Category Archives: Hungary

János Háry in the country tavern

According to supporters of the Orbán government in the journalistic world, today is another milestone in the history of Fidesz propaganda. It was almost three years ago, in February 2015, that Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, in other words Lajos Simicska’s media empire, ceased to serve Viktor Orbán’s political interests. Simicska, the old friend and financial maverick behind Fidesz as a business venture, was no longer ready to follow Viktor Orbán on his march toward Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Viktor Orbán and his government were left high and dry without the all-important instruments of propaganda.

Admittedly, both Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió had by then become propaganda machines of the government, but Orbán wanted to replace all three Simicska news outlets. The first order of business was a pro-government newspaper. By September 1, 2015, Magyar Idők was ready to be launched. By January 2016, a radio station, Karc FM, was acquired and staffed largely by people who had left Lánchíd Rádió either for higher pay or for ideological reasons. A few months ago Lőrinc Mészáros purchased the little-watched Echo TV with the intention of making a second HírTV out of it. It was this revamped Echo TV that broadcast its first program today.

We are only too familiar with the quality of Magyar Idők. It is too early to tell whether the revamped Echo TV will attract a larger audience, but I doubt it because some of the most objectionable programs and anchors remain.

Karc FM has been on the air for almost two years. At the time of its launch Ottó Gajdics, who is the editor-in-chief of both Magyar Idők and Karc FM, believed that the radio station, which serves the pro-government audience of Budapest and environs, would need a bit of time for the Fidesz loyalists to find it and become faithful listeners. Just like the liberal Klub Rádió, it has a call-in show, “Paláver,” which offers a platform for right-wingers. “Paláver” is broadcast at exactly the same time as György Bolgár’s call-in show “Megbeszéljük” (Let’s talk it over) on Klub Rádió. Gajdics made no secret of his plans to establish a radio station that “first and foremost broadcasts programs for Fidesz voters.” Gajdics, in fact, succeeded in making Karc FM a vehicle for unabashed propaganda, with an audience that was described as “horrible” in the sense that “if there is the slightest move on the part of the anchor away from the party line, the callers label him a communist.”

About half a year after Karc FM was established, a journalist from Magyar Narancs decided to listen to “Paláver.” He found that at that time at least the favorite topics were migrants, gays, and Jews. The host of the call-in show barely ever contradicts the callers, no matter what outrageous stories they come up with. The general impression was one of “solid hatred oozing out of the mouths of the Fidesz loyalists.” Perhaps not getting involved in conversations with callers is wise. Zsolt Bayer, one of the people in charge of “Paláver,” got into trouble when Bernadett Szél reported him to the Médiatanács (Media Council) for threatening anti-government activists who dared demonstrate in front of the parliament building. In his usual manner, he promised to smash their faces and to drag them in their snot and blood if they ever show up again. Karc FM got off easy. It only had to pay a 200,000 Ft fine.

A few days ago Karc FM “Paláver” was in the headlines again. Index’s Comment.blog noticed that an older woman caller came up with an incredible story about George Soros’s Mein Plan, according to which the evil billionaire wants to abolish sexes; intends to make homosexuality compulsory; plans to get rid of borders; wants to import migrants into Hungary and to transfer Hungarians into migrant countries (those who refuse to move will be dispossessed and will have to live under the bridge, but only after they change religion); envisions foreigners buying up Hungary with the money landing in Soros’s hands. In fact, Soros has already made $200,000 billion on the deal. Finally, he promised to make drug use compulsory; to encourage pedophilia; and to revive SZDSZ, which should form a government but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány is willing to become prime minister. The woman swore that she read that on the Internet and naturally was shocked, but then she talked to three other Karc FM listeners who assured her that it was true.

Well yes, all that was on the Internet all right, but on the site of Hírcsárda (News Tavern), the Hungarian equivalent of The Onion. The journalist who was listening to all that nonsense was becoming a bit suspicious, but when she was told that the caller’s friends are also convinced that this is all true, she simply responded with “this is shocking.” After the final story, about the revival of SZDSZ, the anchor screwed up her courage and informed the woman that she “didn’t know this particular book of Soros” and/or that she is “not familiar with this translation.” Once that was over with, she proceeded to read all seven theses of the Soros Plan, according to the summary that appears on the questionnaire of the latest national consultation. The exchange can be heard on the November 29 program of “Paláver” after 5:10.

Of course, general hilarity followed reports on the story, but Válasz, a right-of-center news site, didn’t think it was laughable, especially in light of the fact that the elderly woman’s friends also believed the story. There is nothing new about panic and false alarms spreading as a result of a newspaper article, but politicians shouldn’t take advantage of the phenomenon, the article said. That’s all very well and good, but we know that the Orbán government fuels uneducated people’s fear of “fake news.”

