Tag Archives: Kúria

Financing of Hungarian sports: court rules it must be transparent

Even small victories can lift anti-Orbán hearts nowadays in Hungary. Thanks to the recent decision of the Kúria, Hungary’s highest judicial body, Viktor Orbán was rendered a defeat that must have hit him hard. At risk is what he considers to be one of his greatest achievements, the Felcsút Football Academy.

Transparency International spent a considerable amount of time and energy investigating the government’s lavish support of sports and came to the conclusion that the sports financing system the Orbán government established is rotten to the core. In the course of its investigation Transparency International also ascertained that the “absolute winner of the whole system is the village of Felcsút and its football club.” Felcsút has become the symbol of everything that is wrong in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It is a village of 2,000 people with one of the most lavish football stadiums, which can seat 4,500. The club uses all sorts of tricks to entice people to attend the club’s games, usually to no avail. The stadium is practically empty most of the time. In fact, according to those in the know, Hungarian football is dead, and the incredible amount of money that was poured into the game was an utter waste. Hungary’s FIFA standing is the same as it was before.

Over the years people have tried to find out how much money was being spent on sports, mostly football. But the system is intentionally complicated in order to hide the exact amount that comes from two main sources: direct grants allocated for sports in the budget and something called Társasági Adókedvezmény/TAO (Corporation Tax Allowance), introduced in 2011. Corporations can get a tax break if they support one or more of five sports: football, handball, basketball, water polo, and ice hockey. Money allocated to support sports is considered to be part of the tax owed. Thus, all money that is donated to these sports is a direct loss to the central budget. Since 2011, according to the latest estimate, 330 billion forints of corporate tax money was diverted to sports organizations. Or, put another, more shocking way, in the last six years the Hungarian state has given up one out of every nine forints in tax revenue.

From this money 128 billion went to football clubs and 86 billion for handball, while the rest was shared by basketball, water polo, and hockey. Viktor Orbán has been insisting for years that TAO is not public money and therefore no one has the right to learn about the sponsors, the recipients, and the amount of the money donated.

Interest in Hungarian football–Debrecen Stadium, which can seat 20,000. Cost €40 million

Transparency International, being convinced that the tax allowance is public money, asked the ministry of human resources for their allocation figures, which was denied. Transparency at that point sued the ministry. In the first instance, Transparency lost the case. The decision was based on tax secrecy. In addition, the judge didn’t consider the requested data to be of public interest. On appeal, however, the decision was reversed. Tax secrecy as a reason for denying access to the information was discarded, and the court ruled that the TAO monies are, after all, considered to be public funds. The ministry then turned to the Kúria, and on October 25, 2017 the decision of the appellate court was upheld.

Concurrently with Transparency International’s suit against the ministry of human resources, Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) sued Viktor Orbán’s Academy in Felcsút for the release of all contracts for jobs that were financed by TAO money. Felcsút apparently received about 14 billion TAO forints in the last six years. In July 2016 the Székesfehérvár Court ruled in DK’s favor, but Felcsút Academy had no intention of obliging and appealed. In February 2017 the Budapest Appellate Court also ruled in DK’s favor, but for a different reason from the Székesfehérvár Court. While the lower court considered TAO to be public money, the appellate court based its verdict on the non-profit status of Felcsút Academy. Felcsút Academy was obliged to turn over all documents relating to TAO funds within 15 days. Felcsút Academy again appealed the verdict, and thus the case ended up in the Kúria for a final decision. On November 15 the Kúria ruled that Felcsút must provide details of how they spent the enormous amounts of “public” money. The verdict could have been predicted because a month earlier, in connection with the Transparency International case, the Kúria had already declared TAO funds to be a public resource.

Index described the verdict as “the final and humiliating defeat of Orbán’s football academy.” János Lázár’s reaction a day later amply showed what kind of a country Hungary has become in the last six or seven years. During Lázár’s usual press conference on Thursday, when asked his opinion of the Kúria’s decision, he said: “There is a judge in this country who is very angry with Hungary’s government and Fidesz. His name is András Baka. Because of his changed official status, he has been greatly offended, and for some strange reason all TAO cases end up on his desk. I wouldn’t want to suppose that any bias would have influenced the judge, who on numerous occasions publicly criticized Fidesz and the government.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and go back to 2011, when the Hungarian Supreme Court became the Kúria. The chief justice at the time was András Baka who, prior to his appointment in 2008, had been a judge at the European Court of Justice for Human Rights for 17 years. Although he was considered to be a conservative judge, he became worried about Viktor Orbán’s so-called judicial reforms. He objected, for example, to the forced early retirement of judges, which gave the government a free hand to fill about 300 positions that became vacant as a result of the new law on retirement. Orbán desperately wanted to get rid of Baka and eventually came up with a good excuse. Baka hadn’t been a judge in Hungary for five years. His 17 years with the European Court of Justice were not considered relevant. Baka turned to the European Court of Human Rights and eventually was awarded about 100,000 euros, which naturally the Hungarian government, or to be precise Hungarian taxpayers, had to cough up. Baka couldn’t return to his old post, which had been filled by someone else, but he was reinstated, I’m sure grudgingly, as one of the leading judges in the Kúria.

