Tag Archives: Central European University

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

George Soros and the mafia state: The Hungarian reaction

The Brussels Economic Forum (BEF) recently held its annual conference on economics and finance. BEF is a European Commission- sponsored organization where politicians and scholars deliver lectures, and where panel discussions are normally moderated by journalists. It is a truly international gathering. This year’s keynote speech, delivered by George Soros, created an uproar in Hungarian government circles.

The speech was mostly about the European Union’s precarious position given that it is confronted with powers that “are hostile to what [Europe] stands for”–“Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, and the America that Donald Trump would create if he could.” Soros talked about the need for “both salvation and radical reinvention” of the European Union. He addressed Brexit, the Eurozone, the migration crisis, and the banking crisis in Italy. It was at the very end of his short speech that he talked about the resistance of young people all over Europe and Great Britain against undemocratic right-wing parties and governments. He singled out “the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary.” He was most surprised and heartened by the resistance in Hungary to the Orbán government’s attack on Central European University, something he was not expecting. He added: “I admire the courageous way Hungarians have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state Orbán has established, and I am encouraged by the European institutions’ energetic response to the challenges emanating from Poland and Hungary. While the path ahead is perilous, I can clearly see in such struggles the prospect of the EU’s revival.”

George Soros had visited Brussels a few weeks ago to confer with EU politicians about the plight of Central European University, but otherwise he had remained silent on the subject. Nonetheless, for months he has been under relentless attack by the Orbán administration, so it was amusing that the first reaction to his speech from members of the Fidesz leadership was that Soros’s comments were a clarion call for war against the Orbán government. As Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz EP member, put it a few hours after the speech, “if it’s war, let it be war, we are ready.” By the next morning, when Viktor Orbán delivered his Friday morning “interview,” Soros’s critical words about the “mafia state” had become a “declaration of war.” Orbán said that if anything in Hungary can be called “mafia-like,” it is “the Soros-sponsored network of NGOs.” Fidesz filed a complaint with the European Commission, the sponsor of the Brussels Economic Forum. The party is looking for an explanation of how such comments could have been uttered at an event under the aegis of the European Commission.

It has been in the air for some time that certain Fidesz politicians are preparing themselves for renewed anti-government demonstrations sometime in the fall. If trends continue, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if spontaneous or quickly organized demonstrations would take place as soon as students return from their summer vacations. Most likely the Fidesz leaders feel the growing dissatisfaction, and they’re trying to lay the groundwork to counter such events. One way of handling such situations is to blame any kind of anti-governmental movement on a foreign culprit. And, of course, there is no more prominent culprit than George Soros. Antal Rogán, at one of his propaganda campaign stops, indicated that there might come a day when the police will have to use force against the demonstrators, who receive instructions in training camps and who provoke the police. He claimed to know about the existence of such training camps in Hungary. And who is behind these training camps? Naturally, the Soros-financed NGOs.

This nonsense is now being spread far and wide by the government propaganda machine. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of Magyar Idők and one of the most primitive Fidesz propagandists, is warning Viktor Orbán to be prepared for “blockades and the occupation of government buildings.” The organizers of the past demonstrations realized that “rallies with music and dance” are not effective enough, and therefore hard-core violent demonstrations might take place. Gajdics’s fear of such a development was reinforced by George Soros’s “message.” Soros said in his speech in Brussels that “it is not enough to rely on the rule of law to defend open societies; [one] must also stand up for what one believes.” As far as Gajdics is concerned, that is a call for revolution.

The editors of Magyar Idők found the idea of a revolution in the fall organized by George Soros so attractive that, in addition to Gajdics’s editorial, the paper published another opinion piece in which the unnamed author foresees a scenario similar to that taking place in Macedonia. Macedonia, in his opinion, “has been ravaged” by George Soros via his NGOs. There the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that a few days ago a would-be assassin fired three shots at an outgoing minister of the Gruevski government. “We can only hope that [what happened in Macedonia] is not the dress rehearsal for the Hungarian elections [because] the expression ‘mafia state’ wasn’t uttered by accident as the crowning moment of the merciless speculator’s speech.”

It is somewhat surprising how enraged the Orbán government is with the label “mafia state” since the term, as readers of Hungarian Spectrum well know, has been in circulation since at least 2013, when Bálint Magyar published the first article in which he used it. The term stuck abroad as well. I found via Google over 1,000 mentions in English of Hungary as a mafia state. In Hungary about a year ago an opinion poll revealed that a majority of Hungarians describe the Orbán regime the same way.

