Category Archives: Hungary

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition

In the last three days the government propaganda machine has been busy churning out gory stories about the domestic affairs of Péter Juhász, chairman of Együtt. In a way, these latest accusations against Juhász should not have been unexpected. He is a controversial man whose life has been under scrutiny for a long time. Since he was at one point a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana, he was accused of being a regular drug user. There have also been questions about his finances. His political enemies, who are numerous, found his lifestyle far too lavish in view of his extremely modest income. A father of three small children with a non-working partner, he claimed to live more or less on charity.

One of the problems with Juhász as a politician is that he comes from a civic activist background, and his transformation has not been seamless. He has always been attracted to unusual methods of protest, which I personally found politically futile. A small group of people armed with whistles may make Viktor Orbán uncomfortable for a few minutes, but it is not the most effective way of protesting the increasingly oppressive regime of Viktor Orbán. And Juhász’s efforts to call attention to the incredible corruption in District V (downtown Budapest) were worthy, but I questioned his tactic of staging less than successful anti-corruption demonstrations. These anemic mini-demonstrations only reinforced the perception of the opposition’s powerlessness and lack of followers.

Juhász also has the bad habit of talking too much about himself and his problems. Unfortunately, he is simply unable to refrain from engaging in a dialogue or an argument. Now that the government media got hold of some court records in connection with Juhász’s parting with his girlfriend of nine years and his fight over visitation rights for his children, he couldn’t stop himself from telling the world the exact nature of his encounter with the mother of his children. The case is still pending, and admitting details that may not serve his interest is outright foolish. A give and take between these former partners on the pages of Facebook is also not the smartest move.

The right-wing government media accuses opposition papers of simply ignoring the case because the events described in the court documents reflect badly on one of their own. After all, Juhász, whose party took a stand against domestic violence, is now being accused of physically and psychologically abusing the mother of his children. It is true that relatively few opposition papers ran stories about Juhász. Even Alfahír, the online news site of Jobbik, ignored the story. In fact, János Volner, Jobbik’s deputy chairman who was himself the object a somewhat similar attack, expressed his sympathy for the beleaguered Juhász. One reason for the left-of-center media’s reluctance to cover the story is that they were disinclined to rely on the reporting of government propaganda outlets like 888, Pesti Srácok, and Ripost. They know from experience that their stories are pieced together from half-truths and under scrutiny don’t stand up.

But it is not true that all respectable left-of-center papers ignored the story. Both HVG and Index devoted a couple of articles to the Juhász case. Index’s article is balanced. It quotes Juhász’s own defense on his blog but at the same time reports that Juhász admitted to Index that he and his girlfriend had a scuffle in which the woman could have been hurt. HVG takes a much stronger position in an article by Judit Windisch. It is immaterial whether the accusations are well founded or not, says Windisch. “Juhász lost the political match; from here on he can fight only for his children.” This assessment may be harsh, but I’m afraid it is an accurate description of the situation.

Juhász’s problem is certainly not good news for Együtt, which under his joint stewardship with Viktor Szigetvári has become totally isolated. Gergely Karácsony and Párbeszéd left them and joined MSZP, and in the last year or so a lot of people have abandoned the party. The last person of note to jump ship was Zsuzsa Szelényi, Együtt’s only member of parliament, who left the party partly because Juhász and Szigetvári were ready to strike a deal with Fidesz during the debate over advertising surfaces and partly because she disapproved of Együtt’s inflexibility during the inter-party negotiations.

Today’s papers reported that Együtt is starting a “telephone campaign” next week. Juhász and the Együtt candidate in each electoral district will phone people and urge them to support their party. Whom are these people kidding? Yes, the party will receive financial support from the budget, but they should keep in mind that if they don’t garner at least 1% of the popular vote that money will have to be paid back. In the interim, they only splinter the already terribly fragmented opposition.

Originally, during the MSZP-DK negotiations, two Budapest electoral districts were left open for Együtt and Párbeszéd: District I and District XXI. The assumption all along was that it would be Péter Juhász who would stand against István Hollik (KDNP) in District I, who had replaced the terribly unpopular Antal Rogánas Fidesz’s candidate. Winning the seat in this very conservative district would be a long shot under the best of circumstances, but with this new baggage Juhász’s chances are nil. And there is no one else who can successfully challenge Hollik. The hopelessness of the situation became clear this evening when five contenders for the District I seat gathered for a debate. Hollik didn’t show. His excuse was that these opposition figures are George Soros’s agents.

From left to right: Pál Losonczy (Jobbik), Márta V. Naszály (MSZP-Párbeszéd), Antal Csárdi (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and András Fekete-Győr (Momentum), Electoral District #1

The interest in the debate was considerable, and not surprisingly most of the questions centered on the candidates’ opinion about the chances of winning, given the fractured opposition, which the gathering amply demonstrated. Jobbik was represented by Pál Losonczy, who is currently a member of the district council. András Győr-Fekete of Momentum would like to win in this district, as would Antal Csárdi of LMP, who in 2014 was LMP’s candidate for mayor and received 5.69% of the votes. Naturally, Péter Juhász was also present, but because MSZP-Párbeszéd couldn’t agree with Együtt about coordinated candidacies, MSZP has its own candidate, Márta V. Naszály (Párbeszéd). Thus, currently there are six candidates, counting Fidesz-KDNP’s István Hollik, to represent the district in the next parliament. This gathering, if nothing else, gives us an accurate picture of the total chaos that exists in opposition forces.

The audience apparently urged them to unite, but only MSZP-Párbeszéd’s Naszály asked everybody to stand behind one candidate who would represent the democratic opposition. LMP’s Csárdi was the most inflexible, and he was met with disapproval from the audience. The overwhelming desire to have a united front is obvious at public gatherings and call-in-shows on Klub Rádió and ATV’s Fórum. If nothing happens between now and April 8, a Fidesz win is inevitable. The only question is just how large a win.

