Tag Archives: János Lázár

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

 

“An important accomplishment”: Two most likely innocent men were convicted in the Sukoró case

Over the years I have written many posts on the infamous Sukoró case. In 2008, during the second Gyurcsány government, a group of American, Israeli, German, and Hungarian businessmen were hoping to build a tourist center, including hotels, restaurants, a water entertainment center, a golf course, and a casino, on a 70-hectare spot at Lake Velence, which was the property of the state at the time. Joav Blum, one of the investors, made a proposition to the Hungarian government. He would exchange his 183-hectare orchard in the county of Pest for this barren land. The government welcomed the project because the investors figured that about 3,500 employees would be needed to run the complex. Ferenc Gyurcsány called upon the office that handled state properties (Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő/MNV). If all was in order, the swap could take place. After getting several appraisals, the office found the land swap fair.

From the start Fidesz organized a campaign against the project. Initially, it seemed that Viktor Orbán was simply planning to put the Sukoró project on hold for a while and, once Fidesz wins the election in 2010, his government could then boast about an investment project larger than the Kecskemét Mercedes factory. But, as time went by, Orbán realized that Sukoró might be the perfect case to send his arch-rival Ferenc Gyurcsány to jail. By late 2010, plans were underway to begin the witch hunt. The two top officials of MNV, Miklós Tátrai and Zsolt Császy, were arrested.

As early as April 2011 I wrote a post which bore the title “Show trials under way?” At that time Tátrai and Császy had just been released from jail. Császy gave an interview to Népszabadság and had a talk with Olga Kálmán on ATV. He said that the prosecutors’ primary aim was to break them so they would render false testimony against Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Prosecutors follow a simple formula in cases involving the sale of state or municipal properties. MNV or a local government hires several assessors, who come up with a reasonable price. Then years later the prosecutor’s office asks its own assessor, who offers a grossly inflated figure. The case is closed as far as the prosecutor’s office is concerned. This is exactly what happened in the case of Sukoró.

The infamous trial began in Szolnok in January 2013. The two men were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms. According to Császy, the prosecutor’s office picked the Szolnok Court because they were pretty certain that they could win their case there. They were right. In fact, Császy claims that the judge either denied defense motions or rejected them without reason. The court didn’t allow the testimony of the judicial expert the defense asked to testify. The judge took into account the testimony of witnesses who could be questioned only by the prosecution, not the defense. The court falsified testimony. The judge questioned witnesses without the accused or their lawyers being present. Even with all of this, the case was not strong enough to convict Tátrai and Császy so, Császy claims, the judge invented stories and made his decision based on these falsehoods.

The appellate court rendered its decision in Szeged in October 2016. It gave a long, detailed critique of the Szolnok judge’s shoddy work. The judge declared that not only were Tátrai and Császy not guilty but that no crime had been committed. Of course, the prosecutors appealed to the Kúria, which today reversed the appellate court’s decision.

The scene of the final verdict

Of course, Fidesz is delighted. The party published a statement in which they “welcomed the decision of the Kúria in the case of the Sukoró land swap” because “the proper place for criminals is in prison.” According to the statement, “the government of Gyurcsány and the socialists was the most corrupt” in modern Hungarian history. János Lázár, during his “government info,” also praised the Kúria’s decision. He described the verdict as “an important accomplishment” and continued: “For the time being only two people have been convicted, but in my opinion Ferenc Gyurcsány is responsible legally. After all, he conducted the negotiations. It is clear from this verdict how the socialists handle public money.” To talk about the incredible corruption of the socialist-liberal government takes gall from people who run a “mafia state” known for its corruption throughout the world.

Perhaps the most stomach-turning announcement came from LMP’s co-chair Ákos Hadházy, who announced that “Ferenc Gyurcsány must bear the political consequences of this verdict.” Where was he in the past seven years when most people realized that this “conceptual trial,” as Hungarians call show trials, was a charade all along? LMP’s political moves never cease to amaze me.

László Varju, deputy-chairman of DK, announced at a press conference that once DK is in a government position, it would like to see the prosecutors who created the show trial and Tünde Handó, head of the National Judicial Office (Országos Bírósági Hivatal), in jail. Handó was the one who assigned the case to Mrs. Sólyomvári née Mária Csendes in Szolnok. Varju charged that “Fidesz created the Sukoró case in order to incarcerate Ferenc Gyurcsány, and the only sin of Miklós Tátrai and Zsolt Császy was that they refused to commit perjury.”

