Tag Archives: Hungarian Helsinki Commission

Today’s extra: Interview with leaders of three Hungarian NGOs

Republishing this interview with three prominent civic leaders is timely since today the Hungarian parliament discussed a bill regulating civic groups that receive financing from abroad. I will report on the stormy session itself later. I am grateful to The Budapest Sentinel for permission to use their translation.

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Translation of interview with Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute (EKINT) director Bernadette Somody (pictured left), Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi (center), and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) managing director Stefánia Kapronczay (right) published in index.hu on April 12th, 2017 under the title “This is the logic of tyranny.” Photographed by István Huszti.

After Central European University (CEU) the government submitted a bill targeting far more defenseless civil organizations.  Civil organizations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000-tran.) annually from sources abroad would have to register themselves as foreign organizations, and those who refuse would be threatened with closure.

CEU appears to be the most important cause, when in fact this is.

  • The interviewees do not want to try to understand the bill, because they do not consider it a basis for discussion.
  • They believe the draft law is not about transparency but about making their work impossible, intimidation, and stigmatizing them.
  • They say that the government is not interested in contrary opinions, but wants to smother debate by eliminating civil society.
  • If government decisions may not be questioned, then they are not legitimate.
  • They promise not to cooperate, and that they will not break.

The bill is about “the transparency of organizations supported from abroad.”  Each can decide for himself whether the three civil organizations operate in a transparent manner: EKINT’s economic data can be viewed here, Helsinki’s here, and TASZ’s here.

In response to criticism from politically active civil organizations, the government repeatedly accuses them of being funded from abroad, which is true.  Why can’t you find supporters at home?

Márta Pardavi: This is true of every human rights civil organization in the region of central Europe.  This is a given.  There are not state resources for such objectives, but if there were, nowadays it is doubtful whether accepting them would not compromise independence.

The other possibility is that the population and society support the legal defenders. But neither the ability of Hungarian society to do so, nor people’s knowledge of human rights and democracy can be compared to that of Holland.  Because those groups whose rights legal defenders try to defend are often poor, stigmatized, and live on the periphery, their ability to promote their interests are low, and the state organizational structure does not help them.

It is due to these external limitations that our work is largely supported by foreign donors.  Which does not cost the Hungarian budget anything, even as civil organizations provide a number of services which the state ought to.

The EU is one source, and there are large foundations, not just the Open Society Foundation, which think it important that human rights be better respected around the world.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never accepted state support, because we always protected Hungarian citizens from the Hungarian state, and one of the necessary conditions of this is that it never happen that the state dictate what citizens we protect. Because it is the state which commits the most legal violations, we cannot accept money from it.

We also have a high ratio of foreign support, and of course the question arises how much support a Budapest-based foundation founded by Hungarians receives in the form of foreign money.  It is also worthwhile adding that there are affluent persons, not only in Hungary but in many places in the world. who want to gave part of their wealth to good causes.  These foundations do not operate here for historical and economic reasons, but rather, for example, in England.

An activity involving somebody giving of their wealth not only to their children or their immediate surroundings but to social goals  should not be stigmatized but appreciated.

Bernadette Somody:  Why is it an accusation if money originates from abroad?  It is false to suggest that if the money is foreign, then the interest is also that.  It does not follow from the fact that foreign sources can be found for these that these are foreign interests, because these are international interests. It reflects badly on the Hungarian government if it regards certain universal values as strange or foreign.  It is not true that there is no value for Hungarian citizens in things for which funds cannot be found in Hungary.

Would it be better if organizations could fund a greater proportion from micro donations or domestic companies?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  A country or society’s level of development is shown by the existence of common goals, values, and the degree of willingness, strength, and money to stand up for social matters or minority groups. There are more and more volunteers in Hungary, and those who donate regularly. But there is a huge difference between somebody who volunteers at their children’s school and if a non-Roma regularly donates to the work of a foundation that stands up for Roma rights.  Also a precise measure is whether a company dares to undertake such matters.  The reason it is possible to maintain the foreign organizations’ interest narrative is because Hungarian society is still very polarized, and there are few values in which the majority, or everyone, believes.

Márta Pardavi: Of course, it would be better if more Hungarian citizens supported (civil society), and for years we’ve endeavored to better explain to them why our work is useful to society.  Unfortunately, the campaign against civil society today is so intensive that the civil activities and their results themselves have come to be questioned.  I think many are contemplating whether civil organizations are even needed, and whether they are turning to a bunch of people suspected working according to political orders if they ask help or extend help.  This is not the fault of civil society but a consequence of the anti-civil government campaign.