February 13, 2018

The way the world is beginning to see Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

In the last three days three articles have appeared in two leading English-language newspapers, The New York Times and The Guardian, about the systemic corruption in the Orbán government. The word is out at last: a crime ring, run by Viktor Orbán himself, has taken hold of the Hungarian economy. The beneficiaries are the prime minister and his family as well as a few friends and political cronies.

The foreign press’s new-found interest in the criminal activities of Viktor Orbán was ignited by a short article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal exactly a month ago. It reported that OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, had sent a report to the Hungarian government recommending that the authorities take legal action over “serious irregularities” in projects carried out by a company that was controlled by the son-in-law of Viktor Orbán. The very fact that Hungarians had to learn about this damning report from a foreign source says a lot about the lack of transparency in Hungary.

It seems that after almost eight years of brazenly embezzling public funds, 80% of which come from the European Union, the friends and family of the Hungarian prime minister are finally coming under scrutiny. Detailed analyses are starting to plumb the depths of the systemic corruption that has made a small group of people very rich in record time. On the basis of calculations by responsible and usually accurate investigative journalists, Viktor Orbán’s hidden wealth may amount to 300 billion forints, more than a billion dollars.

One of the two Guardian articles by Jennifer Rankin neatly lists all the corruption cases that directly involve the Orbán family, including the growing wealth of Lőrinc Mészáros, which may be only partially his own. The list Rankin came up with is most likely incomplete because sub-contractors do not appear in the databases. Since most of these riches come from the European Union, Viktor Orbán’s anti-Brussels rhetoric is especially jarring. The conclusion is that, as Miklós Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International, put it, “Hungary is now in the grip of party state capture.”

The article ends with a question: will the European Union have the courage to do something about this theft of EU funds? Between 2014 and 2021 Hungary will have received €25 billion from the European Union, which makes the country one of the largest per capita recipients of the EU’s economic development funds. EU politicians are aware of the wholesale robbery that goes in Orbán’s Hungary, but for political reasons they are avoiding tackling the problem. Ingeborg Gräßle, head of the European Parliament’s budgetary committee who visited Hungary a few months ago to take a ride on Viktor Orbán’s rather expensive choo-choo train, merely says that a new kind of “semi-legal” irregularity is emerging in these post-communist countries, including Hungary. Otherwise, she estimates that in 36% of the cases there is only one bidder for EU-financed government projects, and, let me add, the remainder is most likely fixed. But that’s not all. According to András Inotai, a Hungarian economist, in 2017 5% of the country’s GDP came from EU funding while Hungary’s economic growth during the same period was about 4%. So, all that money is doing mighty little good.


Düsseldorf Carnival 2018

On February 10 an in-depth article appeared in The New York Times by Patrick Kingsley titled “As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible.” Hungary is described as “a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.” What follows is a detailed description of the process by which Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve his goal of an illiberal state. A former Fidesz official described the present Hungarian situation the following way: “sometimes I feel like I’m traveling in a time machine and going back to the ’60s…. All the characteristics and features on the surface are of democracy, but behind it there is only one party and only one truth.” Viktor Orbán is described as one of the strongmen of the age, alongside Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump. “Although Mr. Orbán lacks the global profile of those leaders, what he is doing in Europe is seen as part of a broader decline of democracy in the world.”

This is what Hungary looks like from New York and London. But what has been happening since the OLAF report detailing István Tiborcz’s alleged criminal activities was released? First of all, the government has come up with a strategy to divert responsibility from Orbán’s son-in-law to Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s old friend-in-crime, now enemy. This strategy may work on the propaganda level but it will not be sufficient to save Tiborcz from prosecution. But we ought not worry about the future of Ráhel Orbán and her husband. The Hungarian prosecutor’s office has already announced that its investigation of the case will be long and arduous. I have no doubt that after an inordinately long investigation Tiborcz will be found innocent of any wrongdoing. The government propaganda machinery also concocted the story that the European Union’s anti-Orbán forces timed the release of the report to coincide with the national election. It is with OLAF’s help that Soros’s men in Brussels want to remove Viktor Orbán from the seat of power.

Otherwise, all eyes are on Hódmezővásárhely, where István Tiborcz’s business career began. To recap the story: Orbán’s future son-in-law needed money and a contract to establish his business credentials, which he didn’t have. Both were provided through the good offices of the prime minister. Orbán convinced his favorite oligarch at the time, Lajos Simicska, to put some money into the young man’s firm. As collateral, Simicska demanded a share of the business. After two years, Tiborcz and his business partner paid the loan back and Simicska retired from this business venture, which he had never actually run. As for the needed contract, János Lázár, today chief-of-staff of Viktor Orbán but then still mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, suddenly had a burning desire to install new public lighting.

The sleepy little town is now all over the media as a result of the details of the project, which came to light thanks to 24.hu. So, Lázár felt that he had to give a press conference right on the spot. After a general denial of any wrongdoing, he offered a description of the town’s business venture with István Tiborcz. Lázár’s fairy tale about the bidding process and the details of what happened afterward is especially amusing if one reads old articles on the town’s internet news site called Vásárhely Hírek. While there, I also decided to read up on the special election campaign for mayor, which is in full swing at the moment.

The election will take place on February 25. Of course, the scandal around István Tiborcz also touches on the town and the election. There seems to be some anxiety in Fidesz circles about the outcome, although a couple of weeks ago I was certain that the independent candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, who lost his job after he declared his candidacy and was so maligned by his pro-Fidesz parish priest, had not the slightest chance of making a decent showing. But in the last few days commentators have pointed out that the Hódmezővásárhely election is a unique case in the sense that neither Jobbik nor the left-of-center parties have put up candidates and therefore Márki-Zay is facing the Fidesz candidate, Deputy-Mayor Zoltán Hegedűs, alone.

