Tag Archives: civic organizations

Food for thought: Poverty, charity, and civil society

It was almost three years ago that the Ministry of Human Resources compiled a long list of words that were deemed unsuitable for use by ministry employees. Among the hundreds of words, one of the first was “szegény” (poor). “Poor settlement” was banished; in its place ministry employees were supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” A “poor person” was no longer poor but “rászorult” (in need). To learn more about this modern Hungarian newspeak, you might want to read my post on the subject from February 2015.

Now the ministry has gone even further in trying to hide poverty and human misery. For years civic organizations have been feeding thousands of people in Budapest and other larger cities. The best known such group is “Ételt az életért” (Food for life), which was established by the Magyarországi Krisna-tudatú Hívők Közössége (Community of Krishna-Conscious Believers of Hungary). The activists from this community are most visible on Blaha Lujza Square during the Christmas holidays, at Easter, and on October 17, which is the international day for the eradication of poverty. In addition, the group distributes 1,800 meals every day at various locations. One needs a permit for food distribution and a permission from the district to hold the event outdoors. People line up for a warm mid-day meal every day between Monday and Friday. According to the organizers, a few years ago the “customers” were mainly homeless people, but by now whole families, unemployed people, and pensioners also frequent the Krishna group’s food distribution centers. According to the leader of the Debrecen group of “Ételt az életért,” by now only 30% of those seeking a meal are actually homeless; the others are “poor” people or “in need,” if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources, prefers that designation.

Source: MTI / Tibor Illyés

It has been noticed for some time that municipalities were increasingly reluctant to grant permission to distribute food outdoors. The city of Debrecen has gone further than that. The Fidesz majority voted to require those nonprofit civic groups that distribute food to pay a fee for the space they occupy. Admittedly, they asked for a ridiculously small amount of money, altogether 350 Ft., which cost the sender 750 Ft. in postage, but for a charitable organization to be required to pay, however little, to distribute food to the needy is truly outrageous. Suspicion has spread that the government has plans to put an end to this kind of charitable activity on the part of civic groups.

And indeed. Népszava learned on November 25 that the ministry of human resources has been busily preparing a modification of a ministerial decree on food distribution. The word was that the changes have already been agreed upon and that at the moment the ministry is circulating the modified decree among other ministries for comments. The gist of the new decree is that only governmental, municipal, and religious organizations will receive permission to distribute food.

Civil activists suspect that the long lines of clearly not homeless people irritate the Orbán government to no end. Contrary to the incessant success propaganda, people see the darker side of Hungarian reality when lines of hungry people form on the streets. The latest Eurostat data attest to the fact that 26.3% of the population, or 2.54 million people, are considered to be poor. A subset of that group–16.2%, or 1.4 million people–lives in deep poverty in Hungary. The number of Hungarian children threatened by deep poverty is the fourth highest in the European Union, after Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In addition to its reluctance to allow these people to gather on the streets, waiting for a meal, the Orbán regime is also on the warpath against civic groups that are involved in such activities. The Fidesz leaders are most likely not mistaken when they see adversaries in those who gather in these civic groups.

Népszava got in touch with the ministry of human resources, which took its sweet time in confirming or denying the information the newspaper had received about the impending modification of the law. Earlier, the paper had inquired about the government’s use of money received from the European Union for that purpose. In Hungarian it is called “Rászoruló Személyeket Támogató Operatív Program” (Operative program for the assistance of needy people). At that time Népszava was told that the Hungarian government has 34 billion forints for this program, out of which 4 billion will be spent on feeding the homeless. Since the ministry certainly didn’t want to talk about the issue at hand, it repeated the old story about the 34 billion forints Hungary had received from the European Union, emphasizing that, in addition to the homeless, “food packages are distributed to old people and families with small children.” The ministry refused to confirm or deny the claim that the government intends to forbid the food distribution activities of charitable organizations.

The founder of the “Budapest Bike Mafia,” another civic group that is involved in food distribution, rightly said that “this whole thing is nothing but folly. To announce such a thing before Christmas would be the greatest mistake.” Moreover, he added, “one cannot ban helping people.” Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. Fidesz folks are quite capable of forbidding this type of charity, and I’m convinced that they have every intention of doing so.

