Tag Archives: Bence Rétvári

Will communist-era internal security files finally be open in Hungary?

At last the archives of the huge internal security network, currently stored in the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal or AH (Constitutional Defense Office), an idiotic name for one of the many offices dealing with national security, will be transferred to the Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltár/ASzTL (Historical Archives of the National Security Services). On March 6 a lengthy report on the “study of the pre-1990 data preserved on magnetic tapes” was released by a working group of the National Remembrance Committee and the Historical Archives of the National Security Services. Three days later the Hungarian government approved the transfer of the material.

Over the years socialist-liberal governments, at least halfheartedly, supported opening the archives, but right-wing governments categorically rejected the idea. For example, one of the most vociferous opponents of opening the archives of the feared III/III department of Kádár’s ministry of interior was Péter Boross, the arch-conservative interior minister and later prime minister in the early 1990s. As for Fidesz, the Orbán government’s reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that in the last seven years LMP turned in 14 proposals to make all documents pertaining to the workings of the internal security apparatus of the Rákosi and Kádár periods accessible. These proposals never got out of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

The present report focuses on one aspect of the vast archival collection of the secret services: “the study of the magnetic tapes.” The existence of these tapes first came to light in 1995, although the initial reaction was one of denial. At that point I belonged to an internet political discussion group in which one of our members, who had been employed by the ministry of interior, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of such tapes. Once their existence could no longer be denied, those who didn’t want the content of these tapes to be revealed announced that they could no longer be read because the recording was done on by now obsolete equipment. Of course, this was just a diversionary tactic. Years later, in 2007, it was Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsán who at last set up the so-called Kenedi Commission, a group of researchers familiar with the history of the internal security apparatus. It was that commission which asked a group of IT experts to find a way to make the tapes readable. One of these tech gurus gave a fascinating description of how they managed to accomplish the task. By the way, I should mention that the material on these tapes was made secret until 2060. I don’t know which so-called democratic government decided that the “secrets” of the Kádár regime must be preserved until 2060 (when, presumably, everybody who’s implicated will be dead), but I will note that the Kenedi Commission was promptly dismantled by the Orbán government.

As opposed to other post-communist countries, Hungary allows only extremely limited access to communist-era documents. The East German archives were opened immediately after the regime change. Somewhat later both the Czechs and the Slovaks put all their material online, and anyone can comb through it to his heart’s content. Knowing the “enthusiasm” of the Fidesz government for transparency, I doubt that such a situation will exist in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister.

The present system is quite restrictive. Individuals can ask for their own file if such a file exists. If in that folder he finds a cover name, he can ask for the informer’s real name. But an ordinary mortal can conduct “research” only if he can prove that the person he is researching is a public figure. And only approved historians who can demonstrate a real need to do research in this field are allowed to use the stored archival material. Details of the procedure and the appropriate sections of the 2003 law are given on ASzTL’s website.

Even if one gets permission to do research on public figures to find out whether they were informers, the 2003 law governing accessibility to this material was written in such a way that even if it is perfectly obvious that X or Y was an informer, it is almost impossible to prove it. The law demands supportive material that more often than not is simply not available. For example, the law requires a signed agreement between the security services and the informer or a handwritten report from the agent. It has often happened in the past that the “maligned victim” dragged the historian to court and won because these demands were not met. Historian Krisztián Ungváry claims that as long as the 2003 law is in force nothing will change. For the time being all public figures can rest easy: their “sterling reputations” are being protected by the Hungarian government.

The procedure a historian must go through at ASzTL reminds me of my own experience in the Hungarian National Archives in the 1960s. One had to define one’s research topic quite narrowly–in my case, the foreign policy of the Friedrich government in 1919. I wanted to look at the transcripts of the cabinet meetings. Instead of giving me the full transcripts, the staff extracted only those parts that dealt with foreign policy. One was at their mercy. I assume the situation is similar at ASzTL. Let’s assume that in order to get a full picture of a specific case one needs to look at files on others. Surely, according to the present rules, this is not allowed.

Some people claim that nobody is interested in the issue. Who cares? people say. It was a long time ago. Why disturb the past? It is over with. At one point Bence Rétvári (KDNP), at the time the political undersecretary of the justice department, came up with the brilliant idea that the whole archives should be dismantled and that anyone who has a file should just pick it up and take it home. This kind of talk totally disregards the fact that the history of those 40 years requires an understanding of the enormous network which over the years might have had about 200,000 members. Ever since 1990 the issue has been discussed back and forth, committees have been formed, but governments made sure that the public would know as little as possible about the potentially checkered past of present-day politicians.