The town was planning to distribute 10,000 forint vouchers to pensioners sometime in March, just before Easter, but, behold, the decision was made to disburse them before the election. The prime minister also invited Hegedűs for a cup of coffee in his office in the parliament, and Defense Minister István Simicskó paid a visit to town to make sure that everybody knows that the old military barracks will be renovated and the Hódmezővásárhely shooting gallery will be the very first one to open in the whole country.

Political observers often complain about Hungarians’ indifference to corruption, which they tend to view as a fact of life. Perhaps there is hope. If Márki-Zay makes a good showing in a town where the deceased Fidesz mayor received 61% of the votes, followed by Jobbik with 17.1% and MSZP-DK-Együtt with 15%, it will give us a clue about public sentiment. A Márki-Zay win could have a measurable effect on the national election on April 8.

February 12, 2018

MSZP-Párbeszéd held its campaign launch

MSZP’s congress, which also served as the party’s campaign launch, has concluded. Originally, the congress was supposed to be held in December, but until the last minute the MSZP leadership kept hoping that they would be able to convince Ferenc Gyurcsány to join them in creating a common party list. The other reason for the general sluggishness of the MSZP negotiators was their ardent hope that by announcing László Botka’s candidacy for the premiership in October the party’s standing would improve considerably. That hope was pretty well dashed by the end of the year. And then a somewhat unexpected turn of events brought Gergely Karácsony, co-chair of Párbeszéd, to the negotiating table with the leaders of MSZP. He said he would be willing to be the party’s candidate for prime minister but only if Párbeszéd as a distinct entity could join the socialists, forming an MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket.

Such a demand is reasonable when the two parties are of equal or close to equal weight, but Párbeszéd is a minuscule party with perhaps 1% of support in the electorate. And there was another impediment to a merger. According to the Hungarian electoral law, if two distinct parties formally join, creating a new entity, that entity must receive at least 10% of the votes to become a parliamentary party. Given the poor showing of MSZP of late, some people in the party thought that such a move would be too risky. Others, apparently the fiery Ágnes Kunhalmi included, warned against that kind of gloomy outlook, saying it would negatively influence the whole socialist campaign.

“Alliance for change” / Source: Népszava / Photo: József Vajda

Current thinking is that MSZP will be able to garner at least 15% of the votes, which translates more or less into a 15-member parliamentary delegation. In 2014 the common party list of MSZP, DK, and Együtt received enough votes for a 37-member parliamentary delegation, of which 29 seats went to MSZP due to a list on which MSZP members had an undue advantage. This time, in exchange for an attractive candidate in the person of Karácsony, the socialists seem to be a great deal more generous. Párbeszéd has three candidates in the first 20 slots, two of whom will probably be sitting in the next parliament.

Then there is the Magyar Liberális Párt of Gábor Fodor. It is even less significant than Párbeszéd, yet for some strange reason Party Chairman Gyula Molnár wanted Fodor to be part of the team. First, he suggested that Fodor run in the district that includes the city of Gyöngyös, Fodor’s hometown. Gyöngyös has a socialist mayor, whom László Botka recommended to be MSZP’s parliamentary candidate for the district. When the mayor was told by Molnár that plans had changed, he resigned from the party. But in the end it wasn’t Fodor who got the district but a young MSZP member from the area. The flip-flops gave the impression of a party that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

That was not, however, the end of the Fodor saga because Molnár still wanted Fodor to be part of the team and suggested him for the fifteenth slot, which is considered to be winnable. At that point a revolt broke out; Molnár was voted down 8 to 1. In the end a compromise was reached. Anett Bősz, one of the better-known members of the liberal party, was chosen instead of Fodor to represent the liberals. Perhaps Ferenc Gyurcsány’s experience with Fodor in 2014 made the MSZP leadership leery of trusting Fodor. On Gyurcsány’s insistence, Fodor got a top-notch place on the joint list, but after he was elected he refused to join the DK group, which needed only one more person to form an official parliamentary delegation. In any case, it is possible that Fodor’s long political career is over.

All this wrangling has done considerable damage not just to MSZP but also to the other left-of-center parties. Voters cannot understand their inability to set aside personal ambitions and coalesce into a united front. But it is easy to give advice from the outside. The creation of a party list is a difficult, emotional  undertaking. The mayor of Gyöngyös was practically in tears when he announced his resignation from the party. And Gergely Bárándy, who in the last 12 years was the party’s legal expert, announced his retirement from politics. The reason is most likely his slim chance of continuing his work as a member of parliament.

In addition, although I often point out that the left-of-center parties have a great deal in common and that they agree on the fundamentals of liberal democracy, there are still many issues that divide them. One such issue is their attitude toward the recent past. Együtt, LMP, Momentum, and to a certain extent even Párbeszéd look upon the socialist-liberal era before 2010 as political baggage that must be discarded. Something went wrong as early as 1990 and everything must begin anew. Obviously, MSZP and DK feel differently about the democratic accomplishments of those years.

The parties’ views on liberalism also differ sharply. Members of the socialist party are convinced that the reason for their loss of support was the party’s move toward liberalism under the chairmanship of Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, the chairman of Demokratikus Koalíció still maintains that it is his party that most clearly represents liberal values; it is the most market-friendly party and the most sensitive among the democratic parties when it comes to human rights.

There is also the question of voting rights for Hungarians living beyond the borders, which sets DK apart from the rest of the left-of-center parties.

Gergely Karácsony believes in a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), which sends people like Lajos Bokros, a man holding hard-and-fast views on the traditional market economy, into fits of apoplexy. But the left wing of MSZP must welcome Karácsony’s ideas on what he calls “szociális demokrácia” as something different from szociáldemokrácia, which is a political movement. My understanding is that Karácsony is talking about a democracy that first and foremost concerns itself with the betterment of its citizens’ standard of living. Other political leaders believe that the restoration of the rule of law is the first order of business, which will then lead in an organic way to a more prosperous life.