The Kúria’s answer to Lázár was brief and to the point. They will not comment on politicians’ statements concerning their activities, but the spokesman explained that the assignment of cases is determined a year ahead and given to judges according to their professional specialties.

Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that this is the end of the story because János Lázár intimated at the press conference that it was time “to make order” as far as TAO is concerned. To make order to me means that they will most likely come up with some modification to the law that would prevent the public from learning where that incredible amount of money has gone.

November 17, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest attack on the European Union

Perhaps tomorrow we will know more about the plans of the European Commission regarding the revision of the so-called Dublin asylum regulations. The revision may contain a punitive pay-off clause that would affect those countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–that refuse to take the number of refugees the Commission assigned to them in September 2015. According to the Financial Times, the Commission is contemplating a fine of €250,000 per refugee. For Poland, which first agreed to admit 6,200 refugees but later reneged on its promise, this would mean €1.5 billion. Hungary, which was supposed to take 1,294 refugees, would end up with a fine of 323 million euros or 100 billion forints.

The original European Commission decision on quotas was carefully worded. It talked about the temporary relocation of asylum seekers, wording that will gain special significance when we talk about the Hungarian referendum question that was just approved today by the Kúria.

On February 24 Viktor Orbán made an announcement that his government planned to hold a referendum that would allow the electorate to vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” At the time I called the government’s plan to hold a referendum on the subject “Orbán’s latest stunt.” I also wondered, along with many others, whether holding such a referendum might not be unconstitutional because the basic law of 2011 clearly states that “no national referendum may be held on … any obligation arising from an international agreement.” (Article 8) And even if it is ruled constitutional, Article 19 states that “Parliament may ask the Government for information on its position to be adopted in the decision-making process of the European Union’s institutions operating with the Government’s participation, and may express its position about the draft on the agenda in the procedure. In the European Union’s decision-making process, the Government shall take Parliament’s position into consideration.” In plain language, parliament has no direct jurisdiction over the dealings between Hungary and the European Union, at best an advisory role. There have also been questions concerning the formulation of the question. Legal scholars challenged the reference to “compulsory settlement” (betelepítés), which doesn’t exist in either Hungarian or EU law. Objections were also raised over the mention of the European Union as not being a precise term in this context.

These reservations didn’t impress the Kúria, which brushed aside all applications for review. In the judges’ opinion the question was appropriate from the point of view of both the constitution and the law on referendums. They ruled that EU treaties cannot be compared to other international treaties. The referendum question does not touch on the treaties signed at the time Hungary was admitted to join the Union but relates to EU law itself. As for the competence of parliament, such matters as laws governing the settlement of non-Hungarian citizens, their status and the duration of their stay belong to the jurisdiction of the Hungarian lawmakers. Finally, as far as the term “compulsory settlement” is concerned, it can be understood by most people as “placement” of foreigners “for a lengthier period of time” inside the borders of the country. The judges had no objection to the use of the word “European Union” in a general sense because “it is a well known organizational concept, a generic term” meaning “the decision making body of the European Union.” The Kúria this time was not the stickler it was in earlier cases, when every word in the text was carefully scrutinized and usually rejected.

When Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum, legal scholars considered the conceptual structure underpinning the question so legally flawed that they were certain that neither the members of the National Election Commission nor the Kúria could possibly approve it unless, as one of them said, these two bodies are filled with “lackeys.” Well, it looks as if they are.

state border

Naturally, the opposition is up in arms. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP) is planning to go to the Constitutional Court. They will appeal to the judges to defend the very institution of referendums because here the government is proposing to hold one that serves the political interests of Fidesz exclusively. Holding such a referendum “will further deepen the government-induced hatred toward refugees and foreigners.”

Együtt still insists that the question is unconstitutional since it concerns international treaties and its meaning is far from clear. The Kúria’s argument is unacceptable because it lends credence to “the Orbanite lie about compulsory quotas” when they simply don’t exist. Otherwise, the party leaders are urging people to boycott the referendum.

The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) is also asking its voters not to vote. Considering that DK has about half a million devoted followers, such a request will most likely bring results. DK claims that “the referendum is not about the accommodation of one thousand people but about the rejection of our European Union membership. This mendacious referendum wants people to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch and that we can be a stowaway in the European Union who evades his responsibilities while holding out his hand for its benefits.” The party’s spokesman added that “those who boycott the referendum will vote for Europe.” This is a good argument politically because the overwhelming majority of Hungarians want to remain part of the European Union.

