Tag Archives: Council of Europe

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

It has taken three years but the Istanbul Convention will soon be ratified

The Hungarian political scene is so active that one can’t keep up with it, especially now that the jostling among opposition parties has begun in earnest. After all, the national election is just a little more than a year away. Yet I would be amiss if I didn’t report on what one can only hope is a significant achievement of women’s groups in Hungary. The Orbán government has at last begun the process of ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which was initiated by the Council of Europe and opened for signature on May 11, 2011. The convention aims at preventing violence against women and domestic violence. As of May 2016, it had been signed by 44 countries. Between 2013 and 2016, it was ratified by 21 countries.

Hungary was one of the signatories, but it has yet has to ratify the convention, although it could have done so at any time after August 2014. Ratification involves changing existing laws to conform to the requirements of the Istanbul Convention. Preparations for the ratification have been taking place in secret without any input from women’s groups or experts.

The Hungarian government has been dragging its heels for about two and a half years. Népszabadság reported in August 2014 that Hungary was one of seven members of the European Union where the law does not guarantee automatic prosecution of all forms of domestic violence. In addition, it is only in Hungary that there is no specific intervention program guided by experts, working with men who had committed sexual violence.

Several months went by without anything happening until, in March 2015, Zsuzsanna Szelényi (Együtt), supported by 36 other members of parliament, turned in a motion to speed up the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It was known ahead of time that Jobbik would not vote for the motion because the Convention “is not concerned with the most widespread and most brutal domestic violence, the act of abortion,” but to everybody’s surprise the members of Fidesz-KDNP joined Jobbik and voted against Szelényi’s motion. Even Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, couldn’t quite understand why the government refused to speed up the process of ratification. Péter Niedermüller, DK MEP, considered the Fidesz decision “shameful and abominable.”

After two years of government inaction, on February 1, 2017, in the pouring rain, a small group of women labelled feminists, a curse word in Hungarian right-wing circles, demonstrated in front of the parliament. Fidesz’s reaction to this small demonstration was outrageous. According to the latest Fidesz spokesman, “at the moment, immigration and the settlement of migrants are the greatest dangers in Europe. Wherever migrants appeared violence against women and children skyrocketed…. Those same opposition parties that keep worrying about women in roundtable discussions prevented parliament from modifying  the constitution to prohibit the settlement of migrants.” The message is that domestic violence in the country is insignificant or at least is not nearly as serious as the migrants’ sexual assaults against European women and children.

A week later, on February 8, 2017, Szilvia Gyurkó, a lawyer involved in children’s rights issues, wrote a short article in which she listed three reasons for the government’s reluctance to act on the ratification. One is that in Hungary domestic violence is a relatively rare occurrence. This is not the case. According to a 2014 study, 27% of girls under the age of 15 experience physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Seven percent of adult women can be considered victims of domestic violence. The second reason is that proponents of the Convention include under the rubric of sexual abuse actions that are not violent but are only inappropriate behavior toward women. The third reason is that Hungarians don’t need the ratification of the Istanbul Convention because the government defends Hungarian women more than adequately from unwanted approaches or physical abuse.

Gyurkó may have been kind to the government. A Fidesz-supporting journalist offered his reasons not to ratify the Convention. László Vésey Kovács of Pesti Srácok objects to changing the Hungarian law primarily because “women’s rights NGOs, supported by George Soros, under the pretext of a concern for battered women, want to interfere in the lives of Hungarian families.” In plain language, domestic violence is nobody’s business outside the family.

Meanwhile a survey taken late last year shows that Hungarians are fully aware of the problem of domestic violence in their country. Almost 20% of them consider it to be a very serious problem and another 53% think it is widespread. Only 3% seem to be ignorant of the problem. Even so, half of the adult population believe that there are certain situations in which sexual violence is acceptable: a drunk or drugged partner (24% in Hungary while the Union average is 12%), a woman willingly accompanies a man home after a party (20% versus 12%), sexy clothing (21% versus 10%), and the “no” is not explicit enough (14% versus 10%).

A few days ago the government at last decided to submit the issue for discussion in parliament, which was described by Index as a “Valentine’s Day gift.” However, there is fear that the government will try to “soften” the legal consequences of the Convention. For example, LMP’s Bernadett Szél is afraid that the present practice of launching an investigation only after the victim files an official complaint will continue. Szél also asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to provide crime statistics. Last week Pintér assured the chairwoman of LMP that the number of physical abuse cases has been decreasing in the last six years. While in 2010 there were 5,000 such cases, by 2016 the police registered only 3,210 such instances. The number of registered rapes in 2010 was 241, but last year they reported only 10 such cases. In the whole country! Among a population of almost 10 million! A miraculous improvement, I must say.