A couple of days ago I saw a headline claiming that the anti-Soros propaganda campaign is not as successful as earlier Fidesz propaganda efforts had been. Well, equaling or surpassing the anti-migrant campaign would be a difficult task, I admit, but the latest Republikon Intézet poll reveals that this particular Fidesz effort is in fact effective. Only 31% of the population think that Soros does not at all or does not seriously intervene in Hungarian domestic politics, while 28% believe that he has considerable influence on Hungarian politics and 12% think that he has some influence on Hungarian politics, with about 20% not willing to take sides. That means that 40% of the adult population more or less bought the anti-Soros propaganda. Of course, Fidesz voters are especially prone (about 70% in this case) to believing whatever the party tells them. For those who understand Hungarian, I highly recommend taking a look at this video where hard-core Fidesz voters tell the journalist what they think of George Soros and Brussels.

The socialist-liberal-Jobbik group is more immune to the government propaganda: only 30% swallow all the horror stories they hear on television or radio or read on the right-wing internet sites. Indeed, it could be worse, but unfortunately propaganda Orbán-style is extremely attractive because it appeals to patriotic or nationalistic impulses, which are hard to combat.

June 3, 2017

Central European University refuses to be intimidated

Finally I can give you some encouraging news about Central European University. In my last post on the subject I reported on the step taken by Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of the State of New York, who on May 24 “announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government” concerning the fate of CEU. At that time I expressed my doubts that the Orbán government was actually ready to negotiate in good faith. I based this somewhat pessimistic opinion on a couple of sentences that had appeared in Magyar Idők, which indicated to me that any kind of agreement would still require the prior approval of the U.S. federal government, which we know is impossible to obtain.

Of course, we have no idea what the end result will be, but at least the Orbán government didn’t outright refuse Governor Cuomo’s offer. In fact, Kristóf Altusz, the undersecretary in the foreign ministry who is entrusted with the negotiations, got in touch with Governor Cuomo’s office last Friday. That is certainly a positive step.

This development is due to the brave and self-confident manner in which Michael Ignatieff, the rector of CEU, handled the situation. Cowering or trying to appease is the worst possible tactic to take when under siege by governments like that of Viktor Orbán. The university, led by Ignatieff, refused to be browbeaten. I’m convinced that without his determination and his calling worldwide attention to the Orbán government’s assault on a private university, that telephone conversation between Cuomo and Altusz would never have taken place. In fact, Ignatieff himself came to this conclusion, saying that “we are in a stronger position now than we were before because we resisted and said no.”

Central European University will stay in Budapest at least through the 2017-2018 academic year, Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday at a press conference. He wants to send a clear message to the government: CEU will not be shuttered. When a journalist asked him whether he has a plan B if “things get worse,” Ignatieff’s answer was that even if the government puts more pressure on them, they will not move. As he put it, he refuses to get involved in a game of chicken with the Hungarian government. He also made it clear that he is not going to be idle in the interim, which indicates to me that he is ready to continue his efforts to gain an agreement that would include a guarantee of the university’s unfettered existence in Hungary in the future.

Zsolt Enyedi, the university’s prorector for Hungarian affairs, made a remark which I found significant. He said that “the past few weeks have made us aware that we have a duty to the city and the country. We must remain as long as possible.” This is practically a clarion call to resist the anti-democratic forces that have taken over the reins of government in Budapest. In fact, this stressful episode in the history of the university has only made the resolve of the administration and faculty stronger.

The university will host an international conference on academic freedom on June 22 where the keynote speaker will be Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian writer. At the graduation ceremony former German president Joachim Gauck will receive the Open Society Prize, which “is awarded annually to an outstanding individual or organization whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society.”

The government media published, without any commentary, MTI’s summary of what transpired at the press conference. The only attack in the past two days came from Pesti Srácok, which reported on “the stomach turning anti-family conference” organized by the School of Public Policy/Department of Gender Studies of the university. The conference was obviously an answer of sorts to the mega-conference hosted by the “coalition of conservative organizations from around the globe.” It seems that what made the lectures stomach-turning was that speakers deemed the conservative family model outmoded in our modern society.