News Tavern Fake News Site! / Established in 1351

The anchor in question, Kata Jurák, is up in arms and calls the articles that appeared in the opposition media “a cocktail of lies.” Jurák also writes editorials in Magyar Idők, where her “refutation” appeared. In the article she insists that she “refuted the caller’s allegations and tried to convince the lady that what she was reciting was not written by Soros.” At the end, she “cut her off and read those ideas that were actually written by Soros.” It is true that she read the “seven theses” of Soros as summarized in the national consultation on the Soros Plan, but she didn’t refute anything. I have the feeling that these journalistic hacks are afraid to correct even the most obvious lies that their listeners come up with because otherwise they will be accused of standing on the side of the migrants and Soros and not defending the nation against all the perils of the world.

December 4, 2017

Food for thought: Poverty, charity, and civil society

It was almost three years ago that the Ministry of Human Resources compiled a long list of words that were deemed unsuitable for use by ministry employees. Among the hundreds of words, one of the first was “szegény” (poor). “Poor settlement” was banished; in its place ministry employees were supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” A “poor person” was no longer poor but “rászorult” (in need). To learn more about this modern Hungarian newspeak, you might want to read my post on the subject from February 2015.

Now the ministry has gone even further in trying to hide poverty and human misery. For years civic organizations have been feeding thousands of people in Budapest and other larger cities. The best known such group is “Ételt az életért” (Food for life), which was established by the Magyarországi Krisna-tudatú Hívők Közössége (Community of Krishna-Conscious Believers of Hungary). The activists from this community are most visible on Blaha Lujza Square during the Christmas holidays, at Easter, and on October 17, which is the international day for the eradication of poverty. In addition, the group distributes 1,800 meals every day at various locations. One needs a permit for food distribution and a permission from the district to hold the event outdoors. People line up for a warm mid-day meal every day between Monday and Friday. According to the organizers, a few years ago the “customers” were mainly homeless people, but by now whole families, unemployed people, and pensioners also frequent the Krishna group’s food distribution centers. According to the leader of the Debrecen group of “Ételt az életért,” by now only 30% of those seeking a meal are actually homeless; the others are “poor” people or “in need,” if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources, prefers that designation.

Source: MTI / Tibor Illyés

It has been noticed for some time that municipalities were increasingly reluctant to grant permission to distribute food outdoors. The city of Debrecen has gone further than that. The Fidesz majority voted to require those nonprofit civic groups that distribute food to pay a fee for the space they occupy. Admittedly, they asked for a ridiculously small amount of money, altogether 350 Ft., which cost the sender 750 Ft. in postage, but for a charitable organization to be required to pay, however little, to distribute food to the needy is truly outrageous. Suspicion has spread that the government has plans to put an end to this kind of charitable activity on the part of civic groups.

And indeed. Népszava learned on November 25 that the ministry of human resources has been busily preparing a modification of a ministerial decree on food distribution. The word was that the changes have already been agreed upon and that at the moment the ministry is circulating the modified decree among other ministries for comments. The gist of the new decree is that only governmental, municipal, and religious organizations will receive permission to distribute food.

Civil activists suspect that the long lines of clearly not homeless people irritate the Orbán government to no end. Contrary to the incessant success propaganda, people see the darker side of Hungarian reality when lines of hungry people form on the streets. The latest Eurostat data attest to the fact that 26.3% of the population, or 2.54 million people, are considered to be poor. A subset of that group–16.2%, or 1.4 million people–lives in deep poverty in Hungary. The number of Hungarian children threatened by deep poverty is the fourth highest in the European Union, after Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In addition to its reluctance to allow these people to gather on the streets, waiting for a meal, the Orbán regime is also on the warpath against civic groups that are involved in such activities. The Fidesz leaders are most likely not mistaken when they see adversaries in those who gather in these civic groups.

Népszava got in touch with the ministry of human resources, which took its sweet time in confirming or denying the information the newspaper had received about the impending modification of the law. Earlier, the paper had inquired about the government’s use of money received from the European Union for that purpose. In Hungarian it is called “Rászoruló Személyeket Támogató Operatív Program” (Operative program for the assistance of needy people). At that time Népszava was told that the Hungarian government has 34 billion forints for this program, out of which 4 billion will be spent on feeding the homeless. Since the ministry certainly didn’t want to talk about the issue at hand, it repeated the old story about the 34 billion forints Hungary had received from the European Union, emphasizing that, in addition to the homeless, “food packages are distributed to old people and families with small children.” The ministry refused to confirm or deny the claim that the government intends to forbid the food distribution activities of charitable organizations.

