Tag Archives: European Union

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

Viktor Orbán on his role at the European Council Summit

Yesterday I tried to make sense of a garbled newspaper article in Pesti Srácok giving details of allegedly newly discovered documents that implicate certain Hungarian nationals who are in the pay of George Soros, the sworn enemy of Viktor Orbán and his migration policy. As I pointed out, the documents actually surfaced in August 2016, but the powers-that-be deemed it necessary to reintroduce them to the public. A day after the appearance of the article, two government and party officials picked up the story and threatened members of NGOs that receive financial help from the Soros Foundation with investigation by the national security forces. A day later, on October 27, Viktor Orbán himself devoted part of his bi-weekly radio interview to the subject.

I will spend relatively little time on the part of the interview that dealt with George Soros’s network in Hungary because I discussed some of this yesterday on the basis of two press conferences, one given by Balázs Hidvéghi, Fidesz communication director, and the other by János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. Viktor Orbán made quite an issue of the alleged novelty of the documents. He acted as if the great news all over Europe was the release of these documents and that therefore one could not be surprised that eventually they found their way to Hungary. The truth is that these documents had been a topic of interest in the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security in late September 2016. Deputy chairman Szilárd Németh (Fidesz) was greatly disturbed by what he read in the Hungarian press about the DCLeaks documents and suggested holding a meeting on it. So much for the truthfulness of the prime minister of Hungary.

Viktor Orbán distinguished several levels of influence of the Soros Network. We already know that he is convinced, or pretends to be convinced, that the whole European Commission is under the thumb and in the pocket of George Soros. Tibor Navracsics doesn’t know about Soros Plan, which only shows how well hidden it is. Then there is the European Parliament, where 226 members were identified as receptive to the ideals of the Open Society, including five Hungarian members from the opposition parties. He is particularly disturbed by the fact that a fair number of these people are members of LIBE (Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs), including Péter Niedermüller of the Demokratikus Koalíció. This committee just lately passed a report that would impose mandatory migrant quotas and strip non-complying member states of funding. Viktor Orbán cannot do much about this. He is after those “who, according to the newly emerged documents, work in Brussels against the Hungarian government.” These people try to influence decision makers in order “to punish Hungary and force it to change its migrant policy.” As he put it, the Hungarian government “must find these people who through various channels manage to influence organs of the European Union, which eventually lead to legal proceedings against Hungary.” He, unlike Lázár, didn’t talk about journalists, but let’s not exclude the possibility of extending the investigation to members of the press, especially those who receive or used to receive money from the Soros Foundation. We have arrived at a new phase in the anti-Soros campaign. New attacks on NGOs–like Transparency International, the Helsinki Commission, and TASZ–are forthcoming.

More interesting for those of us interested in Viktor Orbán’s political ambitions on the international scene is the lecture he gave about the workings of the European Council and his own role in the process. Keep in mind that he attended a two-day summit on October 19-20 in Brussels and that, breaking his habit, he didn’t give a press conference to the three or four reporters who accompanied him to Brussels. Therefore, he most likely thought that a “report” on his attendance was in order.

Orbán explained to the Radio’s reporter that the politicians of the European Union are an overly refined, genteel lot who like to cover up disagreements. For example, after a summit the European Commission publishes a set of “conclusions.” If something is not in the “conclusions,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was not discussed, just that there was no agreement on the subject, he claimed. Thus, the EU is hiding what actually happens at these meetings.

There is a problem with this contention because it is clearly stated that “ahead of the European Council meeting, the President drafts guidelines for the conclusions. These are then discussed in the General Affairs Council and later adopted at the European Council meeting.” That is, there is a set of items which is given out ahead of time to the participants.

The conversation about the conclusions took an interesting turn. The reporter pointed out that the issue of compulsory quotas was not among the items in the conclusions. Orbán assumed that the reporter had concluded that the reason it was missing from the conclusion was a lack of consensus in the European Council. “Yes, you’re correct. I’ve been fighting for the last year and a half so that no item would ever appear in the ‘conclusions’ at the end of the negotiations of the prime ministers that would violate Hungarian sovereignty.” The implication is that the question of compulsory quotas was on the agenda but, thanks to Orbán’s strenuous efforts, no consensus was reached.