Gyurcsány himself wrote the following on Facebook: “They are innocent. I know because I’m familiar with the case and the procedure. The investigative prosecutors and the judges who convicted them are the guilty ones. But one day a new era will come. There will be a new government. Then we will free them, and they will be granted full financial and moral reparations. We will take action with all legitimate means against those who participated in this nefarious process. Those who have served Orbán’s regime should not count on our understanding. They ruined people, families, lives because they were cowards, opportunists, or just plain corrupt. There will be no revenge. Only at last there will be a fair judiciary. You locked up my honorable colleagues because you couldn’t find a way to imprison me. I will never forget it. Never.”

June 8, 2017

A new declaration of war: Justice for Hungary!

I had no intention of writing about Trianon today. The truth is that I had completely forgotten about the “Day of National Unity” until I began skimming the Hungarian media’s headlines this morning. Some of these headlines piqued my curiosity and prompted me to read further. What I found astounded me.

I assume that most people even vaguely familiar with the history of modern-day Hungary know that the Treaty of Trianon was the peace treaty between the by then independent Kingdom of Hungary and the Allied and Associated Powers. It was signed somewhat belatedly on June 4, 1920, almost two years after the end of World War I. The demand for a day of remembrance originally came from Jobbik, but it was promptly adopted by the new Orbán government.

My decision to read an assortment of articles on Trianon turned out to be wise because I found some real gems among them. From the interpretations there emerges a fascinating sociological and psychological portrait of the Fidesz regime. It’s not pretty, but it may help us to understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. In light of the official government announcement by János Lázár, this particular Day of National Unity may be a turning point in the Orbán government’s handling of the Trianon issue.

The first problem is the false historical background these far-right, nationalistic authors present in their writings. The general thesis is that Hungary was the blameless victim of those nationalities that Hungary’s rulers allowed to settle in Hungary at various times over history. In their interpretation, the nationalities in pre-1918 Hungary had extensive rights, and their continued national existence was in no way threatened. In fact, it was the cursed liberalism of the Hungarian political elite that was responsible for the growing number of non-Hungarians at the expense of Hungarians. This statement, by the way, is erroneous.

In almost all these writings journalists and politicians portray present-day Hungary not terribly differently from the “victim” that was being torn apart by hostile neighbors in 1918-1919. At least one of the commentators, György Pilhál of Magyar Idők, who labels the members of the Little Entente hyenas, considers Hungary’s present neighbors just as antagonistic toward Hungarians as their people were 100 years ago. Hungary is still being besieged and unfairly treated, just as in the past.

Moreover, Pilhál continues, cataloging Hungarian woes, before Trianon there was the Mongol devastation in 1241, the Battle of Mohács in 1524 which signaled the beginning of 150 years of Ottoman rule, and the surrender at Világos in 1849 after a lost war of independence. Pilhál ends this greatly distorted historical summary with the following remarkable words: “Do you want to flood this mutilated, blood-soaked remainder of the homeland with migrants? No, No, Never!” Thus, the migrant question today is being elevated to the level of the most significant dates in Hungarian history. Just as Hungarians had to face the Mongols, the Turks, and the hostile Austrians and Russians, now if they don’t stand fast they might end up being victims of the onslaught of migrants, which would be the equivalent of a second Trianon.

György Pilhál’s son Tamás, who works as a journalist for Pesti Srácok, also wrote an opinion piece that in some ways is even more interesting than his father’s. He also has some harsh words for members of the Little Entente, but in his eyes the real perpetrators were the allies. “The West, with capital letters, cut our hands and feet and threw us among to-this-day antagonistic neighbors that had been fattened by our body parts.” These new neighbors hate the Hungarians because they know that they were conceived in sin and received their territories as a result of unforgivable injustice. Therefore, they don’t feel secure within their own borders. They are not really robbers or thieves, “they are only fencers of stolen goods.” The real criminals obviously are the western powers. “The West is Trianon itself. They have never apologized, they have never tried to rectify their sins and lessen the damage.”