In 2002, after the public learned that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a paid officer of the counter-intelligence unit of the ministry of interior, a committee was set up that became known as the Mécs Committee after Imre Mécs (SZDSZ), its chairman. The commission, because of Fidesz’s obstruction, got nowhere. But apparently those members of the commission who had access to the files found at least ten politicians from the post-1990 period who had worked for the internal security forces.

In fact, as far back as 1990 Miklós Németh, the last prime minister of the old regime, was said to have handed over a long list of former informers who had important positions in the newly formed parties and later became members of parliament or members of the Antall government. This list of informers was leaked by someone called “Szakértő 90” in 2005 and is still available on the internet. In the interim historians have published several articles about the shady past of public figures–for example, János Martonyi, foreign minister in the first and second Orbán governments. He was one of the people who successfully sued Krisztián Ungváry.

It would be high time to set the record straight, but I have my doubts.

March 12, 2017

The Hungarian government chips away at the abortion law

Thursday afternoon, during his regular press conference, János Lázár announced the latest government decision. Two hospitals–the Budai Irgalmasrendi Kórház, managed by the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Bethesda Gyermekkórház, maintained by the Hungarian Reformed Church–will receive a generous grant of 7.8 billion forints so they can offer obstetric services. In return, they will not perform abortions and will refuse to accept gratuities, which, as we all know, are steep. Obstetricians can become quite wealthy from money happy new parents pass to them under the table.

The immediate reaction in the liberal press was negative. Journalists remember only too well earlier attempts to restrict abortions. The sanctity of life issue is at the core of the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s ideology. During the debate on the constitution in 2010 KDNP politicians were adamant about the issue. Eventually the following sentence made its way into the final text of Orbán’s constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the fetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” Subsequently, KDNP tried several times to convince Viktor Orbán to follow the Polish example, which makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The Polish government recently tried to enact a total ban on abortions, but it had to retreat in the face of huge demonstrations. Orbán knows that the introduction of a sweeping abortion law in Hungary would be political suicide.

Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, objected to the terms of the grants. Judit Zeller, who works on patients’ rights cases, took the position that although individual doctors may refuse to perform surgical interventions in pregnancy cases, institutions as such can’t. If the condition of the government’s financial assistance depends on the hospitals refusing to perform abortions, the arrangement between the hospitals and the government is illegal.

As is often the case in the chaos within the Orbán government, there was a discrepancy between Lázár’s statement and the official government text. In its announcement Magyar Közlöny, the official gazette of government edicts and laws, said not a word about the special understanding between the hospitals and the central government concerning the prohibition of abortions.

The two hospitals will actually share one new obstetric department, which will be housed in Bethesda. People familiar with the medical facilities in Budapest claim there is no need for an additional facility. They suspect that the arrangement is a kind of unholy alliance between the two so-called historic churches, on the one hand, and the Hungarian government, which is eager to have the churches’ full support, on the other.

KDNP, the “political arm of the Catholic Church,” has been unhappy ever since 2010 when it failed to have a total ban on abortions included in the new constitution. The party therefore periodically makes attempts to smuggle in restrictive laws. In 2012 there was a huge debate on the “abortion pill,” in which KDNP successfully led the opposition to its availability in Hungary. The World Health Organization approved the pill in 2005 and the Hungarian “college of gynecologists and obstetricians” also endorsed its use. But KDNP’s “expert” described the horrors that follow the procedure, which in his opinion was even more dangerous than the surgical technique. He also claimed that “WHO suggested the use of the abortion pill for overpopulated countries,” not for countries with a low birthrate like Hungary. As a result of KDNP’s fierce opposition, the pill is not available in Hungary to this day.

A year later, in 2013, KDNP introduced yet another bill to restrict women’s gynecological rights. This time is was Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the department of justice, who introduced the bill. KDNP wanted to put an end to voluntary sterilization. Prior to 2005 Hungarian laws had restricted voluntary sterilization. The Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional because they violated women’s rights. Therefore, after 2006 such operations could be freely performed at the patient’s expense. It was this liberal law that KDNP wanted to change in such a way that only those women who were over 40 years old and already had three children could be sterilized. This bill was never enacted into law.