The founder of the “Budapest Bike Mafia,” another civic group that is involved in food distribution, rightly said that “this whole thing is nothing but folly. To announce such a thing before Christmas would be the greatest mistake.” Moreover, he added, “one cannot ban helping people.” Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. Fidesz folks are quite capable of forbidding this type of charity, and I’m convinced that they have every intention of doing so.

Any kind of individual incentive is suspect in the eyes of the current political leadership. In the last eight years they have done their darndest to put an end to all local efforts. Just like in the Kádár regime: the population should remain inactive and quiet while the government takes care of everything. That might, however, be too generous a comparison. A lot of people critical of the Orbán regime are convinced that these people are so single-minded and self-serving that they don’t care about anyone else, especially not the poor and downtrodden. There might be some truth to that.

December 3, 2017

The plot thickens: George Soros enters Hungary’s forthcoming election

In mid-October I reported on a Jobbik stunt directed at the government’s campaign against George Soros. Earlier, Bernadett Szél, chairman of opposition party LMP, had asked for a copy of the Soros Plan, which naturally the government was unable to provide. Jobbik did her one better. It filed charges against George Soros with Károly Papp, the chief of Hungary’s police force. The charges were: (1) preparation for a violent change of the constitutional order, (2) conspiracy against the constitutional order, (3) destruction, (4) treason, and (5) rebellion. In support of the charges, they cited claims by Bence Tuzson, undersecretary responsible for communication, György Bakondi, chief adviser on domestic security, János Halász, Fidesz spokesman, Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on security, András Aradszki, who called Soros Satan, Gyula Budai, Fidesz member of parliament, Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, and Csaba Fodor, managing director of Nézőpont, a Fidesz political think tank. Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman, said that if Soros is guilty of all the things Fidesz and the government spokesmen accuse him of, he should be arrested and charged. At that time I added that I was sure that Károly Papp didn’t find Jobbik’s antic funny.

A month went by, and even skeptics were pleasantly surprised. After a thorough investigation, the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (National Investigative Office/NNI) came to the conclusion that, after all, George Soros poses no danger to Hungary’s national security. In their view, Soros’s suggestions about how to handle the refugee crisis were addressed to the European Union without any reference to Hungary. After perusing his writings on the subject, the investigators decided that Soros hadn’t urged anyone to commit aggressive or menacing acts. The government statements concerning “the political goals against Hungary of George Soros reflect only the opinions and subjective conclusions of the declarers.” No investigation was deemed necessary.

Some naïve people triumphantly announced that critics of the Orbán government are too harsh on the regime. Here is  proof that the police are not under the thumb of the government; they are capable of acting independently and are not afraid to say no to all the nonsense Viktor Orbán has cooked up for public consumption. The highest authority of the police department says that the whole thing is either a hoax or a political product. And so, after all, Hungary is not a dictatorship, and all those who say otherwise are falsely accusing the Orbán government of all sorts of misdeeds and of the willful destruction of Hungarian democracy.

Well, these people were far too hasty when they assumed the independence of the country’s investigative authorities. Yesterday we heard from Viktor Orbán himself, in his so-called interview on Kossuth Rádió, that he had ordered “an investigation of the composition, the operational provisions, and influence of the Soros machinery on Europe and Hungary.” It was his “duty to act and use all possible instruments of state—and that includes the intelligence apparatus and the secret police—against Soros’s Plan,” which not only exists but has a serious impact on the policies of the European Union. “That’s why I decided–that’s why the government decided–to deploy the secret service, and on the basis of their findings we would prepare a report. This report was compiled, and the government already discussed it on Wednesday.”

So, the investigation is finished, and I have no doubt that the secret service and the intelligence apparatus found that Soros’s machinery indeed poses a danger to Hungary’s security because, at the moment, this is the raison d’état Viktor Orbán needs. Mind you, as it stands, the Hungarian public will not be able to learn anything about the findings of the investigators because “one must be very careful in such cases.” Moreover, one doesn’t like to reveal one’s “hard-learned pieces of information.” But, according to Orbán, there is plenty of publicly available information that proves his point. He offered a quotation from the Open Society Foundation document made public by DC Leaks from August 2016. It claims that “we have supported leaders in the field, including think tanks and policy centers, civil society networks, and individual members of those networks, to shape migration policymaking and influence regional and global processes affecting the way migration is governed and enforced. This section considers [International Migration Institute’s] role in supporting these actors, our efforts to link our global and corridor-level work, and our engagement with peer donors.” There is no question in Orbán’s mind that because of the existence and likely implementation of the Soros Plan, Hungary is in real danger. “From this moment on, the question is the very existence of Hungary,” he claimed.

Although Orbán didn’t say outright that whatever information the investigators gleaned will remain classified for years,  that is in fact the case, as János Lázár in his more direct style announced at his regular Thursday afternoon briefing. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, called on the government “to stop manufacturing conspiracy theories and come forward with proof.” Politicians can come up with all sorts of nebulous talk about national security, but before his committee they must show evidence. The secret services will have a chance to do so next Thursday when the committee will have a hearing.

