Tag Archives: minorities

“Observer”: 150 billion Ft. support for ethnic Hungarian businesses abroad. Really?

The Hungarian government has been funding various activities of ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries for many years, but the big news here was the unprecedented amount heralded as well as the broad circle of recipients. There are many other Hungarian government projects in the neighboring countries, but this exceptionally large flagship project so vigorously advertised by the government deserves our special attention.

For information, as it came out, I had to rely on the few available government sources. As we know, in Hungary today commitments, decrees, and even laws are altered or annulled at the drop of a word (e.g. dropped at a press conference on Thursday or radio talk on Friday), and since there are only a couple of reports on the actual implementation, significant variances may be revealed later. Our readers may certainly contribute with more information.

On the subject of Hungarian government relations with the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries (hereinafter “ethnic Hungarians”), a bit of background would help understanding. The Orbán/Fidesz attempts of the 2000-2008 period to install puppet (ethnic) political parties in the neighboring countries largely failed, so Orbán resorted to the proven Simicska method of diverting billions of Hungarian taxpayer forints for the purchase of ethnic Hungarian parties/votes and managed 180,000 votes in the 2014 elections.

With popularity slipping, Orbán opened the tap more and now is promising the ethnic Hungarians a real cornucopia, albeit for the future, i.e. for the March 2018 elections. According to the statements of undersecretary Levente Magyar of the Ministry for Foreign and Economic Affairs made in the beginning of 2017, the government was planning to spend 150 billion Ft. (EUR 500 million) in support of ethnic Hungarians’ small businesses. An extensive road show was undertaken to popularize the initiative, as if the businesses addressed wouldn’t be flocking to inquire about the free money. There are no figures on how much was spent on this propaganda and hoopla, but here are some examples of full day programs organized in a college in the Ukraine, in Slovakia, and in a hotel at Balaton – as Levente Magyar informed us, they “reached every Hungarian and every settlement inhabited by Hungarians in Voivodina,” for example.

The undersecretary also announced that the Ministry’s Trading Houses network was creating 22 offices by way of which, together with other (unspecified) local organizations, the funds would be distributed. More sunk costs.

To put things in prospective, the same TH network now designated to process tens of thousands of tender applications in several countries was considered incapable of selling 2-3 thousand residency bonds, as a result of which the state was deprived of 200 billion forints, which went into private pockets.

Two undersecretaries and the government controlled media repeatedly stated that “research found that 40,000 ethnic Hungarian businesses are operating in the neighboring countries,” implying an extremely large circle of beneficiaries. In fact, only start-up businesses founded after January 1, 2016 or “family businesses” are eligible in three of the four programs, so the 40,000 figure is misleading.

Eight months into 2017 we could reasonably expect to see some reports about the implementation of the grand 150 billion Ft. project. Well, not surprisingly, my search found dozens of new items about the tender opportunities, but very little about the implementation.

In the beginning of August the same Levente Magyar stated that “up to now the Hungarian government has placed 9 billion Ft. through its economic development program in Voivodina.” However, the same website refers to the following four programs of the Gábor Bethlen Fund, with total funding of 0.83 billion Ft. for 2017:

  • Tender for Support of start-up ethnic Hungarians’ businesses registered and operating in the neighboring countries–0.12 billion Ft.
  • Tender for Support, cooperation with start-up ethnic Hungarian’s businesses–0.11 billion Ft.
  • Tender for Support of ethnic Hungarian family businesses registered and operating in the neighboring countries–0.6 billion Ft.

At the end of July undersecretary in the Prime Minister’s Office János Potápi stated that “the government supported … ethnic Hungarian entrepreneurs in the Carpathian Basin by 0.83 billion Ft.,” confirming the above total.

Trying to broaden the picture, I added the “Egán Ede Kárpátalja Economic Development Center” charity foundation, which also runs business support programs for:

  • Support for private entrepreneurs and micro and small enterprises’ capacity-building and innovation business development – funding 1 billion Ft.
  • Support for private entrepreneurs and micro and small enterprises’ capacity-building and innovation business development in the agricultural sector – funding 1 billion Ft. Report*
  • Support for large investments (min 50 million forint projects) – no funding information or report.
  • Support for large agricultural investments (min 50 million forint projects) – no funding information or report.

