Tag Archives: János Lázár

Viktor Orbán is losing his cool

Trump’s uncontrolled outbursts seem to be contagious. While in the past Viktor Orbán showed considerable restraint when giving interviews or answering opposition members of parliament, in the last couple of weeks he has given vent to his frustration and anger.

Friday, during his regular morning radio interview, he lashed out against the European Commission, repeating himself, calling the legal opinion released by the European Commission an object of derision, a document that one cannot discuss without laughing. If Hungary accepted this document, it would become the laughing stock of Europe. He went on and on. Then yesterday, he accused Ákos Hadházy (LMP), who has spent years fighting the endemic corruption of the Orbán regime, of corruption himself. Pressured by the European Commission and by Hadházy’s dogged pursuit of his government’s systemic corruption, Orbán no longer seems capable of exercising self-control.

I have been following Ákos Hadházy’s political career ever since he first appeared on the national scene. He reported on a local corruption case in Szekszárd, a small town, where he was a Fidesz member of the city council. Since then, Hadházy, now co-chair of LMP, has focused on uncovering corruption cases. Just the other day, he said in an interview that he had held more than 80 “corruption infos.” Once a week he stands in front of the cameras and reports on yet another horrendous case. Each of these cases involves millions if not billions of forints. Hadházy estimates that in the last seven years the “Fidesz clientele” stole about three trillion forints of the subsidies Hungary received from the European Union. In his assessment, all work performed is at least 30% overpriced.

Lately, Hadházy has been working on two cases, both involving healthcare. The first one was a program that was supposed to set up “mentor houses” for premature babies and their parents in Szeged, Kecskemét, and Gyula. A foundation was established for the purpose, called “I Arrived Early Foundation,” which received 1.2 billion forints from the European Union. Since it was such a large project, Hadházy asked for details. It turned out that less than half of the money was allocated to the program itself. The rest was designated for the maintenance of the foundation. Money was spent on most likely overpriced rentals, legal advice, laptops, telephones, several printers, and very high salaries for the “coordinators,” while the 40 mentors received only about 50,000 forints a month.

It turned out that two other very similar projects received about half the amount that “I Arrived Early Foundation” got, and they managed quite well. Mind you, they didn’t pay 50 million forints for “legal advice.” In fact, they got along just fine without it. While a methodology study cost the “I Arrived Early Foundation” 50 million, the other foundation managed to get one for 8 million.

Hadházy stirred up a hornet’s nest by investigating this particular foundation. János Lázár’s wife is one of the board members of the foundation, and Hadházy suspected that the unusually generous financial support given to the foundation was not entirely independent of Mrs. Lázár’s presence there. Soon after the “corruption info” in which Hadházy announced the foundation’s suspicious expenditures, he found himself in the crosshairs of Zoltán Balog’s ministry, which awarded the money to the foundation, and the Office of the Prime Minister, headed by János Lázár. Nándor Csepreghy, Lázár’s deputy, assisted by the government paper, Magyar Idők, led the attack. Magyar Idők published several articles accusing Hadházy of being a heartless man who compared these premature babies to newborn puppies. Hadházy, who is a vet in private life, did in fact compare the weights of some of these babies to newborn puppies, and he was quite accurate. A newborn puppy is about 500 grams, just like the smallest premature baby. Csepreghy, in defense of his boss, called Hadházy an “ignorant scoundrel.” Lázár at one point offered his wife’s retirement from the foundation, but as far as I know nothing of the sort happened. Naturally, the foundation explained away all of its expenses.

The second case was even more clear cut. The National Healthcare Services Center (Állami Egészségügyi Ellátó Központ/ÁEEK) issued a tender for several ventilators. General Electric and three Hungarian firms submitted bids. The Hungarian firms were actually just wholesalers, and their bids were a great deal higher than General Electric’s. The three Hungarian firms offered to sell the ventilators for a price between 1.7 and 1.9 billion forints as opposed to GE’s offer of 1 billion forints. ÁEEK tailored the tender in such a way that only one bidder could win the tender. Predictably, GE lost the bid, but the company decided not to take the decision lying down. The American firm turned to the Public Procurement Authority (Közbeszerzési Döntőbizottság), which ruled in GE’s favor. ÁEEK had to pay 50 million forints. Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, subsequently denied that the procurement was rigged.