The position of the leaders of the socialists (MSZP) is quite different. Currently, they are collecting signatures to hold referendums on two issues: (1) capping the monthly salaries of state company managers as well as any holders of high offices financed by the government at two million forints and (2) stopping the sale of agricultural lands still in state hands. Interestingly enough, in 2010 it was the Orbán government that insisted on such a salary cap. However, lately they have been jacking up salaries at an accelerated rate. As for the sale of state lands, there is no need to rehash the corruption that surrounds these transactions.

József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, claims that they are making great progress at collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures that would allow them to hold a referendum on these two questions. It would, he maintains, be logical to hold only one referendum at which all three questions would be on the ballot. I guess MSZP politicians fear that these two questions are not “exciting enough” to draw enough voters to render the referendum valid. On the other hand, as we know, Orbán’s referendum question is enthusiastically supported by millions. If Orbán manages to whip up enough enthusiasm in the fall when the referendum most likely will take place, his phony referendum might be valid despite the exceedingly high voter turnout requirement (50% of the whole electorate).

I must say that I will never understand the thought processes of the current MSZP politicians. The only sensible reaction to the Kúria’s decision is to boycott the referendum whose very question is illegitimate. According to the latest polls, MSZP has been gaining support, most likely because of its resoluteness in fighting the National Election Office, the National Election Commission, and Fidesz’s machinations in trying to prevent the party’s representative from turning in his referendum question on Sunday store closings at the National Election Office. The opportunistic move Tóbiás is now contemplating, however, will not endear the party to those who want to have a resolute, even unyielding stance against the current government. In making a deal with Fidesz, MSZP is again playing games for which its former voters will not reward it.

May 3, 2016

A new chapter in Hungarian politics?

I will try to cover two topics today, although practically every time I decide to do that I discover about half way through that I was too ambitious. This time, however, I really would like to talk to about two new developments. The first is the announcement by Piroska Galló that negotiations between her union and the government broke down and so a nationwide one-day strike will take place on April 20. The other astonishing news is that István Nyakó’s referendum question sailed through the Kúria. MSZP can begin collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures to enable them to hold a referendum on the question of Sunday closings.

Since I have followed the teachers’ revolt very closely and often have engaged in discussions with commenters, I think it is clear to all regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum that I consider this movement much more than a run-of-the-mill teachers’ strike of the kind that flare up in communities worldwide. As I have repeated often enough, the goal of the Orbán government’s educational policy is to transform the new generation into cogs in the wheel of the “illiberal state.” Just as the Bolsheviks wanted to create a new Soviet man, so Viktor Orbán wants a certain type of citizen. The school system introduced in 2013 feeds into Viktor Orbán’s system of “national cooperation.” Revolt against it is insurgency against the world Orbán has forced on the Hungarians.

In the last few days we have seen a concerted effort on the part of the government to set the two trade unions, PSZ and PDSZ, against each other, with not much success. Undersecretary László Palkovics went so far as to invite László Mendrey to the ministry for a discussion on the impending strike, but when he and his team got there they discovered that instead of one-to-one strike negotiations the complete membership of the round table was waiting for them. The attempt failed. So tonight PDSZ, PSZ’s strike committee, the Tanítanék Mozgalom, and the Civil Public Education Platform will hold a joint meeting. It looks as if all the organizations involved in the movement are cooperating and will support the strike. According to Piroska Galló, support for the strike among teachers is substantial. The only question is how effective the strike will be and, even more important, how much outside help the teachers will receive. If dissatisfaction spreads to other groups and public support is overwhelming, the government will have to offer substantial concessions, which can undermine the very foundation of the system.

The other important topic is MSZP’s referendum question–“Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?”–was approved by the Kúria, the supreme court of the land. This decision was totally unexpected. Even the MSZP leadership, whose members kept repeating that the case was so clear cut that the Kúria couldn’t do anything else, were deep down not at all sure. They were ready for rejection. For the last three days MSZP representatives stood in front of the National Election Office to prevent a repeat of what happened last time when about a dozen skinheads prevented István Nyakó, an MSZP politician, from handing in his referendum question.

Yesterday I watched an interview with a particularly obnoxious talking head, who went on and on about the pettiness of Hungarian politics. This came up in the middle of a conversation about the tenth anniversary of the famous Gyurcsány-Orbán debate, which was such a fiasco for Orbán that from that moment on he refused to yield to any demand for a debate. Our talking head asserted that today there would be no topic for a meaningful debate. What would the candidates talk about? Sunday closings? Something that trivial?

