Tag Archives: George Soros

Amnesty International: Devastating report on Hungary

A few days ago Amnesty International (AI) released its 2015-16 report “on the state of the world’s human rights,” which includes a scathing analysis of Hungary’s record. Since the refugee crisis dominated public discourse in the European Union during this period, AI paid special attention to Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugees who gathered at the southern border of the country. AI describes Hungary as a country that “led the way in refusing to engage with pan-European solutions to the refugee crisis” and opted instead to seal its borders. The report stresses the anti-Muslim rationale for Hungary’s refusal to admit refugees.

AI’s report deals with four problem areas: (1) refugees, (2) freedom of association, (3) discrimination against the Roma population, and (4) freedom of religion. The space devoted to Hungary is fairly long. It begins with the statement that, according to a report compiled by the Eötvös Károly Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “the replacement of judges of the Constitutional Court and the 2010 constitutional amendments undermined the Court’s independence.” Thus, the whole legal foundation of the country is flawed.

The report traces out the stages of fence-building and the amendments to the Asylum Law. AI comes to the conclusion that “the application of the law could lead to the violation of Hungary’s obligation of non-refoulement,” a practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they may be subjected to persecution.

The AI report also points to the fact that “NGOs critical of government policies faced harassment and threats of losing their registration.” The section on discrimination against the Roma lists several court cases, including the so-called “Numbered Streets” neighborhood in Miskolc, which is still pending because of the municipality’s appeal. As far as freedom of religion is concerned, the Hungarian government, although it should have changed the 2011 Church Law to comply with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights judgment, has done nothing and therefore “freedom of religion continues to be restricted” in Hungary.

It’s not a pretty picture, and Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, expanded the list of complaints by pointing out that the Hungarian government in the past six or seven years has done everything in its power to deny assistance to and protection of refugees. Moreover, the Hungarian government incited a level of xenophobia in its citizens that is becoming something of a record in the western world. “Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, and other similar populists dehumanize whole groups of people and make them scapegoats,” says Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as quoted in Magyar Nemzet.

I’m sure that those of us who are familiar with the refugee record of the Hungarian government could have anticipated the findings of AI. So I will move on to the Orbán government’s reaction to AI’s assessment.

No more than a couple of hours after the Hungarian media began reporting on AI’s analysis of the Hungarian situation Magyar Idők published an article about Amnesty International which, according to the Government Information Center, encourages “the violation of the law of illegal immigrants.” This is especially unacceptable because “the government is only trying to defend the rights of European citizens and Hungarian families.”

A few days later Magyar Idők continued its attack on Amnesty International. It repeated Fidesz’s accusation that George Soros, who helps fund AI, was behind the negative report on Hungary. It also speculated about another reason for AI’s negative view of the Hungarian situation. The bad report card was expected because the Hungarian parliament will soon debate the government’s new proposals on restricting the free movement of migrants whose status is still pending. Of course, this is a ridiculous accusation since such a lengthy report cannot be put together in a couple of weeks and the new government proposals are of fairly recent vintage.

Röszke, September 8, 2015 / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

Today Magyar Idők once again returned to the topic of Amnesty International, arguing that last year the organization inundated the office of László Székely, the Hungarian ombudsman, with complaints. In one year the poor man had to deal with 7,500 complaints. Of that number 2,600 dealt with immigration. Only ten of these complaints came from Hungary, the rest arrived from abroad. Surely, Magyar Idők wrote, AI is behind this deluge of mail. Associates of the ombudsman’s office said that among the letters there were even some written in English, German, French, and Spanish. The associates proudly announced that all the complaining letters were answered in the appropriate language.

Reporters from the government paper confronted Áron Demeter, who deals with human rights violations for Amnesty International Hungary. Why does Amnesty International encourage its followers to write such letters? Demeter’s explanation was that HHC had asked the ombudsman to turn to Hungary’s Constitutional Court on the question of the government’s criminalization of irregular border crossings. They hoped that as a result of receiving so many letters the ombudsman would be moved to act. But the letters didn’t change the ombudsman’s mind. Magyar Idők’s reporter didn’t hide his disapproval of such “pressure tactics.” Demeter explained that ever since its foundation AI has undertaken letter-writing campaigns to authorities that keep innocent victims incarcerated. In many cases, he added, this tactic had proved to be successful.