Viktor Orbán on Friday morning came up with a new accusation against George Soros. Not only does he have a plan that would destroy the country of his birth, on which he has spent so much of his own money, but he is also involving himself in the forthcoming national election as an active participant. Soros will mobilize his organizations, which will conduct anti-government propaganda. The Open Society Foundation “will strengthen its civic organizations, which in turn will pay hundreds and thousands of people. They will establish so-called civic centers, which will function exactly like parties in an election campaign. So, the Soros network and machinery have entered the race. Nobody is happy about this, but it is better to face the unpleasant reality than to bury our heads in the sand and be surprised.” At this point the new interviewer, who is even more subservient than the previous one, outlined the possibility of the Soros network coming up with “independent” candidates whom all the parties who are against the government will support. Orbán’s reaction to the suggestion was that he wouldn’t give advice to the adversaries of Hungary.

The following cartoon reflects the bizarre situation that is being created by Viktor Orbán and his advisers, on the one hand, and the ineffectual opposition parties, on the other.

“Soros entered the race”
“Wow, that’s wonderful. At last there is someone one can vote for” / Gábor Pápai / Népszava

So, this is where we stand at the moment.

December 2, 2017

Negotiations drag on, but there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon

Those who think that the most important task of the opposition parties is joint action and cooperation because otherwise there is no chance whatsoever of removing Viktor Orbán from power are pretty desperate. And angry, very angry. They express their deep frustration with politicians’ “selfish” behavior. They accuse them of caring only for their own careers. They charge that politicians seem to disregard the true interests of the country and place party politics ahead of the common good.

Many ordinary Hungarian citizens want to get rid of not only Fidesz but all opposition politicians as well. Their irritation is understandable. On the surface what people who follow politics see is a never-ending series of negotiations between MSZP, the Hungarian socialist party, and Demokratikus Koalíció, a liberal-democratic party. These two parties are considered to be “large parties” with their 10-12-14% share of the votes. The third largest party with about 7-8% of the votes is LMP, a green-anti-globalist party, which refuses to cooperate with anyone. In addition, Hungary has at least four or five even smaller parties. In all vital matters, like the restoration of democracy, the reestablishment of checks and balances, and the revamping of the electoral system, these people are of one mind, but when it comes to dividing up the political terrain, they are unable to look beyond their own narrow interests. At least this is the general perception.

I know that the situation is pretty grim, but I would like to point to a few hopeful signs. While news sites report on the real difficulties weighing down the negotiations between MSZP and DK, one can easily miss a couple of indications that behind the scenes small steps are being made toward some understanding.

Let’s start with the MSZP-DK negotiations over the division of the 106 electoral districts. For the longest time we heard that the negotiators were very close to an agreement. It was only a question of days. But then, weeks went by and there was no resolution. MSZP announced that they would give details of the final agreement with DK at their congress, scheduled for December 9. As might be expected, the congress must be postponed because it is unlikely that negotiations can be concluded prior to that date.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for the sluggish negotiations. According to Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the three DK negotiators, the three politicians representing MSZP don’t have the authority to make decisions on the spot. They have to go back to the party’s “presidium,” some of whose members accuse the negotiators, especially Gyula Molnár, chairman of the party, of being too soft. And they accuse DK of treating their party in a high-handed fashion. Some of them complain that Gyurcsány and Company are too aggressive and suspect, most likely not without reason, that DK wants to be “the only force” on the left. On the other side, Gyurcsány likes to remind his former comrades that they are no longer in a position to dictate terms as they did four years ago, with pretty disastrous results.

Apparently, some of the socialist leaders are so unhappy with Gyula Molnár that they have raised the possibility of removing him from the post of chairman, or, if not that, at least replacing him at the negotiating table with someone else. Fortunately for the socialists, that politically suicidal idea was dropped, especially since Molnár is, according to reports, anything but soft and consistently defends MSZP interests. For the next round, however, the socialists will be returning to the negotiating table with a much tougher attitude. The negotiators’ hands will be tied by prior decisions of the presidium. Such an arrangement is long overdue; after all, this is how the DK negotiating team functions. The DK presidium, for example, instructed the three negotiators that a common party list, which is at the core of MSZP’s demands, is out of the question.

The tug of war over a common party list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Hungarian party politics. I should point out that, with the exception of MSZP, no opposition party wants to merge its votes into a common party list. DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd are ready to divvy up electoral districts among themselves even if they are not entirely satisfied with their lot, but by insisting on separate party lists they can at least measure their nationwide support. On the other hand, MSZP, with its shrinking base, would like to bury its declining numbers in a common list. Four years ago DK suffered when MSZP insisted on reserving for MSZP politicians what later turned out to be an excessive number of places at the top of the list. DK most likely would have done a great deal better if its leaders had insisted on a separate party list.

