Category Archives: Hungarian politics

The City of Pécs, which served as Fidesz’s laboratory, is close to bankruptcy

In preparation for today’s post on the chaotic situation in my hometown of Pécs, I read two pieces I had written in October 2009, shortly after, as the result of a by-election, Fidesz candidate Zsolt Páva became mayor of the city. The first article was titled “Watch Pécs: It will tell a lot about Fidesz plans for Hungary.” Rereading this article eight years later is an eerie experience because indeed Fidesz was using Pécs as a laboratory for its own plans for the country. All the tricks it later employed, including the national consultations, were first introduced in Pécs.

Originally Páva, in true populist fashion, wanted to take the oath of office on the main square, right in front of City Hall, but MSZP and SZDSZ members of the city council, who were in the majority, refused to endorse the plan, considering it “blatant demagoguery.” Eventually, Páva took the official oath inside the building but repeated the performance in public.

Soon enough one “referendum” followed the next, which were the forerunners of the Orbán government’s national consultations. Páva spent a sizable amount of money on these referendums, in which his administration inquired about matters to which the answer could only be “yes.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? Páva also sacked all city employees who had anything to do with the previous administration. In no time he managed to change the composition of the city council by convincing a couple of members to switch parties; thus Fidesz achieved a slight majority in the council. Every company owned by the municipality was audited at a considerable cost because, Páva claimed, the audit would save the city 500 million forints. This was, as it turned out later, simply not true.

His next move was the forcible takeover of the water company in which the minority shareholder was Suez, a well-known French company. Páva ordered security men to occupy the headquarters of the firm at 3:30 in the morning. When the employees arrived for work, the guards prevented people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. A few days later a new city-owned water company was formed with a capital base of five million forints. (No, that’s not a typo.) The new company promised to pay the salaries of Suez’s 360 employees from their “riches” of five million. Suez was stunned and called the occupation of its headquarters “forcible entry.” Naturally Suez brought legal proceedings against the city. The law suit dragged on for years. Pécs was finally assessed 3 billion forints for its share in the water company, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up with. The bill was paid by the central government.

Something very similar happened in 2016 when the city of Pécs acted as an intermediary, hoping to pass the Zsolnay Porcelán Manufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The factory was owned by a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who had bought 74.5% of the shares from the city and promised to sink 500 million forints into the enterprise. The methods were roughly the same as in the Suez case. First Páva and the businessmen behind him established a new company by enticing the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim was a forcible takeover of private property. I don’t want to go into the complicated machinations, but a certain businessman with close ties to the Orbán family suddenly had a burning desire to own Zsolnay because of the large restoration projects in the Castle District and elsewhere in Budapest. The roofs of many of these buildings, which had been erected in the last years of the nineteenth century, were covered with pyrogranite tiles made by the Pécs factory. In the end, the city failed because the Syrian businessman wasn’t easily intimidated and had enough money to clear all of his debt to the Hungarian Eximbank, which had been complicit in turning him out of his property. The financial loss to the city as a result of its new “business venture,” which never got off the ground, was again considerable.

By now, apparently, the City of Pécs is close to bankruptcy. For some time, there has been talk about Páva’s possible departure from the mayoralty. About three weeks ago a press conference was scheduled to take place where the mayor was supposed to announce the establishment of the Magnus Aircraft factory in Pécs. This is a huge event for the city, whose economy is in the worst shape among all larger Hungarian cities. Since 2009 the city has lost 13,000 inhabitants, unemployment is high, and investors don’t find the city, far away from Budapest and hard to reach from the West, attractive. Yes, it is a charming city with a rich history, but aside from the university with its 20,000 students it has little to offer economically. The nearby coal and uranium mines have closed and nothing came to replace them.

Együtt: City of Pécs close to bankruptcy. When will Zsolt Páva resign?

So, the intention of Magnus Aircraft to set up a factory is big news. I must admit that I had never heard of this company, which developed the e-Fusion, the first all-electric, aerobatic trainer aircraft. It is a Hungarian company from Kecskemét which describes itself as a multinational group. It has a business arrangement with Siemens, which provides the batteries. What will come of this new technology no one knows, but Pécs is very excited.

The long-awaited press conference was held, sans Mayor Zsolt Páva. Instead, two Fidesz members of parliament representing the district, Péter Csizi and Péter Hoppál, made the announcement. Páva’s absence indicated to those journalists who, after being booted out of the local Dunántúli Napló when it was bought by Lőrinc Mészáros, founded an internet news site called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), that Páva’s position must be shaky. And soon enough came the news on the city’s official internet site that “a new policy making body will lead Pécs” from here on. The decision was allegedly reached by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. The mayor, the deputy mayors, and the two Fidesz MPs will comprise this new group, but its chairman will not be Páva but Péter Csizi. So, as Magyar Nemzet rightly points out, the city will be run by a committee no one elected. Not exactly a democratic solution to a problem.

It is highly unlikely that the decision to establish such a body was made by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the decision came from Viktor Orbán himself. Removing Páva at this juncture is out of the question because holding by-elections now would be a suicidal move. According to my calculations, if LMP hadn’t decided to run alone in 2014, Pécs wouldn’t have two Fidesz members of parliament today. In local elections Fidesz cannot rely on foreign votes, and the locals are pretty unhappy with the Fidesz leadership. The last thing Orbán wants is an electoral loss in a major Hungarian city.