Medián took a survey at that time on Hungarian attitudes toward the abortion issue, and it turned out that even supporters of Fidesz-KDNP didn’t back further legal restrictions. The poll showed that 72% of churchgoers thought that in cases of financial stress abortion was an acceptable alternative. The same group of people believed that the abortion pill that KDNP torpedoed a year before was an acceptable, maybe even preferable, method of birth control.

A year ago Index got hold of a study by a hobby demographer whose remedy for the low birthrate in Hungary is to forbid all abortions on childless women between the ages of 35 and 45. This hobby demographer has close ties to KDNP. In fact, his study was at least partially financed by KDNP’s Barankovics Foundation.

In brief, KDNP has been relentlessly trying to overturn the current law on abortion. Yet the top politicians of the party now claim that they had absolutely nothing to do with the deal between the two hospitals and the government. I doubt that this is the case. I can hardly imagine that Miklós Soltész (KDNP), the secretary for churches, minorities and civil affairs, had nothing to do with the 7.8 billion forints given to the two church-run hospitals.

This first step toward “abortion free hospitals” might seem innocuous. It simply reduces the number of hospitals where women can have abortions. Perhaps this way KDNP’s drive for a ban on abortions might be less noticeable, especially if the process takes several years. Népszava’s headline to its article on the subject read: “Did the future begin?” A lot of people think so.

February 10, 2017

Hungarian doctors ask public support for improvements to healthcare

I must admit that over the years I have developed a somewhat negative attitude toward what Hungarians call the “orvostársadalom,” that is, the members of the medical profession, especially its leading lights. In the last 25 years they managed to thwart all attempts at reforming the whole rotten system. The hysteria that surrounded the suggestions of the ministry of health under the leadership of Lajos Molnár was outright disgusting. Hospital directors refused to collect minimal co-payments even if the money would have benefited their hospitals. So did the Fidesz-infatuated family doctors, although the money would have helped keep their own chronically underfinanced practices afloat.

I don’t know what these people expected from Viktor Orbán, but what they got must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The state of Hungarian healthcare is worse than ever. The old directors with few exceptions were dismissed and in their stead came doctors who in the past had expressed loyalty to Fidesz. For the most part these people are now quiet. Some of them even try to defend the current situation. At the government level, undersecretaries in charge of healthcare come and go. Gábor Zombor, the great hope, threw in the towel after a year or so, and the new one, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, seems to be hiding somewhere. Meanwhile, István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association, gives the occasional interview in which he complains that doctors don’t get enough money.

And what are the physicians doing? Emigrating. Between 2003 and 2011, 12% of Hungarian doctors left the country, most of them after 2010. Sixteen percent of MDs simply abandon their profession and work in the pharmaceutical industry or in fields completely unrelated to medicine. According to some calculations, if the salaries of doctors were raised by 40-50%, the outflow of Hungarian doctors could be stopped. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe this optimistic prediction when physicians in Western Europe can earn seven to ten times more than physicians in Hungary. Moreover, the problem is not only financial: there are not enough nurses, many of the buildings are in terrible shape, hospitals don’t have enough money to replace instruments critical to the work of the staff, and often the attitude of superiors toward people of a lower rank in the hierarchy is outrageous. I read about one maniac who writes weekly instructions to his staff demanding, for example, to be greeted first. If not, there is punishment.

Given the miserable working conditions, the amazing thing is that neither the doctors nor the nurses have been speaking out. Yes, Mária Sándor, the nurse in black, has been fighting for her fellow nurses ever since May, but she is unable to gather sizable crowds for her demonstrations. Since she is considered to be a troublemaker, she is unemployed at the moment. Although there is incredible shortage of nurses, she can’t get a job. The doctors don’t rally behind the nurses, who cannot live on their salaries and who often have to take second or third jobs to make ends meet. Mária Sándor asked the Hungarian public to support their cause. But although most Hungarians constantly complain about the state of Hungarian healthcare, no one paid the slightest attention to her.