A few days ago Magyar Hírlap learned that the evil puppeteer George Soros, who rules the whole world according to the Hungarian government and its media, is coming to Hungary because CEU’s board of trustees will hold its annual meeting on June 24-25 in Budapest, right after the international conference on academic freedom. I don’t know when the decision was made to hold the board meeting in Budapest, but I have the feeling that it was not entirely independent from the recent government attack on the institution. Soros is the honorary chairman of the board. Otherwise, the trustees are a distinguished lot, including such well-known American-Hungarians as author and journalist Kati Marton and George E. Pataki, former governor of New York. The only trustee from Hungary is Attila Chikán, professor of economics at Corvinus University.

We also shouldn’t forget that, thanks to the joint effort of all opposition parties, including Jobbik, the Hungarian constitutional court was obliged to take up the question of the constitutionality of Lex CEU, as everybody in Hungary calls the law designed to expel the university from Hungary. The parliamentary vote took place on April 12. Until today we heard nothing about the fate of the court case. We just learned that, at the suggestion of the chief justice, a special working group will be formed to prepare the case for discussion by the full court. The creation of such working groups is allowed, “in especially complicated cases.” This means that until now the judges haven’t considered the case at all. The fact that the chief justice considers the case so complex that it needs special treatment leads me to believe that there is no agreement within the body about what to do with this hot potato.

May 31, 2017

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017

Is it time for Viktor Orbán to choose sides?

Not surprisingly the Hungarian media is focused on the consequences of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament that calls for launching Article 7(1). Yesterday I could report on the reactions of Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi who laid the blame for the fiasco on, who else, George Soros. Viktor Orbán, who had just returned from China, carefully avoided the topic with the exception of one sentence in a speech he delivered today at Daimler AG’s meeting. In his opinion, “it is foolish to vilify Hungary when it is first or second in the European Union in terms of economic growth; it is here that unemployment diminishes fastest; it is a country where all European fiscal rules are adhered to and the sovereign debt is decreasing.”

One can quibble about the accuracy of Orbán’s claim about Hungary’s economic growth, although it is true that the projection for this year, due to an unusually large infusion of EU convergence money, is very good. But what Orbán conveniently ignores is that the EP resolution to invoke Article 7(1) has nothing to do with Hungary’s economic performance. It is the “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years” that prompted the European Parliament to act.

It is hard to tell whether the Orbán government was prepared for the blow or not. A few days ago I read an interview with András Gyürk, the leader of the EP Fidesz delegation, who admitted that, despite the Fidesz members’ best efforts, “the most important actors” in the European Parliament still don’t understand the Fidesz version of the situation in Hungary. Hungarian opposition MEPs have been saying in radio and television interviews that from their conversations with members of the European People’s Party they gained the impression that as many as half of the EPP members have serious reservations about defending Viktor Orbán and his regime. At first I thought that number was wishful thinking on their part, but the vote pretty well confirmed their claim: 67 of the EPP members voted for the resolution and 40 abstained, so about half of the EPP caucus refused to come to the aid of the Orbán government.

Those few government officials who spoke about the debacle emphasized the size of the EPP contingent that stood fast behind Viktor Orbán. Pro-government commentators keep repeating the optimistic predictions of “political scientists” of Fidesz-sponsored think tanks like the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ) and Századvég that “there is no chance” of the procedure getting to the second stage because, given the present political makeup of the European Parliament, the necessary two-thirds majority is unachievable. But I wouldn’t be so sure, especially if it becomes evident that the Orbán government has no intention of following the recommendations of the European Parliament to, for example, “repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad.” Because the way it looks, the Orbán government has no intention of changing anything in the law on border security, as Szijjártó and others made clear already yesterday. Today we learned that the government will not give an inch on the issue of Central European University either.

László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, was giving a press conference in Debrecen on another subject when, in answer to a question on the fate of CEU, he made it clear that the law on higher education will not be changed. It is a law that is applicable to all universities, not just CEU. It stands the test of constitutionality, and it conforms to the values of the European Union. The decision by the majority of the European Union was a “political act.” I should add that constitutional scholars have a very different opinion on the matter.

A couple of weeks ago the government indicated that it would form a working group to start negotiations with the administration of CEU. Today a large group of middle-level bureaucrats arrived, representing practically all the ministries, but after an hour and a half it became obvious that they had no decision-making powers. In fact, they were totally ignorant of the government’s position and plans. Neither Palkovics nor Kristóf Altusz, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, was present. Zsolt Enyedi, vice-rector, got the impression that Altusz, who was supposed to “negotiate” with the U.S. government, did no more than ascertain that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this case. And so he was told to negotiate directly with the university instead. The present “negotiations,” Enyedi believes, are the government’s answer to an American suggestion. No one knows whether the government has any intention of seriously negotiating with the university in the future. My guess is that it doesn’t.

