Tag Archives: Civil Összefogás Fórum

Fidesz’s very own “NGOs” stuffed with public money

In case you haven’t heard of GONGOs, here is the definition of the term: “Government-organized non-governmental organizations which are set up or sponsored by a government in order to further its political interests and mimic the civic groups and civil society at home, or promote its international or geopolitical interests abroad.” According to Moises Naim, former editor of Foreign Policy, although quite a few GONGOs are established abroad, “the more dangerous GONGOs grow at home. They have become the tool of choice for undemocratic governments to manage their domestic politics while looking democratic.”

The term GONGO is not yet widely known in Hungary, but I’m sure that soon enough it will be because Hungary’s undemocratic government has its own GONGOs, the largest being CÖF or Civil Összefogás Fórum (Forum of Civic Alliance). People had suspected ever since its founding in 2009 that CÖF was a GONGO, but finally there is evidence that the government has generously endowed CÖF through Magyar Villamos Művek (MVM), a state-owned utility company. In addition to the MVM grant, CÖF admits to having received two donations from Szövetség a Polgári Magyarországért Alapítvány, a Fidesz foundation. The grants were allegedly small–in 2012 40 million and in 2013 20 million forints. So, contrary to the Hungarian Wikipedia entry, which claims that CÖF is a bona fide NGO supported by civic groups, its main source of funding is the Hungarian government and Fidesz.

CÖF’s main activity used to be the organization of the so-called peace marches, six in all between January 2012 and March 2014, to bolster Viktor Orbán’s hold on power.  We also know that CÖF plastered the country with thousands of billboards, campaigning months before the official start of the election campaign for the 2014 election. The cost of that ad campaign must have been enormous.

CÖF’s finances have been fishy for a long time, but László Csizmadia, a lawyer who is the president of the organization, consistently refused to answers questions about its sources of funding. Then he changed his mind. A year ago Csizmadia released a long list of supporters, claiming that between 2013 and 2015 CÖF had received almost 620 million forints in the form of gifts from organizations and individuals. When Népszabadság investigated the alleged gifts, however, it found that most of them were bogus.

Given the Orbán government’s recently intensified attack on NGOs that receive grants from abroad, the independent media decided to return to the finances of CÖF. At the end of April HVG published an article about CÖF, which unfortunately is still not available online. Information reached HVG that CÖF’s large budget is funded by the government via MVM. The cover of that issue tells it all. A dog dish filled with money with the caption: “Domesticated civilians—the bought and the attacked.”

The front page of HVG: Little Cöfi’s dish

CÖF’s leadership, which consists of four individuals, was outraged and released a statement which I’m sure they found ever so clever. They explained that there are different types of dogs: watch dogs, hunting dogs, and rabid dogs. CÖF is a watch dog which defends the homeland. Therefore HVG, which for years has been attacking them, must be satisfied with criticizing one of the other two categories.

But a few days later MVM fessed up: they admitted that in 2016 alone they gave 508 million forints to CÖF. Obviously, Csizmadia and his friends couldn’t admit that this money will be spent on the next Fidesz campaign. They had to come up with a couple of innocent-sounding projects. But their creative juices didn’t seem to be flowing. Their first brilliant idea was to establish an entirely new branch of the social sciences, which they decided to call “civilitika/civilitica.” Wow, that’s ambitious! The other undertaking will be the creation of “complete meals based on biological-dietetic principles,” which would then be served in school cafeterias. The chef who has been working on the project explained the meaning of a “complete meal.” It would be a meatloaf-like mixture that would also include the necessary vegetables. Why meatloaf? Because, according to the chef, children like it while they may not like eating vegetables on the side. I wonder how long these children would be satisfied with meatloaf every day, with or without vegetables. As for civilitica, I wouldn’t presume to guess what that could possibly be.