That explanation didn’t impress Magyar Idők’s reporter, who kept repeating that the behavior of AI was unconscionable. Their letter writers burden the already overworked ombudsman, who is supposed to represent those citizens who have grievances and who seek remedies from the offending authorities.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a short video that records complaints of police brutality along the Serbian-Hungarian border.

If the stories are true, and I fear they are, one can only be ashamed of what’s going on in the “center of Europe,” as Hungarians like to refer to their country’s geographic position.

February 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest

One after the other, independent publications have been taken over by Fidesz loyalists. I covered the sad fate of Népszabadság and spent a considerable amount of time on the acquisition of regional papers, which are valuable additions to the growing network of the government propaganda machine.

One takeover I didn’t cover was the purchase of Figyelő (Observer), a highly respected financial weekly established 60 years ago. The new owner is Mária Schmidt, court historian of Viktor Orbán and director of the historically misleading House of Terror. Of course, Mária Schmidt is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, but perhaps I didn’t report sufficiently on her wealth. She inherited a fortune when, in 2006, her husband died suddenly at the age of 53.

Figyelő had been ailing financially for over a year when Schmidt decided to “save” the paper in December 2016. She promised not to intervene in the day-to-day running of the paper or to interfere with its content. A month later, however, she appointed three prominent Fidesz ideologues to head the editorial board. Several journalists promptly resigned. That was at the end of January.

A few days later the new issue of Figyelő appeared with an article titled “Can the Soros-School stay?” Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but from the summaries by other publications we can reconstruct the gist of the story. According to Figyelő, in the summer of 2016 Viktor Orbán and George Soros had a discussion about Soros’s pride and joy, Central European University (CEU), which he established in Budapest. At that meeting the strong man of Hungary apparently reassured Soros that “he will not touch” CEU. But, continued Figyelő, “since last summer the international situation, with the election of Donald Trump as president, [has changed]. The Hungarian government might think that it can risk attacks against the university that it wouldn’t have tried earlier.” Figyelő claimed to know that one of Orbán’s ministers talked about CEU “as the main target in 2017.” He indicated that what they would really like is the departure of the whole institution from Budapest. The article was also full of untrue assertions about CEU, its students, and its faculty.

Michael Ignatieff, the new president of CEU, responded with a dignified open letter addressed to the “editor-in-chief” of Figyelő. He pointed out the benefits CEU has brought to Hungary in the last 25 years and the excellent relationships the university has with other academic institutions in Hungary and abroad. At the end of the letter he noted that the university is proud of George Soros, a Hungarian patriot, but the administration of the university is entirely free from outside pressure.

Anyone familiar with Mária Schmidt’s modus operandi should have known that President Ignatieff would get an answer. And that it would not be dignified as Ignatieff’s was. Instead, it would be a base attack on him, the university, and anything that has anything to do with liberalism.

Indeed, her response is a disgusting piece of prose, at the center of which is an attack on the speech Ignatieff gave at the launch of a project called Re-thinking Open Society. (A summary of the speech is available online.) In her rambling article, titled “An open society and a liberal revolution,” Schmidt talks about foundations financed by Soros as “military outposts of the U.S. State Department” and Ignatieff as “the Canadian liberal” whose “field of operation happens to be” in Hungary at the moment. He is “a passionate liberal.” That for Schmidt is the greatest sin anyone can commit.

Ignatieff is further accused of being soft on communism, which she says is especially disgraceful from someone whose ancestors were refugees from the Red Terror, “a fact that he doesn’t consider especially important.” (Ignatieff’s paternal grandfather was Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Russian minister of education during World War I, and his great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Ignatieff, a Russian statesman and diplomat.) How do we know that Ignatieff, who gives lectures on the subject, doesn’t know the first thing about the horrors of communism? Because “he always talks about communism in connection with Nazism and he always compares Hitler to Stalin.” Until now, Hungarian anti-Communists accused liberals of making excuses for communism and focusing only on Nazism, but if we can take Schmidt seriously they now consider communism even worse than Nazism and the horrors it brought to the world.

Ignatieff mentioned Václav Havel in his speech, who is not exactly Schmidt’s favorite. “Havel is significant for Ignatieff and the other liberals only because he published several articles in their most important publication, the New York Review of Books.” So much for Václav Havel.