Bernadette Somody:  We are talking as though there are three different squares on the map: the state, that is, the government; society, so citizens; and the civil organizations. This is already the product of the government’s propaganda.  There are not three areas but rather two: on the one hand the state organs, the government, the practitioners of public power, and on the other, society.  Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work.

The government justifies the modification to the law on the basis of creating transparency.  What’s the matter with this?

Bernadette Somody: It is not at all a question of whether we would want to operate transparently.  It is important that if we represent a given opinion, our financial background be known.  But this is already entirely the case today.  What we are speaking out against is the stigmatization, against the need to register separately, and the closure of those who do not satisfy this requirement.

Stefánia Kapronczay: In 2015 we even issued an opinion about this.  We try to take seriously the principle of transparency.  We wrote that the supporter can already be known, and whether a given source is international, and what activity is undertaken using the support. In fact, we set forth recommendations as to what operating information should be made available in place of the expected financial accounting.

Bernadette Somody:  Among consolidated relationships it is reasonable to raise the question as to what the motivations are of those who loudly participate in the democratic debate.  The stronger their position, and our position in the media is still perhaps louder than that of a citizen, the more it is necessary to disclose information about itself.  It is precisely for this reason that we still show our budgets going back years.

What principles argue against civil organizations being as transparent as possible?

Bernadette Somody:  The fact that we do not make decisions that are binding on citizens.  We have our opinions, just like any other citizen, but their expression is not associated with any compulsory or public power, and we do not spend public money.  In contrast to the state, there is no reason in the case of civil organizations why the main rule needs to be transparency.  We must not compromise our right to demand, just like any citizen, that there be a constitutional reason to compel us to make information public.  I think people would be outraged to be told by a company to publish their salary on the internet.  Why would they do this?  Under no circumstances do we wish to find meaning in a meaningless concept.  We do not want to act as though we believe that this is a real argument.  The bill is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.

How much are civil organizations of this kind required to accommodate the expectations of foreign supporters?

Márta Pardavi: Donors always have expectations: this is called strategy or application and reporting obligations.  The task of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to protect refugees.  One method of this is to provide legal assistance that enables vulnerable people to navigate the legal maze.  We agree with this, and in this sense it is not about alignment but about a community of values.   Applications involve a huge amount of paperwork and tremendous inspection.  It is mostly the same when it comes to the administration of EU supports and the Open Society Foundation.  But beyond the obligations set forth in the application and the contract, it is not necessary to meet any other expectations.  They do not even say at the UNHCR whether we can appeal in a specific case or what kind of statement we should issue.

Bernadette Somody:  The basis for the relationship with the donor is the community of values in the goals, as well as oversight ensuring that the money is spent properly which must be strictly documented.  But it is not like a road construction tender, where the government says a 50 km-long road is to be built between cities A and B with such and such a foundation and from such and such materials, and the one submitting the cheapest offer (or somebody else) wins the tender.  Our clients do not instruct us in such a manner.  We agree that people should be able to travel more easily and more safely, this is supported by a donor, and we submit a proposal as to what we believe would be a good mode of transportation.  They require of us that we perform what we undertook.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  The organizations have public, easily accessible strategies.  For 22 years TASZ has held decision-makers to account according to the same principles.  To say that we change to suit the expectations of the donors is a lie.  There is never any concrete substantive expectation as to what we are to execute.  Naturally, it matters what applications can be submitted in a given season. But we do not change our values because of this, and we retain the activity for which there is no funding and try to find money for it.  For this reason it is very important that those citizens who agree with our activities support us with a monthly donation, even if it is only a symbolic amount.  If only so that we can stand on several legs, since this is also one of the bases for dependency.

How stable are they financially?

Márta Pardavi:  In an ideal case a civil organization, like every  business organization, should have a stable, reliable income from which it can finance its basic operation, and if it wants to especially focus on something for a few years, say that the same authority that is investigating should not choose legal defenders, then we can obtain separate money for that.  It should not be necessary to worry whether it will be possible at the end of the year to pay the financial advisor or whether the office will have electricity.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain donations for that, and civil organizations must often rely on the current opportunities at hand.  But certainly we are not willing to do certain things.  We do not apply for funds allocated for achieving objectives that are not among our priorities or which do not pertain to our activities.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  If such an organization can see twelve months ahead that its operating costs are covered, then it is very happy.  We could sleep well if we saw three years in advance but the reality is at most one year.

Bernadette Somody:  EKINT is clearly under-financed.  It would be good if we could see one year in advance.  We operate with an extremely small budget but with salaries that are acceptable to committee people,  But it is entirely certain that there are interdependencies with the circles of activities of the Eötvös Károly Institute which are slightly more difficult to illuminate than defending the rights of people.