Any kind of individual incentive is suspect in the eyes of the current political leadership. In the last eight years they have done their darndest to put an end to all local efforts. Just like in the Kádár regime: the population should remain inactive and quiet while the government takes care of everything. That might, however, be too generous a comparison. A lot of people critical of the Orbán regime are convinced that these people are so single-minded and self-serving that they don’t care about anyone else, especially not the poor and downtrodden. There might be some truth to that.

December 3, 2017

Open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker

The letter below, addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, was written by Hans Eichel, co-founder and former chairman of G20 and former finance minister of Germany,  and Pascal Lamy, former European commissioner and president emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute. Hans Eichel and Pascal Lamy also represent Franz Fischler and Yannis Paleokrassas, both former European commissioners.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Mr. President Jean-Claude Juncker,

As signatories to this letter, we ask the European Commission to temporarily suspend payment of all EU funding to Hungary, with the exception of funding provided directly by the Commission (i.e. without the intermediary role of the Hungarian government).

Over recent years, the whole institutional and legal system in Hungary has been transformed in a way that makes it much easier to assign a substantial part of EU money directly or indirectly to certain business and political groups, no matter how detrimental this is for the Hungarian society, and thus also for attaining the objectives of the European Union.[1]

Key public institutions, such as the office of the prosecutor general and the constitutional court, have been de facto taken over by the ruling party, Fidesz.[2] The Constitution has been amended several times to serve the interests of Fidesz.[3]

Press freedom has been eviscerated, and the overwhelming majority of the media is now Fidesz-dominated.[4] Access to information has been seriously curtailed by several new laws.[5]

Universities have practically lost their independence as they have been put under the strict control of “chancellors” appointed by the government. (A notable exception is the Central European University in Budapest which the government has been trying to shut because it is still offering a home to academic freedom and critical thinking.[6])

Harassment and smothering of civil society organisations has been going on for years.[7] It is also telling that the Hungarian government has refused to join the EU’s key anti-corruption initiative, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.[8]

We fully agree with the following statement in the Commission’s Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances: “Respect for the rule of law is important for European citizens, but also for business initiative, innovation and investment, which will flourish most where the legal and institutional framework adheres fully to the common values of the Union. There is hence a clear relationship between the rule of law and an efficient implementation of the private and public investments supported by the EU budget.”[9]

More than 95% of public investment projects in Hungary receive EU co-financing. The Hungarian government announced[10] that it will use 2017 and 2018 to allocate most of the EU money available for the funding period 2014-2020, and is rapidly implementing this strategy. The purpose here is clear: to help Fidesz at the national elections in spring 2018, without any consideration of what will happen after 2018 when EU funding will be mostly exhausted. Such jerking of the economy is also extremely detrimental for business in general, the rapid disbursement leads to inefficient use of EU money, and greatly increases the risks of corruption. This brings a special urgency to the situation.

It is time to heed the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, Gajus Scheltema: “The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time, we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. – But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored.”[11]

To emphasise the point: a temporary cessation is what this situation requires; all funding can and should be restored as soon as basic democratic freedoms are reinstated and corruption counter-acted. We strongly believe that this is also a pre-condition for continuing EU funding to less developed regions – which is indispensable for the future of the European Union – in the period following 2020 in light of growing resentment all over Europe about the inefficient and improper use of EU funds.

It is the Commission’s duty to protect the EU’s financial interests. The Commission should live up to its duty concerning Hungary without any further delay.[12]

We are looking forward to your reply as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Hans Eichel, Co-founder and former Chairman of G20, former Minister of Finance of Germany

Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner, President Emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute

also on behalf of

Franz Fischler, former European Commissioner

Yannis Paleokrassas, former European Commissioner

23 November 2017


[1] See, for example: “A Whiff of Corruption in Orbán’s Hungary,” Spiegel Online, January 17, 2017 http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/a-whiff-of-corruption-in-orban-s-hungary-a-1129713.html  “Vladimir Putin has been named the 2014 Person of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an award given annually to the person who does the most to enable and promote organized criminal activity.… Runners up to Putin this year were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović.” OCCRP, 2015, https://www.occrp.org/personoftheyear/2014/

