Tag Archives: János Lázár

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

Learning? Secondary to being “a good Christian and a good Hungarian”

Before I begin today’s topic, János Lázár’s most unfortunate remarks about the goal of Hungarian education–to bring up good Christians and good Hungarians, let me return to the Habsburgs.

The Orbán government’s fascination with the House of Habsburg is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has become more pronounced. Moreover, relations  between certain members of the Habsburg family and the Orbán government are excellent.

mezotur2

Let’s start with Otto von Habsburg or, as he was called in Hungary, Dr. Habsburg Ottó, whose archives will be deposited in the Royal Castle in Budapest. Although he was buried in Vienna with the rest of the Habsburgs, his heart was sent to Pannonhalma. His second son Georg (Habsburg György) and his family live in Hungary. Until 2012 he was president of the Hungarian Red Cross and he currently serves as one of the “traveling ambassadors,” promoting Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. He and his wife have three children, and the second girl was named Ildikó. How much more Hungarian can you get?

Great was the surprise when in July 2015 the Hungarian government named Eduard von Habsburg, an Austrian TV producer and scriptwriter, Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican. Eduard didn’t know any Hungarian at the time, but “he has been studying the Hungarian language intensively for the last year,” Hungary Today reported. His father Michael (Mihály) was born in Hungary, so Eduard is a bona fide Hungarian citizen.

The latest news on the Habsburg front is that the Hungarian government commissioned a bust of the last Hungarian king, Charles/Károly IV, who, since his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, has been known as Blessed Charles of Austria. As you can see from the photo, Zsolt Semjén thinks very highly of Charles both as a king and as a perhaps to-be saint.

karoly-kiraly

The above was just a footnote to yesterday’s post. My main topic today is a speech János Lázár gave at the opening of the Mezőtúr Reformed College’s refurbished “Old Library.” Perhaps in his eagerness to please his hosts, he declared that “the government believes that the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians.” He added that “everything beyond this is debatable and questionable” since we don’t know whether the acquired knowledge will stand the test of time in the next centuries.

The reaction of liberal commentators and leaders of the teachers’ unions was undisguised outrage. One of the bloggers of gepnarancs.hu pointed out that he always suspected that “a hidden curriculum existed” and now, thanks to the overly talkative Lázár, we have learned the truth. After all, ever since 2013 the number of parochial schools has multiplied and an incredible amount of public money has ended up in the hands of the favored churches, the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed. But now it is no longer a secret. The Orbán government wants to entrust the churches with the education of future generations of Hungarian children.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, as usual, was even more outspoken. The blogger considers Lázár’s words a calamity. “I can’t imagine a more horrible thing than for a relatively young minister in the twenty-first century to say such immensely stupid and tragically frightening things. I get really scared when a sickly dictatorship and religion cling together trying to suffocate a whole country.” The Orbán government, in his opinion, fears nothing more than independent thinkers. Until now they have stolen everything material, now “they want to divide among themselves the education of our children and our rights to be believers or not.” The author is convinced that the “marriage of state and church results in defenselessness, poverty, ignorance, later dissatisfaction, blood, and tears.” His conclusion is that if the Hungarian people allow this nuptial “we will write ourselves out of Europe and the twenty-first century as well.”

Less emotional but still hard hitting was the reaction of the two teachers’ unions. The Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) expressed its hope that since it was János Lázár and not Zoltán Balog, the minister responsible for education, who spoke, this unacceptable statement is merely Lázár’s personal opinion because no government can force its worldview on the whole nation. “It cannot be more than a private opinion because—as is clear from all the signed and declared international treaties—the state must honor the parents’ religious and ideological convictions.” The curriculum must be free of any ideological or religious bias. PSZ expects Zoltán Balog to clarify the government’s position on the matter.