This is where we stand right now. The socialists insist on a common list, and the party’s negotiators are bound not to agree to the DK position. In addition, there are a couple of districts that DK would like to have but MSZP is not ready to release. All in all, not too promising.

But there is some news that might lift the spirits. This morning Népszava reported that, according to their sources, Ágnes Kunhalmi, the most popular socialist politician, will be heading the MSZP list. This report was later modified to read that Kunhalmi will be “the face of the socialists’ campaign.” Even putting Kunhalmi forth as the “face of the campaign” is welcome news and should help MSZP recover its standing somewhat. It was a real shame that Kunhalmi was relegated to dealing with matters of education only and wasn’t used as a general spokesperson for the party, while real third-rates represented MSZP in public over the last four years. In 2014, at the time of the Budapest municipal election when the democratic opposition had trouble finding a mayoral candidate, she looked like an obvious choice to me. I think she might have surprised us. The idea didn’t occur to anyone.

Ágnes Kunhalmi

The other piece of promising news is that negotiations seem to be going on among DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd, and it looks as if they see eye to eye. They have lined up against MSZP, charging that MSZP is dragging its feet. Péter Juhász of Együtt complained that MSZP keeps sending messages but refuses to sit down to negotiate. So, the three parties demand the start of talks with MSZP. The trouble is that MSZP apparently refuses at the moment to sit down with all three parties at once, which is a rational decision on their part. As it is, the socialists feel threatened in a one-on-one situation with DK, and they certainly don’t need two other parties to deal with.

And finally, we often hear that LMP and Momentum are adamant in their refusal to talk to other parties as partners in the forthcoming national election. They will win the election alone, they claim. But, behold, there is a small by-election that will be held on December 10 in the town of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest. About two weeks ago it was reported that the locals found an independent candidate who will be supported by MSZP-DK-Együtt-Párbeszéd-LMP. Yes, LMP. This is a first, as far as I know. And the story doesn’t end here. Yesterday Momentum announced that it will join the others in support of the democratic opposition parties’ candidate. I should add that Jobbik will not take part in the election.

Perhaps there are still grounds to hope that reason will prevail and there will be a united front on the left. According to experts on the current electoral law, as long as there are only three candidates (Fidesz, United Left, and Jobbik), the left actually has a chance of winning the election.

December 1, 2017

Anne Applebaum’s encounter with Mária Schmidt

In an inversion of normal practice, the transcript of an interview that Mária Schmidt gave to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum appeared on Schmidt’s blog, Látószög (Viewing Angle). If Schmidt was the interviewee, how could it happen that that she was the one who translated the interview into Hungarian and published it? János Széky, a columnist for Élet és Irodalom, expressed his astonishment on Twitter: “I just don’t get it.” If Applebaum arranges an interview with “Orbánist ideologist Mária Schmidt, spewing govt propaganda, why is it published on Schmidt’s own blog first?” Good question. As far as Anne Applebaum is concerned, the interview, which she initiated, was part of a research project she was planning for next year. In Mária Schmidt’s version, the interview took place because she “wanted to understand the changes in [Applebaum’s] thinking; why the independence and freedom of the region is no longer important to her.”

Schmidt obviously considered the publication of this interview to be politically significant, so she made sure that the right-wing Hungarian media was informed of its impending release. Identical articles appeared in Origo and Pesti Srácok, two of the most extreme right-wing media outlets of the Orbán government, articles which I suspect she herself wrote. Both had the same title: “Mária Schmidt: We are in a war of cultures.” In it we learned that Schmidt and Applebaum used to be good friends, but because Applebaum wrote several articles recently that “attacked the Hungarian government and the region” they became somewhat estranged. She didn’t neglect to mention that Applebaum was the recipient of the Petőfi Prize established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society in 2010, when Schmidt was on the board of the foundation. The day after the Origo and Pesti Srácok articles, the official government-edited Híradó, which is distributed to all media outlets, announced the interview’s availability. Naturally, her newly-acquired newspaper, Figyelő, also called attention to it. She made sure that the rather lengthy interview would reach a lot of people.

Anne Applebaum began the interview with her reactions to one of Mária Schmidt’s articles, “The grave digger of the left,” which appeared in April on the same blog in which she published the interview. The grave digger is, of course, George Soros. Applebaum was not exaggerating when she said in the interview that the accusations Schmidt piled on Soros are “absurd”; they have nothing to do with reality. But that’s not the only trouble. As I said in the first installment of my two-part review of this infamous article, “Schmidt’s piece is the result of shockingly bad research” or, even worse, an offering of “alternative historical facts.” There is no need to dissect this deplorable piece of scholarship again, but perhaps a quick read of my summary might be in order.

