Tag Archives: János Áder

Hate campaigns and their consequences

President János Áder, who had been reelected for another five-year term already in March, delivered his inaugural address on May 8. If we can believe him, his original intent was to talk about all the work that still lies ahead for the nation. “Looking at the political discourse of the past months,” however, he came to the conclusion that “if things go on like this, we will destroy everything we have managed to build together since 1990. We question everything. We completely disregard every—even tacit—agreement we have made. We go beyond all limits.” So, what is the remedy? According to Áder, the simple answer is “reconciliation.”

In his speech I found only two sentences that deserve closer scrutiny. One was a Ferenc Deák quotation, the third in the short speech, which can be construed as a criticism of the governance of the Orbán government. Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown, warned that “Hungary should not be loved with inciting thoughts unsettling it, but with a series of everyday, useful deeds that promote prosperity.” The second sentence came from the section on the quality of public discourse, which has deteriorated dramatically over the years. “I don’t want to dwell on responsibilities and on who is to blame. However, political numbers and majority status dictate that the responsibility of government parties is greater,” Áder admitted.

Skeptics are certain that Áder’s words were approved by Viktor Orbán himself, who needs to cool the overheated political atmosphere. Others, like György Csepeli, a social psychologist, consider the speech a perfect example of hypocrisy. After all, Áder signed the bill that threatens the very existence of Central European University, which added fuel to the fire, but the same man now wants a world in which people of different political persuasions live in harmony. If I may add another observation. Áder admits that the larger share of the responsibility falls on Fidesz, but simply because it is the governing party with a large majority. He is wrong. The reason for this state of affairs is not political arithmetic but the militaristic style of Fidesz, which leads to both verbal and physical violence. There was a time when Áder himself, as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, practiced the same kind of verbal coercion he now decries.

Zsolt Bayer, about whom I have written 13 posts since the beginning of 2011, is certainly not helping to tone down Hungarian political discourse. Bayer, one of the founding members of Fidesz who still has the full support of Viktor Orbán and his party, is notorious for his anti-Semitism and his vile writing. This time he ranted about the handful of NGO leaders who appeared at a parliamentary hearing to silently protest a pending bill that would discriminate against those NGOs that receive financial aid from abroad. When asked his opinion of their silent demonstration, Bayer said: “If people like this show up in the parliament building again and disrupt their work, then they need to be thrown out like shitting cats. If they need to be pulled out through their snot and blood, then they should be pulled out through their snot and blood….Their faces should be beaten to smithereens, if need be.”

The objects of Zsolt Bayer’s ire

As György Balavány, a conservative journalist, pointed out, Bayer is not a lone overly active pitbull. “He is the voice of the party” which, despite all pro-government opinion polls, is afraid. Facing widespread opposition, the Orbán government has “no other strategy than the intimidation of the public and the incitement of its own followers. Both of them can serve as preliminaries to physical force.” Meanwhile, Fidesz acts as if the increasingly frequent physical encounters simply didn’t exist. Orbán, for example, said that “it is not his job” to comment on claims of that sort. Among those Fidesz members who had an opinion on Bayer’s latest, some found his remarks perfectly acceptable. For example, according to Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi, Bayer didn’t cross the line between free speech and incitement. The spokesman of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation said that Bayer is like that, “and this is how many of us like him.”

At this point TASZ’s two lawyers, who took part in the silent demonstration at the hearing, decided to offer Bayer an opportunity to discuss their differences over a cup of coffee. Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, said she would join them. The naïve souls. First of all, any rational exchange with Bayer is a hopeless task. Worse, TASZ’s invitation was a tactical mistake because Bayer countered, saying he wants to extend the invitation to individuals on the anti-government side who, in his opinion, were either violent or who incited others to violence. Bayer suggested that the following individuals should be invited: Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, the two activists who were stopped from throwing washable orange paint on the president’s office, and two journalists from 24.hu who, according to Bayer, wanted him to hang on the first lamp post. He also thinks a pro-government female journalist should be present, who could tell how frightened she was among the “liberal” and “European” crowd at one of the demonstrations. Perhaps the editor-in-chief of a regional paper could also attend, who said that he is afraid that Orbán can be disposed of only in the way the Romanians managed to get rid of Ceaușescu. “If you think that I will take responsibility for the current state of public discourse alone, then you are mistaken.” Since then, others have indicated that they will attend and suggested more people who have been verbally abused by Bayer. One of these people was András Hont of HVG, who responded on Facebook: “Thank you, but I don’t want any coffee.”

