Tag Archives: Central European University

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

Patience is running out in the European People’s Party when it comes to Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow the leadership of the European People’s Party will meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to discuss the increasingly rocky relations between EPP and Fidesz-KDNP. The Hungarian delegation, especially considering the size of the country, is rather large. Although the 216-member EPP could easily remain the dominant political group in the European Parliament without its 12 Fidesz-KDNP members, the EPP leadership is loath to lose them. Lately, however, a growing number of EPP delegates consider the presence of Fidesz in their group an embarrassment.

Although Fidesz claims to be a Christian democratic party, over the years Viktor Orbán’s party has become a full-fledged far-right party which has more to do with Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, the UK Independence Party, or Alternative for Germany than with, for instance, Angela Merkel’s CDU. It was no coincidence that only far-right party politicians spoke in support of Viktor Orbán’s position at the plenary session of the European Parliament on April 26. Even Manfred Weber, EPP’s leader, was critical of Viktor Orbán’s latest attack against Central European University and the NGOs.

A fair number of EPP members have had enough of the Hungarian prime minister’s peacock dance and the Fidesz members’ arrogance when it comes to differences of opinion within the caucus. It was widely reported in the international press that the Fidesz delegation didn’t exactly handle criticism of the anti-CEU legislation diplomatically when they sent an e-mail to their EPP colleagues accusing them of being “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and saying they are fighting with a “virtual reality.” The e-mail added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” It was this e-mail that prompted Frank Engel, an EPP member from Luxembourg, to write: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … So go. Please go.”

Viktor Orbán likes to remind people that foreigners simply cannot understand Hungary and the mentality of its people. They also misunderstand his own intentions. We, the critics of Orbán and his political system, are also apt to assume that naïve westerners can’t comprehend the depth of Orbán’s corruption and duplicity. That assumption isn’t always borne out. For instance, yesterday Frank Engel gave an interview to Die Zeit in which he said that he fully realizes that Orbán’s modus operandi is constantly trying to test how far he can go. One can rely on his creating a scandal of some sort at least twice a year. Engel suspects that this warlike attitude is not just a personal trait; it is the very essence of Orbán’s government, without which it wouldn’t survive. These repeated attacks on the EU will not stop until “his regime collapses,” says Engel. Within EPP Engel is the most outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán and therefore he may be exaggerating EPP’s dissatisfaction with the prime minister, but Engel claims that “with the exception of his own people, he has no more support in EPP.”

Frank Engel, no friend of Viktor Orbán

Engel may not be the voice of EPP, but he is certainly not alone. His colleague from the Netherlands, Lambert van Nistelrooij, who is a great promoter of civic organizations, wrote an opinion piece in euractiv.com a couple of days ago. He called attention to legislation, in addition to the current law on higher education and the NGO bill, adopted by the Hungarian government which is incompatible with EU laws and which affect the very principle of a single market. van Nistelrooij wrote: “Orbán has become the Attila of European integration and values, leaving nothing behind him and his horde but missed opportunities for socioeconomic prosperity.” He pointed out that 66 infringement procedures against Hungary are currently pending. If the European Commission initiates another infringement procedure against Hungary in response to the CEU law, that will be the sixty-seventh. It’s no wonder that Fidesz’s reaction to the threat was a simple one-liner: “parturient montes, nasciture ridiculus mus” (Mountains labored: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!).

Euobserver.com learned that at an EPP group meeting before the plenary debate regarding the situation in Hungary there was “merciless criticism” of Viktor Orbán’s policies. Apparently, an unprecedented number of MEPs spoke up in a “heated atmosphere.” EPP politicians accused Fidesz members of misleading the EPP group, of being disloyal, of ruining its reputation. Not surprisingly, the Polish Civic Platform deputies were particularly incensed because, after all, Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), is busily working to dismantle democracy in Poland, taking his cues largely from Viktor Orbán. Engel, as usual, was blunt. The Fidesz members “have to understand that this circus—where every other month or twice a year at least, the whole EPP does nothing but defend Fidesz—is over. We will not do it anymore.”