The European Council Summit in session

The European Council’s conclusions are public, so he could not ignore a crucial sentence: “The European Council welcomes the progress achieved so far on the reform of the Common European Asylum System and calls for further convergence towards an agreement which strikes the right balance between responsibility and solidarity and ensures resilience to future crises, in line with its June 2017 conclusions.” The Council will return to this point in December and “will seek to reach a consensus during the first half of 2018.”

Orbán in his interview claimed that during the session there was tremendous pressure on him “to compromise and agree to some kind of compulsory quota which might be part of a future general regulatory arrangement.” But he “managed to deflect this attempt.” Instead, however, of repeating his resolve to continue his fight in December, he simply said, “We will see.”

I have an additional reason to doubt that there was an extended and contentious debate over compulsory quotas. According to one of the diplomats present, the most important issue on the agenda was relations with Turkey. Those present spent altogether three hours on this one subject alone. It is hard to imagine that another highly-charged issue like compulsory quotas could be squeezed into the meeting, which had a very full agenda. It would be good to know exactly what happened, but I’m almost certain that no extended discussion of compulsory quotas took place at this particular summit.

October 28, 2017

Hungarian government warms up an old story: last year’s DCLeaks

Two days ago a garbled, close to incomprehensible, article appeared in Pesti Srácok, perhaps the most right-extremist organ of the Fidesz/Orbán government’s media empire. The article with great fanfare announced that Pesti Srácok had acquired documents about the activities and goals of billionaire George Soros that “surpass one’s wildest expectations.” The article alleges that there are a number of documents in the DCLeaks collection that “prove that the stock market shark has a stake in discrediting the Hungarian government.”

My first reaction was that the staff of Pesti Srácok got mixed up, took out the wrong file, and mistook 2016 for 2017. Because it was a little over a year ago that the Russian cyber-espionage group called Fancy Bear released on its website 2,576 files, mostly related to George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. Fancy Bear is apparently connected to GRU (Glavnoye razvedytel’noye upravleniye), Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. Soon afterward, several far-right websites, like tmn.today, zerohedge.com, and newstarget.com worked hard to portray some of these documents as evidence of the “evil plan” of Soros and his organizations to use the refugee crisis as an opportunity to manipulate immigration policies throughout the world.

In fact, most of the information revealed in the current article by Pesti Srácok is a rehash of earlier articles that appeared in right-wing English-language publications. Since the Soros documents are no longer available on the internet, it is hard to fathom why Pesti Srácok bothered to provide two non-functioning URLs as proof.

Why did Pesti Srácok dredge up this old story? My suspicion is that the article was ordered from above because the Orbán government had decided to accelerate the attacks on George Soros and his network. They needed a “reason” to tighten the screws and even go as far as ordering a full-fledged investigation by the ministry of interior, which is in charge of the national security services. So, I was somewhat amused at the naiveté of István Gusztos in Gépnarancs who believed that “the government had to react to this information that had reached the press.” Balázs Hidvéghi, the Fidesz spokesman, and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, “had to join this despicable drivel.” I’m afraid the opposite is true.

One could spend days trying to track down the origins of this cut-and-paste job, and perhaps someone with lots of extra time and curiosity could write an essay on Fidesz’s manipulation of news on the basis of this one article. Practically every sentence, every quotation is suspect. It is hard to describe this hodgepodge of lies, misinformation, and irrelevant information that has nothing to do with Hungary, like the Soros Foundation’s support for the Baltimore Education Research Consortium or its lending a helping hand to the American Journalism Review in connection with the crisis in American journalism.