According to rumor, Pécs, during the tenure of Zsolt Páva, has accumulated 24 billion forints in debt. The city is close to bankruptcy despite the fact that Pécs did not have to pay the 3 billion forints to Suez by way of compensation. As far as I know, the owner of Zsolnay Manufactura is also suing the city.

The Fidesz laboratory set up in 2009 has failed miserably. Páva did everything that was demanded of him and yet, or perhaps because of it, he drove his city into bankruptcy. Is it possible that once Orbán’s rule is over the country will be in a similar situation despite the regime’s bragging about its fantastic successes? Not at all unimaginable.

Tomorrow Pécs will have a distinguished visitor, the prime minister himself. He is allegedly attending the 650th anniversary celebration of the university’s founding. Well, kind of. It is true that the first and only Hungarian medieval university was established in Pécs in 1367, but it most likely survived for less than fifty years. The real founding of today’s university was in 1921 when the University of Pozsony (today Bratislava) moved to Pécs. But more about that sometime in the future.

August 31, 2017

Ambassador Scheltema: “We mustn’t keep a corrupt regime alive”

Below is a translation of the controversial interview Gajus Scheltema, Dutch ambassador to Hungary, gave to Ágnes Lampé of the Hungarian weekly, 168 Óra. The translation was done by Aron Penczu of Great Britain, who kindly offered his help as the occasional translator of Hungarian texts that merit special attention. He deserves our thanks for all his work.

♦ ♦ ♦

Are you packing?

My life’s composed of arrivals and goodbyes. The former are a joy, the latter always sadden me a little.

You were not sad while writing the book.

Of course not. It’s how I gave thanks for my years here – I did the same at my previous posts.

How did you choose your interview subjects?

Rather than individuals I was looking for stories and apt places. The latter became your iconic Andrássy Street, which admirably symbolises Hungary’s rich history. I was able to attach a number of stories to it – like a Christmas tree with its glittering ornaments. I knew for instance that the Ferenc Hopp museum is on Andrássy Street, and I like its director, Györgyi Fajcsák, very much. I asked her to tell the story of where the Hungarians are from. The Dutch don’t have roots in this way – it matters less to us – but for Hungarians it’s very important.

The Turkish Institute is also on Andrássy Street, and I thought a specialist might initiate me into Hungarian-Turkish relations, since a kind of love-hate relationship has evolved between the two peoples. Finally I talked to Professor István Vásáry, formerly an ambassador to Turkey. By the end many different tales had emerged: we spoke of the Jews living on Andrássy Street until 1944, and the unusual fate of the aristocracy relocated from here in 1945.

The stories really are colourful, but the photographs are black and white.

This way there’s a contrast. Besides, in Hungary everything’s black and white.

What do you mean?

People are either on one side of an issue or another, there’s no intermediate position, that’s how it is in politics too. In Holland we’re always looking for compromise: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The governing coalition comprises four-five parties, and each gives a little. The negotiations may take months but we find a compromise in the end. Here however only the pro and contra positions are possible – everyone’s either with us or against us. It’s a classically Marxist viewpoint.

Which evidently doesn’t appeal to you.

I wasn’t raised that way. And as a diplomat I certainly don’t think that way, I’m always seeking compromise, not someone to fight. Here by contrast everyone’s always looking for the enemy. Which dovetails with people’s historical experiences too. They’ve grown used to becoming enemies as soon as they disagree with those in power.

Is that why the campaign against migration and György Soros works here?

George Soros can be condemned for many things – it’s enough to mention his speculative deals. At the same time he deserves respect for investing enormous sums in democracy and building up civil society. That’s why for every foreigner the Hungarian government’s extraordinarily intensive and aggressive attack on him is, to put it mildly, strange.

The message is clear.

Yes, it’s easy to link it to migration, which itself is an exceptionally complex problem, there’s no black and white answer to it.

Do you have an answer?

First we need to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. But here the government considers everyone a migrant, and no one a refugee. We’re not speaking the same language. In addition, in Hungary there are no migrants, it’s a homogenous population. In the Netherlands, primarily because of our colonial past, there are many immigrants, we’re an open society, we accept new arrivals. It doesn’t matter if they’re Hungarian or Indonesian. Absurdly, the Hungarian government’s campaign works because when the danger is far away, it seems much larger.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema with his book commemorating his stay in Hungary

The danger isn’t so distant: terrorist attacks have occurred in several countries in the European community, the other day it was in Barcelona that a fanatic drove into pedestrians.

Such attacks can happen anywhere – most are in the Middle East. Should we bomb the Middle East now? Here’s a group whose members are the losers in globalisation, so they’ve turned to extremism, to fanatical religiosity, because this gives them security. They create enemies on the same principles as the Hungarian government.

In April, after János Lázár spoke at a Hungarian Business Leaders Forum conference, Eric Fournier, the French Ambassador in Budapest, held up a ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ sign and asked: “What’s this? You’re using Hungarian taxpayer money to stop the capital of France’s neighbour?” And you reacted by saying that Hungary had welcomed more immigrants with residency bonds than it would have to according to the EU settlement quota.

Because it’s true.

You also added: the government poster sent the message that Hungary doesn’t want to be part of common EU solutions and prefers to be left out.

That’s a fact too. It’s a two-way street. It can’t be that some countries merely profit from EU money without a willingness to contribute and help with the challenges we face. The ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ signs are strange to the French and other ambassadors because they attack an organisation which was created, among other reasons, precisely to help your country. Moreover it wasn’t even Brussels but the European Council – that is, the member states – that decided on the issue of accommodating 1,300 refugees. This is all cheap propaganda. And most Hungarians know it.