Some people argue that if Fidesz is forced to leave the EPP, the Christian Democrats will have even less opportunity to influence the course of events in Hungary than they do now. Moreover, expelling Fidesz from the party “will have zero impact on the situation in Hungary.” They point to the fact that the PiS EP contingent, part of ACRE (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe), is outside the mainstream, and therefore EPP is unable to have a dialogue with the current ruling party of Poland. (At the moment British conservatives (20) and Polish PiS delegates (18) are the mainstay of ACRE. When U.K. members finally leave the European Parliament, PiS will have only a few Bulgarians, Finns, and Italians as caucus colleagues. Unless, of course, Fidesz joins its Polish friends in ACRE, an unlikely event.)

Critics are not convinced by this argument. They look upon it as a moral issue. As Engel put it, “I wonder how easy it’s going to be, for instance, for Angela Merkel to run a general election campaign against the AfD when in your own European political party you have something that is very comparable to the AfD.”

The Fidesz members of the EPP are well aware of the delegation’s growing impatience with them and Viktor Orbán. Refraining from their usual arrogance and hectoring, they sent a letter to their colleagues in the EPP caucus in which they promised to “correct” their mistakes. I am appending the letter to this post.

Bruxinfo.hu, a Hungarian-language site dealing with European affairs, was told by Siegfried Mureşan, a Romanian member of EPP and its spokesman, that tomorrow morning the EPP leadership will ask Viktor Orbán to change the law on higher education in accordance with the opinion of EPP’s legal team within 30 days. Apparently, the legal scholars found the Hungarian law to be incompatible with four separate Union and/or international laws. Their findings would mandate fundamental changes in the law. A few cosmetic touch-ups won’t do. The last time Viktor Orbán said anything on the subject he didn’t sound as if he were ready for substantive changes in the legislation. So, we will see what happens tomorrow.

♦ ♦ ♦

Honorable Members,

Please find below a letter from the Members of the Hungarian EPP Delegation.

Dear Colleague,

In recent days we have all experienced an increasing pressure on the European People’s Party on behalf of the European public media, the liberal and left wings of the political spectrum, universities, etc… This is not the first time that this is happening. We also understand, that many of your constituents are also asking you about what is going on in Hungary, or asking you to exercise pressure on your Hungarian colleagues.

We are writing this letter to give you first-hand background information and explanation to help you to answer these inquiries, and to understand the situation without the disturbance of the firm and steady political bias the European mainstream press has exercised constantly against Hungary and our prime minister.

Viktor Orbán, our prime minister, we in Fidesz, in your sister party, and Hungary have been always in the vanguard of political innovation since 1988. Since then, Fidesz was one of the major forces which transformed our country into a European democracy. Maybe the fact that we won two consecutive elections and presently we are way ahead in the opinion polls for the next year’s elections, is due to the fact that several times we tried uncharted waters and found bold new ways, and we were in constant consultation with the people, not only at the general elections in every four years.

In 2007 Hungary has started from a position worse than Greece. She was the first country, under the socialist government then that asked the IMF for help. Since 2010 with Orbán in government our country changed completely. At the moment we have zero inflation, our unemployment rate – including the youth unemployment ranks among the five lowest in the union. Our deficit has been within the limits of Maastricht in the last six years. We have had a steady growth rate between 2 and 4 percent in recent years. We created a work-based economy, with our next goal at close to reach full employment, namely everybody who wants to work will be able to. We also changed our social system considerably: instead of subsidies we provide work opportunities for people. We solved the huge Swiss franc-based mortgage crisis, and the disastrous semiprivate pension fund crisis, all which are now serving examples for other countries. We replaced our 1949 (communist) constitution with the first Hungarian democratic Charta ever. Not to speak about the successful protection of our external Schengen borders, which task some other member states failed?

We also admit that in all these activities and achievements we and particularly Viktor Orbán were under constant attacks for our bold and sometimes unorthodox solutions.