I would rather side with the editorial of Magyar Narancs titled “Hungarian politics revived.” The author defines politics as “competition between different modes of management of public affairs.” He claims that politics in this sense came to a halt in 2010. Now it looks as if there might be a change. After this decision “we have reason to be happy” was the last sentence of the article.

The happiest of all are the MSZP politicians, who scored a huge victory. They showed themselves to be so dogged that eventually the government ran out of steam. After the skinheads it was difficult to come up with yet another obstacle. I would be very surprised if MSZP’s popularity would not rise substantially in the coming months. All the criticism of the party’s hesitancy and its political ineptitude will fade if MSZP politicians manage to keep up their present energy and political finesse. At last here is an opposition party that managed to defeat the state machinery, which was bent on preventing a referendum that would question a decision of the government.

MSZP’s victory might also improve the generally lethargic mood of the population: the situation is not hopeless after all. Today’s triumph will most likely help the mood in opposition circles in general. Jobbik already announced that they will join MSZP and will assist in the collection of signatures, and they will encourage their followers to support the cause. DK will do the same. Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, called the Kúria’s decision “another deep fissure in the Orbán regime.”

István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

MSZP MPs István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

As things now stand, MSZP is planning a repeat of the Fidesz “referendum of the three yeses,” as the 2008 referendum is called. In that case, on Fidesz’s insistence, citizens had to vote on whether they don’t want to pay tuition fees, don’t want a €1 co-pay at doctors’ visits, and don’t want to pay €1 a day during hospital stays. Not surprising, by an overwhelming majority they said “yes, we don’t want to pay” to all three questions. The result of the referendum was interpreted at the time as a rejection of the Gyurcsány government and directly led to the prime minister’s resignation a few months later.

What József Tóbiás, MSZP chairman, is now talking about is another “referendum of the three yeses” because, in addition to Nyakó’s question on Sunday closings, Zoltán Gőgös (MSZP PM) submitted a question on the fate of the agricultural lands currently owned by the state, and Zoltán Kész, an independent MP, submitted a question on the remuneration of business leaders of state enterprises. Yes, says Tóbiás, people should say yes to all these questions: the stores should be open on Sunday, the sale of state lands should come to a halt, and no state business leader should receive more than 2 million forints a month. Indeed, these questions should be very popular with the electorate. Gőgös and Kész collected 50,000 signatures in a single day, and therefore I have no doubt that collecting another 200,000 will be a cinch. Meeting the requirement of about 4 million valid votes, however, might be another matter. The Orbán administration changed the law on referendums. Instead of requiring a turnout of 25% to have a valid referendum, they raised the requirement to 50%, which makes the task almost impossible.

According to some commentators Fidesz has only two options. Either it encourages its followers not to vote or it tries to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition by repealing the law on Sunday closings. The second option would mean a loss of prestige for Orbán, which would be tough for the prime minister to swallow.

Gábor Vona of Jobbik suggested that Viktor Orbán’s own referendum on compulsory quotas should be added to the three current questions. Would that help or hinder the cause of the opposition leaders? We know that the government has overwhelming support for its anti-refugee stance, so the administration might be able to convince large numbers of people to go to the polls to cast their ballot in favor of its referendum question. Would that boost the chances of the three questions submitted by Nyakó, Gőgös, and Kész? And if it does, would Fidesz want that outcome? I’m really curious what Fidesz’s next step will be.

April 6, 2016

The continuing saga of the referendum question

Earlier I described February 23 as a “day of infamy” in the life of the Orbán government. It was on that day that István Nyakó, a former MSZP member of parliament, was prevented from reaching the time clock that registers the exact arrival of an intended referendum question at the National Election Office. Approximately twenty skinheads stood in his way. His question was thus clocked four seconds after a young man handed in the meaningless referendum question of Mrs. Erdősi, the wife of the mayor of Herceghalom, a small hamlet not far from Budapest. The lady seems to be a fanatical admirer of Viktor Orbán.

The Orbán regime obviously dreads a referendum on the question of Sunday store closings, which would be overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. Since the passage of the bill that greatly inconvenienced the majority of the population this was the thirteenth attempt to reverse the 2014 decision, which has been in force since March 15, 2015. Most of the referendum questions that reached the National Election Committee and the Kúria were formulated in such a way as to be ruled invalid, delaying the submission of any other question on the issue. The National Election Office in cahoots with the National Election Commission used all the tricks in the book to prevent the submission of any question that had the slightest chance of approval. But they seem to have run out of tricks, hence the 200-kg skinheads. An optimistic MSZP politician described the event as “the last flurry of a hapless dictatorship.”