Yes, it is possible to know more about TASZ and Helsinki, but what does EKINT deal with?

Bernadette Somody:  Originally the institution came about to transform the theoretical foundations of knowledge for use by the government.  Today there is no need whatsoever for this on the part of the government.  But meanwhile it is necessary to confront the fact that the frameworks and the foundations have been called into question.  EKINT did not want to pursue a mission other than the one for which it was created 15 years ago, but changes to our environment made this necessary and forced us to stand up for the boundaries of constitutional democracy.  The government liquidated the institutional system protecting human and basic rights.  This can only be occasionally accomplished in a decorative manner.  For this reason EKINT supervises the institutions and mechanisms overseeing the exercise of public power, and we call attention to when they are compromised, and we try to maintain the need for them so that we do not get used to this like the frog does to hot water in a pot of boiling water.

It is not clear to many people that it is not volunteers but paid employees working at serious civil organizations.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is only necessary to pay our colleagues because the people working here could work at law offices or other companies.  It is not possible to fulfill our obligations with volunteers; only with paid, professional experts.  Just our legal assistance service handles more than 2000 requests annually and involves 120 unique legal cases.  They often ask what my regular job is apart from what I do at TASZ.  At these times I am astonished they believe it is possible to perform work besides this.

Bernadette Somody:  The civil organizations have to pay their colleagues not only because they could work elsewhere but also to prevent them from being compromised.  I can maintain that EKINT employees always promote our values and interests if I can ensure their existential security.  If somebody is forced to live from other sources, then their existential interests may compete with the interests of their civil workplace.

How is it possible to explain to those who do not understand why it is necessary to have civil organizations at all?

Bernadette Somody: The state renders decisions that are binding on us, its citizens.  That we submit ourselves to these even if we do not agree carries a minimal moral condition: that we dispute these decisions.  The draft modification to the law about CEU was adopted a week after it was tabled.  There was no opportunity for debate.

As with the press, civil organizations are capable of amplifying an alternative, often minority point of view, and to keep these on the agenda in order for there to be an opportunity to strengthen points of view contrary to those of the government, and ad absurdum for  governments to be replaceable.  This is the democratic minimum and a condition for a normally working constitutional democracy.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is the task of the government to listen to these opinions and factor them into the decision-making process.  But this does not mean the exercise of pressure that cannot be resisted.  The government, especially one enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary majority or a significant majority, is elected to make decisions representative of the community of citizens having heard these opinions.

In order to make good decisions, it needs to know the point of view of citizens, which civil organizations often reinforce.  For example, when we represent handicapped persons whose voices are weak.

The government believes civil organizations lack democratic legitimacy to be able to have a say in communal matters.  Do they?

Bernadette Somody:  The need for democratic legitimacy, that is, that a plurality or majority authorize a political actor, can be expressed if the actor exercises public power, in other words what the state does: pass laws and impose its will.  Oner of the tricks of state hate propaganda is that it tries to differentiate civil organizations from citizens, where the civil organizations are themselves made up of citizens.

Instead, they are made to appear as though they resemble the state, and exercise power over citizens.  This is a completely false, fake, and malicious thing to imply.   Democratic legitimacy requires from the government that it win its power in elections that are really free and fair, which is doubtful in Hungary, but that is the subject for a different discussion.  But I would turn it around: it should be the condition of the state’s activity that it allow civil organizations to freely operate.  If the activity of the government cannot be challenged, then it is not legitimate.

Márta Pardavi: The visceral response is that a debate on democratic legitimacy essentially means that nobody should interfere in politics who is not a member of parliament.  However, this outrages a lot of people regardless of what they think about politics or the content of political messages.  Whoever has turned out for a protest, or swore when he felt that things were being decided over his head in parliament, understands how much of a false, deceitful claim this is.

Bernadette Somody: The government makes it seem that only the government’s opinion is legitimate because only it possesses democratic legitimacy.  The government speaks for the nation, and anyone who criticizes it is serving various foreign interests.  This is not democracy, this is the logic of tyranny.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is truly aggravating when citizens living in Hungary are deprived of their right to have a say in debates over public issues, where the government refers to the authorization it obtained from them.  The whole thing is a strange and inverted logic.

Of the three organizations, EKINT does not fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law (EKINT operates as a nonprofit foundation, whereas the bill refers to associations and foundations).  Is this really a drafting error, or the result of something?