What will happen now that the text of the modifications to Hungarian law is available online and comments can be submitted for about two weeks before the final text reaches the lawmakers? I have the strong suspicion that the women’s groups and human rights activists are not going to be satisfied with the Ministry of Justice’s understanding and interpretation of the Convention’s intent.

February 18, 2017

Full-court press against the Orbán government

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó compared the European Union to an old gent with halting steps, but lately the old man has quickened his stride. At least as far as Brussels’ relation with Hungary is concerned. Patience seems to have run out with Hungary’s maverick prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One after the other, officials of the EU and the Council of Europe have called on the Hungarian government to explain its past unlawful or at least legally questionable moves.

First came, on November 19, the official announcement that “the European Commission decided to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning the implementation of the Paks II nuclear power plant project.” The reaction of the Hungarian government was predictable. János Lázár, instead of talking about the actual case–the lack of an open tender, which is an EU requirement–talked about the EU allegedly prohibiting Hungary from signing bilateral commercial agreements with so-called third countries. For details see my post titled “Infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the Paks nuclear power plant.” Hungary has two months to give a satisfactory answer. If the answer is not satisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

Four days later, on November 23, it was announced that “the European Commission has opened an in-depth state aid investigation into Hungary’s plans to provide financing for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Paks.” The question is “whether a private investor would have financed the project on similar terms or whether Hungary’s investment constitutes state aid.” Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, and her staff think that “this investment may not be on market terms, as Hungary argues.”

Two days after the announcement of the second in-depth investigation, on November 25, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Bundestag in which she talked about solidarity as “the acid test” for the maintenance of the borderless Schengen area. She stressed that “a distribution of refugees according to economic strength and other conditions … and the readiness for a permanent distribution mechanism … will determine whether the Schengen area will hold in the long term.” The speech was interpreted as a sharp warning aimed at the new EU members. Hungary’s immediate reaction was that Hungary couldn’t possibly take any refugees because its economic situation wouldn’t allow such generosity. The government spokesman talked about 15,000 possible “migrants,” who in time would bring other family members. Within a few years Hungary would be stranded with close to 200,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

On November 27 Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after spending three days in Hungary, issued a statement about Hungary’s response to the current refugee crisis and came to the conclusion that “Hungary has not lived up to this challenge.” He complained about the “accelerated asylum procedure lacking essential safeguards.” Under this new procedure “asylum-seekers have seen their claim processed in less than a day and sent back to Serbia directly from the Röszke transit zone.” Muižnieks also noted that the crisis measures Hungary introduced are still in effect although hardly any refugees are in Hungary. After detailing all the reproachable and outright illegal pieces of legislation and practices, he called on the Hungarian government “to refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric linking migrants to social problems or security risks.”

By that time Szijjártó became convinced that “a mysterious conspiracy is unfolding against Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, “it is evident that some people would like see an opaque and confused situation in Hungary.”

On the very same day it was reported that the European Commission had given the green light to a citizens’ initiative launched by the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the European Union. What is a citizens’ initiative? According to the official explanation, “a European citizen’s initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states.” A list of these minimum numbers can be found online. In Hungary’s case only 15,750 valid signatures are needed.

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens' initiative on their website

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens’ initiative

The European Humanist Federation launched its initiative called “Wake up Europe!” on October 2. Its official website outlines the reasons for the initiative. Nine individuals from eight countries charge Viktor Orbán’s government with “anti-democratic and xenophobic measures that openly violate the basic principles of the rule of law.” In response, “a committee of EU citizens has launched an ECI to call on the European Commission to trigger Article 7 of TEU and bring the Hungarian issue to the Council.”

The Commission approved this citizens’ initiative on a day when Tibor Navracsics, the commissioner representing Hungary, happened to be away. Navracsics “in a strongly-worded letter criticized the decision to hold the meeting in his absence as well as the substance of the initiative.” He claimed that this was “a sensitive political issue” which could result in consequences reaching “far beyond the aim of the initiative.” Szijjártó considered the acceptance of the citizens’ initiative by the Commission to be a case of “revenge by Brussels” for “the successful migration policy of Hungary.”

