Tag Archives: European Union

Orbán: “one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is”

Anyone who has the patience to sit through 40 minutes of a bad English translation of the joint press conference given by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán can’t help noticing that the two politicians were not in the best of moods. Two years ago, during Putin’s last visit, Orbán was glowing. This time he was somber and so was Putin. Commentators who claim that the whole trip was nothing more than an opportunity for Putin to show that he is welcome in a country belonging to the European Union and for Orbán to demonstrate that he has an important ally were most likely wrong. Something happened during the negotiations between the two leaders that was disturbing, especially for Viktor Orbán.

But first, let’s see what issues the Russian partner wanted to discuss during Putin’s visit to Budapest. According to a summary issued by the Russian foreign ministry, from the Russian point of view the financing and construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant extension had absolute priority. Rebuilding the old Soviet-made metro trains on the M3 line came next in importance, a project that is already underway. In addition, it looks as if Russia is eyeing the project of reconstructing the M3 line in lieu of the €120 million Hungary owes Russia as a result of the bankruptcy of the jointly owned MALÉV. Moscow also wants Hungary to show more interest in cultural matters pertaining to Russia. The ministry’s communiqué noted with satisfaction that there is a revival of interest in the Russian language. As for bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, the document was vague.

Péter Szijjártó while in Moscow assured Sergey Lavrov of Hungary’s plans to promote Russian culture in Hungary. He announced that Leo Tolstoy will soon have a statue and a street named after him in Budapest. He revealed that the Hungarian government will spend a considerable amount of money on the restoration of three Orthodox churches in the country. As for Hungarian investments, Szijjártó specifically mentioned Hungarian technological investments in the field of agriculture and construction. In addition, he brought up a few projects allegedly under construction and financed by the Hungarian Eximbank.

Not mentioned among the items Hungary is offering to Russia was a memorial that was just unveiled in Esztergom. Even though if Orbán had a free hand he would gladly remove the Soviet memorial on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), his government accepted a statue, “The Angel of Peace,” done by a Russia sculptor, Vladimir Surovtsev. The statue was erected in Esztergom because it was in the outskirts of that city that, during World War I, a huge camp for prisoners of war was set up. More than 60,000 soldiers–Russians, Serbs, and Italians–spent years there, at first in miserable conditions. Cholera took many lives. To erect a memorial to commemorate the dead and the sufferers is certainly appropriate. What is less logical is that the Russian NGO responsible for the project insisted on including a reference to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in and around Esztergom during 1944-1945. In any event, Vladimir N. Sergeev, Russia’s ambassador in Budapest, said at the ceremony: “It is symbolic that the unveiling of the statue takes place at the time of the Russian president’s visit to Hungary. This shows how important and how strong our cooperation is.”

Perhaps, but it may not have been on display during the meeting between Putin and Orbán, especially when they were discussing Paks II. That the financing of the nuclear power plant was on the agenda was most likely a fact that Viktor Orbán was not eager to share with the public. But his Russian friend practically forced him to reveal it. It was not a friendly gesture.

Let me describe the circumstances in which the incident took place. A journalist from the by-now completely servile Origo asked Viktor Orbán whether the question of financing Paks II was discussed during the conversation. The reason for his question was the Hungarian government’s repeated assertion that by now Hungary could, unlike back in 2014, finance the project on the open market at a lower interest rate than Hungary is currently paying on the Russian loan. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, in fact indicated that the government was ready to renegotiate the deal. As it stands now, in the first seven years the interest rate on the loan is 4.50%, for the second seven years it is 4.80%, and in the last seven years it is 4.95%. According to Népszava’s calculation, the interest on the loan is approximately 300 billion forints a year, or one percent of Hungary’s GDP.

Orbán flatly denied that the question of financing (or refinancing) had come up. However, about one minute later when Putin took over from Orbán, he announced that he had “informed the prime minister that Russia is ready to finance not only 80% but even 100% of the project.” So, he contradicted Orbán, practically calling his host a liar. It seems that the Hungarian request or demand to renegotiate the loan was discussed and rejected. Instead, Putin offered him an even larger loan by way of compensation.

Perhaps here I should bring up a baffling statement that Orbán made. When he was asked by the reporter from MTV’s M1 about the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena, Orbán’s answer was: “Russia and Hungary move in different dimensions when it comes to geopolitical, military, and diplomatic questions. To my mind, one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is.” Is it possible that this rather bitter observation had something to do with Orbán’s less than pleasant conversation with Putin? Did he realize that there is no way out of Putin’s deadly embrace? Perhaps.

Of course, it is possible that Orbán, who is not the kind of man who readily admits that he made a mistake, will just go on merrily forging even closer relations with Russia. On the other hand, he may realize that he is not in a position to be a successful mediator between Russia and the rest of the western world.

