Tag Archives: Gergely Gulyás

MSZP’s Gergely Bárándy “debates”: Self-inflicted wounds

Fidesz politicians, who until very recently refused to debate their political opponents, suddenly developed an appetite for political discussions with politicians of MSZP. I haven’t noticed the same eagerness to exchange ideas with Gábor Vona of Jobbik or Bernadett Szél of LMP. But the Fidesz top-drawer strategists allowed Szilárd Németh to shout his way through a discussion, if you can call it that, with Zsolt Molnár of MSZP. Mind you, for that disaster I largely blame Egon Rónai of ATV, who seems to be utterly incapable of keeping order in his studio.

A great deal more was expected of a debate between Gergely Gulyás and Gergely Bárándy, which took place last night at ELTE’s Law School at the invitation of the school’s Political Science Workshop. Bárándy is the MSZP caucus’s “legal expert.” He is a 41-year-old who, after finishing law school at Péter Pázmány Catholic University in 2000, worked as a lawyer in the law office of his grandfather and father. Considering that he was a relative latecomer to politics, he made a remarkable career in MSZP. He became a member of parliament in 2010 and 2014, both times from party lists. I personally find him rather dull and his speeches in parliament uninspiring.

Gergely Gulyás, on the other hand, stands apart from the average Fideszniks. He is what Hungarians call a true “úrifiú,” a young gentleman both in looks and behavior. Like Bárándy, he comes from a family of lawyers. He also attended Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s law school, graduating five years after Bárándy. He joined Fidesz at the end of 2005 and also made a remarkable career in his party. By now he is the leader of the large Fidesz parliamentary delegation, deputy president of parliament, and Fidesz’s legal expert in general. He is intelligent and articulate and is very quick on his feet. He is ready to engage in debates with others and usually comes out on the winning side, even with reporters as well prepared as György Bolgár. He is like an eel; he always manages to support his party’s positions no matter how indefensible they are. At the same time, he gives the impression of someone whose views are moderate. He condemns extremism and vulgarity, which are often exhibited in Fidesz circles.

Photo: Magyar Nemzet

So, when I heard that these two men would face each other in a debate, I anticipated a huge Gulyás win over the less eloquent and less coherent Bárándy. Well, the debate turned out to be something no one was prepared for. According to Magyar Nemzet, it was “a convivial conversation” between two people who have known each other for a long time and who have spent considerable time together on the legislative committee of the parliament. As Gulyás remarked, they know each other’s legal positions through and through. Still, I was not prepared for Gergely Bárándy’s performance. He offered a public confession of the sins of his own party. “Even a Fidesz politician couldn’t have done better,” as Index’s journalist who was present put it. He described his own political side as something “dreadful” and said that he perfectly understands outsiders’ low opinion of the left. He “wouldn’t even entrust his dog to these people.” Gulyás exhibited bafflement at his opponent’s total political ineptness.

Once Bárándy was in the swing of things, Gulyás decided to toss him a bone by introducing the magic word “Gyurcsány” into the debate. How is it, he asked, that after eight years in opposition MSZP is still under the influence of the leader of the Demokratikus Koalíció? What followed was more or less what I expected because I always placed Bárándy in the left wing of MSZP and therefore suspected that he was no admirer of the liberal-leaning Gyurcsány. Keep in mind that István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, was just sacked by Gyula Molnár because his sarcastic remarks interfered with the current MSZP-DK negotiations, and therefore the last thing MSZP needed was a barrage of verbal insults on the chairman of DK by an important MSZP politician. But this is exactly what happened. Bárándy announced that he would be very happy if Gyurcsány would step back and wouldn’t insist on being on a common party list.

