Tag Archives: Bernadett Szél

The Hungarian government and transparency: The case of the mentally disabled

On April 18, 2017, Pablo Gorondi, Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, reported that the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), after visiting Topház Otthon (Top House Home) in Göd, 30 km from Budapest, a state-run institution for people with mental and physical disabilities, called for the closure of the institution. They uncovered signs of ill-treatment and malnutrition in the run-down facilities of the institution that houses 220 children and adults. Steven Allen, the group’s campaign director, said that “the conditions, abusive practice and evidence of violence … are the result of systematic failings in law, policy and regulation and a lack of effective and independent monitoring.” The report also pointed out that, according to the Central Statistical Office, there are some 25,000 people in Hungary with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues who have been placed in state institutions. The Hungarian government estimates that it would take 19 years to move these people to smaller homes. In addition to Gorondi, Nick Thorpe of BBC also filed a report about the “shocking conditions” found in the “home,” although he attached the opinion of an official of the Office of the Commissioner for Equal Rights who claims that “Topház is an extreme case.”

Of course, we have no idea whether this is really true since gaining access to these facilities is extremely difficult. Instead of going into the details of the terrible conditions found in all the wards MDAC visited, I will concentrate on the difficulties MDAC encountered in trying to gain access to Topház. Given the reluctance of the officials in charge of these facilities, they must be well aware of the conditions inside the walls of these institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t prevent monitoring teams from entering the premises. Moreover, it is unlikely that Topház is an extreme case because investigative journalists over the years have called attention to similar problems at other facilities.

From the descriptions I read, the problems are systemic. One problem is that these institutions are regarded as “warehouses away from the public gaze,” as MDAC’s report aptly described their function. The mentally disabled are put there to be out of sight until they die. And they die with great frequency. When the associates of MDAC arrived, there was a black flag flying alongside the Hungarian national colors. What happens to those who die without a family to pay for a funeral I have no idea, but I was struck by the story a local told the reporter of Magyar Nemzet who visited the town after the release of MDAC’s report–that one of the employees of the institution became so attached to a patient that she herself took care of the funeral arrangements.

The facility, an old mansion, is ill-suited to its present function, and one doubts that any renovation has taken place since 1978 either inside or outside. Apparently, the size of the staff is totally inadequate, which results in confining people to their beds with all the adverse effects of such confinement. Psychiatric counseling is not available on site. The patients’ dental hygiene is deplorable. One could go on and on. All in all, the Hungarian state simply doesn’t spend enough money to maintain decent facilities for the mentally disabled.

The poverty of these institutions raises a vexing question. Topház and other similar institutions have received financing from European structural and investment funds administered by the Hungarian government. MDAC recommended that the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) open an audit and investigation into a breach of fundamental rights in the use of European funding. Considering the amount of corruption in Hungary, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the money that was supposed to be used to improve the facilities and the lives of their residents ended up in the pockets of those handling the funds.

Back in 2014 Index received permission to visit Topház where they found close to idyllic conditions. The patients were taken for excursions in the nearby forests, and physical therapists were working with some of them. The dining room was spotless and the children well dressed. Today they realize that the “show” was most likely organized for their benefit. With the exception of a few prearranged visits, Topház as well as all other facilities are closed to outsiders. For example, MDCA began their quest to receive permission to visit the premises on June 26, 2016. At that point, the director of Topház “expressed openness to collaborate” but two days later withdrew the invitation. It seems that the Directorate-General for Social Care and Child Protection (Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság/SZGYF) forbade him to allow MDAC’s visit.

After the initial denial MDAC wrote to the director of SZGYF seven times between July 1 and September 9, 2016. Then, on October 20, MDAC wrote to Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and social inclusion in the ministry of human resources, asking for a personal meeting. They received no answer. So, on November 3, MDAC wrote to Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, with copies to the Hungarian ombudsman and the Fidesz MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on persons with disabilities. This letter was also sent to a number of MPs in the hope that one of them would be willing to accompany the staff of MDAC to Topház since MPs have free access to such facilities. In theory, at least.

Bernadett Szél (LMP) agreed to go along, but when the group arrived in Göd, the deputy director of SZGYF, accompanied by the new director and the head nurse of the facility, were at the gate. They refused to let the monitoring team in. After Szél made a telephone call to the deputy undersecretary for social policy, the MP was allowed in for a short time while the monitoring team waited for her outside the gate.

