Tag Archives: Bernadett Szél

It has taken three years but the Istanbul Convention will soon be ratified

The Hungarian political scene is so active that one can’t keep up with it, especially now that the jostling among opposition parties has begun in earnest. After all, the national election is just a little more than a year away. Yet I would be amiss if I didn’t report on what one can only hope is a significant achievement of women’s groups in Hungary. The Orbán government has at last begun the process of ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which was initiated by the Council of Europe and opened for signature on May 11, 2011. The convention aims at preventing violence against women and domestic violence. As of May 2016, it had been signed by 44 countries. Between 2013 and 2016, it was ratified by 21 countries.

Hungary was one of the signatories, but it has yet has to ratify the convention, although it could have done so at any time after August 2014. Ratification involves changing existing laws to conform to the requirements of the Istanbul Convention. Preparations for the ratification have been taking place in secret without any input from women’s groups or experts.

The Hungarian government has been dragging its heels for about two and a half years. Népszabadság reported in August 2014 that Hungary was one of seven members of the European Union where the law does not guarantee automatic prosecution of all forms of domestic violence. In addition, it is only in Hungary that there is no specific intervention program guided by experts, working with men who had committed sexual violence.

Several months went by without anything happening until, in March 2015, Zsuzsanna Szelényi (Együtt), supported by 36 other members of parliament, turned in a motion to speed up the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It was known ahead of time that Jobbik would not vote for the motion because the Convention “is not concerned with the most widespread and most brutal domestic violence, the act of abortion,” but to everybody’s surprise the members of Fidesz-KDNP joined Jobbik and voted against Szelényi’s motion. Even Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, couldn’t quite understand why the government refused to speed up the process of ratification. Péter Niedermüller, DK MEP, considered the Fidesz decision “shameful and abominable.”

After two years of government inaction, on February 1, 2017, in the pouring rain, a small group of women labelled feminists, a curse word in Hungarian right-wing circles, demonstrated in front of the parliament. Fidesz’s reaction to this small demonstration was outrageous. According to the latest Fidesz spokesman, “at the moment, immigration and the settlement of migrants are the greatest dangers in Europe. Wherever migrants appeared violence against women and children skyrocketed…. Those same opposition parties that keep worrying about women in roundtable discussions prevented parliament from modifying  the constitution to prohibit the settlement of migrants.” The message is that domestic violence in the country is insignificant or at least is not nearly as serious as the migrants’ sexual assaults against European women and children.

A week later, on February 8, 2017, Szilvia Gyurkó, a lawyer involved in children’s rights issues, wrote a short article in which she listed three reasons for the government’s reluctance to act on the ratification. One is that in Hungary domestic violence is a relatively rare occurrence. This is not the case. According to a 2014 study, 27% of girls under the age of 15 experience physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Seven percent of adult women can be considered victims of domestic violence. The second reason is that proponents of the Convention include under the rubric of sexual abuse actions that are not violent but are only inappropriate behavior toward women. The third reason is that Hungarians don’t need the ratification of the Istanbul Convention because the government defends Hungarian women more than adequately from unwanted approaches or physical abuse.

Gyurkó may have been kind to the government. A Fidesz-supporting journalist offered his reasons not to ratify the Convention. László Vésey Kovács of Pesti Srácok objects to changing the Hungarian law primarily because “women’s rights NGOs, supported by George Soros, under the pretext of a concern for battered women, want to interfere in the lives of Hungarian families.” In plain language, domestic violence is nobody’s business outside the family.

Meanwhile a survey taken late last year shows that Hungarians are fully aware of the problem of domestic violence in their country. Almost 20% of them consider it to be a very serious problem and another 53% think it is widespread. Only 3% seem to be ignorant of the problem. Even so, half of the adult population believe that there are certain situations in which sexual violence is acceptable: a drunk or drugged partner (24% in Hungary while the Union average is 12%), a woman willingly accompanies a man home after a party (20% versus 12%), sexy clothing (21% versus 10%), and the “no” is not explicit enough (14% versus 10%).

A few days ago the government at last decided to submit the issue for discussion in parliament, which was described by Index as a “Valentine’s Day gift.” However, there is fear that the government will try to “soften” the legal consequences of the Convention. For example, LMP’s Bernadett Szél is afraid that the present practice of launching an investigation only after the victim files an official complaint will continue. Szél also asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to provide crime statistics. Last week Pintér assured the chairwoman of LMP that the number of physical abuse cases has been decreasing in the last six years. While in 2010 there were 5,000 such cases, by 2016 the police registered only 3,210 such instances. The number of registered rapes in 2010 was 241, but last year they reported only 10 such cases. In the whole country! Among a population of almost 10 million! A miraculous improvement, I must say.

What will happen now that the text of the modifications to Hungarian law is available online and comments can be submitted for about two weeks before the final text reaches the lawmakers? I have the strong suspicion that the women’s groups and human rights activists are not going to be satisfied with the Ministry of Justice’s understanding and interpretation of the Convention’s intent.

February 18, 2017

Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and his Hanukkah greetings

Today Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, managed to retain his position despite opposition from András Schiffer and the admittedly ineffectual smear campaign of the Fidesz-inspired media. Hadházy’s internal critics accused him of jeopardizing LMP’s firm policy of not cooperating with any other party when he talked about the necessity of dialogue among opposition forces.