I must say that I’m not as charitable as Anne Applebaum, who thought highly of Schmidt as a historian, at least until she saw this blog post on Soros. I wouldn’t even call her a historian. She is a propagandist. I have never read anything by her that I consider to be a serious piece of scholarship. She has been working hard for years to come up with an alternative Hungarian history and a newly minted present reality. It is time to give up the idea of finding common ground with the Hungarian far right or, as Anne Applebaum called them, the Hungarian “neo-Bolsheviks.” Almost two years ago, Applebaum gave an interview to a Hungarian journalist whose writings at that time were supportive of the Orbán government. He cornered her at the GLOBSEC Tatra Summit Conference, where she expressed her reluctance to engage in political discussions with supporters of the government who refuse to admit the real nature of the regime. I think her instincts at that time were right. There is no use trying to have a rational conversation with someone like Mária Schmidt.

Anne Applebaum has been under attack ever since her op-ed piece appeared in the November 7 issue of The Washington Post on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In this article she committed a mortal sin in the eyes of Viktor Orbán’s minions. She included their hero in a group of politicians—Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Jarosław Kaczyński—and called them neo-Bolsheviks who “have little to do with the right that has been part of Western politics since World War II, and … have no connection to existing conservative parties.” An accurate description of the current state of affairs.

The Hungarian reaction to this article was swift. Zoltán Kovács, the diligent spokesman for the prime minister’s office, announced that Anne Applebaum is suffering from “irrational Orbanophobia.” Instead of thinking of the one hundred million victims of communism, Applebaum used this date “as an opportunity to disparage democratic political parties and leaders—including Prime Minister Orbán—whom she dislikes, bizarrely comparing them to Bolsheviks.” What a disgrace to call him a neo-Bolshevik when in 1989 he “courageously stood up … to demand that the occupying Soviet troops leave the territory of Hungary.” With this article, Applebaum joins “an illustrious group, including the communist collaborator Paul Lendvai.”

The comments of Kovács were at least halfway civil, which one couldn’t say about the articles in government papers. According to János Csontos, one of the worst of the bunch at Magyar Idők, “if political baseness were part of the Olympic Games, The Washington Post would receive a gold medal” for allowing Applebaum to publish that article. Her epithet for Orbán and his populist colleagues is not the result of “stupid prejudice” and “intellectual torpidity.” Here “a new tortuous ideology is being prepared.” In another article, a right-wing commentator alleged that “Applebaum’s pills have rolled away,” a turn of phrase indicating that the person in question has lost his/her mind. 888.hu described her article as “massive screaming,” a term most often used to describe pigs just before they are slaughtered. Another article, also in 888.hu, described her as a woman prone to hysterics who “since her husband is no longer foreign minister [of Poland], has been like an offended beast of prey that circulates around the world.” The article referred to her as Mrs. Sikorski (Sikorskiné). It described her article in The Washington Post as a piece of “overarching triteness.”

As you can see, the loyal followers have been rushing to the aid of their leader. They are aghast. It is bad enough that some critics call Orbán a populist, a fascist, a Mafioso, but a Bolshevik? I suspect that Mária Schmidt felt compelled to join the choir and come up with a contribution of her own, which just happened to be an interview which wasn’t hers. This interview with Anne Applebaum was the perfect vehicle to show her loyalty to “the anti-communist hero,” as she calls him in the interview whom Applebaum dared to call a neo-Bolshevik.

November 30, 2017

Is China buying up Eastern Europe on the cheap?

It was in May of this year that I wrote a post about Chinese plans for the reorganization of the global economy and Hungary’s role in this scheme. At that time, I outlined Chinese plans for the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens-Piraeus railroad line, announced in December 2014. The Hungarian section, which runs between Soroksár, just south of Budapest, and Kelebia, on the Serbian border, is 166 km. long and will cost 750 billion forints or $2.85 billion. It will be built with the help of a 20-year Chinese loan at 2.5% interest, which will cover 85% of the cost.

The contracting entity is the Chinese-Hungarian Railway Nonprofit Ltd., which was set up about a year ago. (I don’t know whether it chose nonprofit status to avoid paying taxes or to admit that the line would never turn a profit.) The state-owned China Railway International Corporation and China Railway International Group hold 85% of the Chinese-Hungarian Railway and the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) holds 15%. The deal was structured as an EPC (“Engineering, Procurement, and Construction”), whereby the EPC contractor is made responsible for all activities–from design, procurement, and construction to the commissioning and handover of the project to the end-user or owner.