It is hard to fathom why Bárándy brought up a common list and Gyurcsány’s presence on it because, with Botka’s resignation and the beginning of negotiations between MSZP and DK, this issue is no longer on the table. He got himself so wound up that during the Q&A period, when most of the questions were about the state of MSZP and the other opposition parties, he kept repeating his opposition to Gyurcsány. Bárándy must have realized that this incredible performance would be deemed unacceptable by the current leadership of MSZP because a couple of times he jokingly told his audience that he will deny some of his remarks and hoped that he would not be quoted out of context. For example, when he talked about the absolute necessity of having a leftist party, “whether it will be called MSZP or something else.” This afternoon Klub Rádió reported that Gergely Bárándy now insists that the statements that were attributed to him were never uttered or, if they were, they were not accurately described. Well, he will need a better explanation than that. Not so much to the public but to his comrades.

Since the debate was not open to the public, few newspapers reported on it. Figyelő was the only pro-government paper I could find that carried the news. The article was written by Tamás Pindroch, a devoted pro-Fidesz journalist originally from the far-right Magyar Hírlap who then had a short stint at Magyar Idők. He was delighted because he believes that MSZP politicians like Mesterházy, Botka, Nyakó, and Bárándy are working for a renewed MSZP that will emerge after the party’s electoral defeat next year. The number of people, he wrote, who think that the greatest encumbrance on the Hungarian left is Ferenc Gyurcsány is growing. These people realize that he must be removed in order to have a robust Hungarian left. “One thing is sure; the left-wing cleansing process which didn’t take place in 1990 may begin after 2018. Better later than never.” Of course, Pindroch is not really worried about MSZP’s renewal. What he is hoping for is the further weakening of the left by warring factions within MSZP before the election. And looking at the latest polls, the leadership of MSZP is succeeding admirably. According to the latest opinion poll, in the past three months MSZP has lost 4% of its voters. Among active voters they stand at 13% as opposed to DK’s 9% and LMP’s 6%.

I can more or less understand that MSZP regional leaders, like Ferenc Kurtyán from Szekszárd, haven’t been able to grasp the present Hungarian political reality, but that one of the shining lights of the party, the great legal expert, commits such a political blunder is unfathomable. What kinds of nincompoops run this party? How can you let any politician engage in a debate without sitting down with him and agreeing on the talking points? MSZP’s ineptitude simply boggles the mind.

October 19, 2017

Freedom of the press in Hungary: an American critique

Today David J. Kostelancik, minister counselor and deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, delivered a speech before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ / National Association of Hungarian Journalists). This was the second time since the installment of Donald Trump as president of the United States that the new Republican government, through its Budapest embassy, made it clear publicly that, contrary to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s expectation, Washington is not at all happy about the state of affairs in Hungary. The first time was in April when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest issued a warning in connection with the Hungarian government’s pressure on Central European University. A month later this message was reinforced by the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, who urged the Hungarian government to suspend its amended law on higher education law, which would place “discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary.” Today the topic was freedom of the media.

Before I summarize the speech itself, I should note one way in which the Hungarian government restricts the flow of information. In fact, this Kostelancik speech is an excellent example of a centralized media in the grip of an autocratic government. The method is simple and effective. Prior to the new media law introduced by the Orbán government, media outlets had to pay a fee for news gathered by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), Hungary’s official news agency. After the change of leadership, access to MTI’s materials was made free. The downside was that MTI’s reporting became distorted in favor of the government, and the free access to MTI’s materials made certain that the same colored information reached all media outlets. So, if the authorities don’t want a piece of information to reach a wide audience, it is enough to instruct MTI to remain quiet. Or, it is possible that special coaching is not necessary because the people at MTI know what is risky to report on. Hungarians have experience with this kind of self-censorship from the pre-1990 days.

This is exactly what happened this time. The chargé d’affaires of the United States delivers an important speech titled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring values in a dynamic media environment” and MTI “forgets” to report on it. Well, I’m not entirely fair because, if one searches hard enough, one finds an MTI report on a press conference by Gergely Gulyás, the new leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, where Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked Gulyás his opinion of Kostelancik’s “comments on the state of Hungarian freedom of the press.” MTI added that, according to index.hu, the chargé of the American Embassy talked about the “alarming state” of Hungarian media freedom and about “the government’s responsibility.” End of reporting. This MTI report appeared in today’s Magyar Idők, but the details of Csuhaj’s question to Gulyás could be learned only from ATV’s website.

