Tag Archives: Greece

Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis has been discarded

I really hate leaving the topic of the teachers’ revolt because I am convinced that this is an important event that may have lasting consequences in the political life of Hungary. Of course, we will return to the subject by Saturday at the latest. But, although Hungarians in the eighteenth century liked to think that “extra Hungariam non est vita, si est vita, non est ita” (there is no life outside of Hungary and if there is, it is not the same), the world is currently teeming with events that may have a substantial impact on Hungary, which Viktor Orbán is trying to insulate from the rest of the world.

I think it is patently obvious by now that the Hungarian prime minister imagines himself to be a key player on the world stage. In the last few weeks he has positioned himself as a counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offering an alternative policy of how to handle the refugee issue.

Russian bombers are furiously attacking moderate opposition forces in Syria, driving tens of thousands more people into exile in Turkey and thereby swelling the number of refugees who are embarking on the dangerous voyage to Greece and from there to points farther north. In bombing Aleppo, Russia is wittingly or unwittingly exacerbating the crisis within the European Union, fueled in no small measure by Viktor Orbán himself. Clearly, Europe must find a solution to the crisis. It’s not that even two or three million people couldn’t be absorbed by a region of 500 million inhabitants, but such numbers, especially if the refugees swarm into only one or two countries, can become unmanageable.  So, the influx must be slowed and regulated.

Currently there are two very different concepts in circulation regarding the defense of the European Union’s external borders. One is an orderly resettlement of refugees, which involves slowing the influx of refugees by controlling the Aegean Sea. This idea is supported by Angela Merkel. The other is “the brainchild” of Viktor Orbán and is supported by some of the Central European politicians. The greatest supporter of Orbán’s scheme is Miro Cerar, prime minister of Slovenia. This involves constructing an insurmountable fence between Greece and her three neighbors:  Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria. Which of these two plans has the better chance of being approved at the end of the day? Most observers think that Orbán’s plan will fail because “it would needlessly and unfairly antagonize Greece, destabilize the Western Balkans, and create a huge demand for readily available smuggling services.” In addition, it would require a fence as long as and as sturdy as that between Israel and Egypt that took three years to build. It would also entail a willingness to use deadly force.

As the result of Orbán’s masterplan, Hungary’s relations with Greece are strained. How tense they are became public only very recently when Nikos Xydakis, the Greek deputy foreign minister for European affairs, paid a visit to Budapest. The Greek foreign ministry announced on February 8 that Xydakis, whom the Greeks call “alternate minister,” was to visit Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. In Austria he had a meeting scheduled with Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner and the secretary-general of the Austrian foreign ministry, Michael Linhart. From Vienna he was to travel to Slovakia, where he was to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák and Deputy Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Ivan Korčok. Finally, he was to meet with officials in Budapest.

Xydakis got a mouthful from Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who severely criticized Greek measures taken in keeping the refugees at bay. She “wanted to know why the Greek leadership did not use its deployment-ready naval fleet for civilian purposes.” In Bratislava, where he met with the foreign minister himself, he had an easier time. Their meeting was described as friendly. Instead of criticizing Greece, the Slovak foreign minister wanted to hear about Greece’s refugee management.

In Hungary Xydakis had three meetings. One was with Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, the second with Levente Magyar, deputy to Péter Szijjártó, and the third with Szabolcs Ferenc Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs. We don’t know what transpired at these talks, but Xydakis wasn’t in a very good mood when Népszabadság asked him for an interview. He minced no words, calling Hungarian policy towards Greece “hostile.” Hungary hasn’t even sent one tent to Greece, and it contributed only five policemen to the staff of Frontex’s mission. At the same time Hungary sent 100 km of barbed wire and 31 soldiers and policemen to assist in the building of a fence along the Greek-Macedonian border. “This was a political decision, which we consider to be a hostile act from a NATO ally and an EU partner whom we considered our friend. The Macedonian and Bulgarian action is unfriendly, but it understandable that they want to defend their own borders. What, however, is unacceptable is that other EU countries send policemen and soldiers to the Macedonian-Greek and Bulgarian-Greek borders. Who is the enemy? We, the Greeks?”

From the interview we learned that both Vienna and Bratislava offered material aid to Greece, which has had an influx of almost a million refugees. In Budapest Pintér offered nothing. He said only that he will take a look at the list of items Greece desperately needs. Xydakis also reported during the interview that German-Greek relations, which during the Greek financial crisis were severely strained, have improved greatly. The refugee crisis has brought Germany and Greece closer, and today they work hand in hand because collaboration is an absolute necessity under the present circumstances.

In Xydakis the Hungarians found somebody who is not like the usual overly cautious and overly diplomatic West European politicians. Xydakis, who is relatively new to politics, used to be the editor-in-chief of Greece’s premier daily Kathimerini. Knowing the Orbán regime’s policy of immediate counterattack at the slightest criticism of its policies, you can imagine what Péter Szijjártó had to say after reading this interview. The diatribe against Greece was long, but one can summarize it easily: Greece has no right to give lessons on solidarity. It is entirely Greece’s fault that Europe is defenseless because Greece isn’t fulfilling its obligations. Hungary had the remedy from the very beginning: one needs soldiers, policemen, ships, helicopters, airplanes, not Frontex officials. If Europe is ready to defend the border by force, Hungary is ready to contribute to the effort.