Bernadette Somody:  I don’t want to call its legality into question, but we would very much like to abstain from seeking for meaning or mistakes in hateful propaganda.  This is a stigmatizing, hateful, step threatening the existence of civil organizations, unsuitable for our looking for realizable constitutional content or principles.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We completely agree.  This law needs to be understood as a campaign to discredit civil organizations, and there is no point in getting into a constitutional or legal debate, because with that we created the notion that there is room for debate.  The draft law has nothing to do with transparency.

Márta Pardavi:  There was no discussion whatsoever concerning the need for the law or its details, and this also shows that they want to deprive us of the ability to serve Hungarian citizens.   They very deliberately denied us the opportunity to state our opinion of the bill, even though this is prescribed by law.  After the five-party discussion, based on the statement of Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz chair of the parliamentary committee on legislative affairs), it was apparent that, following the Putin scheme, the government is no longer in the mood to listen to contrarian points of view.   Unfortunately, the government did not engage in debate with our principles in the refugee matter, which should be a civilized discussion, but decided that it had had enough of contrarian points of view, and would prefer to try and silence civil organizations by stigmatizing them as anti-Hungarian traitors.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never have a problem debating with János Lázár or Fidesz.  When we state our opinion we are not speaking about a party or a politician but rather about what they are doing.  We consider debate to be very important and we would very much like to participate in it, and it is precisely one of the largest criticisms that there is no dialogue and no forums for discussion.  Now they have raised this to the next level.  Not only are they refusing to talk to us but they won’t listen to the points of views of the citizens who are behind our various affairs.

How does the law obstruct the organizations? Why is it a problem if you have to write everywhere that TASZ, for example, is financed from abroad?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  This is part of a long campaign.  Already since 2013 we hear that foreign funding is somehow connected with not serving the national interest.   Such voices appeared in this campaign that called for the organizations to be swept away.  One needs to see that where such a law is adopted, they never stop at the first step.

In Russia they resisted organizations by requiring them to register themselves as foreign agents, and forced them to do so, and when they continued to resist, they closed them down.  This draft law makes possible their closure via a simplified procedure.

Márta Pardavi:  The law does not guarantee the transparency to which it refers, since in our case this is continuously fulfilled, in contrast, say to CÖF-CÖKA (pro-government civil organizations funded by the state- tran.), whose public reports say absolutely nothing.  So it is completely clear that the government is targeting those who criticize it.  The first step was the 2014 affair involving the Norwegian Civil Fund, but legal steps taken against the civil organizations were entirely fruitless.  To the contrary, we became more renowned. Now we have arrived to the second part, and we have to calculate with there being a continuation, if public outrage fails to stop it.

It is still hair-raising that only a few days after the European Council’s commissioner for human rights issued a statement about the narrowing civil field in those places where civil society is subject to greater pressure, Hungary was listed among such countries that are hardly examples to be followed:  Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan.  Often the government claims that Hungary’s draft law parallels that of Israel or the United States, as though they were the same, but they are not.  But when we protest against following the Russian example, it shows just how extremely awkward it is to bear Putin’s stigma.

How will the organizations continue to operate if the law comes into force with the current content?

Márta Pardavi:  We still don’t know but we are contemplating this.  After the Moscow Helsinki group signed the Helsinki closing document in 1978 in the midsts of the most serious dictatorship.  Very brave citizens brought this about, who exposed serious human rights violations to the public, and who kept contact with foreign civil organizations.  Amidst the most serious conditions, there were always those who raise their voices against violations.  In a European Union democracy this can be done amidst a more pleasant environment, but there are times when greater risk taking and bravery is required.   It is not possible to say where we are in the current form.  Greater bravery will be required to stand up but I think our colleagues possess it.  We know each other well and we are starting out in good shape.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  For us the most important thing is that we can help Hungarian citizens to avail themselves of their rights.  As to what the administrative framework will be, we still do not know, but it’s for sure that TASZ will remain and complete its work, our clients can count on that, whether we are talking about mothers suffering from hospital infections, reporters, or special-needs children.

Bernadette Somody:  We don’t know either.  But I would like to sensitize what the law means with an example.  Assume that, just as civil organizations have published their financial information for years, everyone who disclosed personal information  about themselves at some point in time will be required to wear what they said on their clothes.  We would feel that this fundamentally violates human dignity.  The same thing is happening now with civil organizations.

April 19, 2017

President János Áder signed the anti-CEU law despite worldwide protests and massive demonstrations

President János Áder signed the changes to the higher education bill that the Hungarian parliament passed in 48 hours. His decision to do so didn’t come as a total surprise because Magyar Nemzet learned a couple of days ago that Áder found no legal reasons to reject the proposed law and either send it back to parliament for reconsideration or to the Constitutional Court for review. Still, I hoped that Áder would have the courage to make a symbolic gesture, thereby manifesting a modicum of independence, but he didn’t even dare to do that much. I suspect that the pressure on him coming from Viktor Orbán was considerable. Orbán is so obsessed with his crusade against the liberal, democratic worldview, to him symbolized by George Soros and, by extension, the university he founded, that he is throwing caution to the wind.