The most fanciful explanation for the launch of the citizens’ initiative in the first place came from Magyar Idők. The editorial board of this pro-government paper is convinced that, once again, it is George Soros who is behind this attack on Hungary and Viktor Orbán. The explanation, according to Magyar Idők, is simple. Since the European Humanist Federation’s affiliated partners all share Soros’s concept of an Open Society, the EHF must be a front organization for Soros. Moreover, since the Commission accepted the EHF’s citizens’ initiative, “IN ADDITION TO THE CIVIC GROUPS THE EU COMMISSIONERS ARE ALSO IN SOROS’S POCKET.” Yes, in boldface caps. Magyar Idők accuses the commissioners of purposely picking a date when Navracsics would not be present.

Yes, it seems that the whole world is against the poor, innocent Orbán government. But pulling the strings is one man who has the power to move twenty-seven commissioners and their staff to make a concerted attack not just against Hungary but against the very idea of the “nation state.” I don’t know how effective such simple-minded explanations are, but I guess they might resonate with some people, especially since Soros’s name is associated with Jewishness and financial speculation, notions that are anathema to the far right.

Well, George Soros may not be pulling the strings in Brussels, but Viktor Orbán definitely is in Budapest. And through his mouthpieces he’s sounding more and more like Jobbik (and as a result is siphoning off Jobbik supporters).

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

The Hungarian government under domestic and foreign pressure

As I’m writing this post thousands are again demonstrating against the government. The crowd gathered in front of the parliament, which one of the organizers called “the puppet show,” and then is heading toward the Castle District, where Viktor Orbán is planning to move. The move will cost an incredible amount of money but, as one of the undersecretaries in the prime minister’s office said, the citizens of Hungary will be really happy once the prime minister moves to quarters befitting his position. Given the mood of these crowds, I very much doubt that that will be the case. The good citizens of Hungary who are out on the street actually wish Orbán not to the Castle District but straight to hell.

The demonstration was organized against corruption but, as usually happens at these mass demonstrations, the crowd went beyond the limited goal of the organizers and demanded the resignation of Viktor Orbán and his government. Fidesz politicians, it seems, have been caught flat-footed. They surely believed that these demonstrations would peter out. Winter is approaching and Christmas will soon be upon us. It was hoped that people would be busy shopping and preparing for family gatherings. But this time they were wrong. Suddenly something inexplicable happened: the totally lethargic Hungarian public was awakened. What happened? After all, the misuse of power and the network of corruption have been features of the Orbán regime ever since 2010 and yet the public was not aroused against its unrelenting abuse of power. Most people knew that Fidesz politicians are corrupt and that they stuff their pockets with money stolen from the public, but they felt powerless to do anything about it.

I see a number of reasons for this change in the Hungarian political atmosphere. I would start with the influence of the book Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State, edited by Bálint Magyar, in which dozens of political scientists, economists, sociologists, and media experts published articles that presented for the first time a comprehensive picture of the institutionalized corruption which is the hallmark of the Fidesz regime. Fairly quickly the terms “mafia state” and “mafia government” became part of everyday vocabulary, and the government’s dealings came to be understood within the context of The Godfather. The sinister nature of the enterprise was slowly grasped.

A second reason for the optimism and activism was the success of the first two mass demonstrations against the “internet tax.” Viktor Orbán had to retreat. If he retreated once, more demonstrations might force him to reverse earlier decisions. The success of the first demonstrations gave impetus to the others.

Last but not least was the Hungarian government’s own stupidity when it decided to leak the news about American dissatisfaction with the National Tax Authority and the corrupt officials who tried extract kickbacks from at least one American company. Hungarians expected their politicians to be corrupt, but the news that high officials at the Hungarian Tax Authority were also on the take was too much for them. Moreover, they felt that they now have an ally, the United States of America.