As usual, it is hard to tell where Orbán stands only a day or two after his meeting with Putin. He was one of those EU leaders who “pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet” at the European Council summit in Valletta, Malta yesterday even though before his arrival he announced that the U.S. has the right to decide its own border control policy and that “he is puzzled at the ‘neurotic European reactions’ over the travel ban.” Nonetheless, behind closed doors he joined the others who were united in their condemnation of Donald Trumps’ comments and attitudes toward the European Union. François Hollande was one of the most vocal critics of Trump at the meeting and, when asked what he thought of EU leaders who are leaning toward Trump, he said that “those who want to forge bilateral ties with the U.S. … must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.” Orbán should understand that, having lost his battle with Putin over the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. We will see how he decides.

February 4, 2017

Sebastian L. von Gorka’s encounter with the Hungarian National Security Office

I’m sure that many of Hungarian Spectrum’s readers were expecting me to write about the Putin visit to Budapest, but only a few hours after Putin’s airplanes, all three of them, landed at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport I cannot say anything meaningful about the much heralded visit except that it cost the Hungarian taxpayers an immense amount of money. The cost of official visits must be borne by the host country.

It is hard to know precisely what benefits Vladimir Putin expects to reap from his Hungarian visits. As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, however, they must boost his ego. It doesn’t happen too often that the Russian president pays an official visit to a member state of the European Union. In fact, it is extremely rare. In the last two years there were only two such visits: in February 2015 to Hungary and in May 2016 to Greece. The Greek visit, just like, I believe, Putin’s trip to Hungary today, had something to do with Putin’s eagerness to have the crippling economic sanctions against his country lifted. Perhaps he was hoping for a Greek veto as now he is hoping for Orbán’s assistance. Whether he succeeded this time around in convincing the Hungarian prime minister to veto the renewal of sanctions against Russia is not at all sure. Orbán usually talks a lot about the sanctions’ harmful effects on Hungary, but when the chips are down he votes with the rest of his colleagues in the European Council.

So, instead of the Putin visit, I am returning to the Sebastian Gorka story. There are details about Gorka’s life in Hungary that might shed additional light on the qualifications and trustworthiness of Donald Trump’s new deputy assistant.

Gorka himself has revealed very little about his life in Hungary, although he spent 16 years in the country, arriving in 1992 and leaving in 2008. In 2002, however, his name was all over the Hungarian media. There were strong suspicions that Gorka was a spy working for British counterintelligence. How did such rumors emerge?

It was in June 2002 that Magyar Nemzet, then affiliated with Fidesz, which had just lost the election, revealed that Péter Medgyessy, the new prime minister of the country, was a counterespionage officer in the 1980s during the Kádár regime. Fidesz naturally insisted on setting up a special parliamentary committee to investigate Medgyessy’s role as a counterintelligence officer. Fidesz recommended Sebastian Gorka as one of its experts on such matters. The other recommendation was Gábor Kiszely, a right-wing historian whose favorite subject was the history of freemasonry. For the job the participants needed security clearance. The National Security Office (Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal/NH), however, was suspicious of both Gorka and Kiszely. It eventually refused to green light the two experts.

Gorka naturally denied the truthfulness of the media reports. The undersecretary in charge of national security, however, assured the public that, as a precaution, Gorka hadn’t had any opportunity to get to top secret documents in the absence of such clearance. The expert delegated by the government party sailed through the vetting process, but the clearance of Gorka and Kiszely was nowhere. Gorka suspected that the security officials were simply dragging their heels in order to delay matters until the competence of the committee expired in August. To Origo he explained that he had never had anything to do with counterintelligence because he was only “a uniformed member of the British army’s anti-terrorist unit.” As we know from his Wikipedia entry, this was not the case because there we can learn that “at university, he joined the British Territorial Army reserves serving in the Intelligence Corps.” His only duty, he told Origo, was “to measure the possible dangers posed by terrorists,” such as members of the Irish Republican Army. Moreover, Gorka misleadingly renamed his unit “Territorial Army 22 Company” instead of “UK Territorial Army, Intelligence Corps (22),” the correct name, given by Népszabadság at the time and also given in Wikipedia, at least for today.