Those people who think that, with Áder’s signature, the case of Central European University is closed are, of course, wrong. This is just the beginning of something that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán. Yesterday 80,000 people went out to demonstrate. About half way through the demonstration it became obvious that the participants weren’t just fighting for the continued existence of a university or for the academic freedom of Hungarian universities in general. They were speaking out against the regime and what it represents.

This is a clash of two worlds: a nationalistic, xenophobic society hamstrung by an autocrat whose whims may lead the country into a diplomatic no man’s land as well as economic ruin and a free society governed by laws informed by the liberal principles of democracy. Orbán’s attack on Central European University, George Soros, and the civic organization is all about this struggle. For Orbán it is imperative to win this war. Even if his dream of transforming Europe into segmented little nation states led by far-right political groups does not materialize, as he hoped last year, he will at least stop the evil forces of liberalism at the borders of Hungary.

Orbán is confident in his own popularity and the strength of the regime he has managed to build in the last seven years. He thinks he is invincible. And why not? He sees the opposition as small, weak, and powerless. It seems that even the immense crowd on the streets of Budapest didn’t persuade him otherwise, despite the fact that the composition of this crowd was very different from earlier gatherings of mostly retirees.

Some people compare yesterday’s demonstration to the one organized against the internet tax in the fall of 2015, but the comparison doesn’t stand up. First of all, the participants in the 2015 demonstration were exclusively young internet users. Second, the demonstration was organized, in the final analysis, for grubby reasons. Third, it didn’t morph into a general political demonstration. Yesterday’s demonstration, by contrast, included young, middle-aged, and old people. They went out to show their support for ideals: free university, free thought, freedom in general, the European Union. And, finally, at one point, the gathering became a political demonstration against the regime. They sent both Orbán and the Russians straight to hell. The old 1956 slogan resurfaced: “Ruszkik haza!”

This is serious stuff that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán, but there is no way that he will abandon his holy war against the very notion of an open society. To him, this is a struggle for survival. Today’s Magyar Idők called the enemies of Viktor Orbán “the fifth column,” which obviously must be eliminated. János Somogyi, a retired lawyer and a frequent op-ed contributor, targeted the Helsinki Commission but in passing wove into his story the European Court of Human Rights and its Hungarian judge, András Sajó, who taught at Central European University before his appointment to the court. Somogyi described the situation at the moment this way: “War rages between the penniless [nincstelen] democratic forces, the will of the people, and the aggressive minority of immensely wealthy liberal imperialistic forces. Behind the Helsinki Commission there is the immensely wealthy liberal empire while the strength of the popular will is in the truth. In wartime, the rules of war must be applied because this is the only way to bring the truth to victory.” It is this war that Viktor Orbán is leading. It is a war in which enemies must be eliminated, according to the rules of war.

The world is looking at what’s going on in Hungary with growing concern, and in the past few months Germany has been translating its concern into action. Magyar Nemzet reported today that a meeting scheduled for May 5 between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, has been cancelled. In February Angela Merkel celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s signing ties of friendship with Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but only with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Viktor Orbán was not invited. According to Magyar Nemzet, Szijjártó at the end of last year and the beginning of this year tried four times to initiate talks with the former German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to no avail. It is also unlikely that Angela Merkel will visit Hungary this year as was originally planned.

Hungary’s relations with Germany are just as bad as they are with the United States, but at least Orbán never aspired to close relations with the United States–not, that is, until Donald Trump became president. But Germany is another matter. Orbán announced on several occasions that he considers Germany the most important pillar of Hungarian foreign policy.

German cooperation is not the only critical pillar of the Orbán regime that is in danger of collapsing. If they start to fall, so will Viktor Orbán.

April 10, 2017

The Hungarian government’s flouting of European law and human rights

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a decision that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

Hungarian civil rights activists were encouraged by the Court’s decision, especially since the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, passed not long ago by the parliament, envisaged these container transit zones as the sole means of handling asylum applicants. In fact, it was today that the amended law came into effect.

After ECHR’s ruling, the leaders of the government parties began suggesting in all seriousness that Hungary should simply suspend its adherence to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, originally adopted in 1950. This is not a joke, just as it is not a joke that Hungary is pursuing the issue of the red star on bottles of Heineken beer. Both are hopeless efforts by a government that is acting even more strangely of late than it normally does.