In the last month or so, however, there are some signs that dissatisfaction is rising to the surface. Doctors are so fed up that they now openly talk about the deplorable situation that exists in Hungarian hospitals. First came the revolt of six anesthesiologists who gave notice to the administration of the Saint Imre Hospital in Budapest. Their complaints were manifold: shortage of nurses, low salaries, too long hours. They no longer felt that they could do a decent job under the circumstances. Sixteen doctors gave an ultimatum to Jenő Rácz, director of the Ferenc Csolnoky Hospital in Veszprém: either the woman doctor under whom they have to work goes or they will. But as Index correctly remarked, in each of these cases the directors defended the correctness of their decisions while the doctors remained quiet.

This situation is changing, it seems. Sixty-four doctors gathered and organized a Facebook group called “1,001 doctors without gratuity.” For those of you who are not familiar with “hálapénz,” perhaps I should say a few words about it. The habit of slipping a few forints into the pockets of doctors became widespread during the Rákosi regime when doctors became state employees who worked for a pittance. The Kádár regime continued underpaying physicians because the party leaders knew that the gratuity payments were amply supplementing physicians’ salaries. Or at least it was supplementing the salaries of certain doctors, like surgeons and obstetricians. And the tradition continues. The poor anesthesiologists normally receive nothing. So they have to work 300-400 hours a month to have a salary that befits their station in life.

These 64 men and women want to make gratuities illegal, arguing that maintaining the system serves only the interest of the government, which can point to these gratuities as a justification for not raising salaries. The new undersecretary, in one of the few interviews he gave, expressed his hope that with time gratuities will simply disappear from the system, no intervention necessary. Well, that’s unlikely given current salaries. Here is one example. A specialist receives an hourly net wage of 1,000 ft or €3.00.

doctors

An earlier demonstration organized by residents

The open letter they wrote to the undersecretary is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian healthcare. The Hungarian text is available online. The reaction from the ministry is not encouraging. Zoltán Balog said that “we pay as much as we can” while Bence Rétvári, the parliamentary undersecretary of the ministry, insisted that doctors make good money.

But there are other problems as well. The doctors claim that there are not enough professors in the medical schools, whose accreditation might be in jeopardy. Nurses who are being humiliated either leave the profession or the country. They talk about the falling plaster, the mildewy walls, and the inedible food in the hospitals. They bring up the inadequacy of medical care in general. For example, among cancer patients Hungary has the highest death rate in the European Union. The number of CT and MRI machines per 100,000 people is half that of Slovakia or the Czech Republic. These doctors want clear answers to their questions and demands from the ministry.

Suddenly the Hungarian Medical Association woke up from its years of slumber and is urging doctors to sign the petition. Moreover, Éger promised to stand behind the doctors’ demands.

What is the reaction in the ministry? Not very promising. The claim is that they have been regularly consulting with the profession, that the government is ready to listen to all opinions and is committed to high standards and the betterment of working conditions. The undersecretary insists that the exodus of doctors has slowed lately. The answer included references to higher wages for 43,000 nurses and 18,000 doctors in addition to extra pay for residents and specialists.

Today the government switched into high gear. MTI reported that the hospital in Siófok received 3 billion forints, the Pécs hospital 20 billion, and the Mohács hospital 1.1 billion. Yesterday Bence Rétvári called attention to the fact that in the last five years the government spent over 500 billion forints on healthcare which sounds terrific until you compare it, for example, to expenditures on sports and specifically on football.

The problems of Hungarian healthcare are so massive that I don’t expect any discernible change in the near future. The government is highly unlikely to embark, two years before the beginning of the election campaign for 2018, on any reform of the healthcare system. They’ll just let the whole thing rot for as many years as the Hungarian public allows it because, as everybody knows by now, touching healthcare can be political suicide.

One statue comes, another one goes. Maybe

Let’s start with the one that most likely will come unless Mazsihisz, the organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, really means what it threatened: to boycott the 70th anniversary memorial year of the Holocaust.

In its litany of complaints Mazsihisz wrote that it finds the erection of a statue commemorating the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944 highly objectionable. To the current Hungarian government’s way of thinking, this date marks the beginning of a more than 45-year period during which Hungary was deprived of her sovereignty. The intention of the present regime is clear. They want to disassociate Hungarian governments and the nation from all acts associated with the Holocaust. It was only the Germans’ fault. The preamble to the new Orbán constitution makes that clear. The erection of this memorial will be an “artistic” depiction of the appropriate passages in the preamble.