Now let’s see how László Bartus, currently editor-in-chief of Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, remembers Gorka from those days. Bartus was working as a journalist in Hungary at the time. He claims that it was discovered that Gorka had never attended any institution of higher education. This may have been the case in 2002, but it certainly wasn’t true in 2008 when he received his Ph.D. for a dissertation titled “Content and end-state-based alteration in the practice of political violence since the end of the cold war: The difference between the terrorism of the cold war and the terrorism of Al-Quaeda: The rise of the ‘transcendental terrorist.’” His dissertation adviser was András Lánczi, Viktor Orbán’s favorite political scientist, who became notorious after announcing that “What [the critics of the Orbán regime] call corruption in practical terms is the most important policy goal of Fidesz.” More about Lánczi can be found in my post “András Lánczi: What others call corruption is the raison d’être of Fidesz.” I may add that on the dissertation Gorka’s full name is given as Sebastian L. v. Gorka. So, the brief appearance of his name in Wikipedia as Sebastian Lukács von Gorka was not a mistake.

Kiszely and Gorka were barred from displaying their expertise in counterintelligence because, as some right-winger readers claimed in their comments, they were dual citizens. As for his citizenship, Hungarian newspapers claimed at the time that in addition to his British citizenship, he was also a citizen of the United States. Considering that he got married to an American woman in 1996, he could certainly have held U.S. citizenship by then. However, he hotly denied being a citizen of the country that he now wants to help make great.

Bartus sums up the Hungarian opinion of Gorka: “Then the unanimous opinion was that this man is a fortune hunter and a conman, who wriggles his way in everywhere, where he convinces everybody of his extraordinary expertise, when actually the only thing he is an expert on is extremist incitement. This picture of him among those who knew him in Budapest has not changed since.” Bartus is not surprised that Trump and Gorka found each other since “birds of a feather flock together.”

February 2, 2017

Viktor Orbán misunderstands Donald Trump

Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered this morning at a conference organized by the Hungarian National Bank is still not available in its entirety. Nonetheless, I will try to cover it as fully as possible because of its importance.

First, a few words about the conference itself. György Matolcsy established the Lámfalussy Prize, to be awarded to someone in the field of economics and finance who has done outstanding, internationally recognized work. Alexandre (Sándor) Lámfalussy was a Hungarian-born Belgian economist and central banker, known as the father of the euro, who died in 2015. The first Lámfalussy Prize was given to Ewald Nowotny, chairman of the Austrian central bank, in 2014. A year later the prize was awarded to Benoît Coeuré, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank. Last year it was the Bank for International Settlement with headquarters in Basel that was honored. These prizes are handed out at the Lámfalussy Lectures Conference.

It was on this occasion that Viktor Orbán shared his latest ideas on the state of the world. I consider this speech especially noteworthy because it was Orbán’s first major speech since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

If I had to point to the most frightening message of the speech, it is perhaps the following sentence: “Unipolar Europe must be transformed into a multipolar entity.” Add to that: “We have received authorization from the highest secular place that we are free to put ourselves at the head of the line. What a great thing, what freedom, and what a great gift.” To my mind the first sentence can mean only one thing: the end of the European Union and the return to a divided Europe of smaller and larger nation states. As for the meaning of the second sentence, it is hard to find words to describe my disgust. So, from here on Orbán with the backing of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will destroy Europe? Is this his plan? I’m afraid so.

In the speech he pretty well describes what he is expecting of the new constellation after the arrival of Trump in the White House. First of all, “the end of multilateral trade relations has arrived and the age of bilateral treaties has come.” As a result, “national interest will be at the forefront” of each bilateral negotiation. Each country will be able to follow its own ideas as far as economic policy is concerned. I found a quotation that is fitting in this context. “Isolation and egoism fell on that day of the Treaty of Rome.” Orbán’s ideas aim to bring back the Europe that existed before 1957.

One of his first suggestions is the immediate abandonment of the negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Viktor Orbán will not have to wait long since all details about the TTIP were wiped from the White House website shortly after Trump was sworn in as president. Orbán’s idea is to replace TTIP “with something else,” without explaining what this something else will be. His reason for abandoning multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilateral ones is their unwieldiness. Moreover, it is hard to harmonize national interests within such a huge trade agreement.

I’m afraid, however, that Orbán doesn’t understand what the new American administration’s objection is to multilateral trade agreements. If one can believe Trump’s press secretary, his government “will pursue bilateral trade opportunities with allies around the globe.” What is the problem from the American perspective with multilateral agreements? The press secretary put it bluntly: “When you’re entering into these multi-lateral agreements you’re allowing any country, no matter of the size … to basically have the same stature of the US in the agreement.” Keep that in mind and good luck, Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s criticisms of the European Union are well known, and it is not worth rehashing them here. There was, however, one criticism that deserves notice. He pointed out that none of the goals of the European Union that were promised at the time of Hungary’s negotiations with Brussels has materialized. He specifically mentioned “a Eurasian economic area all the way to Vladivostok.” Clearly, Orbán is still working on a possible Russian-European Union common market.