László Mendrey, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), while emphasizing that no one should question the right of the churches to maintain schools, added that “they cannot attain supremacy.” In his opinion, Lázár’s ideas are unconstitutional and in conflict with the law on public education. “Lázár doesn’t realize who the most important persons are in education. We will help him: the children … For them, the most important consideration is not to be good Christians and good patriots. Rather, the goal is to acquire knowledge that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

I’m certain that this issue will not go away quickly. I wouldn’t expect any reassurance from Zoltán Balog who is, after all, a Protestant minister. He is also woefully ignorant of what education is all about, and his past interactions with children have shown him to be incapable of any meaningful exchange with young people. Moreover, what can one expect from a man in charge of education who announced the other day that he doesn’t believe in the notion of functional illiteracy because “if someone can read he also understands the text.”

I share the concerns expressed above by teachers and political commentators because I remember only too well the days when, because of the intertwining of state and church before 1948, education was entrusted mostly to the Catholic Church. More than half of the elementary schools were Catholic parochial schools while “an overwhelming majority” of gymnasiums and teachers’ colleges were also in the hands of the Catholic Church. Creating a secular school system was long overdue by 1948. It is another matter how the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi handled the nationalization of parochial schools. Yet I would find it unacceptable to return to the pre-1948 days in the twenty-first century.

November 28, 2016

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

János Lázár gives an interview to a left-wing paper

Today I will try something that may not meet with the approval of the Hungarian journalistic community. I will critically analyze Ágnes Fazekas’s interview in Népszava with János Lázár on November 5. The occasion for the interview was Népszava’s boycott of Lázár’s weekly two-hour-long press conferences.

The reason for the boycott is not entirely clear. On October 12 Népszava joined nine other media outlets in protesting the shuttering of Népszabadság. At that time some commentators pointed out that these séances, as one commentator called the Thursday afternoon performances, have no real news value. Moreover, in the last two years Lázár and his loyal spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, have learned the art of outfoxing the often timid journalists. In brief, one doesn’t miss much by not attending.

Well, Népszava didn’t show up at some of these press conferences and Lázár expressed his dismay at the absence of the paper’s reporter. On the spot he promised to phone the editorial office of the paper in order, I guess, to convince them to return. By the end there was no need for the telephone call because Lázár bumped into Népszava’s reporter in the parliament building. She told him that the reason for her absence was Lázár’s lack of frankness when answering the journalists’ questions. At the same time she invited him for an interview, which he somewhat unexpectedly accepted.

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

Ágnes Fazekas reminded Lázár that the decision to boycott the “government info” was made by the editorial board because Lázár’s answers to their reporter’s questions were not “sincere.” The word “truthful” would have been more appropriate, but I guess she felt she had to tread lightly. Lázár was “hurt.” The prime minister had tasked him with answering all of the questions to the best of his knowledge. He said he has been trying to answer all questions correctly. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but if he did, he apologizes. The reporter dropped the topic instantly, adding that “it’s nice that you want us back.” This response set the tone for the conversation that followed. Once the reporter let Lázár off the hook and didn’t probe into the untrue statements that are the hallmarks of these press conferences Lázár had every reason to relax.

After Lázár’s high praise of the journalistic profession and an empty statement about the necessity of a good working relationship between politicians and the media, Fazekas complained only about Lázár’s “cynical answers to their questions.” For example, when the reporter of Népszava asked him about the dispersal of advertising money among the media outlets, Lázár referred him to the agencies responsible for the decisions when it is clear that the final word comes from the government. Her use of the word “cynical” is misplaced here. What she should have said was that Lázár didn’t tell the truth. Cynicism means “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity,” which is a far cry from what happened. Lázár not only denied the obvious but in the interview itself claimed that advertising money from government sources is strictly allocated according to the size of the readership. That is not cynicism; that is a blatant lie. Servile media outlets get advertising money galore despite having very small circulations while papers critical of the government get practically nothing.