The Bethlen Gabor Fund also runs some non-business support programs:

All the above programs for the support of ethnic Hungarians’ businesses, culture and education, etc. put together do not total even 10% of the 150 billion hyped by the government.

In a confusing mixture of promises, cross references, and multiple announcements, the e-media is awash with all sorts of figures, mostly based on the statements made by the two undersecretaries.

The full statement of Levente Magyar, mentioned above, reveals that of the “9 billion ft. … placed in Voivodina … the amount distributed so far is less than a quarter of the whole, and they will try to distribute the remaining during the next year.” This means that more than 2 billion ft. were distributed, contradicting the Potápi figure of 0.83 billion. Confused? Me too.

According to another statement of János Potápi, “the Hungarian government supported the creation of 104 workshops and training farms in the Carpathian Basin, spending more than 738 million forints” in 2015 and 2016, the “2015 – Year of vocational training for ethnic Hungarians” program included. This amount is similar to the 0.83 billion reported for 2017.

I’m certain more funds are being spent in the neighboring countries, but after the boisterous heralding of the 150 billion forint programs, few if any reports about their implementation were available. I wonder where the road show costs were accounted for, as the amounts spent on propaganda and hoopla are probably commensurate with the 0.83 billion distributed.

Moreover, these support funds pale in comparison to many propaganda items like the many billions for US lobbying, the almost 10 billion of Századvég funding, the never ending multibillion poster campaigns, or, say, a single 8+ billion soccer item.

After all, if even a fraction of the unprecedented amounts hyped were spent for the support of ethnic Hungarians, it would have been a commendable act, but from the “coincidence” of this initiative with the forthcoming parliamentary elections in April 2018 emanates the familiar stench of corruption in the form of vote buying (and eventually awards to cronies and supporters, if the long domestic record is any guide).

The initiative is questionable in light of the negative or downright appalling trends in the Hungarian economic and business areas – the government should fund remedies to the domestic problems before those in the neighboring countries. And problems we have: almost all Hungarian indicators have deteriorated since 2010 according to the World Economic Forum, OECD, and EU: business environment, legal framework, competitiveness, productivity, capitalization (small and medium companies), and vocational skills.

There is also the all-pervasive and all-corroding corruption, the huge bureaucracy, e.g. 18% of the workforce employed by the state, the five-layer administration, e.g. ministerial rank departments have almost doubled since 2010, etc. etc.

To answer to the question in the title – no, not really, nothing like 150 billion is being spent. The much hyped initiative is just another case of propaganda, deception, and trickery, Orbán style. The danger to the ethnic Hungarian businesses is that they may become infected if they operate close to the corrupt Hungarian regime.

* The report of the results in the micro and small agricultural businesses tender contains no actual payout figures. The awards are noted as either “maximum funding” or “depending on availability of funds.” Notably all awards were made to individuals, which raises the specter of political corruption.

 

The reception of Viktor Orbán’s speech in the West and in Romania

The world is in such a turmoil that although Viktor Orbán’s open admission of his goal to eliminate the “liberal” component of western-type democracy might be considered a watershed both domestically and in Hungary’s relation with the European Union, it is receiving scant attention. After all, the armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are serious current problems, while Viktor Orbán’s threat to Hungarian democracy and to the European Union would have  negative implications only in the future.

In English I managed to find only a couple of news items about Orbán’s speech. The Associated Press published a short summary which was then picked up by ABC. Zoltán Simon’s reporting from Budapest for Bloomberg was more detailed and to the point: “Orbán Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary.”  This article must have had a large readership judging from the number of comments.

Vox.com quotes an important passage from the speech: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Actually, I trust that this will be a sticking point soon enough. The author of the article also takes issue with Orbán’s contention that illiberal states are economic success stories; they are in fact doing a great deal worse than liberal states. Russia, Turkey, and China are all poorer than Croatia, Poland, or Hungary for that matter.