I’m not sure of that, but in the last few days the government and Fidesz have retreated on a host of issues. One doesn’t have to search very hard to see cracks in the edifice. Several high-ranking Fidesz politicians openly criticized the party’s handling of the referendum question. It looks as if László Kövér disapproves of the bill that György Matolcsy, chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, and Viktor Orbán pushed through parliament to allow the profits of the bank—which are naturally public money—to be transferred into private funds established by the bank. According to rumor, President Áder may not sign the bill. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, already talked yesterday about a possible compromise on the issue. There is also a general retreat on the education front as well, but so far the compromises the government is offering don’t satisfy the educators. The government will have to go much further than it ever intended.

And it looks as if the government will have to retreat on the issue of the referendum as well. After the head of the National Election Office, Ilona Pálffy, determined that everything was in perfect order because no one had prevented Nyakó from reaching the clock, Mrs. Erdősi’s question was sent on to the National Election Commission. But then, something must have happened behind the scenes because, after some hesitation, she decided to pass on Nyakó’s question as well.

That was the first crack in the Fidesz defense. The second crack came when the National Election Commission, after looking at the existing videos, split on the merit of Nyakó’s complaint. Above is the crucial 26 seconds that shows the situation at the  National Election Office. The chairman of the commission, Szabolcs Patyi, sided with the delegates of the opposition against the Fidesz-KDNP delegates. Still, the vote was 7 to 5 in favor of Mrs. Erdősi’s claim. Thus, it was her question that was sent to the Kúria for final approval. But high-ranking members of Fidesz were not at all satisfied with Ilona Pálffy’s handling of the affair. Both László Kövér and Gergely Gulyás urged an investigation of the case, and apparently some members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation were up in arms, blaming Gábor Kubatov, deputy chairman of Fidesz and head of the Ferencváros FTC, for the debacle. After all, some of the skinheads were the club’s security guards.

After the National Election Committee’s decision, Nyakó didn’t give up. On March 2 he submitted a request for a review of the case to the Kúria. Yesterday the Kúria made its decision public: it partially annulled the decision of the National Election Committee. After taking a look at the video, the judges reached the conclusion that Nyakó had after all been prevented from exercising his constitutional rights. But the Kúria didn’t agree with Nyakó’s position that there was a conspiracy between Mrs. Erdősi and the skinheads, although it is blatantly obvious that Mrs. Erdősi and the skinheads acted together according to a well-executed plan. Each of the men held a translucent folder with a copy of Mrs. Erdősi’s referendum question together with her signature. They were photocopies of the original. The enlarged picture of the folder is clear proof of collusion. The Kúria obviously didn’t want to rule on the charge of collusion, which would lead straight to Gábor Kubatov, who, by the way, happened to be in the United States at the time, learning the secrets of the Republican Party’s campaign strategies.

Mrs. Erdősi's signature is clearly visible

Mrs. Erdősi’s signature is clearly visible

But Kubatov didn’t have to be present to prevent MSZP from turning in a referendum question. Kubatov filled all the important positions at the Ferencváros club with people who have strong ties to Fidesz. One such man is Kubatov’s secretary, Máté Kindlovits, who is actually the managing director of the club’s affairs due to Kubatov’s many duties in the party. The club’s spokesman is Bence Sipos, who just happens to be Kindlovits’s old classmate at the Pál Apostol Katolikus Gimnázium. And Ádám Varró, the young man who actually handed Mrs. Erdősi’s referendum question to the authorities, was a classmate of Kindlovits and Sipos. (For those unfamiliar with the Hungarian educational system, friendships made in high school can mean life-long associations. Thirty or forty students spend four years together in the same classroom, often sitting at the same desks and having the same homeroom teacher, who in this case happened to be a man who today is the Fidesz mayor of District XVII.)

I assume that in Kubatov’s absence it was Kindlovits who arranged the meeting between Mrs. Erdősi and the Fradi hooligans. How did Mrs. Erdősi enter the scene? A few years ago she was pictured on one of the billboards advertising the decrease in utility prices. Today (in the second picture) she is a few years older, a little grayer, but still willing to serve Fidesz. Most likely Kindlovits recruited her for the job, promising the assistance of his men and assuring her that she doesn’t have to do anything, just be there, because his old high school friend Ádám Varró will take care of everything.

erdosine billboard

erdosine today

I don’t have much hope that the police investigation which is now underway will ever get as far as my imagined scenario. But I’m not so sure that the earlier obstructionist practices will continue unabated. Fidesz and Viktor Orbán are feeling the pinch.

March 4, 2016

Hungarian Supreme Court decided: Segregation is lawful in parochial schools

Last Friday Hungary’s highest court, the Kúria, rendered a judgment that legal scholars in Hungary consider historic. To put it in the simplest terms, the panel of judges declared that segregation of the Roma in parochial schools is legal.