MVM’s grant of 508 million Hungarian forints is approximately $1.8 million. This may not sound like an extraordinary amount of money, but we have to keep in mind that in Hungary every party over a certain size, including Fidesz of course, receives a certain sum of money from the central budget. The money MVM gave to CÖF in 2016 is more than any of the opposition parties received. Jobbik got 476 million forints; MSZP, 427 million; LMP, 174 million; Együtt, 134 million; DK, 132 million; Párbeszéd, 107 million; and MLP, 71 million.

I should add that CÖF isn’t the only GONGO in Hungary. Szövetség a Nemzetért Alapítvány (SZNA), the organization behind the civic groups Viktor Orbán came up in 2002 after his failure to win the election, received 340 million forints last year from the state-owned HungaroControl, a company that offers air navigation services. Thus, says András Stumpf of the conservative Válasz, between these two GONGOs 848 million forints, approximately 3 million dollars, has already been stashed away, “and we are still at the very beginning of the campaign.”

Naturally, the opposition parties are up in arms, as they should be. However, both MVM and Fidesz insist that the contributions are legal because money received from state-owned companies is not considered to be public money. MVM, after releasing the information, explained to Átlátszó that “MVM in the last twenty years has spent several billion forints for projects important for society. This money all came from MVM’s own resources.” They also wanted to make sure that Átlátszó­ understands that in 2016 the MVM Group paid 130 billion forints in taxes.” Balázs Hidvéghi, the latest Fidesz spokesman, sees nothing wrong with CÖF campaigning for the government from “state money.” He also supports CÖF’s latest appearance in Brussels, where a group of about 20 people demonstrated against the bureaucrats of Brussels who had a few questions for Viktor Orbán about his undemocratic ways. The trip to Brussels “served a public function,” claims Hidvéghi.

MSZP is filing charges against MVM for engaging in forbidden party financing and misappropriation. DK is convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg and wouldn’t be at all surprised if “the pseudo civic activists” receive more money than all the opposition parties put together. Jobbik remarked that “CÖF is less independent from Fidesz than Hazafias Népfront (Patriotic People’s Front) was from MSZMP” in the Kádár regime. I heard more than one person agree with this claim.

May 13, 2017

No end to the saga of the Hungarian corruption scandal

The reverberations from the news that six Hungarian citizens are not welcome in the United States don’t seem to subside. The perpetuation of the verbal battle is fueled mostly by the Hungarian side. Some of the attacks come straight from politicians, others from the accused and from so-called “civil groups” that are strong supporters of the Orbán government and operate most likely with generous financial assistance from the public purse.

These latter two sources cannot be taken terribly seriously, and in fact as time goes by their originally very loud voices have quieted down somewhat. The most spectacular retreat came from Ildikó Vida, the president of NAV, the Hungarian tax authority, and her lawyer, Barnabás Futó. As one blogger noted, when Barnabás Futó stands next to someone close to Fidesz, that person is in trouble. Futó seems to be rather good at pettifoggery at home, but he is at sea when it comes to international law. Initially he had ambitious plans for getting satisfaction for his client. Since Vida was told by M. André Goodfriend that she can ask for a visa and, if her request is rejected, she might be able to get information about the nature of the charges against her, Futó decided to do just that. Moreover, while he was at it, he contemplated suing the American chargé. Soon enough someone must have told him that members of the diplomatic corps have immunity and that his dreams of his client having her day in court were illusory. He gave up on his plan to sue. And, upon reflection, Vida decided that, after all, she did not want to know any of the details of her alleged wrongdoing and that therefore she will not apply for an American visa.

The other thread in the continuing saga is the Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), an unofficial arm of the government that has helped bolster the popularity of the government. They were the ones who organized the first Békement (Peace March), which was supposed to defend the beleaguered Viktor Orbán against a dark international conspiracy that wanted to remove him from his post during the winter of 2011-12. Ever since the American revelations, the leaders of CÖF, people belonging to the extreme right wing of Fidesz, have been itching to march out again, this time against the United States. However, their beloved leader, to their great regret, held them back.