A week ago Monday, Imre Vejkey (KDNP) began the attack on the Convention: “Now is the time to think about terminating Hungary’s adherence to the Convention or at least suspending some of its provisions.” On Thursday János Lázár said at his press conference that the government considers the verdict “unacceptable and impossible to implement.” Although the decision was unanimous and the Court is unlikely to reverse itself, the Hungarian government insists on appealing the judgment. By Friday Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, announced on ATV that “the ministry of justice will have to examine what kinds of obligations” Hungary has under the terms of the Convention. On Sunday Lajos Kósa, the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, said that if Strasbourg continues criticizing Hungary’s migrant policies “we must relinquish” our adherence to the treaty. He even accused the Hungarian Helsinki Commission of “profiting from the migrant crisis at the expense of the Hungarian government.” He was alluding to the fact that the Court, in addition to the 5.8 million forints awarded to each of the refugees, granted 2.7 million forints to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission for their work on the case.

Együtt, one of the smaller opposition parties, compiled a list of what Hungarians would be deprived of if Hungary turned its back on the Convention and consequently on the Council of Europe. The list is long: right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; right to remedy by a competent tribunal; freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile; right to a fair public hearing; right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; right of free movement in and out of the country; right to asylum; right to own property; right to education. And we could continue. But Lajos Kósa sees no problem whatsoever with the suspension of the Convention because “in Hungary it is not the legal force of ECHR that guarantees human rights but the Hungarian Constitution and other international treaties.”

This is all just talk. The consequences of such a move would be so severe that no country, especially a member of the European Union, could seriously entertain it. The very first consequence of such folly would be a loss of membership in the Council of Europe. That in turn would result in serious conflict with, or even expulsion from, the European Union. So, Kósa can demand all he wants that the government in the name of Fidesz suspend adherence to the Convention. Nothing of the sort will happen. After all, in Europe there are only three countries that are not signatories: the Vatican, Kosovo, and Belarus.

As for the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the organization, doesn’t seem to be at all frightened by the threats made by the government against the institution as a beneficiary of the migrant business. She reminded Kósa of the kind of business the Hungarian government is conducting via the settlement bonds, sold to thousands of people for 300,000 euros each. So, Kósa should not accuse others of financial gain from the miseries of refugees. (Of course, there are refugees and “refugees,” with staggeringly different levels of misery.) As for the 2.7 million forints for legal fees, she finds the amount perfectly reasonable. Unless she hears something similar from the government itself, she considers Kósa’s semi-incoherent words on the subject mere “political rant.”

The government is remaining quiet for the time being. But its actions show that it was’t impressed with the Court’s verdict or with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s repeated assertion that the government’s latest law on asylum is illegal not just according to the Court in Strasbourg but also according to the Hungarian Constitution. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission again had to turn to ECHR on Friday in order to put an immediate stop to moving a pregnant woman from Uganda and eight refugee children who had been housed in Fót to the transit zone near the Serbian border. The woman had been a victim of torture and is currently suffering from psychological trauma. As far as I know, the government refrained from the forcible removal of these people, at least for the time being.

It looks like a lecture to me / Source: Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Meanwhile Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, arrived in Budapest to conduct negotiations with Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice. Avramopoulos’s job was to drive home to Budapest that all member states must comply with the Union’s rules and that human rights is one of the basic principles that must be adhered to. At the end of the negotiations it was announced that a working group will be formed to examine whether the Hungarian law infringes on the laws of the European Union. According to legal scholars, it unquestionably does. It would be time for the European Union to put an end to the Hungarian government’s games because nothing good can come of them as far as the future of the Union is concerned.

March 28, 2017

European Court of Human Rights on Hungary’s refugee policy

The European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision yesterday that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

The case involved two refugees from Bangladesh, Ilias Ilias (24) and Ali Ahmed (27), who arrived at the Serbian-Hungarian border on September 15, 2015 and were subsequently detained in the transit zone for 23 days. The transit zone toward Hungary was fenced in and guarded. After two sets of asylum proceedings, they were expelled from Hungary on the strength of a government decree that lists Serbia as a safe country. Yesterday the Court declared that the Hungarian authorities handling the case had violated the rights to liberty and security as well as the two men’s right to an effective remedy. The court also found that “the Hungarian authorities failed to carry out an individual assessment of each applicant’s case; disregarded the country reports and other evidence submitted by the applicants; and imposed an unfair and excessive burden on them to prove that they were at real risk of a chain-refoulement situation.” The decision was unanimous. “As just satisfaction, the European Court held that Hungary was to pay each applicant 10,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 8,705 euros for costs and expenses.”