Soros himself is accused of collaborating with the communists in the late 1980s and preferring left-wingers and liberals when it came to his grants. (Schmidt herself was a beneficiary of Soros’s generosity.) To quote her precisely: “Soros in Hungary as well as in other countries became the keeper of washed-out komcsik and libik. He is the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and liberal means SZDSZ and SZDSZ means everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable.”

I guess these few lines will give the readers of Hungarian Spectrum a sense of Mária Schmidt’s latest masterpiece. I could go on and on about her defense of populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump, but that would take us too far from our topic: the fate of Central European University. The essence of the lengthy article comes at the very end: “CEU is George Soros’s outpost in Europe.” The implied verdict: Soros’s university has to go.

Schmidt’s attack opened a floodgate. A few days after her article appeared, Magyar Idők reported that CEU is letting 17 faculty members go because the university’s business school will merge with the department of economics. The pro-government mouthpiece claimed that all 17 professors were Hungarians and that they were extremely popular with the students. Magyar Idők also stated that the salaries of foreign faculty members are double those of Hungarians at CEU. A day later another article was published in the same paper, titled “They are cooking something in Soros’s witch’s kitchen.” The same unfounded and unverified accusation that Hungarian faculty members were fired solely because they were Hungarians was repeated. In vain did CEU try to explain that the faculty members of the Business School were not all Hungarians and that there are not different pay scales for foreign and native faculty members. Magyar Idők was not giving up. Today a new article was published in which they try to discredit CEU’s press release that pointed out the paper’s false statements. Magyar Idők claimed that CEU didn’t satisfactorily deny that only Hungarians were fired.

That’s where we are at the moment. What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.

February 11, 2017

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

Hungary has been steadily becoming more corrupt

Here we go again. Transparency International’s (TI) 2016 report has been published and, as usual, the message to the Hungarian government was not complimentary. Hungary’s rating dropped under the psychological level of 50, coming in at 48 points. Of the 28 member states of the European Union, Hungary is one of the five most corrupt. Hungary is tied with Romania. But while the Romanians’ efforts to curb corruption have propelled the country to increasingly better scores since 2013, Hungary’s numbers have been declining since 2012, when its score was 55. Admittedly, corruption in Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria are even greater than in Hungary, but surely that is no reason to rejoice, especially since outside of Europe Hungary is in the company of countries like Jordan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Montenegro, and Oman. The most detailed analysis of the part of the report that concerns Hungary was published in napi.hu.

In the introduction to the report, the editors emphasized that “this year’s results highlight the connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth.” They further stressed that “the interplay of corruption and inequality also feeds populism. When traditional politicians fail to tackle corruption, people grow cynical. Increasingly, people are turning to populist leaders who promise to break the cycle of corruption and privilege. Yet this is likely to exacerbate—rather than resolve—the tensions that fed the populist surge in the first place.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Transparency International published a detailed analysis of “Corruption and Inequality: How Populists Mislead People.”

The reason that I called attention to TI’s emphasis on populists who after acquiring power become themselves beneficiaries of corruption is because it seems that the Orbán government has taken TI’s severe criticism of populist duplicity as proof of its disapproval of their own system. At least this is what I sense from reading Magyar Idők’s touchy reaction to TI’s references to populism and corruption. Clearly, the government was mighty upset over the direct references to Hungary and Turkey, where after the introduction of populist-led governments corruption grew substantially.

Magyar Idők tries to make light of the changes in Argentina where, according to the article, “after the fall of the populist government, miracle of miracles, thanks to the blissful activities of the new liberal leadership the corruption situation has improved.” I assume that no one who is familiar with the Hungarian government’s truthfulness will be surprised to learn that this is not at all what TI’s report said about the Argentine situation. TI reported: “Recently elected President Pauricio Macri said in his inauguration speech that he ‘will be implacable with corruption.’ He has made the fight against corruption a top priority for his administration. In order to fulfill this promise the new government must urgently implement laws and reforms to improve transparency, accountability, and oversight of public institutions.” A far cry from Magyar Idők’s version.