In February 2017 permission was at last granted. After several preliminary visits, the MDAC team spent a whole day, April 18, 2017, inside the facility with “minimal supervision.”

Not even the presence of MP Bernadett Szél was enough to let MDAC enter the facility

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the horror story. Although the ministry of human resources, after reading MDAC’s report, suspended the director of the facility and promised that the facility would be closed as soon as possible, Zoltán Balog didn’t think the case needed his special attention. MDAC’s request to meet with him was denied. He sent Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and inclusion, to meet them–of all places–in front of the parliament building. He declined MDAC’s request to live stream the meeting, but he did promise access to the other facilities. However, “Mr. Czibere stressed that there would be ‘conditions’ to such access.”

The official state propaganda machine, Magyar Idők, chimed in on the incident. The first article, published yesterday, did say that the ministry of human resources had admitted “extremely bad conditions” in the facility, but the author felt compelled to point out that MDAC had been founded in 2002 by–drum roll–George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The paper also reported that several relatives of the patients had “rejected the accusations” in social media, and the paper managed to find a mother who spends three days a week at the facility. She testified that the employees of the facility have the best interests of the children in mind and there is not the slightest sign of neglect. So, reads the headline, “Is this a new smear campaign against our homeland?”

Magyar Idők’s second article, published today, was even more accusatory. This time the journalist said that MDAC’s visit was illegal and complained that the monitoring group should have gotten in touch with the ombudsman instead of snooping around the facility and “releasing information and pictures to The New York Times.” (In fact, the NYT simply republished the AP report I referenced at the beginning of this post.) In order to minimize the gravity of the situation, the author spent about half the article on a 1998 report of the ombudsman which pointed out that even at that time “the number of staff members is inadequate; the children don’t receive toys; there are too many beds with high railings; and the patients are overmedicated.” Finally, he repeated the claim that since one of the supporters of MDAC is Soros’s Open Society Foundation, “it is possible that—even if the charges are well founded—the goal is the disparagement of Hungary.”

This case is living testament to the necessity of having NGOs like MDAC, without which we would have known absolutely nothing about the dreadful conditions in Topház. As it is, the Hungarian government did its best to prevent us from ever learning about the true state of affairs in one of the state-run facilities for the mentally disabled.

May 6, 2017

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

Growing anti-Russian sentiment in Hungary

In the last couple of months the Hungarian government has been so preoccupied with George Soros’s evil empire that it has not noticed a shift in public opinion on its increasingly close relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Hungarians are getting fed up with Russian influence, which is noticeable wherever they look. In March, Publicus Intézet conducted a poll which revealed that the majority of Hungarians consider Viktor Orbán’s pet project, the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, to be contrary to Hungarian interests. Better informed people are convinced that the City of Budapest was forced to buy refurbished outmoded metro cars from Russia–cars that kept breaking down–in order to please the Russians.

When Bernadett Szél of LMP accuses Fidesz members of parliament of being Russian agents, when anti-Russian slogans are chanted at demonstrations, and when the Party of the Two-tailed Dog carries posters like the ones shown here, we can see that Orbán’s shameless courting of Putin’s Russia is starting to backfire at home.

By now many perfectly sane people are convinced that Orbán’s abrupt foreign policy turnabout when he was reelected prime minister in 2010 was not exactly voluntary. Until then, Orbán had been fiercely anti-Russian. Russian-Hungarian relations, way before Russia’s Putinization, were seriously strained during Orbán’s tenure as prime minister between 1998 and 2002. It took the socialist-liberal government years to normalize relations between the two countries. While in opposition, Orbán criticized any and all moves toward closer relations with Russia, especially Ferenc Gyurcsány’s friendly personal relations with Vladimir Putin after 2006. But then, in 2009, Orbán showed up in Moscow as the head of Fidesz to attend the congress of Putin’s party, United Russia.

It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who the other day said publicly what thousands of people suspect: that Vladimir Putin has something on Viktor Orbán which caused him to change course practically overnight. On April 8 Gyurcsány gave a long interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he claimed that “Viktor Orbán’s about-face can be logically explained only by assuming that the Russians are blackmailing him.” Upon further questioning, he indicated that he knows about certain aspects of Orbán’s life that might lend themselves to blackmail. On April 21 he went further in an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd. “I know the following: the Russians have confronted the prime minister with certain facts and documents which are so embarrassing that he would think five times before he would reject Putin’s demands.” Those who are in possession of the documents can be forced to release them only if the documents are required as evidence in a court of law. Therefore, Gyurcsány continued, “the prime minister should sue me over this accusation if he thinks that what I’m saying is untrue. In that case, I will prove my assertion.”