Why do you think that?

The polls say unequivocally that Hungarians think positively about the EU.

As is also the case about Fidesz, which organised the anti-EU campaign: Orbán’s party is miles ahead.

Perhaps because for the moment there’s no suitable alternative. Someone who doesn’t want to vote for Fidesz can’t easily vote for anyone else.

In a 2014 interview you said that one of your goals is to embed Hungary further into the European Union. It seems you haven’t been able to do much.

On the contrary. We are in continuous discussions with the government, we work to convince its members. We devote a lot to spreading our viewpoint by supporting cultural events and through the media. We work to strengthen civil organisations, even those which are critical of the government. But that’s not why we do it – but rather because they do great work, regardless of what they think of the government.

The Hungarian Parliament recently passed a law that requires affected organisations to register themselves if their support from abroad totals at least 7.2 million forints. Meanwhile they’re constantly accused of being Soros-hirelings.

Indeed, I told some leaders of the civil organisations under assault: acknowledge proudly that the Dutch government supports you. And if the Hungarian government implies that some foreign background power or György Soros stands behind them with opaque financial manoeuvres, simply answer that this isn’t the case. We believe seriously in the same values as them, and we know that they fear for minorities, for the freedom of the press, and for a good number of other democratic issues.

You gave your last interview to the now-defunct Népszabadság.

Indeed, the opportunities grow ever narrower, ownerships change. What’s even more disquieting is that there isn’t a quality press even in the opposition, particularly in the field of investigative journalism. I’m always surprised by the absence of investigative journalism which is deep-reaching, which seeks out the essence of things and the underlying truths, in Hungary. If for instance a Dutch reporter writes about migration, he undoubtedly visits camps, talks to migrants, policemen, town mayors, and looks for data. Many Hungarian journalists I’ve met wrote underprepared, superficial stories. I know that politics has reached deep into the press, and it’s evident too that money is an important factor. But I still believed that with the disappearance of Népszabadság the other opposition papers would strengthen their position.

The state is blocking the opposition media’s income streams one by one – they’re fighting for survival.

It’s sad. Meanwhile the money-stuffed organs degenerate professionally.

In the aforementioned Népszabadság interview you were asked about the American travel ban scandal. One of the corruption-investigating American companies was led by a Dutch director who apparently asked for diplomatic help. This is how you put it: “If Dutch taxpayers hear that one of the supported European states’ governments is corrupt, they can feel with perfect legitimacy that they don’t want to finance it.”

The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored. At the moment the money goes to local governments which can do whatever they want with it: that must be changed.

That won’t be easy. It hasn’t been managed yet.

Let me cite two examples – one from Holland, one from Great Britain. Migration and anti-Brussels sentiment are the two chief hobby-horses of extreme rightist Geert Wilders. He says: we don’t want to give taxpayers’ money to corrupt countries. He hasn’t named any, but it’s possible to guess who he’s referring to. And in the UK Brexit triggered an argument about who the Brits pay tax to and why. The problem wasn’t with immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India working there, but with the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Central-Eastern Europeans.

At times like this Péter Szijjártó says: we spend our money as we want, no one can interfere with Hungary’s internal affairs.

Dutch taxpayers’ money isn’t an internal affair – as no European taxpayer’s is.

When the other day the Austrian chancellor, referring to Hungary, said that the Union’s community of values “must not be confused with a cash machine,” Péter Szijjártó claimed the chancellor “is working to settle immigrants and execute the Soros-plan,” and Hungary will protect itself.

The Hungarian politicians in Brussels aren’t nearly so aggressive. Anger breaks out of them like this at home, when they’re speaking to their own voters. During my personal encounters with Péter Szijjártó we’ve always talked amicably. That too shows you needn’t take everything politicians say seriously.

It hadn’t even occurred to me.

Good.

Who do you keep in contact with from the Hungarian government?

I meet relatively regularly with ministers, though it’s true, some of them are unapproachable to me.

For instance?

Mr. Varga [Minister of National Economy] is totally unreachable. But I conferred frequently with Péter Szijjártó, Zoltán Balog, László Trócsányi. To put it diplomatically: I’ve known countries where it’s easier to meet with decision-makers. The Prime Minister previously held annual meetings for ambassadors but has not for a few years. Clearly it’s no longer important to him.

Have you met him outside of it?

No. He didn’t want it, it’s his decision.

As a diplomat, what do you think of the scandal around the Csíki beer trademark and the compromise reached between Heineken Romania and the Csíki Beer Factory. At the time Dutch deputy ambassador Elzo Molenberg said: “What’s happening here isn’t a legal step but something else.” What else?

They created a political issue from a simple economic issue. But since Heineken became the main sponsor of the Ferencváros football team, the issue has been closed completely.

As is your four year-long assignment to Hungary.

I’ll miss the country. Especially the nature, the countryside. I travelled every weekend, tried to uncover Hungary’s hidden parts. I walked Petőfi’s path – the Great Hungarian Plain [Alföld] is my favourite, especially Kiskunság. I am a Kiskunság guy.

What do you like about it?

As an ornithologist I’m impressed by the fact that the world’s largest bustard population lives there. The territory’s wildlife is spectacular – truly unique and varied.

Given that you’ve lived in several countries, Kiskunság is an unusual choice for one of the world’s best places.

I know, but I still like it a great deal. I hope I don’t offend anyone in saying that after many excursions I may know the country better today than many Hungarians.