Another point Orbán made, which should be mentioned, is the EU’s security policy. He seems to be taking NATO’s collapse for granted because he reflected that “Europe would not have been able to defend itself without American help.” The creation of a common EU defense force “mostly depends on a German-French military agreement, which is easier said than done since it has no precedent.” I must admit that I don’t know what Orbán is talking about because post-war Franco-German cooperation is based on the Élysée Treaty, which was signed by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1963. This treaty contained a number of agreements, extending even to military integration.

If Donald Trump delivers what he has been promising for months, and he seems to be doing it at record speed, Viktor Orbán might not be such a happy man as he seems today. He may come to realize that “America First” means just that. Trump will treat other nations, especially smaller ones, accordingly. Then we will see what Orbán will have to say.

January 23, 2017

Hungary as the Orbán family’s private estate

It was almost a year ago that I wrote a post about the then newly launched real estate business of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz.  The young man, when he was barely out of law school, set out to become an entrepreneur. He became part owner of what would soon become a thriving, highly profitable business specializing in LED street lighting technology. His family connection to the prime minister practically ensured his success. One city after the other signed contracts with his firm to modernize its street lighting with funds that came from the European Union. All went well until OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, started to investigate. Tiborcz quickly sold his share in the business and moved on to safer pastures. He and his foreign business partners, like the Saudi Gaith Pharaon and the Turkish Suat Gökhan Karakus, began buying up run-down but valuable pieces of real estate. They especially liked stately mansions.

One of their first purchases was the Schossberger Mansion in Tura, about 50 km from Budapest. Although Tiborcz tried to hide his presence in the company, within a few days 444.hu learned that he was one of the new owners of the mansion. Angelina Jolie so admired the mansion that she used it as one of the sets for her movie “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” Although the purchase price was low (280 million forints), fixing up the place will be a very expensive undertaking. Ten years ago the estimated price was 6 billion forints or $203 million. After seeing a 10-minute video tour of the interior, I’m convinced that the cost of renovating and modernizing the place will be much higher than this old estimate.

Of course, we have no idea of the size of Tiborcz’s stake in this business venture, but it is most likely substantial because sometime in the spring of 2016 Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister, showed up and spent a whole day looking around. As a young man from Tura told the reporter from Bors, “it took a long time because he was shown everything inside.” As far as the locals know, the new owners want to use the former mansion as a luxury hotel.

Work began in March 2016, first on the ten hectare park that surrounds the mansion. By September the workers began refurbishing the interior as well. The mansion, which used to be open to the public as a tourist attraction, had to be closed. Some of the locals were sorry that the castle will be transformed into a luxury hotel, but others were convinced that the Orbán connection will do miracles for the sleepy little town of 8,000 inhabitants.Until now Tura was forgotten by the Orbán government. As a local man told HVG’s reporter: “We will have something here only if Viktor Orbán wants it.”

It looks as if Viktor Orbán, now that his son-in-law is part owner of the Schossberger Mansion, wants it. Tura has hit the jackpot. According to estimates, in the next year or two perhaps as much as 20 billion forints’ worth of investment will arrive in Tura.

In May several online news sites reported that a 2.7 MG geothermal power plant will soon be built. It will produce electricity for 800 houses and will also eventually heat greenhouses on 11 hectares. The water temperature of the geothermal well is 129°C. After this incredibly hot water is used to generate electricity, it cools down to 70°C and will then be used to heat the greenhouses. The water, once it has finished its heating cycle, will be returned underground, an EU requirement. The power plant will cost 5.5 billion forints, half of which will come from the European Union and the rest from a consortium of domestic investors.

Tura until now couldn’t offer much to visitors, but its fortune will soon change thanks to the Orbán family.

By late June work began on the power plant. It is being built by KS Orka Renewables Pte Ltd. of Singapore using technology from Iceland, where 90% of the buildings are heated geothermally. The first greenhouses, which will most likely be ready within a year, will occupy 5.5 hectares at a cost of 2.3 billion forints. Again, half of this sum will come from Brussels. Later, other greenhouses will be built, occupying another 5.5 hectares. Altogether the greenhouse project will cost 4.5 billion forints. The greenhouses are expected to produce 6,300 tons of tomatoes, most of which will be for export. The hope is that the greenhouse businesses will be able to amortize the initial investment over six or seven years. The investors project an eventual annual profit of about seven billion forints. In addition, the greenhouses are expected to employ 170 people. It sounds like a terrific project, assuming the projections are halfway realistic.

But surely, it cannot be a coincidence that Tura suddenly became the recipient of all this largess. The investments were declared to be “priority projects,” meaning urgent and important for the national economy. I should add that most of the money comes from three banks: Eximbank, MKB, and Gránit Bank. The first bank is state owned; MKB is apparently owned by someone close to Fidesz and Orbán; and 49% of Gránit Bank belongs to the Hungarian state. Thus, projects that will make the Schossberger Mansion business venture of Orbán’s son-in-law more viable are being financed mostly by the Hungarian state. It is easy to become a millionaire this way.