Ákos Hadházy addressing Viktor Orbán in Parliament / Source: ATV

The GE affair was the topic of Ákos Hadházy’s weekly corruption info. János Lázár seemed to agree with Hadházy that those who were involved in the case must be investigated. So, emboldened by Lázár’s reaction, Hadházy brought up the case in parliament yesterday when Viktor Orbán by house rules had to be present and was obliged to answer questions. Hadházy asked the prime minister who was right: János Lázár or Bence Rétvári. Orbán flew off the handle. He accused Hadházy of lobbying for GE. “A representative stands up in the Hungarian Parliament lobbying for a company. How much money did you receive for this? How dare you? How dare you lobby for a company in the Hungarian Parliament during an ongoing public procurement? Especially, on behalf of a foreign company. Now, I have been sitting here for many years, but I have not seen a case more corrupt than this, shame on you!” He also ordered an “investigation” of Hadházy right on the spot.

Hadházy doesn’t seem to be intimidated. He will sue Orbán for slander. Otherwise, he wrote a defiant note on his Facebook page in which he pointed out that Orbán, with his outburst, “kicked a three-meter self-goal” by calling attention to the fact that they want to steal billions from the “dying hospitals.” He said that Orbán’s claim of “an ongoing public procurement” is a lie since the Public Procurement Authority already closed the case. Otherwise, he is looking for the day when Orbán will have to apologize to him. Well, in his place I wouldn’t hold my breath.

October 10, 2017

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017

Felcsút: The forbidden village for EP “bureaucrats”

Let’s return to Viktor Orbán’s choo-choo train, which runs between the two villages where the Hungarian prime minister spent his first 14 years. In his childhood this narrow-gauge railroad was still functioning, but because of insufficient traffic MÁV, the state railway company, scrapped the line sometime in the 1970s. Apparently Viktor Orbán had fond memories of that train, and once he had the opportunity he decided to revive it. His own Puskás Academy Foundation launched the project. It purchased and renovated the old run-down train station and bought newly refurbished cars and an engine. The project was declared to be of premier importance as far as Hungary’s economy was concerned. This designation was necessary in order to skip the otherwise requisite public tender procedures. It was supposed to be a great tourist attraction, with thousands of passengers.

By the time it was finished the train project had cost 3 million euros, 2 million of which was provided by the European Union as part of a 652.5 million euro package given for the development of the counties of Veszprém, Komárom-Esztergom, and Fejér. In June 2016 The Telegraph reported that OLAF, EU’s anti-fraud agency, was investigating the train, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the Felcsút complex with its 3,500-seat soccer stadium only yards from Orbán’s weekend house and now a railroad going from nowhere to nowhere raised eyebrows in Brussels.

All that didn’t deter Viktor Orbán, who reportedly planned to extend the 5.7 km line, perhaps hoping that the number of passengers could be increased this way. The Hungarian government had promised between 2,500 and 7,000 passengers daily to justify the investment, but according to 444.hu, in its first month of operation Orbán’s choo-choo train attracted only 900 passengers–that is, only 30 a day. By October 2016 there were days when the train had no passengers at all. A few days ago atlatszo.hu published figures it acquired from the Puskás Academy. Since its first run on April 30, 2016, the academy reported, 48,533 people used the train. Last year 30,219, and so far this year 18,314. During that period, the railroad accumulated a 4.1 million forint loss. These dismal figures didn’t seem to bother János Lázár. In his opinion, if 20,000 people use the train, it is a profitable undertaking. Strange accounting, I must say.

From the start questions were raised both at home and in Brussels about the efficacy of this project, and therefore it was not entirely unexpected that the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament, whose fact-finding delegation will be visiting Hungary between September 18 and 20, put the Felcsút train on its agenda, alongside the huge Metro 4 construction project. Once János Lázár learned that the delegation would like to see Felcsút in all its glory, he hit the ceiling. Or, to be more precise, it was most likely Viktor Orbán who hit the ceiling. Lázár was just assigned the dirty work of fighting it out with the chair of the committee, Ingeborg Gräßle.

I have the feeling that Lázár/Orbán made a huge mistake when they decided to take on Grässle. She has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is considered to be especially influential. She is known as a strong advocate of increased transparency and accountability. And, as we will see, she is no pushover. Occasionally one has the feeling that Fidesz politicians think they can intimidate foreigners as easily as they do their “subjects.” But Grässle is an especially forbidding opponent.

In any case, Lázár wrote a letter to the chair of CONT on August 9. In it, he complained that the committee was not following Hungary’s suggested list of projects and accused the committee of setting up a program of its own, which is “strongly politically motivated.” Politico quoted the following passages from his August 9 letter: “I found it outrageous that a committee of the European parliament systematically ignores and rejects a notable amount of suggestions of the Hungarian government, thus significantly interferes in the Hungarian [election] campaign.” He especially criticized the committee’s decision to include a trip to “the home village of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.” Grässle wasn’t impressed. She refused to change the fact-finding mission’s travel plans and politely assured Lázár that “there is no bias either behind the choice of the date of our mission or of the projects. The Budgetary Control Committee will conduct its visit in a politically neutral way, as we always do.”