[2] See, for example: “Hungary – Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review,” by Transparency International Hungary, Transparency International, and K-Monitor Watchdog for Public funds, 21 September 2015, https://transparency.hu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Joint-Submission-to-the-UN-Universal-Periodic-Review.pdf

[3] See, for example: “Hungary’s Dangerous Constitution. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law,” October 2015, http://jtl.columbia.edu/hungarys-dangerous-constitution/ Fidesz has set the large controlling organizations and the independent branches of power to manual control. atlatszo.hu (member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network), 20 September 2014, http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/09/20/fidesz-has-set-the-large-controlling-organizations-and-the-independent-branches-of-power-to-manual-control/

[4] See, for example: “Freedom of the Press 2017, Hungary.” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/hungary

[5] See, for example: “New Civil Code: public fund contracts are to become inaccessible,”  Transparency International Hungary, 16.08.2012, http://www.transparency.hu/New Civil Code public fund contracts are to become inaccessible “The coming dark age of democratic governance in Hungary,” atlatszo, 08.05.2013, http://atlatszo.hu/2013/05/08/the-coming-dark-age-of-democratic-governance-in-hungary/“Further Restrictions on Freedom of Information in Illiberal Hungary,” Hungarian Spectrum, 05.07.2015, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/07/05/further-restrictions-on-freedom-of-information-in-illiberal-hungary/

[6] At Hungary’s Soros-Backed University, Scholars Feel a Chill. The New York Times, April 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/world/europe/hungary-george-soros-central-european-university.html

[7] See, for example: “Civil Society Europe briefing on the state of Civic Space and Fundamental Rights in Hungary,” April 2017, https://civil society europe. eu.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/cse-hungary-fact-sheet_april2017.pdf

[8] It is not necessary to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Website of the Hungarian Government, December 6, 2016, http://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-justice/news/it-is-not-necessary-to-create-a-european-public-prosecutor-s-office  “European Public Prosecutor’s Office established without Hungary’s participation,” The Budapest Beacon, June 9, 2017, https://budapestbeacon.com/european-public-prosecutors-office-established-without-hungarys-participation/

[9] Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances. European Commission, 28 June 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/reflection-paper-eu-finances_en.pdf

[10] See: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+WQ+P-2017-002541+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=en

[11] Ambassador Scheltema: “We Mustn’t Keep a Corrupt Regime Alive.” Hungarian Spectrum, August 31, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/08/31/ambassador-scheltema-we-mustnt-keep-a-corrupt-regime-alive/

[12] See also: “Legal Grounds for the Suspension of EU Funding to Hungary Now,” Hungarian Spectrum, September 3, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/09/03/legal-grounds-for-the-suspension-of-eu-funding-to-hungary-now/

November 28, 2017

Hungary quits the Open Government Partnership in a huff

Yesterday the Associated Press reported the Hungarian government’s decision to quit the Open Government Partnership (OGP), “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

OGP was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed OGP’s Declaration and announced their countries’ action plans. Since 2011, 62 other countries joined, including Hungary, which signed its letter of intent on July 10, 2012. In this letter of intent the Orbán government declared that “it attached the utmost importance to cooperation with civil organizations.” It was the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice under Tibor Navracsics that represented the Hungarian government in this particular undertaking, which claimed at the time that “it supports the effective implementation of the OGP commitments.” It also promised “in person consultations with the civil organizations and experts regularly on a monthly basis.”

These were the promises, but according to the recollections of the participants, after the initial good working relations “the process started to slow down as the document reached the political level.” The final commitments were vague and greatly weakened. By 2014 it was clear that the Hungarian government’s “sole purpose with its membership was the opportunity to communicate its devotion to open government” to the international community.

Hungary is the second country whose government is not ready to abide by guidelines set by the Steering Committee of OGP and endorsed by them. The first country to leave OGP was Putin’s Russia, which had joined the organization in April 2012. A year later, on May 17, 2013, the Russian government informed the group of its decision to leave. Russia’s participation in this group was dubious from the very beginning, but there were other countries whose commitments to the ideals of OGP were also questionable. OGP acknowledged in February 2014 that Lithuania, Malta, and Turkey had failed to meet their commitments as members of the Open Government Partnership. Warnings were issued to these three states. In addition, the Steering Committee redefined standards for suspending members. “Two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued membership of OGP countries” that create hostile environments for civil society.