Already in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights had handed down a ruling, not involving Hungary, that it was illegal to keep asylum seekers in “detention camps.” A couple of years ago the Hungarian government agreed to abide by that ruling, presumably in the hope that most of the refugees, once free to move about, would leave Hungary for greener pastures. That is exactly what happened. But once the Hungarian government realized that it was unable to handle the flow of refugees, Orbán decided to build a fence to prevent refugees from entering the country. The few who were allowed through the fence were subsequently kept in so-called transit zones while their applications were reviewed. The government’s legal experts believed that these transit zones were different from the detention centers the Court found illegal because these “container” zones were open toward Serbia. The Hungarian government maintained that these zones have extra-territorial status, i.e., they are not situated within the borders of Hungary. Viktor Orbán likened them to airports. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, however, stated that the Hungarian transit zones are under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state and are not “extra-territorial institutions.” In brief, there is no difference between detention centers in the middle of the country and transit zones at the border.

Hungarian civil rights activists are encouraged by the Court’s decision. They find this judgment especially timely because the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, just passed by parliament and countersigned by President János Áder, envisage these container transit zones as the sole means of handling all asylum applicants.

What is the Hungarian government’s reaction to the verdict? There’s no official word yet from the government itself, but Fidesz announced that it was an absurdity. “For Hungary to pay when it observes and complies with EU rules and protects not only the country but also the borders of Europe” is incomprehensible. They stand by their belief that the migrant crisis can be handled only with a forceful defense of the borders, and they will withstand all the pressure coming from Brussels and Strasbourg. To ensure that Hungarians’ hatred of the refugees doesn’t wane, they will have a new “national consultation” so “the people will be able to tell their opinion of the immigration policies of Hungary and Brussels.”

Meanwhile major international newspapers are critical of the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees in general, especially since there is increasing evidence that some of the policemen serving along the borders mistreat those who illegally try to enter the country. In addition, about 80 asylum seekers in a detention center in Békéscsaba began a hunger strike on Monday protesting their incarceration. On March 13 The New York Times in an editorial harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment. The editorial begins with these words: “Hungary’s cruel treatment of refugees has reached a new low.” The editorial justifiably points out that while “Mr. Orbán derides the European Union’s values, Hungary has no trouble taking its support, having received 5.6 billion euros from the union in 2015.” The final verdict is that Hungary treats “desperate refugees with incredible cruelty.”

To round out this post, let me say a few words about the celebrations on Hungary’s national holiday in remembrance of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence. The little I saw of the crowd gathered in front of the National Museum, where Viktor Orbán spoke, was disgusting. There was a confrontation between Fidesz loyalists on one side and followers of Együtt’s Péter Juhász, with whistles, on the other. During the encounter the loyalists hurled all sorts of obscenities at the whistlers. They also claimed that the Együtt protestors were “members of the AVH,” the dreaded state security police that was dismantled after 1956. The reporter for ATV was called a Jewish stooge. All in all, just another terrible national holiday.

I haven’t yet read Viktor Orbán’s speech in full, but one sentence caught my eye. According to Orbán, the nations of Europe are in a state of insurrection. As he put it, “the winds of 1848 are in the air.” In 1848 one revolution after the other broke out in Europe against the European monarchies, beginning in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Orbán Viktor blithely compared the democratic revolutions of 1848 to the dark forces of the extreme right on the rise today. He is keeping fingers crossed for victories by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, after his favorite Donald Trump won in the United States. Well, I’m happy to announce that Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the election, getting 31 seats in parliament, against Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PV) with 19 seats. This is the second disappointment for Viktor Orbán. The first was the Austrian presidential election, which ended in a victory for a Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, instead of Orbán’s favorite, Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ. And as things stand now, it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. What a disappointment for the Hungarian leader of the far-right Fidesz.

March 15, 2017

Amnesty International: Devastating report on Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 25, 2017

On László Botka’s nomination and an NGO win

I will try to cover two topics today. First, I will share my initial reactions to László Botka as the official nominee of MSZP for the post of prime minister. And second, I will give an example of the kind of success NGOs can achieve in defending the rule of law in Hungary.

László Botka’s nomination

This morning, on Klub Rádió’s call-in-program “Let’s Talk It Over,” I listened with great interest to the by and large enthusiastic reception of MSZP’s nomination of László Botka as its candidate for prime minister. I myself was also glad that at last MSZP, a party known for its confused messages and timidity, had made a definitive move. I still welcomed the move, although initially I had disapproved of MSZP’s decision to act on its own. I hoped that the socialist leadership had explained to Botka that he must have an open mind in his negotiations with the Demokratikus Koalíció because Botka’s opening salvo against the chairman of DK didn’t bode well as far as future negotiations were concerned. And without DK there is no possibility of forging a workable election alliance.