The German and Austrian papers that are usually full of news about Hungarian politics are silent. Perhaps everybody is on vacation. I found only one German article and even this one only through a Hungarian source. It appeared in the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. The title of the piece is “Enough!,” a reference to the question of how long the European Union will tolerate Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies that have already transformed Hungary into a non-democratic state. “One must urgently pose the question whether Hungary led by Viktor Orbán wants to remain part of the European Union or not.” And while he was at it, the journalist suggested that the European People’s Party should expel Hungary from its delegation.

On the other hand, interest in Orbán’s speech was great in Romania. After all, it was delivered there and its implications can already be felt. Romanian-Hungarian relations are at an all-time low.

Before I turn to the Romanian press I would like to talk about Viktor Orbán’s contradictory messages and how they affect the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Let’s start with Romania. The Hungarian minority in Romania is large: 1.2 million people or 6.4% of the population. Yet, according to the Romanian constitution, Romania is a “nation-state.” The Hungarian minority would like to have Romania be officially transformed into a multi-national state.

Orbán should know full well that the highly charged nationalism he is advocating is not in the interest of the Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Nationalism on one side of the border evokes nationalism on the other side. This is exactly what happened in Romania. Bogdan Diaconu, a nationalist politician and member of parliament, published an article in Adevarul, a leading Romanian newspaper, which was subsequently translated into Hungarian. The nationalistic hate speech of Diaconu there was countered with obscene, equally hateful comments by Hungarians.

nationalism

Surely, Orbán’s nationalism does not make the life of the Hungarian minority any easier in the neighboring countries. Just the opposite. Great suspicion follows every word Orbán utters in connection with his plans for the “nation.” And that is not all. Orbán’s attack on Hungarian NGOs that receive foreign money was also a double-edged sword. He argued that this money is being used to influence the Hungarian government, which cannot be tolerated. But the Hungarian government is financing Hungarian NGOs and parties in Romania and Slovakia. Thus, the Hungarian government is trying to influence the Slovak and Romanian governments on behalf of the Hungarian minority. What will happen if Romania or Slovakia follows Orbán’s example and refuses the receipt of any money from Budapest destined for the Hungarian NGOs? In fact, one of the Romanian articles that appeared in Romania Libera talked about the incongruity of Orbán’s stance on the issue. According to the journalist, if Orbán tries to silence the NGOs financed from abroad, “the bad example” might be imitated in other Eastern European countries where democracies are not yet sufficiently stable. We know which countries he has in mind.

In any case, although for the time being it is unlikely that either the Slovak or the Romanian government will try to imitate Viktor Orbán, Romanian commentators are worried that Hungarian bellicosity will have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. Romanian papers talk about an “illiberal” state’s possible revisionist tendencies which could upset the stability of the region given the presence of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.

All in all, Orbán with this speech declared war on several fronts. Against his own people, against the European Union, against Hungarian civil society, and last but not least by his overcharged nationalist rhetoric against the amity of nations in Eastern Europe.

——

I would like to call everyone’s attention to Hungarian Free Press, a new English-language news portal from Canada. Here are some introductory words from the editor-in-chief:

The Hungarian Free Press, an online newspaper published by Presszo Media Inc., a Canadian federally-registered company based in Ottawa, was launched this morning. The HFP aims to offer informed opinion on current events in Hungary and East/Central Europe, and to expose to a broader English-speaking audience the explicit move away from liberal parliamentary democracy, which now appears to be the overt policy direction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

While pro-government English-language publications, such as the newly launched Hungary Today site, as well as Mandiner’s English-language blog, The Hungarian Globe, aim to create the impression that Mr. Orbán’s government is really no different than any other right-centre or conservative administration and is simply “attacked” by the left for the same ideological reasons, this is not an accurate reflection of the situation. A good case-in-point is Hungary Today’s coverage of Mr. Orbán’s Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) speech, where the prime minister formally declared that the days of Hungarian liberal democracy were over and that his preferred authoritarian political model was similar to that found in countries like China, Russia and Singapore. Hungary Today, in its coverage, made it appear that Mr. Orbán, like most right-centre politicians, was merely challenging the welfare state and was attacked for this reason by the left-centre opposition, thus making the speech and the reactions that followed seem like “business as usual” in the world of parliamentary politics.