CÖF’s spokesman, Zoltán Lomnici, Jr, son of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and a lawyer himself, shows such ignorance of the law that it is simply staggering. He and “Futó Barnabás,” to whom I gave the nickname “futóbolond” (lunatic at large), bring shame to the Hungarian legal profession. Here is Lomnici’s argument: the American chargé is a foreign national who, as can be attested by pictures and videos taken of him, left the embassy of the United States and therefore stepped on Hungarian soil. According to Hungarian law, if he knew of corruption he was supposed to press charges and provide proof of corruption. Since he neglected to do so, he could be sentenced to three years in jail. Obviously our star lawyer hasn’t heard of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). I suggest that Futó and Lomnici study the document, which clearly states that “Diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution.” Let’s hope that the text is available in Hungarian because Futó at least does not know any English. Today the organizers of the Peace Marches officially announced that for the time being they will not gather the troops.

Politicians have not shown the same restraint. A few days ago Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called Goodfriend a liar and announced that Hungary is a country of law, unlike the United States. “We all must declare that Hungary is not Guantánamo, here nobody can be accused without proof.” Rogán’s attack on the United States is most likely part of the game plan dictated from above because not long before Róbert Répássy, undersecretary of the ministry of justice, said exactly the same thing.

Calling everybody a liar who criticizes the Hungarian government is a Fidesz specialty. Diplomats, on the whole, at least in civilized countries, don’t call their foreign colleagues liars. But Hungary’s new foreign minister has no such compunctions. In an interview with Magyar Nemzet he said that “to accuse us of not conforming to the European legal system is a gross lie (orbitális hazugság).” In response to Szijjártó’s charge, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a statement today that included the following sentences: “As Charge d’affaires Goodfriend has said, the United States has consistently conveyed our concerns to the Hungarian government about developments that harm the health of democratic institutions, civil society, and media freedom in Hungary – including concerns about corruption,” and “the Embassy remains in close contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will continue to conduct a constructive, diplomatic dialogue with Hungary on all issues across the broad spectrum of U.S.-Hungarian engagement.” In brief, the United States will not stop its current policy of defending civil society, media freedom, and civil liberties. It will also pursue its fight against corruption.

In addition, today new information reached the public concerning the background of the American ban. The Demokratikus Koalíció, the party that seems to have good connections with the Hungarian foreign ministry where there are many disgruntled employees, learned that a week ago the American embassy did give some information to the Hungarians. Today Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a DK politician, made that information public at a press conference. At this point the foreign ministry decided to fess up: yes, they received something, but it was only a “scrap of paper” (fecni) that cannot be taken seriously. However, a few hours later the ministry made the document public.

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving "the scrap of paper" from the U.S. Embassy

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving “the scrap of paper” from the U.S. Embassy

The two-page note describes the history of the numerous encounters between the embassy and the government of Hungary since February 2012. From October 2013 on, the American complaints multiplied. They had meetings with the “criminal directorate of the tax and customs office (NAV) on specific concerns about agricultural VAT fraud and tobacco nationalization.” A few months later the Americans were back at the “criminal directorate” but noticed “no evidence of action” on the part of NAV. In January 2014 the Americans had a meeting with the ministry of justice and public administration and they raised issues of VAT fraud, “institutionalized corruption, whistleblower protections, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).” The whole list of complaints can be found on the foreign ministry’s website as well as in an article published on the subject by Index.

In brief, there were numerous complaints, and the Hungarian authorities refused to investigate. It is also clear from the document that the American authorities were fully aware that corruption is “institutionalized” in Hungary, yet the last word from NAV was that there were “no auditing complaints” and therefore the “Criminal Directorate … was unable to act.” Goodfriend  noted that “NAV’s specialized auditing unit created expressly to investigate trans-border VAT fraud … was systematically undermined and then disbanded.”