The next topic was the case of Ghaith Pharaon, the infamous Saudi businessman, and his activities in Hungary. But again, instead of going to the heart of the matter Fazekas complained only about the timing of the release of the information. Again the real problem here is not that Lázár “as the minister responsible for intelligence matters should have talked about the case earlier” but that the information he gave was inaccurate. And, to compound the problem, he added another piece of misinformation in this interview. “As far as I know, he as a private person hasn’t engaged in any economic activity in Hungary.” I assume Lázár is trying to distinguish between Pharaon the individual and Pharaon’s businesses. But in this context the distinction is sophistical. Lázár also assured Fazekas that there was no national security risk as far as Pharaon’s stay in Hungary was concerned, another doubtful assertion given the man’s past dealings with terrorist organizations.

Instead of following up, Fazekas asked a government-friendly question, whether George Soros is a greater national security risk than Ghaith Pharaon. That turn in the conversation allowed Lázár to drop the uncomfortable subject of the Saudi businessman’s affairs in Hungary and turn to immigration and Hungary’s opposition to it.

Fazekas then returned to the question of the media. Fazekas wanted to know “when will the government settle its relations with the left-wing media?” This question seems too broad to me, but Lázár seemed to have known what the reporter meant and announced that “this is a very difficult question.” What Népszava’s journalist had in mind was Fidesz’s boycott of independent organs critical of the government. On this score not even Lázár could offer soothing words to Fazekas. Politics in Hungary is a death struggle, he said, but he himself tries to bring some humor and generosity to political discourse. He is hoping that after 2018 this situation will change. Fazekas didn’t remind Lázár that Hungarians had heard such promises before, except then the date was 2014. Why should anyone believe that after 2018 anything will change? Instead of posing this obvious question, she magnanimously laid out Népszava’s welcome mat for Fidesz politicians. Lázár graciously accepted the invitation and promised to pass it on, I assume to the prime minister.

I’ve pretty much summed up this interview, which was described as important because Fidesz politicians, with very few exceptions, don’t give interviews to independent papers. The list of newspapers on the blacklist is getting longer and longer.

Certainly, by western standards this interview is unsatisfactory, not at all hard-hitting, but I assume that self-censorship was at work. The reporter was so pleased that she had finally managed to have an interview with János Lázár that she didn’t want to alienate him. Unfortunately, this is how things work in an “illiberal state” where media freedom is severely constrained.

November 18, 2016

Domestic retreat and preparation for a battle with Brussels

After spending two days away from the Hungarian scene it is time to return. In government circles the rejoicing over Donald Trump’s election continues unabated. Trump’s victory seems to have energized Viktor Orbán for his renewed fight against the European Union. His preparation for the next battle comes, however, after a number of serious domestic political setbacks. The biggest blow was parliament’s failure to pass the constitutional amendments designed at least in part to strengthen his hand in his negotiations with Brussels.

For a day or so there was talk of dragging the amendments back to parliament for another try, but as of yesterday the government seems to have decided to abandon them. János Lázár, at his Thursday afternoon press conference, made that announcement, adding that unfortunately the opposition parties for selfish political reasons had turned against their own country. Századvég, the government’s servile pollster, promptly published a new poll showing that 85% of Hungarians find it dangerous that the opposition prevented the passage of the constitutional amendments.

Despite this setback, Lázár assured the country that the government will fight to the end to save Hungary from foreign hordes. Of course, if the government doesn’t succeed in Brussels, the fault will lie with the unpatriotic left and right opposition parties. Viktor Orbán’s ire is especially directed against Jobbik. He has always accused the parties on the left of being the agents of Brussels, but by now he has come to realize that “Jobbik is also on the side of Brussels.” Jobbik no longer represents the interests of the Hungarian people. Instead, “they represent the point of view of Brussels in Hungarian politics.” The attacks on Jobbik and in particular on Gábor Vona have intensified in the last few days. It seems that Viktor Orbán’s hatred of Jobbik and its leader at the moment surpasses his hatred of the democratic opposition.