I’m convinced that deep down Hadházy knows that the party’s current strategy is doomed to failure, but with a brave face he is trying to pretend otherwise. At the press conference after the party congress Bernadett Szél somewhat pointedly remarked that the party’s election strategy had already been decided earlier: LMP will be on its own at next year’s election because “there is no party in parliament that LMP could work with.” Hadházy took the easy way out by emphasizing that LMP doesn’t want to attract voters from the left but rather “hopes to convince voters of the government party that change is necessary.”

Now to the main topic of today’s post.

A few weeks ago the government launched a smear campaign against Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, which, as I indicated earlier, didn’t achieve its aim. In fact, the methods used to demonize Vona were so primitive and base that I got the distinct impression that the campaign actually resulted in some sympathy for Vona, even on the left.

Thus, new tactics were required, which Gábor Vona himself offered to Fidesz when he decided to write Hanukkah greetings to the various Jewish religious communities, including Slomó Köves’s Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Köves is a supporter of Orbán. Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government he became chief rabbi of the Hungarian armed forces.

Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were obviously part of Jobbik’s new strategy, which includes shedding the party’s anti-Semitic past. The problem is that that past was laden with so many sins against Hungarian Jews that a quick turnaround couldn’t be accepted by Köves or any other Jewish religious leaders. Köves wrote a lengthy letter in which he listed some of Jobbik’s most outrageous anti-Semitic statements. After a few famous sayings from the Old Testament, such as “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Köves suggested that instead of sending Hanukkah greetings, Jobbik leaders should voice their new convictions, if they are genuine, at forums where previously “not light, but hatred, ignominy, and darkness reigned.”

Köves made his letter public, which in turn elicited a public response from Vona. Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is Vona’s explanation of how he ended up on the wrong side. He “inherited” his anti-Semitism because he found himself in an environment in which “one side called Hungarians Nazis, while the other labeled Jews traitors.” Since then, he “has come to the realization that this doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Vona’s answer didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, which was justifiably offended by his occasional juxtaposition of Hungarians and Jews instead of Christian and Jewish Hungarians. At the same time, it also outraged the more radical members of Jobbik who, I’m convinced, have been getting ample support in their opposition to Vona’s leadership from Fidesz.

Origo has been closely following the reverberations within Jobbik after the Hanukkah affair. The first story of some import came from Vecsés, a town just outside the city limits of Budapest. Vecsés at one point was the center of the Army of Outlaws movement, whose leader is a friend of Gábor Vona. Otherwise, Jobbik claims that the party and this neo-Nazi group have nothing to do with one another. On the local level, however, there seems to be cooperation despite the denial. Or, at least this used to be the case. The only Jobbik member of the town council was, or perhaps still is, affiliated with the Army of Outlaws. This man, Imre Orbán, has a reputation for being a troublemaker and has distinguished himself as a fouled-mouthed anti-Semite. This time he placed a post on Vecsés’s Jobbik Facebook page in which he accused Gábor Vona of making a fool of Jobbik members by turning to the rabbi with his apologies. He added some four-letter words in his discussion of Hanukkah. This incident was taken seriously by the party and Vona promised to investigate.

The official “state news” Híradó reported a few days ago that the Jobbik leadership in Vámosmikola, a village of 1,600 inhabitants, also criticized the leadership because of the Hanukkah greetings and the subsequent exchange of letters. Jobbik cannot be strong in Vámosmikola since in the 2014 municipal elections it didn’t even have a candidate for mayor or the town council, but even the smallest protest is big news in the right-wing press.

Pesti Srácok gleefully reported that a former member of the Magyar Gárda, once the paramilitary arm of Jobbik, since dismantled, demanded the vest that was part of their uniform from Vona, who proudly wore it at the opening of parliament in 2010. By trying to build bridges between Jews and the party, Vona “became unworthy” of this precious vest, claimed the former member of the Magyar Gárda.

Yesterday Magyar Idők called attention to a demonstration of disappointed Jobbik members that will take place in Debrecen, where the organizers are expecting Jobbik sympathizers from four counties. These people not only complain about Vona’s Hanukkah letter but also about Jobbik’s abandonment of its earlier radical political strategy. A closer reading of the article, however, reveals that most of these people are no longer members of the party. As the chief organizer, Erika Ulics, a lawyer, explains, 35-40 local leaders who will gather in Debrecen already left the party after Vona, in 2014, decided to scuttle the party’s former ideals. Ulics herself was expelled from the party, allegedly because she leaked inside information to Népszabadság.

Ulics, by the way, is a notorious neo-Nazi and an admirer of Ferenc Szálasi, who was executed for war crimes in 1946. In addition, she is a racist who suggested that all Gypsies should be forced to join the army and attack Romania. “If we win, Transylvania is ours. If we lose, Hungary is ours.” Those with strong stomachs should visit the news sites Cink and 4024 for more quotations from this vicious neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.

The government-sponsored sites are so eager to spread news of the imminent collapse of Jobbik that they are resorting to fiction. According to alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official site 888.hu reported that the entire ten-man Jobbik group in Nemeshetés, population 320, resigned in protest over Vona’s new pro-Jewish policies. It turned out that Jobbik doesn’t have a local cell in the village. Since then, the article has been taken offline.