August 31, 2017

 

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

Although in the last few weeks László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for premiership, has begun to campaign with greater vigor, neither his own popularity nor the approval rating of his party has improved. In fact, according to Závecz Research (August 23, 2017), MSZP’s active voters dropped by three percentage points in three months. The loss was continuous and steady. Publicus Intézet (August 27, 2017), which also measured the popularity of politicians, registered a three percentage point drop in Botka’s popularity in one month. Support for DK in the last three months remained steady. Thus there is plenty to worry about in MSZP circles.

Earlier I wrote about the controversy between Zsolt Molnár, an influential MSZP politician, and László Botka, which showed a cleavage within the party leadership over MSZP’s relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). One must keep in mind that DK began as a socialist splinter party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and create a new party left MSZP in a much weakened position. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised by the resentment some MSZP politicians feel toward DK and its leader. It is hard to judge the size of the group in the top leadership which under no circumstances would sit down to negotiate with the politicians of DK, but even though their number might be small, they are determined to go ahead alone, without the second largest party on the left. In this group are István Ujhelyi, EU parliamentary member, and Tamás Harangozó. On the other hand, Attila Mesterházy, former party chairman and candidate for the premiership of the united democratic opposition in 2014, seems to be on the side of those who sympathize with Zsolt Molnár’s position. His recent interview at least points in this direction. In this interview he revealed his pragmatic side when he suggested cooperation with Lajos Simicska, because “the removal of Viktor Orbán’s regime is a common goal.” He also defended Gyurcsány against Botka’s accusation that the former prime minister is not a democrat. Although Ágnes Kunhalmi is quiet, I suspect that she also has her doubts about Botka’s strategy. So, Zsolt Molnár is not alone.

MSZP old-timers complain that 15-20 years ago the party had the support of the leading professionals of the country, but by now they have left the socialists because the party leadership didn’t cultivate a working relationship with them. Perhaps Botka also realized that for a party to develop a program and make preparations for governing one needs experts in various fields. Legal experts, men and women with expertise in education, healthcare, public administration, etc. So, Botka sent out 200 invitations to a meeting in Szeged on August 26, where he was hoping to receive the common wisdom of the experts gathered there. When I first read the news as it was presented in Népszava, I had the distinct feeling that the turnout was low and that the largest group present were the big names in MSZP, past and present. Although Népszava, being a social democratic paper, was unwilling to say it outright, it was pretty obvious that there were very few well-known experts present. Népszava somewhat sarcastically noted that Botka announced that he didn’t want to give a speech but proceeded to give a very long one. Besides outlining ten important goals of MSZP once it forms a government, he again spent an inordinate amount of time on Ferenc Gyurcsány, which Népszava discreetly left out of its summary. In order to read that part of the speech one has to go to Index.

This gathering had one bright side, which had nothing to do with collecting professionals to assist the party program and possible future governance. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word “cooperation” carefully because I don’t think that “support” would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is “willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.” Considering Párbeszéd’s 1% support, Karácsony’s offer of cooperation will not bring too many new voters to MSZP. Still, this gesture should give a psychological lift to the disheartened democratic opposition. Botka also received the support of Zoltán Komáromi, a family physician, who has been a constant fixture in the media. He claims to have worked out an effective reform of the ailing healthcare system that would yield immediate, tangible results. Komáromi’s abandonment of Együtt is a blow to that small party, which has said that it will not cooperate with any other political group.

László Botka (MSZP) and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) / Photo Ádám Molnár

After these positive developments I must turn to the less bright aspects of Botka’s campaign activities. Botka was supposed to come up with 106 candidates by September, but to date he has managed to name only two. After visiting Gyöngyös, he declared that there can be no better candidate in that district than György Hiesz, the MSZP mayor of the town. Hiesz is one of the founders of MSZP. He was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014. He was mayor between 2002 and 2010 and again from 2014 on. Then a few days later, while campaigning in the town of Makó, Botka had the bright idea of asking István Rója, who had been the principal of the local gymnasium, to be MSZP’s candidate in the coming election campaign. Rója’s appointment was not renewed despite wide support by teachers, students, and parents. Rója is not an MSZP member. While Hiesz is an experienced politician, Rója has never been involved in politics. These two people might be excellent candidates, but the way Botka single-handedly and in a somewhat haphazard manner is picking his candidates doesn’t appeal to some people within the party, especially since compiling the party list is supposed to be the leadership’s joint decision.

I should also call attention to another perhaps not so small blunder. Yesterday Botka essentially promised the job of minister of education to István Hiller, who had held this post between 2006 and 2010. About a year ago Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, suggested creating a so-called shadow cabinet, a popular political instrument in Great Britain, which consists of senior members of the opposition parties who scrutinize their corresponding government ministers and develop alternative policies. Such a body could develop a coherent set of goals and policies for a party. However, for some strange reason, László Botka doesn’t like the concept. As he keeps repeating, he wants to have a real cabinet, not a shadow one. Therefore, he said that he wasn’t going to name names. Yet yesterday, standing next to István Hiller, Botka announced that Hiller was once minister of education and he is very much hoping that he will be so again. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this means that he has Hiller in mind for the post. There’s a major problem here, however. Botka in the last eight months talked about nothing else but those guilty MSZP and SZDSZ politicians who are responsible for the electoral disaster of 2010 when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. They must retire and shouldn’t even be on the party list, meaning that they cannot even be ordinary backbenchers in parliament. That was allegedly his reason for insisting on Gyurcsány’s disappearance from politics. And now, he publicly indicates that his choice for minister of education is a former cabinet member in the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments. This inconsistency doesn’t look good.

