Tag Archives: European Union

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

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.

It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.

Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”

A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.

In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.

He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.

Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.

There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.

Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.

September 13, 2017