Karácsony is promising help for those who suffered at the hands of financial capitalism, both honest and corrupt. Just today, he said he would take care of those people who took out Forex loans and ended up with incredible financial burdens for decades to come. He would also compensate those who suffered losses as a result of the Quaestor scandal of 2015. Other parties, for example DK, are worried about financial promises that either cannot be kept or, if kept, would be economically disastrous for the country.

Let me close by pointing out a few positive developments. In two instances MSZP members gave up their electoral districts to non-politicians who might stand a better chance of winning. One of the most promising examples is economist Tamás Mellár’s electoral district in Pécs. In 2014 Fidesz won the district narrowly and with the help of LMP, which had its own candidate. Since then, the local Fidesz government has driven the city to the brink of financial ruin, so voters seem to be eager for a change. The other district is around Siófok, where the “star lawyer” György Magyar decided to run with MSZP support.

These are good signs, but LMP’s reluctance to cut a deal with MSZP-Párbeszéd and DK is still a serious impediment to the opposition’s chances against the government party.

February 11, 2018

Liberated from Russia? What does Viktor Orbán have in mind?

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó paid a visit to Bucharest on February 5, which the Romanian media described as “strange” and “extremely controversial.” These adjectives may not be an exaggeration since his Romanian counterpart, Teodor Meleșcanu, reluctantly received him only after Szijjártó’s persistent request for an audience. According to Romanian sources, Szijjártó was supposed to meet only Liviu Dragnea, president of the chamber of deputies, and Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, speaker of the senate, in connection with the reopening of a Roman Catholic theological seminary in Targu Mureș/Marosvásárhely.

HotNews, an English-language internet site, also noted that President Klaus Iohannis did not receive Szijjártó, although a few days earlier he extended an invitation to the Polish foreign minister who was visiting Bucharest. The paper reminded its readers that Szijjártó was the “one who banned Hungarian diplomats from participating in Romania’s national day celebrations” last December. Despite these dismal accounts of the trip, by the time Szijjártó landed in Budapest the visit had morphed into a triumphant encounter of historic importance.

According to MTI, Hungary’s official news agency, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed an agreement that will ensure the receipt of large quantities of natural gas extracted from the Black Sea. Szijjártó added that “this is Hungary’s first opportunity in the past decade to buy large quantities of natural gas from a source other than Russia.”

They managed to squeeze out a faint smile

Two days later, however, Teodor Meleșcanu made it clear that “no agreement or other bilateral document has been signed regarding gas export from Romania to Hungary or about other new projects in the energy field.” During a breakfast meeting “issues known to the public were reviewed … with no new elements.” They simply had a friendly or not so friendly chat about a gas pipeline, one of the projects of the “Connecting Europe Facility” which, according to the European Commission’s Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), is “a key EU funding instrument to promote growth, jobs and competitiveness through targeted infrastructure investment at a European level.”

The project is an onshore “pipeline from Bulgaria to Austria via Romania and Hungary,” known as the BRHA project. The pipeline will extend approximately 1,318 km and will have a delivery capacity of between 6.1 and 52mcm/day, depending on the geographic location. Work on the project began in July 2016 and the first phase of the project must be finished by August 2020. Meleșcanu noted that “the plan states that the interconnection will be made … according to a prescribed schedule, which is a condition for funding, and non-compliance … leads to losing the funds,” which is 40% of the total cost. Each side must finish its work within the prescribed time. The project needs no Romanian-Hungarian negotiations. On the other hand, Hungary might have to explain to the European Union and to Austria why it refuses to extend the pipeline to Austria and why it is instead diverting part of the Romanian gas to Slovakia. Judging from Meleșcanu’s description of his conversation with Szijjártó, the subject of Hungary’s plans for the gas once it reaches Hungary was not discussed.

Meleșcanu’s correction of Szijjártó’s misleading information didn’t deter Viktor Orbán from boasting about an alleged breakthrough in Hungary’s energy supply, something that is a result of his astute policies and his foreign minister’s superb negotiating skills. Yesterday, during the press conference held after his meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, he announced that three Hungarian companies had won a tender in Romania for gas delivery. “Within moments we will sign an agreement that will allow for the next 15 years the import of over 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Romania.” He declared that “the era of Russian gas monopoly will come to an end in Hungary … as we will be able to cover more than half of our imports from other, in this case, Romanian sources.” Orbán acts as if he didn’t know that “according to European regulation, we cannot speak of gas sources or infrastructures dedicated exclusively to a particular country,” as the Romanian Foreign Ministry explained. I’m afraid this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is doing.

The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since released an explanation that allegedly proves the correctness of the Hungarian interpretation of the arrangement with Romania. “The situation is terribly simple. At the auction for capacity booking held by Romanian and Hungarian pipeline operators, two Hungarian companies booked the Romanian-Hungarian interconnector’s total capacity after 2022 in the direction of the Romanian-Hungarian line. However, gas will be transported not only in this direction but also toward other countries. Therefore, the statement by the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs is meaningless.” My suspicion is that this will not be the end of the sparring between the Orbán government and the Romanians over the pipeline.

But that’s just one aspect of this affair. The other one is the jubilation over being free of dependence on Russia. Keep in mind that after only three months Hungary paid the first installment on the Russian loan, which was €78.2 million, and the first significant tender for the Paks project was won by a consortium of GE Hungary and Alstom Power Systems in competition with the Russian Silovie Mashini. Some people wonder what all this means. Is it a real diplomatic turn, just the usual peacock dance, or chaos in Hungarian foreign policy? At this juncture it is hard to tell, but it is possible that Orbán is contemplating a new strategy.

This morning I read an op-ed in The Washington Post in which the author used Jonathan Swift’s famous line that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it,” which led me to read his whole essay on “Political Lying.” There I found another passage that I found most appropriate to the subject of our story. “And my imagination this minute represents before me a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years’ reputation of the most skillful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.”