So, how do the current rulers see those events? What was Hungary’s role in that fateful year? The statue, whose plans were made public by an MSZP member of the District V city council yesterday, is a perfect representation of this government’s ideas on history. Or rather their attempt to distort history in such a way that Hungary and the Hungarian people will not have to face the brutal facts: that Hungarian governments had a large share, perhaps the major share in what happened to almost half a million Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The statue depicts Hungary as Archangel Gabriel, completely powerless, being attacked by the German eagle. Naturally, this is an unacceptable interpretation of the facts.  As Magyar Narancs ironically summed up this falsification of history in a headline: “Hungary, the angelic axis power.” Archangel Gabriel, according to the Legend of Bishop Hartvik (1095-1116), intervened on Stephen’s behalf with the pope who originally wanted to send the crown to Mieszko I of Poland. The Hartvik legend cannot be correct, even if Gabriel’s alleged intervention is excised, because by 1000 Mieszko I was already dead. However, Hungarian Catholic tradition kept up the myth, and therefore a statue of Archangel Gabriel was erected at the time of the millennial celebrations in 1898. It stands in the middle of the statues depicting Hungarian kings and heroes on Heroes’ Square.

So, the main figure of the statue is not at all new. It goes back to the same Christian legend and naturally has wings as an archangel should. But if one compares the two, the old and the new, there are great differences in the depictions of the same figure. The 1898 statue is a self-confident and powerful figure, in one hand holding the Holy Crown and in the other the double cross. The new one is beaten and powerless, at the mercy of his enemy. His arms are uplifted in supplication, presumably praying to God for help as his wings are being attacked by an eagle, representing the Reich. A pitiful, sad, blameless figure. A victim.

German occupation

And the statue will be big. Very big. It will be 7 meters tall, and the spread of the eagle’s wings will be 4.5 meters wide. Yes, I think the statue is hideous, but this is the least of its problems. Much more worrisome is the message it conveys.

And now let’s move on to the statue that might be going away. It is a not too attractive statue of Karl Marx, currently still in place at Corvinus University, which used to be called Karl Marx University. Until now the statue didn’t bother anyone. In fact, it is a favorite with the students. It is almost obligatory to have a picture taken with Marx as a memento before graduating. Well, Bence Rétvári, deputy chairman of the phantom Christian Democratic Party and undersecretary of the Ministry of Administration and Justice, decided that it was a disgrace that Marx’s statue adorns the main hallway of the university. He decided to act. He wrote an open letter to the faculty and students of the university and asked them to remove the statue because Marx was a racist and an anti-Semite who hated the Slavs and who wanted to herd women together and force them to be prostitutes. He also approved of slavery. In addition, he was a Social Darwinist and thus a forerunner of Nazism. In addition, of course, to all his other sins, including the 100 million victims of communism.

Sound unfamiliar? You wouldn’t quite recognize Karl Marx from this description? I’m not surprised. Most Hungarian commentators made fun of Rétvári’s ignorance, including a few who actually know something about Marxism because they had to study the works of Marx and Engels. Rétvári, who was ten years old at the time of the regime change, most likely never read Marx. Júlia Lévai, who wrote an excellent piece about the nonsensical nature of his accusations, thinks that Rétvári only acts as if  “he were that stupid.” As opposed to Lévai, I am convinced that this guy really is that ignorant. We mustn’t forget that he attended the famous Piarist Gymnasium in Budapest. Later he received a law degree from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. I doubt that at either place he had much reason to read Marx.

Rétvári or his staff dug up some lesser known works of Marx and Engels which they didn’t quite understand and came up with bizarre interpretations. Mind you, in the case of Marx’s alleged anti-Slav prejudices Rétvári is actually quoting from an article written by Friedrich Engels. Engels? Marx? Who cares. Rétvári is also not quite familiar with the meaning of the verb “to prostitute” in the sense of “to degrade” and therefore he decided that Marx wanted women to become prostitutes. One doesn’t have to be too familiar with Marx’s work to know that he considered the marriages of his day a kind of prostitution in the sense that women were completely subjugated to their husbands. Since Marx’s ideas on socialism or communism were based on the alleged equality of all, it is hard to imagine therefore that someone would think that Marx promoted the exploitation and oppression of women.