But let’s return to the speech itself, which was indeed hard-hitting. Perhaps the most important message was that “defense of a free press” is “fundamental to [U.S.] foreign policy interests.” Given Donald Trump’s frequent outbursts against the “fake news” concocted by mainstream journalists, one can only admire Kostelancik’s handling of this apparent contradiction. He admitted that the U.S. president “is not shy about criticizing the media,” but “in the finest traditions of our free press, those on the receiving end of his criticism are quick to respond and make their argument about why they think the president is wrong.” In brief, freedom of the press in the United States is still thriving.

David J. Kostelancik / Source: zoom.hu / Photo: Viktor Veres

He then listed the ways in which undemocratic governments attempt to silence their critics: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control and pressure on advertisers, attempts to manipulate the advertising market, or outright threats and intimation of journalists. Kostelancik indicated that all of these tactics have been tried in Hungary in recent years. He talked about “government allies” who have acquired control and influence over the media market “without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies,” having in mind Lőrinc Mészáros’s recent acquisition of all the regional papers. He is well informed about the central directives issued to the journalists who work for these papers. The U.S. Embassy hears “reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.” 888.hu’s list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros didn’t go unnoticed either. “In a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.” Finally, he said that “the United States unequivocally condemns any attempt to intimidate or silence journalists.”

MTI didn’t want to cover the U.S. chargé’s harsh words on the lack of media freedom and therefore it simply disregarded the whole event. But the Hungarian foreign ministry could not afford to ignore the American message. On the contrary, the response from the ministry was practically instantaneous. Tamás Menczer, undersecretary in charge of “coordination,” suggested that Kostelancik get a translator, with whose assistance he can sit down and take a good look at the Hungarian papers, where he will find “numerous news items critical of the government every day.” He added that a few weeks ago the U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the modification of the Ukrainian law on education despite its restrictions on the rights of minorities. “We are forced to think that U.S. diplomats in Kiev and Budapest are ignorant of what they are talking about.” A typical response from the ministry of foreign affairs of the Orbán government, the kind of clumsy, gauche comment to which by now, I’m sure, the American diplomats in Budapest and Washington are accustomed.

What I find more worrisome is a sentence the much more courteous and diplomatic Gergely Gulyás uttered as an answer to Ildikó Csuhaj’s question about Kostelancik’s message: “It is harmful to America’s reputation in Hungary to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.” I wonder what the government’s next step will be. Perhaps once the anti-Soros campaign is over, a major anti-U.S. drive will come, picking up on the journalistic offensive the two government papers, Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, are already waging.

October 17, 2017

The Hungarian parliament “debates” the anti-NGO bill

It’s becoming really hot in the Hungarian parliament, where the opposition is waging a heroic fight against an increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous Fidesz majority. Members of the opposition are feeling increasingly frustrated by their impotence within the walls of parliament. They are desperate as they watch the Fidesz bulldozer grind on with escalating force.

One would think that the international scandal that ensued after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country would temper Viktor Orbán’s zeal and that he would conveniently forget about the bill against those civic organizations that are partially financed from abroad. But no, he is forging ahead.

Tempers are flaring in parliament. Lately I have noticed growing impatience on the part of the Fidesz majority, which often prompts the president or his deputies to forcibly prevent discussion of pending legislation. One would think that with such a large majority, the government party would show some magnanimity, but this was never true of Fidesz and it is especially not true of late. Perhaps because Fidesz parliamentary leaders are feeling the pressure of the streets they take their anger out on the members of the opposition. In turn, some opposition members seem buoyed by those tens of thousands who have demonstrated in the past week. The result is shouting matches and fines ordered by either László Kövér or one of his Fidesz or KDNP deputies.