Perhaps if at that point Lázár had just backed off he wouldn’t have gotten himself and the government he represents into hot water, as he ultimately did. On September 4 he wrote another letter, in the same manner as the first. Both letters struck some members of CONT as uncouth. And, further pressing their case, the Hungarian government instructed the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union to plead with Grässle to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the election in 2018. Grässle apparently told the ambassador that the budgetary control committee “does not accept political interference in the way it organizes its work of controlling the implementation of the budget.”

Ingeborg Grässle subsequently fired off two letters: one to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Union, and another to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. In her letter to Tajani she wrote: “I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organization of a mission as well as with regards to its content.” She added that Lázár’s choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply—”in political or in legal terms”—with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states. She considered the case so serious that she suggested to Tajani that he raise the issue with Juncker.

There is no question in my mind that it was Viktor Orbán who found the visit to Felcsút a personal attack on him by an EU body and tried to use next spring’s election as an excuse. But it backfired. As Grässle put it: “We are important but not that important.” Surely, it wasn’t the election that bothered the Lord of Felcsút. He simply didn’t want anyone from Brussels to see the place. As we know, anyone who tries to take pictures anywhere near the stadium is usually met with scores of policemen. And this case is more than the usual curious journalists trying to get close to his little empire. It is a group of European politicians who will see that whole grotesque scene Orbán managed to create in that “miserable village,” as Tamás Deutsch called it.

Orbán, with the assistance of Lázár, cast his regime in the worst possible light. One’s first response, which Grässle most likely shares, is: “These guys must have something to hide.” By the way, I wonder what the plans are for the day when the mission visits Felcsút. Will the Hungarian government order out thousands of people to ride their choo-choo train? Anything is possible in that Potemkin village called Hungary.

September 9, 2017

Another peacock dance: Orbán’s reversal on the verdict of the European Court of Justice

Yesterday I dealt with the exchange of letters between Jean-Claude Junker and Viktor Orbán concerning Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half the cost of the fence the Hungarian government erected along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian demand raised eyebrows in Europe and elsewhere, so Hungary was again in the international news.

The other reason for the preoccupation of the international media with Hungary was the long-awaited verdict of the European Court of Justice on the legality of the EU decision on the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers. Slovakia and Hungary claimed that the decision-making process was illegal. Two days ago, on September 6, the Union’s top court dismissed the complaints of the two countries, dealing a blow to Viktor Orbán.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico immediately reacted to the verdict, saying that “we fully respect the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” adding, however, that his government’s view on the relocation plan “has not changed at all.” Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, remained silent. In his place, Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, gave a joint press conference, where the foreign minister vented. He called the ruling “outrageous and irresponsible.” In his opinion, the verdict endangers the security and future of Europe and is contrary to the interest of the countries of the Union, including Hungary. “Politics raped the European law and European values,” he claimed. He announced that “the real battle begins only now,” and he promised that the Hungarian government “will use all the remedies available at its disposal” to prevent similar central decision-making for Hungary.

Trócsányi was no less belligerent when he announced that the Hungarian government will start a new legal debate. Since he liked the phrase “the real battle begins only now,” he repeated it. He didn’t go so far as to accuse his fellow judges of acting politically, but he charged that they were preoccupied with the case’s formal aspects and neglected its contextual qualities. The case was thrown out in its entirety, but Trócsányi still praised the excellent legal work of his team. The legal arguments presented to the court were outstanding, and therefore he was quite surprised by the outcome. Trócsányi also indicated that Hungary will not have to take the 1,294 migrants because the case was only about the legality of the decision-making process.

Péter Szijjártó and László Trócsányi / MTI-MTVA / Photo Szilárd Koszticsek

In brief, it looked as if the Orbán government was prepared to go against the ruling and suffer the consequences. A day later, on September 7, this impression was reinforced by János Lázár at his regular “government info” press conference where he interpreted the decision of the European Court of Justice as an opportunity for the European Commission to allow “Brussels” to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. “We will use every legal instrument to preserve the independence of the country.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, also chimed in and, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, repeated Szijjártó’s accusation of a politically motivated and irresponsible decision on the part of the European Court of Justice. Everybody suspected, including naturally Viktor Orbán, that Slovakia and Hungary would lose the case, and therefore the word probably came down from above some time ago about what the proper reaction to the verdict should be.