In 1961, American President John F. Kennedy was among the most articulate in expressing the media’s role in the long-term survival of multiparty democracy. Kennedy, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961 noted:

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

The HFP joins a very small handful of English publications in exposing the danger that Mr. Orbán and his avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic and openly authoritarian government represent in the heart of Europe.

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.

Hungarian domestic attitudes toward voting rights of outsiders

The forthcoming election will be a hot topic in the next few months, and the voting rights of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries will be a continuing subtext. So today let’s look at how the citizens of Hungary feel about non-residents by the tens of thousands voting and perhaps deciding the outcome of the election.

We can safely say that the overwhelming majority of the electorate disapproves of the idea, and that even includes a large portion of Fidesz voters. And, as we will see later, people’s negative sentiments have not changed in the last two years.

The politically naive might ask why on earth Fidesz-KDNP insisted on granting voting rights to dual citizens. The answer is simple. Party strategists consider the pro-Fidesz votes coming from abroad, especially from Romania, important, perhaps even vital, to the party’s success in the 2014 elections. At the same time they most likely ascertained through their own polls that Fidesz supporters won’t defect over the voting rights issue.

In light of these findings it is more difficult to understand Együtt-MP’s opposition to abolishing the voting rights of dual citizens without domicile and steady employment in Hungary in the event they are victorious in 2014. One would think that Gordon Bajnai’s party would take advantage of their potential supporters’ strong dislike of the Fidesz-introduced piece of legislation that serves only Fidesz’s political interests.

In any event, let’s see the results of three polls measuring the electorate’s attitude toward voting rights. All three were conducted by Medián. The first was conducted between May 7 and 11, 2010, that is before the enactment of the electoral law.  The next Medián poll was done in July 2012 and the third in November 2012. I’m very much hoping that Medián will follow up with another poll after Hungarians hear more about the possibility of electoral fraud as a result of a (perhaps intentionally) sloppily written law. But given the results of the past three polls it is unlikely that Hungarians’ enthusiasm for the voting rights of non-residents would suddenly soar.

In May 2010 19% of Fidesz voters disapproved of granting both citizenship and voting rights to Hungarians in the neighboring countries and only 30% approved of both. The rest, 46%, supported dual citizenship but without voting rights. So, 65% of Fidesz voters surveyed were against granting voting rights to Hungarians outside the borders. 62% of MSZP voters opposed both citizenship and voting rights and only 5% approved of the Fidesz plan. Jobbik voters were split on the issue: 35% of them wouldn’t grant outsiders anything but 35% of them were happy with Fidesz’s plan. Those without party preference also overwhelmingly opposed voting rights. Only 13% supported the government’s plan. All in all, 71% of the adult population were against granting voting rights and 33% even opposed granting citizenship. Only 23% supported the proposed law that included both.

The July 2012 poll inquired about other aspects of Hungary’s relations with the neighboring countries, especially the Hungarian government’s involvement with party politics in countries in the Carpathian Basin. As soon as Fidesz won the elections the government unabashedly supported certain Hungarian minority parties and ignored or actively worked against others. This particular poll concentrated on Romanian-Hungarian affairs and specifically the Hungarian government’s support of small parties that are politically closer to Fidesz than the largest Hungarian Party, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ) or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (UDMR). Medián wanted to know what Hungarians think of direct Hungarian involvement in political campaigns outside of Hungary’s borders. In addition, Medián inquired about people’s opinion of the government’s support of insignificant political groups in Romania as opposed to the largest Hungarian party, RMDSZ. And while Medián was at it, they included a question testing whether their May 2010 findings about Hungarians’ opinion on the voting rights of people of foreign domicile had changed at all.

The overwhelming majority (78%) disapproved of the government’s involvement in the politics of its neighbors. As for Fidesz’s support of smaller Romanian-Hungarian parties that are closer to the Fidesz leadership’s heart, even Fidesz voters were split on the issue, with 50% supporting the Fidesz strategy but 37% disapproving. In the population as a whole only 24% thought that supporting small political groupings was a capital idea while 52% thought such a strategy was self-defeating. A rather large number of those surveyed (24%) had no opinion.