Meanwhile fear and hatred have reached dangerous proportions in the country. The following incident in the heart of Budapest tells a lot about the impact of the government’s hate campaign against the European Union and the migrants. An employee of a pizza parlor on Kálvin tér, a bona fide Hungarian, thinking that one of his customers was a tourist, addressed the man in English. In turn, the customer called him a “filthy migrant.” And he kept yelling that Hungary belongs to the Hungarians and that he is not a tourist in his own country. He called the waiter “a cockroach.” When a young woman asked him to stop insulting the waiter who mistook him for a tourist, he hit the woman on the head, knocked her glasses off, and called her a stupid woman whose brain is filled with urine. Her bitter reaction after the incident was: “Long live the politics of hate, the brainwashing, and the incitement.”

Szilárd Németh, the embodiment of Fidesz primitiveness who is a deputy to Viktor Orbán, when asked about the incident, expressed his belief that the whole thing was nothing more than a “damned provocation” because anything can happen here “since George Soros set foot in this country and his provocateurs do what he tells them to do.” He added that this kind of incident has absolutely nothing to do with the Orbán government’s communication tactics because the government has never attacked the migrants. It has only defended Hungary and Europe. Poor Hungary, poor Europe.

May 14, 2017

Orbán is unhappy with the results of the French election

Last summer Viktor Orbán predicted that 2017 would be “the year of revolt.” People under the thumb of a liberal political elite incapable of understanding the real needs of the citizens would rebel in the voting booths and vote for right-wing parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, the German Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy, and the French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Since then, three elections were held, and in all three cases Orbán’s predictions turned out to be wrong. There is one more to go: the German election in September, but the likelihood of AfD winning is about zero.

Since the stakes were highest in France, Emmanuel Macron’s win was perhaps the most disappointing for Orbán. He could hardly hide his bitter feelings in his very brief congratulatory letter to the new French president. While he was the first EU politician to congratulate President Recep Erdoğan on winning the referendum that endows the Turkish leader with practically unlimited power, Orbán was in no hurry in Macron’s case. The perfunctory letter is most likely a true reflection of Orbán’s feelings toward Macron’s victory. “I look forward to our cooperation and trust that in the future we will have the opportunity to further develop our bilateral relations and also to discuss our ideas with relation to the future of Europe.” President János Áder was a bit more expansive. He said in his letter that Hungary considers France an important ally; he talked about the “thriving relationship” that exists between the two countries, which he hopes will be further “enriched in the coming years.” He added that he hopes that he and Macron will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in person in the near future.

Over the years I have been collecting relevant articles on Hungary’s bilateral relations with other countries, but I never managed to find even one event that significantly furthered relations between France and Hungary. I remember only one visit of Orbán to France, in November 2010, when he more or less invited himself to several EU countries, allegedly to discuss matters pertaining to Hungary’s presidency beginning in January 2011. Today, the relationship isn’t exactly, to use Áder’s adjective, thriving.

Viktor Orbán was a great deal more cautious in the case of the French election than he had been in the U.S. election when he openly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom he considered to be a disaster for Hungary. When Orbán was asked by reporters of Le Monde a couple of weeks before the election whether he supports Le Pen since the two share similar worldviews, Orbán was evasive. “My star among the candidates was François Fillon, whom I fully supported…. We worked together. We had our differences, but I still have an exchange of letters which is a basic document on modern friendship between men.” Orbán, as usual, might be overstating their friendship. He first met Fillon in November of 2010 when Fillon was prime minister of France. The meeting lasted less than an hour. By May 2012 Fillon resigned, after which he “retired” from politics.

Macron is an ardent supporter of the European Union and no friend of Viktor Orbán. Just the other day Macron said that the National Front’s “program of protectionism, isolationism, and nationalism leads to economic war, misery, and war in general.” It was at this point that the candidate said: “We all know who the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen are: Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. These aren’t regimes with an open and free society. Every day freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.”