According to Hungarian economists, this deal is good only for China. The line is barely used for passenger trains and it touches only one small city, with a population of 27,000. Clearly, it was designed for freight trains that haul Chinese goods from the port city of Piraeus through the Balkans to Hungary. Since China isn’t sinking any money into the project, if the rail line is a flop, it is nothing off the skin of the Chinese. Hungary would be left holding the bag. According to some critics, the Belgrade-Budapest line will be the world’s most expensive, and if the project fails, Hungary will never be able to recoup its investment. HVG’s Benjámin Zelki figured that perhaps after 2,400 years the line might be profitable. I don’t think he meant it as a joke.

Viktor Orbán’s decision to get a loan from China when the European Union is quite willing to give money for the development of Pan-European corridors can be explained by the unprofitability of the project. It is unlikely that he would have gotten money from Brussels for such a financially hopeless project. The lure of the project, if it ever becomes reality, is that China might use Hungary as a distribution hub. For that  elusive prospect, the Orbán government is ready to get involved in this risky venture.

Of course, there is a good possibility that nothing will come of the whole project. The Chinese have offered Hungary many enticing deals, including a loan for a railroad line between the Ferenc Liszt Airport and downtown Budapest, but nothing came of it. Beijing also offered loans for building railroad lines in Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, but none of these projects got off the ground.

The European Union is not all happy about Viktor Orbán’s close “strategic partnership” with China. First, just like with the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, there were no competitive bids. Therefore, about a year ago the project was put on hold when infringement procedures were launched against Hungary. The latest news is that Hungary announced on Monday that it would publish a new procurement tender for its section of the line. As HVG put it, “there is no escape” from this monstrous project.

Another, more serious political consideration makes the European Union suspicious of Viktor Orbán, who hosted Li Keqiang for the sixth annual meeting of the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries or “16+1.” Eleven of these countries are member states of the European Union. According to The Financial Times, Brussels is rattled as China reaches out to Eastern Europe because “some of the arrangements between China and these countries are touching on EU competences, or they are going into new areas where there are already initiatives between the EU and China.” They are worried about Chinese influence in the region. Diplomats fear that closer Chinese-East European relations could undermine Brussels’ effectiveness in dealing with China. According to Forbes, China is in the midst of buying “Eastern Europe on the cheap” while Viktor Orbán is using the occasion to “poke Western Europe in the eye.”

Boyko Borisov, Viktor Orbán, and Li Keqiang at the fifth summit of “16+1”

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, China knows the weak spots and fault lines in Europe, and therefore in the last five years it has developed close relations with the “16+1” club. “There is mighty China with 16 dwarfs, receiving lucrative orders.” With investment they are buying influence. The European Union must recognize how the internal divisions and contradictions weaken it in the eyes of the outside world. The article specifically mentions Viktor Orbán and Miloš Zeman, whom it describes as the most vulnerable political leaders to the siren voices of the Far East because they are “representatives of secluded societies.” They believe that in China “they find not only sponsors but also allies in the fight against liberal democracy.”

Yes, Viktor Orbán has committed his country to another risky venture. But since work will begin on the rail line only after 2020, there is always the faint hope that the whole project will die, as so many other Chinese ventures did.

November 29, 2017

Open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker

The letter below, addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, was written by Hans Eichel, co-founder and former chairman of G20 and former finance minister of Germany,  and Pascal Lamy, former European commissioner and president emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute. Hans Eichel and Pascal Lamy also represent Franz Fischler and Yannis Paleokrassas, both former European commissioners.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Mr. President Jean-Claude Juncker,

As signatories to this letter, we ask the European Commission to temporarily suspend payment of all EU funding to Hungary, with the exception of funding provided directly by the Commission (i.e. without the intermediary role of the Hungarian government).

Over recent years, the whole institutional and legal system in Hungary has been transformed in a way that makes it much easier to assign a substantial part of EU money directly or indirectly to certain business and political groups, no matter how detrimental this is for the Hungarian society, and thus also for attaining the objectives of the European Union.[1]

Key public institutions, such as the office of the prosecutor general and the constitutional court, have been de facto taken over by the ruling party, Fidesz.[2] The Constitution has been amended several times to serve the interests of Fidesz.[3]

Press freedom has been eviscerated, and the overwhelming majority of the media is now Fidesz-dominated.[4] Access to information has been seriously curtailed by several new laws.[5]

Universities have practically lost their independence as they have been put under the strict control of “chancellors” appointed by the government. (A notable exception is the Central European University in Budapest which the government has been trying to shut because it is still offering a home to academic freedom and critical thinking.[6])

Harassment and smothering of civil society organisations has been going on for years.[7] It is also telling that the Hungarian government has refused to join the EU’s key anti-corruption initiative, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.[8]