We are not perfect, not every experiment succeeded, but we are also flexible and ready to engage to substantial discussions about the future of our country and our common Europe. This is why PM Viktor Orbán decided to join us tomorrow again in the European Parliament to discuss questions of major importance for us. We always thought that discussions are much better ways of handling conflicts than unilateral declarations or double standard labelling, or spreading rumours without real foundations, or accepting the opposition criticism of our government at face value without further verification. We would also like to confirm that our party, Fidesz and our prime minister are committed Europeans. When we criticize certain measures of the Institutions, we do it for the sake of making it better, to help it to survive the blows. We are far away from the camp of those, nowadays emerging parties in Europe who fight Europe with the aim of destroying it. We are convinced, that the Union should change, considerably to conquer the challenges which lay ahead. And in the spirit of the Rome Declaration, we are keen to participate in the lively debate and in the action to re-launch Europe, as candidate Macron proposes as well from one of the great founding member states of the Union. We have ideas; we have experiences of renewal and innovation to contribute to this historic task.

We would like to remind you also, that in the recent debates around our country our government always played according to the rules. We are members of the club; we accepted not only the benefits but the burdens of membership. This is how we solved and closed the debates of the past on our press-law, on our new constitution, on our legislation on the judiciary with mutual satisfaction and declarations of acceptance with the European Commission. (According to the newest Judicial scoreboard, Hungary ranks among the best in terms of judicial independence.) We changed the adopted rules if it was necessary, we reversed regulations which did not meet the common standards. This attitude of our government has not changed. We fight for what we presume important for ourselves and for the common goals, even if the majority thinks otherwise, but we have always believed that in politics arguments and determination in fair debate can change majorities, minorities can become mainstream, and we are always ready to debate.

Many of you expressed to us, that you have found the tone and the language of our recent national consultation on state fixed utility prices, taxation, stopping migration and on NGO’s too offensive. What is true that in the lively pluralistic national political debate we use a straight political language in Hungary? Our opposition in Hungary does the same. Just read their recent mails directed to you by them in the last few weeks to verify. It is a Hungarian way of politics. Hungarian citizens are among the most pro-Europeans in the EU, largely due to the honest and open debates on key European issues we have carried out through national consultations in recent years.

We, on the other hand, find the Western straightjacketed, dull political language sometimes appalling and meaningless, unable to express the existing differences. Listening to that we understand why is the gap widening between the political class and the people. But we accept that, it is your country, you know it better. But please do not try to make us speak to the public in the bureaucratic, scientific language like bankers or technocrats do, because we will lose our political support. Take it as a style question, if you don’t like it and cut through please to the essence. But please do not compare us to the anti-European parties whose goal is to destroy our common Union, everything which was built in the last 70 years.

The national consultation raises the issues of present political debates; it tries to increase our public backing when we debate these issues in the EU Institutions. We presume that it is a normal way of involving the public to the debates which direction the Union should go. We do not want massive immigration; we want to keep the setting – in the name of subsidiarity – of the utility prices and taxation in national hands. We also want that if NGO’s take part in the political life, they should declare who is financing them, these rules are already applied in other participants: parties, politicians and the press in several countries. It is a matter of transparency. This is the same what we are trying to do here in the European Parliament with the Pieper-report, for instance.

In a previous mail we explained you already the situation around the university of George Soros in Budapest, so we can be short. From the new law on this it is crystal clear that no one wants to close down the CEU. In a calmer moment the rector of the university, the Canadian liberal professor Michael Ignatieff also admitted this, as he had done in the letter addressed recently to its staff and students, in which he states: nothing is threatening our university. The new regulation applies to 28 universities in Hungary and it only requires common standards to be fulfilled, and stop the situation that some non-EU universities enjoy greater business advantages than the European ones. The claim that Orbán closed the CEU is absurd. Even more absurd that this allegedly closed university is accusing the government that it was closed. We have been through of such evident false claims of the past. Some of you still may recall that the Hungarian opposition and the European press shouted in choir, together with Nellie Kroes, that the „only remaining voice of opposition” the Klub Rádió was shut down. In reality the radio never stopped even for a minute broadcasting, it is still on for the benefit of a lively, competitive media life in Hungary.

Dear Friend, much is on the table. Hungary, Fidesz and the EPP is attacked and put under pressure by several directions nowadays. We shared these thoughts and explanations with you by asking to be critical about the accusations. Again, we make mistakes, we are not perfect, but we are also ready to correct them. For that we need sincere and straight further conversations, in which we have been always ready to engage.