One section of the article might be of paramount importance as far as the Orbán government’s possible moves against Hungarian and foreign journalists are concerned. The subhead reads: “Bribed journalists and contracts to manipulate the media.” The example given was a contract with an alleged entrepreneur (vállalkozó), actually a research institute, called the Centre d’etudes et de recherches internationales “whose task was to prove ‘contrary opinions’ about French-Ukrainian relations. The contract also stated that the entrepreneur (sic) had to write press reviews.” The text that reads “to provide a brief account of how Russia has tried to influence the French debate on Ukraine through domestic actors and outlets” was interpreted as an instruction regarding the kind of information that should appear in the French press. After the description of the influence allegedly exerted on the French media, the article claims that similar “media purchases” were obtained in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece. The article naturally spent quite a bit of time on the Soros Foundation’s list of about 200 EP members who might be sympathetic to some of the ideas of the Open Society. This list, which is still available on the internet, is also old hat.

It was after the appearance of this article that Balázs Hidvéghi, communication director of Fidesz, announced that the government has “concrete proof that Brussels has fallen into the captivity of the Soros network.” Hidvéghi claimed that Soros gave $6 million to 90 different organizations to influence the decision-making process of the European Union. The Soros network specifically targets Hungary by supporting individuals who spread fake news about Hungary.

A few hours later János Lázár, during his regular Thursday afternoon press conference, talked about the same problem. The government wants to clarify whether the attempts by George Soros’s organization in Brussels touched—and if it did, how—the sovereignty of Hungary. The government should initiate an investigation into the “authenticity” of the DCLeaks documents, I can’t fathom why.  Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, is to prepare a memorandum on whether the transportation of migrants to the Hungarian border and the “siege of the Hungarian border” during the fall of 2015 was organized or accidental.

What the Hungarian government is really trying to prove is that the Soros network substantially influenced decision-making on the “forums of the European Union.” All those negative decisions, in the Hungarian government’s opinion, might have been “written on the computers of George Soros’s colleagues.” This could mean either members of the NGOs receiving money from the Soros Foundation or journalists. Here Lázár obliquely referred to the Pesti Srácok article which claimed that “Soros bought journalists and media sites in the interest of spreading his ideas.” As far as Hungary is concerned, Lázár pretty much accused Soros of paying journalists to write articles that show Hungary and the Hungarian government in a negative light.

This morning Viktor Orbán repeated some of the same accusations and gave misleading information about the DCLeaks documents during his regular bi-weekly interview on Magyar Rádió, but that deserves a separate post. For the time being, Hungarian and foreign journalists are not frightened. Both Bloomberg and The Financial Times published reports under the headlines “Hungary orders spies to target Soros ‘Empire’” and “Orban calls for Hungarian spy agencies to probe ‘Soros empire’ of NGOs.” And this is just the beginning.

October 27, 2017

Another European summit, with special attention to the Visegrád 4

The official word sent by the Hungarian government to foreign news agencies about the meeting of the Visegrád 4 prime ministers with President Jean-Claude Juncker over a lavish dinner, which included Jerusalem artichokes and foie gras, was that the meeting was a “success.” Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 leaders presented a united front on every issue and succeeded in demonstrating to the EC president that the V4 is “a tight, effective, and successful alliance.” It is almost certain that, over and above the migrant issue, the “accelerating drift … toward authoritarianism” in some of the East European countries which most diplomats in Brussels consider “a more serious threat for the EU than Brexit” was also discussed. According to Bloomberg, the dinner “yielded a promise that the commission will seek to build an environment of consensus” between the Visegrád 4 countries and the rest of the European Union.

Source: Népszava / Photo: AFP/Dario Pignatelli

Viktor Orbán, who is capable of staging a fight even with a nonexistent foe, couldn’t go home empty-handed and simply say that the meeting was useful and that he, together with all the others, signed the closing document of the summit. Therefore, the Hungarian government media focused attention on a report by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament, which would impose mandatory migrant quotas and strip non-complying member states of EU funding in an effort to revamp the present asylum law. The rapporteur of the report is Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish liberal member of parliament.

