to describe Botka as a man and a politician in their own words and to judge him on a scale of 0 to 100. Most of the attributes were positive: clever (60%), sticking to his principles (59%), diligent (58%), courageous (59%), strong (55%), responsible (53%), and socially sensitive (52%). However, when it came to whether he would be able to solve the problems of the country he averaged only 44%. This result might not be a reflection on Botka’s perceived abilities but rather the Hungarian public’s assessment of the seriousness of their country’s situation at the moment.

Botka got a surprisingly substantial (36%) approval rating from the electorate at large. Thirty-four percent had a poor opinion of him while 30% had no opinion. When it came to Botka’s ability to govern, Fidesz voters gave him only 35 points out of 100 as opposed to voters of the democratic opposition who awarded him 64 points.

As for the current political situation, it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be no partnership among the opposition parties. Each party seems ready to campaign on its own even though most people in the anti-Fidesz camp are convinced that without cooperation Orbán’s government cannot be removed from power. These people are also convinced that the country will not be able to survive another four years of “illiberal democracy” Orbán style.

Yet there have always been a small number of political scientists who argue that the “party alliance” effort that failed spectacularly in 2014 shouldn’t be repeated. The chief spokesman for this position is Zoltán Ceglédi. At the beginning he didn’t convince me, but I’m coming to the conclusion that, given the unbridgeable differences between the parties both ideologically and in personal terms, perhaps it makes sense to start individual campaigns and see how successful these parties are in the next few months. The really tiny ones with support only in the capital and perhaps in some larger cities will most likely fall by the wayside, while the larger ones can compete for the votes of the undecided electorate. Let the voters see the differences among them and allow them to choose. The parties on the left have to agree about only one thing at the end: there can be only one challenger in each electoral district. And then we will see what happens. If they are incapable of doing that much, then they deserve to remain in opposition for another four years.

March 23, 2017

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017

Gábor Vona is trying to cast doubt on Viktor Orbán’s past

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér have faced some hard times in the last couple of months. There is, for instance, the Jürgen Roth story about Dietmar Clodo’s testimony that Semion Mogilevich may have bribed both Pintér and Orbán in the 1990s. This story might have induced Pintér to prepare the ground for the possibility of foreign attacks on both him and the prime minister. He added, of course, that whatever foreign secret service agencies have on them are forgeries.

And now Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, is challenging Viktor Orbán about his alleged past as an informer.

The topic came to the fore two years ago when Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, talked about the prime minister’s alleged involvement in the state security apparatus in 1981-1982 when he spent a year between high school and university in the Hungarian Army.

Questions about Orbán’s past are not new. Already in 1991 János Kenedi, one of the top experts on the state security apparatus in Hungary, after examining the relevant documents, declared that Orbán, if anything, had been the victim of intelligence gathering and was innocent of any wrongdoing. That testimony, however, didn’t put an end to speculation. Here and there someone finds a piece of evidence that stirs up suspicion again. One such occasion was the discovery by László Varga, director of the Archives of the City of Budapest, that Viktor Orbán’s dossier, titled “Viktória,” whose existence was a known fact, “had disappeared.”

What has been disturbing all along is that Orbán refuses to say outright that he never, ever reported on anyone in his life. At the time of Simicska’s accusation in 2015, Hír24 asked him this question. Orbán’s answer was not a categorical denial. He said that “the facts speak for themselves. All information is available on the internet. I suggest that you study them.” Magyar Narancs, commenting on this statement, asked: “Why can’t the prime minister’s office or the press secretary or he himself put together a simple sentence: ‘Viktor Orbán was not an informer and never reported on anyone.’” A good question.

Now, two years later, Orbán still refuses to utter this simple sentence. At the moment, the release of informers’ names is again a matter of debate in the Hungarian parliament, and Gábor Vona used the occasion to inquire from Viktor Orbán about his possible involvement. “Mr. Prime Minister, I know that during your military service you were in contact with the secret service. I also know, Mr. Prime Minister, that there was a member of your family who during the 1956 revolution was working for ÁVH as an agent.” Orbán’s answer was almost identical to his earlier response to the same question. “All documents are available on the internet, study them.” That was not enough for Vona, who then asked: “Do you have the courage to declare that ‘I have never been an agent and I didn’t report on anyone either in writing or verbally?’ Do you dare to declare it?” Again, Orbán refused to affirm it in the first person singular. Instead, he said that “naturally I was on the other side, just as all of us here. We were on the other side; we were the ones who were persecuted; it was in our apartments that they planted listening devices; we didn’t cooperate with any kind of service.”

Gábor Vona questioning Viktor Orbán

Not only did Orbán refuse to answer these simple questions but he wasn’t really truthful about the ideological commitment of the leaders of Fidesz in the 1980s. In 1985 László Kövér imagined himself and his friends in Fidesz as the future leaders of the existing regime, that is, the socialist people’s republic under Kádár or perhaps, given Kádár’s age, some younger, more dynamic leader. The “college” where these boys and girls from the countryside received extra educational opportunities was created to be “a school for political leadership.”

As for all those Fidesz members sitting in the parliament, who according to Orbán “were on the other side,” that is also an exaggeration. Several important Fidesz politicians were actually members of MSZMP, the party established by János Kádár and others during the days of the October 56 revolution. Just to mention a few: János Martonyi, György Matolcsy, István Stumpf, Sándor Pintér, András Tállai, Béla Turi-Kovács, and Péter Harrach.

The younger members of Fidesz would obviously like to bury the sins of their elders. Only recently, in connection with the demand for the list of informers, János Lázár declared that they were only victims and therefore their identities should be shielded. The real culprits, he claimed, are the former members of MSZMP who “denied the freedom and self-determination of the Hungarian people.” They are the ones who are traitors and who should never have any role in political life. One would like to remind Lázár that in 1989 there were 800,000 party members in Hungary. Moreover, if Fidesz professes to have such a pristine past, it should get rid of those politicians on their side of the aisle who were not exactly on the “other side.”

Viktor Orbán answering Gábor Vona

After the Vona-Orbán encounter, speculation abounded that Vona might have received damaging information about Orbán from Lajos Simicska, especially since Simicska’s son Ádám just recently optimistically announced that Jobbik will win the 2018 election with a two-thirds majority. (At the moment Ádám Simicska’s prediction has a zero percent chance of materializing.) Vona in an interview on ATV denied that he has any new information, but he added that if he learns anything he will not hesitate to make it public.

According to people close to Simicska, he makes no secret of his plan to release “seriously compromising documents” on Orbán close to the election. He talks quite freely about the circumstances surrounding his break with Orbán and keeps repeating that “it is his obligation to do everything in his power to facilitate the overthrow of the prime minister.” According to Fidesz politicians, Orbán as well as the leading members of the party consider Simicska a serious antagonist who “has money to spend and nothing to lose.”

March 21, 2017