By October 2014 new rules were in place that made suspension of membership practically automatic if any country limits the freedom of information; limits the activities of civic groups; favors civic groups attached in some way to the government; limits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; limits freedom of the press, independence of the media, or engages in the intimidation of media owners. 444.hu’s eagle-eyed reporters noted the OGP’s tightened rules for suspension, adding that they are tailor-made for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The first victim of the new suspension rules was Azerbaijan. In March 2016 the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee recommended the move because “such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, incarceration of NGO activists and journalists” that would precipitate “OGP’s response policy.” At that time, it was noted, “similar NGO complaints that the Hungarian government is restricting civil society remain under consideration.” In addition, Turkey was suspended in September 2016 because it had failed to deliver a National Action Plan since 2014.

Prior to this time the Orbán government had begun a war against Hungarian nongovernmental groups, financed mostly by the Norway Grants but also by the Soros Foundation. The government accused these NGOs of representing foreign interests and proceeded to raid their offices. At that point four leaders of NGOs decided to follow their colleagues in Azerbaijan and launch a formal complaint against the Orbán government. Fanny Hidvégi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Sándor Léderer of K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds, Miklós Ligeti of Transparency International Hungary, and Júlia Keserű of the Sunlight Foundation wrote a letter to the members of the OGP Steering Committee. The letter is available on the internet.

After considering the complaints submitted by Hungarian NGO leaders, OGP proposed several remedies that the Orbán government should adopt. It suggested the establishment of a Permanent Dialogues Mechanism (PDM) within sixty days that would ensure the participation of the relevant government agencies and interested civil society organizations. What must have especially irritated the Orbán government was that “all members of the public will be kept informed about all core aspects of the national OGP process—and especially know well in advance … about the key moments to provide inputs and discuss priorities.” OGP demanded five so-called Smart Recommendations that the Orbán government would never accept: monitoring of public disclosure practices of local government and state-owned enterprises; reviewing party and campaign financing regulations; revising the freedom of information regulations; revising regulations on classified information; and launching e-procurement. For easy access to this document, I am attaching it in full at the end of this post.

After reading these “recommendations” I’m not at all surprised that the Orbán government accepted the odium of withdrawal. A semi-autocratic, illiberal government of the kind that exists in Hungary today would never agree to such demands.

So, let’s see how the official government media explained the decision. Magyar Idők justified the Hungarian decision by citing OGP’s “one-sided criticism” of the Orbán government based on the unfair accusations of “civilians financed by George Soros.” These NGOs serve foreign interests and have been spreading false stories about the Hungarian government. Transparency International and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union, had complained to the organization about the Orbán government already in October 2012, shortly after Hungary joined OGP. In January 2013 K-Monitor allied with TASZ and TI in a new attack. And here was the latest one. It was high time to quit this unfair organization.

In the opinion of Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of Fidesz, Hungary’s abandonment of the organization “actually sheds a very positive light on us because we do not want to participate in an organization where members carry on a conversation among themselves after which they single out somebody whom they are trying to keep at bay with one-sided reports, distortions of facts, with documents prepared by phony civil organizations mostly financed by George Soros.” It was a good decision, “a lovely gift for the time when they can get together again and they can nod against Hungary.” Németh is referring to the Open Government Global Summit, which is being held at this very moment in Paris.

The opposition’s interpretation of the move was predictable. They pointed out that the Orbán government no longer cares what the world thinks of it because surely, following in Russia’s footsteps, they are practically admitting that they are corrupt to the core. Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, said that Hungary’s eventual suspension from the organization was inevitable. But the country’s withdrawal from the organization a day before the beginning of the Global Summit was unnecessary in that Hungary was not facing suspension at this time. The demands the organization made on the Orbán government, however, were more than the “proud Magyar” could stomach.