As for Marx’s anti-Semitism, it is not exactly Rétvári’s discovery. However, Marx’s views on Jews are not as simple as the learned undersecretary thinks. Marx talked about Jews as a synonym for capitalists. When it comes to Marx’s approval of the slave trade, Rétvári or his assistants misunderstood the passage which, according to Mihály Kálmán, is actually a critique of the simplistic dialectics of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Some of the works Rétvári mentions can be found on the Internet: Friedrich Engels: “The Magyar Struggle” (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, January 1849) and Karl Marx, “Forced Emigration” (New York Tribune, 1853).

As for precedent, Rétvári began his letter by saying that if after the change of regime the statue of Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian communist leader between 1945 and 1949, could be removed and the square in front of Corvinus University could be renamed, how it is possible that Marx’s statue is still inside the building? As if the intellectual weight of Dimitrov and Marx could be compared. It’s no wonder that Rétvári’s open letter was received with derision in certain circles. But again, I’m not surprised. Most members of this political “elite” are profoundly ignorant, yet they feel free to pass judgment on anyone whose views are different from theirs. For example, István Tarlós, currently mayor of Budapest and an engineer who is very proud of his technical approach to problems, said the following about Marx in 2007: “Marx as a philosopher is a duffer [antitalentum] where the ‘anti-‘ doesn’t signify his lack of talent but tells us about the direction of his activities which is the opposite of normal.”

Hungary and the European Union

Anyone who thinks that Fidesz politicians–and here I think mostly of Viktor Orbán and his bosom buddy László Kövér–have been using unacceptable language about the European Union only lately is wrong. Among my notes I found a few choice words from the not so recent past. László Kövér, for example, described European politics as “gang warfare” and members of the European Union as “ignominious dregs.” Lajos Kósa compared José Manuel Barroso to “an absolutely undistinguished coach of a football team in the second tier of the national championship. Just read Karinthy. It is about Barroso.” [Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) was a writer of satirical pieces that are great favorites in Hungary.] As for the seriousness of the Commission, “its work can be compared to that of  a provincial fishing club.” All these quotes are from March 2012 when the Hungarian government pretended that it actually wanted to have a deal with the IMF and claimed that it was only the European Commission that stood in the way of an agreement.

A year later, in February 2013, it was time for a different tactic. Herman Van Rompuy was visiting Hungary and Viktor Orbán went out of his way to be ingratiating. He begged the European Union to be understanding toward poor Hungary, a country that had been cut off from the world for forty years and had suffered under communism. In February he still had to worry about the excessive deficit procedure and had to convince the officials in Brussels that his unorthodox handling of the economy would bear fruit. He assured Van Rompuy that economic growth would be much more robust than predicted and proudly pointed to a very low deficit. (Since then it has become obvious that economic growth is still practically nonexistent. Moreover, in the first five months of the year the deficit was 3.8%.) Orbán said that the success of the European Union is vital for Hungary, and therefore he promised support for the proposed banking union. (He hasn’t had to deliver on his promise yet.)

After February Viktor Orbán’s attitude changed. Orbán decided to return to his old game of  biting the hand that feeds him. Because, let’s face it, without the EU subsidies the economic situation of the country would be even more disastrous than it is now.

I just read a short article that appeared on the Internet site fn.24. It gives exact figures on the subsidies Hungary has received from the convergence program that is designed to help the less developed countries catch up with the richer countries in the West. The numbers are truly staggering.

In five years Hungary paid into the common EU treasury about 5 billlion euros, about 0.9-1.0 billion every year. But in 2007 it received 2.4, in 2008 2.0, in 2009 3.6, in 2010 3.6, and in 2011 2.4 billion euros. The difference in Hungary’s favor amounted to 9.3 billion euros. That means that every Hungarian citizen, including babes-in-arms, received 280,000 forints from the European Union between 2007 and 2011.

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr.com

Fn24’s reporters tried to find out how much the honorable members of Hungary’s parliament know about the size of these subsidies. They didn’t manage to get any answer that even came close. In fact, most of the parliamentarians had no clue at all. They didn’t even dare to guess.

Now let’s see what is happening in foreign investment. You may recall that József Szájer had the temerity to lie straight into the face of his fellow MEPs when he claimed that Hungary has never received as much foreign investment as it did this past year. The truth is just the opposite. Ever since 2007 fewer and fewer foreign companies have been investing in Hungary. In 2007 foreign investment was still quite high: 4.4 billion euros. A year later it shrank to 3.1 billion and in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, it dropped dramatically to 1.3 billion. By 2011, two years into the Orbán administration, it is still only 1.1 billion euros. In the last three years EU subsidies were about triple the amount of direct foreign investments.