Yet at the same press conference Lázár announced the government’s decision to put an end to the “residency bonds” after all. It was this bond program that prompted Jobbik not to vote in favor of the amendments. This decision doesn’t seem to be tied to a possible future vote on the constitutional amendments. Instead, it looks as if the government is trying to find existing provisions in the constitution to justify the prohibition of foreign populaces’ settlement on Hungarian soil. The scandals that have surrounded the sale of these residency bonds, quite independently from the program’s being exploited by Jobbik for its own political purposes, were becoming a burden on the Orbán government. Giving up these bonds is most likely a painful sacrifice for both the government and the intermediaries who have made a killing on them. The government will be deprived of huge amounts of instant cash which is sorely needed, especially since right now practically no money is coming from Brussels.

The government also had to retreat on the issue of Ghaith Pharaon’s visa. He is the man who has been on both the FBI’s and Interpol’s list of criminals who are being sought. Pharaon in the last few months has been buying up valuable pieces of real estate in Hungary and has close working relations with Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law. At the beginning of this scandal Viktor Orbán in parliament called the American charges against Pharaon “a game of the U.S. secret services,” but, after a lot of contradictory statements, Lázár at last announced that as of November 1 Pharaon has no Hungarian visa and therefore cannot legally enter the country.

Today came another setback for the government. You may recall that I wrote a post in October about government plans for a system of what I called Fidesz party courts. These courts would have functioned under an entirely separate judicial system that would have dealt exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. It was especially worrisome that half of the judges assigned to these courts would have been people who had had at least ten years of experience in public service, which would have made their judicial independence highly questionable.

The reaction to the announcement about the planned administrative courts was one of outrage among the judges and in the public at large. Even Tünde Handó, head of the Országos Bírósági Hivatal, a close friend of the Orbán and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz MEP in Brussels, objected. However, László Trócsányi, minister of justice, continued to press for a separate administrative court system. Eventually, even Tünde Handó, who had written a 32-page objection to the plan, was forced to half-heartedly support some of the new law’s proposals. Well, today the same Tünde Handó, to everybody’s great surprise, announced on Inforádió’s Aréna program that no changes will be made to the present judiciary system. She repeated her belief that there are enough judges in the present system who can handle cases connected with the state administration. We don’t yet know what made Trócsányi retreat from his forceful insistence on the scheme. At the time of the controversy, he claimed that he had been working on this “reform” ever since he became minister of justice in 2014. Giving up so easily strikes me as odd. Perhaps Fidesz didn’t have enough votes to pass it.

In the face of these retreats the government consoled itself with the wonderful news of Donald Trump’s election. Here are a couple of typical expressions of delight on the part of Viktor Orbán, the only prime minister in the European Union who believes we are seeing the beginning of “a better future for the world with the new president.” Brexit “was the knocking on the door of this new era, but now we have stepped over its threshold.” The future will be bright because “the days of liberal non-democracy are coming to an end and we can return to real democracy.” Orbán seems to define “real democracy” as a political system in which “we can return to straight, honest talk freed of the paralyzing constraints of political correctness.” We have seen what Fidesz means by “straight and honest talk” in the last 14 years if not longer. And we can admire what straight and honest talk produced in the United States during this dreadful year of campaigning.

self-confidence

Finally, I should say something about a special meeting of the 28 EU foreign ministers called together by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister for the coming Sunday. The foreign ministers at their regular session on Monday will be discussing the situation in Turkey. The special meeting is supposed “to assess the implications of Donald Trump’s victory as America’s allies brace for the unknown.” I heard a fleeting remark on Klubrádió (but can’t find written confirmation of it) that the Hungarian foreign minister, István Szijjártó, will not attend the special meeting. Perhaps an undersecretary will represent Hungary. If this is true, the Orbán government would be making a statement about its own divergent opinion of the result of the U.S. election.