♦ ♦ ♦

December 8, 2016

Publicus Institute: Civic groups and political parties

Two month have gone by since the publication (in Vasárnapi Hírek) of the Publicus Institute’s opinion poll on the teachers’ demonstrations. At that time the overwhelming majority (76%) of Hungarians sympathized with the teachers and thought that their demands were justified. Publicus decided to expand its inquiry to learn more about people’s opinions of the relationship between civic initiatives and party politics. This is a timely survey because there are many who, disappointed in party politics, are placing their trust exclusively in civic leaders. In fact, in the past at least, organizers of demonstrations practically forbade party leaders to attend their rallies. They were petrified that Fidesz-KDNP would label them agents of the opposition parties.

Such an attitude was self-defeating. In the first place, no amount of protestation would convince the government of their “innocence.” After every demonstration Fidesz found at least one organizer who earlier had had some vague connection to parties. It’s enough to think of an employee of  the Ökotárs Foundation responsible for handing the Norwegian grants to Hungary who, as Fidesz discovered, was at one point a member of LMP. Balázs Gulyás, organizer of one of the largest demonstrations of late, turned out to be the son of an MSZP EP member and a former party member himself. And Fidesz quickly learned that István Pukli, the principal organizer of the teachers’ demonstrations, was once also an MSZP member. In the eyes of Fidesz, everybody who demonstrates against the government is by definition a traitor who wants to topple the legitimate Hungarian government.

The civic leaders who organized demonstrations were also convinced that their supporters would abandon them if it turned out that they were in any way involved in party politics. Therefore before every demonstration stern warnings were issued demanding distance from the opposition parties. This attitude benefited only Fidesz and the government since, in general, one-off actions of civic groups don’t prompt the government to change its mind. Yes, as the result of a mass demonstration that got wide coverage in the foreign press the Orbán government, after a week of confusion and mixed signals, gave up the idea of a steep internet tax . But that’s all civic organizers have managed to achieved to date. The repeal of the law governing Sunday store closings resulted from the doggedness of MSZP, although clearly public sentiment supported their efforts.

If civic leaders feared a backlash from their supporters if they solicited the assistance of parties in their struggle for change, they can now breathe a sigh of relief. We know from the latest poll of the Publicus Institute that a large majority of Hungarians believe that civic groups should work together with parties. So, from here on perhaps leaders of civic organizations might take a few steps toward forging closer ties with the larger democratic parties.

Let’s dig a little deeper into attitudes regarding the relationship between civic groups and parties. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that although it is natural that civic groups fight for their interests, alone they will not be able to achieve their aims. Sixty-three percent urge cooperation between civic groups and the opposition parties. On this question MSZP and Jobbik supporters, on the one hand, and Fidesz followers, on the other, think very differently. The voters of the former two parties are strong advocates of cooperation (89% and 83%) while the majority of Fidesz voters oppose it.

The Publicus Institute also returned to its earlier topic of the civic movements that have been taking center stage in Hungarian domestic politics. Interest in the efforts of the teachers, doctors, and nurses is still high. Eighty-five percent of Hungarians follow the events and support the organizers’ goals. At the same time, they expect politicians to solve the current problems of education and healthcare. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that “if no definite steps are taken by opposition politicians, there is no other solution but for civic groups to lead the way.” However, a large percentage of the same people believe that if these groups try to go it alone, their cause will be lost (47%).

Support for the teachers is still high (62%), but lower than it was in mid-February when it was 76%. It seems that government propaganda has succeeded in convincing Fidesz loyalists that the Orbán administration has been doing its best to solve the problems but the teachers are reluctant to engage in well-intentioned dialogue. Twenty percent of Fidesz voters and 10% of Jobbik supporters have been won over by government propaganda. On the other hand, MSZP voters are more determined than ever to see the teachers win their case.

credibility

While people know that without politicians and political parties the opposition forces have no chance of succeeding, they still have no trust in individual politicians. The Publicus Institute chose eleven public figures who have in one way or another been connected with the education and healthcare movements. The question was: “How credibly do the following people represent the cause of education/healthcare?” Among the eleven names there were five politicians: Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz), Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP), Dóra Dúró (Jobbik), István Hiller (MSZP), László Palkovics (Fidesz), and Zoltán Balog (Fidesz). On the whole, the politicians did badly. On a scale of 1 to 100, Balog and Palkovics came in last, each getting 44 points. István Hiller, minister of education during the second Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments, didn’t do much better (45 points). Dóra Dúró, the Jobbik politician specializing in education, received 49 points. Only two politicians got more than 50 points: Zoltán Pokorni and Ágnes Kunhalmi. Pokorni, minister of education between 1998-2001, is the odd man out in this group because he retired from national politics some time ago, most likely not entirely on his own volition. He is no longer in parliament and has been tucked away as mayor of District XII since 2006. Ágnes Kunhalmi is, in my opinion, a promising young politician who is the chair of the Budapest MSZP group. She was given the task of focusing on educational matters, although I have the feeling that the party could make better use of her talents.