And while we are on the topic of the Orbán government’s fabrications, we might as well point out another falsehood in the very same article. According to Magyar Idők‘s headline, Transparency International is “Soros’s organization.” It is true that in the body of the article this claim becomes less categorical. There the paper describes TI as an organization that is “also supported by George Soros.” So, I became curious about the financial backers of TI. I can assure you that the list is very long. It begins with a large number of government agencies, like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, the German Foreign Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UK), and the US Department of State. (I wonder how long Trump’s State Department will contribute to TI. I have the feeling not for long.) There are also several multilateral institutions that support TI, like the European Commission and several offices of the United Nations. Ten foundations support TI, among them–yes–Soros’s Open Society Institute Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. In addition, five corporations, including Siemens, Shell, Ernst & Young, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, are contributors. So much for TI being Soros’s organization.

The Orbán government pretends that it doesn’t take TI’s report seriously. How can TI dare to pass judgment on Hungary year after year when they themselves, “as we learned from Szilárd Németh,” are afraid of transparency? How can anyone believe TI’s reports when “left-liberal leaders of the financial elite praise” the World Bank’s efforts at curbing corruption? “Is it possible that these people take part in discussions where Christine Lagarde, who narrowly escaped her scandalous corruption case, is also present?” Moreover, the article gleefully says, Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, was on target when he pointed out that Transparency International never bothered to unearth the rampant corruption that existed during the socialist-liberal governments prior to 2010.

Of course, Zoltán Kovács, as is his wont, didn’t tell the truth. Already in 2008 TI was talking about the growth of “institutionalized corruption in Hungary,” although at that point it considered “bribery more as a byproduct of democracy rather than its fundamental characteristic.” In fact, both Mihály Varga, minister of national economy today, and Viktor Orbán, then leader of the opposition, quoted the report of Transparency International as proof of the existence of rampant corruption in Hungary. Orbán learned from the report that “Hungary loses 200 billion forints every year due to the corruption that exists in public procurement cases.”

József Péter Martin, executive director of Transparency International Magyarország (TIM), called attention to the harmful effect of corruption on the national economy. He noted the significant overlap between the most competitive countries and the least corrupt countries. Similarly, corruption and reduced competitiveness are often correlated. Even as Hungarian corruption has increased, the country’s competitiveness has been sliding in the past few years. In 2001, Hungary was twenty-first on the list of the World Economic Forum. Today it occupies the sixty-ninth place.

But never mind, the Hungarian government has no incentive to clamp down on corruption, since its politicians and friends are the main culprits. The mafia state is doing well.

January 26, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s rubber bones? No, his master plan

I thought this morning that I would be original if I wrote about a favorite word of both the Hungarian media and the opposition. The word is “gumicsont,” a dog toy made out of solid rubber or sometimes nylon. “Gumicsont” is used as a metaphor for a communication device that is designed to distract the attention of the public from something much more important. Almost everything that happens in Hungarian political life is immediately labelled “gumicsont.”

It seems that I wasn’t the only to find all this talk about “gumicsont” irritating. Almost a year ago Péter Konok, a historian and political commentator, wrote an opinion piece on the subject in HVG. He, like me, thinks that the Orbán government’s constant barraging of the population with political bombshells are not distractions intended to divert attention from something else. No, Konok says, the Orbán government’s chicaneries are genuine because “they are like this.”

Moreover, says Konok, our views on what counts as political distraction depend largely on what we personally consider important. For example, those for whom having stores open on Sunday is important may well think that talk about the size of Antal Rogán’s apartment is trivial, a distraction. Some people were certain that Viktor Orbán’s shocking announcement about the reintroduction of capital punishment was a “gumicsont” to distract attention from the Quaestor scandal.

One could give numerous examples of this Hungarian habit of labeling an action as a kind of sleight of hand to divert public attention from something else. In Konok’s opinion, these so-called artificially created distractions are unfortunately reactions to very real problems. By dismissing them as merely rubber bones to chew on, the Hungarian public fails to acknowledge that the country is in big trouble and that Orbán’s regime is only a symptom of its woes.

I would go further. Almost all of the political strategies introduced by Fidesz and the Orbán government are carefully and methodically prepared ahead of time, having very specific aims in mind. The latest “gumicsont,” according to some journalists, is the attack on the NGOs. This recent “distraction” is allegedly intended to serve up a new enemy since the migrant issue is becoming old hat and has lost its appeal. Dead wrong, I’m afraid. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the same master plan that has been systematically pieced together ever since January 2015.