After two days of criticism of the court and its verdict, Viktor Orbán came out with an entirely different approach to the question. In his Friday morning “interview” on Magyar Rádió he said: “Hungary is a member of the European Union. The affairs of the Union, its internal power relations are settled by the Treaty, so contracts have to be respected. Consequently, one must take cognizance of the verdicts of the courts. Hungarian is a sophisticated, refined language and therefore it does matter with what kind of word we react to a verdict, especially when we are functioning in a hostile Europe. I decided to use the word “tudomásul venni” which I took over from Slovak Prime Minister Fico.” Unfortunately, I don’t know what Slovak word Fico used when talking about his reaction to the verdict. English translations of Fico’s press conference use the verb “to respect” which, unfortunately, is not the equivalent of “tudomásul venni,” which might be better translated as “to take cognizance of.” However, I’m sure that some readers of Hungarian Spectrum will provide us with the the Slovak word that Fico used as well as with the best translation of the Slovak equivalent of “tudomásul venni.” Then we will be able to see whether Orbán and Fico are talking about the same thing or not.

Orbán’s interview was long, during the course of which he said many uncomplimentary things about the European Union, but at the end he came up with some startling statements. The interviewer reminded him that the politicians of the European Union consider the Polish refusal to abide by a court verdict as preparation for the country’s exit from the Union. If Orbán keeps talking about his “fight,” this communication may lead to the interpretation that Hungary is also planning to leave the Union behind. Here is Orbán’s answer: “Communication is interesting and in politics is often important, but it does not replace reality…. Hungarian reality is that the Hungarian people decided after a referendum to join the European Union. That decision was a correct one. No political decision can overwrite that decision. A popular referendum was held, and therefore no government action can reverse that determination. It was the Hungarian people’s choice, and that’s right and well.”

Although Szijjártó, who is in Tallin at the moment, expressed his trust in the unity of the Visegrád Four, there are signs that Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not ready to sacrifice themselves for Poland and Hungary. The weak link, I believe, is Slovakia. I heard an interview with Pál Csáky, a Slovak member of the European Parliament, who surprised me to no end with his condemnation of the Orbán government’s attitude toward the European Union. The reason for my surprise was that Csáky was Fidesz’s favorite among Hungarian ethnic politicians in Slovakia back in 2010. Lots of money was poured into Csáky’s party, the Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP), against Béla Bugár of Híd/Most. Despite the funding, MKP didn’t even manage to get enough votes to become a parliamentary party. Csáky at this point resigned. Today he made it clear that Slovakia will not follow Orbán’s suicidal strategy. Slovakia is all for the European Union.

There is another reason that Orbán may have changed his mind. The spokesman of the European People’s Party delivered a message to Viktor Orbán: don’t go against the ruling of the court because this verdict gives an opportunity to heal the wounds caused by the recent conflict between the member states. “The unanimous opinion of the party is that Slovakia and Hungary comply with the rules.”

Otherwise, Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to have a chat with Viktor Orbán, but his spokesman reminded his audience as well as Viktor Orbán that the position of the European Commission is explained in Juncker’s letter to Orbán. It is available for everybody to read and, in any case, the Commission is not in habit of verbal ping pong. Given Juncker’s firmness as expressed in his letter, I would not advise Orbán to continue to press his case.

September 8, 2017

Who is planning physical violence on the streets of Budapest?

In the last few days more and more political observers have become aware of Fidesz politicians’ frequent references to the violent disturbances that will take place on the streets of Budapest in the coming months. The weak and desperate opposition, encouraged by the foreign enemies of the present government, will forcibly turn against the democratically elected Orbán government, they claim.

The fact is that Fidesz’s forecast of such an eventuality is not new. Already in March of this year three important government politicians, within a few days of one another, predicted a “brutal election campaign” accompanied by possible physical force.

On March 24, 2017, Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, was the first to speak of such a possibility in an interview he gave to Magyar Idők. What will make the election “brutal,” he said, is the fact that the opposition will be fighting for their “sheer survival,” and in their “desperation” they will be ready for anything. This will especially be the case if “there is someone abroad” who will give them a blank check and munition. Under these circumstances, Fidesz’s campaign slogan should be: “We must defend the country.”

A few days later László Kövér (Fidesz), president of the parliament, talked about street disturbances instigated by George Soros himself. Kövér envisaged “an undisguised coalition, which might be established between the Hungarian opposition and the Soros organizations with the aim of fomenting attacks against the institutional system of democracy before the elections.” The dirty work will be done by activists of the Soros-financed organizations. “They will try to create a civil-war-like atmosphere.”

The next day János Lázár (Fidesz), chief of staff, picked up the thread and called attention to the forthcoming election campaign that will be more brutal than any in the last 30 years. More recently, Antal Rogán (Fidesz), propaganda minister, frightened his audience by describing dreadful scenes that will take place on the streets of Budapest.