Source: The Independent

Source: The Independent

I wonder what Szijjártó thinks now that a few hours ago the decision was made to deploy the NATO fleet to the Aegean Sea. The decision was made right after Greece declared Turkey a “safe third country,” which gives it the legal framework to turn back asylum-seekers arriving through Turkey. The fleet, which is currently under German command, “will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the Aegean sea.” It seems that the West, which has been so severely criticized by Orbán, is quite capable of acting without his assistance. The idea of keeping Greece under quarantine failed. I wonder what will happen to the 100 km of barbed wire Budapest sent to the Macedonian border.

February 11, 2016

Silence in Hungary since the mini-summit

The silence in the Hungarian media about the Leaders’ Meeting in Brussels has been deafening.  After searching for well over an hour, I managed to find two op/eds and a couple of interviews with former diplomats. Both op/ed pieces, in my opinion, misinterpret both the significance of the meeting and the role of Viktor Orbán.

If you were to ask even the most diligent follower of the Hungarian media, I’d bet he/she would be hard pressed to tell you what actually happened at the mini-summit. The only thing he/she would know is that Viktor Orbán was there only as an observer. The op/ed in Népszabadság is full of ambivalent sentences like: “Officials in Budapest talk contemptuously about the results of the meeting while part of the German press seems to discover the basis of a common migrant policy in the 17-point action package.” Keep in mind that the media hasn’t given the Hungarian public any details of what is in this package. Viktor Orbán’s role is barely touched: “Orbán nodded [to the proposals] but didn’t take part in the debate.” The headline uses even stronger language: “Orbán got out, Merkel in trouble, Tsipras attacks.” The discrepancy between Orbán’s rhetoric and his obediently signing the document is ignored. György Sebes of Népszava in an opinion piece titled ” Viktor–Victory” is convinced that the Hungarian prime minister won this latest battle as he wins them all. He managed to gain popularity at home by successfully diverting attention from the serious domestic problems to the migrant crisis. And now he has saved the country from participating in the solution to the migrant crisis.

As far as the Hungarian media is concerned, there was a meeting of eleven prime ministers and they signed something, but nothing has really changed. Indeed, the greatest news seems to be that someone discovered the youthful Viktor Orbán spinning the wheel of fortune on TV2 in 2001. The only substantive news item came this afternoon from the new pro-government Magyar Idők, which reported that the government named Tibor Lakatos, a police colonel who works in the ministry of interior, to be Hungary’s coordinator. Mind you, the paper learned about this appointment only from the website of European Commission. The government didn’t consider it necessary to inform the Hungarian public of Lakatos’s new role.

Tibor Lakatos, who until fairly recently was deputy police captain of Vas County, will be an odd addition to the list of coordinators who, by and large, currently occupy high positions in their governments. All seem to have diplomatic experience. The European Commission is represented by the diplomatic adviser to Juncker’s cabinet. Albania is sending the prime minister’s adviser on security matters. There are a number of undersecretaries and several so-called sherpas or personal representatives of a government whose job is to prepare international summits. It is hard to tell whether Lakatos’s appointment is supposed to be a snub to Juncker and the Commission or just an example of the Hungarian’s government ineptitude when it comes to diplomacy. I just hope that this police colonel can speak English.

At the mini-summit, in the words of the European Commission, “the leaders … committed … to increasing the capacity to provide temporary shelter, rest, food, health, water and sanitation to all in need, triggering the EU Civil Protection Mechanism where necessary.” Yesterday Croatia activated the protection mechanism, which means financial support from the European Union. (For more information about the EU Civil Protection Mechanism there’s a detailed description of it on the European Commission’s website.) In the past, 55% of the cost of the necessary steps was covered by the European Union, but as of yesterday the decision was made to raise the level of support to 85%. In addition to Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia have also activated the mechanism for material support for such items as tents, blankets, sanitary equipment, and other essentials to help refugees this winter. Yesterday the Commission also awarded €5.9 million in emergency assistance to Greece from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. None of the above was reported by the Hungarian media.

In vain was I searching for any statement by Viktor Orbán, but Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó had a busy day. He gave interviews to Kossuth Rádió as well as to MTV’s M1 news channel. In the latter interview he complained about certain prime ministers in the European Union who are not paying the slightest attention to the rules and regulations of the Union. Their governments aren’t registering the refugees and aren’t providing for them but are simply moving them across the border to the neighboring country as soon as possible. Szijjártó seems to have forgotten about the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who were moved from the Croatian border straight to Hegyeshalom on the Austro-Hungarian border.

borders of greece

These are the borders Viktor Orbán wants to defend

According to him, the European Union has an easy task: “they should adopt the Hungarian model with lightning speed in Greece; in plain language they must defend the external borders of Greece.” On Kossuth Rádió he revealed that today he will travel to Lebanon and during the week he will be talking with his Cypriot and Greek colleagues about “the possibility of Greece accepting the assistance of the 28 Union countries in the defense of Greece’s borders.” So, Hungary is now trying on its own to negotiate with Greece concerning the country’s border defense. We will see what comes of this meeting–if, that is, the Hungarian media finds out anything about it. I don’t predict a roaring Hungarian success in Athens.