The Orbán government has been preparing the ground for this move for a very long time. George Soros has been the boogeyman in Fidesz circles at least since 2010. And as far as the NGOs are concerned, Viktor Orbán made it clear in the interview he gave to 888.hu last year that 2017 will be “the year of Soros,” that is, he will get rid of the NGOs one way or the other. A distraction? A rubber bone? Of course not. It is the next step in consolidating his power and bolstering the popularity of his government.

Some observers even called the “migrant question” a rubber bone, which is total nonsense. This was again a policy initiative that Orbán had carefully crafted with a very specific goal in mind. It was designed as a popularity booster which, as Orbán rightly predicted, couldn’t fail. Just as a reminder, Fidesz’s popularity between October 2014 and February 2015 had dropped by 14%.

Orbán is aware that despite all the propaganda, his government is not popular and that it is only the weakness of the splintered opposition that makes his position safe. So, he is ready with contingency plans, the latest being to incite xenophobic Hungarians to turn against organizations that receive money from abroad. Orbán’s advisers have already managed to make Soros’s name a hated household word. Only a couple of days ago Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, released its findings, according to which “61% of Hungarians have a negative opinion of the businessman.” Eighty-eight percent of the population—on both the right and the left—consider the use of so-called “soft-power” a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty.

The attack on NGOs is a variation on the “migrant” theme. First came boosting xenophobia and simultaneously elevating nationalism. Now the government is impressing on the population that these NGOs are vehicles of foreign political influence and pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Another plan Orbán announced yesterday morning was his defiance of the European Union and his fight this time against any “economic interference” of Brussels in Hungary’s affairs. Every time Orbán announces a new fight against this or that, the normal reaction in Hungary is that the man cannot live without battling against someone. That’s his nature. But what if his duels are not merely the results of personal traits but part of a well-designed masterplan which we, the observers, fail to recognize? We naively consign them to the heap of policy “distractions,” claiming that they are just tricks to turn our attention away from healthcare, education, and general poverty. I think it is a big mistake to think in these terms. We must take everything he says with deadly seriousness. No rubber bones here.

Everything Orbán does is designed to ensure the popularity of his government and his own well-being. Since his talents don’t include an aptitude for good governance, he has to rely on the country’s alleged vulnerability as a crutch. The refugees’ arrival in Europe was a godsend to Orbán. The country, he argued, must be defended against the migrants, against Brussels, against George Soros’s “soft power.” I’m afraid that nationalistic Hungarians lap all this up, including even those who wish him straight to hell. As long as Orbán can harness this kind of nationalism, the Hungarian public will never be able to get rid of him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, Hungarians don’t see the connection between their nationalistic attitudes toward alleged outside enemies and Viktor Orbán’s staying power.

January 14, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s first victims may be the Hungarian NGOs

An article appeared today in The Guardian predicting a new crackdown on Hungarian NGOs. The timing is no coincidence. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal government has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who will not raise his voice in defense of critics of the Hungarian government in the name of democracy.

A few hours after the publication of the article, Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, announced the government’s intention to get rid of “the pseudo-civilians” of the Soros Empire. In Németh’s vocabulary, “pseudo-civilians” are foreign political agents who represent the “global plutocracy and the world of political correctness above the heads of the national governments. These organizations should be forced back, and, I believe, they should be thrown out. I feel that the international opportunity for such a move has arrived.” The “international opportunity,” of course, is the election of Donald Trump, as Péter Krekó, an associate of Political Capital, a think tank of political scientists, pointed out to The Guardian.

The announcement of the government’s intentions regarding foreign-subsidized NGOs was not unexpected. Just before the holidays Orbán gave an interview to 888.hu in which he was quite explicit about his feelings toward the NGOs critical of his government. According to him, they are being used by antagonistic powers and their agents, like George Soros, to advance their own interests in foreign countries. Therefore, these organizations must be banished. Not only Hungary will move against them, but “all countries” in Europe. The year 2017 will be about Soros in this sense. “One can feel it coming when each country will trace the source of these monies; they will find out what kinds of connections exist between them and the intelligence communities; and which NGO represents what interests…. [2017] will be about the extrusion of the forces symbolized by Soros.” One cannot be more explicit. The only question was just when in 2017 the onslaught would begin.