Meanwhile one can hear the most incredible claims belittling the amount of money Hungary is receiving from the European Union. The latest example comes from Bence Rétvári, a Christian Democrat and undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, in an interview with Olga Kálmán of ATV. Actually, it is worth watching this exchange if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of this unctuous fellow who is in many ways a prototype of the young Christian Democrats who received high positions in the administration. In vain did Kálmán insist that Hungary received a great deal more money than it contributed to the common purse. Rétvári wouldn’t buy it. According to him, as a result of Hungary’s membership in the EU it loses sizable revenues that it was able to collect before. I assume he means export and import duties, but I have no idea what that would have amounted to in five years.

Hungarian politicians’ harsh words on the European Union and all the disadvantages Hungary’s membership entail reminded the author of the article I relied on for the figures of EU subsidies of The Life of Brian (1979). Specifically the perhaps most famous scene when the members of the Judaean People’s Front try to incite the people to revolt against the Romans. I recommend it for a hearty laugh.

Indeed, the advantages so outweigh the alleged disadvantages, and not just in economic terms, that EU membership really shouldn’t be a topic of discussion. But then, Hungary’s membership in the European Union might prevent Viktor Orbán from introducing outright dictatorship. And I guess that’s a colossal disadvantage.

Europe fights back: Viktor Orbán may be in real trouble this time

When on April 9 I wrote about the verbal duel between Tibor Navracsics, Hungarian minister in charge of administration and justice, and Viviane Reding, EU vice-president and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, I should have known that this would not be the end of the story. Members of the current Hungarian government don’t have much sense about when to stop. Just as they doggedly pursued their domestic opponents and used all sorts of unacceptable methods to destroy them, they are employing exactly the same methods on the international scene: personal insults, insinuations, blackmail, lies, half-truths, and the practice of “divide and rule.” The Fidesz government’s strategy worked well at home. Just think of the trade unions and the student associations. So why not try it with the European Commission? Perhaps setting José Manuel Barroso against his vice president, Vivien Reding, both members of the European People’s Party, would bear fruit as well.

First, Navracsics questioned the integrity and impartiality of Reding. Then he said that she was not qualified. A day later Magyar Nemzet came out with a new theory. Next year there will be a new European parliamentary election and perhaps a new president of the European Commission. Reding has a chance to replace Barroso, but in order to be elected she will need the help of the European liberals and socialists. That’s why she is so tough on Hungary. It’s a career move, according to Magyar Nemzet.

On April 10 an op/ed piece by Tibor Navracsics appeared in the European Voice. Up until then these distasteful and totally counterproductive exchanges had appeared only in the Hungarian media. But now they were spread far and wide via an English-language weekly dealing with the politics of the European Union. Navracsics leveled the same accusations against Reding in the European Voice as he had in the Hungarian media. He questioned her neutrality and predicted that any decision about Hungary in Brussels will not be fair. It will be a “purely political decision.” Moreover, Navracsics challenged Reding’s authority “to question the right of a democratically elected government majority to change its own constitution.” If we take this last sentence literally, we must conclude that the Hungarian government categorically refuses to abide by the laws of the European Union. But in this case why do they bother about the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe? After all, it was Foreign Minister János Martonyi who asked the Commission to render a legal opinion on the most recent amendments to the new Hungarian constitution.

Following Navracsics’s lead, Magyar Nemzet inquired “in whose name Reding speaks.” Surely, the implication is that whatever this woman is saying cannot possibly be the opinion of the European Commission. The answer came swiftly after the appearance of Navracsics’s article in the European Voice. Newspapers rushed to Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen, spokeswoman for the European Commission, to ask her what the real situation was. They were told in no uncertain terms that “President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. So that old trick didn’t work.

But the wheels of the Hungarian campaign to discredit Viviane Reding were already in motion. The decision was apparently made that next Tuesday the government will use its very large parliamentary majority to pass a resolution condemning Viviane Reding for her statement about the Tobin case, which involved a car accident that resulted in the death of two children in Hungary a few years back. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Francis Tobin returned to Ireland and refused to go back to Hungary to serve his sentence in a Hungarian jail and the Irish Supreme Court backed him by refusing his extradition. On this occasion, Reding in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said: “I’m personally not surprised [about the decision] because lately Hungary has enacted a number of  laws that cast doubt as to the independence of the Hungarian judiciary.” Although the Tobin case will be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, details on the planned resolution are still not available. Perhaps they never will be. The government may decide that passing such a resolution against Vice President Reding a day before the Hungarian question is discussed in the European Parliament might be counterproductive.