We fully agree with the following statement in the Commission’s Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances: “Respect for the rule of law is important for European citizens, but also for business initiative, innovation and investment, which will flourish most where the legal and institutional framework adheres fully to the common values of the Union. There is hence a clear relationship between the rule of law and an efficient implementation of the private and public investments supported by the EU budget.”[9]

More than 95% of public investment projects in Hungary receive EU co-financing. The Hungarian government announced[10] that it will use 2017 and 2018 to allocate most of the EU money available for the funding period 2014-2020, and is rapidly implementing this strategy. The purpose here is clear: to help Fidesz at the national elections in spring 2018, without any consideration of what will happen after 2018 when EU funding will be mostly exhausted. Such jerking of the economy is also extremely detrimental for business in general, the rapid disbursement leads to inefficient use of EU money, and greatly increases the risks of corruption. This brings a special urgency to the situation.

It is time to heed the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, Gajus Scheltema: “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.”[11]

To emphasise the point: a temporary cessation is what this situation requires; all funding can and should be restored as soon as basic democratic freedoms are reinstated and corruption counter-acted. We strongly believe that this is also a pre-condition for continuing EU funding to less developed regions – which is indispensable for the future of the European Union – in the period following 2020 in light of growing resentment all over Europe about the inefficient and improper use of EU funds.

It is the Commission’s duty to protect the EU’s financial interests. The Commission should live up to its duty concerning Hungary without any further delay.[12]

We are looking forward to your reply as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Hans Eichel, Co-founder and former Chairman of G20, former Minister of Finance of Germany

Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner, President Emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute

also on behalf of

Franz Fischler, former European Commissioner

Yannis Paleokrassas, former European Commissioner

23 November 2017


[1] See, for example: “A Whiff of Corruption in Orbán’s Hungary,” Spiegel Online, January 17, 2017 http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/a-whiff-of-corruption-in-orban-s-hungary-a-1129713.html  “Vladimir Putin has been named the 2014 Person of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an award given annually to the person who does the most to enable and promote organized criminal activity.… Runners up to Putin this year were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović.” OCCRP, 2015, https://www.occrp.org/personoftheyear/2014/

[2] See, for example: “Hungary – Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review,” by Transparency International Hungary, Transparency International, and K-Monitor Watchdog for Public funds, 21 September 2015, https://transparency.hu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Joint-Submission-to-the-UN-Universal-Periodic-Review.pdf

[3] See, for example: “Hungary’s Dangerous Constitution. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law,” October 2015, http://jtl.columbia.edu/hungarys-dangerous-constitution/ Fidesz has set the large controlling organizations and the independent branches of power to manual control. atlatszo.hu (member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network), 20 September 2014, http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/09/20/fidesz-has-set-the-large-controlling-organizations-and-the-independent-branches-of-power-to-manual-control/

[4] See, for example: “Freedom of the Press 2017, Hungary.” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/hungary

[5] See, for example: “New Civil Code: public fund contracts are to become inaccessible,”  Transparency International Hungary, 16.08.2012, http://www.transparency.hu/New Civil Code public fund contracts are to become inaccessible “The coming dark age of democratic governance in Hungary,” atlatszo, 08.05.2013, http://atlatszo.hu/2013/05/08/the-coming-dark-age-of-democratic-governance-in-hungary/“Further Restrictions on Freedom of Information in Illiberal Hungary,” Hungarian Spectrum, 05.07.2015, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/07/05/further-restrictions-on-freedom-of-information-in-illiberal-hungary/

[6] At Hungary’s Soros-Backed University, Scholars Feel a Chill. The New York Times, April 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/world/europe/hungary-george-soros-central-european-university.html

[7] See, for example: “Civil Society Europe briefing on the state of Civic Space and Fundamental Rights in Hungary,” April 2017, https://civil society europe. eu.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/cse-hungary-fact-sheet_april2017.pdf

[8] It is not necessary to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Website of the Hungarian Government, December 6, 2016, http://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-justice/news/it-is-not-necessary-to-create-a-european-public-prosecutor-s-office  “European Public Prosecutor’s Office established without Hungary’s participation,” The Budapest Beacon, June 9, 2017, https://budapestbeacon.com/european-public-prosecutors-office-established-without-hungarys-participation/

[9] Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances. European Commission, 28 June 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/reflection-paper-eu-finances_en.pdf

[10] See: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+WQ+P-2017-002541+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=en

[11] Ambassador Scheltema: “We Mustn’t Keep a Corrupt Regime Alive.” Hungarian Spectrum, August 31, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/08/31/ambassador-scheltema-we-mustnt-keep-a-corrupt-regime-alive/

[12] See also: “Legal Grounds for the Suspension of EU Funding to Hungary Now,” Hungarian Spectrum, September 3, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/09/03/legal-grounds-for-the-suspension-of-eu-funding-to-hungary-now/

November 28, 2017