The Hungarian government is not at all worried. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán and his minions are looking forward to a wonderful new world. He heads the list of “Europe’s extreme right leaders [who] revel in Trump’s victory.” Euractiv.com puts him in the company of Nigel Farage of Britain’s UKIP, Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Beatrix von Storch of Germany’s AfD, Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom party, Tom Van Grieken of Vlaams Belang (Belgium’s far-right Flemish separatist party), Nikolaos Michaloliakos of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, and Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. Among these politicians Orbán is the only one who is not the leader of a saber-rattling far-right opposition party but is the prime minister of a country that is a member of the European Union. Ah, but just wait, he would say. The dominoes are falling.

November 11, 2016

The fate of a journalist, Gergely Brückner, who told the truth

Népszabadság is not the only Hungarian publication that has been harassed by the authorities, although its shutdown on October 8 was the Orbán government’s bluntest attack on the Hungarian media. Shortly after the destruction of Népszabadság came an assault on a journalist who had investigated one of the Orbán government’s dubious financial transactions. This time the Hungarian National Bank “filed a complaint against an unknown perpetrator,” actually Gergely Brückner, a highly regarded journalist at Figyelő (Observer), a financial weekly whose most important articles are unfortunately not available online. Kolos Kardkovács, head of the central bank’s legal department, filed charges against him for “infringement of trade secrets” in connection with the purchase of MKB Bank. The article Kardkovács objected to appeared in Figyelő’s very first issue in January 2015.

Let’s backtrack a bit to mid-December 2014 when I wrote a post titled “The first state-owned Hungarian bank is already in trouble.” MKB Bank was supposed to be sound since its former owner, Bayerische Landesbank, prior to the sale pumped 270 million euros into it. This was supposed to be enough to cover all possible losses over the following few months. Government officials were sure that the bank would be profitable by 2016 “at the latest” and that “the reorganization of MKB Bank will not burden either the state or the taxpayers.” Yet three months later Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy, at a joint press conference, said that 300 billion forints are urgently needed to keep MKB Bank afloat. Orbán announced that since “the consolidation of MKB Bank will be done by the Hungarian National Bank, it will not cost the budget or the Hungarian taxpayers anything.” The same lie that was used to justify the establishment of the central bank’s foundations.

Between September and December 2014 Brückner gathered background information for a series of articles on the less than transparent purchase of MKB Bank. During 2015 and 2016  he published at least a dozen articles on the reorganization and eventual sale of MKB Bank to several investors of, again, less than transparent identity.

The decision of the National Bank to file charges against him, however, is based on a single sentence from his initial reporting. The sentence reads: “Our paper has learned that shortly after Lázár became the owner [of MKB Bank] he received a letter from Matolcsy in which the bank president indicated that even in the short term tens of billions of forints will be necessary in order to avoid bankruptcy and that may not be the end of the reckoning [cech]. (Our sources talk about 75 billion forints and later another 200 billion capital increase).” The Hungarian National Bank never denied any of the information provided by Brückner about MKB Bank. They never asked for a correction. Nothing. But suddenly, 22 months later, they discovered that Brückner is guilty of the infringement of business secrets.

Gergely Brückner

Gergely Brückner

Brückner did what a good journalist should. He pointed out that the purchase of MKB Bank was a very bad deal, for which the Hungarian taxpayers have paid dearly ever since September 2014. Whoever sealed the deal either didn’t exercise due diligence or, what in my opinion is more likely, Viktor Orbán was so eager to acquire a foreign-owned bank and transform it into a bank which would eventually be in Hungarian hands that he simply didn’t care about the exorbitant amount of money it would take “to reorganize” it.

The policemen who questioned Brückner demanded that he reveal his sources, which he refused to do. Later he said that in fact he no longer remembers who his source was for this particular piece of information. He had conversations with at least 15 men and women who had information about the case both in Hungary and in Bavaria. He didn’t think this sentence was of any great significance and therefore paid no special attention to it. It was the overall picture that interested him, that the purchase of MKB Bank was a very bad business deal.