As to the issue of citizenship and voting rights, more than two years went by and nothing really changed. In May 2010 71% disapproved and only 23% approved, in July 2012 70% still disliked the idea but the supporters went up a bit, from 23% to 26%. Not really significant.

In November 2012 Medián conducted another poll. The overwhelming majority of MSZP, LMP, DK, MSZP, Együtt 2014, and undecided voters rejected that section of the electoral law that grants voting rights to dual citizens. Although a relative majority of Fidesz (55%) and Jobbik (53%) voters supported it, in the population as a whole those who opposed it were still slightly over 70%.

The November 2012 Medián poll on the issue of voting of outsiders on national elections

The November 2012 Medián poll on the issue of voting by outsiders in national elections
blue = approval, red = disapproval, gray = doesn’t know

DK is the only party that openly declares its opposition to voting rights. MSZP’s program indicates that they sympathize with DK’s position. But Együtt 2014-PM insists that they will not touch the status quo created by Fidesz for its own political gain. I fear that this issue might be one of the thorniest between MSZP and Együtt 2014-MP during the negotiations.

Given public opinion in Hungary, I think it would be an unnecessary gesture to leave this part of the law on citizenship intact. Moreover, flying in the face of overwhelming public opinion against this legislation might irritate some of Együtt 2014’s supporters who by the largest margin (87%) among any of the parties rejected the idea of voting rights.

General government retreat in Hungary? I doubt it

A couple of interesting political developments surfaced this morning, but I think it is too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about their import. The first is that parliament will not discuss an amendment to the electoral law. About a week ago a Fidesz backbencher, Árpád János Potápi, submitted the amendment that should have been debated today. However, Magyar Nemzet learned (they always manage to learn things from government sources) that the amendment will not be on today’s agenda.

What was this amendment that Potápi, it seems, withdrew? According to his amendment, statistical details about the new citizens residing abroad must be kept “secret” for national security reasons. We wouldn’t even know how many people are eligible to vote from the neighboring countries and therefore wouldn’t be able to check whether the final results that the government releases are accurate or not.

This plot has been on the drawing board for a very long time because, let’s face it, granting citizenship to Hungarian nationals in the neighboring countries serves only the governing party’s interests. An incredible amount of time and money were  spent registering as many new citizens as possible. There  was a bit of a problem in Slovakia, a country that responded to the Hungarian attempt at dual citizenship for about half a million Slovak citizens with a counterattack. No dual citizenship is allowed in Slovakia with the exception of Czech-Slovak citizens. Ukraine forbids dual citizenship, period. Most Hungarians in Serbia became Hungarian citizens not so much for voting rights but for a Hungarian passport that allows them to move to western European countries where they are, as Hungarian citizens, permitted to work. The bulk of the new citizens come from Romania, where Fidesz politicians think Fidesz has a significant edge over MSZP or other left-wing parties.

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000  living in Moldavia  receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000 living in Moldavia, receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

In January of this year HVG asked the government for the statistics it had gathered on voters residing abroad, but its request was denied. HVG promptly sued the Ministry of Administration and Justice. The case is still pending. Not much was heard about the case until  March 12 when Petápi’s amendment showed up on the Hungarian parliament’s website. The government, it seems, was answering HVG‘s suit with a change in the law. By now this is a customary ploy of the Orbán government. If they don’t want to do something, they simply change the law.

Although the reaction of the opposition was slow in coming, by March 19 all groups joined in the outcry, including Jobbik.  Discussion on the amendment began in the middle of the night, as normally happens when the topic is important and/or sensitive. The government’s justification of the move was that countries like Slovakia might harass or even expel Hungarian nationals if they find out that their citizens, after all, took out Hungarian citizenship. But, of course, this is not the reason. In fact, eligible voters abroad will be notified by mail that they are on the election list. So, one way or the other the Slovak government will know who became a Hungarian citizen. Moreover, Viktor Orbán already sent out 60,000 letters to Hungarian nationals in Romania urging them to vote at the next election. The story is circulating in Romania that Romanian authorities scan all letters coming from Orbán and therefore they already have a nice long list of 60,000 names.