How can Hungary regain its former position as a mid-sized power in Europe? Just as the historian of the Trianon Museum suggested, Hungarians must “repopulate the Carpathian Basin.” Well, he used a more amorous, untranslatable expression “szeressük vissza Magyarországot!” which more or less means getting Hungary back by love-making. This is not a very different formulation from the one Szilárd Németh, Fidesz vice-chairman, uttered a while back, according to which the world belongs to the nation that populates it. So, the only way of getting back Hungary’s former glory is through “the modification of the national scale.” And the horizon is not the “mock borders” of Trianon but at least the confines of the Carpathian Basin.

The third piece is by István Stefka. His ideas might strike readers as outright bizarre, but he fervently believes everything he says. It was about a week ago that I saw him on a television program where three other journalists, including a conservative one, tried to convince him in vain that his theories are untenable. He too sees a second Trianon coming through the activities of George Soros, who is “the Béla Kun, György Lukács, Oszkár Jászi, and Mihály Károlyi combined, who with his civic organizations wants to ruin the country.” Hungary 27 years ago regained its sovereignty, but “now not with weapons, but with scheming, lies, ignominy, hard financial influence, and paying off internal enemies” Soros and like-minded people want to take away Hungary’s mastery over its own affairs. If the Hungarian socialists and left-liberals don’t stand by the people and follow Soros and Co., “they can no longer be considered part of the nation.” In that case, they are also working toward the destruction of Hungary.

Let me now turn to a more official source: the second most important man in the Orbán government, János Lázár. In a speech yesterday he sent the following message to Brussels: “It’s time for our neighbors and the leaders of Europe to acknowledge and adjust their policies accordingly: the Hungarian nation is the victim of Trianon and not its originator and perpetrator.” It is unacceptable that the only thing the leaders of the neighboring countries can say is that it’s time for the Hungarians to get over their old grievances. “The Hungarian nation should receive if not material at least moral reparations for the greatest injustice in world history.” He added that “we don’t want any change of the borders and especially not ethnic tension … new wars in Europe … but that doesn’t mean that we will tolerate the provocations, the repeated violations of our national sensibility for another 100 years. Yes, we can say even now: “Justice for Hungary!” which was the cry for revision after 1929.

I strongly suspect that these new words were not born in the heat of a fiery nationalistic speech. The Orbán government seems to have decided to open another front in its war against Europe, this time for a reinterpretation of the Treaty of Trianon. This is a serious turn of events that may not bode well for peace in the region.

June 4, 2017

Is it time for Viktor Orbán to choose sides?

Not surprisingly the Hungarian media is focused on the consequences of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament that calls for launching Article 7(1). Yesterday I could report on the reactions of Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi who laid the blame for the fiasco on, who else, George Soros. Viktor Orbán, who had just returned from China, carefully avoided the topic with the exception of one sentence in a speech he delivered today at Daimler AG’s meeting. In his opinion, “it is foolish to vilify Hungary when it is first or second in the European Union in terms of economic growth; it is here that unemployment diminishes fastest; it is a country where all European fiscal rules are adhered to and the sovereign debt is decreasing.”

One can quibble about the accuracy of Orbán’s claim about Hungary’s economic growth, although it is true that the projection for this year, due to an unusually large infusion of EU convergence money, is very good. But what Orbán conveniently ignores is that the EP resolution to invoke Article 7(1) has nothing to do with Hungary’s economic performance. It is the “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years” that prompted the European Parliament to act.

It is hard to tell whether the Orbán government was prepared for the blow or not. A few days ago I read an interview with András Gyürk, the leader of the EP Fidesz delegation, who admitted that, despite the Fidesz members’ best efforts, “the most important actors” in the European Parliament still don’t understand the Fidesz version of the situation in Hungary. Hungarian opposition MEPs have been saying in radio and television interviews that from their conversations with members of the European People’s Party they gained the impression that as many as half of the EPP members have serious reservations about defending Viktor Orbán and his regime. At first I thought that number was wishful thinking on their part, but the vote pretty well confirmed their claim: 67 of the EPP members voted for the resolution and 40 abstained, so about half of the EPP caucus refused to come to the aid of the Orbán government.

