Tag Archives: András Giró-Szász

Viktor Orbán’s new “propaganda ministry”

The Hungarian media is full of speculations about Viktor Orbán’s decision to shake up the Prime Minister’s Office, which is a monster of a ministry with as many as 740 employees at last count. The modest office Viktor Orbán inherited has grown enormously in the last five years or so. The number of its employees, believe it or not, has increased eightfold, and that is not the end of it.

In addition to the Prime Minister’s Office (Miniszterelnökség), a new ministry was just created, ostensibly for “political coordination.” It is apparent, however, that this new ministry, under the direction of Antal Rogán who until now was the head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, will be a “propaganda ministry.” Not only anti-government media outlets and opposition politicians call it that; even János Lázár does. And he ought to know. Having a propaganda ministry, even if it’s called something else, brings to mind such unsavory examples as Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the Soviet Union’s Department for Agitation and Propaganda, China’s Central Propaganda Department, and Fascist Italy’s Ministry of Popular Culture. Orbán is continuing his march toward a one-party state inside the European Union. Quite a feat.

I don’t like to speculate about the reasons for personnel changes because we know very little about the complex political and personal relationships in high Fidesz and government circles. But, given the strictly hierarchical structure of Fidesz and the Orbán government, we can safely assume that the most coveted positions are those closest to Viktor Orbán since all important decisions are made by the prime minister. Although stories circulated about Rogán’s desire to be a member of the government one day, I think we can safely say that it was Viktor Orbán who decided that the work of András Giró-Szász, undersecretary in charge of communication in the Prime Minister’s Office, was not effective enough. Here I’m not relying on rumor but am simply quoting János Lázár again, who today made the off-the-cuff, cutting remark that “here is now the opportunity for a new team in the ministry of propaganda and information to show that they can do an even better job than András [Giró-Szász] did.”

I’m somewhat baffled why Viktor Orbán thinks the government’s current propaganda is not satisfactory and he needs another ministry to take over. The latest opinion polls indicate that Fidesz’s popularity, as a result of the government’s anti-refugee propaganda, has bounced back. The hate campaign worked. Whatever we might think of the method, it was successful politically. The propaganda machine has been working faultlessly ever since April of this year. So why set up an entirely new ministry now?

I suspect that Antal Rogán has something to do with the current anti-immigration campaign. We know from Antal Rogán himself that the first time the possibility of his move into the prime minister’s office in some capacity was discussed was in late April. It was about the same time that the Orbán government decided to send out questionnaires inquiring, with leading questions, into the population’s views on immigration. It was in June that the huge billboards in Hungarian told the migrants how to behave and how not to behave in the country. All this leads me to believe that there is a good likelihood that it was Rogán who came up with the step-by-step game plan for the anti-migrant campaign. Hence Orbán’s decision to entrust communication/ propaganda to him. Success builds on success.

The Hungarian media is portraying Orbán’s decision to move Rogán over to the Prime Minister’s office as a typical Machiavellian move on the part of Orbán. The prime minister thinks, they argue, that János Lázár has far too much power and lately has become something of a media star with his lengthy Thursday press conferences. Journalists point out that Orbán makes sure that no one person acquires too much power, which might eventually threaten his position. Hence, he is playing Rogán off against Lázár. In addition, there are stories going around that the two men dislike each other, which Lázár denied a couple of days ago.

Quite independently of whether there’s personal animosity between the two men or not, the fact is that the original plan to have Rogán in the Prime Minister’s Office as a kind of chief-of-staff tasked with “political coordination” wouldn’t have worked. As Lázár pointed out, there must be one and only person who takes responsibility for the work done in the office. In fact, Lázár threatened to resign if Rogán joined his ministry. Since Orbán didn’t want to lose Lázár, he was ready for a compromise. Headlines in certain papers saying that “Orbán wouldn’t mind if Lázár quit” were, in my opinion, figments of journalistic imagination. Lázár is too important a man in the administration. If he quit today, the whole government would be in disarray, perhaps for months. Orbán was in a quandary. He needed Lázár but he also wanted Rogán’s alleged skill as a propagandist. Hence a new ministry for Rogán.

The last press conference given together by János Lázár and András Giró-Szász

The last press conference given jointly by János Lázár and András Giró-Szász

This new ministry will be in charge of all communication. Rogán will be the boss of all the communication workers, whether in the government or in Fidesz. And there are many, including Giró-Szász’s team of twenty men and women in the Prime Minister’s Office, who will be subordinated from here on to Antal Rogán’s ministry.

In this shakeup, although Lázár eventually decided to stay, Giró-Szász resigned, despite the offers he received from Rogán and Lázár. He had the luxury of picking up his hat and leaving since he is a very rich man. His salary in the Prime Minister’s Office is chump change. The reason for this decision? He obviously didn’t want to work for Rogán, whether for personal, structural, or, perhaps the main determinant, political (even a smidgen of ethical?) reasons.