What is this new plan all about? It does demand a “permanent and automatic relocation mechanism without thresholds,” calculated on GDP and population size. Refugees with relatives in countries will be able to join them; others will be offered four countries on a rotating basis, from which they can choose one where their case will be decided. As Wikström explained, “it means if the person enters Greece, chooses to go to Hungary, God forbid, then that person is allocated to Hungary.” I’m sure that the committee members spent a great deal of time and effort on this report, but anyone who has been following the ups and downs of the refugee crisis in Europe knows that this plan is dead in the water, especially since the day after it passed Donald Tusk made clear that any and all distribution of the refugees must be voluntary.

The Hungarian government papers are full of stories about the limitless compulsory distribution of migrants, without explaining the status of a parliamentary committee report, which may or may not be approved by the European Parliament. And even if it sails through the plenary session, it must be approved by the European Council, that is, all the heads of governments of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. It was only HVG that pointed out that a committee report means little in the legislative process. Looking upon it as a weighty final decision is just a political ploy. So, Viktor Orbán’s talk about “the bullet already in the barrel,” which will force all countries to accept migrants without limit, merely serves his political agenda. He knows as well as anyone that the general drift of thinking in Europe has been moving away from compulsory quotas and toward effective border control and limited acceptance of bona fide refugees. The European Commission would still like all member countries to participate in the processing of the refugees and their distribution, but only on a voluntary basis.

The closing statement which Orbán signed urges the implementation of Turkey’s acceptance of ineligible migrants; it presses for the strengthening of the EU borders; it doubles efforts at the curbing of human trafficking; it supports easier transfer of information between member states; and, finally, it advocates financial assistance to Libya and other African countries. According to news reports, Viktor Orbán suggested setting up a common fund to assist Italy in the defense of its borders.

The domestic propaganda effort is concentrating on the Wikström report. Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, was dispatched to the state radio where he assured listeners that “the Hungarian government intends to oppose [the suggestions of the report] by all means possible.” What “LIBE is doing is nothing other than what we call the Soros plan.”

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairpersons of LIBE, gave an interview to Magyar Idők in which she called the report a “European invitation to all the migrants of the world.” She added that she hopes that “the European Council will have a sense of responsibility and common sense” and will, if it ever comes to that, refuse to endorse this plan. The Hungarian government still has to struggle “to save a small slice of the country’s national sovereignty.” Orbán described the Wikström report as “the strongest attack against the sovereignty of the country” to date.” National unity would be needed, but “the opposition parties support the migrant policy of Brussels that is based on compulsory quotas,” a false claim, by the way.

What did Viktor Orbán have to say about the Visegrád 4-Juncker dinner? He came to the conclusion that the difference between East and West is “worrisome, almost hopeless” and that “these differences are not so much political in nature but are rooted in cultural differences.” Nonetheless, the meeting was useful because “we could tell Mr. Juncker that we would like to receive more respect for the citizens of the Central European states, including the Hungarians.” Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman of EC President Juncker, called the meeting “friendly and constructive.” As Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels put it, “the president of the European Commission offered compromise and consensus as the main course to the four guests.” Since they agreed to repeat the meetings in the future, I assume the offers were accepted.

Viktor Orbán gave no press conference to the four or five Hungarian reporters who were waiting for him both after the dinner and a day later, at the end of the summit. With his refusal to talk to the reporters, he broke with his past practice of showering reporters with a litany of complaints about the decisions reached or trying to convince them of his own importance during the negotiations. Perhaps his silence indicates a less belligerent stance as far as the European Union is concerned. In any case, his attacks at home this time were directed only against the European Parliament and not against the “Brussels” bureaucrats.

October 20, 2017

Hungary leads the way in defense of persecuted Christians

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, organized by the Hungarian government and held in Budapest between October 11 and 13. We know that the prime minister considered this speech to be of great importance because it was made available in its entirety, in both Hungarian and English, on his website within hours. Such speed normally attests to Orbán’s belief that the content of a message is particularly significant.