Yesterday afternoon Ulics’s demonstration did take place. It is hard to tell from the picture just how many people attended, but as far as I can judge, there were mighty few. It certainly didn’t shake Jobbik to its very foundations as, I’m sure, some Fidesz leaders hoped.

The sign, by the way, is an Albert Wass quotation: “The surest weapon against mendacity and falsehood is truthfulness. This is our weapon.” And one shouldn’t miss the doctored photo of Gábor Vona and Ágnes Heller walking hand in hand. It is unlikely that Heller received this distinction because these people are such admirers of her accomplishments as a philosopher.

All in all, I tend to agree with the political scientist Attila Ágh, who in a recent interview said that Vona’s new strategy, for the time being at least, hasn’t resulted in any spectacular growth in the party’s popularity. On the other hand, it hasn’t collapsed either. The opposition to Vona is small, and he still has the party leadership behind him. Most supporters have remained faithful to the party, but it is difficult to predict whether Vona’s new strategy can achieve its aim of attracting voters from the left and from the large group of the undecided.

January 15, 2017

Is LMP in cahoots with Fidesz?

On October 17 Egon Rónay of ATV’s Start interviewed Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP. The occasion was the demonstration organized by Párbeszéd (Dialogue), Együtt (Together), and LMP (Politics Can Be Different) that had taken place the day before. Considering that by that time four of the left-liberal opposition parties had decided to celebrate October 23 together, the conversation soon turned to LMP’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the others. What followed was a lengthy tirade by Szél against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom she considers responsible for the very existence of Viktor Orbán as a politician. As she put it, as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány remains on the political scene Hungary will be stranded with Viktor Orbán.

Backbiting is unfortunately an everyday affair in Hungarian opposition circles, but Szél’s outburst was unusually acerbic and ill intentioned. A day later, on the same program, Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, indicated that Együtt, led by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász, and LPM, led by Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, with their refusal to cooperate wittingly or unwittingly were assisting Viktor Orbán’s government.

LMP’s decision to collaborate with Fidesz on the issue of the constitutional court’s newly elected judges led to a really ugly scene between László Varju of DK and the whole LMP parliamentary delegation of five plus András Schiffer, the architect of the Fidesz-LMP deal. The LMP politicians crashed Varju’s press conference, which was held in the parliament. Soon enough the press conference turned into a screaming session in which Varju called the five LMP members of parliament “collaborators.” In turn, Schiffer said that AVH, the dreaded Hungarian secret police between 1945 and 1956, was “the spiritual predecessor” of the political leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Moreover, he accused them of inciting anti-Catholic sentiments by criticizing Balázs Schanda, one of the new judges, who writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The hapless Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, tried in vain to end the exchange of accusations. He eventually got involved in the cacophony himself.

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely.

Today an article appeared in index.hu which might explain, at least in part, the ferocious LMP attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the news site, sometime in early November LMP commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the Hungarian electorate on the current government as well as on leading opposition personalities. From the survey LMP learned that three-quarters of its own supporters reject any cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him an obstacle to unity. I don’t know whether this finding surprised LMP’s leadership, but it really shouldn’t have. DK’s liberal ideas on economic matters and its acceptance of globalization are in stark contrast to LMP’s far-left socialist ideas.

Even so, I don’t believe that LMP’s refusal to work with the other opposition parties on the left is the result of its supporters’ intense dislike of Gyurcsány and his ideas on the free market economy. Gyurcsány is only an excuse. LMP’s founder, András Schiffer, from the start made it clear that LMP alone would defeat the Orbán regime. I’m almost certain that even if Ferenc Gyurcsány gave up politics this very moment LMP still wouldn’t be willing to work hand in hand with the others.

Overall, the poll apparently found that 46% of those who side with the opposition think that Gyurcsány is an obstacle to the defeat of the Orbán government while 45% think that “the presence of Gyurcsány is necessary for the removal of Orbán from power.” That is a tie, says index.hu, but since LMP voters are so anti-Gyurcsány and therefore anti-DK, it is good politics to launch an attack against the party.

According to the survey, 45% of the electorate as a whole would like to see a change of government while 43% support the present Orbán government. Naturally, 94% of Fidesz voters are still loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. The same level of fervor is manifest in those who today would vote for an opposition party. The situation is very different among the large group of Hungarians who haven’t found a party they would gladly vote for. Forty percent of them would like to see the Orbán government disappear, 26% would like it to stay, and 34% have no opinion. This untapped group of undecided voters should be the primary target of the opposition, but any effort to woo the undecided will be effective only if the opposition can create a unified force, speaking with one voice. Cacophony guarantees defeat.

LMP’s poll also measured the popularity of five politicians: Bernadett Szél (41%), László Botka (34%), Ágnes Vadai (32%), Ákos Hadházy (31%), and Ferenc Gyurcsány (26%). This finding is especially interesting because only opposition politicians are being compared. I found the relatively low rating of László Botka especially surprising considering that he was declared to be the most popular MSZP leader, the one who could lead his party to victory.