It is very hard to know what goes on behind the scenes in the Orbán empire because those who are close to the boss are very tight-mouthed. They know that what counts above all is personal loyalty, which means agreement with Orbán on all issues. They know that the prime minister’s political longevity trumps every other consideration. We can now wait with morbid curiosity to see how Rogán’s ministry ensures that Orbán remains in power for twenty years.

Euratom, the European Commission, and Paks

Last night an article appeared in The Financial Times, written by Andrew Byrne in Budapest and Christian Oliver in Brussels. The reporters had heard earlier that the European Atomic Energy Community or Euratom, which must approve all nuclear supply contracts signed by EU member states, had serious reservations about the contract signed by Russia and Hungary and would most likely withhold approval of the plant’s fuel supply. By yesterday they learned that Euratom had definitely “refused to approve Hungary’s plans to import nuclear fuel exclusively from Russia.” Hungary appealed the decision without success and, according to “three people close to the talks, the European Commission has now thrown its weight behind Euratom’s rejection of the contract.” In brief, that part of the contract that gave Rosatom the exclusive right to supply Paks2 with nuclear fuel for the next twenty years must be renegotiated. As a result, for the time being at least, the Paks project is stalled.

András Giró-Szász, one of the many government spokesmen, argued that the information obtained by The Financial Times was inaccurate. He especially objected to the sentence in the article that read: “The EU has blocked Hungary’s €12bn nuclear deal with Russia.” Nobody “blocked” anything. Initially the Hungarian government talked about demanding a retraction from the newspaper. By the next morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, another government spin doctor, gave up on the idea, especially since The Financial Times had no intention of changing a story that had been verified by three independent sources.

The Hungarian charge might have been based on an erroneous translation of the verb “to block.” Although one of the word’s meanings is “to stop,” it can also mean “to obstruct” or “to impede.” In the latter sense The Financial Times correctly described the situation that developed as a result of Euratom’s decision, sanctioned by the European Commission. As the FT text continued, “The result is to block the whole Paks II expansion. To revive it, Hungary would need to negotiate a new fuel contract or pursue legal action against the commission.” So, the deal is not dead but it must be renegotiated. I might add that in Hungarian “blokkolni” (to block) means only to stop.

Another reason for the confusion, in addition to semantics, is Hungarian secretiveness. 444.hu learned that the Hungarian government insisted on secrecy in its negotiations with Euratom. Therefore, neither the head of Euratom nor the European Commission can say anything about the details of the situation that developed in connection with the Russian contract.

euratom

Since the Hungarian government has already lost its battle with Euratom and the Commission, the matter of the nuclear fuel supply must be renegotiated with Rosatom. János Lázár, in an interview on Kossuth Rádió this morning, referred to extensive discussions with “the members of the Russian negotiating team.” There has been some talk about getting nuclear fuel from other suppliers. Westinghouse has been mentioned several times as a possible source, even by János Lázár himself. However, Benedek Jávor, Hungarian MEP of the Greens, got in touch with Westinghouse and the firm denied in writing that there have been any talks between them and the Hungarian government.

What can the Hungarian government do under the circumstances? It could abandon the whole project. The Russians might be quite happy with such a decision since the Russian economy is in serious trouble and the Russian state might not have the resources to lend such a large sum to Hungary even if the project would be beneficial to Rosatom.

The other possibility is to renegotiate the deal and to convince Russia to allow other suppliers to participate in selling nuclear fuel to Paks2. But that might not be too attractive to the Russian partners. The revenues Rosatom receives from selling fuel to nuclear power plants all over the world are an important contributor to the Russian economy, especially now that the price of natural gas and oil is falling. The Russian government might be willing to finance, through its loan to Hungary, a Russian company, but it doesn’t sound like good business from the Russian point of view to finance nuclear rods supplied by, let’s say, Westinghouse or Siemens. Or at least this is what Miklós Hegedűs, an economist specializing in energy matters, said in an interview on HírTV this morning. Finally, the Hungarians can fight the decision of Euratom and the European Commission. Such a move would delay the completion of the project, probably for years. I myself don’t think that Viktor Orbán would venture into such a losing battle.

What we must also keep in mind is that the question of the nuclear fuel supply is not the only one that the European Commission is interested in. Another concern is the Russian loan itself. Is it a form of “state aid,” which is forbidden by EU law? Will it give Paks2 an undue advantage that will distort the Hungarian energy market? If the European Commission decides that this the case, the whole project will have to be scrapped. Still another concern is that the Russians received the job of expanding the nuclear power plant without any competition whatsoever. If the Commission finds the lack of competition a stumbling block, the fate of the project will be sealed.