The charge that Fidesz would face a “brutal campaign” became more intense as time went by. Now, it seems, defensive measures are underway. The latest piece of news is that László Földi, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Kádár regime, has been hired by István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, to be his “security adviser.” Földi remained in the intelligence apparatus until 1996, when he was removed from his post by the Horn government because Földi and his men had a strange notion of “intelligence work.” They were watching and reporting on MSZP politicians. Földi is a devoted supporter of the Fidesz government, which uses him as a “national security expert.” I don’t think I’m alone in regarding Földi as raving mad. Unfortunately he spreads his outlandish interpretation of world affairs in the government-sponsored media. I devoted a post to him about a year and a half ago. There I expressed my suspicion that Földi may work for the Orbán government behind the scenes. This suspicion was reinforced by the news of Földi’s association with Tarlós.

I must say that I was stunned to find Földi in the city hall of Budapest, because although I have a low opinion of Tarlós, I didn’t think he was so naïve and gullible that he would listen to a man who is clearly a lunatic. But then, I remembered Tarlós expounding on the block that was masterfully crafted to fit the door of the Russian-made metro car in order to create public dissatisfaction. It was Földi’s voice talking there. In an interview Földi gave to Demokrata a few days ago, he expounded on “a new political style” developed by the opposition, which “will create chaos by attacking the city’s infrastructure,” as, for example, in case of the metro cars. But there will be other problems cropping up in the future, like in the water and gas supply or in garbage collection. The opposition will take advantage of these small problems to turn the population against the government.

In the fall, when the trouble starts, Földi said, the government must be resolute and the powers-that-be mustn’t retreat. Földi noticed that there were many foreigners among the demonstrators who went out on the streets during the spring and early summer. These are paid troublemakers who go from city to city all over Europe to create chaos. Behind them is the “clandestine power” Viktor Orbán and others talk about. But if you think that it is George Soros who is at the apex of this hidden power structure, you are wrong. According to Földi, he is just “the delivery boy.” The real decisions are made by hidden groups for whom his open society is only an instrument, not the goal. Budapest must be ready for this onslaught, and the police must act firmly. Tarlós seems to fall for Földi’s scenario, as was evident during his press conference after the transit authorities’ e-ticket disaster.

“Peaceful demonstrators” in October 2006

All in all, something is going on in the heads of Fidesz politicians and their “advisers.” Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician with many years in the Hungarian parliament, wrote a lengthier post on the subject on his Facebook page. In his experience, Fidesz talks about its “own sins” quite openly but with great finesse. Whatever they have done in the past or plan to do in the future appears in their parliamentary speeches as accusations directed at their opponents. It is a devilishly clever strategy because the opposition is immediately forced into a defensive posture. Those of us who follow Hungarian events know that the current Hungarian opposition has no intention of wreaking havoc on the streets of Budapest. So, based on Eörsi’s past experiences, he thinks it likely that Fidesz itself plans to provoke disturbances, which would be a bonanza for the Orbán government.

In addition, Eörsi makes another important observation. Let me quote him: “For me, the words of Kövér and Rogán about riots on the streets are the clearest proof of the true story of what happened in Budapest between 2006 and 2008. If anyone, it is the leaders of Fidesz who know exactly who stood where and what party interests were behind the street riots. Fidesz, when accusing others of organizing riots, is actually making a confession. From the words of Kövér and Rogán we can understand who generated the street disturbances in Budapest between 2006 and 2008.”

September 4, 2017

The Orbán government’s penchant for religious educational institutions

As I was browsing through local Pécs news sites yesterday, I happened upon an article about the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t so much the article that caught my eye but the accompanying photo, which I recognized as a Protestant church service for school children. (The tipoff was the way the kids were clasping their hands in prayer.) From the article I learned that indeed the photo was taken at the Pécs Református Kollégium, which was the site of the official school opening for the whole city. Given that the official ceremony took place in a parochial school, Bishop István Szabó, head of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church, gave a short sermon, which was followed by the usual speeches for the occasion. Among the speakers was Péter Páva, head of the local school district, who boasted about the generous government support for education. He claimed that the government will spend 254,000 forints for each and every student next year. If you’re wondering whether Péter Páva is related to Mayor Zsolt Páva, the answer is yes. He is his younger brother. The city and its education are in good hands.

School opening in the Pécs Hungarian Reformed elementary school

I for one find it offensive that the official school opening, at which government and municipal officials give speeches, is held in a parochial school, although I shouldn’t have been surprised because the official national school opening this year was held in a Hungarian Reformed church in Nagykőrös. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, were among the speakers. The event was organized by the local Hungarian Reformed educational institution, which includes an elementary school, two gymnasiums, and a boarding school. There is no longer even the pretension of a separation of church and state in Hungary.