All in all, Botka’s performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder when the day will come that he is told to change course or else.

August 30, 2017

The strangest encounter: Vladimir Putin in Budapest

I believe that in the past I’ve called attention to the troubling fact that the Hungarian public more often than not learns from foreign sources what its own government is up to. This is definitely the case when it comes to Russian-Hungarian relations. The other country that comes to mind is Iran, and I suspect that in both cases there are some weighty reasons for the secrecy.

We have known for some time that Russian President Putin, a black belt judo champion and honorary chairman of the International Judo Federation, was planning to attend the World Judo Championship held in Budapest on August 28, but it was only from a statement issued by the Kremlin that we learned a few hours before Putin’s arrival that it was “at the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán [that] the head of the Russian state will visit Budapest.” It looks as if, for one reason or another, Orbán didn’t want to publicize the fact that the World Judo Championship was, at least in part, an excuse for the Russian president to make his second visit to Budapest this year. Since 2010 this is Putin’s seventh visit to Hungary. As Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, noted, Putin visits only dictatorships like Belarus and Kazakhstan that often.

While Putin was in Hungary the Senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed upon him the title of Civis Honoris Causa. Because of Putin’s busy schedule, the honorary degree was handed to him in Budapest. The university awards this degree to individuals for outstanding public and/or artistic achievement. Individuals who contribute in some way to the reputation or the financial well-being of the university are also eligible. Putin allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” There is apparently an arrangement with Rosatom that the university will create a center to train Hungarian engineers in atomic technology.

The University of Debrecen gave the first such honorary doctorate in 2012 to George Habsburg, the grandson of Charles IV, the last Hungarian king. In 2016 the recipient was Rudolf Schuster, the former president of Slovakia. A couple of days ago László Majtényi, head of the legal think tank EKINT, sarcastically inquired when the university will bestow its fourth Civis Honoris Causa to Recep Erdoğan.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin at the World Judo Championship

Some time ago the Hungarian government promised 3.5 billion forints for the restoration of Russian orthodox churches. This pleased Putin to no end, but little work has been done on the buildings. A few days prior to Putin’s arrival the government decided to expedite matters by buying the old orthodox church in Tokaj from the municipality for 313 million forints. After this purchase the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church will be able to begin restoration work on the building. The money for the restoration also comes from the Hungarian government.

Political scientists who got together yesterday to discuss Russian-Hungarian relations pretty much agree on what Russia’s foreign policy aims are and how it uses Hungary to achieve its goals: weakening of the European Union and NATO, achieving acceptance of the annexation of Crimea, and ending sanctions against Russia. But when it comes to the question of Hungarian policy toward Russia, the analysts are stymied, mostly because the Orbán government doesn’t communicate in a transparent manner on the subject. They noted that the relationship between Putin and Orbán seems to be close and friendly, although others are convinced that the great friendship between the two leaders doesn’t really exist and that perhaps there is even friction between the two men.

Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz is one of those journalists well versed in foreign affairs who finds this visit worrisome. He called attention to the fact that no statement was released about the visit on the government website. The only notice on the visit was released on August 28 at 2:00 p.m. by MTI, the Hungarian wire service. It quoted the press secretary of the prime minister, who announced that “after the successful Aquatic World Championships another sports event will begin in the Hungarian capital…. The prime minister on the day of the opening and on the following days will have discussions with sports and state leaders, for example with Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation; with Vladimir Putin, the honorary president of the International Judo Federation and president of Russia; with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee; and with Kaltma Battulga, the head of the Mongolian Judo Association and president of Mongolia.” Well, if that release isn’t strange I don’t know what is.

There’s no question that the Hungarian government was trying to minimize the visit as much as possible. I am not sure why, but this statement was truly bizarre. Mentioning Putin only after the president of the International Judo Federation and placing his position in the Federation ahead of his political status borders on the ludicrous. The Russian government refused to be a partner in this minimizing game and said that in fact it was the Hungarian government that invited the Russian president to Budapest.

Vörös also noted that the total cost of the Paks project was supposed to be about 12 billion euros, 80% of which, 10 billion euros, would have been covered by the Russian loan. In February, however, during Putin’s last visit, at the joint press conference the Russian president announced that Russia is willing to lend 100% of the cost of the project, “but then we must change certain parts of the contract.” It looks as if these changes have been made because Putin yesterday was talking about a Russian loan of 12 billion euros. Putin has been very eager to get the project underway as soon as possible and has been putting pressure on the Hungarian government, or to be more precise on Viktor Orbán. Some people fear that Putin is in possession of compromising information on Viktor Orbán, which the Hungarian politician certainly doesn’t want to become public knowledge. One thing is sure. Orbán, who before 2010 was a rabid anti-Russian politician, suddenly became a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

Aside from the nagging question of compromising information on Orbán, there is another problem. We know next to nothing about the details of the deal. Who knows what these changes in the contract entail? Why did the two men have to meet, especially since their meeting was extremely short? Why did they arrange this whole charade? We have no idea. In any case, if we can believe Péter Szijjártó, work on the Paks project will begin in January.