Yours sincerely,

András GYÜRK
József SZÁJER
Kinga GÁL
Andrea BOCSKOR
Andor DELI
Tamás DEUTSCH
Norbert ERDŐS
György ÖLVÉNYI
Ádám KÓSA
György SCHÖPFLIN
László TŐKÉS

April 28, 2017

Viktor Orbán before the European Parliament

I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.

I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.

The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.

The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.

Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.

Source: Politico / Photo: Emmanuel Dunnand / AFP

Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.

Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.

I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”

And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.

April 26, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: My friend and my neighbor, CEU

I have always been familiar with this downtown area, this prestigious, formerly tony district, called Lipótváros (Leopold Stadt), first built and populated by the aristocracy and the elegant set, and when they faded out of money, up and coming Jews made it their own. Here, a mere two blocks away from the classicist Basilica, is located CEU, Central European University, its headquarters ensconced in the classicist palace of the Count Festetich family. There are another five-six buildings spread around, former banks, corporate buildings, all housing different departments of the University, populating the place, already quite populous with endless streams of tourists, with students, teachers and hangers on, such as myself, for a good many years. Kitty-corner from CEU’s main building is the former historic Lipótvárosi Kaszinó, the once august social club of the richest Jews of Pest, which was the target of a time bomb attack by Jew-haters sometime in 1923, causing several deaths.

Photos by the author

Opposite, on the other side of Nádor Street, stands a yellow three-story classicist-style building. Lajos Kossuth once lived in it. And just a couple doors to the north, number 11 Nádor Street, is the art deco building that housed in the 1950s the National Planning Office, the economic heart of the murderous communist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi. This Planning Office was the employer of my mother, whom we regularly visited, my brother and I, because of the building’s loop-style elevator that swished up and down without an operator and which we rode going up on the one side and, after seeing the mechanism in the attic space, proceeded down on the other side countless times. They called this elevator type ”pater noster” because it kept going without ever stopping. This number 11 is also part of CEU now (the pater noster of course long gone), as is the building next door that was just completed last fall in the super modern, that is to say, super post-modern style, and it is wonderful.

All these buildings and a few more in the adjacent streets are open at most times to anybody interested in walking in, and there are plenty of people interested because there is a steady stream of programs, conferences, lectures, workshops going on almost all day long into the night on the most varied subjects. At the counters of the door keepers in every building a screen shows the programs, be they today, or next month, or several months ahead.

In 2001 when I started to visit Budapest with some regularity, I met a young man from New York who was teaching English writing skills to the students of the then minuscule CEU. We are still friends, and he is a tenured professor now. Over the years since, as we discovered the fantastically varied and excellent programs available to the interested public, we also met the most amazing people in the course of attending those conferences and lectures. And thanks to the opportunities there, we found out about facts and events that otherwise would never have come to our attention, nor would we have had any other way to find out about them. A close friend of ours is teaching and practicing psychology at CEU, another teaching Turkology, a third one is doing “only” plain history, uncovering the heretofore unknown events leading up to the Holocaust in Hungary, and another one is the researcher and translator of the Russian-Jewish literature that has never been heard of before in Hungary.

At a very interesting conference a few years ago I heard and met Deborah Lipstadt, the formidable historian, who put a dent into Holocaust denial for good. At the same conference I also met György Lázár from California, whom I have long admired for his excellent writing, and we became friends right then and there.

The CEU system of beaming intelligence and knowledge is somewhat obscure to me. I never needed to find out how it worked because it worked very well, and that was more than enough for me. But it is obvious that there is practically no scientist, professor, researcher, or lecturer who would not be glad to accept an invitation to present his thoughts or research results at CEU. I was at a lecture a few months ago where the presenter simply reported on what he was currently reading and what he was finding out from it, without really suggesting where this was taking him. That was a truly fascinating lecture.

Just as the “House of Fates” museum controversy was at its height, CEU hosted first the American historian who participated in the establishment and eventually the opening and operating of the Philadelphia Jewish Museum and then, a few months later, the Canadian historian who did more or less the same in Warsaw at the stupendous Jewish museum there. In fact, I found both lectures so engrossing and illuminating that I was compelled to write an open letter to Maria Schmidt, the Hungarian historian, who had the opportunity to do the same here, in Budapest, but was so inept and so biased that she probably lost that opportunity forever. She was not at these lectures but would have benefitted from them immensely.