February 10, 2018

“Observer”: The Stop Soros bills–Hopefully only propaganda and nonsense

On 18 January the Hungarian government revealed its “Stop Soros​”’ package of three bills (SSB) targeting civil organizations “supporting illegal immigration:

–  Law on the social responsibility of organizations supporting illegal migration;
–  Law on immigration financing duty;
–  Law on immigration restraint order.

The disgraceful act made news around the world and sparked wide spread criticism from Al Jazeera and Bloomberg to Reuters and Yahoo and the alphabet in between.

There have been many bits of news and comments, which I would like to summarize for Hungarian Spectrum  here, including some parts of the SSB itself (in the unofficial English translation) and in Hungarian.

The Propaganda

The SSB package was tabled by the Interior Minister, but contrary to constitutional law, the so-called public debate is being managed by Antal Rogán’s “propaganda ministry,” which in the meantime is flooding the country with another tsunami of Stop Soros posters.

The preambles, descriptions, and justifications of the SSB repeat many of the government propaganda panels, the language of the preamble is uncannily reminiscent of the 1960s communist one: “The state has a duty to ensure the survival of the nation and to create a solid basis for future generations. It is the primary obligation and also the right of the Hungarian state to protect its citizens and our national culture. Recognizing the emergency, the Hungarian government has spent HUF 270 billion* from the budget to stop immigration.” ( The original budget for the fence was set at 20 billion.)

“Soros would resettle millions from Africa and the Middle East”

That is followed by another communist turn – the listing of the nefarious and damaging activities carried out by “the enemies within,” to use the old cliché, against the state, including “propaganda,” as any dissenting opinion or fact-finding report is labeled. “Any activity intended to promote illegal immigration and to intensify the migratory pressure is against Hungarian state interest and also causes quantifiable damage to the budget. The migration propaganda assists smuggling organizations and puts illegal border-crossers … at risk. Therefore a regulation is needed that identifies organizations that support migration and takes action against persons who jeopardize national security.”

The government of course claims that it is responding to the call by the people, all the people, one is led to believe: “The creation of the legislative package has been authorized by the citizens of Hungary: 98% of participants in the referendum clearly rejected the mandatory quota and 2.3 million people expressed their clear opinion in the national consultation on the Soros Plan.”

The numbers are coming from the government “consultation” process, which, as with most acts of the Orbán regime, is non-transparent and without outside control or scrutiny. Even access to the returned forms was denied, save for the one-hour-for-three-sites granted to Ákos Hadházy, who came out convinced that the numbers were grossly exaggerated. The government stalled for weeks before coming up with a figure close to that of the Fid voters’ number, yet “based on these results, Hungarians unanimously demand strong action against illegal immigration and promote strengthened protection of the borders instead of settling [migrants in the country].”

For those who know the Stalinist times, the language is pretty poignant – i.e. the government obliged “the people” with the SSB, but according to Antal Rogán the people are actually calling for even stronger measures, as it transpires from the more than 400 suggestions his office has received.

The Legal Nonsense

Both the text and the provisions of the SSB exhibit signs of a slapdash job hatched at the “Propaganda Ministry,” where only the desired effects are clear.

Act on the social responsibility of organizations supporting illegal migration*

Sec.1: “… an association and foundation seated and registered in Hungary that sponsors the illegal entry, relocation and residence of a third-country national … directly or indirectly from financial or property benefits originating from abroad shall be qualified as an organization supporting illegal migration.” [OSIM]

There are some fundamental legal problems from the very start here – who and at which point in time an entity qualifies as an OSIM, what is the redress/appeal against such a designation. It’s a gaping legal hole which leaves the whole SSB hanging in the air.

Sec.2.1 stipulates an OSIM “is obliged to notify” the court, but this is after the entity has been qualified as an OSIM. In view of this, the widespread criticism of the act for obliging entities to report their own violations of the law is on shaky grounds, which I’m not going to pursue.

The fact that only associations and foundations are included, but not companies or other legal entities, indicates the intention to target the NGOs, violating the principle of equality before the law. The other issue is the bizarre category of entity supporting an illegal activity. Under western law illegal activities are prevented and restricted, offending entities are punished, e.g. by fines, placing the entity under management or liquidation, but there is no example of classifying them as functioning law breakers.

Sec. 2 uses phrases like “OSIM that supports in any other way,” “to facilitate the unlawful,” “sponsors or otherwise supports” which make for an extremely broad scope, allowing for the incrimination of an entity for one of its members handing out a bottle of water; note the interpretation of the preamble that “The migration propaganda assists smuggling organizations,” making all participants accomplices.

Sec. 3  stipulates that if a foreign funded organization supports in any way other Hungarian entities, such support “shall be qualified as indirect financial or property benefits deriving from abroad” i.e., making the local organization also foreign funded. Since there are no limits on how far eventual assistance will carry the “curse,” numerous entities co-operating in other matters can be drawn into the foreign-funded NGOs category with its implications under the earlier law on these.

How about Sec 2.4 prescribing that an OSIM post “ its notification pursuant to Section (1) on the website pursuant to Section 2(5)-(6) of the Transparency Act and [illetve] in the media” ?! This unique, ham-fisted attempt to force NGOs to publicly “humiliate” themselves leaves numerous questions open: in what media, in what format, for how long, at whose expense, etc. (The Hungarian “illetve” can only mean “and” here.)

According to Sec 5.2, “If the OSIM fails to meet its obligations contained in the prosecutor’s notice, the prosecutor may initiate at the registration court that a fine be imposed in double the amount of the financial benefit originating from abroad.” This provision mixes the criminal law under which the prosecution office operates with the administrative law regulating the Registration Court.