Last November János Lázár said that “the most important institutions of education in Hungary are the parochial schools and the primary goal of education is to raise good Christians and good Hungarians. Everything beyond that is debatable and indefinite. One doesn’t know whether it would stand the test of time. The lesson of the last 1,000 years is that the nation can endure only through religious educational institutions.” These unacceptable sentences were uttered in the Hungarian Reformed church in Mezőtúr.

Lázár’s speech prompted quite a debate at the time. Perhaps the most thoughtful comments came from Gergely Nádori, a high school teacher in the Alternatív Közgazdasági Gimnázium, an excellent private school in Budapest. He pointed out that Lázár’s words reveal his total lack of knowledge of Protestant religions, which pay special attention to Paul’s teaching that “it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16). That is, no one can create good Christians. It is the gift of God. He also noted that most parochial schools in Hungary today do not have the religious support of local communities. In the majority of the cases, the parents are not religious people; more often than not, they don’t even belong to the church whose schools their children attend. The decision to send a child to a religious educational education is based on utterly pragmatic considerations.

The number of parochial schools has been growing rapidly, especially after the nationalization of schools formerly run by the municipalities. In 2010 there were 572 communities where churches maintained schools. By the 2016/2017 school year that number had grown to 1,308. In 2010 112,500 students attended parochial schools; today their number is 207,800. As a result, some communities ended up without school choice. According to a study conducted by the Magyar Liberális Párt, there are 95 villages without a public school and 30 larger towns where there is no choice when it comes to high school. This is an unacceptable situation, and there are plans to turn to the Constitutional Court for remedy.

Although Hungarian parochial schools often require church attendance and school prayer, the children who come out of these schools are not any more religious than those who attend public schools. Even as the number of parochial schools multiplied, between 2000 and 2016 the number of churchgoers between the ages of 15 and 28 plummeted.

Most parents don’t opt for a parochial school because they want their children to have a religious education. The reason is financial. Parochial schools receive a great deal more money from the state per student than do public schools. The extent of the discrimination is staggering. On the basis of calculations done by the Költségvetési Felelősségi Intézet, a financial think tank, while the state disburses 61,300 forints per child to the public schools, parochial schools get 160,000 forints per student. So, 2.6 times more. In fact, in the next school year the situation will be worse because public schools will receive only 58,300 forints per student, while parochial schools will get 200,000 forints per student. The difference will be 3.4 times in favor of the latter.

Parochial schools have further perks. They don’t have to use the textbooks published by a government publishing house, which, according to the majority of teachers, are inferior to the earlier ones. Unlike public schools, parochial schools don’t have to accommodate all students within their school districts. They can accept only the most qualified students. Thus, the larger the number of parochial schools, the greater will be the already huge gap between elite schools and run-of-the mill or worse schools.

The government also announced at the beginning of July that it will give an additional 22 billion forints to the Piarists for the renovation and expansion of five schools run by the order. They are gymnasiums located in Göd, Kecskemét, Mosonmagyaróvár, Nagykanizsa, and Sátoraljaújhely. The Ministry of Human Resources justified this incredible amount of money by saying that these five institutions will educate 2,500 students. The money will be spent over the next four years. By way of comparison, the government is planning to spend 30 billion forints for the reform of hospitals in Budapest, which affect the health of 4-4.5 million people.

I feel very strongly about this issue. The close relationship between church and state has been an impediment to modernization and to social and economic development. This was true during the dual monarchy and even more so during the Horthy era. My natural inclination regarding this topic was only reinforced by my unpleasant experiences at a parochial school that I attended because of a lack of choice. Therefore, I am saddened that today there are communities where parents must send their children to a religious school, perhaps against their better judgment. And the fact that the Orbán government discriminates against 80% of students attending its own schools is scandalous and shameful. It was also outrageous that Zoltán Balog, in his initial confusion, said that the Hungarian government must wait for the official position of the Catholic Church on the question of in vitro fertilization. It took him a day or so to realize on what dangerous ground he was treading.

September 1, 2017

Ambassador Scheltema: “We mustn’t keep a corrupt regime alive”

Below is a translation of the controversial interview Gajus Scheltema, Dutch ambassador to Hungary, gave to Ágnes Lampé of the Hungarian weekly, 168 Óra. The translation was done by Aron Penczu of Great Britain, who kindly offered his help as the occasional translator of Hungarian texts that merit special attention. He deserves our thanks for all his work.

♦ ♦ ♦

Are you packing?

My life’s composed of arrivals and goodbyes. The former are a joy, the latter always sadden me a little.

You were not sad while writing the book.

Of course not. It’s how I gave thanks for my years here – I did the same at my previous posts.

How did you choose your interview subjects?