This case is yet another example of the warped legal system in Hungary and of the government’s attempt to clamp down on media criticism. Although scores of people have filed complaints in connection with the shady affairs of Antal Rogán and György Matolcsy, neither the police nor the prosecutors move a finger. Their usual answer is that there is no reason to investigate. But if a journalist accurately reports on a disastrous bank purchase, the police are ready to jump and insist that he reveal his sources, which according to current Hungarian law are protected. We don’t yet know whether the investigative judge will decide to go forward with the case.

János Lázár, who can quite often surprise us, once again did so in this case. Last Thursday at his usual press conference he expressed his disapproval of harassing journalists, pressuring them to reveal their sources. I think it’s safe to assume that he was not himself the source; that is, he presumably did not make public the letter he received from Matolcsy. But the information must have come either from his office or from Matolcsy’s, perhaps too close for comfort.

How badly have Hungarian taxpayers been burned by the deal? It had to be a colossal loss. The bank into which 300 billion forints was poured, over and above the 35 billion purchase price, was sold in March 2016 for 37 billion forints. It was sold to a consortium of domestic and foreign equity funds, with Hungarian owners getting a majority stake. One member of this consortium is a Hungarian private equity fund called Metis, which will have a 45% stake in MKB Bank. Metis was launched only recently with a registered capital of 100 million euros. The other prominent member is Blue Robin Investments SCA, whose owners are apparently Indian and Chinese investors. It will also own 45% of the bank. A Hungarian pension fund will hold the remaining 10% of the shares.

By July Brückner learned that “the most important and real owner” behind Metis is László Szíjj, owner of Duna Aszfalt, which people usually refer to nowadays as the new Közgép. Közgép was Lajos Simicska’s firm, which in the past used to receive most of the government contracts. Now that Simicska is one of the chief enemies of Viktor Orbán, his place has been filled by a number of oligarchs, one of whom is Szíjj.

One more thing about Figyelő. Although the weekly is profitable, it is up for sale because of an acrimonious ownership dispute that has been going on for about two years. The journalists who work at the weekly are almost certain that the new owner will be Mária Schmidt, the court historian and director of the House of Terror who became a very wealthy woman after the unexpected early death of her husband. If Schmidt does indeed become the owner, I’m sure Gergely Brückner will quickly become “redundant.”

November 1, 2016

Heinrich Pecina, Orbán’s accomplice in the repression of Hungary’s free press

Until recently little was known about Heinrich Pecina, an investment banker and majority owner of Vienna Capital Partners (VCP). His name appeared often enough in the Hungarian media, but he remained a somewhat mysterious character. Now, after the Népszabadság scandal, plenty of information has emerged about the man, none of which is reassuring. His private equity firm specializes in former Soviet bloc countries--Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Russia–as well as China.

Pecina worked for the famed Creditanstalt before establishing VCP in 1998. Ten years later the firm was making more than two billion euros a year by buying, restructuring, and selling large companies in Eastern Europe. One of Pecina’s business ventures in Hungary was the takeover of BorsodChem (2001), which was not without controversy. VCP was suspected of secretly acting on behalf of Gazprom. At least this is what a Soviet dissident think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, claimed.

Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy ordered an investigation, which found no wrongdoing. But it is true that Pecina acquired BorsodChem from Mihail Rahimkulov, a Russian-born Hungarian businessman of Tatar origin, who at one point was a Gazprom executive and still is one of the large shareholders of that Russian company. By 2010 VCP and another private equity company, after some fancy financial footwork, sold 38% of BorsodChem (and an option to buy the remaining shares within two years) to the Chinese Wanhua Group, a chemical company that is the world’s largest producer of isocyanate. For Pecina, Népszabadság is small potatoes.