At the moment, the appropriate cabinets of the European Commission are investigating whether an in-depth investigation of these aspects of the Russian-Hungarian agreement is warranted. Their decision will undoubtedly be influenced by political considerations. How much does the EU worry about Russian influence within the European Union and the role Hungary might play in Vladimir Putin’s power game? If they consider Russia a serious threat to European security, the Commission might be less understanding and forgiving than it has been in the past five years. Until now Viktor Orbán has been lucky, but it is possible that the Brussels bureaucrats will scrutinize Hungary’s blatant disregard of EU laws and its common democratic values more closely now, given Russia’s perceived threat to Europe.

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning atomic energy: What will Putin and Orbán sign tomorrow?

It was again Magyar Nemzet that first came out with a short news item heralding Viktor Orbán’s forthcoming “diplomatic offensive.” The paper’s guess was that the move was in some way connected to the election campaign. The prime minister is supposed to visit Russia, China, and several other, mostly Arab countries.

I didn’t find Magyar Nemzet‘s explanation for this diplomatic onslaught terribly convincing because I’m sure Viktor Orbán still remembers his mistake during the election campaign in 2002 when he decided not to dirty his hands with campaigning but instead showed himself as the real statesman hard at work. And he lost the election.

The pro-government paper did mention, with reference to his Russian trip tomorrow, that “Viktor Orbán may sign an agreement about the continuation of the existing cooperation between the two countries concerning atomic energy matters.” It added that “the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant” might also be discussed.

Népszabadság learned more about the plans from Fidesz sources. The paper reminded its readers of János Lázár’s announcement about the “advanced negotiations” concerning the enlargement of Paks’s capacity, which would double the output of the power plant. The government claims that this addition to the existing facilities would lower utility prices. The opponents of the plan claim the opposite: prices would rise because of the high cost of expanding Paks. Indeed, this particular investment will be costly. Experts talk about 3-4 trillion forints, which naturally Hungary doesn’t have. But that’s not the only problem. In her present financial situation, Hungary can’t even borrow that much money because it would upset the precarious balance the government achieved as far as the deficit is concerned. But it seems that thanks to the “good offices” of the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation the Hungarian partner may be able to pay the cost of the investment on the “installment plan.” Originally, even Orbán was talking about an international tender, but none of the other companies that are in the atomic power plant business was ready to be so generous. Of course, this generosity has its price which might take several forms: joint ownership, profit sharing, and various other business arrangements.

Paks Aromic Power Plant /www.sff.hu

Paks Atomic Power Plant /www.sff.hu

Not surprisingly it was the politicians of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM/Dialogue for Hungary) who were the first to raise their voices against the plan because these politicians are committed to the idea of green energy. They objected, with good reason, to the secrecy with which these negotiations were conducted. They raised objections to making such a momentous and controversial decision without any public discussion or any consultation with independent experts. Why the hurry? Is Viktor Orbán afraid that he might not win the election and does he therefore want to push the decision through his parliamentary voting machine prior to April or May? Benedek Jávor, co-chair of PM, declared that he and his party consider any agreement arrived at in Moscow without parliamentary authorization null and void. Such a momentous decision cannot be the private domain of the prime minister. It is not only a very expensive undertaking, but the planned arrangement also puts Hungary at the mercy of Putin’s Russia.

The government’s answer to the critics was lame. András Giró-Szász, the government spokesman, declared that it would have been impolite to refuse an invitation from Putin. This explanation is utterly ridiculous. As if Putin one morning woke up, had a burning desire to meet Viktor Orbán again, and out of the blue dropped an invitation in his mailbox. Giró-Szász, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his first claim, added that “after all, it is very important to take a look at the past year’s economic results.” As if they had anything to do with the matter at hand.

Today we learned that Gordon Bajnai (Együtt-2014) and Benedek Jávor (PM) jointly wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán in which they pointed out that the expansion of Paks would determine the country’s energy policies for the next sixty years and therefore such a decision cannot be sanctioned without a public debate and without parliamentary authorization. They demanded immediate information about any negotiations and decisions.

A couple of hours later Bajnai and Jávor got an answer: “yes, there will be a bilateral agreement” signed in Moscow. The Government Information Center pointed out that the government has been studying the possibilities of the use of atomic energy. A year ago Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán discussed questions of cooperation at the time of Orbán’s visit to Moscow. An agreement was reached in December. After the prime minister’s return from Moscow the government will inform the public about the details.

Thus, we don’t know more about the agreement than before. Obviously Viktor Orbán can make the decision, whatever that decision is, alone. The “people” this government talks so much about have no business questioning the wise man’s decision. He knows what is good for the people. Another case of Hungarian democracy at work.