Rather than individuals I was looking for stories and apt places. The latter became your iconic Andrássy Street, which admirably symbolises Hungary’s rich history. I was able to attach a number of stories to it – like a Christmas tree with its glittering ornaments. I knew for instance that the Ferenc Hopp museum is on Andrássy Street, and I like its director, Györgyi Fajcsák, very much. I asked her to tell the story of where the Hungarians are from. The Dutch don’t have roots in this way – it matters less to us – but for Hungarians it’s very important.

The Turkish Institute is also on Andrássy Street, and I thought a specialist might initiate me into Hungarian-Turkish relations, since a kind of love-hate relationship has evolved between the two peoples. Finally I talked to Professor István Vásáry, formerly an ambassador to Turkey. By the end many different tales had emerged: we spoke of the Jews living on Andrássy Street until 1944, and the unusual fate of the aristocracy relocated from here in 1945.

The stories really are colourful, but the photographs are black and white.

This way there’s a contrast. Besides, in Hungary everything’s black and white.

What do you mean?

People are either on one side of an issue or another, there’s no intermediate position, that’s how it is in politics too. In Holland we’re always looking for compromise: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The governing coalition comprises four-five parties, and each gives a little. The negotiations may take months but we find a compromise in the end. Here however only the pro and contra positions are possible – everyone’s either with us or against us. It’s a classically Marxist viewpoint.

Which evidently doesn’t appeal to you.

I wasn’t raised that way. And as a diplomat I certainly don’t think that way, I’m always seeking compromise, not someone to fight. Here by contrast everyone’s always looking for the enemy. Which dovetails with people’s historical experiences too. They’ve grown used to becoming enemies as soon as they disagree with those in power.

Is that why the campaign against migration and György Soros works here?

George Soros can be condemned for many things – it’s enough to mention his speculative deals. At the same time he deserves respect for investing enormous sums in democracy and building up civil society. That’s why for every foreigner the Hungarian government’s extraordinarily intensive and aggressive attack on him is, to put it mildly, strange.

The message is clear.

Yes, it’s easy to link it to migration, which itself is an exceptionally complex problem, there’s no black and white answer to it.

Do you have an answer?

First we need to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. But here the government considers everyone a migrant, and no one a refugee. We’re not speaking the same language. In addition, in Hungary there are no migrants, it’s a homogenous population. In the Netherlands, primarily because of our colonial past, there are many immigrants, we’re an open society, we accept new arrivals. It doesn’t matter if they’re Hungarian or Indonesian. Absurdly, the Hungarian government’s campaign works because when the danger is far away, it seems much larger.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema with his book commemorating his stay in Hungary

The danger isn’t so distant: terrorist attacks have occurred in several countries in the European community, the other day it was in Barcelona that a fanatic drove into pedestrians.

Such attacks can happen anywhere – most are in the Middle East. Should we bomb the Middle East now? Here’s a group whose members are the losers in globalisation, so they’ve turned to extremism, to fanatical religiosity, because this gives them security. They create enemies on the same principles as the Hungarian government.

In April, after János Lázár spoke at a Hungarian Business Leaders Forum conference, Eric Fournier, the French Ambassador in Budapest, held up a ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ sign and asked: “What’s this? You’re using Hungarian taxpayer money to stop the capital of France’s neighbour?” And you reacted by saying that Hungary had welcomed more immigrants with residency bonds than it would have to according to the EU settlement quota.

Because it’s true.

You also added: the government poster sent the message that Hungary doesn’t want to be part of common EU solutions and prefers to be left out.

That’s a fact too. It’s a two-way street. It can’t be that some countries merely profit from EU money without a willingness to contribute and help with the challenges we face. The ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ signs are strange to the French and other ambassadors because they attack an organisation which was created, among other reasons, precisely to help your country. Moreover it wasn’t even Brussels but the European Council – that is, the member states – that decided on the issue of accommodating 1,300 refugees. This is all cheap propaganda. And most Hungarians know it.

Why do you think that?

The polls say unequivocally that Hungarians think positively about the EU.

As is also the case about Fidesz, which organised the anti-EU campaign: Orbán’s party is miles ahead.

Perhaps because for the moment there’s no suitable alternative. Someone who doesn’t want to vote for Fidesz can’t easily vote for anyone else.

In a 2014 interview you said that one of your goals is to embed Hungary further into the European Union. It seems you haven’t been able to do much.

On the contrary. We are in continuous discussions with the government, we work to convince its members. We devote a lot to spreading our viewpoint by supporting cultural events and through the media. We work to strengthen civil organisations, even those which are critical of the government. But that’s not why we do it – but rather because they do great work, regardless of what they think of the government.