January 3, 2017

András Kósa: The speech of the chief, Őszöd ten years later, Part III

Gyurcsány’s attempt to interpret the speech in Őszöd as the beginning of a new era

András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, recently published The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years, a collection of interviews with Ferenc Gyurcsány, former and current politicians, and political commentators. Interest in Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane.

A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, translated the interview with Gyurcsány for publication here. Since the interview was lengthy, I posted it in installments. The first and second have already appeared. This is the final installment.

♦ ♦ ♦

András Kósa: You know Vladimir Putin personally, as you’ve met with him on several occasions. What is the secret of the surprisingly strong relationship between the Russian President and Viktor Orbán?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: To answer this, it has to be noted that in the mid-to-late 2000s, the European Union and the Obama administration viewed Putin as a leader who was democratizing cautiously. During his first visit to Berlin, the entire Bundestag gave him a standing ovation. Then, in the Russian parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, he had to pilfer 17 percentage points to be able to win. In the spring 2012 Presidential election, he again needed to cheat to attain a “victory,” though less so this time. I think these things have changed Putin. He realized that the policies he had pursued up until then did not automatically expand his power, so he launched a campaign of harsh repression at home (including the killing of journalists and political rivals, remaking the Russian criminal code, and restricting the freedom of assembly), and again began to assert the conquering pursuits of Great Russia. I have not changed: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relationship towards him did not change until the summer of 2012. We even met in Moscow with our families then. But I don’t like this Putin now. Orbán, by comparison, has taken the opposite route: when the world trusted Putin more, he was very critical of our cooperation. Then when the world increasingly kept its distance from Putin because of what I said earlier, he became one of his main allies. I think the only thing that’s happened here was that Viktor Orbán was looking for partners for his foreign policy, and he found one in Putin. If I want to go against Brussels (which was Orbán’s big foreign policy shift after 2010), then – being the Prime Minister of a small-medium-sized country – I need partners to do this, and Putin is perfect for it at the moment. The current Polish leadership is also an excellent partner.

Is it “only” this?

The possibility that money and corruption are behind the good relations between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. Maybe it also greases their relationship. But it’s not the main reason.

As Prime Minister, you had insight into intelligence-related matters: would it be possible that the large intelligence agencies, for example Russian or American, could not find out pretty much anything about any kind of personal or perhaps business matter, or the financial situation, of the current Hungarian Prime Minister?

If they wanted to, they could find out pretty much anything. Of this, I have no doubt. If you’re asking whether these agencies are able to find out something that they could blackmail a Hungarian Prime Minister with, then I would say, yes, they could do that. Whether they’d use it or not, I wouldn’t be able to say. I didn’t come across these things during my own time in office. I did have very nasty disputes on energy issues with the American ambassador and with representatives of the government in Washington. They tried to talk me into this, that, and the other, but they didn’t venture beyond putting verbal pressure on me. Experts say that today around 600-800 people in Hungary are definitely working for the KGB in some capacity. This is not a small number. And their capacity is such that if they want to listen in on our phone calls, they can do it. If they want to know where we’re going and when, who we’re having dinner with and what we’re talking about, they can find out. I think that this coterie exerts a substantial influence on the world of Jobbik and Fidesz.

During your time in office, how big was this 600-800 number?

Roughly about half of that.

A two-speed Europe is forming right before our eyes, and for now we Hungarians seem to have a strong role on the periphery. In such a situation, in which we know that aid from the EU will be drastically reduced after 2020, how much can democratic ties loosen in Hungary, as well as in the region as a whole?

They won’t expel us from the European Union, but the processes can only really go in such a way that one group of countries will deepen its cooperation and head towards a federal Europe. While we remain on the periphery, as you said. Not only will they fund less and less of our finances, but also increasingly less attention will be paid to the social and general state of affairs here. Maybe I’m naive (since before 2010 I also didn’t expect that such a radical transformation would occur if Fidesz ever came into power), but I can’t really imagine what more the government could do in such a transformed EU. You can’t turn off the internet. There’s hardly any openness as it is. Under European circumstances, the police can still not just come into my apartment, and the authorities can’t take away my assets and businesses. I think that Fidesz has pretty much gone to the wall. It’s possible, of course that they’ve already figured this out, because what’s happening right before our eyes is a march towards a semi-authoritarian regime. János Kádár’s cloak stretches extremely far in this regard.

What do you mean?

