Tag Archives: Frans Timmermans

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

What changed Orbán’s mind on the Dublin III Regulation?

It says a lot about the state of affairs in Hungary that the Hungarian media and hence the Hungarian public had to learn from an Austrian newspaper that the Hungarian government had repealed the Dublin III Regulation governing refugee policy within the European Union for an unspecified length of time because of “technical difficulties.”

In an “exclusive” article the Austrian Die Presse revealed late yesterday evening that “the Hungarian Ministry of Interior has informed the authorities in Vienna of its refusal to accept any refugees who have crossed through Hungary and moved on the other member states.” The same message was sent to Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Slovakia, and Germany. Government spokesman  Zoltán Kovács, who was interviewed by Die Presse, explained that Hungary is looking after 3,000 refugees already, and “the boat is full.” The country cannot take any more refugees. The Austrian Foreign Ministry called in the Hungarian ambassador for consultation.

Brussels’s reaction to Hungary’s unilateral suspension of the Dublin agreement was immediate and surprisingly sharp. The European Commission asked for “an immediate clarification” of the nature and extent of the “technical difficulties” and expressed its dismay at Hungary’s unilateral decision on the matter. Die Presse‘s take on Viktor Orbán’s latest assault on the legal structure of the European Union was that he wanted to put pressure on the European Union before the Brussels summit scheduled for Thursday.

Hungarian journalists, who tried to find out more about the EU reaction in Brussels, learned that a unilateral move in contravention of a hard-and-fast rule such as Dublin III is unheard of. What Hungary could do if it is unable to fulfill its obligations is to ask for additional financial assistance. Mind you, it will be difficult to argue that Hungary is overburdened by refugees returned from western countries when their number over the last year was 827. One possible outcome of Viktor Orbán’s “naughtiness” will be another useless infringement procedure, although the Demokratikus Koalíció also suggested that Hungary’s refusal to cooperate might mean a loss of EU subsidies that are earmarked for the upkeep of refugees while their cases are being investigated.

That was the situation last night. This morning the ministry of interior, which is responsible for handling the refugee issue and was the one that informed a score of countries of Hungary’s decision, changed its story. What the ministry said last night was “misunderstood.” Hungary is not planning to abrogate the Dublin agreement. The government is simply asking for “a little patience.” According to EU standards, Hungary has accommodations for only 1,500 people, but 3,500-4,000 refugees are currently in the country. According to the ministry of interior, the western countries would like to send 600-700 people back to Hungary, and the government is asking for “technical patience,” whatever that means, only in their case.

In addition, this morning the cabinet held a meeting after which Péter Szijjártó, the foreign minister, gave a brief press conference during which they reiterated this latest version of Hungary’s policy on the refugee issue. Any suspension of the EU rule is out of the question. The Hungarian government will “begin consultations with the first deputy president of the EU,” Frans Timmermans.

Whatever happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning, it had to be something that made a strong impression on Viktor Orbán and his crew. Moreover, it is doubtful that the idea of “consultations” was initiated by the Hungarian government. More likely than not, Timmermans strongly urged Szijjártó & Co. to report to him on Hungary’s policy. I wish Szijjártó the best of luck in trying to explain the exact position of the government on the matter. At the moment the messages coming from various ministries are so confusing that I doubt that even top government officials know what the real situation is.

In Brussels the Hungarian government most likely will try to argue that those refugees who come to Hungary through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia are coming from “safe”countries and therefore are not eligible for protection on the territory of Hungary. I doubt that this argument will float. Admittedly, the Dublin III agreement is unfair in the sense that certain countries, like Hungary and very soon Slovenia and Croatia, have to carry most of the burden of the overland refugee explosion. But, under the present circumstances, the best Hungary can hope for is financial and personnel assistance in dealing with the refugees.

Otherwise, the government is proceeding with its plans to build a fence along the Serbian border, which many western politicians condemn as an act that might create a chain reaction. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking in the Italian senate, said that “those of us who saw the destruction of walls will have to be the ones who prevent the raising of such walls again in Europe.” Szijjártó announced that, if necessary, they will erect fences not only between Hungary and Serbia but between Hungary and other countries as well. I wonder which countries he has in mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government extended the fence toward the west, along certain parts of the Croatian-Hungarian border.

Great efforts are also being made to catch refugees. Thousands of policemen are already patrolling the Serbian-Hungarian border. Today a huge police raid was conducted in Szeged, apparently prompted by the complaints of some residents about refugees hiding in the city. One such helpful citizen was interviewed this morning on TV2. She is an older woman who spends her entire day along the border, searching for refugees and handing them over to the police. Today’s police raid was successful. By 4 p.m. 728 refugees had been rounded up just in the city of Szeged.