István Lovas, a journalist with a checkered career who recently moved over to Magyar Idők as an “expert” on foreign affairs, doesn’t hide his antagonism for everything Macron stands for. Lovas is pro-Russian and by and large anti-American. He sang the praises of Donald Trump for a while, but lately he is no longer sure what he can expect from the new president. Lovas got the job of writing an article on the French election. He opted for a press review of sorts on Macron’s victory, which was an easy way to keep his opinions of the man to himself. Quoting Ryan Heath, the author of “Playbook Plus,” a regular feature of Politico, he stressed that Macron is “shell-shocked” because of the difficulties he is facing. And there is “Macron mania in Brussels.” French people voted for him just because they were against Le Pen. Not outright unfriendly, but Lovas’s disappointment is clear.

His deepest feelings are normally reserved for a blog in which he writes scores of short notes on his readings in the Russian, American, German, and French press. A day before the election he quoted Russia Today, which pointed out that Libération broke the campaign silence imposed on the French press by running an ad for Macron. Lovas introduced this bit of news with: “This is how liberal villains break the French campaign silence.” If one goes to the source, it’s not at all certain that Libération broke the law. But some people on Twitter thought it had.

A few hours later he quoted Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten in a misleading fashion. In the Lovas version, “the campaign team of Macron said to be victim of a hacker attack” (Macron választási csapata hekkertámadás áldozatának mondta magát). The original states that “Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team announced later Friday night that it had become the victim of a massive hacker attack” (Das Wahlkampfteam von Emmanuel Macron teilte am späten Freitagabend mit, dass es Opfer eines massiven Hackerangriffs geworden sei). The Hungarian version intimates that the campaign team’s claim might not be true. The German original is a simple statement of fact. Moreover, the title of Lovas’s note is: “French authorities: No one should dare publish information on Macron acquired by hackers,” which, though true, subtly suggests that the French authorities were suppressing important evidence in favor of Macron and thereby were working against Le Pen.

In his last note Lovas quoted an American publication called The Gateway Pundit, according to which “Macron Busted! Lied about Tax Evasion?” For those (like me) who were unfamiliar with this source, Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative political blog…. It is allied with Donald Trump and elements of the alt-right and extreme right in American politics and is often linked to or cited by Fox News, Drudge Report, Sarah Palin and other well-known conservative people and sites. The website is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” It’s depressing that István Lovas, the foreign policy “expert” of the foremost government paper in Hungary, receives his information from publications like The Gateway Pundit. Foreign news is filtered through people like Lovas before it reaches the readers of Magyar Idők and other government media outlets.

I suspect that a propaganda campaign against Macron will start soon enough. Such a strong supporter of European integration and an enemy of nationalism will by definition be a foe of Viktor Orbán.

May 8, 2017

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 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

Will the left have a presidential candidate? Not at all sure

We are witnessing a possibly important event in Hungarian politics. In May, János Áder’s tenure as president is coming to an end. We have known since December 20, 2016 that, after all, he will be renominated for the post. This news came as a surprise not only to the public but, apparently, even to János Áder himself.

Why was the announcement so unexpected? After all, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán should have been satisfied with the performance of his hand-picked president. Áder never made waves by sending clearly illegal acts of parliament straight to the Constitutional Court. If something truly outrageous arrived on his desk, he simply sent it back to parliament for reconsideration, an act that resulted in its being sent back to him in an unaltered form, after which he had no choice but to sign it. And yet it seemed that Orbán was dissatisfied with Áder. After Pál Schmidt, who wanted to be a loyal servant of the government and never questioned any of the laws put in front of him, I guess Áder was still far too independent.

In May 2016 a cameraman of HírTV caught a few words exchanged between György Rubovszky (KDNP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal matters, and Imre Vas (Fidesz), the committee’s deputy chairman. Rubovszky told his colleague that “there is no way Áder will be reelected because Viktor doesn’t permit it.” The Fidesz majority in parliament will vote for whomever the prime minister wants to be elected.

A few weeks ago the names of László Kövér and Zoltán Balog were floated as possible successors to Áder. Kövér’s name quickly disappeared from the short list. My guess is that Kövér said he didn’t want the job. And Orbán respects Kövér’s political and personal decisions. As far as Balog is concerned, we know that Orbán and Balog discussed the matter. My hunch is that Balog was ready to accept whatever job Orbán entrusted him with. At the last moment, however, the idea was dropped. The reason? Balog’s mega-ministry is under heavy criticism. The revolting teachers want him to resign because of the disastrous PISA results. Hungarian healthcare is in shambles. Removing Balog from his current position might have been interpreted as a retreat by Orbán, something the prime minister is loath to do.