Closing the Croatian-Hungarian border will not solve anything

It was telegraphed way before yesterday’s summit of the European Council that the key question would be how the European Union could entice Turkey not to allow the unlimited exodus of Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees from its territory. It is only Turkey that can play a meaningful role in stemming the refugee tide because defending the borders of Greece would be a hopeless undertaking given its 6,000 km shoreline. Yet, hopeless or not, this was one of the demands of Viktor Orbán already at the last Brussels summit.

Naturally, under these circumstances Turkey is in an ideal position to push for its long-standing political demands vis-à-vis the European Union, such as renewing negotiations for Turkey’s EU membership. Of course, Turkey will need other enticements to take care of ever larger numbers of refugees. The Hungarian government as a friend of the present Turkish regime is supportive of Turkey’s aspirations and is ready to follow whatever common policy the EU comes up with.

The summit, however, didn’t support Orbán’s suggestion for the common defense of Greece’s borders. Instead they opted to strengthen Frontex, an agency whose mission “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter applying the concept of integrated border management.” After the meeting Donald Tusk explained that the decision was made to endow Frontex with greater powers than what it now possesses to ensure “the defense of the European community.” But, he added, a humane and effective solution must be found because otherwise “others” will find inhumane, nationalistic, un-European solutions. I wonder whom Tusk had in mind.

By last night we knew that although Viktor Orbán had voted for the proposals that included the strengthening of Frontex, he would act unilaterally. The fence between Croatia and Hungary was complete, the troops were ready to move. He said that his decision on whether to close the border between the two countries would depend on the agreements the European Council reached at the summit that ended late last night. Right after the meeting the Hungarian prime minister was accosted by a few reporters, and he indicated that he was very unhappy about the summit’s failure to adopt his suggestion for the defense of Greece’s borders. Therefore there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that by this afternoon, shortly after his arrival in Budapest, the border with Croatia would be sealed.

We know two persons whom Viktor Orbán met while in Brussels because we have photos of the meetings. One was with Angela Merkel at a gathering of EPP leaders before the summit began. We don’t know whether he warned the German chancellor about his impending plans, but if he did, I’m sure the announcement was not met with her approval.

The other meeting was with Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, who is just as forceful a man as Orbán is. It was not a formal encounter, but whatever transpired couldn’t have been the friendliest. I gather that this time Orbán did tell Milanović about his plans because after the summit the Croatian prime minister announced that he doesn’t care what Hungary does. He said that “Hungary’s solutions didn’t find supporters in the European Union.” It seems, however, that the two men agreed that “Hungary will not send soldiers to the Croatian-Hungarian border.” Well, that agreement was short-lived: thousands of Hungarian soldiers, policemen, and TEK forces are now stationed along the border.

Zoran Milanović and Viktor Orbán in Brussels, October 15, 2015 MTI / Európai Tanács / Enzo Zucchi

Zoran Milanović and Viktor Orbán in Brussels, October 15, 2015
MTI / Európai Tanács / Enzo Zucchi

As of midnight refugees can enter Hungary from Croatia only through two official gates, one at Beremend and the other at Letenye. Readers of Index and Magyar Idők spotted TEK convoys moving toward these two border crossings, one in the southern and the other in the western section of the Croat-Hungarian border. We can only hope that this time members of TEK will be less brutal than they were a month ago in Röszke on the Serb-Hungarian border.

The opposition parties condemned the decision to seal yet another border, and Együtt and DK accused the Hungarian government of meddling in Croatian domestic affairs. On November 8 there will be national elections in Croatia where the fate of the ruling Kukuriku coalition of four center-left and centrist parties hangs in the balance.  (Yes, “kukuriku” in Croatian means exactly the same thing as in Hungarian [kukurikú] “cock-a-doodle-doo.” The coalition was named after the restaurant where they first met.) The right-of-center Patriotic Coalition, headed by Tomislav Karamarko, is challenging the socialist Zoran Milanović. Polls show that the election will be close.

Fidesz’s sympathies lie with HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), the largest party in the Patriotic Coalition. In the last few days the Hungarian government has lavishly courted the conservative Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who spent three days in the Hungarian capital and held long, friendly conversations with President János Áder. Her win in January was a great surprise to everyone, but from the little I know about Croatian politics her win didn’t signal a serious turn to the right in Croatia. Moreover, according to the latest polls, since Zoran Milanović decided to pick a fight with the Hungarian prime minister the Kukuriku Coalition’s popularity has only grown. Although the Orbán government is hoping to strengthen HDZ with its policies, its anti-Croatian rhetoric may backfire. Of course, a win for the conservatives in Croatia would be considered a triumph for Viktor Orbán and would mean a new ally in the region.