This is not the first time that I’ve written about an elementary school in Nyíregyháza maintained by the Greek Catholic ChurchA foundation called Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) sued the Greek Catholic Church because, in 2011, they reopened a segregated school that served Roma children from the nearby Gypsy settlement Huszár telep.

The history of this case goes all the way back to 2007 when Nyíregyháza had a socialist mayor and town council. At this time, in order to avoid a court case, the town decided to close the school for Roma children. Instead, they provided a school bus to take children from Huszár telep to a school 2.3 km. away that had been newly refurbished on EU money. But in 2010 Nyíregyháza elected a new Fidesz administration, and it was clear from the very beginning that this educational arrangement was doomed. First, the city refused to provide a school bus for the children of Huszár telep. Then it was decided that the Greek Catholic Church would reopen the Roma school. (In 2012 the Greek Catholic Church was also given control of the modern “white” school.)

CFCF sued in 2011, but it took three years for the lower court in Nyíregyháza to hand down its decision in March 2014. It was at that time that I published a post titled “The Hungarian government supports school segregation for Roma.” On what grounds did I come to this conclusion? The reason was simple enough. Zoltán Balog over the years had made no secret of his belief that segregated schools in the hands of churches are “the citadels of convergence” for Roma students. He imagined integration as a two-step process. First you put the disadvantaged, mostly Roma, children into segregated schools where “they will catch up.” Once they achieve the requisite level of knowledge and skills in these segregated schools, the Roma children can be integrated into the mainstream population.

Balog was so convinced that his theory was sound and had such trust in the Greek Catholics’ special abilities that he himself testified during the trial which, by the way, CFCF won. Naturally, the Greek Catholic Church appealed, but CFCF won again in a judgment by the Debrecen Appellate Court. After another appeal, the case ended up in the Kúria where to everybody’s surprise the judgment was overturned. The Greek Catholic Church won. Segregation was legalized. There is no further recourse.

The reason the Kúria gave for its judgment is that the free choice of religion and school supersedes the prohibition of segregation. This judgment presupposed that all Roma parents chose the nearby elementary school for their children because they wanted to provide them with an education administered by the Greek Catholic Church. In the whole of Hungary there are only 268,935 individuals who, when asked about their religious affiliation, considered themselves Greek Catholic. This is a very small number, especially when you compare it to the 5.5 million Catholics and the 1.6 million Hungarian Reformed. The church leaders themselves admitted that practically no children were Greek Catholic.

The Greek Catholics’ interest in teaching and assisting the Roma stems from the pastoral work among the Roma of a priest called Miklós Sója (1912-1996). He spent years working with the Roma in Hodász, a village about 50 km from Nyíregyháza. Actually, the segregated Gypsy school is named after him. The church wanted to continue the Greek Catholic tradition of pastoral work among the Gypsies. They found the school close to the miserable settlement of Huszár telep in Nyíregyháza a perfect place to pursue their educational and charitable work.

From what I have been reading on the subject, the Greek Catholic Church never wanted to have an integrated school because their focus is on Gypsy pastoral work. During the first trial, the judge asked the representative of the church whether perhaps it would be possible to allow the 12 Roma first-graders to attend the “white school” that the church also ran. The priest, after some hesitation, said that perhaps they could create a separate class for the Roma children. The judge had to remind him “what this suit is all about.”

Students in the Greek Catholic segregated school in Nyíregyháza

Students in the Greek Catholic segregated school in Nyíregyháza

Magyar Nemzet a few days ago, before the Kúria’s decision, published a report on conditions in the Roma school and the parents’ and students’ satisfaction with the present arrangement. The picture couldn’t be rosier. Happy children, happy parents who consider CFCF mere troublemakers. They are very satisfied with the education their children receive. One boy’s parents decided to transfer him from an integrated school to the segregated one because he was unhappy in school. In the Miklós Sója school he made many friends, and his grades have improved dramatically. (For that latter development I could offer a simple explanation: lower expectations at the Miklós Sója school.)

CFCF and those who believe in integrated schools see the situation differently. They point out that the parents chose this particular school not because it was run by the Greek Catholics but because it was close. Even the Magyar Nemzet report admits that since there is no longer a school bus to take the children to school, they would have to use the city bus, which they could hardly afford. Gábor Daróczi, a board member of CFCF, called the judgment “apartheid under the aegis of religious freedom.” He argued that the Kúria’s judgment “practically put a how-to handbook into the hands of those churches that would like to run segregated schools.” According to CFCF, it is likely that political pressure was applied because Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, has been a strong supporter of the church all along. CFCF is planning to appeal to the European Commission which, they hope, will begin an infringement procedure against Hungary just as they did earlier when similar infringements of European law were found in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.