I must say that I have to strain my imagination to see the political implications in this address, but Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider a sharp-eyed commentator, sees this talk as a new stage in the Hungarian government’s assault on the European Union. Others, like Tibor Pethő in a Magyar Nemzet editorial titled “Crusade” (Keresztes háború), views the Christian Democratic András Aradszki’s reference to the rosary as a weapon against the Satanic George Soros as an introduction to Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he said that Hungary will take the lead in the defense of the Christians of Europe and the world. He is not the only one who is convinced that Aradszki’s remarks in the Hungarian parliament were inspired, if not dictated, by the highest authority of the land.

In the last few months high-level politicians and government officials have taken up the cause of Christianity, the most persecuted religion. As Viktor Orbán put it, “215 million Christians in 108 countries around the world are suffering some form of persecution.” These figures are being repeated practically everywhere. I encountered one site where the claim was made that even in Mexico Christians are suffering “a high persecution level” from “organized corruption.” From remarks by Hungarian church officials and Christian Democratic politicians I learned, to my great surprise, that Hungary is also one of those countries where the persecution of Christians takes place.

According to Viktor Orbán, Christian persecution in Europe “operates with sophisticated methods of an intellectual nature.” Admittedly, it cannot be compared to the sufferings of Christian communities elsewhere, but greater dangers are lurking for European Christians, which many people don’t want to notice. He recalled the watchman in the Book of Ezekiel who, neglecting to warn people of the danger, was held accountable for the blood spilled by the enemy. Surely, Orbán sees himself as the watchman bearing news of the coming danger to the “indifferent, apathetic silence of a Europe which denies its Christian roots.” But there will be a price for this neglect of European interests. The present immigration policy will result in the transformation of Europe’s Christian identity.

Hungary is a small country without many relatives, but it has something other richer and bigger countries don’t have, Orbán claims. Many larger countries may have well-intentioned politicians, but they are not strong enough because “they work in coalition governments; they are at the mercy of media industries.” Hungary, by contrast, is a “stable country” whose current government has won two-third majorities in two consequent elections and, what is also important, “the public’s general attitude is robust.” Therefore, “fate and God have compelled Hungary to take the initiative.” I puzzled over the meaning of Orbán’s reference to the “robust attitude” of Hungarians and, since it didn’t make much sense to me, I turned to the original Hungarian text where I found that the prime minister was talking about the “healthy attitude” of the population. What are the characteristics of this healthy attitude? What about those who, unlike Hungarians, don’t have a healthy attitude? It is a good topic for a debate.

These are the main points of Orbán’s speech. Hungarian assistance in Iraq, which he briefly described at the end of his speech, needs no elaboration. I already wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in a post titled “Two New Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians.”

So, let’s see what the other shining lights of the Fidesz world had to say. After all, the conference lasted three days and those days had to be filled somehow. As a result, there were many, many speeches on the subject of Christian persecution.

One of the first men to greet the participants was András Veres, bishop of Győr, who currently serves as president of the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops. He was the one who, in his sermon on the August 20 national holiday, felt compelled to talk disapprovingly about increased government support for the in-vitro fertilization program. His words created quite a storm. After some hesitation, the government stood by its position. Details of the controversy can be found in my August 25 post. At the conference he admitted that the persecution of European Christians still means only mocking them, “but all bloody persecutions” began like that. The reason that Hungarians understand the plight of Middle Eastern Christians better than Western Europeans do is because “there is persecution of Christians in Hungary today.” You can imagine what some bloggers had to say to that when the government is pouring money into the churches–well, at least into the government-approved churches; it financially “persecutes” the others.

Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources who himself is a Protestant minister and who, over the years, has acquired the reputation of formulating high-flown ideas that usually fall flat, decided that “the conservation of Christian values, worldview, and culture also means the conservation of democracy.” I assume that for most people this assertion makes no historical sense whatsoever. Balog, presumably following Viktor Orbán’s lead, sees in Hungary’s assistance to the Christians of the Middle East “an opportunity to reform the foundations of European Christianity.” Well, that’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It seems that Hungary is not only defending Christian Europe but also wants to reshape it.