It looks to me, and obviously it was evident to the head of the American mission, that not only was no effort made to investigate but that the top leaders at NAV were doing everything in their power to make sure that corrupt activities could be continued undetected.

According to Levente Magyar, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, this “scrap of paper” cannot be taken seriously. Why not? Because there is no date, no authentication, and above all, no seal. “Missing formal requirement” is a favorite excuse of Hungarian authorities.

Growing troubles in opposition circles

It was only a few days ago that the democratic opposition’s mass rally ended with a protest from the crowd itself–a demand for unity and the resultant quasi demonstration against Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP.

What followed was almost inevitable. The two parties that had signed an exclusive political arrangement which effectively shut out the other opposition parties and groups placed the blame for the protest on Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and head of DK, a party with sizable support. It didn’t seem to matter that the other speakers’ message was the same as Gyurcsány’s; he was the only one who was accused of flaunting an alleged agreement that speakers would in no way criticize the deal between MSZP and E14-PM. Opposition leaders deny the existence of any such agreement.

Then came the accusation that it was actually Ferenc Gyurcsány himself who organized the demonstration against Mesterházy. His people were the only ones who kept demanding “unity.” I looked at several videos of the event taken from different angles, and in my opinion just as many people holding MSZP red flags shouted slogans that for a while kept Mesterházy from speaking. Some overzealous MSZP politicians like Tibor Szanyi claimed to have seen Ferenc Gyurcsány leaving the gathering in a great hurry even before Mesterházy finished his speech. The implication naturally being that after he created the disturbance Gyurcsány quickly left the scene of the crime. Szanyi turned out to be wrong. Gyurcsány, his wife, and Ágnes Vadai were present to the very end of Mesterházy’s speech. According to Gyurcsány, he even applauded Mesterházy.

Gordon Bajnai joined the MSZP politicians in forcefully asserting that the deal that was signed will in no way ever be changed. This is the best arrangement even if all the other speakers and it seems the overwhelming majority of the voters on the left don’t think so. Of course, politicians can ignore popular demand, except they do so at their own peril. My hunch is that this unbending attitude cannot be maintained for long.

mistakesBut that was not the only problem the opposition had to face. Péter Juhász, who represents Milla, a group formed on Facebook, has caused a lot of trouble in the past, and he struck again. Juhász is not a politician. He worked as an activist even before 2010 and by and large has a devastating opinion of both politicians and parties, left or right. Therefore he often talks about the “past eight years” exactly the way Fidesz politicians do. I assume that within E14-PM his colleagues try to temper his outbursts, but it seems that he cannot help himself. Shortly after the October 23 gathering Juhász was the guest of Olga Kálmán on ATV where he announced that he would never want to stand on the same platform with Gábor Kuncze or Ferenc Gyurcsány. Moreover, he claimed that Kuncze wasn’t invited to participate. I guess Kuncze just appeared on the scene. Crashed the party, so to speak.

These unfortunate remarks were not without consequence. A number of well-known people, like Attila Ara-Kovács, László C. Kálmán, Mária Ludassy, and Ádám Csillag withdrew their support for E14. Most of them added that this Juhász incident was just the last straw. They had had their problems with E14 even before. Gordon Bajnai seems to be adrift, without a firm idea of his party’s goals. And E14’s floundering is reflected in its poll numbers. A year ago support for E14 was about 12%; now it hovers around 5%.

But that wasn’t the only blow to the democratic side. Shortly before he retired from politics Gábor Kuncze was asked by Klubrádió to be the moderator of a political show once a week. Although Kuncze’s program was popular, the owner of Klubrádió, András Arató, decided that since Kuncze agreed to make a speech at the opposition rally he should be dismissed. The result? A fair number of loyal listeners who have been generously contributing toward the maintenance of Klubrádió are angry. Some have gone so far as to stop contributing to the station, which is strapped for money due to the Orbán government’s illegal manipulation of the air waves. They argue that Klubrádió knew about Kuncze’s plans to attend and that Arató should have warned him about the possible consequences. These people figure that the speedy and unexpected dismissal was due to a “friendly” telephone call from MSZP headquarters. The station denies that they have ever yielded to political pressure and claim that no such call came.