It is unlikely that Donald Trump will be upset if Viktor Orbán follows in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. In 2012 Putin introduced a law requiring non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”

George Soros recently wrote an opinion piece in project-syndicate.org in which he didn’t hide his feelings about the president-elect, whom he called “a would-be dictator.” He described Trump’s cabinet as being full of “incompetent extremists and retired generals.” He predicted that “Trump will have greater affinity with dictators,” which will allow “some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference.”

Soros’s attack on Trump naturally elicited counterattacks on the financier by the pro-Trump media. Articles appeared with headlines like “Soros and Other Far Leftists Instigate Revolution against Trump,” “Billionaire Globalist Soros Exposed as Hidden Hand against Trump,” “Busted! Soros-Backed Pro Clinton Group Caught Funding Violent Protests,” and many more. Orbán can rest assured that no one will be terribly upset in Trump’s White House or State Department about the harassment of Hungarian NGOs. Under these circumstances Orbán can feel pretty safe.

By the time Orbán gave his interview to 888.hu, initial plans for the elimination of NGOs were already in place. On December 14, Zsolt Semjén, who serves as Orbán’s deputy, sent a modification proposal to a 2012 law on non-governmental organizations to the president of the parliament, which apparently will discuss and most likely enact it into law before April. One of the important changes is that “officeholders of non-governmental organizations” will have to submit financial statements just like members of parliament. What’s wrong with such a requirement? In the first place, salaries of officials of nongovernment organizations have nothing to do with the public purse. Second, knowing the Hungarian government’s practices, it’s likely that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service would immediately begin to discredit those people who are seen as standing in the way of the government. In addition to this change, there is a vaguely worded reference to “the legal environment of the civic association” that will be rewritten. For the time being, officials of NGOs have no idea what this means, but “in light of the Orbán interview” it is worrisome that the proposal includes references to “the adoption of solutions that have worked” in other countries. The fear is that the Orbán government has Putin’s solution in mind.

NGO officials believe that the elimination of organizations will take place in stages. First, the usual character assassination will take place after the submission of financial statements. Second, the NGOs will have far more administrative obligations, which will take time and money away from their useful activities. As a third step, the government might accuse them of espionage and treat them as sources of danger to national security. They could be accused of treasonous activities against the legitimate government of their own country as agents of foreign powers.

According to rumors, behind the scenes the Hungarian government has been trying to convince George Soros “to limit his presence to the financing of the Central European University” and to stop giving any more grants to the 60 or so organizations that are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

For the time being, it looks as if neither the Open Society Institute (OSI) nor the NGOs are intimidated. They insist that they will continue as before. In the first place, some of these organizations, like Transparency International (TI), receive only a small fraction of their funding from the Soros Foundation. In fact, one of TI’s largest contributors is the European Union. The director of TI, József Martin, can’t imagine that the government would dare to ban TI because by this act “Hungary would remove itself from the community of free countries.” In Martin’s place, I would be less sanguine that Viktor Orbán cares what the community of free countries thinks.

The Hungarian Helsinki Commission gets about a third of its budget from OSI. In addition, it receives financial help from the European Commission and the United Nations High Commission. Its position, I believe, is less secure than that of TI. After all, it deals with human rights, something that leaves Viktor Orbán and his friends cold. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) is unfortunately heavily dependent on the Open Society Foundation.

Szilárd Németh’s announcement of the government’s intentions to eventually eliminate NGOs prompted the usual protestations from the left. MSZP couldn’t come up with anything more original than the demand that “Szilárd Németh must leave public life.” Sure thing. He will rush to oblige. DK reminded Viktor Orbán that, no matter how strong a feeling of affinity he has for Vladimir Putin, “this place, in the Carpathian Basin, is not called Russia.”

In the past, we kept trying to convince ourselves that surely this or that move of the government would not be tolerated by the European Union, the Council of Europe, or the Venice Commission. Be it the new constitution, the media law, or the building of a nuclear power plant on Russian money by a Russian company that received the job without competitive bidding. And what happened? Almost nothing. A few sentences were changed in the constitution. So, let’s not try to shift the burden to the EU. There is only one way to put an end to this nightmare: to get rid of Orbán and his minions in 2018.

January 10, 2017