The star of the civic leaders is Mária Sándor, the nurse in black. Almost 90% of the people know who she is and 75% have trust in her. Other figures in the movement are less well known and received lower scores. Katalin Törley, co-chair of the Tanitanék Movement, got 57 points. Mrs. István Galló, leader of the larger teacher’s union, received 56 points; László Mendrey, the other trade union leader, got 55 points; and István Pukli, principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium, got 51 points. So, all the civic leaders scored over 50 points while only two of the six politicians did so. In brief, politicians have to improve their image if they hope to take part in the upsurge of civic initiatives.

Opposition politicians should make every effort to deflate and combat the long-standing Fidesz propaganda, which unfortunately has been far too effective in besmirching the reputation of MSZP and SZDSZ politicians. Their accomplishments have been underrated and their failures exaggerated. It would be time to stand up and defend those policies that deserve praise. For example, teachers were far from satisfied with the state of education before 2010, and by all estimates most of them voted for Fidesz. Yet today they admit that, despite all the shortcomings, their and their students’ lot was much better before the arrival of Viktor Orbán’s Christian-national regime. Maybe it is time to drive home that truth.

April 17, 2016

The significance of today’s demonstration in the Hungarian capital

This afternoon’s demonstration was impressive. At least in my opinion. Some people are disappointed that only 6,000 people showed up, but I don’t think that numbers are the most important consideration. Yesterday we didn’t even know who those handful of people were who occupied the courtyard of Fidesz’s party headquarters. A few hours later their numbers swelled to 1,000. Less than 24 hours later this unknown group managed to stage a demonstration in which thousands participated.

And this crowd, both yesterday and today, demanded “Constitution, Democracy and the Rule of Law.” These are exactly the kinds of values that European politicians cherish and that they demand from Viktor Orbán. The crowd was mixed: young, middle-aged, old, all mingled together, and there were a lot of sympathizers cheering them on. It is also significant that 110,000 people watched the live stream of the event.

Most likely Viktor Orbán thinks that because the numbers are still relatively small, eventually the whole movement will peter out. I predict that the trend will be just the reverse. Some of you already sensed a different mood on the streets today. In any case, it seems to me that Fidesz is preparing itself for the possibility, even if to some of them an unlikely possibility, of rising dissatisfaction. The party’s organizers and spin doctors are heading in the wrong direction, however, in devising ways to combat dissatisfaction.

Let’s start by recapping yesterday’s response to the demonstrators at the Fidesz headquarters. First, András Bencsik, one of the Peace March organizers, mobilized those Fidesz supporters who are hard-core “professional” demonstrators. Their primitive behavior, their obscenities, and their stupidity will turn more and more people against them. Videos abound on YouTube of these people’s unspeakable behavior. Moreover, they didn’t even realize that the students on the balcony were reading Fidesz’s party program from 1989.

Then came the second mistake. Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz party manager who in his spare time is the president of the board of the Ferencváros Football Club, called on some heavies from the ranks of the Fradi football hooligans who tried to remove the protesters by force. It turned out that one of the hooligans spent ten years in jail  for murder.

And what is Kubatov planning now? He is trying to mobilize the faithful by painting a picture of the imminent danger facing the government and the party. He sent a letter to party members in which he outlined the “damage” and “physical abuse” allegedly committed by the protesters. According to Kubatov, the demonstrators “attacked” the building, “tried to break into it,” but thanks to the the staff ‘s “firmness of purpose” they were thwarted in their attempt. “Meanwhile they broke into smithereens whatever was in their way” (törtek-zúztak) and “maltreated the employees of the party headquarters.” (Don’t try to find any logic here because if they didn’t manage to get into the building how could they have smashed things into smithereens or maltreated the employees who were inside?)