This is a pretty startling announcement from a former prime minister, but the fact is that a fair number of commentators, politicians, and ordinary citizens have been convinced for some time that this recent Russian-Hungarian love affair raises red flags. Two politicians who were interviewed right after Gyurcsány, neither of them a Gyurcsány fan, didn’t reject the possibility. On the contrary.

Meanwhile an activist, Gergő Komáromy, to demonstrate his opposition to Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin, threw (washable) yellow paint on the Soviet War Memorial, which stands on Liberty Square right across from the U.S. Embassy. Komáromy received a fine of 30,000 forints (around $100), a much milder sentence than Márton Gulyás got for a lesser act. But that was not the end of the story. A few days later Komáromy was contacted by a Chechen-born Russian citizen, Magomed Dasaev, who demanded a public apology. After Dasaev informed him that he is a nice Chechen but there are others who are not so nice and might be after him and his family, Komáromy readily agreed to a public apology both in Hungarian and in English. The video that was put online was a great hit among Russian internet users. In no time close to 200,000 people watched the Hungarian’s humiliation. For good measure even the Russian Foreign Ministry got into the fray, calling attention to the bilateral agreements on Soviet and Russian military memorials in Hungary.

That a Chechen decided to take things into his own hands and threaten a Hungarian citizen was too much even for András Stumpf of the conservative Válasz. He found the video “chilling.” The Fidesz government, which prides itself on being a “national government,” should be national now and raise its voice against a Chechen forcing a Hungarian citizen to be humiliated in front of everybody. The Russians “look upon this city as their predecessors used to. As a colony, their own little kindergarten. So, it is really time for all of us to be national.”

Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, moved into action. She finds it unacceptable that neither the Hungarian intelligence community nor the prime minister speaks out against “Russian pseudo civilians telling Hungarian citizens how they can protest the government’s policies.” Her view is shared by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the committee. The committee will call on the Budapest police and the Office for the Defense of the Constitution for an explanation. What happened cannot be tolerated in an EU country, Molnár said.

Others called attention to mysterious Chechens showing up in Moscow. As Krisztián Ungváry put it, “In the beginning, the Chechen only asks; then he sends the head of a dead animal; and finally someone is hit by a car.” Attila Ara-Kovács recalled a group photo from 2006 on which one can see Anna Politkovskaia, Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemirova. What they have in common is that by now all three are dead, killed by Chechen hit men. And, of course, there is the case of Boris Nemtsov, who was killed practically in front of the Kremlin, also by a Chechen. Putin, it seems, created a network of Chechen henchmen who do his dirty work. Given Viktor Orbán’s itchy palms and CÖF’s talk about civil war, the appearance of Hungary’s own Chechen is worrisome.

I assume that nobody is shocked after everything that has happened recently that the attitude of Hungarians toward Russia has undergone a dramatic shift. To the question “In your opinion, whom does the current foreign policy of the government serve first and foremost?” the percentage of those who named Russia tripled (from 9% to 26%) between November 2016 and April 2017 while the percentage of those who answered that the Orbán government’s foreign policy primarily serves the interests of the homeland has shrunk from 57% to 45%. But more about this fascinating poll tomorrow.

April 23, 2017

The Hungarian parliament “debates” the anti-NGO bill

It’s becoming really hot in the Hungarian parliament, where the opposition is waging a heroic fight against an increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous Fidesz majority. Members of the opposition are feeling increasingly frustrated by their impotence within the walls of parliament. They are desperate as they watch the Fidesz bulldozer grind on with escalating force.

One would think that the international scandal that ensued after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country would temper Viktor Orbán’s zeal and that he would conveniently forget about the bill against those civic organizations that are partially financed from abroad. But no, he is forging ahead.

Tempers are flaring in parliament. Lately I have noticed growing impatience on the part of the Fidesz majority, which often prompts the president or his deputies to forcibly prevent discussion of pending legislation. One would think that with such a large majority, the government party would show some magnanimity, but this was never true of Fidesz and it is especially not true of late. Perhaps because Fidesz parliamentary leaders are feeling the pressure of the streets they take their anger out on the members of the opposition. In turn, some opposition members seem buoyed by those tens of thousands who have demonstrated in the past week. The result is shouting matches and fines ordered by either László Kövér or one of his Fidesz or KDNP deputies.

