Tag Archives: János Áder

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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

Is Viktor Orbán spying on his closest associates?

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to picture the behind-the-scenes personal rivalries among government and party officials even in the best of circumstances. But lately, when the whole carefully built edifice is crumbling, these rivalries are accompanied by fear. A commentator recently called the panic that must have gripped the whole corrupt lot of Fidesz politicians “dread.”

Viktor Orbán is still the prime minister of Hungary, but he has been greatly weakened by the events of the last five months. While earlier no high official would ever dare to criticize him, today János Lázár, the chief contender for the job, openly faults the prime minister for certain decisions. The same is true about one of Orbán’s oldest friends, László Kövér, who made some critical remarks about the people with whom the prime minister surrounds himself nowadays. The mess that Orbán created in the wake of the collapse of the Quaestor Group must have strengthened dissatisfaction with his leadership within the party. In turn, it seems, Orbán’s paranoia, which is part of his psychological makeup anyway, has grown to such an extent that apparently members of his “personal army,” the Terrorelhárítási Központ or TEK, are instructed to report to him on his closest associates and friends.

TEK, the Anti-Terrorism Center, was created in 2010, a few months after Viktor Orbán became prime minister. In addition to combating terrorism that is, thankfully, not really a threat in Hungary, the TEK super-policemen were supposed to be responsible for the protection of President János Áder, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, president of the parliament. TEK is very generously endowed, and the members of this elite force get much higher pay than ordinary policemen. The protection they afford the top officials is extensive. The detail that was supposed to protect President János Áder had 80 members. Anyone who’s interested in TEK should take a look at an older post, “A brief history of the Hungarian anti-terrorist center.”

It looks, however, as if neither László Kövér nor János Áder wants members of TEK snooping around them. Kövér handled the situation by creating a separate guard for the protection of the parliament (Országgyűlési Őrség) that would also take care of his and his family’s personal safety. Now, as of April 1, János Áder decided that he had enough of Orbán’s spies following him everywhere, especially after he realized that his old friend Viktor Orbán knew about some of his meetings that were not on his official schedule. Áder has every reason to be worried because, as Kim Lane Scheppele remarked in one of her articles that appeared in Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times, “TEK has amassed truly Orwellian powers, including virtually unlimited powers of secret surveillance and secret data collection.” That includes secret wiretapping. So, if Áder suspects Orbán using TEK as a vehicle to spy on him, he can’t even be sure that his telephone calls are not monitored.

According to information received by Vasárnapi Hírek, Áder has for some time been trying to get rid of TEK. A few months ago he suggested setting up a separate unit to look after his safety, but that idea was apparently vetoed by Viktor Orbán. Áder didn’t give up, however, and eventually he managed to get rid of TEK by settling for members of the ordinary police force who were trained for the job. This couldn’t have been easy because the law that established TEK had to be changed in order to accommodate the new situation. The change also affected the status of the men who had been assigned to the president. The question was what to do with the extra men who, if dismissed from TEK, would have to return to the ordinary police force with considerably less pay. The problem was solved. From here on they will be responsible for the security of Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor.

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK's watchful eyes

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK’s watchful eye

Naturally, the head of TEK denies that it was at the request of Áder that the change was made. He insists that the decision was based solely on professional considerations. But the president must have serious issues with the work of TEK. The deputy director of TEK was supposed to be promoted to brigadier-general on March 15, but Áder vetoed the government’s decision.

Áder is loyal to the government, but here and there he shows dissatisfaction with some of the legislation sent to him for his signature. In such cases, he sends the legislation back to parliament for reconsideration. And most of the time the Fidesz parliamentary majority blithely ignores his objections. As Népszava says, “They consider him a puppet. A temporary solution. His humiliation must be intensified when stories circulate from time to time that Viktor Orbán will soon move to the place he now occupies.”

According to rumor, by now Viktor Orbán is so paranoid that about a third of TEK’s job is to spy on the prime minister’s associates whom he considers to be “dangerous.” TEK has, it seems, become Viktor Orbán’s personal spy network used against his alleged enemies. This development, according to Népszava‘s information, created dissatisfaction within TEK. They are so overworked that they often purposely “lose” the subjects they are supposed to track because they find the job demeaning.

No one is willing to speak on record about TEK’s real job, but if the rumors are true, this is “a greater scandal than [Lajos] Simicska’s outburst on ‘black Friday’ because the rupture within Fidesz is much deeper and more widespread than we have suspected.” Viktor Orbán, it should be noted, would be acting within the law in setting up a personal spy network. TEK has such wide powers that it is perfectly legal for the prime minister to use TEK to observe his closest associates, members of parliament, even his neighbors anytime he thinks they are plotting against him.

Although rumors about the real reason for Áder’s change of his secret service unit have been circulating for at least two weeks, the president has not contradicted them, which lends credence to the story. I don’t know whether to be outraged, hopeful, or both.

Viktor Orbán: “No significant minority among ourselves”

A day before yesterday I wrote about the Hungarian reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Or, to be more precise, about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-held views on immigration and multiculturalism and the right-wing media’s attitude toward freedom of the press. Orbán is against immigration, and right-wing journalists blamed the victims for the tragedy.

A few hours after I posted my article we learned that Viktor Orbán, along with many other prime ministers and presidents, was invited to join the Paris march against terrorism and on behalf of freedom of speech. All told, 44 high-level politicians from all over the world gathered in Paris yesterday, Viktor Orbán among them. The Hungarian media immediately reported that Orbán would fly to Paris on the private jet that belongs to OTP, Hungary’s largest private bank, and that on the way back he would stop in Zurich, apparently to attend a gala gathering of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) today.

From the very first moment, news of Orbán’s attendance was received with misgivings in the opposition media. Zsolt Sebes in Gépnarancs  was one of the first who questioned Orbán’s right to be among those marchers who are committed to liberal democracy, to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. He is anything but a democrat, in fact he himself admitted that he wants to build an illiberal democracy, the journalist pointed out. “Orban n’est pas Charlie, what is he doing in Paris?” asked Sebes. Sztárklikk considered Orbán’s attendance one of “his most hypocritical gestures since 2010.” This march was about “the republic, freedom of the press, unity of Europe, about everything which is the essence of Europe. What is Orbán doing there?”

But Hungarian opposition papers were not the only ones who considered his presence in Paris incongruous. Le Monde expressed its surprise at seeing such politicians as Benjamin Netanyahu, Sergey Lavrov, Viktor Orbán, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Ali Bongo in the front rows of the march. Le Monde‘s criticism of Orbán focused on his government’s attacks against the media. Le Monde was not the only paper to object to the presence of certain politicians. Libération and Metro followed suit. And The Independent had the same kind of negative opinion of Viktor Orbán: “In Hungary, Mr Orban pushed through a law in 2010 which restricts independent media and gives the government extensive power over the flow of information.” In brief, he shouldn’t have been among the marchers.

The French president’s reception of Orbán seems not to have been the warmest, as Hungarian opposition papers gleefully pointed out. It stood in sharp contrast to his warm embrace of other dignitaries. Indeed, judging from the pictures taken at the scene, Hollande extended his hand at a moment when Viktor Orbán was still quite far from him, two steps down. Apparently a sign of distancing in the world of diplomacy.

Hollande and Orban

Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who, when encountering resistance, tries to keep a low profile. On the contrary, in situations like his unwelcome presence in Paris he makes sure that he further incites ill feelings toward him by making inappropriate pronouncements. The rally he attended was “in support of free speech and tolerance in Europe” yet Orbán right on the spot told the Hungarian state television that the Charlie Hebdo murders should make the EU restrict access to migrants. According to him, economic immigration is undesirable and “only brings trouble and danger to the peoples of Europe.” Therefore “immigration must be stopped. That’s the Hungarian stance.” He added that “Hungary will not become a target destination for immigrants…. We will not allow it, at least as long as I am prime minister and as long as this government is in power.” As he said, “we do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and a different background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.”

These words got extensive press coverage in the last couple of days not only in Hungary but also abroad because they go against the common values of the European Union to which he himself officially adheres. As the spokesman for the European Commission tersely said: “I don’t comment on statements of any prime minister but the Commission’s viewpoint in connection with migration is unambiguous.”

All opposition parties criticized Viktor Orbán’s nationalistic, xenophobic statement with the exception of Jobbik, whose spokesman praised the prime minister for speaking “almost like a member of Jobbik.”

Lajos Bokros was perhaps the most eloquent. Bokros is the chairman of the Movement for a Modern Hungary which he describes as a liberal conservative party. He wrote an open letter to Orbán, published on Facebook, in which he told the prime minister that he should not speak in the name of all Hungarians. “This is the view of you and your extremist xenophobe allies.” He asked the prime minister why he went to the rally when he does not understand what the whole thing was all about. Bokros repeated Orbán’s words about Hungarians who don’t want to see among themselves people who are different from them, who have different cultural characteristics. It is “terrible even to repeat these words…. If Hungary belongs to the Hungarians, then why doesn’t Romania belong to Romanians? Or Slovakia belong to the Slovaks? What would happen to Hungarians if the neighboring states thought the same way you do?”

DK pointed out that Viktor Orbán’s politics have gotten closer and closer to the extremist attitudes of Jobbik. Orbán’s “chronic populism” has reached a point where he is capable of uttering anti-freedom thoughts at the march for the republic. Orbán’s statement is especially disgusting since about half a million Hungarians currently work in Western Europe and the British Isles. PM joined in, stressing the ever decreasing differences between Fidesz and Jobbik. József Tóbás of MSZP added that “Viktor Orbán sent a message to David Cameron and Angela Merkel to send those Hungarians working in their countries back home.”

If you want to reflect on the irony of the prime minister’s xenophobic position you need look no further than yesterday’s celebration of the country’s German minority, an event that occurs every year on January 11. For the occasion President János Áder made a speech praising multiculturalism. “During the one-thousand-year-history of Hungary it has become evident many times that the members of our national minorities became great Hungarian patriots who enriched our common values, cultures, language.” And he quoted, as is usual on such occasions, the famous line from St. Stephen’s Exhortations to his son Imre: “nam unius linguae uniusque moris regnum, imbecille et fragile est” (a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile).

M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, recalled this quotation in a tweet: “Over lunch, among other things, discussed St. Stephen’s advice about the benefit of diversity.” And he gave a link to the bilingual text available in the Hungarian Electronic Library. Lajos Bokros also asked Orbán: “Didn’t you learn anything from the history of Central Europe? When was the last time you turned the pages of St. Stephen’s Exhortations?” A very long time ago, if ever.

Viktor Orbán is up to something and that something is nothing good

Index came out with it first. It seems that feelers are being put out, most likely indirectly by the prime minister’s office, about people’s opinion of changing the Hungarian governmental structure from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system. The client who ordered the survey seems to be specifically interested in whom people would like to see in the post of president.

A few months ago Péter Hack, a former member of parliament and a constitutional lawyer, called the topic of Viktor Orbán as the next president “an evergreen subject” which has been around for at least twenty-five years. Indeed, the topic was hotly debated during the discussions of the opposition in 1989. If it had depended on MDF, a right of center party, the president would have been directly elected by the voters, and they even had their favorite candidate, former member of the Politburo Imre Pozsgay. Fidesz and SZDSZ managed to thwart that plan and Hungary remained a purely parliamentary system in which the president has little power and is elected by the parliament.

After the 1989-1990 debate no one brought up the desirability of changing the constitutional order until 2004 when István Stumpf talked about the advantages of such a system. Four years later in a television interview he specifically spoke of the possibility that Viktor Orbán could become president one day, but naturally only if “the presidency would be reinforced.” Surely, a mostly ceremonial role would not suit Viktor Orbán’s temperament and political ambitions.

As usual, Viktor Orbán changed his mind on the subject frequently. In the fall of 2009 he declared that he is a devotee of the parliamentary system, which has a long tradition in Hungary. Yet when in 2010, after the election, a preliminary committee was assembled to write a new constitution, a change to a semi-presidential system was envisaged. As you may recall, that preliminary constitutional draft was thrown out the window so to speak, and instead the final text was written by József Szájer on his iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels.

So, in the new constitution that was adopted in 2011 there was no mention of enlarged presidential powers. Yet we know that Orbán preferred the semi-presidential system, as he made clear in a speech delivered in the same year. There was a simple reason he did not agree to the change in the constitution: the timing was not right. No wonder that he vetoed the text of the preliminary committee working on the constitution. Viktor Orbán is no fool. He certainly did not want the immediate introduction of a strong presidency over and above himself.

But the future was something else. In 2012 he gave an interview to the German Handelsblatt in which he praised the advantages of the semi-presidential system which “is more suited for the introduction of difficult reforms.” He added that he is a devotee  of democracy, but the question should be asked whether the management structures of democracy are best for periods of crisis.

It looks as if Orbán now finds the time ripe for making a move toward a presidential system. On May 21 Népszabadság reported that Orbán discussed the possibility of occupying the post of presidency after János Áder leaves in 2017. But he emphasized that he would do so only if the president had real power. As we know, under the present circumstances, changing the constitution and declaring the president head of the government as well as head of the state is a question of only a couple of hours of phony debate in parliament and the deed is done. For that matter, if Viktor Orbán decided to transform Hungary into a constitutional monarchy he would have no difficulty with his super majority of mindless followers.

Viktor Orbán's mask in the Institute for the Blind

Viktor Orbán’s mask in the Institute for the Blind

So, what is a semi-presidential system? There are several countries where such a governmental structure exists, but perhaps the best known is post-1958 France. In this system the government is not only responsible to parliament but also to the president. It is the president who appoints the prime minister, so he is the most important political player in the land. The president’s choice of prime minister, however, depends on the composition of the parliament. It can easily happen that the prime minister belongs to one party and the president to another. In this case they split responsibilities. Normally, the president is responsible for foreign policy and the prime minister for domestic policy. This “division of labor” is not spelled out in the constitution; it simply evolved this way. But often the system does not work. There can be bitter and tense stonewalling, depending on the attitudes of the two leaders and the ideologies of their parties. Just think what would happen if Viktor Orbán were president and Ferenc Gyurcsány prime minister.

How do we know that Viktor Orbán is seriously contemplating changing the constitution in order to move over to the Sándor palota, the office of the president? A few weeks ago ATV, the only television station that represents the views of the opposition, learned that Forsense Institute, a polling company that receives many government orders, conducted a survey on the Hungarian people’s attitudes on the subject. It was a telephone survey lasting about 10-15 minutes. On June 26 the station inquired whether such a survey had taken place. At that time Forsense denied the existence of such a poll. Yesterday, however, Forsense fessed up and admitted the existence of the survey to a journalist from Index. They refused to divulge the name of the client who ordered it, but they insisted that it was not the prime minister’s office. I tend to agree. Hungary’s prime minister is far too clever to get involved directly with such an enterprise. Most likely the job was “outsourced” to someone else.

What did the pollsters want to know? Index learned that the subjects were asked very specific questions. For example, what kind of a president they would prefer if they had a choice: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Silvio Berlusconi? Whom would they prefer? Viktor Orbán, János Áder, László Sólyom, or Gordon Bajnai? They wanted their opinion on whether the president’s tenure should be seven or nine years. The pollsters were especially interested in people’s political and religious views: the subjects had to divulge for which party they voted at the national and the EP elections.

It is alarming that decisions might be made on the basis of such a survey. The Hungarian voters’ knowledge of politics is frighteningly limited. How many people know the differences between the German, the Russian, the American, or the Italian system of government? How can they decide?

But the most frightening part of this latest news is that Viktor Orbán seems to be contemplating a radical change in Hungary’s constitutional order and placing himself, most likely for nine years, at the head of the government hierarchy. More than scary.

Hungary’s new friend: Turkmenistan’s dictator

The Hungarian media is full of stories about the visit of the bloody dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, to Budapest. The trip has been in the making for a long time. It was Hungary that initiated talks between the two countries when in November 2011 President Pál Schmitt was dispatched to Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. In January of this year Péter Szijjártó announced that the two countries had signed an agreement on economic cooperation. It was at that time that it was revealed that the Turkmen dictator himself will visit Hungary sometime in June.

As for the economic ties, Szijjártó claimed that there are hopeful signs that the relatively low level of trade between the two countries will grow substantially in the near future. He revealed that there are already Hungarian “success stories” in the food processing industry and in agriculture. A Hungarian firm is involved with the construction of a large brewery. He also indicated that Turkmenistan intends to modernize its oil and gas sector and would welcome Hungarian participation.

Trade between the two countries is indeed very small: until 2010 it amounted to only 10-15 million dollars a year, but by last year it had reached 110 million dollars. Just to give you an idea of the relative size of this trade relationship, Turkmenistan is not among the top 50 trading partners of Hungary.

Szijjártó also mentioned the possible construction of a gas pipeline, which is currently under discussion between the European Commission and Turkmenistan. Clearly, Hungary’s interest lies primarily in Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, which are the fourth largest in the world.

The opposition loudly protests this cozy relationship between Asgabat and Budapest, pointing out that Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in having the darkest dictatorship and that the only significant difference is that North Korea is very poor while Turkmenistan is flush with cash from the sale of natural gas to Russia and China. One can read more about the situation in Turkmenistan in the U.S. Human Rights Report of 2013.

Pro-government commentators point out that, after all, Ferenc Gyurcsány also visited Turkmenistan in the summer of 2008. Indeed, he did and apparently had a six-hour talk with Berdimuhamedov. He went there to show the United States that, despite rumors that he was against the Nabucco pipeline, the pet project of the EU and the United States, he was serious about finding a way of getting gas from outside of Russia. Apparently he came back convinced that the Nabucco project would not materialize. He turned out to be right.

The Trans-Caspian project was first conceived in the late 1990s.  Talks between the European Union and two of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, officially began on September 7, 2011, but there was not much follow-through. In the wake of the protests in Kiev and the ensuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, the Trans-Caspian pipeline gained new urgency. In December 2013 it was announced that negotiations between Turkmenistan and the European Union would begin in early 2014. The Russian response was swift. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, indicated that “external interference in the Caspian region will strain the situation in the region and can have a negative impact on the five-party negotiations,” that is, among Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and, naturally, Russia.

In earlier Hungarian reports on Szijjártó’s trade negotiations, no mention was made of Turkmen natural gas, but on June 14 Trend, an Azeri site, said that “Hungary is interested in receiving Turkmen gas under transnational projects.” The next piece of information, from MTI, stated that Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, deputy prime minister for oil and gas, told the newly appointed minister in charge of national economic development Miklós Seszták that Turkmenistan in the next two decades plans to more than triple its production of natural gas and wants to lay pipelines toward Europe, Pakistan, and India.

While Hojamuhammedov was visiting Miklós Seszták, Turkmen Foreign Minister Raşit Meredow was talking with Péter Szijjártó. Note that, flouting diplomatic protocol, the Turkmen foreign minister met only with Péter Szijjártó and not his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics.

As for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, he first met President János Áder in the Sándor Palace. Áder talked about the modernization of Turkmenistan and possible Hungarian participation in the Turkmen economy. It was no more than generalities. Berdymukhamedov’s announcement was, on the other hand, more interesting. He pointed out that “in a political sense the two countries’ points of view resemble each other in many ways. Both find stability and security important.” Turkmenistan is “grateful to Hungary for representing her in the United Nations.” He added that “the foreign ministers of the two countries continue their consultations concerning foreign policy.” He hopes that “Hungarian experts” will help Turkmenistan in its economic and social programs. Finally, he invited János Áder to Asgabat. It looks as if the two got along splendidly. The Hungarian media watched every move of the two men and even noted that their handshake lasted eight seconds!

Source: AFP. Photo Igor Sasin

Source: AFP/ Photo by Igor Sasin

Berdymukhamedov’s official program included a meeting with House Speaker László Kövér. Nothing has been said so far about a possible meeting between Berdymukhamedov and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although it is hard to imagine that such a meeting would not take place.

Let me add a funny note. Hungary was just admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries, joining Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and Turkey. The request came from former deputy-speaker of the parliament Sándor Lezsák, who started his career in MDF but who now can be placed somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik. He is among those who refuse to accept the Finno-Ugric origin of the Hungarian language and overemphasize the importance of  Turkic loan-words in the vocabulary. Anyone who’s interested in Turanism, which is closely linked to the idea of Hungarian being a Turkic language, can read a fairly good summary of the movement here or, in Hungarian, here.

I also thought that you would appreciate a picture of Berdymukhamedov on horseback. He even participates in horse races. In one of them, he was thrown off his horse but, never fear, just as a good dictator should, he won the race anyway.