Tag Archives: László Trócsányi

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 Jobbik no longer represents the interests of the Hungarian people.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 much-heralded seventh amendment to the Hungarian Constitution

Changing the constitution is a frequent affair in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The amendment promulgated today is the seventh since April 2012. So by now the ministry of justice can draft these amendments with relative ease and great speed. Admittedly, we don’t know when work began on this latest touch-up because the Orbán government kept its preparation secret.

According to Hungarian law, no referendum can be held on issues related to the constitution. Yet even before the “refugee” referendum was held, it was obvious that the result of a successful referendum would be a constitutional amendment.

"Five years old Hungary's Basic Law. God bless the Hungarians! April 25, 2016" Great celebration by Magyar Posta

“Hungary’s Basic Law five years old. God bless the Hungarians! April 25, 2016” Great celebration by Magyar Posta

Well, the referendum turned out not to be valid, but such setbacks don’t deter Viktor Orbán. Today László Trócsányi, minister of justice, submitted the government’s proposed amendments to the constitution. The text of the amendments is accompanied by a fairly lengthy justification. Under the heading “General Justifications” we can read:

At the referendum held on October 2, 98% of the electorate voted ‘no’ for forced settlement. With this act the new unity for Hungary came into existence. This new unity is above parties; it considers the defense of Hungary’s sovereignty and the rejection of settlement quotas to be national issues.

The common will of the 98% obliges parliament to endow it with legal force. This amendment is based on the will of a 98% majority, 3 million 300 thousand people. This is more than the electoral support of any party in the past quarter century.

So, let’s see what Trócsányi and his men in the justice ministry came up with. The translation was done by Ben Novák of The Budapest Beacon. I assume that eventually the government will make its official English version available.

♦ ♦ ♦

A sentence will be added to the much criticized Preamble, the National Avowal.

After the sentence that reads “We honour the achievements of our historical constitution and we honour the Holy Crown, which embodies the constitutional continuity of Hungary’s statehood and the unity of the nation,” the following sentence will appear: “We hold that the defense of our constitutional self-identity, which is rooted in our historical constitution, is the fundamental responsibility of the state.”

Paragraph 2 of Article E of the Fundamental Law will be amended to read:

Hungary, as a Member State of the European Union and in accordance with the international treaty, will act to the extent necessary to be in accordance with the rights and responsibilities granted by the founding treaty, in conjunction with powers granted to it under the Fundamental Law together with other Member States and European Union institutions. The powers referred to in this paragraph must be in harmony with the fundamental rights and freedoms established in the Fundamental Law and, in addition, they must not limit Hungary’s inalienable rights concerning its territorial integrity, its population, its form of government, and its state structure.

Article R of Article 3 (paragraph 4) will be amended to include:

It is the responsibility of every state institution to defend Hungary’s constitutional identity.

Article 4 (1), paragraphs 1-3 will be replaced with the following text:

(1) No alien population can be settled in Hungary. Foreign citizens, not including the citizens of countries in the European Economic Area, in accordance with the procedures established by the National Assembly for Hungarian Territory, may have their documentation individually evaluated by Hungarian authorities.

(2) Hungarian citizens on Hungarian territory cannot be deported from Hungarian territory, and those outside the country may return whenever they so choose. Foreigners residing on Hungarian territory may be deported only by means of legal adjudication. It is forbidden to perform mass deportations.

(3) No person can be deported to a state, nor can any person be extradited to any state, where they are in danger, discriminated against, subject to persecution, or where they are at risk of any other form of inhumane treatment or penalty.

Paragraph 4 of Article XIV will be expanded with the following text:

(4) Hungary will provide asylum to non-Hungarian citizens if the person’s country of origin or other countries do not provide protection, and also to those who, in their homeland or place of residence, are persecuted for their race, ethnicity, social standing, religion, or political convictions, or if their fear of persecution is grounded.

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s been only a few hours since the text of the amendments was made available, so few commentaries have appeared. One came from Csaba Molnár, a deputy chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, who put it bluntly: Orbán conned the country with these amendments. He used a somewhat indelicate comparison which I will translate here as “the amendments have no teeth.” In his opinion the amendments are simply a rewriting of currently effective Hungarian and European laws. They are no more than eyewash (szemfényvesztés).

Péter Magyari of 444.hu finds the wording vague and elastic. He pays special attention to paragraph 4 of article XIV which, in his opinion, doesn’t preclude the execution of quota decisions but only describes its road map. All in all, he thinks the text is cautious and elastic, so the European Commission will most likely accept it.

Now the question is what Gábor Vona of Jobbik will say to the amendments. After all, without his support Fidesz doesn’t have enough votes to pass them. The democratic parties already announced their refusal to engage in any discussion about them. DK, in fact, because of Fidesz’s attitude toward the results of the referendum, the “sanctimonious” amendment of the constitution and what happened to Népszabadság, will boycott parliament. From the little we know about Jobbik’s reaction, it looks as if Vona, who wants to have a private discussion with Orbán about the issue, also finds the text far too cautious and elastic. He and his party want certain changes. What these changes are we don’t know yet, but people suspect that Jobbik considers the amendments too wishy-washy.

I’m sure that legal scholars better versed in European law will find Trócsányi’s amendments a great deal more sophisticated than meets the eye. I’m looking forward to a lively debate on the subject.

October 10, 2016

Hungary’s “constitutional identity”: What does it mean?