August 29, 2017

THE TRUE STORY OF BÉLA KIRÁLY, THE HERO OF THE 1956 REVOLUTION. PART II

Yesterday’s post on the career of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, ended with his practically overnight metamorphosis from Ferenc Szálasi’s faithful follower to chief of staff of the First Infantry Division of the Hungarian Army. At the time of his appointment, he received the rank of major, but a few months later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was nominated to the position by György Pálffy (1909-1949), lieutenant general and head of the military political department (KPO). Three years later Pálffy was to become one of the victims of the infamous Rajk trials. Király, who obviously didn’t want to call attention to his association with the military political department, asserted in his reminiscences that he came to know Pálffy only in 1948 when Pálffy became the inspector-general of the Hungarian Army. In an unpublished interview, however, he slipped and said that “Pálffy nominated and Jenő Tombor appointed me” to lead the first infantry division. Jenő Tombor was minister of defense for a very short period of time. He was appointed on February 4, 1946 and died a few months later, on July 25.

Portrait of Béla Király by Ferenc Simonyi in the early 1950s

The most reliable source on this period of Béla Király’s life is Ferenc Kubinyi’s Fekete lexikon, which was published in Thousand Oaks, California in 1994. Apparently Király was on friendly terms with Pálffy while he served as one of his counter-intelligence officers. Yet in September 1949, in the course of the Rajk trial, Király called Pálffy a traitor and demanded a life sentence for him at a public forum. This incident was reported in Magyar Nemzet at the time, and years later, in 2000, the journalist István Stefka asked him about the episode in an interview. He claimed not to remember, but, as he said, “under the circumstances one had to say something.” And, in any case, he added, his remarks made no difference as far as the fate of Pálffy was concerned.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in Béla Király’s life had to be in March 1990, shortly after he moved back to Hungary. Ferenc Kubinyi published an article in the March 21 issue of a weekly called Ring in which the author retold the story of Jenő Czebe, a lieutenant colonel working in the ministry of defense, who was arrested in February 1949. Kubinyi published Király’s incriminating testimony against Czebe, which Király called a forgery. But Kubinyi refused to back down, and his initial article was followed a few months later by another one in which further details of the affair were revelealed. In 1996 Kubinyi wrote a whole book on the subject (A katonapolitika regénye) from which we learn that, on behalf of the KPO, Király invited Jenő Czebe and his brother Valér to his apartment, where he initiated a conversation that led straight to their arrest. Naturally, the conversation was secretly recorded. Czebe, while attempting to escape, was shot dead; his brother Valér ended up in Recsk, the infamous secret concentration camp where thousands lost their lives because of the inhumane conditions. Király never managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the Czebe affair, which may have been the reason for Prime Minister József Antall’s suspicion of Király’s past. The case was definitely discussed between the two men in early 1990 because Király mentioned the encounter in his 2004 autobiographical book. He claimed that Antall tried to blackmail him with the Czebe story.

Fate eventually caught up with Király when he himself was arrested and sentenced to death in 1951. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. In jail he felt isolated: the right-wing political and military leaders who were imprisoned after 1945 despised him because he joined the communists, while the democratically-minded prisoners didn’t trust him. He described his prison term as being in a ghetto.

Király was freed on September 7, 1956, after which, according to his recollections of 1981, he was approached by three of his former fellow soldiers who called themselves pro-Imre Nagy reformers. They invited him to join their group, which was supposed to be Imre Nagy’s military contingent. This whole episode is the figment of Király’s imagination. First of all, there was no such military group among supporters of the future prime minister. Over the years Király desperately tried to come up with stories that would prove that Imre Nagy viewed him as someone he could rely on in times of need. At one point he concocted a conversation with Imre Nagy at the reburial of László Rajk and his fellow victims on October 13, 1956. According to this story, Imre Nagy recognized him and seemed to know that he had been in the hospital. Again, Király cannot keep his stories straight. He didn’t go to the hospital until October 17. Moreover, László Gyurkó’s book on 1956, published in 1986, quotes Imre Nagy during his trial as stating that “I didn’t know Béla Király, didn’t hear about him either directly or indirectly” prior to the revolutionary days.

October 23, the outbreak of the revolution, found Király in the central military hospital, where he had had a minor operation. It looks as if he was in no hurry to leave the peace and quiet of the hospital and that he decided to wait out the turbulent first few days. On October 28 he emerged from the hospital, even though the political situation at that time was still extremely volatile. By the next day, however, the situation was looking more promising. The most compromised political leaders were sent to Moscow, and Imre Nagy moved into the parliament building instead of using the party headquarters. Negotiations began with the Soviet leaders about troop withdrawals. It was at that point that Király decided to join the revolution. Within a day he was chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Armed Forces, commander of the National Guard, and commander of the city of Budapest. What Király did after November 4 is another story.

To be continued

August 28, 2017

The true story of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution. Part I

The other day a friend from Hungary sent me a brief e-mail with a link: “What do you think? For me this is too bizarre, especially because of Berkesi.” The link was to a Pesti Srácok article written by a certain Gábor Mező, who is apparently an associate of the Hamvas Institute, whose website is singularly short on any information about the institute’s activities. Mező claims that while doing research on an unrelated topic, he happened upon copies of documents that prove that Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, was an agent of the so-called Military Political Department (Katonai politikai osztály/KPO) of the Ministry of Defense. It was there that he found a statement by András Berkesi attesting to the fact that Király was his recruit and that Király dutifully reported to him on his fellow officers. András Berkesi did work for the KPO between 1945 and 1950, when he was arrested and sentenced. Yet he remained a loyal communist and fought, defending the regime, during the 1956 revolution. He became famous in the sixties as a celebrated author of crime novels.