A few hours after the index.hu article appeared István Ikotity, an LMP member of parliament, denied the existence of the survey, adding: “In my opinion, LMP shouldn’t be preoccupied with the opposition. We shouldn’t pay attention to the recognition and support of certain opposition politicians. Our position in relation to DK has remained the same. Nothing has changed.” His denial was not very convincing, but I believe him when he says that LMP’s attitude toward DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t changed at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that LMP did commission this survey and that its politicians, seeing the results, decided to tip the scale against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose standing in opposition circles is a practical tie between his supporters and his opponents. In that case, I think one can argue that LMP is a collaborator of Fidesz, not just because it assisted in enlarging the constitutional court which opposition parties, including Jobbik, find illegitimate but also because it purposely sowed discord among the opposition parties which will only weaken the anti-Orbán forces. András Schiffer, the creator of LMP, decided to call his party “Lehet Más A Politika” (Politics Can Be Different). If LMP is indeed involved in such a dirty, indecent game, it should be the last party on earth to bear that name.

November 29, 2016

Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition

It’s time to vent my wrath against some of those politicians who allegedly want to win the 2018 election and free the country from a semi-autocratic leader who has introduced an illiberal political system in Hungary.

A couple of days ago György Bolgár invited me to outline my ideas about what the democratic opposition should do to put an end to the rule of Viktor Orbán. Among other things, I emphasized the need for one large opposition party, which would necessarily mean the disappearance of those parties that have only minimal support. As it stands now, none of them would receive 5% of the votes, so any ballots cast for them would not only be a waste but would boost Fidesz’s electoral position.

There are some very good people in these parties. People like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Gergely Karácsony (PM), Tímea Szabó (PM), and Péter Juhász (Együtt) would be real assets in a large left-of-center party. But others should disappear from the political scene because they are obstacles to any kind of joint action and mutual understanding. The two most prominent people in this latter category are the chairman of Együtt, Viktor Szigetvári, and the co-chairman of LMP, Bernadett Szél. Szigetvári accuses MSZP of being in bed with Fidesz and wanting to lose the election as the result of a secret pact. Szél just assured Fidesz of her party’s support for the anti-refugee referendum and, while she was at it, joined the anti-Soros chorus of Fidesz.

Let me start with Viktor Szigetvári. Back in March 2014, just before the election, I wrote a critical article about him. For years, ever since he graduated from college, he was affiliated with MSZP in one capacity or another. He served under Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai. Because he was one of the organizers of the 2006 MSZP election campaign, he acquired the reputation of being an election guru with a magic touch. But, as his efforts in the 2014 election campaign showed, a magic touch was not enough. In 2013, after he left MSZP, he became co-chairman of Bajnai’s Együtt-PM which, despite promising beginnings, today has the support of only 1% of the electorate.

I freely admit that I have been following Viktor Szigetvári’s political career with growing concern. He appears on ATV frequently, and each time he lessens the chances of a unified democratic opposition. He tries to discredit and undermine the two larger parties, MSZP and DK, and puts himself forth as the only man who could engineer a democratic opposition victory in 2018.

Szigetvári’s latest foray into backbiting was an interview with András Hont of HVG where he said that “Együtt has an existing hinterland and an intellectual radiance which might not be as large as that of a party with 40% support” but the party isn’t tainted by those who were discredited in the days before 2010. Of course, Szigetvári conveniently forgets about the large role he played in the service of that “rotten regime,” whose other participants should be banished from political life.

Behind Viktor Szigetv'ari: "For Hungary"

Behind Viktor Szigetvári: “For Hungary”

The whole interview was full of contradictions. On the one hand, Szigetvári is convinced that only someone who had nothing to do with political life prior to 1990 can unseat Viktor Orbán. On the other, he indicated in the interview that his great hope for the premiership would be László Botka (MSZP), who came from exactly the kind of family Szigetvári talks about so scornfully. Both parents were MSZMP members; Botka’s mother was one of the founders of MSZP, mayor of Szolnok, and a member of parliament. And surely László, given his family background, was a member of KISZ. He became a member of MSZP at the tender age of eighteen.

László Botka is Szigetvári’s hero. The most popular MSZP politician who, due to some mysterious internal party conspiracy, was prevented from setting the agenda of MSZP for the next two years. Since MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election, Szigetvári insists. Well, in my opinion, there is a more plausible explanation for Botka’s failure at the last party congress. It was well known inside and outside the party that Botka wouldn’t be willing to cooperate with anyone, especially not with Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, cannot be ignored as a factor in the present political constellation. My take is that the representatives who voted for Hiller instead of Botka were thinking in terms of the inevitable electoral failure if MSZP tries to run its own slate in the 2018 election.

Szigetvári himself also wants to meet Fidesz head-on, and it was at this point that he revealed his true position. “We will not sacrifice our community on the altar of ‘Down with Orbán!’” This is as clear as it can be. It doesn’t matter what Viktor Szigetvári says, it is not the politicians of MSZP and DK who want to lose the election for some unfathomable reason. It is Szigetvári’s politics that will weaken the forces of the democratic opposition and help Viktor Orbán remain in power, perhaps for decades.