As far as we know, preparations are in place to move the refugees from Croatia to Slovenia. For the time being most people consider building a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, two Schengen countries, outside the realm of possibilities. I don’t want to give any tips to the Orbán government, but I heard a Hungarian international lawyer who is convinced that it could be done legally. Let’s hope he is wrong because otherwise there will be no end to Orbán’s fence building, which has so far cost Hungarian taxpayers 100 million dollars.

Viktor Orbán in Brussels: Success or failure?

There is huge confusion in the Hungarian media over Viktor Orbán’s success or lack thereof at the EU summit yesterday.

The Hungarian prime minister arrived in Brussels with a plan which, in his opinion, could have solved the unchecked influx of refugees coming mainly from Turkey and entering the European Union via Greece. He made sure that the world knew about the details of his plan, which he revealed while visiting Bavaria’s ultra-conservative prime minister, Horst Seehofer, ahead of the summit.

Orbán tried to portray the summit as a gathering of the leaders of the EU member states to discuss his proposals. After the marathon meeting ended, he triumphantly announced that, with the exception of his idea of a pan-European defense of Greece’s borders, all his proposals had received a favorable reception.

Yes, the idea of a common defense of Greece’s borders was vetoed, but that was not the only one that received a less than sympathetic reception. Orbán’s suggestion to set up “hot spots” outside of the EU borders also fell on deaf ears: there will be hot spots in Greece and Italy.

We heard nothing about the reaction to Orbán’s suggestion for “special partnership arrangements” with Turkey and Russia. I’m not sure what kind of a special partnership Orbán had in mind, but at the moment Turkey is alarmed over the Russian military buildup in Syria and I doubt that the European Union would want to get involved in that quagmire.

Orbán also demanded an official EU list of “safe” countries since the question of whether Serbia is a safe country in terms of being able to handle the registration and maintenance of large numbers of refugees is not immaterial from the Hungarian point of view. It is, of course, possible that such a list is in the works, but for the time being no decision has been made. As things stand, Serbia, as far as the EU is concerned, is not a safe country.

Finally, Orbán demanded worldwide quotas, which was also discarded by the representatives of the member states. For a man who furiously rejects quotas for his own country to suggest quotas for extra-EU countries is quite something. In fact, no quotas are necessary because countries are already offering to take in refugees. The United States has said it will take 25,000 Syrians. Canada has a commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. This is in addition to 23,000 Iraqis. Australia will take 12,000 Syrians and Brazil 5,000. One could go on. I’m also certain that the United States will provide financial assistance to the United Nations for the aid of refugees staying in camps in the countries neighboring Syria.

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

In any case, despite his declaration of victory in Brussels, after the summit ended Orbán seemed by turns downtrodden and defiant. Because of the EU’s reluctance to defend Greece’s borders, Hungary has only two choices, he said. Either it continues to build the fence to keep refugees out of Hungary or it simply lets the refugees go to Austria. Although recent news from Hungary indicates that the fence building is continuing, not just along the Schengen border between Croatia and Hungary but also along the Slovenian-Hungarian border, I would be reluctant to predict the final move in this “fencing game” between Hungary and the EU. Tomorrow Viktor Orbán is paying a visit to his arch-enemy, Werner Faymann, chancellor of Austria, who is the greatest opponent of fences and who said that he is ready to take any number of refugees from Hungary.

If Orbán goes ahead with his current plans and orders the construction of a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, his rationale for building the fence in the first place evaporates. Until now he has piously claimed that the erection of the fence is for the sole purpose of defending the borders of Europe. Surely, a fence between Slovenia and Hungary serves only one purpose: to save Hungary from the immigrants. If Orbán decides to extend his fence northward between two Schengen countries he will be revealing his true intentions. I’m not sure he is ready to go that far.

On the other hand, János Lázár just announced that the Hungarian government is contemplating joining Slovakia in mounting a legal challenge to the refugee quotas agreed upon at the meeting of the ministers of interior despite the protestation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán returned from Brussels with a renewed determination to fight any attempt to develop a common EU policy.

Meanwhile he is playing with fire just south of Hungary. It wasn’t so long ago that the Serbs and Croats were at war with one another, and now under the pressure created by Orbán’s fence the two countries are at loggerheads. Border controls have been introduced between the two countries, and they are engaged in a full-fledged trade war. Some people with Serbian passports were turned back at the border by Croat officials. It would be advisable for Orbán to stop his war of independence because it could have serious repercussions not just within the European Union but also in the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe.

Viktor Orbán seems to be endangering the stability of the region and sowing discord among the member states of the European Union for one reason only: to bolster the popularity of his party and ensure his desire for a perpetual premiership. At the moment he is ready to pay any price for that political victory at home. Unless someone stops him.