As soon as it became known that Áder would most likely be reelected, Sándor Székely, one of the leaders of Solidarity who earlier had managed to get almost all of the democratic parties on the same platform on October 23, decided to look into the possibility of suggesting a respectable candidate all democrats could support. He, Balázs Gulyás (one of the organizers of the successful demonstration against the internet tax), and Peter Krasztev (a literary historian and former head of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Bratislava) got together to find a suitable candidate. Of course, these three men had no illusions. Given the dominance of the government party in parliament, Áder will be reelected. Whoever agrees to the nomination is facing certain failure. However, they argued, if they manage to gain the support of all the parties on the left, this act will not only have symbolic value but might also expedite cooperation among the parties when it comes to the 2018 national election. Their choice was László Majtényi, a constitutional legal scholar who is currently the director of the Károly Eötvös Intézet, a legal think tank. The organizers got 39 well-known public figures to support Majtényi’s nomination. The list of supporters can be found here.

László Majtényi

Right-wing publications try to paint Majtényi as a representative of those liberals who are no longer relevant. He represents a world that no longer exists. Even Magyar Nemzet came out with an opinion piece that made fun of the whole idea by claiming that the democratic opposition might just as well have nominated Lagzi Lajcsi, a musician who was popular some years back. This is a truly unfair comparison. Majtényi was counselor to the Constitutional Court between 1990 and 1994; subsequently he was named Hungary’s first ombudsman in charge of data protection (1995-2001). In 2008 President László Sólyom and Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány jointly named him to head Országos Rádió és Televízió Testület (ORTT), responsible for the enforcement of Hungary’s media laws. Less than two years later, in October 2009, he resigned “because he was unable to prevent the decision of the organization” which allowed the two parties, Fidesz and MSZP, to divide between themselves two radio frequencies. He showed a great deal of independence and integrity in this case.

Majtényi agreed to be put forth as a candidate for president although his chances are nil. Moreover, in order to become an official candidate he will need 40 votes in parliament. Even if all 29 MSZP members and all 10 liberal independents vote for him, he is still short one vote. To be successful, at least one LMP member would have to side with the others. And that is a question mark. At the moment MSZP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and the Liberals expressed their support. LMP and DK are still undecided. LMP’s problem is most likely the party’s reluctance to do anything with the other opposition parties. DK’s hesitancy is more complex. DK doesn’t consider the new constitution legitimate and therefore doesn’t consider the person of the president legitimate either. On the other hand, they consider Majtényi an excellent candidate. So, says DK’s spokesman, the leadership, which will meet again at the end of the month, will have to resolve this dilemma.

Jobbik, by the way, announced that it will come up with its own candidate for the presidency. Its MPs will vote for neither Áder nor Majtényi.

There is a possibility that the 40 votes may materialize because, after all, LMP really shouldn’t have any problem with Majtényi’s candidacy. But one never knows because the “evil spirit” of the party, András Schiffer, who allegedly no longer runs the party, just published a short note on his Facebook page in which he accuses Majtényi of inconsistency. The ill will Schiffer harbors against Majtényi goes back to András Schiffer’s negotiations with Fidesz to reach an agreement on the nomination of four new judges of the Constitutional Court. Since Fidesz no longer had a two-thirds majority, Orbán needed LMP’s help. Majtényi’s Károly Eötvös Institute advised against the deal because “it would legitimize an unacceptable political system.” If that was the case last year, asks Schiffer, how is it not the case in 2017? Doesn’t his running against Áder legitimize Orbán’s unacceptable regime? There is, I’m afraid, some truth to this. It is the same problem DK is facing at the moment. And yet if the opposition parties do not support Majtényi, they will appear to accept the status quo and become even more marginalized.

January 5, 2017

Gábor Horváth: “Silence Speaks Volumes”

This commemorative article on Elie Wiesel  by Gábor Horváth, foreign affairs editor of Népszabadság,  appeared in the newspaper’s July 5, 2016 edition. The article was translated from the Hungarian by Lili Bayer.