The interview stirred up quite a controversy, but Szigetvári is not the kind of man to back down in the face of criticism. He accepted an invitation from Olga Kálmán of ATV to elaborate on the accusations he had made in his earlier interview. There he tried to explain the inexplicable with miserable results. Those who know the language should take a look at that encounter.

And now let me turn to Bernadett Szél’s performance at the 27th gathering of the Fidesz-inspired Bálványosi Nyári Szabadegyetem (Bálványos Summer Free University). It is no longer held in Bálványos/Cetățile Păgânilor. It moved to the larger Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad, so nowadays they call the event Tusványos. Every year Fidesz invites the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses of the opposition parties for a friendly chat with the Fidesz top brass, but last year only András Schiffer of LMP showed up. This year his former co-chairman, Bernadett Szél, also accepted the invitation. Neither Jobbik nor MSZP went.

Bernadett Szél and Lajos Kósa discussing the migrant issue

Yesterday morning I read an MTI news item from Tusványos. Lajos Kósa (Fidesz), Péter Harrach (KDNP), and Bernadett Szél (LMP) were having a friendly chat, mostly about the refugee crisis and the referendum. Kósa went on and on as is his wont about Hungarian sovereignty and that only the citizens of Hungary can decide who can settle in the country. No one from the outside can force Hungary to do anything. “I can invite anyone into my house but I won’t allow my neighbor to make such a decision.” Pope Francis is correct that we have to help our brethren, but “we should be the ones who decide the form of assistance.”

Bernadett Szél chimed in. According to her, “migration and immigration have always been within the competence of the member nations in the European Union and they must remain there. No nation must succumb to blackmail.” Therefore, Hungarians must vote “no” at the October 2 referendum. As you know, MSZP, DK, Együtt, and PM have urged their followers to boycott the referendum while Gábor Fodor recommended that the followers of his liberal party vote “yes.” Until now, LMP had said nothing. Szél finally clarified what most people had already suspected: that despite all the noise they make in parliament on other matters, LMP is not a serious opponent of Fidesz. In fact, LMP, with its refusal to cooperate with others, is an enabler of Fidesz’s political agenda.

And if that wasn’t enough, she decided to say a few ugly words about George Soros. LMP rejects Soros’s meddling in Hungarian affairs. It is unacceptable that some influential person from the outside tells us what the right attitude or position is in certain matters. He should be spending his time in other endeavors instead of giving advice in the matter of immigration. The Pope couldn’t be left out either. According to her, politicians misinterpret the Holy Father’s words.

Ákos Hadházy, who replaced András Schiffer as co-chairman of LMP and member of parliament, is an excellent man. Just like Péter Juhász of Együtt, he is doing a tremendous job unveiling government corruption involving EU funds. Quietly but fairly persistently he has talked about the necessity of “common thinking” and “discussion” among the democratic parties. But Bernadett Szél intervened and said there is no change in policy: LMP will go against Fidesz alone in 2018.

Gyula Molnár, after learning about Bernadett Szél’s shameful performance, announced that MSZP will have nothing to do with LMP. Szél won’t be upset. She has more powerful frenemies on the right.

July 23, 2016

Turkish and Saudi business ties of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law

I’m coming to the conclusion that the “first family” of Hungary must have gotten together on several occasions to figure out how to guarantee that their new son-in-law, István Tiborcz, becomes a very rich man. Thanks to the good offices of Viktor Orbán, the young man—he is still not quite thirty years old—made a small fortune in the LED street lighting business. In fact, he was too successful. OLAF, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office, wanted to know more about this super company that received almost all of the contracts for EU-financed modernization of city lighting in Hungary.

With a possible investigation on the horizon, Tiborcz had to distance himself from the lighting business. And the head of the family had to find another source of income for Tiborcz that would be less directly involved with public procurements. It looks as if Orbán’s advice was for his son-in-law to try his hand at real estate.

Tiborcz’s first real estate venture was the purchase of the Schossberger Mansion last October. His father-in-law most likely also counselled him to make sure that his name doesn’t appear on the letterhead of companies he owns in full or in part. So, the new real estate company, called BDPST Ingatlanforgalmazó, is on paper owned by two people, apparently friends of Tiborcz. But since he paid the excise tax in connection with the purchase of the mansion, we can be confident that Tiborcz is behind BDPST. I wrote about this deal about half a year ago.

At that time we also learned that Tiborcz may have interests in two other real estate firms, AMX HS and AMX Nador House. The CEO of both companies was a wealthy Turkish businessman, Suat Gökhan Karakus, who lives in Hungary.

In the foreground Adnan Polat / Source: Magyar Narancs

Adnan Polat  / Source: Magyar Narancs

A few months later atlatszo.hu discovered that Tiborcz has other important foreign backers. One of them is the incredibly rich Adnan Polat, a Turkish businessman who is one of the owners of AMX HS and AMX Nador House. He has, as 444.hu learned, many contacts within the Orbán government and is very active in Hungarian-Turkish cultural and business associations. He is involved with the Hungarian Trading House in Istanbul, and the Hungarian Cultural Center set up shop in the offices of Polat Holding.