The list of eligible voters living in Hungary is available. Everybody can go to city or town hall and check whether he/she is on the list. We know exactly the number of eligible voters and thus we know what percentage of them actually voted and who they were. But if such details in the case of voters from the neighboring countries are not revealed, we have absolutely no way of determining the veracity of the statistics the government releases after the election. The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) rightly cried foul and reminded people of the so-called “blue slip” election of 1947 which the communists rigged by insisting that people could vote anywhere in the country as long as they had a blue slip in hand. Naturally, many voters had several blue slips in their pockets. I actually knew someone who as a young communist enthusiast participated in this fraud and was carried by truck from city to city to vote many times over.

The Orbán government was all set and ready to vote on the amendment. Less than a week later, however, they changed their minds. Perhaps someone in the high party leadership came to the conclusion that if that amendment is tacked onto the electoral law the rest of the democratic world will question of very validity of the 2014 election and with it the legitimacy of  a new elected Orbán government. Perhaps someone remembered that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was in Budapest in June 2011, emphasized during her meeting with the opposition leaders that one cannot speak of democracy if the election is not free and unfettered. That’s why, she added, one must pay attention to the election law the Orbán government was working on at the time. In brief, if there is any question about the validity of the election, the consequences might be dire for the Orbán government.

The other development is also noteworthy. Magyar Hírlap learned from unnamed sources that “there will be modifications” to the Law on Religions. As of this afternoon I read nothing about the nature of the modifications. But there seems to be a retreat on the part of the Orbán government. Knowing how this government operates, however, one must not let one’s guard down. They will try to find some other way to achieve their original goals. We can only hope that the European Union and the United States will not be fooled.

Testimony of Frank Koszorus, Jr., American Hungarian Federation, for the record

The Trajectory of Democracy

Hearing before United States Helsinki Commission

Statement of Frank Koszorus, Jr.

National President of the American Hungarian Federation and Public Member of the U.S. Delegation of the 1989 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe on the Human Dimension

The American Hungarian Federation (Federation), founded in 1906 as an umbrella organization, is an independent, non-partisan entity representing a broad cross-section of the Hungarian American community. From its founding, the Federation has supported liberal democracy, human and minority rights and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).*  The Federation also supports good American/Hungarian and trans-Atlantic relations.

The Federation appreciates the Helsinki Commission’s efforts to promote democracy and strengthen democratic institutions in Hungary and throughout CEE. We also appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement for the record and hope that it will contribute to that goal.

The statement briefly addresses two issues: (1) the need to distinguish between genuine concern for the state of democracy in Hungary and the use of rhetorical democratic pretexts skirting democratic institutional norms that are being used to wage a political campaign to negate the voting public’s clear and overwhelming choice of the current government in the 2010 internationally recognized free and fair elections; and (2) the need to vigorously promote democracy by supporting the rights of religious and national minorities, including the rights of the Hungarian minorities living in countries bordering   Hungary.

JUDGING THE STATE OF DEMOCRACY IN HUNGARY

Rigorous analysis required. The Federation applauds efforts free of political bias that are intended to strengthen institutions, transparency in government, the rule of law, and separation of powers in Hungary.  It believes that the United States must remain engaged in CEE on a constructive and evenhanded basis to help strengthen democratic institutions and the stability that derives from democracy.

With the exception of NATO’s enlargement, attention soon drifted away from CEE after the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some quickly lost sight of the economic, moral and spiritual damage left in the wake of close to fifty years of Communism that had been imposed on the region by Soviet bayonets. Free elections were held and therefore nothing more needed to be done seemed to be the   attitude shared by some decision and opinion makers.

This analysis of CEE was superficial. Despite great strides toward freedom, democracy and democratic institution building throughout the region, there is work to be done, as, for example, is evident from rising anti-Semitism in parts of the region and intolerant attitudes and discriminatory policies directed at the Hungarian minorities in some of the countries neighboring Hungary – an issue that is largely ignored by some who are proponents of the questionable notion that democracy is in serious jeopardy in Hungary.