The Hungarian Parliament recently passed a law that requires affected organisations to register themselves if their support from abroad totals at least 7.2 million forints. Meanwhile they’re constantly accused of being Soros-hirelings.

Indeed, I told some leaders of the civil organisations under assault: acknowledge proudly that the Dutch government supports you. And if the Hungarian government implies that some foreign background power or György Soros stands behind them with opaque financial manoeuvres, simply answer that this isn’t the case. We believe seriously in the same values as them, and we know that they fear for minorities, for the freedom of the press, and for a good number of other democratic issues.

You gave your last interview to the now-defunct Népszabadság.

Indeed, the opportunities grow ever narrower, ownerships change. What’s even more disquieting is that there isn’t a quality press even in the opposition, particularly in the field of investigative journalism. I’m always surprised by the absence of investigative journalism which is deep-reaching, which seeks out the essence of things and the underlying truths, in Hungary. If for instance a Dutch reporter writes about migration, he undoubtedly visits camps, talks to migrants, policemen, town mayors, and looks for data. Many Hungarian journalists I’ve met wrote underprepared, superficial stories. I know that politics has reached deep into the press, and it’s evident too that money is an important factor. But I still believed that with the disappearance of Népszabadság the other opposition papers would strengthen their position.

The state is blocking the opposition media’s income streams one by one – they’re fighting for survival.

It’s sad. Meanwhile the money-stuffed organs degenerate professionally.

In the aforementioned Népszabadság interview you were asked about the American travel ban scandal. One of the corruption-investigating American companies was led by a Dutch director who apparently asked for diplomatic help. This is how you put it: “If Dutch taxpayers hear that one of the supported European states’ governments is corrupt, they can feel with perfect legitimacy that they don’t want to finance it.”

The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored. At the moment the money goes to local governments which can do whatever they want with it: that must be changed.

That won’t be easy. It hasn’t been managed yet.

Let me cite two examples – one from Holland, one from Great Britain. Migration and anti-Brussels sentiment are the two chief hobby-horses of extreme rightist Geert Wilders. He says: we don’t want to give taxpayers’ money to corrupt countries. He hasn’t named any, but it’s possible to guess who he’s referring to. And in the UK Brexit triggered an argument about who the Brits pay tax to and why. The problem wasn’t with immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India working there, but with the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Central-Eastern Europeans.

At times like this Péter Szijjártó says: we spend our money as we want, no one can interfere with Hungary’s internal affairs.

Dutch taxpayers’ money isn’t an internal affair – as no European taxpayer’s is.

When the other day the Austrian chancellor, referring to Hungary, said that the Union’s community of values “must not be confused with a cash machine,” Péter Szijjártó claimed the chancellor “is working to settle immigrants and execute the Soros-plan,” and Hungary will protect itself.

The Hungarian politicians in Brussels aren’t nearly so aggressive. Anger breaks out of them like this at home, when they’re speaking to their own voters. During my personal encounters with Péter Szijjártó we’ve always talked amicably. That too shows you needn’t take everything politicians say seriously.

It hadn’t even occurred to me.

Good.

Who do you keep in contact with from the Hungarian government?

I meet relatively regularly with ministers, though it’s true, some of them are unapproachable to me.

For instance?

Mr. Varga [Minister of National Economy] is totally unreachable. But I conferred frequently with Péter Szijjártó, Zoltán Balog, László Trócsányi. To put it diplomatically: I’ve known countries where it’s easier to meet with decision-makers. The Prime Minister previously held annual meetings for ambassadors but has not for a few years. Clearly it’s no longer important to him.

Have you met him outside of it?

No. He didn’t want it, it’s his decision.

As a diplomat, what do you think of the scandal around the Csíki beer trademark and the compromise reached between Heineken Romania and the Csíki Beer Factory. At the time Dutch deputy ambassador Elzo Molenberg said: “What’s happening here isn’t a legal step but something else.” What else?

They created a political issue from a simple economic issue. But since Heineken became the main sponsor of the Ferencváros football team, the issue has been closed completely.

As is your four year-long assignment to Hungary.

I’ll miss the country. Especially the nature, the countryside. I travelled every weekend, tried to uncover Hungary’s hidden parts. I walked Petőfi’s path – the Great Hungarian Plain [Alföld] is my favourite, especially Kiskunság. I am a Kiskunság guy.

What do you like about it?

As an ornithologist I’m impressed by the fact that the world’s largest bustard population lives there. The territory’s wildlife is spectacular – truly unique and varied.

Given that you’ve lived in several countries, Kiskunság is an unusual choice for one of the world’s best places.

I know, but I still like it a great deal. I hope I don’t offend anyone in saying that after many excursions I may know the country better today than many Hungarians.

August 31, 2017