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Wiesel

At home they spoke mainly Yiddish, but Elie Wiesel’s family members considered themselves Hungarian Jews until a Hungarian second lieutenant threw their Hungarian papers in their faces. They also knew a little Romanian and German, but Hungarian much better. Nevertheless, Elie Wiesel did not speak Hungarian after age sixteen. There was no one to speak with, and anyway after the liberation of the concentration camp he ended up in France, and later in America. When he broke his long silence, thirteen years ago, and gave an interview to a Hungarian newspaper, he spoke English with Népszabadság’s Washington correspondent. But, as he spoke about his hometown, Sziget, his pronunciation of it was nicer than any local TV host’s.

Hungary also considers him Hungarian, and he is still listed with pride on the list of famous Hungarians in the Hungarian embassy in Washington. He ended up there somehow, and taking him off would have been awkward. He was a disquieting Hungarian. He was not able to forgive those Hungarians who helped murder his family and did everything they could so the Germans could kill as many Jews as possible. He also could not forgive those who believe that all this is a forgettable episode. For example, László Kövér, who made a pilgrimage to Transylvania four years ago for the reburial of József Nyirő, who had stuck with the Arrow Cross till the end. Wiesel called this horrifying, and as a sign of protest he formally returned a medal he had received from the Socialist-Free Democratic Hungarian government  back in 2004.

Now that he has passed away, President János Áder, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér—who is still head of the National Assembly—with clenched teeth remain silent. The Nobel-prize winner is useful as long as one can boast about him, but if he has opposing opinions and dares express them, the “dignitaries” pretend as though he never even existed. But after all, what can they say? Some of their supporters would interpret their words as forced, under pressure by secret powerful forces, honoring “a Jew.” Others, regardless of the leaders’ sincerity, would see this as yet another cynical about-face. The abovementioned gentlemen have maneuvered themselves into this position. It’s on their conscience.

The government occasionally attempts to take steps to avoid being considered anti-Semitic. But then with a statue here and there, slips of the tongue, and the twisting of historical truth, called “memory politics,” all gestures to the far right, it nullifies this. In the end, how should they be viewed, if they themselves do not know what they think?

This would not interest Elie Wiesel much. It is possible that he would find this disavowal a bit painful. What is it compared to 1944? There are enough countries where his death is being commemorated at the highest levels, among them Romania, his birth country, France, where he became an adult, and the U.S., where he lived and worked. He devoted his life so that what took place would not be forgotten and memory of the victims would not be erased. And it has not been forgotten, and the memories will not be silenced. Or perhaps they can be, but the silence speaks volumes.

According to his son, his father dreamed a few weeks ago that he was taking a walk in Máramarossziget with his little sister Tzipora and his parents, who were all killed in the camps. At the funeral on Sunday the son, Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, said goodbye with these words: “Tell your parents that you succeeded. We live. We love.”

July 9, 2016

A perfect money laundering device: The Hungarian National Bank’s foundations

In order to understand how the Hungarian National Bank managed to make so much money in the last few years we have to go back to the period between 2010 and 2014 when the Swiss franc rose inexorably against the Hungarian forint and when millions of Hungarians who took out loans, mostly in Swiss francs, found themselves in an impossible financial situation. Many of them were simply unable to pay their mortgages, or even auto loans. The Orbán government naturally blamed the earlier governments for allowing “the Hungarian people” to become indebted in foreign currencies and put forth a plan to convert foreign currency loans into Hungarian forints. There was a lot of talk but no action until almost four years later, when on November 7, 2014 D-Day was announced. All foreign-currency loans were to be converted into forints.

Great was the surprise when borrowers found out that, although they had been diligently paying on their loans over the last five-six years, they now owed as much as or more than they did before they paid a penny on their loans. If, for example, someone took out a loan for 50,000 Swiss francs (9 million forints) in 2007 and had been paying mostly interest and very little on the principal, he now owed 13 million forints because of the weakening forint in the intervening years.

The banks also lost money on the deal because they were obliged to reduce the borrower’s debt by 1 or 2 million forints. Even so, the borrower got the short end of the stick as a result of the conversion.

The later the compulsory exchange of debt occurred the more expensive these loans would become. In November 2011 the exchange rate was 204 ft. to the Swiss franc; in November 2014 it was 256 ft to the franc. For someone with a 50,000 Swiss franc mortgage, that’s a difference of 2.6 million forints. Since György Matolcsy took over the chairmanship of the Hungarian National Bank, the Hungarian forint has continued to fall against the Swiss franc (250 forints at the beginning of his tenure versus 282 forints today).