Putting the internal affairs of democracies established on the western parliamentary model, such as Hungary, under a microscope, however, is unusual and requires rigorous analysis. If the microscope is brought to bear to evaluate the actions of the government, the two questions that always must be asked are as follows: do those actions transgress in any substantial manner the established institutional norms practiced by a consensus of democracies around the world? And do they transgress the democratic norms established within the country being discussed itself?

In engaging in this review, one must distinguish between political questions that may arise about a government’s effectiveness or the wisdom of its policies and actions that may have breached in any substantial way institutional norms of democracy as practiced around the world in its various forms.**

Examining Hungary from this perspective, the legislative agenda of the current government, while perhaps politically controversial, does not rise to the grave level of putting “Democracy at Risk.” There has been robust, critical discussion in Hungary’s media about every aspect of the key laws in question that Parliament has passed, no state repression of the opposition’s right to publicly criticize and object, and no state efforts to deny the opposition its democratic right to peacefully win over the public to its side in the next elections. In addition, demonstrators have freely expressed their anti-government opinions, while foreign commentators have given interviews, and critical assessments have been published in the Hungarian media. On winning the election, the opposition can and undoubtedly will introduce its own legislative agenda, and if it has enough support in the electorate as Fidesz did, it can enact its own changes to the constitution as well. These are core elements of democracy well in play in Hungary today.

The Federation strongly supports and encourages a robust review of these matters, including a legitimate political debate surrounding the amendments to the constitution relating to the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court. Has its jurisdiction been unduly limited by the Court’s right to review only the procedures used to amend the constitution, not the substantive amendments themselves? How does that limitation compare to the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdiction concerning modifications to the Constitution and amendments thereto? Does the ability of more officials to take cases to the Court to review laws even in the absence of actual and pending litigation advance the rule of law? Would it have been preferable to submit the amendments to the Venice Commission for review before they were passed by Parliament?

The Federation, however, is concerned with the insinuations that the process itself was somehow not democratic. One can agree or disagree with the outcomes, but to question the institutional integrity of the process ironically strips the credibility of the very democratic procedures at play that could be used to establish other outcomes by other elected governments as well.

Factual accuracy mandated. In addition to the need for rigorous analysis noted above, factual accuracy is necessary if the criticism is to be credible. For example, in an editorial calling on the EU to be firm with Hungary, the UK Independent erroneously stated that if the constitutional amendment were to pass, “coverage of elections campaigns will be restricted to state media only.” In fact, no such limitation exists; campaign commercials, not coverage, is limited.

Partisanship undermines fair review process. The Federation issues this statement not because it believes that no steps could be taken to strengthen democracy, democratic institutions and Hungary’s economy or that no mistakes have been made. It is not suggesting that every critical comment is solely meant to disparage Hungary. Rather it believes that some of the international criticism is not evenhanded or based on facts but on generalizations and speculation, i.e., what might happen as a result of the new laws as opposed to what has happened. Such criticisms often reveal a lack of understanding of Hungary’s history and the character of its people who have repeatedly sacrificed and demonstrated their commitment to freedom, as in 1956 when they rose up against Soviet tyranny. Suggestions in furtherance of the vaunted goal of strengthening democracy must be free of even a hint of political partisanship and must be grounded in principles and objective analysis.

 VIOLATION OF MINORITY RIGHTS SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED

Minority rights and democracy. Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, aptly noted, “one of the basic tenets of liberal democracy is that minority rights are protected.” And as the late champion of human rights, Congressman Tom Lantos, eloquently reminded us, this protection should extend to all religious, national and ethnic groups, including Hungarians.

The record is dismal on this score. The Federation is deeply concerned about the threat to democracy and human rights arising from discriminatory actions and policies directed at members of the Hungarian minority in some of the countries of CEE. It is deeply concerned about the continuing assaults on ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina, Serbia. It is deeply concerned that Slovakia has adopted discriminatory  language and citizenship laws; refuses to exonerate Janos Esterhazy, an unsung hero of the Holocaust who was the only member of Slovakia’s parliament to vote against the deportation of Jews in 1942; and refuses to repeal those provisions of the Benes Decrees that imposed collective guilt on the Hungarians after the Second World War. It is deeply concerned that Romania refuses to grant its Hungarian minority’s legitimate request for autonomy; restore the independent Hungarian university in Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár; provide restitution to all churches/religious organizations for property confiscated by the previous Communist regime; and proposes redistricting of administrative units that would further reduce the ability of Hungarians to effectively participate in public affairs, especially in matters affecting them and to enjoy their culture.