Barroso, in order to make clear that he backs Reding 100%, decided to write another letter to Orbán. In the letter Barroso reiterated that the Commission has serious concerns over the compatibility of the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian Constitution with Union laws and with the principle of the rule of law in general. Barroso also indicated that once the ongoing legal analysis is carried out by the Commission, it will have “to take the necessary steps in order to start infringement procedures where relevant. I strongly appeal to you and to your government to address these concerns and to tackle them in a determined and unambiguous way.”

Orbán immediately answered Barroso‘s letter and assured Barroso that Hungary is committed to European norms and pledged full cooperation with Brussels. “I will certainly pay full attention to the points you raised and I should like to inform you that I have already initiated the necessary legislative steps to follow them up.” The same meaningless stuff Orbán reiterates every time he is trouble only to renege on it at the earliest opportunity. Navracsics weighed in later, saying that one doesn’t have to take Barroso’s letter very seriously; it’s simply an empty threat.

Meanwhile a six-member delegation arrived in Budapest from the Venice Commission. The members of the Commission are internationally renowned legal scholars. The Venice Commission already tackled the problems of the original constitution. Some of the criticized sections were very reluctantly rewritten by the Hungarians, but now the Venice Commission is confronted with an entirely different document that most experts consider to be unacceptable for a member country of the European Union.

Again, it was Magyar Nemzet that learned from government sources that the Venice Commission will meet József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the original new Fidesz constitution), Róbert Répássy, and Bence Rétvári (both undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice). The members of the Commission also wanted to talk to the party leaders of the opposition parties represented in the Hungarian parliament. Attila Mesterházy insisted that other opposition parties–DK, LMP, and Együtt 2014-PM–also be present.

The meeting with the government officials took place in the morning and by noon it was all over. Clearly, the talks didn’t go well. Répássy announced that “the members of the delegation showed partiality”; “they arrived with preconceptions.” The government had a 50-page defense of the constitutional changes but “one could hear from members that they will read it but it is unlikely that they will change their minds.” Considering their very careful  prior analysis of the text, I don’t know what the Hungarian government expected.

In the afternoon the members of the Commission met with the opposition forces. According to Attila Mesterházy, the visitors seemed to be extremely well informed but they mostly listened. I’m sure that the members of the Commission didn’t hear anything from the opposition leaders that they didn’t already know.

Maybe it is a good idea that Viktor Orbán will not attend the session of the European Parliament Here he is after his debate in the European  parliament / Reuters Vincent Kessler

Maybe Viktor Orbán is wise not to attend the session of the European Parliament.
Here he is after his last debate in the European Parliament. / Reuters Vincent Kessler

A few days ago Orbán was still not sure whether he should attend the European Parliament’s Wednesday session on Hungary. By now the decision has been made. He will not. Instead he will attend the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17. Looking through the list of  invitees I could find no non-British Commonwealth prime ministers on the list. For the most part countries will be represented by their ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. But I guess he had to come up with some “obligation” to justify his absence from the European Parliament.

He is, however, supposed to attend the meeting of the European People’s Party parliamentary caucus the day before, on April 16th. Even here we may find that Orbán has another urgent meeting somewhere else on the globe because if the information coming from Dubrovnik, Croatia is correct, support of the EPP caucus for Orbán and Fidesz has evaporated.

Here are the details. Currently, the EPP caucus is holding a meeting in Dubrovnik. No Fidesz EP member was in attendance. As it turned out, the caucus made a critical decision about Fidesz during a dinner meeting last night. A reporter from Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania, learned from anonymous sources present at the meeting that EPP decided to give the Hungarian government party one week to accept the resolutions of the European Union. If it does not, Fidesz will be removed from the EPP caucus. Apparently the decision was made by an important trio: Joseph Daul, the leader of the caucus, Viviane Reding, and Antonio López-Istúriz White, secretary-general of EPP.

Poor Orbán. First it was all those foreign capitalists and speculators who conspired against Hungary. Then the left-wingers and their international allies went on the attack. And now Orbán’s own conservative EU caucus is threatening him. The noose is tightening.