Act on the immigration financing duty

The same problem of mixing different kinds of law arises in this act as well, where the tax office is to collect (Sec.6) a duty on the basis of Sec. 2:  “The  organization supporting illegal migration is obliged to pay an immigration financing duty if…” Here we also have the absurd concept of an entity being categorized as an OSIM and then punished by a regular duty instead of being punished for the particular illegal act. And only if the entity received benefits from abroad, which again violates the principle of equality before the law.

Act on immigration restraining orders

There is some misunderstanding of this act, I’m afraid,  since it has been widely condemned for introducing an administrative provision to restrict the movement of Hungarians as well, e.g., illustrated by the example of an absurd 8 km zone around the Vigadó border entry point on the Danube in the center of Budapest. (The misinterpretation may have come from  Sec.2.a which refers to “ a member of Parliament” in the Hungarian text without specifying which parliament.)

All of the elements of the act consistently refer only to “aliens…[or] third country nationals,” presumably non-EU citizens:

According to sec. 1 regarding “third-country nationals, in order to conduct alien police procedures in an unhindered manner, the minister in charge of immigration and refugee affairs … may ban any person whose residence in Hungary is contrary to Hungary’s national security interests or who poses a danger to the public interest, from the frontiers or from within an 8-kilometer zone of the frontier marks of the external borders.”

The above would still include people with resident status in Hungary, like NGO employees or representatives, journalists, activists or tourists who otherwise would be difficult to handle or intimidate (unlike the local ones, as the government may have assumed).

There are some drastic provisions restricting the appeal/judicial recourse in sec. 5.3.  “An immigration restraining order may be challenged on account of a breach of the essential rules of the procedure in a public administrative lawsuit within eight days.”  That is, the material facts and the judgment of the minister are incontestable. It should be recalled that the Orbán government has been pushing for the creation of a separate administrative courts system. On top of this there is the provision that “provisional measures of legal protection are not available in the lawsuit,” i.e. the judge cannot change the detention, confiscation, etc. measures taken until the end of the process.

It is almost laughable to read Sec. 3 mentioning “the period of the crisis situation caused by mass migration,” which the government still keeps in force even though there have been almost no migrants at the borders for a year now.

Impact on the NGO sector

The SSB follows on the heels of the 2017 Act LXXVI NGO Law on foreign-funded  organizations, which the European Commission recently contested in the European Court of Justice, and emphasizes the general strategy to eliminate all independent  institutions, in this case the NGOs –the real goal of the huge and hysterical government campaign, along with the scare mongering – vote winning double whammy.

The TASZ (Civic Liberties Union) has summarized the expected impact very well:  “Following up on the 2017 NGO Law on foreign-funded organizations, the latest draft laws are potentially lethal blows to civil society in Hungary: their novelty is that the threat is now existential and also targets individuals. Should the proposals be adopted in spring 2018 without major changes, they will cause grave and irreparable damage to Hungarian civil society. By the end of 2018, a number of NGOs will be unable to function or carry out core work due to five direct and imminent threats to their mission.

I. Funding for essential services will be cut and driven away

  1. All foreign donors who directly or indirectly give funds to targeted Hungarian NGOs should calculate losses, as their funds will be partly (25% tax) or fully (200% fine) seized by the government;
  2. The risk of the government taxing funding in an arbitrary manner could make yet unaffected donors pull away from funding civil society in Hungary;
  3. Domestic funding for the work of the civil sector is largely available from public funds administered by national or local government agencies, which is already politically conditioned and discourages public advocacy or exposing faulty or inefficient public services.

II. Trust in civil society and willingness to seek assistance will decline

  1. Smear-campaigns, compliance procedures and investigations will further stigmatize and discredit NGOs by accusing them of performing illegal activities;
  2. Authorities would gain access to the data of all persons working for, contracted by or receiving assistance from NGOs, thus intimidating individuals from supporting, working for or seeking help from them;
  3. An estimated 80-85% of about 900-1,000 prominent NGOs risk losing public benefit status, i.e. tax-free status and other advantages. This will dramatically raise costs for NGOs and for clients, who will have to pay taxes after the value of free services/assistance (15% personal income tax + 19.5% health care tax).

III. Sanction procedures and targeted tax investigations drain and divert NGO resources

  1. NGOs that have refused to register under the 2017 Law on foreign-funded NGOs can expect to face legal procedures for non-compliance once they publish their annual financial reports at the end of May 2018. These procedures are likely to roll out during the summer and will further aggravate the pressure.
  2. Politically-motivated tax investigations could pave the way for repressive criminal prosecutions against NGO leaders and human rights defenders.

IV. Threatened by enhanced government surveillance measures, NGOs will be effectively silenced

  1. Human rights defenders who work with targeted organizations could be declared a national security risk and be subjected to arbitrary and unlawful restrictions on their freedom of movement;
  2. NGOs will have to assume their work and staff are being monitored by intelligence services, pressuring them into self-censorship and impacting their families;
  3. Stigmatizing civic groups and individuals as national security risks will have a chilling effect on other groups, supporters and clients by sending a clear message that at any point in time they could become targets as well.

V. Serious risk of ‘mimicry effect’ by potential Europe-wide copying of worst practices related to shrinking civic space l. The proposed laws could serve as a model within the EU to thwart the valuable work of civil society organizations that fight for the respect of human rights in the European Union, a danger that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has recently underlined.”

The conclusion is not difficult to arrive at: “The recently announced anti-civil organization bill is deceitful, arbitrary and harmful. It is deceitful because it creates the appearance that its purpose is to stop illegal immigration, while in reality it wants to crush the entire civil society. It is arbitrary because the government seeks to determine what would constitute a problem for the people and who is entitled to solve it. In a democracy, this kind of restriction is unacceptable. Finally, the new act is harmful because removing public-interest status from  organizations that receive a majority of foreign support could result in all Hungarian citizens being deprived of free civil assistance.”

*The quoted passages are taken from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s unofficial translation of the Stop Soros laws.