MTI / Zoltán Gergely Kelemen

MTI / Zoltán Gergely Kelemen

László Toroczkai, the infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities and who became mayor of Ásotthalom in 2013, created a “civil guard” of about 15 volunteers who patrol and alert the local police. A reporter for the Irish Times encountered Toroczkai, who said that sometimes the refugees “break into an empty farmhouse to sleep or change clothes. But occasionally the owner comes back when they’re inside–and who would be pleased to find an Afghan or African family in their home like that?” A reporter from Al Jazeera experienced first hand the prejudice of Hungarians. He described a young woman reporter, most likely from the state television station, who “speaks of [the refugees] to us as though they are vermin.”

Viktor Orbán’s policy, which was sold as defending Hungarians from dangerous strangers, resonates with about 75% of the population. And so it is not surprising that, according to the latest opinion poll, Fidesz has rebounded, turning around the downward trend in its support over the past few months. The refugee issue was a godsend to Viktor Orbán.

The Christian, national government’s heart is merciful: Orbán in Strasbourg

I just finished listening to the hearing on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations” organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. I’m not yet ready to comment on it, except to say that it was an excellent forum for the Republicans to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to applaud Viktor Orbán.

Hungary was also the topic of another debate today, this time in Strasbourg in the plenary session of the European Parliament. It was only yesterday that Viktor Orbán announced his intention to attend in order to defend Hungary.

Before his appearance in the chamber, he gave a press conference in which he marshaled his usual arguments for a discussion on capital punishment, which may last a whole decade. I guess he is ready to fight at least ten years to convince the members of the European Union to reinstate the death penalty. As for immigration, Orbán explained the reasons for Hungary’s refusal even to entertain the idea of allowing immigrants inside the country. Some countries, he said (presumably Great Britain, France, and perhaps the Netherlands), had been colonial powers and as such are accustomed to multiculturalism. Hungary, on the other hand, was never a colonial power, and therefore for Hungarians multiculturalism is a foreign idea. When I heard this, I broke out in laughter. Hungary for centuries and centuries was a multinational state in which half of the population was non-Hungarian. The country’s population was made up of Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Ruthenians, Germans, Slovenes, Yiddish-speaking Jews, Croats, shall I continue? Didn’t each of these groups have its own culture? Weren’t the people of Austria-Hungary accustomed to living side by side with people of different cultures? In fact, as far as its mixture of nationalities was concerned, Austria-Hungary was something of a mini-European Union. I assume, however, that for Orbán these cultural differences were minor. After all, most of the country’s citizens were steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and virtually all of them were white. Not like the “barbarians at the gate” of Hungary now.

The debate started with a short speech by Frans Timmermans, who was very critical of Orbán’s use of scare tactics as far as immigrants and refugees are concerned. If Hungary does not abide by the constitution of the European Union, the European Commission will not hesitate to use sanctions that are at its disposal as spelled out in Article II of the EU Constitution. Fidesz MEP Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, interpreted Timmermans’s words as a threat and bitterly complained about restrictions placed on the right to open discussion about certain subjects. Most of the representatives who spoke during the debate preceding Orbán’s speech argued against the idea of bringing up the subject, which they consider to be one of the fundamental values of the Union. As Sophia in ‘t Veld, a liberal MEP, said, such a debate would be a short one: “we condemn it, the European Union condemns it. That’s it.” Throwing the issue of capital punishment into the debate was intended to divert attention away from the main issue, the “national consultation” on immigration, which might be at odds with the fundamental values of the European Union. During the debate, the “national consultation” was described as a kind of “poisoning of the minds,” which some considered outright shocking. There was only one man who tried to defend Viktor Orbán–Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party, although his defense was feeble. After praising the great economic achievements of the Hungarian government, the only thing he could muster in Orbán’s defense was that talking about immigration is appropriate because two-thirds of the immigrants are turned away.

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Then came Orbán, who as usual started on an ironic note. He found it flattering that the members of the European Parliament were devoting a lengthy discussion to the Hungarian situation. There could be reasons for such a discussion in the European Parliament–for example, the great Hungarian successes of late, but alas, he said, this is not the reason he has to be in Strasbourg. He was pleased to hear that the European Union is interested in order, public safety, and immigration, but these problems are not Hungarian problems. They are European problems. The only reason that Hungary is the target is because “Hungarians like straight talk, [they] don’t like babble and equivocation,” said the man who is the master of double talk. Hungarians will openly say what they want: “Europe should remain European, and we want to keep Magyarország magyar.” For those readers who don’t know Hungarian, “Magyarország” means “Hungary.” So, Hungary should remain ethnically pure. If we take Viktor Orbán at his word, no foreigner, regardless of where he comes from, is welcome in Hungary. Otherwise, he called the European Union’s proposal on a quota system to deal with those who receive political asylum “absurd, close to madness.” Hungarians themselves will decide what to do with their illegal immigrants.