Another man who is now in Tiborcz’s circle of business associates is Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi businessman of dubious reputation. AMX Nador House, a joint venture of Polat and Tiborcz, managed to buy from the state the old headquarters of Postabank at József Nádor tér. Soon enough they sold AMX Nador House to a certain Ammar M. A. Abu Namous, who immediately changed the name of the company to Pharaon-Kappa Befektetési és Tanácsadó Kft. The Hungarian internet site Válasz soon found out that Namous is a lawyer who handles Ghaith Pharaon’s business ventures in Hungary. There are already seven such businesses, all of whose names include letters of the Greek alphabet. In addition to extremely valuable Budapest properties, Pharaon through Namous bought the Zichy-Hadik Mansion in Seregélyes and the Hochburg-Lamberg Mansion in Bodajk.

The available English-language information on Ghaith Pharaon is extensive, mostly because of his association with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) back in the 1990s. Secretly acting on behalf of BCCI, Pharaon acquired control of two American banks in violation of federal banking laws. When the fraud was discovered, BCCI was forced to sell the banks, which soon after were shut down by regulators when it was determined that they were insolvent. Pharaon was charged with wire fraud and racketeering conspiracy. He has been wanted by the FBI since 1991 for his role in the fraud involving the financial collapse of BCCI and remains a fugitive. In addition, Pharaon was accused in a 2002 French parliamentary report of having financial dealings with hawala, an Islamic financial network which is also used by terrorist organizations. Currently, he is chairman of Attock Petroleum, CEO of National Refinery, and Director of Pakistan Oilfields, just to mention a few of his business ties. He lives mostly on his super yacht named Le Pharaon.

Pharaon might be wanted by the FBI, but the Orbán government is not fussy. Rumor has it that the state is planning to sell the building next door to the former Postabank building that is already in Pharaon’s possession. The building, which is currently occupied by the ministry of national economy, will soon be available when the ministry moves, along with the prime minister’s office, to the Castle District in Buda. In addition to his various real estate deals, Pharaon is also a business partner of the Hungarian state through the Hungarian National Trading House.

The stories circulating about Pharaon eventually worried opposition politicians. At the end of April the parliamentary committee on national security spent a three-hour session on the relationship between Pharaon and the Orbán government, at the end of which deputy chairman Szilárd Németh (Fidesz) informed reporters that “this Pharaon is not that Pharaon.” Then, on June 6, when János Lázár was testifying before the committee about the work of the secret services in the year 2015, Bernadett Szél (LMP) decided to ask him about the “Pharaon case.” Did the government manage to learn more about Pharaon? Since she didn’t receive a satisfactory answer, Szél is demanding a separate hearing of the case in the near future.

Whether Pharaon is a national security risk or not I have no idea, but Tiborcz’s role as an intermediary between the Hungarian government and foreign businessmen, given Tiborcz’s relation to the prime minister, is troublesome to say the least. It seems that Tiborcz and his father-in-law are unwilling to settle for a role for Ráhel Orbán’s husband that has nothing to do with the Orbán government and the Hungarian state. After all, as long as Orbán is prime minister, the financial benefits of such a relationship are enormous.

June 8, 2016

What can we learn about U.S.-Hungarian relations from János Lázár?

A huge sigh of relief. Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad is not worth reporting on. Normally he tests out his latest vision for Hungary on this occasion, but this time there was nothing new in the speech. Although he shares the view of the Hungarian far-right that the current migration of masses of people from the Middle East and Africa resulted from the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support of the Arab Spring and although his speech was full of ire against the migrants and those who are using Hungary as an entry point to the European Union, he refused to connect the present European situation to U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. It was a cautious speech and therefore rather dull.

Since I don’t have to waste time on the speech, I can return to yesterday’s topic, János Lázár’s outline of Hungary’s foreign intelligence, which deserves further scrutiny. In the first place, yesterday I couldn’t cover the very lengthy Q&A session, which is an integral part of the whole and without which the picture of the Orbán government’s thinking on foreign affairs is incomplete. Second, yesterday I simply summarized the main points of the testimony without analyzing them. And third, the questions posed by two members of the opposition are excellent examples of political incompetence and even subservience. They show how easy it is for Viktor Orbán to proceed unchecked.

Taking a larger view of the whole speech, including the Q&A period, one is struck by the almost total neglect of Russia, as Professor Charles Gáti in his comment to yesterday’s post rightly pointed out. By contrast, Lázár was preoccupied with the United States. Judging from his references to the U.S., relations between Hungary and the United States are much worse than one would suspect. After all, at the end of January the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Hungary and at the same time a new Hungarian ambassador replaced the rather ineffectual György Szapáry in Washington. The Hungarian government expressed great hope that relations would improve as a result of these changes at the head of the missions.

Well, the differences of opinion between the two countries are not as visible as they were in the stormy autumn months during the tenure of André Goodfriend as chargé d’affaires. Colleen Bell has been smiling a lot. But judging from Lázár’s testimony, relations are frosty. In fact, Lázár used the occasion to send a message to the United States. The Americans must understand, he warned, that Hungary will not tolerate any interference in the country’s internal affairs. There are some countries where the U.S. ambassador acts like a conductor and legislators play the music accordingly. He was most likely thinking of Romania. Well, Hungary is not one of these countries. Lázár admits that this is not “a friendly message,” but this is how it is. He also pointed out that the extensive personnel changes at the foreign ministry were intended “to break personal connections going back thirty years, which worked very well when it came to foreign interests but less so when it involved Hungarian interests.” His message: “this world is coming to an end now.”