According to most observers, U.S.-Hungarian relations are at their lowest point since the post-1956 period. U.S. policy toward Hungary seems to me at least to be finely calibrated. At the beginning we were told about the six unnamed people who were barred from entering the United States. A few days later we learned that the president of the Tax Authority was definitely on the list. A few more days and we were told that the president is not the only person on the list, there are a couple more. Another week went by and André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires, indicated that there might be more Hungarians who would face the same fate as the six already on the list. Another few days and we learned from the American chargé that he had given the Hungarian government all the information necessary for investigating the cases. And it was not the “useless scrap of paper” Viktor Orbán pointed to. In plain language, we found out once again that the Hungarian government lies. And yesterday we learned from an interview with Goodfriend that the sin of Tax Office Chief Ildikó Vida goes beyond not investigating obvious corruption cases within her office; she herself was an active participant in the corruption scheme at her office. Of course, Vida is outraged, but she cannot do more than write an open letter to Goodfriend claiming innocence. As time goes by the Hungarian government is increasingly embroiled in a web of lies and Orbán’s regime comes to resemble ever more closely the government of a third-rate banana republic.

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

While the State Department is using the corruption cases as a club, Senator John McCain is pursuing his own individual crusade. The senator, who is no friend of Putin, has been keeping an eye on Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state and found it to be troubling. What we saw two days ago was his frustration that Hungary will again have a political appointee as an ambassador. As he emphasized over and over, Hungary is a very important country that deserves a professional diplomat. His outburst about Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator” was a bit strong, although Orbán’s system does have features in common with some of the fascist regimes of the past. But the Hungarian charge that McCain is ignorant of the Hungarian political situation is entirely baseless. Once he calmed down, he put it into writing what he finds objectionable about Orbán’s illiberal state. At the time of the release of his statement on Hungary he wrote a brief tweet saying, “Deeply concerned by PM Orban eroding democracy, rule of law, civil society & free press in Hungary.”

Below I republish Senator McCain’s statement on Hungary because I find it important and because it proves that, regardless of what the Hungarian government says, McCain (undoubtedly with the help of his staff) knows what he is talking about.

Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, antidemocratic constitutional changes have been enacted, the independence of Hungary’s courts have been restricted, nongovernmental organizations raided and civil society prosecuted, the freedom of the press curtailed, and much more. These actions threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance and have left me deeply concerned about the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary.

These concerns are shared by many. A ruling by the Venice Commission in 2013 found that Prime Minister Orban’s constitutional changes threaten democracy and rule of law in Hungary, stating that the amendments ‘contradict principles of the Fundamental Law and European standards,’ and ‘leads to a risk that it may negatively affect all three pillars of the Council of Europe: the separation of powers as an essential tenet of democracy, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.’

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned Hungary’s media laws, saying that they create a climate of fear and media self-censorship, even after critical changes were made to account for previous complaints from the European Commission. ‘The changes to the Hungarian media law only add to the existing concerns over the curbing of critical or differing views in the country,’ said Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE’s representative on Freedom of the Media.

The European Central Bank has repeatedly warned that Prime Minister Orban’s government is encroaching on the independence of its central bank, calling for him to respect the independence of monetary policymakers and condemning attempts by the government to threaten central bankers with dismissal if they oppose government policy.

And just last month, six Hungarians were banned from entering the United States over alleged corruption. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires André Goodfriend reportedly called the ban a warning to reverse policies that threaten democratic values, citing ‘negative disappointing trends’ in Hungary and a ‘weakening of rule of law, attacks on civil society, [and] a lack of transparency.’

Democracy without respect for rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of economic, civil, and religious liberties is not only inadequate, it is dangerous. It brings with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and economic restrictions – all of which we have witnessed in Hungary since Prime Minister Orban took power. Prime Minister Orban has justified his actions by calling for a new state model based on ‘illiberal democracy,’ but his vision defies the core values of the European Union and NATO. These alliances are founded not only on the principle of democracy, but also rule of law and the protection of individual liberty and fundamental freedoms. All members must remain committed to these values.

Meanwhile both Hungarian and foreign newspapers are full of stories about the demonstrations and about McCain’s characterization of Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator.” As the Hungarian prime minister continues to come under attack, both from within and from without, it’s unclear how he will fight back and how effective his counterattack will be. If the proposed Sunday store closings are any indication of the government’s new game plan, the counterattack will be a colossal failure.

How can the American black locust become a “Hungaricum”? Just ask Fidesz

Way back in  2008 the decision was made that the European Commission should take over the fight against alien invasive species in the territories of the Union. Although zoologists and biologists of the member countries had urged their governments to act, little progress had been made. Finally, it was decided that the problem must be handled centrally.