January 9, 2018

Viktor Orbán’s favorite Jews: Slomó Köves and his tiny Chabad congregation

It often happens that topics that catch my imagination at first seem simple and straightforward, capable of being adequately covered in a blog post. But then the unpleasant recognition comes that the subject is actually hellishly complicated and cannot be dealt with in its initially conceived form. This is what happened today when I decided to write about the political endorsement of István Hollik, the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s candidate in District #5 in downtown Pest by, of all people, Rabbi Slomó Köves, the founder of the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH).

On the surface the story is uncomplicated. István Vágó, the popular television “quizmaster” of the Hungarian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” turned politician, discovered a Hollik campaign flyer with the following endorsement: “Jewish cultural and religious life in downtown Budapest has been revived. For the continuation of this renewal and for the preservation of the Jewish communities’ peaceful life and security we need help. In the person of István Hollik I see a guarantee of all the necessary assistance for our cultural and religious attainment” — Slomó Köves, leader of the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Vágó without any comment posted the flyer on his Facebook page. The comments that followed were uniformly negative.

Viktor Orbán’s “favored” Jewish group is Köves’s congregation, which is allied with the Chabad movement. Many people suspect that he uses it against Mazsihisz, the mainstream umbrella organization of Jewish communities. Köves’s group has been the recipient of considerable amounts of money, grants and loans, although it is hard to tell just how much money it has received from the Orbán government because EMIH refuses to reveal its secrets. Only recently Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists, tried to force Köves to give account of the public money his organization has received in the last seven years, but after six months of “hiding, delaying, and prevarication,” which included going to court, the congregation announced that it would supply the information, but it would cost Átlátszó 2,346,960 forints.

Last summer I wrote a post about a joint business venture of the Orbán government and EMIH, a kosher slaughterhouse that specializes in slaughtering geese. At the opening, Agriculture Minister Sándor Fazekas said that making food from water birds is a centuries-old tradition in Hungary, and therefore it is a “Hungaricum” which deserves financial support. EMIH received a 1.75 billion forint loan for construction, and the government will cover 15% of the cost of the planned enlargement of the slaughterhouse.

Mainstream Jewish groups and secular Jews are not the Orbán government’s favorites because they are not supporters of the regime. This small group of fundamentalists, however, is quite ready to cut deals with the powers that be. For instance, Köves supported the government when he declared that the anti-Soros campaign had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest last July, Köves was invited to meet the Israeli prime minister and his wife, while the leader of Mazsihisz wasn’t.

More recently the Orbán government sold the Zsigmond Király Főiskola (King Sigismund College) to EMIH, which Köves and Co. renamed Milton Friedman University. The Magyar Fejlesztési Bank (Hungarian Development Bank) provided a 1.1 billion forint loan for the purchase. Highlighting the close relationship between the Orbán government and EMIH, the Milton Friedman University is starting a course for future managers of sports facilities, including football stadiums. The sponsors are Defense Minister István Simicskó, Tünde Szabó, undersecretary in charge of sports, and Balázs Fürjes, the man who was in charge of the World Aquatic Championships held in Budapest last summer.

A Szombat editorial in eloquent philosophical terms pointed out the differences between EMIH and Mazsihisz’s affiliated congregations. “They represent two different worlds. Mazsihisz has its roots in the Hungarian Jewish past; its legitimacy comes from the saintly forefathers whose memories are guarded by today’s descendants…. Chabad is looking toward a messianic future.The relics of the past and the political actors of the present are merely instruments in the struggle for the desired Advent.”

However noble all this may sound, opponents of Slomó Köves’s close association with the Orbán government don’t appreciate Chabad’s yearning for the coming of the Messiah. What they see is an overly friendly relation with a regime that tries to whitewash the Horthy regime, which was complicit in the death of over 400,000 Jewish Hungarians. They don’t appreciate Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz-KDNP officials, including Hollik, praising Miklós Horthy as an “outstanding statesman,” and they are not convinced that Köves didn’t know that his statement was solicited for the sole purpose of the election campaign. They are not moved by Köves’s insistence that he would be glad to give the same endorsement to all those running for office, regardless of party affiliation. Föld S. Péter (actually Péter Földes) wrote a funny piece on the subject. “The democratic parties will most likely not rush to get endorsements from Rabbi Köves, although it would be decidedly amusing to read, right next to Rabbi Köves’s photo, the following in the leaflets of all opposition parties: ‘I see a guarantee of the assistance to Jewish religious and cultural life only in MSZP, DK, LMP, Együtt, Párbeszéd—the correct one should be underlined.’”

This Hollik-Köves encounter brought back old memories about Hollik, who has become in the last year perhaps the most vocal apologist of the Orbán government. He was one of those who emphatically denied any sign of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the midst of the anti-Soros campaign, which pretty much coincided with Netanyahu’s visit. Ildikó Lendvai, former MSZP chairman, wrote an amusing little article titled “István Hollik, the walking Jewish list.” Hungary was safe for Jews, Hollik maintained. He himself saw three weeks earlier, while driving, “two Jewish children, a boy and a girl, happily out for a stroll.” You can imagine what fun Lendvai had with this sentence.

Péter Juhász, who is hoping to run against Hollik in the district, wrote a letter to the rabbi, which includes the following: “In case on April 8 I get elected parliamentary representative of downtown Budapest, one of my first duties will be the removal of the shameful memorial erected [on Viktor Orbán’s insistence] on Freedom Square. It is regarding this matter that I would like to have a conversation with you as a rabbi, representing a section of the Jewish community. I would like to ask your support for the memorial’s dismantling. Please indicate a time when we can meet on Freedom Square.”

During several interviews Köves repeatedly stated that he would support the removal of the memorial dedicated to the victims of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. He also promised to speak to Hollik and tell him that he disagrees with him about the statesmanship of Admiral Horthy. He was warned by his opponents that he then might as well talk to Viktor Orbán himself.