The alleged illegality of some of Pacina’s complicated business ventures eventually caught up with him. While the drama of Népszabadság was playing out in Budapest, Heinrich Pecina was sitting in a Klagenfurt courtroom as a defendant in connection with a share sale of Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank to Bayern LB. He and the president of the Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank are jointly accused of embezzlement and illegal business practices. Pecina already admitted in July to writing three phony receipts for 4.3 million euros. VPC also produced “expert studies” of questionable worth in return for millions from the president of the Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank.

pecina

In 2014 Pecina moved into the Hungarian media market, buying the Swiss Ringier’s Mediaworks, which owned Népszabadság, Világgazdaság, and Nemzeti Sport, as well as regional newspapers and a printing business. About two weeks ago VCP also purchased 12 regional papers with 1,150 employees. An earlier attempt to merge these two holdings was vetoed by the Hungarian Competition Authority, but once Pecina was behind the deal the Hungarian government gave its blessing to the purchase. The Austrian Kurier is convinced that “the Orbán government gave the green light in exchange for silencing the annoying, anti-government Népszabadság” and that Heinrich Pecina had no compunctions about being part of this dirty deal.

As the days go by we are learning more details of Pecina’s involvement with Mediaworks and specifically with Népszabadság. Until recently a foundation of the socialist party owned 27.6% of Népszabadság. The former president of the foundation, László Kránitz, admitted that, although they tried to find out whose “stróman” Pecina was, they were unsuccessful. He also claimed that the losses accrued by Népszabadság were partially due to the purchase of a state-of-the-art printing press during the Ringier period. Another questionable business decision was to move the offices of Népszabadság to a high-end commercial site, the Mediaworks Tower, where the rent was extremely high. In fact, rent for a single month would have covered a full year of maintenance and utilities for Népszabadság‘s own building. Moreover, the contract was for ten years. In the event the contract was broken, as it was, the fine was three-years’ rent. The state-owned MKB Bank provided the guarantee to the tune of two million euros.

Some of Pecina’s employees at Mediaworks were not ready to lend their names to this deal between a financier of dubious reputation and the thoroughly corrupt Viktor Orbán. The Mediaworks employee who was in charge of the affairs of Népszabadság refused to execute the orders from above and quit even before the paper was shuttered. So Mediaworks assigned a new man to the job, who was supposed to negotiate with the editor-in-chief. But he “became ill” and didn’t show. The next day he discovered that his illness was grave enough to warrant quitting his job altogether. Now we have a new man, Tamás Door, who was the marketing director of the firm. I wonder how long he will last.

Today being Thursday, journalists could listen to a performance by János Lázár, accompanied by Zoltán Kovács, who has lately become a television personality with his interviews on BBC and CNN. Naturally Népszabadság was a hot topic. Lázár expressed his puzzlement that there are people who want the Orbán government to save the paper with taxpayer forints. As far as I know, no such demand was ever expressed by anyone anywhere. But he admitted that there were some very good Népszabadság journalists whose articles he enjoyed reading. He will miss them. He also had the decency to express his disapproval of how the paper was shut down. As for the accusations that the government had anything to do with the demise of the paper, Lázár’s sarcastic answer was: “Between 2010 and 2014 Fidesz managed to get a two-thirds majority despite the Népszabadság‘s  ‘beneficial’ activities.” Thus, Fidesz had no political reasons to close the doors of the paper.

Even conservative media outlets have offered help to the journalists who are in limbo. Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió offered them the opportunity to publish articles and op-ed pieces and to participate in TV programs, which was a nice gesture. The cultural and press attachés of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest visited the journalists, who are now in a small temporary editorial office. On the Embassy’s Facebook page the First Amendment appears in both languages:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Among the comments I read: “Isn’t it interesting that the amendments to the American Constitution were always for the widening of freedom while all the amendments to the Hungarian Fundamental Law point in exactly the opposite direction?

October 13, 2016