It is also true that apart from the student community, the leaders and faculty of other universities were somewhat sluggish in expressing their views in favor of liberal and free education. Particularly distasteful was the response of Rector András Lánczi of Corvinus University, who claimed the exclusive right to voice the position of the University. This was, alas, too late because many members of the faculty had already spoken out strongly in defense of CEU. This, however, brought to the surface an element of sour grapes as it turned out from some complaints that the salaries of professors at CEU are five times those at Corvinus.

The sinister attack of the government against CEU, the unsuspecting sitting duck in the middle of town, was of course a shock and a scandal for almost everybody, except the close coterie of the Fidesz government. But to my wife and to me it was like a personal attack against the lifestyle we moved to Budapest to enjoy: the free and copious flow of ideas and information. This was to us, and I am sure to many other people I came to meet at CEU, an ignoble, sinister attempt to take away from us an important part of our lives, the intangible treasure we considered our own and are not prepared to give up. We are not giving it up because the excuses offered for taking it away are hollow lies that under no circumstances would justify robbing us, never mind robbing the students and faculty of the university. We are not letting go because it would be taken from us without compensation: the government doesn’t offer anything in return but empty bluster and conflicting lies that wouldn’t fool even an elementary student. And finally we refuse to let it go because this institution is an organic part of the city and of the country, producing something that could not be, and is not, produced anywhere else in Hungary, something so precious, so valuable, that it is one of the best things this country has ever produced and is a sampler of what this country, even in the midst of its sorry decline, is capable of producing.

There is, however, a silver lining, increasingly so. The wheel of fortune is slowly but quite perceptibly turning. The government of Viktor Orbán mindlessly plunged into this hate fest, in a few days completing the process from suggestion to legislation of putting this magnificent institution out of business. But what a sorry testimony it was to the ineptitude and shortsightedness of this government! What kind of people do they think these are? Will the CEU community buckle under helplessly? Yes, that is what they expected. But the resolve of the faculty, the students, the solidarity of the entire student community, not to mention of the worldwide movement on behalf of CEU, has strengthened the hand of Michael Ignatieff, the president of the University. And as the “match” presently stands, the advantage is slowly moving in Mr. Ignatieff’s favor. The government has so far refused to negotiate with him, hoping that the U.S. government will be their partners. But what a miscalculation! The American government wouldn’t even want to hear about this matter, and they wouldn‘t talk to any official from Hungary either. The hapless government is slowly running out of options. Soon they will have only two choices: withdrawing the new, inhuman law, thus giving up on killing the university, or sitting down to talk to Mr. Ignatieff. And the fewer options they have left, the stronger his position will be. In this case, I expect that Mr. Ignatieff will not settle for anything less than an internationally guaranteed, ironclad warrant from the government assuring that no more interference will ever befall this long-suffering university.

As for me and my friends in the CEU community, we are confident and hopeful because thought and ideas are more potent than a petty tin pot dictator’s personal caprice and his thirst for vendetta.

April 22, 2017

Mária Schmidt on George Soros, the grave digger of the left, Part II

Yesterday I began dissecting Mária Schmidt’s latest propaganda piece,“The Grave Digger of the Left,” which offers up second-hand conspiracy theories about George Soros’s philanthropic endeavors. In the second part of my analysis I will concentrate on the “Hungarian experience” with “Sorosism,” as she calls Soros’s “ideology mix.”

In Schmidt’s view, Hungary was a guinea pig for Soros, who learned the tools of his evil trade in the country of his birth. It was in Hungary that he figured out the kinds of organizations worth investing in, organizations that would then “serve his interests.” He quickly discovered that Prime Minister József Antall and his successor, Péter Boross, both of MDF, were not willing to be partners in his shady schemes. So, Soros had to concentrate on liberal intellectuals in the social sciences and in the cultural sphere in general. He used decoys like programs for the Roma and providing medical supplies to hospitals to lure people into his camp.