Finally, he closed his five-minute speech by arguing for a discussion about the death penalty, the prohibition of which is “after all not carved in stone by the gods.” After Orbán finished his speech, Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, replied with a single sentence: “but there is such a divine commandment as ‘You shall not murder.'” Although the debate continued, this was best possible answer to this great Christian who only a few minutes earlier explained that his “government is Christian and national, [in whose] heart there is mercy.”

Paks, the European Union, and the Russian threat

It looks to me as if Viktor Orbán has managed to maneuver his country into an untenable position between Russia and the European Union. It has taken five years, but he has succeeded in making Hungary the target of both Moscow and Brussels.

First, he tested the patience of the European Union, which under José Manuel Barroso’s presidency seemed infinite. After a while, drunken with success, he imagined himself to be a statesman who could be an equal player on the world stage with the leaders of the dominant EU countries.

At first, he was satisfied with waging verbal battles with unsuspecting western diplomats unaccustomed to Viktor Orbán’s way of dealing with those who stand in his way. Later, he decided to solicit “an ally” who would add weight to his words. The desired Hungarian “sovereignty,” in his myopic worldview, could be achieved by balancing Russia against the European Union.

Viktor Orbán did not realize that the world around him had changed in some fundamental ways. Vladimir Putin had over the years acquired the unsavory reputation of being a reactionary autocrat, one of the many his country managed to produce over the centuries. As far as the West was concerned, doing business with Russia was fine, but having cozy relations with the lord of the Kremlin was definitely not. And Orbán in his usual fashion went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin, just as he did with the leaders of China while the West watched warily. Their concern only grew when Putin annexed the Crimea and incited a rebellion in the mostly Russian-inhabited areas of Ukraine. But it was too late for the EU. Orbán had already committed his country to having Rosatom build two new nuclear reactors with the help of a Russian loan. And it was also too late for Viktor Orbán. His quest for an “independent” Hungarian foreign policy was doomed as soon as it became apparent that the West would not take the Russian aggression against Ukraine lying down.

It wasn’t only the Russian-Ukraianian conflict that changed the political landscape. There was something else that Orbán didn’t take into consideration. Last November Barroso’s presidency came to an end and with it perhaps Brussels’ lackadaisical attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s antics. The front runner, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the worst possible choice as far as the Hungarian prime minister was concerned. Orbán, following David Cameron of Great Britain, voted against him in the European Council, but the two of them remained in the minority. The reason for Orbán’s opposition was that it was known that Juncker supports a stronger,  more unified European Union, the last thing Orbán wants. What was even more worrisome was that Junker named Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands to be his first deputy, and Timmermans was known to be an outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal views. Orbán found himself in a very uncomfortable position because there were signs that the European Union, with an entirely new leadership, would at last crack down on Hungary’s repeated infringements of EU laws.

This change in attitude on the part of the EU might finally have arrived. Those familiar with Viktor Orbán’s political tactics might consider his references to the death penalty no more than a PR move to boost his flagging popularity and steal votes from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, but I think it was one of the issues that made the European leaders have second thoughts about giving Orbán so much leeway. In addition to withholding billions of euros from Hungary, this is the first time that an official of the European Commission talked about Article 7 as a real option in connection with Hungary for “solving crises and in the interest of holding on to the values of the European Union.”

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Kiriyenko, May 5, 2015 TAA / Photo Alexey Nikolsky

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Kiriyenko, May 5, 2015
TASS / Photo Alexey Nikolsky

And now comes Vladimir Putin’s bizarre conversation with Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom. First of all, although this conversation took place in Putin’s office and looks like a private conversation, it was shown on Russia’s state television. Surely, it was meant to be a message for a wider audience. The conversation was about the Paks nuclear power plant. According to Putin, “we offer good terms and advanced technology, so, if the partner is forced to refuse [to cooperate], which they could have done, it would be damaging to Hungary’s national interests.” Kiriyenko assures Putin that “we have received confirmation from the government of Hungary that all the agreements are in force on a wide range of projects…. Everything has been confirmed and coordinated and the contract is coming into effect.”