Those few government officials who spoke about the debacle emphasized the size of the EPP contingent that stood fast behind Viktor Orbán. Pro-government commentators keep repeating the optimistic predictions of “political scientists” of Fidesz-sponsored think tanks like the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ) and Századvég that “there is no chance” of the procedure getting to the second stage because, given the present political makeup of the European Parliament, the necessary two-thirds majority is unachievable. But I wouldn’t be so sure, especially if it becomes evident that the Orbán government has no intention of following the recommendations of the European Parliament to, for example, “repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad.” Because the way it looks, the Orbán government has no intention of changing anything in the law on border security, as Szijjártó and others made clear already yesterday. Today we learned that the government will not give an inch on the issue of Central European University either.

László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, was giving a press conference in Debrecen on another subject when, in answer to a question on the fate of CEU, he made it clear that the law on higher education will not be changed. It is a law that is applicable to all universities, not just CEU. It stands the test of constitutionality, and it conforms to the values of the European Union. The decision by the majority of the European Union was a “political act.” I should add that constitutional scholars have a very different opinion on the matter.

A couple of weeks ago the government indicated that it would form a working group to start negotiations with the administration of CEU. Today a large group of middle-level bureaucrats arrived, representing practically all the ministries, but after an hour and a half it became obvious that they had no decision-making powers. In fact, they were totally ignorant of the government’s position and plans. Neither Palkovics nor Kristóf Altusz, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, was present. Zsolt Enyedi, vice-rector, got the impression that Altusz, who was supposed to “negotiate” with the U.S. government, did no more than ascertain that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this case. And so he was told to negotiate directly with the university instead. The present “negotiations,” Enyedi believes, are the government’s answer to an American suggestion. No one knows whether the government has any intention of seriously negotiating with the university in the future. My guess is that it doesn’t.

János Lázár’s usual Thursday press conference gave journalists an opportunity to hear more about the government’s reaction to yesterday’s vote. He concentrated on the migration issue and said that “the Hungarian government will not meet the European Parliament’s request to terminate either the legal or the physical closure in place. The security of the Hungarian government is much more important than the political dogmas set by the European Parliament.”

This reference to the “political dogmas” of the European Union brings me to a brief press conference Viktor Orbán gave in the middle of his trip to China which, according to 24.hu, was, despite its brevity, a fuller explanation of his thinking on democracy and related matters than at any other time since his illiberal speech three years ago. The prime minister was obviously impressed by what transpired in Beijing and praised Chinese plans for the Belt and Road project. In this connection he insisted that the East has by now caught up with the West and therefore “the old model of globalization” is over. From here on money and technology will flow from East to West and not the other way around. But here comes the interesting part. According to Orbán, “most of the world has had enough of globalization because it divided the world into teachers and pupils. It was increasingly offensive that some developed countries kept lecturing the other, greater part of the world about human rights, democracy, development, and market economy.” Orbán, according to the journalist commenting on this short interview, thinks that “the time has come for Hungary to choose sides.”

Orbán’s complaints about developed nations lecturing to less developed ones about human rights and democracy provide a window into his psyche and the motivating forces of his actions. Unfortunately, Orbán’s human failings have serious, adverse consequences for the people he allegedly wants to save.

May 18, 2017

Today’s extra: Who is a “financial speculator?”–János Lázár explains

Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, in an interview with Die Zeit, agreed with the interviewer that Viktor Orbán’s description of George Soros as an American financial speculator “clearly had anti-Semitic undertones.” Members of the Hungarian government were indignant. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó demanded Timmermans’ resignation.

Last week János Lázár was asked about Timmermans’ allegedly unfounded accusation. A friend of mine extracted two telling sentences from his answer to a question pertaining to the topic. Of technical necessity, I posted the two videos as links, so those who would like to hear Lázár in the original (over and over) will have to click on the two links below. For those who don’t know the language I’ve translated these two sentences.

(1) Historical experience. “It is historical experience that financial speculators usually ward off criticism of their financial activities by saying that it is anti-Semitism.”

(2) Speculators steal other people’s money. “Every financial speculator, if you look over the last 100 years, usually defends himself by [charging his critics with anti-Semitism]. He steals other people’s money, after which he calls those who demand their money back anti-Semites.”

So, did Orbán’s remarks have anti-Semitic undertones or not? What do you think?