In the future, Kubatov maintains, the employees of the offices of Fidesz must be ready to defend, peacefully of course, their buildings. He called on Fidesz members who are ready to come to the rescue of Fidesz buildings to sign up at riadolanc@fidesz.hu. (“Riadó” means “alert” and “lánc” “chain”.) These people should be ready on an hour’s notice to be “on the scene of aggression.”

Some people on the Internet compare Fidesz’s hard core defenders to either the Sturmabteilung (Storm troopers/SA) or the Workers’ Militia of the Kádár regime. The blogger who compares Kubatov’s defense force to the SA quotes the appropriate passages from the Hungarian edition of Wikipedia, which describes the chief function of the SA  as defending the national socialist party’s meetings from attacks by the opposition.

Kubatov’s guards reminded Vastagbőr (Thick Skin) of Kádár’s Workers’ Militia whose duty was “the defense of the socialist achievements of the Hungarian People’s Republic.” Each workplace, including collective farms and offices, had a number of volunteers who were supposed to defend the buildings and the employees inside.

Now let’s see what the pro-Fidesz media is up to. Magyar Nemzet published a detailed article about today’s events. The author of the article called the organizers “members of the Bajnai Guard” but otherwise gave a fairly objective report on the demonstration. Heti Válasz claimed that “several  activists with a loudspeaker surrounded and insulted the camera man and Boglárka Bartus, a reporter for HírTV.” Maybe, maybe not.

And let’s see how Zsolt Bayer sees the situation. Fidesz supporters, however sadly, must realize that from here on there will be first weekly and later daily demonstrations. He calls the members of civic groups “the children of Saul Alinsky,” a well-known American community organizer and writer. What is so bad about following in the footsteps of Alinsky, who after all worked for the improvement of living conditions in poor communities across North America? Only Bayer knows. But he claims that he is “too lazy, too tired, and too skeptical to loathe” Alinsky’s offspring. Perhaps one could talk to them if there was anything to talk about. But there isn’t. “At least we should force ourselves to be patient because they will be coming and coming. First only a few dozen, but always. They will jump over the fence, climb into our headquarters, our houses, our dreams, our desires. We will smell their halitosis. And we will retreat and retreat because we can hardly bear it. And we would gladly trample down all of them. Let’s be honest with ourselves at least once. This is what we would like to do.” But they cannot do it because the other side is waiting for aggression on their part. Don’t fret. After the elections “they will disappear forever, but until then it will be very difficult.”

One final note on the road Fidesz traveled in the last twenty-five years. Once upon a time Viktor Orbán, László Kövér and their friends did exactly the same thing that today’s college students are doing. Protesting injustice, lack of democracy, lack of transparency, lack of dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. In the courtyard of Fidesz party headquarters the students found discarded campaign literature from 1989. They demanded democratic, ideology-free education and university autonomy. And, what I like perhaps best, they demanded “fear-free life.” With Viktor Orbán’s government fear returned.

I don’t think that László Kövér wants to remember his old self squatting on the ground with a poster hanging from his neck:

In a police state the policeman's salary is higher than that of a teacher. In a democratic country the opposite is true

In a police state the policeman’s salary is higher than that of a teacher. In a democratic country the opposite is true.

How would today’s Fidesz faithful greet the man above? Would they threaten to pour acid on his face? Most likely. What’s going on in Hungary today is really shameful.

The new parliamentary guards in action

Everybody was waiting to see what the new parliamentary police force, created to keep order in the House, would do once the spring session of parliament convened. Well, we have the answer. They will interfere with citizens’ freedom of speech even if the protest is outside of their jurisdiction. On the other hand, the new force will assist “civic groups” who want to “defend” the government from its own citizens. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

This was the second time that a few hundred people embarked on a walk in the dead of winter to call attention to the extreme poverty that exists in certain regions of the country. Just to give an idea of the seriousness of the situation,  out of the seven regions in Hungary six are among the poorest regions of the European Union. That’s one of the reasons that Hungary is receiving relatively generous subsidies from Brussels for the next seven years. The Hungarian government is supposed to do something to alleviate the unspeakable poverty, backwardness, and unemployment in these regions. I have don’t have high hopes that the money will be well spent.