According to these documents, former high-ranking officers, by that time in emigration, approached Király, who dutifully reported all the information he received from abroad and subsequently cooperated with KPO. As a result of his activities a fellow officer, Jenő Czebe, was uncovered. While trying to escape, he was shot. According to the document, Czebe’s fate was sealed by Király’s work as an agent.

Although I knew Béla Király quite well when we both belonged to a small association of Hungarian historians in the United States, by the mid-80s we lost touch. Of course, I knew that Béla returned to Hungary in 1990, where he ran for parliament as a candidate from the district of his hometown, Kaposvár. Occasionally I read short news items about his activities, which indicated a rather complicated series of political moves. At first he was an independent, but soon enough he moved over to the ruling, right-of-center MDF. It didn’t take long for him to become a member of the liberal SZDSZ. Király’s political career ended with him serving as a military adviser to Viktor Orbán (1998-2002).

Béla Király at the time of the 1956 revolution

Our fellow historian, Peter Pastor of Montclair University, was much closer to Béla than I was, and I decided to forward the e-mail with the link to him. Perhaps, I thought, he can shed light on that story. And indeed, Peter immediately answered and with only slight modifications authenticated the story. At the same time he promised me several articles that he had published on Béla Király, who died in 2009 and was buried with full military honors. Peter expressed his sorrow that the true story of Béla Király so far has been told by people on the right. It would be time, he said, for the left to face the fact that Béla Király was a fake who served every regime he ever encountered, including those of Ferenc Szálasi and Mátyás Rákosi.

I could hardly put down the material Peter sent me. Perhaps the most comprehensive summary of Király’s career, including a short description of his involvement in the events of the 1956 revolution, was Peter’s article “Béla Király in the light of his autobiographies,” which appeared in Memoirs and History (2012). I was mesmerized–and dismayed–by what I read. How could I have been so misled by this man? Both Peter and I had considered him a friend. But what is more important, how could he mislead a whole country?

The material I received covers Király’s career from 1912, when he was born, to 1956. During this period Hungary had a turbulent history. It seems that Király was the epitome of the survivor. His career was studded with betrayal and deceit. And yet, it is difficult to be a successful liar, especially if you live your life in the limelight and feel compelled to write and rewrite your life story. What Peter Pastor did was to compare his many published autobiographical writings and interviews and test them against what we know to be verifiable historical facts.

One must admire Király’s miraculously smooth move, within a few months, from being a faithful follower of the Hungarist/Nazi Ferenc Szálasi to being a secret communist party member in the military political department of the ministry of defense. When I call him a Szálasi loyalist I don’t use the term lightly. In January 1945 he received the high decoration of the military cross of the order of merit (Magyar Érdemrend Tiszti Keresztje). By that time Szálasi and his fellow Nazis, including Király, had moved to Kőszeg on the Austro-Hungarian border. Two months later, in March 1945, he was inducted into the Vitézi Rend, which became infamous recently because of Sebastian Gorka’s membership in the order. Keep in mind that by March 1945 Budapest was occupied by Soviet troops and that the war in Europe was rapidly coming to an end.

It was during his time in Kőszeg that Király began plotting his political survival; it was there that he decided to desert and go over to the Soviets. Of course, in his several descriptions, he greatly embellished his role in the events that took place there. Almost everything he wrote about the taking of Kőszeg by the Soviets was an outright lie. He was not the leader of the brigade defending the city, and he didn’t save Kőszeg from bombardment. Moreover, what he neglected to tell was that he stole the military vehicle of his superior officer and drove over to the Soviets, taking with him the documents of the military command.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the post-war years cannot help but wonder how it was possible for Király to become a full-fledged member of the communist party. My very first thought was: “But there were the ‘denazification commissions.’ How did he manage to pass?” Well, there is an explanation. At this time the so-called people’s courts were investigating cases of war crimes, and one of the many hundreds of people under investigation was Károly Beregfy, minister of defense in the Szálasi government. The prosecution needed more evidence against Beregfy when “unexpected help came.” As Pál Kornis, former party secretary of the military political department of the ministry of defense at the time, reports in a book titled I appear as a witness, published in 1988, “a civilian showed up from Kaposvár who was a direct subordinate of Beregfy and was ready to give information on Beregfy’s activities as minister of defense. Béla Király was an impressive, good-looking and a very well-prepared officer. It was with his assistance that we managed to close the case of Károly Beregfy.” Beregfy was condemned to death in March 1946. As Kornis puts it, Király “managed this way to get a transfer ticket to the new army.”

Király in his memoirs written in 1981 and 1986, i.e. before the appearance of Kornis’s book, maintained that it was Beregfy’s defense that called him as a witness. However, after 1988 he had to have an explanation for Kornis’s allegations. In the 2004 version of his life he admitted that he had been interrogated by Kornis on October 23, 1945 but adds that the information he provided was not substantial enough to call him to the witness stand. A little more than a month later, on December 2, 1945, Király sailed through the investigation by the ministry’s denazification commission.

To be continued

August 27, 2017

Hungary is waiting for an apology from the Netherlands

Gajus Scheltema, who has been the Netherland’s ambassador to Hungary since 2013, is now retiring from the diplomatic service. He has been a diplomat since 1978. Prior to his current post he served in Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Belgium, Romania, Jordan, Pakistan, and the United States. In brief, he is a seasoned diplomat. Therefore, his farewell interview in 168 Óra cannot be viewed as some horrible diplomatic faux pas. In fact, a careful reading of the interview reveals a man who is meticulous in his wording. What did Ambassador Scheltema say that so infuriated Viktor Orbán?