Zsolt Bayer, a Fidesz hack, on the immigration crisis

It’s been a long time since I wrote about Zsolt Bayer, a notorious columnist for Magyar Hírlap, a pro-Fidesz publication of the more radical sort. One could say that tabloid journalists like Bayer are a dime a dozen, but he is no ordinary scribbler. He holds the #5 membership card of Fidesz. (László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, is the proud owner of #1, ahead of Viktor Orbán.) Bayer might be a vulgar, hate-filled hack, but he is still closely associated with the top political leadership of Fidesz. If Viktor Orbán wanted to shut him up, it wouldn’t take more than a quick telephone call. But clearly he doesn’t want to. In fact, just lately Bayer had some very distinguished guests on his new program, “Deep Magyar,” on Echo TV, a companion to Magyar Hírlap, starting with Viktor Orbán himself and followed by László Kövér. So, Zsolt Bayer is still an important man in Fidesz and a much-needed one. He is the one who is supposed to keep the radical wing of the party happy.

Zsolt Bayer is always handy to have around, but this time, when the Orbán government decided to reap political benefits from people’s fear of the thousands of refugees who are moving across Hungary, he has been a godsend. He can whip up hatred like nobody else. And nowadays, in addition to his weekly column in Magyar Hírlap, he also started a blog, where those who are not satisfied with one dose of Bayer hate-speech can always find more of the same.

Of course, Bayer is in his element at the moment. It’s the perfect stage for a man whose hate-filled words fire up those under the spell of Viktor Orbán. And, indeed, Bayer of late has turned his attention to the refugee issue. His latest piece titled “Is it unavoidable?” begins with the situation on the island of Kos, which is one of the first stops for arrivals from Turkey.

The state of affairs on Kos, according to Zsolt Bayer, is desperate. Seven thousand “intruders” have arrived. “The tourists have escaped and the hotels are empty, the population is angry and desperate. The horde doesn’t know anything about this. They are just pouring in. But on Tuesday it began….” The “horde” began a demonstration. “‘We want papers! We want to eat!’ they kept screaming,” and they sat down in the middle of a highway. The Greek authorities tried to shepherd “the beasts” into a stadium because “everything else on Kos was already filled with the beasts.” In the stadium a fight broke out and the police had to use billy clubs. Thursday the horde attacked the police. Giorgios Kynthsis, mayor of Kos, said that ” the situation is out of control…. Blood will be shed.”

Now let’s now turn to western descriptions of what happened on the Island of Kos. First of all, Bayer’s description of Kos as a tourist paradise now empty of well-off European visitors is false. “Sunbathers tan on the beach, metres from where migrants camp on the street. Tourists queue for €20 ferry rides to the Turkish shore–a journey that a nearby refugee will have paid 50 times more to complete in reverse.” The hotels are full.

Yes, it is true that there were two occasions when fights broke out among the Syrian and Afghan refugees who have been on Kos for months, waiting for a piece of paper that will allow them to move off the island. Athens, which has had a lot on its plate in addition to the refugee crisis, simply neglected to lighten Kos’s burden. According to the UN Refugee Agency, “conditions for migrants on Kos and other islands are shameful.” They don’t have adequate housing. A Syrian banker told a journalist from The Guardian that he, along with 2,000 of his fellow countrymen, was sandwiched in on a sandy beach for over a day without a drop of water or food. They didn’t even provide open public facilities for them. Apparently, Mayor Giorgios Kynthsis “agreed with the suggestion that no refugee should be given even a bottle of water.” The head of Greece’s reception system claims that “on the island of Kos we don’t have the cooperation of the mayor at all. He thought that if he doesn’t facilitate our operation, the people would go away.” Perhaps this background would make the revolt of “the beasts” more understandable.

 Migrants crammed into stadium as they await registration procedure on Tuesday. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

Migrants crammed into a stadium as they await the registration procedure on Tuesday. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

By today, the mayor of Kos was described by Reuters in an entirely different light: “overcome by emotion, the mayor of Kos handed out water, milk and food to hundreds of Syrian migrants on Friday as a huge passenger ship docked on the Greek island to serve as a floating reception center and dormitory.” I suspect that earlier Kynthsis wanted to call attention to the untenable situation on the island in an effort to prompt Athens to do something in a hurry.

Bayer himself mentions the arrival of the passenger ship because the Greek government “at last got its senses back, but the question now is whether it will be brave enough to deploy the riot police and a battleship. If they do, the Greeks will make history. If they dare to employ the troopers and if necessary the army and at last rid Kos of these hordes, then at last something will begin. But only then…. We will write history only if they send them home packing and eliminate them from the middle of Europe. Once and for all.”