Hungarian suspicion of the United States was manifest in the discussion of the alleged harassment of the Hungarian minority in Romania. A careful reading of these passages indicates that the Orbán government suspects that the United States actually encourages the Romanian authorities to act against ethnic Hungarians and against the two main Hungarian denominations: the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

U.S.-Hungarian relations also came up when Lázár answered a question from Ádám Mirkóczki (Jobbik) about the United States’ intention to send heavy armaments to East-Central Europe and to establish military bases in the region. Mirkóczki wanted to know whether Hungarian intelligence looked into the effect of such an American move on Russian policy. Lázár adopted the well-known Hungarian position of sitting on the fence when it comes to the conflict between Russia and the West, but he added something significant. In a sarcastic tone, he pointed out that “the United States has not favored us with special attention concerning military cooperation with us…. The close cooperation between the United States and Poland and between Romania and the United States is well known. We didn’t get such serious offers or requests. However, we continually weigh the pros and cons of heavy armaments appearing in Central Europe and try to decide how much the presence of such armaments worsens or improves the situation.” When this answer was given, the Hungarian government was most likely already engaged in negotiations over a heavy armament shipment to Hungary.

The national security committee has seven members, three of whom are from opposition parties: the chairman, Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), Bernadett Szél (LMP), and Ádám Mirkóczky (Jobbik). I already summarized Mirkóczky’s question, which was one of the more intelligent ones. After all, Jobbik is a pro-Russian party, and his question had relevance to Jobbik’s views on Russian-U.S. relations.

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Unfortunately, the performances of Szél and Molnár were less than sterling. Initially, Szél came up with three not very important questions, mostly on issues of domestic importance, that had nothing to do with the topics covered. Lázár’s lengthy answers took up an inordinate amount of time that would have been better spent on questions that actually had something to do with his prepared remarks. But then, as an afterthought, Szél asked a question that showed the affinity between LMP and Lázár when it comes to free trade. LMP is an anti-globalist party with strong anti-capitalist overtones. In addition, they are no friends of the United States. So they are dead set against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. In addition, LMP styles itself as a green party, so it decries the use of chemicals in the production of food as well as any methods of handling food that may be harmful to “the Hungarian people.” She wanted to know “how can the Hungarian government, on the one hand, speak loudly about national sovereignty and, on the other, take part in a game that is obviously against the welfare of the Hungarian people.” From Lázár’s answer we learned that there are differences of opinion within Fidesz on the subject of TTIP and that Lázár’s opinion is actually very close to Szél’s.

Then came Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), who is suspected of being a bit too close to Fidesz. Molnár, like Szél, strayed from the topic at hand and kept talking about capital punishment. He wanted to have an assurance that the question is no longer on the table. But even here the two men found common ground. The Orbán government at the moment is fighting with the European Court of Human Rights over life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court considers “actual life-imprisonment” inhumane. The Hungarian government thinks it is necessary. Molnár also likes the idea of locking up people for good. Molnár and Lázár also agreed that Hungary’s sending a small contingent to Kurdistan will increase the threat of terrorist attacks on the country. His tentative question on the usefulness of the fence to be built on the Serbian-Hungarian border was answered with the same propaganda one can read everywhere on billboards and was accepted at face value.

Is it any wonder that people hoping for a change in the country don’t trust the current leaders of the democratic opposition?

The new media landscape: Magyar Nemzet versus Napi Gazdaság

Back in 2010 I devoted a post to a comparison of the domestic news reporting of two Hungarian dailies: Magyar Nemzet, then a government mouthpiece, and Népszabadság, a paper close to the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP). All the articles appeared on the same day, and the results were startling. As I said then, “Two papers, two worlds.” Nowadays, when the print and online Hungarian media world is in turmoil, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the contents of the new Magyar Nemzet and the paper that took its ideological place, Napi Gazdaság.

In 2010 the most obvious difference between the two newspapers was which news items the editors picked from the offerings of MTI, the Hungarian news agency. Magyar Nemzet neglected to report on news that was unfavorable to the government while it picked up items of perhaps lesser importance if they showed the Orbán government in a good light. Népszabadság, on the whole, covered the events of the day more accurately, but there was a tendency to overemphasize matters that reflected badly on the government.

napi gazdasag2

Fast forward to 2015. Let’s start with Napi Gazdaság. If you recall, Viktor Orbán in his interview claimed that the reason for his government’s problem is the loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion “appropriately.” Looking at today’s Napi Gazdaság, one finds at least one article that aims to explain the government’s position on what it considers to be an important issue: the objections of the European Commission to certain provisions of the law on the use of agricultural lands, something I wrote about yesterday. Although other papers, including Magyar Nemzet and Népszabadság, didn’t consider the announcement of the chairman of the parliamentary commission on agricultural matters concerning the issue important enough to cover, Napi Gazdaság found it newsworthy. The message the paper wants to convey is that “the Hungarian law doesn’t contain anything that cannot be found in some other, older member states,” and therefore the Hungarian government finds the EU objections discriminatory.