We Hungarians signed on to what we thought was a highly successful, but nevertheless dishonest, historic compromise. Hungary was the only place in Eastern Europe where (in our so-called “soft dictatorship”) there wasn’t open repression that affected the masses. The “happiest barracks” was built on an immoral pact in which the authorities said: there are three things that you can’t touch. There’s a one-party system, 1956 was a counter-revolution, and the Soviet troops in Hungary protect the peace. Otherwise, you are more or less free to live your life, you can travel somewhat, the shoe stores have shoes, the meat shops have meat, and you can even tell political jokes too. This somewhat conflated the oppressor with the oppressed, which is why the majority of the country now reacts so permissively to political tyranny. Viktor Orbán correctly senses that it’s not the lack of democracy that will crush his regime. This issue has remained a cause only for the upper segment of the political class. Poor governance of the country leads to poor performance: healthcare, the educational situation, and a lack of prospects, shockingly low wages, and increasing vulnerability in the workplace – these are much more dangerous to Orbán than the fact that public television has become the television station of the ruling party. They’ll change the channel to something else.

Why is it that in Hungary charges of corruption don’t harm the government?

One reason is that Byzantine culture has maintained itself right up until the present time: if the powers-that-be dip into the common goods but some of it still occasionally comes my way, then I won’t be so strict with the rules all the time on my own level – this itself is in the tradition of Byzantine culture, which can still be found here. Moreover, the entire political class is considered corrupt – so what’s the difference? But there’s a much more tangible reason as well: the public prosecutor here has a monopoly on prosecuting cases. Péter Polt essentially refuses to launch any kind of investigation, so every initiative comes to naught. The system today is itself built upon corruption; it doesn’t have just a speck of corruption, but is its very essence. Everyone in Fidesz knows about it, everyone knows who is corrupt and in what way, but they condone each other’s actions. Finally, it’s because the opposition has not been very successful with these matters. In any case, Péter Juhász, the representative of the Együtt Party, has done more in this area in the past few years than the rest of us put together.

Will you be Prime Minister of Hungary again?

I won’t rule it out.

Would you want it?

I don’t have such a strong desire for it right now. I did have it in 2004, no question. I am grateful to fate for letting me be Hungary’s Prime Minister, but it now also has a strong desire for this democratic and civic alternative which I represent to gain a large base of support. It has a stronger desire for this now than it does to make me Prime Minister once more. I can feel good about imagining my life in a way that I remain a Member of Parliament and not have any higher power than this. But it’s devilishly hard to predict what fate will bring in 2022 or 2026. I’ll be 66 years old in 2026: this is still an active age as a politician. I am fortunate because my ambitions and opportunities are just now coming together.

You were once considered one of the most promising politicians in Hungary after the regime change of 1989, and then your name became associated with one of its biggest scandals. What was this experience like for you?

If I could be objective, I’d say: it’s my personal misfortune. But there’s no anger inside me towards anyone. For those who go into this career, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that such things can happen to you. Looking back, I don’t lament about how much of what happened to me was fair or not. Or how much was my fault, or how much was due to chance or a malicious conspiracy by others.

What was your responsibility?

To start with, I took over the government at the head of a party that I was not compatible with, neither culturally or in terms of mentality. This was encoded into what happened later.

When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party.

When things started to go bad for us after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz owed its success, among other things, to being able to fight its battles as a large singular unit, which we were not capable of. When Orbán gave his ultimatum after the Őszöd speech was leaked, that if they do not remove me as Prime Minister within 72 hours then he would put so much pressure on MSZP that we couldn’t hope to be able to bear it, I naturally called together the leaders of the Socialist Party. And I had to admit that there were some in the leadership who wanted to comply with Orbán’s demand purely out of fear. In that regard, of course, they were honest enough to indicate as much – and so the decision was made for me to ask for a vote of confidence against myself in Parliament. But after this, I felt that the party had completely changed: not standing up for introducing the doctor’s visit fee, not arguing for it or explaining it, but fleeing from it. This showed me that the party could not handle the struggles that I urged them to fight for in the Őszöd speech. I had convinced them right then and there. I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts. If you don’t believe in the story, in the hellish debates, in the struggle – then what is it in politics that you do believe in?

We do love conspiracy theories, so since you’ve already brought up the 72-hour ultimatum of October 2006: many contend that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing position. If he had been slower and more patient then and there, he could even have succeeded with the ruling coalition ridding itself of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after such an ultimatum, MSZP could not have done anything else but reinforce your position three days later in a Parliamentary vote of confidence.

I prefer to believe in the truth contained in a non-public poetic treatise by Orbán that we learned about from the Wikileaks cables, stating, “If you can kill your adversary, and don’t put it off.” I don’t think that today’s Prime Minster, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, delivered this ultimatum in order to keep me in office. He did it because he had assessed the courage of the Socialists pretty well, and he saw a chance that they would back away from me.