Great was my disappointment when I read the short summary of Botka’s program in 168 Óra. In Botka’s opinion, the Third Way, which can be described as a political position that tries to combine right-wing economic and left-wing social policies within the social democratic movement, proved to be a failure in Hungary. He named Ferenc Gyurcsány as the chief proponent of this political philosophy. The failure of the Third Way, he said, led to the rise of populism and the stunning electoral victory of Viktor Orbán.

I would need a little more time to ponder Botka’s theory, but at first blush it doesn’t strike me as a valid criticism. One obvious counterargument is the growth of populism throughout the western world without either a Third Way or Ferenc Gyurcsány. I would suggest that Botka consider the 2008 world economic crisis as one possible cause of our current problems. With a little effort we could come up with many other factors that would counter Botka’s theory, among them the very strong showing of Fidesz from at least 2002 on, when experimentation with Tony Blair’s brainchild was still nowhere.

In any case, if Botka is serious about becoming the candidate of all democratic parties he should reconsider his attitude. Otherwise, his failure is guaranteed. One can’t start negotiations from such a position.

DK’s reaction was muted. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that they are expecting Botka’s call, adding that they agree that a new program is necessary for the removal of the Orbán government. He offered DK’s almost 80-page program “Hungary of the Many” for his consideration.

The Helsinki Commission (and Friends) and the European Court of Human Rights

The Orbán government has singled out three NGOs as the most objectionable: the Helsinki Commission, Transparency International, and Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), which is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. These three organizations stand for freedom, equality, the rule of law, human rights, and transparency. They call the government to account when it doesn’t follow the country’s laws or doesn’t fulfill its international obligations. Naturally, they are incredible irritants to the Orbán government.

One such case in which they called the government to task was the nomination of a Hungarian judge to the European Court of Human Rights.

Since, after 2010, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has been filled with government appointees, the “last resort” of NGOs is often the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The Court’s current Hungarian judge is András Sajó, a legal scholar, university professor, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose nine-year tenure will expire at the end of the month. Therefore, the Orbán government will be able to nominate one of its own.

According to Council of Europe policy, the nomination must be democratic and transparent. If not, the nominee might be rejected. Three names ought to be submitted for consideration, and their nomination must be preceded by an open application process.

Knowing the Orbán government’s attitude toward such international obligations, the Helsinki Commission was worried already a year ago about the government’s plans for the nomination of a new Hungarian judge. Therefore, they inquired from László Trócsányi, minister of justice, about the progress the government had made. The answer was worrisome because Trócsányi called the prescriptions of the Council of Europe “recommendatory documents.” In June, the Helsinki Commission inquired again and was told that the ministry of justice was in the midst of consultation with experts. When asked who these experts were, the ministry refused to divulge their identities, citing privacy rights. It then informed the Helsinki Commission that the list of names had already been submitted to the court. In response, 11 NGOs together demanded the withdrawal of the submitted names and asked for an open application process. This time, the ministry of justice didn’t even bother to answer their letter.

At this point 15 Hungarian NGOs informed the Council of Europe about the illegality of the Hungarian nomination process. It turned out that of the three submitted nominees two were closely connected to the current Hungarian government: one was an adviser to Trócsányi and the other was a department head in the ministry of justice who at one point had represented the Hungarian government in a case before the ECHR.

The General Meeting of ECHR decided against the two objectionable candidates, and so the Hungarian government turned in two new names. One of the replacements was also connected to the ministry of justice. And the open application process was again ignored.

The NGOs complained and this time turned to the ECHR. In response, the secretary-general of ECHR indicated to the Hungarian government that in the absence of an open application procedure, the nominees will be rejected. At this point the Orbán government threw in the towel. In October it withdrew the nominations and announced it would hold an open application process for the jobs.

The applicants had only two weeks to prepare, and outsiders had little knowledge about the selection process, but this was still a big step forward. This time, of the three names, only one has government ties, less intimate than in earlier cases. The finalists are Krisztina Füzi-Rozsnyai, an administrative lawyer, Péter Paczolay, former chief justice of the constitutional court, and Pál Sonnevend, head of the department of international law at ELTE. On January 12 the three applicants had their hearings. A final decision will be made on January 24.

After reading just this one case, I think it is easy to understand why the Orbán government wants to demonize these NGOs and possibly remove them. It is not a stretch for Orbán to claim that they are involved in anti-government political activities since they are defending the rule of law in a country where the government does everything in its power to circumvent the law. And they are often more successful than the political parties because of their expertise in both domestic and European law.

January 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2017