There is another important task Napi Gazdaság must perform–anti-Gyurcsány propaganda. Although the news that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s consulting firm received the job of supervising an international team to improve the quality of decisions on contracts subsidized by the EU is old, Napi Gazdaság decided to include an article on the opinion of Ildikó Pelcz (née Gáll), who thinks that “the case is still full of question marks.” For good measure, the paper ran an editorial titled “Pinocchio.” The editorial combats Ferenc Gyurcsány’s newly announced program on utility prices. More than half of the editorial is designed to show the superiority of the government’s earlier decreases in utility prices over Gyurcsány’s suggestions.

One must always keep alive anti-communism, even if it takes some ingenuity to find a reason for talking about it. Gergely Gulyás made a speech at a conference held in the parliament building in which he called attention to the sufferings of the people on “this side of the iron curtain.” He also charged that “no one ever asked for forgiveness for the sins of communism” but immediately added that “those who maintained that regime can never be forgiven.”

A good government paper must also include some cheerful news, which is hard to come by of late. Therefore, a misleading headline always comes in handy. For example, one of the articles claims that “85% of Hungarian youth believe that they will be successful in life.” The other results of the survey, however, are not so rosy. That these young people believe that “to be successful one needs connections” should make readers wonder about the true state of affairs in Hungary when it comes to job opportunities. Or that over 40% of them would like to work abroad. On the other hand, we ought to rejoice at learning that the Raoul Wallenberg School, after so much tribulation, will be able to move, although “the final decision” will be reached by Zoltán Balog only at the end of May. But then why the announcement now? 

And finally, one ought to hit the opposition hard and, if possible, accuse them of dishonesty and possible fraud. Ferenc Papcsák, former mayor of Zugló, accuses the new administration of Gergely Karácsony of PM (who was supported by all the democratic opposition parties) of wasting the 2.5 billion forints he left behind. According to him, the salaries of employees haven’t been paid, certain projects had to be shelved, and the local paper, for the first time in 19 years, cannot appear because of a lack of funds.

There are several important pieces of news that Napi Gazdaság simply ignores. One is that Béla Turi-Kovács, a Fidesz member of parliament, is turning in a request to re-examine the abandonment of the M4 project. Turi-Kovács began his political career in the Smallholders party and served as minister of the environment in the first Orbán government between 2000 and 2002. This piece of news was reported by Magyar Nemzet, but the abandoned M4 is not something that should be talked about in a government paper.

The other significant news of the day that Napi Gazdaság failed to report on is that the head of Lombard Kézizálog Zrt., a financial institution that went bankrupt back in April, was arrested. Eight banks suffered a loss of about four billion forints. Perhaps even more interesting is another piece of news, this time about Lombard Lízing Zrt., a company being sued by a former customer who received a loan of 3.5 million forints in Swiss francs. Without going into the very complicated details of the case, the Hungarian National Bank and the government are siding with Lombard Lízing Zrt. against the customer. Fidesz seems to be so interested in the case that a Fidesz member of parliament between 2010 and 2014 will represent Lombard in the suit. That piece of news was discussed in a lengthy article in Magyar Nemzet but not in Napi Gazdaság.

Another topic that Magyar Nemzet, like other dailies, spends time on is the question of capital punishment. After all, there will be a discussion of Viktor Orbán’s reference to the death penalty tomorrow in the European Parliament. Magyar Nemzet actually has two interviews on the subject. One with Tamás Lattmann, a professor of international law, and another with Dóra Duró of Jobbik. Lattmann explains that no referendum can be held on the subject, while Duró tells about a debate within the party. The interviews were conducted by Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern.

It is again not surprising that news that the association of history teachers and historians called on the government to condemn the 1915 genocide of Armenians did not appear in Napi Gazdaság. On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is sympathetic to the cause of the Armenians, and the paper had a number of articles on the subject in the middle of April. Napi Gazdaság would never report on the historians’ request because, first of all, the historians involved are not exactly favorites of this government. Second, the Orbán government has exceedingly good relations with Turkey. Finally, Armenia broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary after the Orbán government sent an Azeri national who murdered an Armenian in Hungary back to Kazakhstan as a friendly gesture to the Azeri dictator.

Magyar Nemzet nowadays provides space for opposition members to express their views. For example, in today’s paper they reported on the opinion of Bernadett Szél, an LMP member of parliament, that the taxpayers will be responsible for the cost of taking care of atomic waste that will accrue at Paks.

The latest news about Vladimir Putin’s remarks on Hungary’s economic interest and the Paks II nuclear power plant naturally appeared in both papers. But there is an important difference. The Magyar Nemzet article consists of four sentences. It is restricted to the bare facts. Napi Gazdaság, on the other hand, spends considerable time on the issue, adding details about the size and the nature of the Russian loan.

Magyar Nemzet can no longer be considered a “government mouthpiece.” That role was taken over by Napi Gazdaság. The question is whether the new Magyar Nemzet will be able to retain its readership. Moreover, for the last month or so, we’ve heard about more and more Magyar Nemzet employees abandoning the paper and joining Napi Gazdaság. I assume they are offered higher salaries. And most likely the journalists who switch believe they will have better job security since the future of Napi Gazdaság, given its favored position, is assured, at least for three more years, while this might not be the case with Magyar Nemzet.