Practically all the Hungarian media interpreted Putin’s words as a threat to Hungary. One exception was the official “Híradó” (News), which provides news to Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. There the headline read:”Putin is worried about Hungarian national interests.” The other exception was “Pesti srácok” (Kids of Pest), a far-right Fidesz Internet site, which claimed that “Putin is satisfied with the Hungarian government’s stand against the European Union,” a blatant misinterpretation of the conversation between the two men.

Although the available translations are rather poor and the subordinate clause “which they could have done” is not at all clear, I believe that Putin either suspects or knows that the European Union has already put pressure on Hungary and that Hungary might have to abandon the project. János Lázár has repeatedly assured the country that all is well and that work will begin on time, but these assurances were probably not grounded in reality. Although Euratom eventually approved the plan to have Russia supply fuel rods for the new reactors, there are still serious hurdles for Hungary to overcome. Negotiations are in progress and, judging from Putin’s unusual “conversation” with Kiriyenko, they might not be going well.

Not surprisingly, the Orbán government didn’t respond to Putin’s warning to Hungary and the European Union. Most likely the spin doctors are planning an appropriate response and perhaps tomorrow János Lázár, in his usual Thursday morning press conference, will say that all is well with Paks, the European Union, and Rosatom and that he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

Hungarian social scientists protest Viktor Orbán’s “National Consultation”

Below you will find a statement signed by a number of Hungarian sociologists who strongly object to the questionnaire the Hungarian government designed for the alleged purpose of gauging Hungarian public attitude toward refugees and immigrants. The twelve questions can be found in an earlier post.

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, wrote about this questionnaire on Facebook:

Public consultation can be an important tool for governments and other public authorities to develop policies that can count on support of the population. In this context, it is entirely up to the Hungarian authorities if they want to consult the people on migration. But a public consultation based on bias, on leading and even misleading questions, on prejudice about immigrants can hardly be considered a fair and objective basis for designing sound policies. Framing immigration in the context of terrorism, depicting migrants as a threat to jobs and the livelihood of people, is malicious and simply wrong – it will only feed misconceptions and prejudice. It will create and fuel negative attitudes towards minorities and it will stimulate confrontation between different groups in society. It is wilfully misleading to present migrants only as a burden to our economies and societies, without any mention of their contribution. When we address the many challenges posed by migration today, we must look at the issue in a frank, open and balanced way. We should not close our eyes to the sometimes serious challenges posed by migration in our societies. But in doing so, we should never lose sight of our fundamental values and of the need to preserve a pluralist and diverse society, based on mutual respect and equal treatment of every individual.

Professionals familiar with designing public opinion surveys agree and strongly object to this kind of manipulation.

Anyone who’s interested in joining the undersigned can add his or her signature to the list of names below at http://www.peticiok.com/tarsadalomkutatok_a_nemzeti_konzultaciorol

Johannes Sadeler, Hell, 1590

Johannes Sadeler, Hell, 1590

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Social scientists on the National Consultation

The questionnaire for the National Consultation about “immigration and terrorism” – posted on the Hungarian government’s webpage with the intention of being mailed to all citizens in the coming weeks -, similarly to previous consultations of this sort, is a tool of political mobilization concealed as public opinion research. Even if we ignored the widely disputed substantive content of the questions, it remains apparent that the questionnaire was put together in total disregard of the methodological canons of public opinion research. We understand that the authors of the questionnaire did not intend to play by the rules of scholarly research, but we feel obliged to bring the attention of the public to the unprofessional, manipulative character of the questions.