The interview itself is fairly lengthy, but there are only two sentences that set off the government. One came in the middle of his observation that the terrorists, as the losers in globalization, have turned toward extremism and fanatical religiosity because it gives them a feeling of security. “They create enemies along the same principles as the Hungarian government does.” The second sentence was embedded in a discussion about Hungarians’ inability to reach compromise, as opposed to the Dutch practice of constant negotiations. “Here, on the other hand, there can be only pro or con positions. Someone is either with us or against us. This is a classic Marxist viewpoint.”

The fact is that there were several other critical remarks, which most other governments would have found much more insulting than the two the Orbán government focused on. For example, this absolutely straightforward assertion that “We cannot finance corruption. We cannot keep alive a corrupt regime.” I cannot think of a more damning comment than that. Yet the Hungarian government didn’t find any reason to object to it.

Therefore, my suspicion is that this uproar over the Dutch ambassador’s interview is once again, as so often in the past, for domestic consumption. How many people read 168 Óra? Very few, and therefore only a small group of people will ever hear the ambassador’s harsh words about their corrupt government, which is kept alive by money coming from the European Union. And officially complaining about the ambassador’s calling the Orbán government corrupt would have meant disseminating an uncomfortable truth that the majority of the Hungarian public are also aware of. So, instead, the government picked on statements they thought would rile Hungarians against the European Union via the Dutch ambassador. Someone compared us to terrorists? Someone called us Marxists? It is unacceptable and we demand satisfaction.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema

Péter Szijjártó’s initial reaction on Thursday, right after the interview was published, was quite mild. He simply said: “Let’s hope that the Dutch ambassador will leave soon.” A day later, however, he opted for a much stronger response. I suspect that Viktor Orbán, who had just arrived from his three-week vacation in Croatia, instructed Szijjártó to make a forceful move that would have reverberations internationally. Actually, Szijjártó doesn’t need much prodding when it comes to aggressiveness. In this case he announced that “relations at the level of ambassadors have been suspended indefinitely,” asserting that this move is “one of the most radical steps in diplomacy.” He announced that Hungary “won’t settle for an explanation behind closed doors.” They will be satisfied with nothing less than “a public apology.”

I must say that the Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, didn’t show himself to be a nimble diplomat in this case. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to the Hungarian way of conducting diplomacy, but he crumbled instead of standing by his ambassador. In the course of a conversation with reporters he admitted that he was “embarrassed” because “it’s clear there is no link between terrorism and the actions of the Hungarian government.” At the end, he added that he couldn’t “imagine that this is what the ambassador wanted to say.”

The fact is that Scheltema said nothing of the sort. He wasn’t talking about a direct link between terrorism and Hungary. Rather, he pointed out that creating nonexistent enemies enables people to justify their own actions. The terrorists create enemies who are set on destroying them and who should therefore be punished. Similarly, the Hungarian government creates its own foes in order to justify its constant attacks on the European Union and clandestine international forces. The Orbán government needs these antagonists in order to prove to the populace that the country is in danger and that it is only the current regime that is fighting for their independence and well-being.

The Orbán government might have avoided a reference to the corrupt regime Ambassador Scheltema was talking about, but Egon Rónai of ATV didn’t miss the opportunity to quiz Péter Szijjártó on the subject. Members of the Orbán government are infamous for not wanting talk to the media, and there are certain outlets that are considered to be forbidden territory. One of these is KlubRádió, especially György Bolgár’s program “Let’s Talk It Over.” Another is HírTV, which is boycotted because its owner is Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old friend turned enemy. ATV, although it is not considered to be a pro-government outlet, still manages to have some government officials as guests.

Yesterday Péter Szijjártó was being interviewed on “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). The interview was supposed to have been on Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with the Slavkov Three instead of the Visegrád Four. But then the controversy over the Dutch ambassador emerged. Egon Rónai asked Szijjártó about Scheltema’s labeling the Hungarian government corrupt. Szijjártó’s answer was priceless. He complained that foreign politicians accuse them of corruption, but when he asks these people to give particulars they cannot come up with anything. The accusation is ridiculous because a corrupt country cannot be economically successful. Hungary happens to be very successful, and therefore such allegations are baseless. When Rónai interjected and called attention to the incredible amount of convergence money coming to Hungary, Szijjártó’s reaction was to belittle the significance of these funds. However, as 444.hu pointed out, a new study just showed that without the convergence money the Hungarian economy would be 6% smaller and the level of investment two-thirds of the present level.

As for the unfinished business between the Netherlands and Hungary, the government made sure that no one forgets about it. Gyula Budai, who is currently undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, gave a press conference at which he said that the Hungarian government is still waiting for the apology. It is a mystery to me what an agricultural undersecretary has to do with this diplomatic quarrel. Maybe no one else was in town this weekend.

Otherwise, the Hungarian foreign ministry is waiting to see whether its demand will be met. On Monday, “a decision will be made about the next step to be taken.” Prior to the final decision, Szijjártó will speak to the returning Hungarian ambassador and the Hungarian chargé will pay a visit to the Dutch foreign ministry.

The general sentiment in the Netherlands is that an apology will not be forthcoming. And then what? Interestingly, when a Russian official called the 1956 Revolution a counterrevolution ignited by the CIA, the Hungarian government said nothing. It also remained quiet when former Romanian president Traian Băsescu said that the real border between Romania and Hungary should be the Tisza River. But when it comes to one of the important countries in the European Union, Viktor Orbán behaves like a lion ready to pounce.

August 26, 2017