Years have gone by, but then we know that the EU’s bureaucracy is not known for its speedy resolution of issues. The bill was presented to the European Parliament only in September 2013, and it was in January of this year that the European Parliament discussed the matter. It turned out that at the urging of Hungarian scientists the European Union was planning to put the Robinia pseudoacacia, known in Hungary as white acacia, on the alien invasive species list. The plan is not to eradicate the acacia tree–that would be an impossibility–but rather to check its spread.

akac

This particular variety of acacia tree is native to the United States. Interestingly, it  is called the black locust in this country. Black locust trees can be found in the Appalachian Mountain regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio in addition to some areas farther west in Oklahoma and Arkansas. It is considered to be an invasive species here as well, and its control is regulated. American scientists admit that “control of black locust is difficult and no technique has been identified as entirely effective.”  The most cost-effective method is prevention.  Hungarian scientists are of the same opinion, and since 2009 the white acacia has been on the Hungarian list of alien invasive species. The Hungarian decision was made at that time without any pressure from the outside. Yet in the last few months the Orbán government has fought tooth and nail against the inclusion of the acacia on the EU’s list of undesirable species.

The hysteria about the fate of the acacia was initiated by Béla Glattfelder, a Fidesz member of the EP, who rose in the European Parliament during the debate of the bill to protest the “attack” on the acacia tree, which is considered to be an important agricultural asset for Hungary. After all, half of all acacia trees in the European Union can be found in Hungary and the tree is an important source of income for tens of thousands of people, especially beekeepers and owners of private forests. He emphasized that honey made out of the flowers of the acacia is a true “Hungaricum.” In addition, acacia wood is a valuable building material.

As soon as he got wind of what was under foot, he alerted owners of acacia forests and beekeepers, who formed an alliance to “combat the domestic and foreign endeavors to limit the spread of the acacia.” The coalition under Glattfelder’s guidance started lobbying to have both the acacia tree and acacia honey be declared  “Hungaricums.”

Glattfelder is an old Fidesz hand. He was a member of the Hungarian parliament between 1990 and 2004. In 2000 he also became undersecretary in the ministry of economics, dealing mostly with agricultural matters. Since 2004 he has been a member of the Fidesz delegation to the European Union. His name does not, however, appear among those who might represent Fidesz after the 2014 EP election. So this may be Glattfelder’s last hurrah in Brussels.

After Glattfelder sounded the alarm, the Hungarian ministry of agriculture moved into action. The ministry made it clear that the Hungarian government will fight the impending legislation. It is as outlandish to eliminate the acacia tree as it would be to forbid the growth of corn. As if anyone planned the eradication of the acacia tree.

The hysteria spread far and wide, with assistance coming from Glattfelder and Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture. Headlines like these have appeared in the last three or four months: “What will happen to the acacia? Will the Union destroy it?” Or “Hungarian honey and acacia forests are in danger!”

By the end of February the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Ecological Institute felt that it was time to enlighten the Hungarian public on the true state of affairs. The scientists pointed out that the information that had appeared in the Hungarian media was “based on the most outrageous misconceptions and false allegations.” The institute tried to set the record straight but, as we will see later, not with great success.

The acacia forests are not endangered. On the contrary, acacia trees grow on 463,000 hectares, about a third of all Hungarian forests. Since 1990 the area with acacia trees has grown by 150,000 hectares and it is still growing. The real problem is that acacia trees are all over, along country roads, sometimes very close to areas under ecological protection. They spread rapidly. There are places where they managed to eradicate native flowers, even animals. The scientists specifically mention Echinops ruthenicus (szamárkenyér), about whose blue flowers Sándor Petőfi wrote lovingly in 1844. Because of the acacia they are now practically nonexistent. According to the scientists, 200,000 hectares are currently threatened by “the acacia invasion.” What they would like to prevent is the tree’s spread into this 200,000 hectare area.

Of course, the scientists didn’t manage to counteract the hysteria created by Fidesz and the Hungarian government. On March 12 Sándor Fazekas held a forum in Kunhegyes close to the area where there is perhaps the largest concentration of acacia trees in Hungary. Here he indignantly stated that the Union has no right whatsoever to tell Hungarians what kinds of trees they can grow in their own country. In his opinion, the acacia tree is a “Hungaricum” whose spread should be encouraged.

A day after, on March 13,  Hungary using a legal loophole vetoed the draft bill in the Council of Europe. It was a compromise bill that had already been accepted in the European Parliament. That bill didn’t mention the acacia or any other offending species. But Hungary refused to sign it because they didn’t receive a 100% guarantee that acacia would not be on the list.