I’ve concentrated on Bayer’s version of what was happening on the island of Kos. But at least half of his article deals with atrocities committed this week in two European countries by non-Europeans. During a police raid in the resort town of Salou in Catalonia, a Senegalese man jumped out of a third-floor window. This set off angry clashes between the police and about 200 people, “many of them believed to be members of the African community.” Here comes Bayer. “The Senegalese was a criminal. They wanted to arrest him. Instead he jumped. So what? It was his decision. He jumped and died. That’s all.” The Spanish authorities “should have handled the situation right then and there. All of them should be cleared out from Spain. They can go home.”

Then he moves on to Sweden where in an IKEA store two men from a nearby refugee center stabbed two people to death. Bayer describes the men as being cooperative with the police and adds that it would have been better if they had resisted arrest because then “the police could have shot them as one does a mad dog.” Now the Swedes have two murderers from Eritrea and two dead white Swedes. “Surely, the exchange was worth it. Long live liberalism! Long live human rights! Except when we talk about the rights of the European, white, Christian race.” Here Bayer uses the word “rassz,” which is practically never used in modern Hungarian in this sense.

Bayer’s conclusion is that Europe must be defended. “It must be freed from this horror. If necessary with arms in hand. If everything remains the same, there will be bloodshed. These hordes believe that only the blood of Europeans can be shed.”

Bayer’s racist rant is dreadful but, let’s face it, the only difference between Bayer and the members of the Hungarian government is that he can freely express his desire for a white, Christian Europe while Viktor Orbán can only hint at such a goal. And if that is not possible, at least the prime minister can try to prevent the “hordes” from the Middle East and Africa from entering Hungary.

“El Camino de Balkan”: In the footsteps of the refugees from Greece to Hungary

Twelve days ago atlatszo.hu announced that a Hungarian journalist, who initially didn’t reveal his name, decided to go to Greece and from there join refugees traveling north to the Serb-Hungarian border. He published his experiences in daily installments in atlatszo.hu. They were titled El Camino de Balkan, a take-off on El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago.

He went to Idomeni, the last Greek village, only about two kilometers from the Macedonian town of Gevgalija on the bank of the Vardar River. This is the favorite spot for refugees to begin their journey from Greece northward.

Of course, by that time the refugees had traveled thousands of miles from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their last stop in Turkey was Izmir, a large city in the westernmost point of Anatolia. From there they sailed to Mitilini (Lesbos) or Kos and then edged their way to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Idomeni, where our man joined a group of refugees.

Greece to Hungary

He didn’t have to wait long. After walking about six kilometers he encountered the first group, about twenty Afghans whose final destination is Germany. They had left Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif a month ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Lesbos. They had just arrived from Saloniki by bus. According to the owner of a local pub, twenty busloads of refugees arrive daily in Idomeni. That is at least 1,000 people. Small shopkeepers sell their wares: hamburgers, soft drinks, ice cream. On a small field there are at least 300 refugees and a policeman, who tries to keep order by dividing them into smaller groups that then cross to Macedonia.

After sitting in the dust for about an hour our journalist encountered two Syrian brothers from Homs, who seemed to be terribly worried about the Hungarian part of the trip. “Everything will be decided there,” they said. They are heading to Norway, where allegedly the rest of the family is already. Eventually, they began their short walk to Gevgelija, the first Macedonian town from which one can reach Belgrade by train.

By the time our journalist, surrounded by Syrians, arrived at the Gevgelija railroad station, the whole place was full of refugees. Every shady spot was already occupied, but some volunteers of the Red Cross tried to help the ailing members of the group. They also distribute food and water twice a day. Apparently, the situation is much better organized now than it was a month and a half ago, when “chases took place among the bushes and the corn fields” and many of the refugees got hurt. Now the authorities organize the crossing themselves.

It was a long wait for the refugees to receive a piece of paper that allows them to stay in Macedonia for 72 hours. Eventually the train to Skopje, which carried only refugees, arrived, and all hell broke loose. There were more people than places and the adults, leaving their children behind, stormed the train. But don’t fret. They knew what they were doing. Once inside the train they lifted their children into the carriage through the windows.

Given how limited space was on the train, our journalist thought he shouldn’t take the place of a real refugee and decided to go by bus to Skopje. As it turned out, the bus was also full of refugees except that these were the better-off ones who could afford to pay their way. Here his companion was Aden from Iraq, with a master’s degree in robotics. Aden didn’t even know where he should go and asked the journalist’s advice, who suggested Norway because “surely there they need engineers.”

At each border crossing the police organized the smooth movement of masses of refugees. Some of them received the Macedonian handwritten piece of paper which makes them legal for 72 hours, some didn’t. It didn’t matter. They all got on trains or buses and moved closer and closer to the border they feared most: the Hungarian.

Our journalist, after reaching Skopje by bus, hired a taxi. Its driver took him to Tabanovce and pointed toward a forest, the customary path into Serbia. Soon enough another taxi arrived which brought seven Syrians. They were well-dressed men and women who received the same directions from their driver as he had. So, they began walking together, but a Macedonian policeman discovered that our journalist wasn’t a refugee and refused to allow him to cross illegally. As a result he had to walk 14 kilometers to the Serbian town of Preshevo. It was 35 degrees, with no shade. After about 8 km a group of Afghans, who until then had been hiding in the ditch next to the road, joined him. They spoke no English; they just kept repeating “asyl… asyl.”