The Hungarian government’s flouting of European law and human rights

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a decision that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

Hungarian civil rights activists were encouraged by the Court’s decision, especially since the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, passed not long ago by the parliament, envisaged these container transit zones as the sole means of handling asylum applicants. In fact, it was today that the amended law came into effect.

After ECHR’s ruling, the leaders of the government parties began suggesting in all seriousness that Hungary should simply suspend its adherence to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, originally adopted in 1950. This is not a joke, just as it is not a joke that Hungary is pursuing the issue of the red star on bottles of Heineken beer. Both are hopeless efforts by a government that is acting even more strangely of late than it normally does.

A week ago Monday, Imre Vejkey (KDNP) began the attack on the Convention: “Now is the time to think about terminating Hungary’s adherence to the Convention or at least suspending some of its provisions.” On Thursday János Lázár said at his press conference that the government considers the verdict “unacceptable and impossible to implement.” Although the decision was unanimous and the Court is unlikely to reverse itself, the Hungarian government insists on appealing the judgment. By Friday Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, announced on ATV that “the ministry of justice will have to examine what kinds of obligations” Hungary has under the terms of the Convention. On Sunday Lajos Kósa, the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, said that if Strasbourg continues criticizing Hungary’s migrant policies “we must relinquish” our adherence to the treaty. He even accused the Hungarian Helsinki Commission of “profiting from the migrant crisis at the expense of the Hungarian government.” He was alluding to the fact that the Court, in addition to the 5.8 million forints awarded to each of the refugees, granted 2.7 million forints to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission for their work on the case.

Együtt, one of the smaller opposition parties, compiled a list of what Hungarians would be deprived of if Hungary turned its back on the Convention and consequently on the Council of Europe. The list is long: right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; right to remedy by a competent tribunal; freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile; right to a fair public hearing; right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; right of free movement in and out of the country; right to asylum; right to own property; right to education. And we could continue. But Lajos Kósa sees no problem whatsoever with the suspension of the Convention because “in Hungary it is not the legal force of ECHR that guarantees human rights but the Hungarian Constitution and other international treaties.”

This is all just talk. The consequences of such a move would be so severe that no country, especially a member of the European Union, could seriously entertain it. The very first consequence of such folly would be a loss of membership in the Council of Europe. That in turn would result in serious conflict with, or even expulsion from, the European Union. So, Kósa can demand all he wants that the government in the name of Fidesz suspend adherence to the Convention. Nothing of the sort will happen. After all, in Europe there are only three countries that are not signatories: the Vatican, Kosovo, and Belarus.

As for the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the organization, doesn’t seem to be at all frightened by the threats made by the government against the institution as a beneficiary of the migrant business. She reminded Kósa of the kind of business the Hungarian government is conducting via the settlement bonds, sold to thousands of people for 300,000 euros each. So, Kósa should not accuse others of financial gain from the miseries of refugees. (Of course, there are refugees and “refugees,” with staggeringly different levels of misery.) As for the 2.7 million forints for legal fees, she finds the amount perfectly reasonable. Unless she hears something similar from the government itself, she considers Kósa’s semi-incoherent words on the subject mere “political rant.”

The government is remaining quiet for the time being. But its actions show that it was’t impressed with the Court’s verdict or with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s repeated assertion that the government’s latest law on asylum is illegal not just according to the Court in Strasbourg but also according to the Hungarian Constitution. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission again had to turn to ECHR on Friday in order to put an immediate stop to moving a pregnant woman from Uganda and eight refugee children who had been housed in Fót to the transit zone near the Serbian border. The woman had been a victim of torture and is currently suffering from psychological trauma. As far as I know, the government refrained from the forcible removal of these people, at least for the time being.

It looks like a lecture to me / Source: Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Meanwhile Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, arrived in Budapest to conduct negotiations with Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice. Avramopoulos’s job was to drive home to Budapest that all member states must comply with the Union’s rules and that human rights is one of the basic principles that must be adhered to. At the end of the negotiations it was announced that a working group will be formed to examine whether the Hungarian law infringes on the laws of the European Union. According to legal scholars, it unquestionably does. It would be time for the European Union to put an end to the Hungarian government’s games because nothing good can come of them as far as the future of the Union is concerned.

March 28, 2017