Here we see a clash of opposing worldviews. Chabad-affiliated EMIH doesn’t care about the source of its money as long as that money goes to a cause that it considers  essential to its mission. The majority of Hungarian Jews, however, look upon the Chabad movement as something totally alien to Hungarian Jewish tradition, and they regard its close connection with the Orbán government, whose views on the Hungarian Holocaust are ambivalent at best, with growing apprehension.

February 8, 2018

Mafia-like criminal network around the Orbán family

A month ago The Wall Street Journal reported that OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, after a two-year investigation of 35 projects undertaken by Elios Innovatív Zrt. to modernize municipal street lighting in Hungary, found “serious irregularities” and recommended to the Hungarian authorities that they take legal action against the persons involved. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the principal owner of the company in question was his own son-in-law, István Tiborcz.

The company’s fraudulent activities were substantial. According to OLAF’s calculations, Tiborcz and his accomplices pocketed more than €40 ($49.8) million in EU funds through illegal business practices. Although the report was submitted to the Hungarian authorities, who apparently passed it on to the prosecutor’s office, the Orbán government was loath to make the report public even though, in the past, it had been more than eager to release such documents if they involved fraud cases before 2010.

I have written so many times about this case that I won’t bore regular readers with its details. Suffice it to say that by 2014, when OLAF began its investigation, it was obvious that the fabulous rise of Tiborcz’s company was due to his relationship with the prime minister’s family. By then one could also hypothesize that Tiborcz’s decision to switch from electrical and energy supplies to the installation of LED lighting was inspired by his future father-in-law, who was fully aware that the government had put aside 9 billion forints in EU funds for the purpose.

At the outset there were two problems: Elios needed money and it needed at least one city to entrust its project to Elios as proof of the company’s soundness. With the help of Viktor Orbán both problems were solved in short order. A telephone call to his friend Lajos Simicska, who had handled Fidesz’s finances ever since 1990 and who in the interim had become an extremely wealthy man, was enough to get the necessary capital. Simicska infused much-needed capital into the business of Orbán’s future son-in-law through buying the majority of the shares in the company. The second problem was also easily solved. János Lázár, mayor of Hódmezővásárhely and by 2010 head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, was more than happy to help Tiborcz out. By October 2011 Hódmezővásárhely was touted as the first city in the whole of Europe to use LED technology exclusively. Mission accomplished. Two years later Tiborcz and his partner bought out Simicska, and by the end of 2011 Lázár’s city was called “the European Los Angeles.”

But it seems that all of the advantages his ties to the Orbán family offered weren’t enough for the 24-year-old Tiborcz. He was also dishonest. What we didn’t know until now was how corrupt he, his associates, and the government authorities who dealt with him were.

Well, today we know. Or, more precisely, now we are beginning to learn the details of a mafia-like corruption ring engulfing Viktor Orbán and his family.

24.hu managed to get hold of a copy of the OLAF report that the Orbán government is so eager to hide. We know from a recent OLAF report, which was made public, that these reports are extremely long and detailed. This particular investigation covered 35 business transactions, so I assume it is a lengthy document. The journalists who gained access to the OLAF report had only a few hours to study it, so I’m sure there will be plenty more information trickling in as time goes on.

Momentum’s “gift” to the Prosecutor’s Office: “Accomplice, Accomplice” / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi

So, let’s start with what we now know. According to 24.hu, Tiborcz and Co. “misappropriated public funds” in a “criminal association” and “on a commercial scale.” There was a network of people involved in the wholesale fraud Elios’s business partners and their helpers committed. All 35 cases involved the “misuse of public funds,” and in 17 cases OLAF discovered organized criminal activity. There were all sorts of fraudulent activities involved, but perhaps the easiest to understand is that the same person on the same computer wrote up the competitors’ so-called “indicative offers” and in every case priced them exactly 5% and 7% higher than Elios’s bid. Later we learned that this person was one of the directors of Elios.

We already know some details of the fraud through the case of Szolnok’s contract with Elios. That case indicates that even government authorities who handle the European Union’s “environmental and energy efficiency operational program” (KEOP) helped Tiborcz win the contract by changing the parameters of the requirements on a Friday with a deadline on Monday to fit Elios’s specifications. The scheme worked the following way. Ivette Mancz, the Elios director in charge of public lighting, was also involved in writing the specifications for the job ordered by the municipalities. And once Elios finished the work, an “independent auditor,” INS Kft., inspected the finished work. The signature on the so-called independent audit, however, was Mancz’s. The scheme was foolproof: Mancz set the terms, Mancz’s firm did the work, and Mancz was also associated with the company that checked the results.

These revelations were naturally welcomed by all the opposition parties, whose politicians had already decided that the Tiborcz case is “the atomic bomb” they have been waiting for. Considering that the prosecutor’s office is solidly in Fidesz hands, I wouldn’t be too optimistic. Nonetheless, these disclosures shook even some Fidesz politicians. For example, in the city of Zalaegerszeg, whose city lighting was handled by Elios, two opposition members of the city council requested a copy of the OLAF report and, behold, 6 of the 12 Fidesz members supported the opposition. But it took only a few hours for the mayor to declare that, sorry, it was a mistake. The Fidesz members simply pushed the wrong button. As for the major opposition parties, they are up in arms. They seem to be concentrating on Chief Prosecutor Polt, who “will have to end up in jail.” Jobbik went so far as to demand Orbán’s resignation.

The Orbán propaganda media’s response will most likely follow the reasoning that Magyar Idők proposed in an article which appeared on January 20. It tried to shift the blame onto Lajos Simicska, who for a short time was the majority shareholder of Elios. Origo today published another piece along the same line. We can expect dozens of such articles in the next few days. In the meantime, investigative journalists will have a heyday exploring and exposing Elios’s fraudulent business affairs.

February 7, 2018