Back in 2014, in order to exchange all the foreign currency-denominated loans to forints, the banks needed additional foreign currency themselves. So, the Hungarian National Bank lent 8-9 billion euros to the banks so they could pay their debts in Swiss francs or euros. The banks then paid the National Bank back in forints. The Hungarian National Bank profited from the difference between what it had earlier paid in forints for the euros and what it received back from the bank loans. If the government had decided to force borrowers to exchange their debts to forints in 2011, according some calculations the Hungarian National Bank would have missed the opportunity to make approximately 360 billion forints in profits on the exchange rate. The government and the National Bank were excellent market timers.

This windfall has been spent on real estate (90 billion), works of art (30 billion), a Guarneri violin, the financing of a new-fangled piano, etc. But the largest amount, 250 billion forints, went into five foundations established by the National Bank. As György Surányi, chairman of the National Bank between 1990-91 and again between 1995 and 2001, pointed out in a recent interview, this sum of money is 1% of Hungary’s GDP. It would be almost enough to pay the yearly salary of all 140,000 teachers. To put it bluntly, the Hungarian National Bank’s gain comes from the loss and sufferings of millions of foreign currency debtors.

György Matolcsy

György Matolcsy

An early critic of the November 2014 loan conversions expressed his hope that the Bank’s profit would go toward lowering the national debt, which was one of the chief promises of the Orbán government. Surányi in his interview also declared that instead of establishing “foundations” the money should be used to lower the debt and also to help the deeply indebted borrowers.

I myself wrote twice about the National Bank’s strange business activities. Matolcsy took over the chairmanship of the Bank in March 2013, and within a year it was evident that he was spending the profits of the bank at a fast clip. It was still before the forced exchange of foreign currency loans to forint loans that I wrote an article titled “The Hungarian central bank goes on a buying binge.” But that was nothing in comparison to the money subsequently put into the “foundations” established by the Bank. Since they were set up to teach “unorthodox” economics, the most respected economists of the land protested against this preposterous idea.

A caricature which combines Matolcsy's looks and the logo of the national tobacco shops

A caricature that combines Matolcsy’s eyes with the logo of the national tobacco shops

Others had more sinister objections: the “foundations” look like perfect places to launder money. Suspicions grew when Matolcsy refused to divulge any of the financial details of these so-called foundations. Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP MP, approached the National Bank in March 2015 for the particulars and was rebuffed. The next move was a suit against the Bank, which Tóth won in the first round. Matolcsy was adamant and the bank appealed. He lost again, and this time there was no opportunity for further appeal. Back in early March, Index optimistically predicted that “we will soon find out how good a steward of the public money the National Bank is.” Matolcsy was at the end of his ropes. He had to do something. Apparently he went to Viktor Orbán and asked him to intervene. Or at least this is what high-ranking Fidesz politicians told Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság. Csuhaj learned that Ádám Balog, one of the Bank’s deputy chairmen, wrote the text of the proposed bill, which also included a hefty salary raise for György Matolcsy.

The next step was that a Fidesz MP submitted the proposal to create a law that would make the financial details of the foundations a state secret. The reason? Knowledge of the financial activities of an affiliated company of the Bank might cause financial loss to the National Bank itself. All of the Fidesz-KDNP members of parliament who were present voted for it. When pressed, Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, explained that the money that was put into the foundations was no longer public money. It had morphed into private property. Yes, exactly, and this is the problem.

According to all legal opinions, this law is unconstitutional. The hope is that President János Áder will veto it and send it to the Constitutional Court. László Kövér, who apparently disapproves of the bill, voted for it only because of party discipline and delayed putting his signature on the bill as long as he could, which was five days. Now it is Áder’s turn. We will see what his decision will be because surely Áder is not an independent actor. It all depends on what Viktor Orbán decides. Will he think that under the circumstances this bill would best be shelved or he will decide that he can do anything he wants? That no one can limit his power. Of course, there is still the Fidesz-packed Constitutional Court. Will he have its backing? That will also have to be taken into consideration before a decision is reached at the very top of the Fidesz pyramid.

March 6, 2016