Péter Szijjártó was more modest. He only wants to make Budapest “the engine of the fight against the persecution of Christians.” We learned from him that “work is a Christian value,” as if working hard was alien to other cultures. He also had the temerity to say, after the government propaganda against migrants and lately against George Soros, that “a good Christian cannot be against anyone.”

Zsolt Semjén and Zoltán Balog at the press conference / MTI / Photo: Attila Kovács

Zsolt Semjén didn’t disappoint either. He gave a press conference after the “consultation” was over. He argued that Islamists who commit anti-Christian genocide should be brought before the International Court of Justice. He also said that the persecution of Christians in Europe is of “the light variety,” which is “not without its dangers because what’s going on in Europe is the conscious destruction and apostasy of Christianity.”

I’m pretty sure that Semjén was not happy with a question he got about the 1,000 Coptic Christian families from Egypt and Iraq the Hungarian government allegedly generously settled and gave Hungarian citizenship to during 2014 and 2015. Both Zoltán Balog and Péter Szijjártó insisted at the time on these people’s presence in Hungary, but the problem was that the leaders of the already existing, though small Coptic community had never heard of them. Or, rather they knew about “a few businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.” The government couldn’t give a coherent explanation for the invisible Coptic Christians. After all, 1,000 families should mean about 4,000 people. I devoted a whole post to the story at the time. Now Semjén insists that the government cannot say anything about these 1,000 Coptic families because their lives are in danger. I guess that’s one way for a good Christian to avoid the issue.

October 13, 2017

From football to fear: Recent opinion polls in Hungary

Today is devoted to polls. Please don’t worry, the post will not be full of numbers. I will concentrate on the big picture.

My first topic is Hungarians’ feelings for football. I think that talking about football today is especially timely because, as 444.hu’s sportswriter put it yesterday, the Swiss team “walked all over the Hungarians,” whose game was apparently full of “glaring mistakes.” It was only during halftime that the Swiss didn’t score a goal, as he put it sarcastically. Hungarian football is apparently not worth watching, and there is a point when even nationalism isn’t enough to keep interest alive. Just as there comes a time when the lure of a better life outside of the country cannot keep an awful lot of Hungarians at home.

Ever since 2010 an incredible amount of money has been spent on sports and sports facilities in general, but naturally  Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport, football, received the most. 24.hu calculated the amount of money spent between 2011 and 2017 on five sports– football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey–from just the so-called TAO offerings. Large companies, in lieu of taxes, can donate money to support one of these five sports, but given Orbán’s penchant for football, half of the 415 billion forints of TAO money went to football clubs. And then there are all those football stadiums, 32 of which will be built by 2020 and will cost 215 billion forints. Yet all that money didn’t improve the quality of Hungarian football, and consequently there are mighty few Hungarian fans at games.

Given the enormous outlays for football, does it serve any useful purpose? We know that the quality of play hasn’t improved and that the number of fans who show up in these new stadiums is small. Republikon Intézet conducted a poll to find out how people feel about Hungarian football. The pollsters asked two questions: (1) How true is the following statement: “I follow Hungarian football and I’m proud of it” and (2) Do you think it is worth investing in sports facilities in Hungary? The result most likely greatly saddened Viktor Orbán: the people are not grateful. Even Fidesz voters are not that proud. More than half of them are decidedly not proud, and they don’t follow the games at all. Only 22% are enthusiastic. And if that is the word from the Fidesz voters, you can imagine what the left-liberals think: 73% of them want nothing to do with the sport. Two-thirds of the Jobbik voters are also left cold by Hungarian football.

When it comes to the stadium-building mania of the prime minister, the figures are not at all encouraging. It seems that Viktor Orbán was able to convince 37% of Fidesz voters that investing in sports facilities is worthwhile, but 27% of them think it’s a waste of money. The majority of Jobbik and socialist-liberal voters disapprove of the incredible spending on stadiums and other sports facilities. What’s amazing is that Orbán, who is normally very sensitive to public opinion, seems to be utterly oblivious to the unpopularity of spending taxpayer money on his personal hobby.