For a while it looked as if Hungary had managed to avert “the danger” to the would-be Hungaricum. The Hungarian government was elated, but then came the letdown. A week after the veto the Council of Europe passed the draft bill. Mind you, the fate of the acacia is still not clear. No explicit guarantee came from Janez Potocnik, the commissioner responsible for environmental issues, but the Hungarian government hopes that its lobbying was not in vain. The final bill will be voted on only in the fall of 2015.

Meanwhile we are being told that the American black locust will be a Hungaricum.

Monitoring versus “close scrutiny” of Hungary in PACE

There is a recent event I didn’t comment on: the decision of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) not to place Hungary under official monitoring. Instead it promised “to follow closely the Hungarian developments.” The provisional version of the resolution can be read on the official website of the Council of Europe (CoE).

Magnifying glass - www.clkrt.com

Magnifying glass – www.clkrt.com

A couple of days ago Mátyás Eörsi, a former member of PACE, wrote an analysis for Galamus entitled “The Anatomy of a Vote.” Eörsi became a member of PACE in 1994 and eventually came to be the leader of The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group. In March 2009 the Hungarian government nominated him for the position of Secretary General of the Council of Europe. He knows the workings of the Council of Europe inside out.

According to Eörsi, who still has many friends in PACE, the attitude of the European People Party’s members of PACE is more forgiving toward Fidesz than is that of the members of the EPP caucus in the European Parliament. One reason is that PACE holds full assemblies only four times a year, a week at a time. Thus, these members didn’t have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the behavior of Viktor Orbán’s government as thoroughly as the Christian Democratic members of the European Parliament did. The Conservatives (British, Russian, and Turkish) also stood by Fidesz. That the members of Putin’s party supported the Hungarian government’s case is perfectly understandable. After all, Viktor Orbán’s governing style is often compared to Putin’s. As for Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps Zsolt Németh’s praise of Erdoğan and Turkish democracy makes more sense after the PACE vote. It may have been a gesture that was intended to be repaid by Turkish votes in the Council of Europe.

In the end, the whole Russian delegation, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and practically all other countries in East-Central Europe voted against monitoring. Since most of the countries are already under monitoring themselves, they had no desire to add Hungary to the list. In fact, what they would like to do is to abolish the whole system of  monitoring.

There were 22 amendments to the original resolution, most of which were designed to weaken it. The majority were submitted by Fidesz members. As soon as voting in the assembly began, pro-Fidesz votes poured in. According to Eörsi, the running tally was something like 170:80. But then something happened. Half way through the voting  the pattern changed radically. How could that have been possible, Eörsi asks.

We are all familiar with the parliamentary practice of voting strictly along party lines. The whip calls the shots and the members of the caucus listen to the instructions. This is also how the European Parliament functions, but in PACE the situation is somewhat different. PACE members usually vote according to the suggestions of the particular committee that prepared the proposal. In this case, the Monitoring Committee. Eörsi found out what happened in committee. At the beginning of the committee meeting the whole EPP contingent was present while a couple of socialist members were late. The first amendments were therefore voted in by the EPP majority. But then the missing socialist members arrived and suddenly there was a socialist majority. The second half of the amendments was voted down. Then came the final vote and a socialist member, the British John Prescott, earlier deputy of Tony Blair, forgot to raise his hand. The EPP members voted the proposal down.

If Eörsi’s information is correct, one can see how decisions can be reached due to happenstance. One person being late and another  forgetting to raise his hand. This particular vote is a relatively small setback for those who would have liked to see Hungary placed under monitoring, but it still counts as a victory for Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. One can take only slight comfort in looking through the list of supporters and saying that Viktor Orbán cannot be very proud of the company he found himself in. Then again….

I understand that the Hungarian government as well as the Fidesz members of PACE did extensive lobbying to avoid monitoring by the Council of Europe. It is hard to tell how effective this lobbying was, especially if Eörsi is right and voting by the members of PACE tends to follow specific committee recommendations. Of course, this wouldn’t be applicable to those countries whose members unanimously rejected the resolution, like Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ukraine, etc. They supported the Orbán government because of their own political interests.

More important than the PACE vote will be the fate of the Tavares report in the European Parliament. The vote will take place in Strasbourg on July 2. Viktor Orbán will be there to argue his case. We will see how persuasive he is.