About two weeks ago commentators predicted that the Orbán government will consider their bill on the NGOs even more important than their law on higher education, the one that affected CEU. And indeed, top Fidesz representatives were lined up for the debate, among them Gergely Gulyás, whom I consider especially dangerous because he seems to be an unusually clever lawyer with the verbal skills to match. He acted as if the proposed bill wasn’t a big deal, just a simple amendment of little consequence. As for the issue of branding NGOs by demanding that they label themselves “foreign-supported” organizations, Gulyás’s answer was that some people consider such support a positive fact, others don’t. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the bill. He accused the opposition of “hysteria” stemming from frustration.

The Christian Democrats have recently discovered an able spokesman, István Hollik, who was not as restrained as Gulyás and spelled out in detail what the government’s problem is with the NGOs. According to him, “there are people who would like their political views to become reality and who want to have a say in the events of the world without seeking the trust of the electorate. This is what George Soros does in Europe and in America.” It is through these NGOs that Soros wants to influence politics.

MSZP’s spokesman was Gergely Bárándy who, I’m afraid, doesn’t set the world on fire. LMP’s Bernadett Szél, however, is another matter. In her view, the country shouldn’t be shielded from the civic groups but from “the Russian agents who sit here today in parliament.” She continued: “You are a government financed from abroad; you are politicians who are financed from abroad; you are supposed to do this dirty work. It is unacceptable.” As for Hollik’s references to George Soros, Szél said “You people make me sick!” Szél was well prepared for this speech because she had hundreds of cards printed on a black background saying “I’m a foreign funded politician.” She placed them on the desks of Fidesz MPs. Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd didn’t mince words either when she announced that “all decent people want to vomit” when Fidesz members vote against civic groups that help the disadvantaged and the disabled. Finally, Együtt’s Szabolcs Szabó compared the bill to the one introduced in Putin’s Russia. He charged that Viktor Orbán simply lifted a Russian piece of legislation and transplanted it into Hungarian law. “Even Mátyás Rákosi would have been proud of this achievement,” he concluded.

Bernadett Szél hard at work

But that wasn’t all. It was inevitable that the pro-government civic organization called Civil Összefogás (CÖF) would come up. CÖF is clearly a government-financed pseudo organization which spends millions if not billions on pro-government propaganda. Naturally, CÖF is unable to produce any proof of donations received. Bernadett Szél held up two pieces of paper to show that CÖF left all the questions concerning its finances blank. At that very moment, Sándor Lezsák, the Fidesz deputy president of the House, turned Szél’s microphone off. He accused her of using “demonstrative methods” for which she was supposed to have permission. Such an infraction means a fine. When Szél managed to continue, she said: “Take my whole salary, but I will still tell you that CÖF has a blank report. So, let’s not joke around. How much do my human rights cost? Tell me an amount. We will throw it together. I’m serious.” This is, by the way, not the first threat of a fine against opposition members. MSZP members were doubly fined because they called President Áder “János.” The spokesman of Párbeszéd “was banned forever from parliament” because he put up signs: “traitor” on the door leading to the prime minister’s study.

Speaking of CÖF. Today László Csizmadia, chairman of CÖF, launched an attack against Michael Ignatieff in Magyar Hírlap. He described Ignatieff as “Goodfriend II on the left.” The reference is to the capable chargé d’affaires of the United States Embassy during the second half of 2016 when American-Hungarian relations were at the lowest possible ebb.

And one more small item. Index discovered that the parliamentary guards, a force created by László Kövér in 2012 (about which I wrote twice, first in 2012 and again in 2013, will get new weapons and ammunition:

  • 45-caliber pistols
  • 56 mm (.223 caliber) submachine guns
  • 62x51mm sniper rifles using NATO ammunition
  • .306 caliber rifles
  • manual grenade launcher for 40mm grenades
  • intercepting nets
  • a variety of ammunition for new types of firearms
  • universal (fired, thrown) tear gas grenades with artificial or natural active ingredients
  • hand-operated teardrop grenades working with natural or artificial substances

So, they will be well prepared for all eventualities.

April 19, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.

In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.

One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.

HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”

Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.

As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.

Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.

But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.

Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.

April 5, 2017

Are the bureaucrats of Brussels afraid of Orbán as the Devil is of incense?

The pro-government Hungarian media triumphantly announced today that Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, who had been described earlier as the greatest enemy of Viktor Orbán, has finally come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister represents the majority opinion within the European Union and therefore must be handled with kid gloves. At least this is what MTI reported from Passau, where Jens Stoltenberg, Donald Tusk, and Martin Schulz participated in a debate on “Menschen in Europa.”

One must understand that for years the right-wing media has been after Martin Schulz as well as, more generally, all those EU parliamentary caucuses on the left that are not exactly friends of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy. One of the ugliest portraits of Schulz appeared in 888.hu, combining bits and pieces of half-truths about his career. And Pestisrácok.hu discovered at the end of September that a number of liberal and green delegates led by Barbara Spinelli of Italy on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group suggested a parliamentary discussion on the situation in Hungary regarding the anti-immigrant propaganda campaign. “The left wing of the European Parliament thirsts for revenge because of the forthcoming referendum,” pestisrácok.hu concluded.

The Hungarian government was undoubtedly irritated that Schulz refused to take the referendum seriously. He rightly considered it a domestic issue with little or no bearing on European affairs. He warned Budapest that “it should take seriously that it was not a majority” that voted at the referendum–that is, that the referendum was not valid. So it was with a certain amount of glee that MTI reported from Passau that Schulz had become a dove as far as his attitude toward Orbán is concerned.

The topic of the debate was the relationship between NATO and the European Union, specifically the defense of the borders. Donald Tusk also emphasized the necessity of defending “the last liberal democracy” that exists in Europe. But MTI, not surprisingly, concentrated on an answer Martin Schulz gave to a question from the floor: “When will the patience of Europe run out vis-à-vis Hungary, whose government in an indirect manner is responsible for the closing of the last opposition paper?” According to the MTI report, Schulz said that Viktor Orbán’s opinion that “the European Union wants to substitute a European cultural amalgam for national identities” is in his opinion wrong, but it must be taken seriously because by now it has become a majority opinion within Europe. One must find opportunities for a dialogue with the people whom Orbán represents instead of punishing them, which would only result in giving them an opportunity to feel that they are being victimized. He suggested “an open debate on the question of what kind of cultural identity nations possess within the united Europe.” The worst possible solution would be “to label all those who ask this question outcasts.”

This MTI report from Passau was greeted with jubilation in the pro-government press. Magyar Idők recalled Barbara Spinelli’s September 26 call for a debate on Hungary at the full session of the European Union, but after the referendum they scrapped the idea because “they didn’t want to give the Hungarian prime minister an opportunity to express his views on the subject.” But new winds are blowing now in Brussels. Schulz admitted that Viktor Orbán represents the opinion of the majority on the migrant issue. “If Schulz is not careful he will be considered a supporter of Orbán.” Magyar Idők is certain that the bureaucrats in Brussels “have recognized that when Viktor Orbán appears with the 3.3 million ‘no’ votes in his satchel a very unfavorable turn of events will take place from their point of view.” And “they dread the moment when the Hungarian prime minister says in the European Parliament what people think. Not only the Hungarians but—to quote Schulz—the majority of Europeans.” The title of the article is “They are afraid of him as the Devil is of incense.” So much for Schulz’s dialogue.

incense

Today, Gergely Gulyás responded to Schulz’s soothing words, which he considered “an important step forward.” But he lamented the fact that the European Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, where the left and liberal members are “in a depressing majority,” still want compulsory quotas without any upper limit. The Hungarian government appreciates Schulz’s call for dialogue, but “we would find it helpful if the socialist president of the European Parliament would try to curb the political extremism espoused by the majority of representatives in his own delegation.”

Government critics are not at all pleased with Schulz’s statements, especially in light of recent developments at home. Most people on the democratic side are convinced that no dialogue can be conducted with a dictator, and they consider Viktor Orbán a man who by now for all practical purposes is an autocrat with unlimited power. Nothing can happen in the country without his approval, and if the courts find some of the acts of the government illegal, in no time the laws are changed. According to them, Hungary is no longer a democracy and the European Union should recognize this fact.

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that in the last six years Viktor Orbán has created a political system that cannot legally be replaced. No opposition, no matter how well prepared, intelligent, and diligent, can remove Viktor Orbán from power. He might remain in office for the next twenty years unless something drastic happens. Can the European Union allow such a rogue state to remain within its borders? What if other countries in the region with weak democratic traditions follow Orbán’s example? Should the leading politicians in the EU worry about Orbán’s sensitivities when at home he mercilessly crushes his opposition? I don’t think so.

October 12, 2016

György Matolcsy, a headache for Viktor Orbán

In the last few weeks György Matolcsy, chairman of Hungary’s central bank, appeared before parliament twice, and his performances there have been the butt of jokes.

The Hungarian National Bank is supposed to be an independent entity in the sense that its chairman cannot be instructed either by the government or by parliament as far as its monetary policy is concerned. Parliament can, however, exercise a supervisory function over the bank’s activities. Given the recent scandals surrounding the Hungarian National Bank, Matolcsy was required to answer questions from the floor.

On both May 17 and June 13 Matolcsy was asked about the details of the bank’s foundations and the billions these foundations either lent or gave away to Matolcsy’s friends and family members. On both occasions, MSZP’s Gergely Bárándy posed the questions, questions that Matolcsy either couldn’t answer or refused to answer. He simply brushed them aside and repeated three times: “Sham! Sham! Sham!” He declared that anyone who attacks him and the National Bank is doing great harm to the Hungarian currency. In return, Bárándy called him a liar. A few days later the Hungarian National Bank’s press department announced that Chairman Matolcsy is suing Bárándy for slander.

György Matolcsy at his appearance in the parliament on May 17 / MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

György Matolcsy at his appearance in parliament on May 17 / MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

This first performance was followed by a second, when again the opposition pressed Matolcsy regarding the money that was passed to the small bank of Tamás Szemerey, who happens to be Matolcsy’s first cousin. MSZP members of parliament also wanted to know what Szemerey’s wife was doing on the board of one the central bank’s foundations.

Matolcsy’s answer was curious to say the least. He has many cousins who have not received any money from the Hungarian National Bank. For example, László Trócsányi, the current minister of justice, is also a cousin through the Darányi and Héjjas families. Moreover, Márton Kasnyik, a journalist at 444.hu who is very critical of him, is also a cousin. Trócsányi, “although he greatly admires the bank chairman,” rushed to correct the record. He is in no way related to Matolcsy, he said, although Matolcsy had earlier claimed that the information about the family ties came from Trócsányi himself. As for Kasnyik, Matolcsy’s claim is far-fetched. Their last common ancestor lived sometime in the eighteenth century.

Bárándy didn’t stop at family ties. He also asked the bank chairman about numerology. He wanted to know whether it is true that Matolcsy has something against the number 8, and whether it is true that he banished the offending number both inside and outside of the bank. No more Room 8 inside. And the official address of the bank was changed from Szabadság tér 8-9 to Szabadság tér 9. Also, Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that only people who were born on August 20, 1984 can work in the secretariat of the bank. Matolcsy’s reaction was one of great indignation. But instead of denying the rumors, he simply insisted that his antagonists are concocting conspiracy theories against him.

It was at this point that people began to question the mental competence of the bank chairman, including Gergely Bárándy himself who expressed his doubts about Matolcsy’s mental state on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk).

Before I return to Matolcsy’s more serious problems, let me insert a bit of family history here. The Matolcsy genealogy was thoroughly researched by a relative, and the almost 100-page family tree is quite impressive. Students of history know the Matolcsy name mainly because of Mátyás Matolcsy (1905-1953), apparently a brilliant economist who ended up as a far-right politician in the 1930s and 1940s. He became a member of the Arrow Cross party and in 1946 received a ten-year jail sentence. He died in jail. Mátyás is only a distant relative of György.

It is a mystery why Matolcsy felt compelled to bring up the Darányi and Héjjas families. Kálmán Darányi, prime minister of Hungary between 1936 and 1938, is associated with the radical right in Hungarian politics, especially during the second half of his premiership when he appointed Germanophile politicians to his cabinet and had a hand in the preparation of the First Anti-Jewish Law. As for the Héjjas family, Iván Héjjas is synonymous with the White Terror. While Pál Prónay was in charge of the summary executions in Transdanubia, Héjjas was at the helm in the territories between the Danube and the Tisza rivers. Search me why a sane man would brag about such a lineage in connection with an alleged relative who turned out not to be a relative at all.

Turning back to the pressure being brought to bear on Matolcsy. After two years of wrangling in court, the Hungarian National Bank was ordered to release a study Századvég did for the bank for the modest sum of 1.8 billion forints. It turned out that the study the bank received had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic Századvég was supposed to analyze. It was, it seems, just another instance of money being laundered through Századvég with the assistance, in this case, of the National Bank.

Yesterday Matolcsy received a letter from Mario Draghi, chairman of the European Central Bank, who explained again that “Article 123 TFEU prohibits the ECB and national central banks from purchasing public debt instruments directly on the primary market.” In brief, the Hungarian central bank cannot invest in government bonds even if they are purchased on the primary market by its foundations.

And one final note. There are people of some importance in the Fidesz ranks who have reservations about Matolcsy’s activities. One is Gergely Gulyás, one of Orbán’s deputies, who is usually an eloquent defender of everything the Orbán government does. So when he says that “there have been some questionable financial decisions by the foundations,” it must mean that not all the Fidesz bigwigs support Matolcsy, that they are worried about the troubles his activities have brought to the party. Further proof that Gulyás must have reservations about the increasingly shady affairs of the government and other Fidesz-controlled institutions like the prosecutor’s office or the National Bank is that in a recent interview he admitted that several times he had toyed with the idea of leaving politics altogether. Indeed, this articulate, smart, always impeccably dressed “young gentleman,” coming from the upper middle class of the Buda bourgeoisie (budai úri fiú), simply doesn’t fit in with the likes of the brutish Szilárd Németh, his fellow deputy chairman of Fidesz. He comes across as someone who, in a different setting, would be a traditional conservative, and a conservative could never feel entirely at home in Fidesz.

June 16, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s “veto” turned out to be a hoax

The Hungarian media was abuzz for a few hours late last night with Viktor Orbán’s “veto” of the agreement between Turkey and the European Union at the March 7 summit in Brussels. If you visit the official site of the Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, you will find that its reporter learned from “sources in Brussels” that the summit was abruptly cancelled as a result of Viktor Orbán’s veto of the direct transfer of refugees from Turkey to the European Union. The report was filed at 20:06.

If MTI’s inaccurate reporting had remained the only source of the news, it wouldn’t have spread so fast as it did, all over the world. But Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, decided to write on Twitter at 20:44: “Orban has vetoed EU-Turkey plan to relocate asylum seekers directly from Turkey.”

Less than an hour later, at 21:18, MTI returned to the subject of the veto. This second MTI report, written in Budapest, followed an interview with Zoltán Kovács on Channel M1 of the Hungarian state television. Here, the abrupt cancellation of the summit was changed to “cessation of the negotiations on the direct transfer of refugees from the Turkish refugee camps.”

Right-wing papers were singing the praises of Hungary’s great diplomat and statesman who had the courage to say no to the powerful heads of state of the European Union. But it didn’t take long before Hungarian reporters found out that there was in fact no decision that Orbán had the opportunity to veto. What happened was that during the discussion of the Turkish suggestion to transfer Syrian refugees directly to the European Union several member states objected to the details of the plan: Greece, Italy, Cyprus, France, and Hungary. Most likely, as Kovács indicated, the Turkish suggestion will have to be reworked to be acceptable to these countries. And indeed, discussions will take place in the next week or so between Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish prime minister, to modify and fine tune the proposal.

European leaders hailed the summit as a breakthrough because Turkey offered to take back all migrants who cross into Greece in the future. Of course, the deal comes at a price: doubling EU subsidies to care for the refugees from 3 to 6 billion euros and “a commitment to take one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece’s Aegean islands.” In addition, Turkey asked the EU to speed up visa free travel for Turkish citizens and to open negotiations about EU accession for Turkey.

Aat today's press conference Angela Merkel looks very satisfied with herself

At today’s press conference Angela Merkel seemed happy with the results

So, let’s return briefly to the issue of the direct transfer of Syrians from Turkey to the European Union, which Orbán didn’t veto but only objected to along with several other member states. What is it all about? Is it really bad for the European Union countries?

First of all, let’s see what the plan would actually entail. Let’s say that in the future, after the agreement takes effect, a boat arrives in Greece from Turkey with twenty illegal immigrants, ten of whom are Syrians, five are Afghans, and five are Iranians. All twenty will be sent back to Turkey, according to the plan, but for the ten illegal Syrians, one of the European countries could choose ten Syrians currently in Turkish refugee camps. They would already have been vetted. Moreover, the host countries could make their choices based on the professional background of the asylum seekers or on any other criteria, like educational attainment, marital status, or age. Amnesty International considers this selection process immoral, inhuman, and shortsighted.

As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, he repeatedly stated that Hungary will never accept quotas, compulsory or otherwise. In fact, in the most recent Friday morning interview he said that in Hungary “there will be no breaking through the fence, no revolts in refugee camps, no bandits hunting for Hungarian women…. We will not create a Europe out of Hungary, which will remain a safe place.”

The impression in Turkey is that Orbán doesn’t want any Muslims in his country, period. The Turkish Gazette Vatan quoted an Orbán statement at length, where he exhibited his anti-Muslim prejudices. According to the paper, Orbán at the summit said: “In our view, countries can accept a large number of Muslim immigrants. It’s their choice, but we do not want to…. [The direct transfer plan] doesn’t apply to all EU countries. If I gave approval to this plan, people would hang me from a lamp post in Budapest.” If it is indeed the case that not all EU countries will be required to take Syrians straight from Turkey, Orbán’s “veto” becomes especially ridiculous.

Fidesz’s official assessment came this afternoon. The spokesman for the party was Deputy Chairman Gergely Gulyás, who stressed that “at last the leaders of the European Union accepted the same position that Hungary has always represented, meaning that the borders of the European Union must be defended.” This is an incredible statement because we remember only too well that Orbán first demanded that Greece defend its 10,000 km. of coastline by force and later suggested amassing an international contingent to intercept boats carrying refugees. This deal with Turkey bears no resemblance to Orbán’s plans. But such discrepancies have never bothered any of the high-level Fidesz politicians.

Gulyás stressed, however, that the Hungarian government considers the agreement as it now stands “not in Hungary’s interest,” and therefore “in its present form it cannot be signed.” The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, followed suit and collected a host of negative opinions about the results of the summit, mostly from French papers. Magyar Nemzet, on the other hand, criticized MTI, Zoltán Kovács, and the state television for misinforming the public.

At the end, Angela Merkel herself set things straight when this morning she gave a press conference, during which a reporter asked her about Viktor Orbán’s “veto.” “There was no talk about a veto but about some disputed questions. You are familiar with the Hungarian point of view concerning quotas. They even went to court on this issue. This standpoint hasn’t changed. We still have to find answers for a score of questions or have to discuss them in the different parliaments. That’s why we said that we welcome the Turkish proposal but we haven’t given the nod yet.”

Orbán may have strenuously objected, but he still approved the final statement, which contained the provision for compulsory quotas. That’s why Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of the Democratic Coalition (DK), said that the only thing Orbán is doing at the moment is trying to divert attention from the fact that within two weeks he twice voted for the compulsory quotas. Gréczy pointed out that the final document specifically mentions the necessity of speeding up the dispersion of refugees in order to lighten Greece’s burden. I am really looking forward to that final nod, to which Merkel referred. I’m sure that, despite all the theatrics, Viktor Orbán will be one of the signatories.

March 8, 2016