János Lázár’s usual Thursday press conference gave journalists an opportunity to hear more about the government’s reaction to yesterday’s vote. He concentrated on the migration issue and said that “the Hungarian government will not meet the European Parliament’s request to terminate either the legal or the physical closure in place. The security of the Hungarian government is much more important than the political dogmas set by the European Parliament.”

This reference to the “political dogmas” of the European Union brings me to a brief press conference Viktor Orbán gave in the middle of his trip to China which, according to 24.hu, was, despite its brevity, a fuller explanation of his thinking on democracy and related matters than at any other time since his illiberal speech three years ago. The prime minister was obviously impressed by what transpired in Beijing and praised Chinese plans for the Belt and Road project. In this connection he insisted that the East has by now caught up with the West and therefore “the old model of globalization” is over. From here on money and technology will flow from East to West and not the other way around. But here comes the interesting part. According to Orbán, “most of the world has had enough of globalization because it divided the world into teachers and pupils. It was increasingly offensive that some developed countries kept lecturing the other, greater part of the world about human rights, democracy, development, and market economy.” Orbán, according to the journalist commenting on this short interview, thinks that “the time has come for Hungary to choose sides.”

Orbán’s complaints about developed nations lecturing to less developed ones about human rights and democracy provide a window into his psyche and the motivating forces of his actions. Unfortunately, Orbán’s human failings have serious, adverse consequences for the people he allegedly wants to save.

May 18, 2017

Medián: Serious loss for Fidesz, gain for Jobbik

The latest findings of Medián published in HVG bore the witty title “Universal Decline,” reflecting the pollsters’ belief that the drop in Fidesz’s popularity is largely due to Viktor Orbán’s decision to launch a frontal attack against Central European University.

This reversal in the fortunes of the party is considerable. While in January 37% of the electorate would have voted for Fidesz, that percentage has now shrunk to 31%. This amounts to the loss of almost half a million voters. Underlying this drop is a general dissatisfaction with the governing party. Medián usually asks its respondents to name the one party they would under no circumstances vote for. In January only 37% of the respondents named Fidesz, but by now 46% of those surveyed said they would never cast their vote for the government party. In January half of the electorate were satisfied with the work of the government; today it’s only 40%. In January 46% of the people were hopeful about the future. Today that number has plummeted to 33%, with 57% expecting worse times to come. The percentage of those who want a change of government in 2018 has increased from 48% to 52%.

Left–red: total population; green: electorate; orange: active voters. Right–after the list of parties come the categories “doesn’t know,” “doesn’t tell,” “definitely will not vote”

After looking at these figures, one can safely say that Viktor Orbán’s decision to take on George Soros and CEU was politically unwise. At yet it’s fairly easy to see how and why it came about. Orbán and his strategists, when developing their political moves in preparation for next year’s election, were most likely convinced that their winning card was Viktor Orbán’s very successful handling of the migrant issue. Whether we approve or disapprove of his methods, from his own point of view his refugee policy was a roaring success. An overwhelming majority of the population fully support Orbán’s policies, including many who did not previously vote for Fidesz. Thus Orbán and his strategists quite logically opted to continue the same loud anti-migrant rhetoric. Everything else–the personal attacks on George Soros, on Central European University, on the NGOs, and on Brussels–were meant to serve this purpose. Unfortunately for Orbán, the grand strategy turned out to be a bust domestically, and his government’s standing in Europe has sunk to its lowest level in the last seven years.

By the way, the Medián poll debunks a widely held view that outside of Budapest (and the Budapest intellectual elite in particular) people are largely ignorant about the anti-government demonstrations and their precipitating cause–the attack on CEU. Among those surveyed, about 80% had heard of the demonstrations, and half of those named the attempted closing of CEU as the cause of the protests. They didn’t even need any prompting; they offered the information on their own. People in the countryside (vidék) are just as well informed on this issue as the inhabitants of Budapest. The great majority of Hungarians think it would be a shame if the government shuttered CEU. Only 32% think that CEU is in a privileged position vis-à-vis other Hungarian universities and that therefore the government is justified in its efforts to close it down.