Last year there was only one hunger march. The participants came from the region around Miskolc in the northeastern part of the country. This year, the decision was made to have not one march but eleven starting off from different parts of the country and converging on Budapest.  MSZP joined the organizers, as one would expect from a social democratic party. Fidesz mayors and activists kept provoking the people walking through their towns. For example, government sympathizers threw rolls at the marchers. We might find this kind of behavior more than low, perhaps even disgusting, but such unfeeling boorishness is part and parcel of Fidesz politics.

From day one Gábor Kubatov, the infamous campaign manager of Fidesz, labelled the hunger marches the “power hunger march of the socialists.” CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), an allegedly independent organization that has been responsible for organizing the peace marches on behalf of the Orbán government, liked Kubatov’s label and decided to wait for the marchers in front of the parliament building with a very professional looking banner reading “Greetings to the marchers for socialist power hunger.”

Koszontjuk2

When Népszabadság inquired from Sándor Csizmadia, the chairman  of CÖF, whether permission was asked and/or granted to put up the banner, the head of CÖF announced that “the organization didn’t ask permission because it was put up as part of a spontaneous flash mob.”

But what Csizmadia and other older organizers of CÖF don’t seem to realize is that with modern technology, especially those pesky omnipresent cell phones, lying is becoming increasingly difficult.  Someone who writes a blog called “The heart of the city” (A város szíve) just happened to be zooming by when he noticed that workers from a professional banner firm with the assistance of the parliamentary police were putting up the CÖF banner. One can clearly read: Házőrség (Parliamentary police) on the back of the blue-uniformed policeman standing by.

Hazorseg

A day later Milla decided to put up their own much more modest banner. Hand made, not professional like CÖF’s. And what a difference between the two messages. While CÖF’s text demeaned the four million Hungarians who live below the poverty line, Milla’s text read “Az ország házon kivül van.” It is subtle message that Milla’s activists can be proud of. For those who don’t know Hungarian here is a brief language lesson. In Hungarian the name of the parliament building is “országház,” literally “house of the country.” Thus, Milla’s banner said “the country is outside of the House.”

The subtlety of the banner’s message didn’t impress an official in civilian clothes who rushed out of the building and ordered Szelim Simándi, a political scientist and Milla activist, off the ladder. But Simándi and the others who were assisting him were not easily intimidated. As someone wrote in an opinion piece, these guys are not like the youngsters in the Kádár regime. After all, Szelim was born in 1988. He knows his rights. He told the unnamed member of the police force of the House that he has no jurisdiction over the area where Milla is planning to put up the banner. Here is the scene, although surely our unnamed policeman in civilian clothes is not happy with it. He even wanted to forbid a newspaperman from taking a picture of him.

What followed is truly bizarre. Photos, video, and eyewitnesses don’t convince the press department of the Hungarian Parliament that lying is not the best response to being caught red handed. The official communiqué  stated that “no steps were taken in the case of either banner because the posts on which the banners were attached are outside of the territory that is under the supervision of the house police.” Yet at the same time Szelim Simándi received an e-mail from someone (Laszlo.Polyak@parlament.hu) in which he was told that because the Office of the Parliament/Országgyűlési Hivatal (the head of the office is László Kövér) didn’t receive a request from him to place the banner in front of the building Simándi will have to pay a 107,400 Ft fine. Plus he will have to remove the banner.

Apparently, at least this is what the Office of the Parliament claimed, they also fined CÖF  for their transgression. Not surprisingly the Milla activists don’t believe them and asked their supporters to write to Laszlo.Polyak@parlament.hu and ask for a copy of the letter sent to CÖF. That is, “if you are curious.”

I have the feeling that Mr. Polyák’s mailbox has been jammed since this request. I’m also certain that no letter was ever sent to CÖF. Moreover, one can always produce one ex post facto.

This incident demonstrates how the Orbán government can manipulate public opinion by financing and otherwise assisting a phony “civic” organization that is actually an arm of the government that serves up its own propaganda. At the same time the government does everything in its power to restrict the movement of the opposition. Szelim Simándi’s interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd is definitely worth watching.

By the way, Milla is organizing a demonstration in front of parliament for Monday and is asking for hundreds of banners to protest the government’s underhanded behavior in this case.