Minority rights enhance security. These human rights violations also impact security which is as much a function of the stability that is associated with democracy and minority rights as it is a function of military reforms and equipment in the context of multi-ethnic CEE.

This was recognized during the first round of NATO’s enlargement. The March 26, 1997

RFE/RL report titled, “Europe: U.S. Senator Outlines Criteria for NATO Expansion,” reported that then Senator Biden “said Senators will determine whether the prospective members maintain democratic institutions, respect civil and minority rights and keep their military forces under civilian control before they vote their consent.” In his article, “Slovakia and NATO: The Madrid Summit and After,” National Defense University Strategic Forum, April 1997, Jeffrey Simon wrote: “In sum, the major stumbling block to Slovakia’s candidacy to NATO arises from questions about the most fundamental criterion–the shared democratic values of respect for the rule of law and minority rights.” These countries should be held to the same standard now that they are members of NATO and encouraged to build tolerant societies by respecting the right of their Hungarian minorities.

Lack of respect for minority rights needs to be reviewed. Despite the less than exemplary record of countries neighboring Hungary when it comes to the treatment of their Hungarian minorities, Hungary has been inexplicably criticized for taking reasonable measures consistent with international norms and practices, e.g., citizenship, to assist the members of the minorities in their legitimate, justified and democratic efforts to preserve their distinctive culture. At the same time, some of the critics who aver that democracy is in danger in Hungary are silent when it comes to minority rights violations affecting Hungarians living in other countries in the region — violations that can be quantified.

Criticism is directed at the wrong party. But for the lack of respect for the minority rights of members of the Hungarian communities in states neighboring Hungary, the issue of Hungarian minorities would be moot. Intolerance and discrimination targeting any group (including Hungarians) based on ethnicity, nationality or religion is intolerable and should be condemned. Criticism, therefore, should be directed at those who violate minority rights, not at the victims of discrimination or those who speak up on their behalf. Respect for minority rights would not only be consistent with democracy – an important goal for the U.S. also — it would eliminate the need for Budapest to speak out against discriminatory practices in those countries.

CONCLUSION

While democratic institution building should be encouraged and debated, they should be done based on facts, and in a fair, unbiased and evenhanded manner. This review process, including criticism, must be bereft of partisanship (or even the appearance of partisanship) and undertaken solely in furtherance of promoting Western values, not political expediency. Finally minority rights must be respected and all forms of intolerance and discrimination, such as anti-Semitism and anti-Hungarian measures, must be condemned and not allowed to undermine democracy in CEE.

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*Several members of the Federation or their parents fought tyranny during and after World War II and escaped from Hungary to enjoy liberty. For example, the president’s father blocked the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944 and the executive director’s mother fought for freedom and was wounded during the 1956 Revolution.

** And what are the democratic norms that are alleged to have been violated and are the judgments applied evenhandedly? For instance, Great Britain’s democracy is not challenged because it has adopted the first-by-the post rule – a rule that can result in a majority of voters playing no part in determining the outcome of an election and single party majority governments.

Another example can be found in the conclusion of a study (Hungarian Media Laws in Europe: An Assessment of the Consistency of Hungary’s Media Law with European Practices and Norms) by the Center for Media Communication Studies, Central European University. The Center, which is critical of Hungary’s media law, acknowledges that there are “key deficiencies in a number of other European countries that may inhibit press freedom in ways that also do not conform to European free-press norms.” But those other countries are still deemed to be democratic and not subjected to the same intense scrutiny and hostility that Hungary has been since 2010.

Hungary’s recently enacted law on religions has been criticized for being restrictive. Maybe it is and further amendments may be in order, but last year’s State Department’s Annual Report to the Congress on International Religious Freedom notes similar restrictions in other European countries while not averring that democracy has been put at risk. The Report, for instance, notes that Austria only has 14 officially recognized religious societies.