Another poll that aroused my interest was conducted by Medián. The goal was to measure the extent of endangerment Hungarians feel when it comes to the perceived threat from the “migrants,” George Soros, “NGOs financed by foreigners,” the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Respondents were able to choose among five possibilities, ranging from “no threat at all” to “very big threat.” I’m sure that no one will be surprised to hear that 49% of Hungarians absolutely dread the migrants, while only 6% are not afraid of them at all. George Soros is greatly feared by 32% of the respondents. Even the mild-mannered members of NGOs are greatly feared by 17% and somewhat feared by an additional 20% of the population. The amazing finding is how successful the Orbán government has been in convincing Hungarians that Putin’s Russia poses no danger to Hungary. This is especially surprising given the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military aid to the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Only 9% of respondents consider Putin’s Russia a serious threat, the same percentage that consider the United States a serious threat.

444.hu, which commissioned the poll from Medián, rightly points out that “the government propaganda is working perfectly because people are afraid of exactly those things Fidesz wants them to be afraid of.” Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the propaganda campaign is a pair of questions. One is about the threat to Hungary from the European Union and a second, from “Brussels.” Since the European Union is popular among Hungarians and because the Orbán government didn’t want to be too blatantly antagonistic to the EU in its anti-EU campaigns, they used “Brussels” instead of the European Union in their propaganda campaigns. And behold, 37% of the respondents are afraid or very afraid of “Brussels,” while only 25% fear the European Union. This is how effective propaganda is.

As for those feared NGOs, László Földi, one of the three “security experts” used by the state and Fidesz media to frighten the population to death, is ready to do them in. Földi, I’m convinced, is not quite of sound mind. He is a former intelligence officer from the secret service apparatus of the Kádár regime who spreads his outlandish views not just on the refugee question but on Hungary’s security in general. In Földi’s view, the world is full of spies, internal as well as foreign, who are trying to undermine the present government of the country.

Well, a few days ago Földi was the guest of Echo TV, which was purchased recently by Lőrinc Mészáros. Mind you, the change of ownership from Gábor Széles to Mészáros made no difference. The station has been a hub of far-right journalists and commentators all along. The conversation was about Islam in Hungary. In passing, Földi talked about the “migrants” and those civilians who try to help them, specifically the Helsinki Committee and Migration Aid. Földi came out with the following absolutely mind-boggling statement: “We are at war and these people are collaborators, war criminals, traitors, and so on. This is a very different conceptual system. A human trafficker in war is not a human trafficker but in effect a saboteur who has no legal status. In brief, they can be freely liquidated. This is what the code of war says: we don’t take spies or saboteurs to court but we immediately eliminate them.” He is an adviser to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Enough said.

October 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán rails against the European Commission’s “reasoned opinions”

This morning Viktor Orbán delivered one of his most ferocious attacks on the “Brussels bureaucrats.” He usually relegates this kind of conduct to his minions. He himself tries to maintain the level of decorum fit for a “serious” politician of a “serious country,” as he called Hungary and its government in the midst of his rant.

It is hard to tell whether Viktor Orbán was really as upset as he sounded in this interview on state radio or whether it was feigned indignation, preparing the ground for a meeting initiated by Jean-Claude Juncker with the Visegrád 4 countries. I suspect it was the former. I think he meant every word of his harangue, and I am almost certain that this strident attitude of the Hungarian officials led by Viktor Orbán himself will only be magnified in the coming months.

The immediate cause of Orbán’s outburst was the European Commission’s latest “reasoned opinion,” which Hungary received two days ago. In June the Orbán government passed a law on the status of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations that the European Commission considered to be in violation of the right of freedom of association and the protection of private life and personal data, which are safeguarded by the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The law was, they argued, also a breach of the principle of free movement of capital. In July the Commission initiated an infringement procedure, to which the Hungarian government had three months to respond. If the response was unsatisfactory, the Commission would take the next step in this legal process, issuing a “reasoned opinion.” It was this “reasoned opinion” that reached Viktor Orbán’s desk with the message that “if Hungary fails to reply satisfactorily to the reasoned opinion, then the Commission may refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.” In July Hungary also received a reasoned opinion on the higher education law, which disproportionately restricts EU and non-EU universities in their operations.