  1. The questionnaire adopts a graded response scale, which is characteristic for public opinion surveys. Such response scales can use even- or odd-number response options, but must maintain neutrality and balance with respect to the statement that they record the responses to. The response scales used in the planned “National Consultation” do not comply with this requirement. They also offer three response options, but the middle one is not a neutral (e.g. “neither agree nor disagree”) option but a hesitant approval. Thus, if undecided respondents tick this middle option, or some respondents pick their responses at random, they both help to make the statement in the question – invariably the policy opinion adopted by the government – appear to be the choice of the majority, even if that was not the case.
  2. It is standard practice in public opinion research to introduce questions by saying that “Some people think … [something], while others think … [the opposite]”. This is useful because it assures respondents who may be hesitant to state their true opinion that both sides of the given argument are legitimate opinions. It is also important to phrase the alternatives in a balanced way that does not artificially make one opinion more attractive than the other irrespectively of agreement or disagreement with its substance. The questionnaire of the National Consultation does not meet this requirement because all three questions that start by saying “that some people say” identify only one alternative, which always coincides with the prime minister’s position about the subject matter. It is well-documented in studies of public opinion that asking for the expression of agreement/disagreement with only side of an argument facilitates ‘yeah-saying’ (acquiescence bias) among weakly committed respondents and thus distorts our picture about true public opinion.
  3. It is well-known among public opinion researchers that the order and phrasing of the preceding questions can systematically shape the responses that one obtains to any question. The questionnaire of the National Consultation is suggestive from this point of view as well. Both its title and the first three questions link “profiteering immigrants” – a pejorative neologism for immigrants attracted by better economic opportunities away from their homeland – to the obviously negative phenomenon of terrorism, thus increasing the probability that the rest of the questionnaire will find negative attitudes toward immigrants.
  4. The perhaps most important requirement for a credible survey of public opinion is an appropriate sampling of respondents from the given population. Lay people often think that more respondents always mean a more accurate picture of public opinion, and National Consultations are often claimed to represent true public opinion on this account. But this is in fact a false belief and a large number of respondents in no way guarantees that the sample well represents the public at large. If respondents were not selected with rigorous scientific methods but rather by “self-selection,” then there is a high probability that their voice will represent those who had a strong opinion or emotion motivating them to respond. In the case of the National Consultation, in particular, it can be taken for granted that the self-selection will produce politically one-sided results, since it is the Prime Minister himself who asks citizens to respond to his questions.
  5. It further undermines the validity of the results of the National Consultation that the questionnaire does not query the socio-demographic characteristics of the respondents, i.e. it does not provide data about their sex, age, education, income position, etc. Thus there is no way that appropriate weighting procedures could statistically correct the inevitable but systematic shortcomings of any sampling procedure, or that serious analyses of the results could be attempted.

All in all, the National Consultation is not a public opinion poll. Although the Prime Minister’s invitation letter to citizens calls it a “consultation” that prepares the way for some policy decisions, all other appearances aim to reinforce the mistaken impression that the invitation is to a conventional public opinion survey. Yet the manipulative use of the tools and appearances of a public opinion poll by the National Consultation merely highlights the fact that genuine studies of public opinion that could help both decision makers and the public to find out public opinion about policy alternatives are in fact disappearing from the Hungarian public sphere. Such studies could only be carried out by credible researchers who comply with the professional and ethical norms of public opinion research. Only audited institutions complying with high scientific standards should be entrusted with studies of public opinion, with all contracts and resulting databases available for public scrutiny. The government could spend public money on such inquiries: hundreds of them would be financed from the billions spent on the fake national consultations.

Zoltán Balázs, university professor, Corvinus University
Iván Balog, sociologist, University of Szeged
Ildikó Barna, sociologist, ELTE
László Beck, sociologist, Medián
András Bíró-Nagy, research director, Policy Solutions
Balázs Böcskei, political scientist, ELTE
Zsolt Boda, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
József Böröcz, sociologist, Rutgers University
László Bruszt, university professor, European University Institute, Florence
György Csepeli, president of the Hungarian Association of Sociologists
Ágnes Darvas, sociologists, ELTE
Zsolt Enyedi, political scientist, Central European University
Zsuzsa Ferge, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anikó Gregor, sociologist, ELTE
Endre Hann, social psychologist, Medián
István Hegedűs, sociologist, Hungarian-European Association
Béla Janky, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Budapest Engineering University
Angéla Kóczé, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Wake Forest University
Éva Kovács, sociologist, Budapest/Vienna
Balázs Krémer, sociologist, University of Debrecen
Zoltán Lakner, political scientist, ELTE
Orsolya Lelkes, sociologist, University of Vienna
Balázs Majtényi, ELTE
Béla Marián, unemployed public opinion researcher
Bálint Misetics, researcher, social policy
Antal Örkény, sociologist, ELTE
Ágnes Rényi, sociologist, ELTE
Péter Róbert, sociologist
Dániel Róna, political scientist, Covinus University
Ágota Scharle, economist, Budapest Institute
Endre Sík, sociologist, TÁRKI
Andrea Szabó, sociologist
Ildikó Szabó, professor emeritus, University of Debrecen
Mária Székelyi, professor emeritus, ELTE
Iván Szelényi, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Pál Tamás, researcher, Corvinus University
Róbert Tardos, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, ELTE
Gábor Tóka, sociologist, Central European University
Csaba Tóth, director of strategy, Republikon Institute
Anna Unger, poliltical scientist, ELTE
Balázs Váradi, economist, ELTE
Mária Vásárhelyi, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anna Wessely, sociologist and historian of art, ELTE
Tibor Závecz, sociologist, Ipsos
János Zolnay, sociologist

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”