Finally, there is the case of a sympathy demonstration organized in Budapest demanding territorial autonomy for the Hungarian-speaking Szeklers who live in a solid mass in three counties in the middle of Transylvania. Since I’m planning to write something about the autonomy question, I’m not going into the details here. It’s enough to say that the views of the Hungarian political leaders in these parts are close to Jobbik. The most important Hungarian party in Romania is a center-right party called RMDSZ, but Fidesz feels more comfortable with the Szeklers.

The sympathy demonstration was organized by CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), the Szekler National Council (Székely Nemzeti Tanács), and Fidesz. CÖF is the “civic” forum, actually financed by the government, that organized the two peace marches against the “colonizers” and that was also responsible for gathering the supporters of Fidesz for the mass rally on October 23. Well-known anti-Semites like Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles (owner of Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV), and András Bencsik have prominent roles in CÖF. The Goy Bikers also made an appearance at this demonstration.

Both MSZP and E14-PM decided to support the march as well as Szekler autonomy. They argued that after all RMDSZ also gave its cautious approval to the march that concurrently took place in Romania. RMDSZ’s position, of course, is very different from that of MSZP and E14. After all, RMDSZ needs the Szeklers’ vote; MSZP and E14 don’t. Or, more accurately, supporting their demands will not prompt the Szeklers to vote for these two leftist parties at the next election. Those who vote will vote for Fidesz.

MSZP was satisfied with verbal support, but E14 politicians actually marched along with all the right-wingers and Goy Bikers! And with that move E14 lost even more supporters.

If the opposition is to stand any chance at the next election it can’t keep alienating potential voters. And it shouldn’t act like an exclusive club open only to the MSZP-E14 “founding members.” Politics is a numbers game, and numbers rise with inclusiveness. And with unity.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at the meeting of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia

Viktor Orbán gave a speech at a round table discussion of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia (Keresztény Értlemiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ = Ready). The name of the organization didn’t immediately ring a bell until I read that its president is Zoltán Osztie, a Catholic priest known for his reactionary worldview. Moreover, Osztie is a politically committed man in the service of the current government. He and his organization work hand in hand with László Csizmadia’s CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), which is behind the peace marches and which lately announced plans for a peace march to Brussels. CÖF received billions of forints from the central government, and thus Csizmadia and his friends had no problem footing the rather expensive campaign against Gordon Bajnai. Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles, Ádám Pozsonyi, and László Csizmadia are prominent members of a “defense front” in the service of Viktor Orbán and his policies. Zoltán Osztie belongs to that inner circle of supporters.

I did some research on KÉSZ, which originally I mistakenly thought was just one of the many Christian civil groups. I always get suspicious when a group of people get together in the name of Christianity because in Hungary the adjective “keresztény” normally carries an emphasis on being “non-Jewish.” Otherwise, I see no reason for writers, journalists, and actors to distinguish themselves as Christians. KÉSZ is certainly not a simple gathering place for practicing Christians. Under the leadership of Zoltán Osztie it has become a politically committed organization.

The group was formed by another Catholic priest, Béla Csanád, in 1989 with the mission to spread the word. After years of anti-religious propaganda Csanád and his friends felt that there was a need for a kind of re-conversion of the intellectual elite who could then spread the gospel further. Although Csanád was a Catholic poet, the organization theoretically was open to all practicing Christians; according to the by-laws this is still the case. Osztie, however, often talks about the one and only church, the mysterious body of Christ, about a community in the middle of which lives the Virgin Mary. Well, that is a rather specific worldview in which Protestants wouldn’t be welcome.

kereszteny ertelmisegiek szovetsegeOsztie took over the presidency of KÉSZ after Csanád’s death in 1996. His election was questioned by some of the members and eventually the court found it illegal. Seventeen years later he shows no inclination to leave the position, and most likely his grip on KÉSZ is such that no one could unseat him. There is an excellent article on Osztie that appeared in Magyar Narancs a couple of months ago.