Preshevo is an important station in this Balkan journey. The Serbian authorities are waiting for the crowd. Behind the railroad station is an area whose official name is “place for a single stop,” but everybody just calls it the “kamp.” Here the Serbian police hand out 72-hour passes, this time for Serbia. Again, the wait is extremely long because these passes are handwritten, just as in Macedonia. The crowd is so large that “the whole thing looks absolutely hopeless,” but unfortunately if a poor refugee wants to travel free on a “refugee train” from Preshevo through Belgrade to Subotica/Szabadka, he must have one of these pieces of paper.

Of course, the well-off refugees can save themselves days of waiting for this piece of paper. Our journalist, who worked for years in the Balkans, knows Serbian, and he learned from one of the policemen that “many avoid Preshevo altogether and take a taxi all the way to the Hungarian border. It is only a question of money.” Surely, the well-dressed Syrians our journalist encountered close to Preshevo were not standing in line for that piece of paper.

The situation in Belgrade is somewhat similar to that in Budapest. Two parks near the railroad station are full of refugees. Buses going to cities close to the Hungarian border are booked for days. In the Serbian capital our journalist sensed growing apprehension about the refugee issue. The reason: the fence the Hungarian government is erecting along the border.

The next stop was Kanjiža/Kanizsa, a small town in the Vojvodia, where 85% of the people are Hungarian-speaking. Three buses arrived at the same time from Subotica/Szabadka, all full of refugees. The main square was full of them, but by the next morning the square was empty because the refugees start their final journey at night. According to a town council member who is in charge of the refugees in Kanizsa, only the better-off Iraqis and Syrians end up there. The poorer Afghans wait in Subotica in a large camp set up for them. But still at least 1,000 people go through this town of 9,000 inhabitants daily.

You may have noted that up to this point there was not a word about the smugglers who are allegedly responsible for the onslaught of economic migrants, who lure innocent and ignorant people to begin their perilous journey only to strip them of their last pennies. Instead, we heard about willing Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian policemen who facilitate the refugees’ movement from country to country. This is not the case, however, on the Hungarian-Serbian border, and our journalist had the misfortune of encountering one of these smugglers during the last leg of his journey.

This last stretch meant a journey on foot from Kanizsa to Martonos, where he made half the trip by car thanks to a Hungarian Gypsy. Originally the driver offered him a ride believing that he was picking up a refugee, but when our journalist answered him in Hungarian he got excited: “Oh, my brother, you are Hungarian? Then I’ll take you free of charge.”

From Martonos the refugee route follows an embankment, which eventually goes to Szeged and beyond. Here our journalist encountered a group along the Tisza River of about eighty, led by a bearded Arab who was very suspicious of him, especially when he heard that he is a Hungarian journalist. “Not a good pedigree around here.” Half of the people were Kurds from Iraq and other half, Syrians.  The terrain was rough. It was a heavily wooded area, plus they had to cross a canal which was luckily dry, but the embankment was very steep and there were a lot of children in the group. There was a second canal, which is apparently the actual border between the two countries with an even steeper embankment. The leader of the group made them run as fast as they could through heavy brush only to stop and wait. The journalist found this all rather mysterious.

Eventually he figured out what was going on. The bearded Arab, who was about 35 years old, was the chief here, assisted by four younger guys. They were the ones who walked ahead of the crowd, and all four of them carried knives. At sundown these five washed their hands, face, and feet, and rinsed their mouths. The others watched in silence. Eventually two or three groups joined them, and it became clear that all these people were “paying customers.” A final mad rush and one of the young smugglers came to him, saying “Hungary, go!” They all ended up in Gyálarét, in the outskirts of Szeged.

* * *

Since then our journalist has revealed his real identity. He is György Kakuk, author of a book on Kosovo, where he spent a year during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He worked as a foreign news editor at Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. After retiring from journalism, he was a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly in Balkan countries. A few years ago he decided to enter politics and joined the Demokratikus Koalíció, where he is one of the foreign policy advisers to Ferenc Gyurcsány. He is also on DK’s ten-member executive board.

Yesterday Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the young editors of the conservative Mandiner, wrote a glowing report about the series of articles, which he read with amazement. He considered El Camino de Balkan “the report of the year.” At that time he didn’t know who the author of the report was. Since Rajcsányi is not exactly an admirer of Ferenc Gyurcsány, to put it mildly, I wonder what he would have thought of this fascinating story if knew the real identity of the author. I can only hope that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion.

The Hungarian media and the Greek crisis

On January 27, a day after the victory of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who happened to be in Ankara, expressed his hope that “within the shortest possible time there will be effective and pragmatic cooperation” between Hungary and Greece because “there are many important international challenges which must be handled together.” Magyar Nemzet, then still the faithful mouthpiece of the Orbán government, immediately responded with a pro-Syriza editorial: “It was enough. This was the message the Greeks sent to their corrupt government.” The fact that Syriza was a “Trotskyist, Maoist, socialist and communist” party didn’t bother Magyar Nemzet because, according to Gábor Stier, the paper’s pro-Russian foreign policy editor, Syriza was no longer as radical as it used to be.