While we are on the subject of CEU, I would note that there seems to be total disarray in government circles about their plans to deal with this issue. Péter Szijjártó this morning, in an impromptu press conference, was still talking about an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the United States even though it had been made crystal clear to Budapest that the U.S. federal government is not authorized to negotiate with a foreign power on the fate of an educational institution. Undersecretary László Palkovics, who has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, published a highly insulting article in the conservative Canadian National Post titled “Calling out Michael Ignatieff.” He accused the president of CEU of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary.” In the article he repeats the old Hungarian demand of “a bilateral agreement between the institution’s country of origin and Hungary.” As if nothing had happened in the interim. Viktor Orbán is refusing to answer questions on CEU. He sent ATV’s reporter to László Trócsányi, minister of justice, who is supposed to come up with some clever legal answer to the European Commission’s objections. At the moment, however, he is “extremely uncertain” as to the legal underpinnings of the EC’s position on the issue. One thing is sure. The Hungarian government will wait until the last possible moment to respond to the European Commission on the CEU case.

To round out this post, let’s go back to the Medián poll to see who benefited from the drop in Fidesz support. The real winner was Jobbik, which gained four percentage points. In January 10% of the electorate would have voted for Jobbik. Today it is 14% which, given Jobbik voters’ enthusiasm for going to the polls, means that the party would receive 20% of the actual votes cast. This sudden jump in popularity is most likely due to the highly successful Jobbik “You Work—They Steal” campaign.

Collectively, the parties on the left also gained four percentage points. Those who expected miracles from László Botka’s announcement of his readiness to head MSZP’s ticket in preparation for the 2018 election must be disappointed. MSZP’s 9% is nothing to brag about, especially since Botka has been canvassing the country for the last month. MSZP’s standing is practically the same as it was in January. As for his own popularity, his name by now is widely known, but his popularity hasn’t moved upward. The two great losers in the popularity ranking are Viktor Orbán (-9) and János Áder (-11).

One more interesting item. Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos, who coauthored the article on the Medián poll, state that “the extrusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány … proved to be divisive. Two-thirds of MSZP voters would still like to see him ‘in an important political role.’ On the other hand, it is true that Botka … is considered to be a qualified candidate for the premiership by 54% of the DK voters.”

I’m curious what Viktor Orbán’s next step will be. So far there has been a reluctance to drop the divisive and damaging CEU affair, which is eating away at his support. Moreover, he is being confronted with a growing anti-Russian sentiment and charges of Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Viktor Orbán. László Kéri, an astute political observer, is certain that today “we live in a different world from the one a couple of months ago.” He predicts that the decline of the Orbán regime is inevitable. He compared the current governmental chaos to the last days of the Gyurcsány government. But, of course, Orbán is no Gyurcsány, who, although perhaps too late, resigned. A similar move from Viktor Orbán is unimaginable.

May 3, 2017

The anti-EU, anti-Soros campaigns continue with renewed vigor

As Der Spiegel reported yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked her opinion of the outcome of the meeting between the presidency of the European People’s Party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remarked that promises are one thing but she is waiting for “the actual results.” It seems that Viktor Orbán can no longer hoodwink European politicians. They have learned over the years that it is foolhardy to trust Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians.

Merkel’s comment came after the meeting about which we now know a little more. Today Der Spiegel reported that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orbán, who were seated next to one another, engaged in an extended, vehement argument. At one point Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, apparently warned Orbán that the regional subsidies could be reduced in the future.

Der Spiegel opined that the EPP leadership is mistaken if they think that Orbán’s verbal agreement will be translated into deeds. This is also more or less what Rafał Trzaskowski, a Polish MP from the Civic Platform party who participated in the EPP meeting, suggested when he said that “the question is now whether he will follow what he says. Then, obviously, he can stay with us.” This comment, which I missed yesterday, further convinces me that Fidesz’s position in the EPP is not at all secure and the question of expulsion did come up during the meeting.

Admittedly, only one day has passed since the EPP meeting, but there is no sign of any let-up in anti-EU, anti-Soros propaganda in Hungary. On the contrary, it seems to me that Orbán’s answer to his “humiliation” is open defiance. Nobody really commented on the fact that Viktor Orbán was accompanied by Antal Rogán, his propaganda minister, during his stay in Brussels. Rogán sat silently next to him during his appearance before the European Parliament, and he could be seen at the brief encounter with journalists after the European Council meeting was over on Saturday afternoon.