There is also an interpretation that you two need each other mutually in a political sense, as a clearly tangible image of each other’s enemy.

I know that to this day there exists this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which really does hold up in two respects. With respect to our origin, we both came from a provincial town and from poverty, and were both first generation intellectuals. But more importantly, we have taken completely opposite routes since coming to Budapest: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite – he felt that they had taken something from him. Even to this day, he views the metropolitan intellectual elite with contempt. But I admired them. The way I saw it, it was like, “Damn, you can live this way too! Then why would I do it any other way?” We’re also alike in that both of us are strong characters who live for politics. This is true. But there are no similarities between our respective visions. Nor between the systems that we want to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European-minded democrat, and I even saw very many things in him to admire. But from then on he has become an increasingly authoritarian figure who left behind everything about him that was respectable. I came from the youth organization of the state party, so there’s no doubt that he could label me a “communist” (while even before the regime change we had said that we wanted a multi-party system, just more cautiously and slowly, unlike Fidesz at the time), but on this basis I became a wholehearted democrat.

It is said that the reason why Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico understand each other so well (though they have different ideologies within their party’s family structure) is because both are opportunistic, populist politicians who always view a particular situation in terms of the techniques of power, and analyze how to exploit it to their benefit. After Fico was elected as Prime Minister for the second time (freeing himself from the nationalist Slovak National Party), he was able to “turn towards Europe” after 2012 and develop good relations with Brussels. Do you think Viktor Orbán would also be capable of the same in a particular situation?

I wouldn’t rule it out. The turnabout he did in Hungarian-Russian relations in connection with expanding the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant, in a very short time and managed so successfully (the right-wing voting base, having previously been extremely suspicious towards the Russians, adopted a basically pro-Russian stance two months later, according to polling) speaks for itself. I do absolve Orbán on a very small point, and can self-critically say: it is of course important to be principally and morally committed in politics (which I think I still represent to this day), but it should not be taken too far. I took it too far. It’s perfectly normal for a politician to think about what his voters give him a mandate to do and not to do, no matter how correct he may be. When Orbán said to the Christian Democrats, “However right you are in regards to banning abortion, no matter how much it may be your fundamental position as a principled Christian, if we do this we’ll lose the elections,” I think he was completely right to say it. It wasn’t that I thought: “These Hungarians have become accustomed to free health care while they hand out gratuity money to doctors. I have to convince them to do things differently.” But before that point I should have thought about whether I could convince them, and if not, what good would it do if I lost and then they change it back? Because then I didn’t do anything. I was proud that I fought to justify myself even against the will of the majority. Viktor Orbán pushes terribly hard for the other half of this matter: he is capable of nearly any compromise on principle for the stabilization and extension of his power. Of course, he doesn’t rely on the discretion of the people, so he dismantles institutions that provide a check on democracy: even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to stop his intentions.

However, as a wealthy businessman, you sometimes say things like you know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, which it’s better to live poorly but honestly…

Why wouldn’t I able to know? A doctor doesn’t have to have a backache to be able to feel his patient’s pain. A teacher doesn’t have to be an idiot to be able to feel the suffering that his weakest student goes through studying for the next day’s lesson. A politician doesn’t have to live in misery to understand that public goods should be distributed on the basis of social justice. And I haven’t even spoken about coming from an apartment with a kitchenette, where our toilet was in the outer corridor, or a Christmas when we didn’t even have a donut to eat. And I don’t even have to add that a large part of my family still lives a life that is not even lower-middle class, but one beneath that. People I regularly get together with. I consider this comment a cheap intellectual slur if I ever happen to see it.

Do you have any personal relationships with right-wing politicians or opinion makers?

None.

Do you think this is normal?

Of course not. But this is because of a deliberate division of the country into two on Orbán’s behalf. We go along hearing phrases (from Orbán) like “the homeland cannot be in opposition,” while these are the most severe words you can say. This statement means that you do not consider another’s political existence as natural. You consider the other political side as an error that must be eliminated, and with their elimination you have less and less moral compunction. This is the endpoint of this process. And in turn, Viktor Orbán’s responsibility for making this concept more and more acceptable to the country cannot be overstated.

How do you think this final/fatal mutual distrust can be overcome? And would this generation be at all capable of doing it?

Certainly not with Orbán. The preamble to the current Hungarian constitution condemns the entire Hungarian left. Which is absurd. But I also do not think that a majority of Fidesz supporters and some of its leaders would not want a world that is much more relaxed than the one we have now.

Where do you think the country is now, ten years after Őszöd?