A few days later Anna Szabó, another editor, although she expressed her fear that the new government would not be able to solve Greece’s problems, kept fingers crossed for them. After all, Alix Tsipras is doing now what Viktor Orbán did in 2010. Both said “no” to austerity. As for the state of the two economies, Szabó discovered great similarities: the previous Greek governments were as corrupt as the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments: both cheated and falsified data. Austerity, forced on Hungary after 2008 by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, if continued after 2014 would have led Hungary to bankruptcy just as the same policy led Greece to its current troubles.

The Hungarian government signaled a willingness to have close relations with Greece. At the end of March Szijjártó talked with one of the undersecretaries of the Greek foreign ministry about increased trade relations and discussed the possibility of getting EU financial assistance for a highway and railroad connecting Athens and Budapest.

The Hungarian liberal and socialist media was anything but enthusiastic about the Greek developments. Only a few “true believers,” like Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM), broke ranks. “We resolutely and enthusiastically support Syriza without paying attention to the transparent lies of the ridiculous Hungarian press,” he announced. TGM didn’t reveal who these “we” were. Given the strength of the Hungarian far left, he was maybe talking on behalf of a handful of people. And indeed. According to their website, on March 13, 2015 eleven people established the Balpárt (Left Party), which “considers the examples of the Greek Syriza, the German Die Linke, and the Portuguese Blocco its guiding principles.” The last article about Greece to appear on its website, on July 6, was titled: “Today Athens, Tomorrow Budapest!” The author of the article was the chairman of the party, Szilárd Kalmár, a social worker. The article was subsequently translated into English and published in the Hungarian Free Press (Ottawa).

In addition to this far-left group, there are a couple of economists who have been supportive of the Greek position. Foremost among them is Zoltán Pogátsa, a professor of economics at the University of Western Hungary. Pogátsa has his own website on which he has published several articles about the Greek situation. In his estimate the blame for the crisis clearly falls on the European Union and the other creditors, and he accuses the European Union of abandoning everyman in favor of bankers and capitalists. Interestingly enough, an editorial in the right-wing Válasz also shows great sympathy for the Greek position and practically takes over the arguments of one of Pogátsa’s articles on an English-language Greek site called SigmaLive. In this article Pogátsa explains why the “dear Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Slovenes” must show solidarity with the Greek people although they might be a great deal poorer than the Greeks.

The other economist who takes a more sympathetic view of the Greek position is Péter Róna, an American-Hungarian economist and investment banker, who is politically close to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist LMP. In his opinion, all the troubles Greece is experiencing today stem from the introduction of the euro. His argument is that the introduction of a common currency in countries or states with less developed economies necessarily lead to their further economic deterioration. Therefore, Róna, in an article published in Népszabadság today, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone, the creditors should write off at least half of Greece’s debt, and for the rest there should be at least a ten-year moratorium. In addition, over the next three to five years Greece should receive about 60 billion euros. Róna seems to forget about Greek corruption, graft, and a general reluctance to pay taxes.

So, this is the sum total of pro-Syriza voices in Hungary. The rest, including socialist and liberal commentators, are less than sympathetic. In an editorial in yesterday’s Népszabadság the author compares the Greek situation today to the earlier troubles of Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus–countries which followed the advice of the international financial institutions and in short order saved their economies. But in Greece people refuse to face facts and admit their mistakes. The Greek government doesn’t dare tell the people that “for the current crisis not only the foreigners are responsible.” The Greek people must change their ways.

Péter Techet in HVG is even less polite. The title of his opinion piece is “Solidarity but not with the Greeks.” Techet complains about the European left, which wants to help Greece where the salaries are three times higher than in the former Soviet satellite countries, but which ignores the millions who live in poverty in the eastern periphery of the Union. Syriza’s far-left politics repel him, and he finds the government’s cooperation with the far-right as well as Syriza’s nationalism and “aggression against Macedonia” unacceptable. He, like Róna except for different reasons, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone before it drags the whole Union into economic chaos.

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

Magyar Nemzet reported that Syriza’s followers attacked journalists who were, in their opinion, not supportive enough of the “No” answer. Some of these journalists talk about “a march toward Stalinism” in Greece under Syriza rule. In the same paper a long interview appeared with László Csaba, a professor of economics, who was also very critical of Greek politicians’ handling of the economy in the last decade or so. He pointed out that the black market economy in Greece amounts to a staggering 40% of the GDP. He places the blame largely on the Greek political leadership.

Attila Ara-Kovács in his recent editorial in Magyar Narancs called Syriza “unacceptable,” a sentiment most Hungarian commentators share. In Hungary, only a handful of far-left people representing practically nobody are taking the side of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza.