Tag Archives: János Áder

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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.