But CFCF’s strongest argument is that “there is no road to university from segregated schools.” There is a foundation called Romaveritas, apparently financed in part by the Norwegian Fund, that provides monthly stipends to about 15 Roma students a year for university studies.  Apparently, all students currently enrolled in the program came from integrated schools. They demonstrated in front of the Kúria building, emphasizing the need for integration, but to no avail. Roma leaders and civil rights activists are shocked.

Political interference with the Hungarian judiciary

Fidesz politicians have a penchant for creating situations that call attention time and again to the fact that something is very wrong with democracy in Hungary. We have discussed on numerous occasions the many unconstitutional laws enacted by the Hungarian government that have been criticized by both foreign and domestic legal bodies. I don’t think we have to repeat what Kim Lane Scheppele has so eloquently told us over the years about these issues. Instead I would like to talk about a much less complicated case, one understandable even by those who have no knowledge of constitutional law or the intricacies of the legal systems of Hungary and the European Union. I’m talking about the Rezešová case.

Eva Rezešová is a very rich woman of Hungarian extraction from Slovakia. Driving while intoxicated, she had a very serious car accident in Hungary on August 23, 2012. Her BMW ran into another car carrying four people. All were killed. The public outcry was immediate and widespread.

I must say that I didn’t follow the Rezešová trial because I didn’t think that it could possibly have political ramifications. After all, it was an ordinary, if tragic, car accident. But Fidesz politicians manage to muddy (or, better, taint) the legal waters even in seemingly straightforward cases.

Rezešová was brought to trial, found guilty, sentenced to six years, and placed under house arrest until the appeals court re-hears her case. The prosecutor filed the appeal since he believed the verdict was too lenient.

Public outrage followed the announcement of the house arrest. The Internet was full of condemnations of the decision. After all, this woman who caused four deaths while driving under the influence didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable apartment in Budapest. News spread that her two children, who are currently in Slovakia, will join her and will attend school in Budapest while she is awaiting her second trial.

Antal Rogán decided to join the outcry. He took along a cameraman and delivered a short message in front of Rezešová’s residence, which he placed on his Facebook page. He expressed his disgust and, in the name of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called on the parliamentary committee dealing with legal matters and on the minister of justice to investigate the outrageous decision that Rezešová could spend her time between the two trials in the comfort of her home. That happened around 10 a.m. on December 4. A few hours later the announcement came from the court, which had originally ordered the house arrest, that they had changed their minds. Rezešová must return to jail because there is a danger of her escape. Observers were certain that there was a direct connection between Rogán’s demand for an investigation and the court’s change of heart.

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová's apartment house / mandiner.hu

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová’s apartment house / mandiner.hu

This may not be the case. The prosecutor appealed the case and also asked the court to reverse its decision on the issue of the house arrest. So, it is entirely possible that Rogán’s instructions to the parliament and the ministry just happened to coincide with the court’s announcement. Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good. It looks as if in Hungary politicians give instructions to the judiciary and these instructions are promptly obeyed.

Why did Rogán try to influence the court’s decision? Is he that ignorant of the notion of the separation of powers in a democracy? It’s hard to imagine. People consider Rogán one of the brighter politicians around Viktor Orbán. Perhaps as the national election approaches the Orbán government is ready to ignore the “fine points” of democracy as long as a gesture like Rogán’s is appreciated by the majority of the people. And, believe me, it is appreciated. On Facebook one can read hundreds and hundreds of comments thanking Rogán for “doing the right thing.” After all, if the judges don’t know what decency is, here is a man who does and who instructs them to make the right and just decision.

The Association of  Judges reacted immediately and pointed out that Rogán’s statement may give the impression of undue influence on the judiciary. The Association felt it necessary to defend the judges against any such interference. It announced that the Association cannot tolerate “expectations expressed by politicians in cases still pending.” The president of the Hungarian Bar Association found it “unacceptable that a politician expresses his opinion on a case before the final verdict.” He called Rogán’s action “without precedent.” And today even the chief justice of the Kúria (Supreme Court) alluded to the case without mentioning Rogán’s name or the Rezešová case. The issue came up in a speech by Chief Justice Péter Darák welcoming the new clerks and judges. He warned them never to fall prey to outside influences.

It is possible that Rogán’s ill-considered move  may have serious practical consequences. For example, what if Rezešová’s lawyer eventually decides to turn to the European Court of Justice claiming political influence in the verdict of the appellate court? It will be very difficult to prove that the two events occurring on the same day had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

And there are other clouds looming over the Hungarian government with regard to its constant interference with the judiciary. Two days ago the Constitutional Court found the practice the Orbán government introduced of transferring cases from one court to another unconstitutional. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court ruled on the issue, but every time it found the law unconstitutional the government smuggled the same provision into either the constitution or some other law. Meanwhile the head of the National Judiciary Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, kept transferring practically all political cases at will to the far corners of the country to courts that she most likely considered to be partial to the government’s position. In 2011 thirteen and 2012 forty-two such cases were assigned to non-Budapest courts. These cases are still pending.