About two weeks ago commentators predicted that the Orbán government will consider their bill on the NGOs even more important than their law on higher education, the one that affected CEU. And indeed, top Fidesz representatives were lined up for the debate, among them Gergely Gulyás, whom I consider especially dangerous because he seems to be an unusually clever lawyer with the verbal skills to match. He acted as if the proposed bill wasn’t a big deal, just a simple amendment of little consequence. As for the issue of branding NGOs by demanding that they label themselves “foreign-supported” organizations, Gulyás’s answer was that some people consider such support a positive fact, others don’t. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the bill. He accused the opposition of “hysteria” stemming from frustration.

The Christian Democrats have recently discovered an able spokesman, István Hollik, who was not as restrained as Gulyás and spelled out in detail what the government’s problem is with the NGOs. According to him, “there are people who would like their political views to become reality and who want to have a say in the events of the world without seeking the trust of the electorate. This is what George Soros does in Europe and in America.” It is through these NGOs that Soros wants to influence politics.

MSZP’s spokesman was Gergely Bárándy who, I’m afraid, doesn’t set the world on fire. LMP’s Bernadett Szél, however, is another matter. In her view, the country shouldn’t be shielded from the civic groups but from “the Russian agents who sit here today in parliament.” She continued: “You are a government financed from abroad; you are politicians who are financed from abroad; you are supposed to do this dirty work. It is unacceptable.” As for Hollik’s references to George Soros, Szél said “You people make me sick!” Szél was well prepared for this speech because she had hundreds of cards printed on a black background saying “I’m a foreign funded politician.” She placed them on the desks of Fidesz MPs. Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd didn’t mince words either when she announced that “all decent people want to vomit” when Fidesz members vote against civic groups that help the disadvantaged and the disabled. Finally, Együtt’s Szabolcs Szabó compared the bill to the one introduced in Putin’s Russia. He charged that Viktor Orbán simply lifted a Russian piece of legislation and transplanted it into Hungarian law. “Even Mátyás Rákosi would have been proud of this achievement,” he concluded.

Bernadett Szél hard at work

But that wasn’t all. It was inevitable that the pro-government civic organization called Civil Összefogás (CÖF) would come up. CÖF is clearly a government-financed pseudo organization which spends millions if not billions on pro-government propaganda. Naturally, CÖF is unable to produce any proof of donations received. Bernadett Szél held up two pieces of paper to show that CÖF left all the questions concerning its finances blank. At that very moment, Sándor Lezsák, the Fidesz deputy president of the House, turned Szél’s microphone off. He accused her of using “demonstrative methods” for which she was supposed to have permission. Such an infraction means a fine. When Szél managed to continue, she said: “Take my whole salary, but I will still tell you that CÖF has a blank report. So, let’s not joke around. How much do my human rights cost? Tell me an amount. We will throw it together. I’m serious.” This is, by the way, not the first threat of a fine against opposition members. MSZP members were doubly fined because they called President Áder “János.” The spokesman of Párbeszéd “was banned forever from parliament” because he put up signs: “traitor” on the door leading to the prime minister’s study.

Speaking of CÖF. Today László Csizmadia, chairman of CÖF, launched an attack against Michael Ignatieff in Magyar Hírlap. He described Ignatieff as “Goodfriend II on the left.” The reference is to the capable chargé d’affaires of the United States Embassy during the second half of 2016 when American-Hungarian relations were at the lowest possible ebb.

And one more small item. Index discovered that the parliamentary guards, a force created by László Kövér in 2012 (about which I wrote twice, first in 2012 and again in 2013, will get new weapons and ammunition:

  • 45-caliber pistols
  • 56 mm (.223 caliber) submachine guns
  • 62x51mm sniper rifles using NATO ammunition
  • .306 caliber rifles
  • manual grenade launcher for 40mm grenades
  • intercepting nets
  • a variety of ammunition for new types of firearms
  • universal (fired, thrown) tear gas grenades with artificial or natural active ingredients
  • hand-operated teardrop grenades working with natural or artificial substances

So, they will be well prepared for all eventualities.

April 19, 2017

Hungary has no secrets from Russia? The strange story of the Yandex capture code

On April 8, 444.hu’s curious and internet savvy journalists, while looking at the government’s website where citizens can fill out the infamous “Stop Brussels” questionnaire, discovered that “personally identifiable information” (PII) is being passed on to Yandex’s Russian servers.