Orbán’s forced grin may be a sign of discomfort

Rogán’s task is to explain to the Hungarian people what “really” happened in Brussels. He started his propaganda campaign this morning by giving an interview on Magyar Rádió’s “Vasárnapi Újság” in which he emphasized Hungary’s right to maintain positions different from those of the EU majority on certain issues. If necessary, the Hungarian government will take legal action to defend this right. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Central European University, the NGOs, or the “Stop Brussels” campaign. His concern was the migrant question. On this there can be no compromise, Rogán maintained. As for Fidesz’s relationship with the EPP, Rogán came up with an intriguing scenario. His claim is that George Soros has been working behind the scenes to have Fidesz expelled from the EPP. According to Rogán, Soros is also putting pressure on the European Union to force Hungary to dismantle the fence and the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but this is not negotiable.

We know that the migrant question was discussed during the EPP meeting because politico.hu reported that Saturday’s meeting became tense “when Orbán said he will never accept Muslim migrants” into his country. The refugee crisis is Orbán’s most effective political weapon. Orbán contends that the refugees who came through the Balkans were not desperate people running away from war and the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Instead, someone for political reasons must have encouraged these men and women to migrate to Europe. Orbán first blamed Angela Merkel, who invited the refugees to Germany. Later he pointed the finger at George Soros, the perfect scapegoat for his political purposes. By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, he can move against both the bothersome NGOs and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.

Bence Rétvári, undersecretary of the ministry of human resources, identified Soros as the source of all the problems Europe and Hungary are facing today. Soros’s meeting with Juncker especially bothers the members of the Orbán government. They envisage a whole Soros network that “applies pressure on the country.” Rétvári directed another attack on Central European University and its president, Michael Ignatieff, who after all “led the Canadian Liberal party and therefore behaves like a politician.” Despite all the protestation, he claims, CEU is not an independent university.

The brand new “Stop Brussels!” and anti-Soros ad, which runs on several television channels, can be seen here with English subtitles.

Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., an extreme right-winger and an active member of the government-sponsored CÖF, a pseudo-NGO, demanded on M1, the state television news station, that the 226 members of the European Parliament named in a document released by DC Leaks should be investigated because of the possibility that they serve foreign interests. Lomnici is referring to a publication prepared by the KumQuat Consult for Open Society European Policy Institute titled “Reliable allies in the European Parliament (2014-2019).” The list contains mostly Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal politicians. Lomnici pointed out that of the 17 MEPs who spoke during the plenary session on the Hungarian question 11 appeared on the Open Society’s list. Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-government think tank, devoted an opinion piece to the subject in which the author listed such important politicians as Martin Schulz, Olli Rehn, Gianni Pittella, Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in’t Veld, and Ulrike Lunacek. Even Frank Engel, a Christian Democrat, is listed, which naturally explains why Engel would like to see Fidesz expelled from the EPP. Magyar Idők was pleased to report that Prime Minister Robert Fico is also contemplating steps to achieve “the transparency of civic organizations in Slovakia” and that the Polish government, just like Hungary, has problems with the Norwegian Fund.

The current Macedonian crisis is a godsend for the Orbán government’s Soros bashing. I should note here that Hungary, alongside Russia, is backing the Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, who was a guest of the Orbán government about a month ago. On April 18 a Fidesz member of parliament addressed a question to Péter Szijjártó concerning the situation in Macedonia where, in his opinion, George Soros is behind the disturbances in Skopje. “The people of Macedonia have had enough of this and they began a ‘Let’s Stop Soros’ movement.” László Szabó, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, the man who will be the next Hungarian ambassador in Washington, replied. He claimed that Soros has been organizing anti-government demonstrations ever since May 2015. Since then, Péter Szijjártó released a statement about foreign interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the statement published by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

In any case, the anti-Soros campaign is going on with renewed intensity as is the campaign to sign and return the “Stop Brussels!” national consultation questionnaires, to which both the European Commission and the presidency of the European People’s Party have strenuously objected. In fact, the government just launched a new campaign to urge people to return the questionnaires because they will play a vital role in the government’s defense of the country against the attacks by the European Union. At the same time, the government is trying to explain away the real meaning of the national consultation which, according to the latest interpretation, is simply a way of expressing the Hungarian government’s intentions to reform and improve the structure of the European Union. Somehow, I don’t think that Frans Timmermans and Joseph Daul will fall for this latest ruse of Viktor Orbán.

April 30, 2017