There are two possibilities now. One is to stop all the proceedings and start the cases over again, this time in the courts to which they by law belong. The second possibility is to proceed as if the Constitutional Court never spoke and have the courts hand down verdicts that will most likely be found null and void by the European Court of Justice. If I were the Hungarian government, I would opt for the former.

The troubled tobacco shop concessions

We haven’t talked about the tobacconist shops lately, although there is quite a bit to be said about them. First and foremost, that as the result of the newly restricted availability and the price hikes black market sales of cigarettes have soared in the last couple of months. Fewer and fewer people are buying cigarettes at the designated stores. The fallout? The loss of 23 billion forints in excise taxes for the treasury. Also, the new owners of these shops, although they turn a 10 percent profit on every pack of cigarettes, are not doing well. One needs to sell an awful lot of cigarettes to make a really good living.  And “only an idiot would buy cigarettes in the tobacconist shop,” reads a headline in today’s Origo

The troubles started early, with a spate of tobacconist shop robberies. Petty criminals all over the country, hearing about the fabulous profits that could be made by the owners of these shops, found them irresistible. And since the store fronts must be darkened and the doors kept closed at all times, the robbers could be assured of an easy target.

After a few weeks the black marketeers were in full swing, divvying up territories among themselves. They sell inexpensive cigarettes from Ukraine and Serbia for 500 forints a pack, as opposed to 900 forints in the stores, as well as western brands such as Kent, Marlboro, and Lucky Strike. The supply is plentiful. And it’s a terrific deal for both seller and buyer. The Ukrainian seller turns a 100% profit on each pack of cigarettes and the Hungarian buyer gets the pack for almost half the official price.

A man on Kálmán Széll tér (formerly Moszkva tér) explained how the distribution system works. A “very reliable man” brings him the merchandise from Ukraine. This reliable guy has his “reliable customers,” among them the fellow the Origo reporter talked with. The man admitted that what he does is illegal but, as he said, “the laws are wrong.” The black marketeers divide up the square among themselves, and they “defend their turf as jealously as the prostitutes.” Tobacconist shops nearby are hard hit. There are days when for hours they don’t have a single customer. A fair number of shops have already closed.

Making tobacco a state monopoly was most likely the brainchild of the Hungarian-owned Continental Tobacco Company. The owner of the company is a good friend of János Lázár, who was heavily involved in drafting the law. The Continental Tobacco Company also made sure that its employees and board members received a fair number of concessions through front men (Strohmann/stróman). Of the 4,300 tobacconist shops they got about 500 concessions.

One of the main beneficiaries was András Kulcsár, a top manager at Continental. He got 84 concessions. Now, after a few months, he has already had to close 25. The reason? Most likely a lack of business expertise, bad location, and low sales. The law, by the way, states that stores that close must be reopened within 60 days.

The cronies have all the dough / Photo Index

The cronies have all the dough / Photo Index

Today we learned that one of the tobacconist shops that belonged to Tomi Palcsó, a singer discovered on “Megasztár,” has been closed for days. The singer, who is a Fidesz favorite and who often performs at Fidesz events, received five concessions, officially the maximum number. It looks as if business in Csepel didn’t exactly thrive. Mind you, DK demonstrations in front of the Csepel stores over the last couple of weeks probably didn’t help. (László Varju, one of the top DK leaders, has been called into the police station for organizing demonstrations.) Although Palcsó’s store was already defunct, about a dozen DK activists protested in front of it today with signs like “The cronies have all the dough.”

Meanwhile, on popular initiative the National Election Committee gave its blessing to holding a referendum on two questions concerning the tobacconist shops, and the Kúria (formerly the Supreme Court) approved it. If the activists manage to get 200,000 signatures within 45 days the referendum can be held. There will be two questions on the ballot: Do you agree that instead of a 10 percent guaranteed profit, it should be rolled back to the original profit margin of 3.33%? And do you agree that only tobacco products should be sold in the tobacconist shops?

Apparently the Fidesz leadership is furious. As one Fidesz politician told the reporter for Index“that will not happen again.” At this moment it is not clear whether the government/Fidesz (it really no longer matters what we call it) intends to block such a referendum altogether or whether they only want to prevent its being held before the elections. In either case, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of one of the members of the Committee who in the last minute changed his mind on the question of the profit margin and thus made passage of the motion possible.