He was so successful that by today “left” in Hungary equals “Soros.” All of his pet projects have been adopted by the Hungarian liberals and socialists: political correctness, the environment, feminism, same sex marriage, support of migrants, legalization of prostitution, etc.

Schmidt, who begins her essay with a quotation from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” further exhibits her familiarity with Western pop culture by comparing Soros to “the evil but super intelligent Silva” in the Bond film Skyfall, who “with obsessive and missionary zeal aims at world domination.” Soros’s results, she admits, have been spectacular. For example, “as everybody knows, the network of Soros’s civilians was behind the colorful revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Arab spring.” In fact, at one point Schmidt charges that Soros himself boasted about his success in creating “a Soros Empire out of the Soviet Union.” I don’t know how we all missed the “fact” that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the handiwork of George Soros. Now, according to Schmidt, Soros’s target is the European Union itself.

Mária Schmidt’s “evil but super intelligent Silva”

At this point we get to the real reason Schmidt wrote this essay. Viktor Orbán’s vicious anti-migrant rhetoric has been extremely effective, with the overwhelming majority of Hungarians now the most xenophobic group in all of Europe. The hatred Orbán planted in Hungarian souls has taken root. The challenge for the Hungarian government is how to keep nurturing this hatred. By now there are no migrants around, and there is fear in government circles that this hatred may wither over time. And if it withers, support for Orbán may wither as well.

The government has therefore begun to personalize the migrant crisis, coming up with enemies who can in one way or another be tied to it. Soros, of course, tops the list. Time and again Orbán has blamed “the migrant crisis” on George Soros. Since Central European University was founded by George Soros and some of the NGOs receive small amounts of money from the Hungarian-American financier, they can be targeted. And Brussels is an old stand-by. Whatever the problem, Brussels is always at fault.

To xenophobic Hungarians the very mention of outside influence or pressure on the country makes them flock to Orbán as their only defense against this “foreign invasion.” And since Viktor Orbán has as his overarching goal to remain in power regardless of the cost to the country and its people, this goal is well served by calling attention in every way possible to the dangers foreigners (migrants as well as international capitalists) pose to the Hungarian way of life.

Central European University is in the government’s crosshairs because, as Schmidt puts it, the university is Soros’s “replenishing base” for liberal cadres in Hungary and elsewhere. An illiberal state, one would think, cannot allow such a place to exist within its borders. But Schmidt doesn’t go that far, most likely because she knows that the tug of war between the Orbán government and CEU won’t end with closing the university in Budapest. So she is satisfied to state the lie that the government, by insisting that the same rules apply to CEU as to other Hungarian universities, only wants to send the message that George Soros “isn’t omnipotent and invulnerable.”

Her final shots are directed not just at Central European University but also at the kinds of universities that exist in English-speaking countries and that are so highly valued worldwide. She tells us how enthusiastic she was when CEU moved to Budapest. Many people, herself included, looked upon it as a sign of the end of the old university system. Soon enough, however, they realized that CEU didn’t contribute to pluralism within the social sciences. On the contrary, it became a supporter of “post-communists.” Instead of employing the old Hungarian Marxists, the university imported western ones. “Discarded American, Canadian, Israeli, Western European Marxists found secure positions for a few pleasant years in the departments of CEU,” she charges. And just as they became disillusioned with CEU, over the years Schmidt and her ideological comrades became disillusioned with Anglo-Saxon type universities in general. Now that she and her comrades speak English and are well informed about the world, unlike in the Kádár years, they know about the intolerance in American and British universities where they don’t want to listen to voices contrary to their liberal tenets. Hungarians “don’t want to have ‘safe spaces’ for those at CEU who don’t want to listen to others.”

Schmidt’s blanket labeling of all those who teach at CEU as “discarded Marxists” shows an ideological blindness that is appalling, especially from someone who has academic pretensions. And her reference to the “safe spaces” inside the walls of CEU is outright frightening. If Orbán, Schmidt, and their ideological partners keep going down the road they embarked on in 2010, the Hungarian younger generation who, according to Schmidt’s own admission, has been poisoned by Soros, will find “safe spaces” outside the country. We are getting close to this point.

April 17, 2017