On October 2 Jean-Claude Juncker invited the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries to a dinner on October 18, which was labelled a “conciliatory” one. But Viktor Orbán, judging from this interview, is girding himself for battle, or at least he is very skeptical that Juncker can offer them anything that will be satisfactory. In any case, Orbán, in his current frame of mind, is not ready for any kind of conciliation. In fact, he has a profound contempt for the whole institution and its politicians, and he finds the European Commission’s legal pronouncements unworthy of serious consideration.

First of all, these two infringement procedures “have nothing to do with the Charter of Fundamental Rights or the European Constitution.” They “smell of politics even from far away.” The opinions issued are “the objects of general derision everywhere in Europe. A sensible lawyer wouldn’t even touch it…. It is clear that this document is the result of a political diktat… A lawyer—how shall I say—can’t even talk about it in all seriousness and without laughing. This is so ridiculous that one doesn’t even know what to do with it…. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument is about the free movement of capital. What does a donation have to do with the free movement of capital? These are ridiculous things…. If we accepted them, we would become laughing stocks. This is a serious country which even after a month of deliberation cannot say more than that this whole thing is ridiculous. Therefore, the case will end up in court.“ Orbán’s conclusion is that “the people like the European Union but they can’t stand its leadership.”

Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward European Union politicians and administrators is well illustrated by his story about the European Parliament’s delegation that visited Hungary about a week ago to assess some EU-funded projects. During the course of their visit members of the delegation went to see one of Orbán’s pet projects, the narrow-gauged train built in Felcsút, the village where he spent his first 14 years. The delegation found everything in perfect order. Why did they come in the first place?, Orbán asked. Because “they must occupy themselves with something while we are defending Europe instead of them.” These no-good MEPs attack the valiant Hungarians whose soldiers and policemen defend Europe. But he doesn’t give a fig.

After this diatribe he moved on to the Soros network and the Soros “plan,” introducing some new elements and twists. One is that his government was the one that “accomplished a very important task. It uncovered “the network of George Soros which until now had been hidden.” He declared that Fidesz politicians will daily prove the connection between the European Parliament’s committee that is investigating the Hungarian government’s undemocratic ways, which may lead to the triggering of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, and George Soros. Because all the members of the committee are Soros’s men. “They are his allies who eat out of his hand.” The report they write will reflect Soros’s conclusions. The cards are stacked against Hungary. The Soros “plan” works.

Orbán came up with an entirely new interpretation of the origin of the Soros “plan.” In his opinion, it was a direct answer to his own plan, which he submitted to the European Union as a solution to the migration crisis. Although it is not entirely clear, I suspect he is talking about Soros’s 2016 essay “This is Europe’s last chance to fix its refugee policy.” Orbán recalled that he had published a comprehensive plan at the height of the crisis, which consisted of several points outlining “how Europe should be defended, offering some solutions.” At this very moment, “as an answer,” Soros made public another plan that had several points just like his. Instead of his own ideas, it was this Soros “plan” that was adopted by the European Union. Brussels will deny this, but it is time to let the bureaucrats know that “Hungary is not a country of imbeciles.” They know what’s going on. The EU politicians cannot pretend that all this is just a coincidence. Hungarians “are not simpletons.” On the contrary. They know that “George Soros bought people, organizations … and that Brussels is under his influence. As far as immigration policy goes, the Brussels machinery is carrying out Soros’s plan. They want to dismantle the fence; they want to bring in millions of immigrants; and they want to forcibly disperse them among the member states. And they want to punish those who don’t submit.”

Orbán apparently “smiled mysteriously” when the reporter referred to the “friendly dinner” the Visegrád 4 countries will have with Jean-Claude Juncker. He indicated that he is not sure the meeting will be all that friendly. Of course, we know that Viktor Orbán behaves differently in Budapest and in Brussels. Perhaps today’s tiger will be a bunny rabbit by October 18.

October 6, 2017