In its moral state ten years before Őszöd – I mean that it is in worse shape than before 2006. But Őszöd is not the primary cause of the moral deterioration. It’s a different issue whether it helped open up the way to letting what the authorities are now doing to the country hide in the cloak of legality. There is now a terrible atmosphere in the country, without any large, shared positive experiences or successes.

December 24, 2016

Another summit, another battle: Viktor Orbán forges on

In this post I’m covering an unfinished story: the Brussels summit of the European Council that is taking place today and tomorrow. I believe, however, that I have enough Hungarian material to make some tentative predictions about the outcome as far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned.

First, I want to emphasize that today’s summit looks very different from Budapest than it does from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. The western media considers this particular meeting to be “a minefield” of “sensitive, explosive” stuff, but the topics so identified bear no resemblance to the ones described in the Hungarian press. The top challenges, seen from the West, are sanctions against Russia, the situations in Ukraine and Syria, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Naturally, the migrant crisis will also be on the agenda, with the discussion centering on how to stop further migration from the Libyan coast to Italy.

Someone who relies exclusively on Hungarian sources would be surprised to hear this because Viktor Orbán’s clever propaganda machine has shifted the emphasis to topics that best serve his political interests at home. He is moving onto a battlefield populated with his self-created phantoms.

What do I mean by this? Orbán has been making sure that everybody in Hungary understands that he will wage a life and death struggle against compulsory quotas. Every important government official in the last few days has stressed that the “pressure” on Hungary is tremendous. The prime minister left Hungary this morning with the firm resolve to veto such a resolution. He will fight to the bitter end. Since the question of compulsory quotas will most likely not be on the agenda, it is an empty resolve. He can come out of the meeting and announce to the few Hungarian journalists waiting for him that he successfully defended the country from the Muslim peril, at least for the time being.

Orbán obviously thinks that the idea of Hungary, a small country but one that can threaten the mighty European Union with a veto, resonates at home. He made sure that everybody understands the significance of such a move. The Fidesz and KDNP parliamentary delegations specifically asked the prime minister to veto such a resolution if necessary, reinforcing the gravity of the situation. Of course, it was the prime minister’s office that gave the orders to the delegations and not the other way around.

For good measure, Orbán also threw in another issue he was going to fight for in Brussels: the European Union’s alleged decision to abolish government-set prices for electricity retailers. Initially, the plan was to lift price controls over a five-year period, but lately the word is that, once the proposal is accepted, it will be introduced immediately. Such a move would tie the hands of the Orbán government, which in the last three years has been using price controls as an effective way to lower prices and thus gain popularity. But as far as I know, the issue will not be discussed at the meeting. And for the time being, it is just a proposal. To become law the support of both the European Parliament and the qualified majority of the European Council is necessary.

Once Orbán arrived in Brussels he immediately began to trumpet his own importance to the Hungarian journalists waiting for him. Back in October in Vienna he proposed the establishment of guarded refugee camps under EU military control, an idea that was flatly rejected by the countries present at the meeting. Since then he has somewhat modified his original idea and is now just talking about refugee camps financed by the European Union situated in Libya and Egypt. He admitted during this short press conference that his proposal hasn’t been accepted yet by the majority, but he indicated that he is optimistic that his suggestion will soon be supported by most of the member states. He is equally optimistic about another suggestion of his: “the return of migrants rescued from the sea to wherever they came from.” The defense of borders he demanded was once a “forbidden point of view,” but by today attitudes have changed and “it has become a recognized common task.”

Viktor Orbán enjoying the limelight / Source: MTI/EPA

Orbán’s Hungarian critics believe that the prime minister has arrived in Brussels significantly weakened after his recent domestic setbacks. Despite the incredible amount of money spent to achieve a valid referendum on the compulsory quota question, Orbán ended up with a large majority but, because of lackluster voter turnout, an invalid referendum. Nonetheless, he went ahead with his plan to amend the constitution, allegedly to prevent the settlement of large numbers of unwanted foreigners in the country. But he was thwarted in this effort by Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, an extremist party that has been trying with varying degrees of success to become a respectable right-of-center party.

Orbán therefore can’t portray himself as the voice of a groundswell of anti-migrant sentiment. The Hungarian voters didn’t give him a mandate, nor did the Hungarian parliament. And the Visegrád countries are no longer solidly behind him.

Instead, Orbán seems to be grasping at straws. For example, he urged Hungary’s mayors to sign a letter addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, which the mayor of Kaposvár, Károly Szita, a devout Fidesz loyalist, would like to hand to the president of the European Commission in person.

Perhaps tomorrow we will learn how much of Orbán’s agenda was approved by the European Council. Personally, I don’t think it’s a cliffhanger.

December 15, 2016

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016