First, a few words about Yandex, a Russian multinational company specializing in internet-related services. It is the largest search engine company in Russia. It also performs services similar to those of Google Analytics, but it can perform certain additional tasks that Google doesn’t (and won’t): with a special setting it can collect “personally identifiable information,” a feature that is described by experts as marking the difference between capture and spying.

Citizens who choose to answer the Orbán government’s moronic questions online must give their full names, e-mail addresses, and age. Although the website assures respondents that their personal information is safe, that it is not given out to a third party, it is clear from the source code that this is not the case. Thus, what Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry, which runs the website, did was against the law. But that’s only one of the many problems connected to using Yandex.

It is well known in internet technology circles that Yandex passed information to Russia’s state security service, FSB, back in 2011. Yandex also has a service similar to PayPal, which the Russian blogger Alexey Navalny used for donations he collected for an anti-corruption website. Yandex passed the names of the donors on to the FSB. It is also well established that in Russia there is no such thing as data protection. Any information Yandex and other Russian internet service providers collect is readily accessible by the security services. Therefore, Yandex is almost never used in western democratic countries. That the Hungarian government opted for Yandex lends additional credence to the hypothesis that Viktor Orbán, for one reason or another, is beholden to Vladimir Putin. He never misses an opportunity to give preferential treatment to Russian companies.

It didn’t take long after 444.hu made its finding public for the capture code to disappear from the site’s page source code. The discovery of the Yandex connection had to be embarrassing to the Hungarian government. Moreover, the removal of the capture code signaled that this was not just an innocent mistake or an oversight. It took the government a whole day to try to explain away Yandex’s capture code. They didn’t succeed. The statement concentrated on questions that had nothing to do with the problem at hand. For example, it claimed that “personal data and the opinions expressed are stored in a closed and unconnected manner.” In taking the capture code down, the government only wanted to avoid “malicious misinterpretations” in the future.

Source: Index.hu

The conservative mandiner.hu rushed straight to Yandex. Its president, Victor Tarnavski, argued that Yandex is really not a Russian company, a dubious claim considering that the company’s headquarters are in Moscow. He said that the data most likely ended up in Yandex’s data center in Finland. He added that it is “the duty of our clients to check the mode of capture.” The special function that allows the capture of personal data must be set by the user of the code–in this case, the Hungarian government.

Not surprisingly, the opposition parties were up in arms and demanded to know more. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, indicated on Sunday, April 9 that he would ask questions about the case from the military and national security experts present at the regular Monday meeting the following day. Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the committee, asked the head of the Military National Security Service about the Russian code. He informed her that this is a domestic matter and he has nothing to do with it. Then Szél turned to the head of the Office for the Defense of the Constitution. Before he could answer, the deputy chairman of the committee, Szilárd Németh, abruptly got up and left the room, to be followed by all the Fidesz members of the committee. Thus, the committee no longer had a quorum, and the questioning had to be stopped. Szél was especially outraged. She said “apparently the prime minister of this country is no longer called Viktor, but Vladimir.”

In the wake of the scandal over the Russian code and the subsequent fiasco in the committee, leading Fidesz politicians treated the public to a series of ridiculous pseudo-explanations. Lajos Kósa said that “we don’t want to make a secret of how many people responded. This is not a secret even if Vladimir Putin himself counts them in the loneliness of the Kremlin.” He also expressed his surprise at the outrage of the opposition members of the parliamentary committee, saying that “when we say that the meeting ends we leave, but otherwise the opposition can shoot the breeze as much as they wish.”

As far as the government and Fidesz are concerned, we’ve reached the end of the story. However, Attila Péterfalvi, head of the Authority of National Data Protection and Information, is investigating the case.

Magyar Idők must have thought they were very clever when they ran a short article with the title “444 is spying.” They discovered that 444.hu, the internet news site, uses Google Analytics (just as Hungarian Spectrum does). The government mouthpiece wanted to know why 444.hu can follow its readers with “an American spy program.” This description of Google Analytics came from a right-wing blogger who claimed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, “and practically all American internet providers report to the CIA, the NSA, etc.” So, what’s the problem?

I have no idea, of course, whether any personal information reached a data collection center in Russia. If it did, what could the Russian government do with such information? One thing that comes to mind is that they could construct a database (or add to a database they already have) that would allow the Russian propaganda machine to target Orbán voters, who are most likely susceptible to pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda. Given Russia’s passion for cyber warfare, disinformation, and propaganda, this hypothesis is within the realm of possibility.

April 14, 2017

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