A few interesting tidbits about the man. While he was studying for the priesthood in the 1970s he didn’t seem to be at all attracted to the small group of students who stood up to professors servile to the regime. He especially liked those professors whom most of the students disliked because of their rigidity. And he developed a hatred of liberalism, which he calls the result of “the devil’s destructive fury.” In his eyes, everything that has happened since the Renaissance is an attack on the church. Why was the Catholic Church the target? Because “the church is the guardian of natural communities, the family, the nation, the natural sexual and societal roles.” Society must therefore return to Christianity “because without God life has no meaning and no morality.” As for the appropriate sexual roles, in summer camps for children organized by KÉSZ boys learn to harvest and girls learn home canning. Traditional all right.

As for the role of the church, “Hungary is a Christian country. It is that simple. No other ideology, no other religion, no other messages have any place in this homeland. It is time to say that at last.” Of modern governments, he considers the Horthy regime’s attitude toward the church the most satisfactory. He finds the anti-Semitic Pál Teleki, the extreme right-wing Bálint Hóman, and Ottokár Prohászka, the spiritual father of Hungarism,”wonderful people who with the help of God resurrected the dead, mutilated country.”

As for his ideas on the media, Osztie thinks that its duties include the delivery of the aspirations and the accomplishments of the government. It’s no wonder that Osztie welcomed the much criticized media law.

When we analyze Viktor Orbán’s speech at the round table discussion of KÉSZ in Győr we must keep his audience in mind. The speech is partially transcribed on Viktor Orbán’s website and available on YouTube in its entirety. Here he describes himself as a Christian politician who must answer to God not just every four years but every day. We also learn the reason for the European Union’s intense dislike of Hungary. “While the European Union piles fiasco on top of fiasco it doesn’t want to recognize the success story of Hungary… We have been blacklisted. They want to force the role of black sheep on us.” And why is this so? “Because of our traditional and natural view of the family. In the center of the controversy is the family. Our Fundamental Law defends the family and marriage.”  He added that “for four thousand years the rule was that every marriage consists of a man and a woman. … We don’t have to explain anything; we must ask them why it was necessary to give up a four-thousand-year tradition.” According to Orbán, there is a strong secular and anti-family lobby in Europe that has been very successful. Hungary bucks this trend and receives Europe’s hatred as a result.

And finally, he assured his audience that the government counts on the Christian intelligentsia because without them there is no electoral victory.

At the end, let me mention a Galamus article on this speech by the philosopher Ferenc L. Lendvai. He found a few pieces of nonsense [zöldség in Hungarian] in it. First, Viktor Orbán’s reference to the 4,000-year tradition of marriage between men and women. Orbán specifically mentioned 2,000 years of the New Testament and 2,000 years of the New Testament. Nice, but wrong!  Napoleon talked about 4,000 years of civilization during his campaign against Egypt. And he was right; the pyramids are more than 4,000 years old. But Orbán has a problem with Old Testament chronology. Abraham wasn’t even born 2,000 years before Christ. And where was Moses with his tablets? And where were the priests who wrote down the laws of God? Moreover, even if they had lived four thousand years ago, the good Hungarian Christians wouldn’t be too enamored with the concepts of marriage and family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “If they don’t believe it, I suggest they should read the Bible if they are such good Christians.”

As for Orbán’s reference to good Christian politicians who have to give account to God every day, Lendvai quotes Matthew 7:22-23.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Gábor Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1580-1629), was a good Calvinist. In his lifetime he read the Old and New Testaments forty times. Viktor Orbán, who is so proud of belonging to the Hungarian Reformed Church, should follow the example of Bethlen whom he admires. Start reading. And not just the Bible.