After we learned the results of the refugee quota referendum I wrote a short post, leaving an analysis of the referendum’s consequences for a later date. I did, however, indicate that Viktor Orbán was planning to change the constitution for the seventh time since its framing in April 2012. It was also already obvious that Orbán would try to make a huge victory out of a failed referendum. And indeed, in a day or so, new ads appeared touting that 98% of Hungarians are behind the government’s efforts to save Hungary from migrants. No Hungarian government has had such overwhelming support and the government cannot ignore the wishes of 3.3 million people, they claimed. Therefore, although legally the referendum was not valid, it was a major political success. The government simply cannot ignore the wishes of so many people.

The results of the referendum gave Orbán another political weapon. He cleverly equated the number of “no” votes with support for his party and his government. He declared “a new unity for Hungary,” which stands squarely behind him not just on the migrant issue but also on all matters connected with overarching national questions. Of course, as we know from Publicus Intézet’s poll, if national elections had been held on October 2, only 28% of the electorate would have voted for Fidesz and not 40% as Orbán claims now on the basis of the referendum results. The only opposition party that supported the quota referendum was Jobbik but, again judging from public opinion polls, Jobbik voters’ enthusiasm was a great deal less than that of Fidesz voters. Tipping the results in favor of Orbán’s newly discovered “unity” were those naïve souls among the supporters of the democratic parties who didn’t realize that a “no” vote was a “yes” vote for Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s plan is to convert some of those extra one million people who were misled by the incredible anti-refugee propaganda to faithful Fidesz supporters and thus achieve the desired two-thirds majority again in 2018 or earlier. The most likely candidates for the enlargement of the Fidesz camp are the Jobbik voters who, following the call of their party, voted “no” on October 2. That would mean the destruction of the already weakened Jobbik by absorbing its supporters. For the time being, however, Gábor Vona has the upper hand. He can demand a very high price for his party’s support of the constitutional amendments. All democratic parties have already announced their intention to boycott discussions related to constitutional changes, and since Fidesz no longer has the necessary two-thirds majority Orbán needs the votes of Jobbik. But as an op-ed article in valasz.hu predicted, Jobbik might be the next victim of Viktor Orbán. Interestingly, Boris Kálnoky, Budapest correspondent of the Austrian Die Presse, also considers Orbán’s announcement of “a new unity” a declaration of war against Jobbik.

The constitutional amendments are shrouded in mystery, but by yesterday we learned that the government will invoke a fashionable legal notion called “constitutional identity.” This legal construct has such a huge literature, whole books were devoted to the subject, that what I can say about it here is not more than what I learned in a short description of a book by Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn. Jacobsohn argues that “a constitution acquires an identity through experience—from a mix of the political aspirations and commitments that express a nation’s past and the desire to transcend that past.” I assume that after reading this description you are as puzzled as I was when I first read it. I became a bit more enlightened after I took a quick look at an article that appeared in the Utrecht Law Review by Leonard F. M. Besselink titled “National and constitutional identity before and after Lisbon.” This article then led me to the text of the Lisbon Treaty in which there is no mention of “constitutional identity.” It does, however, talk about “national identities” in Article 4.2, which reads:

The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government. It shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.

Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Undersecretary Bence Tuzson in charge of communication

Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Undersecretary Bence Tuzson in charge of communication

I suspect this is what László Trócsányi, minister of justice and former member of the constitutional court, has in mind. It looks as if Trócsányi finds the idea of “constitutional identity” an important and handy legal construct. According to vs.hu, at the time of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, at the request of a private person, the Hungarian constitutional court examined whether the treaty transgresses the sovereignty of Hungary. The court rejected the brief, but Trócsányi filed a concurring opinion in which he stated that “the member states have kept their right to determine the fundamental tenets of their constitution, which are indispensable for the maintenance of their constitutional identity.” In other words, over the centuries the Hungarians who settled in the Carpathian Basin created a specific cultural and ethnic identity. This identity would be violated by large settlements of people coming from a different cultural and religious background. I assume this will be the main argument of the Hungarian government against the contentions of those who claim the supremacy of EU law over the laws of a member state. Judging from the fact that Hungarian constitutional scholars already wildly disagree over the Hungarian government’s interpretation of “constitutional identity,” I suspect that Trócsányi’s brainchild might not be so easy to defend.

By now I more or less understand what Trócsányi is getting at, but I was nonetheless completely baffled by what he said at this morning’s press conference. He announced that the amendments will touch on Hungary’s territory, its population (népesség), populace/population (lakosság), the structure of the state (állami berendezkedés), and the form of government (államforma). This sounds outright frightening. Let’s start with the most intriguing one: the form of government. Surely, Trócsányi is not thinking of calling back the Habsburgs or returning to the “free electors” active between the two world wars, so I don’t know what he has in mind. Changing the structure of the state is equally worrisome. Will they introduce a presidential form of government with Viktor Orbán at its head? And what on earth can it mean that the amendments will touch on the territory of Hungary? Are they planning to move a few rivers to make the country bigger, because surely they cannot contemplate renegotiating the Treaty of Trianon. Finally, I have no idea what the difference is between “népesség” and “lakosság.”

We can expect turbulent times in Hungary, that’s for sure. I also wonder what Brussels will think of the latest brainstorm of Viktor Orbán and his team.

October 6, 2016

Plans for a system of Fidesz party courts?

The tightening political stranglehold of the Fidesz government on Hungarian institutions and society in general leads many people to the conclusion that this regime cannot be defeated in a democratic election. Even if the opposition were united, the whole system has been so devilishly designed that one cannot escape its deadly embrace. But occasionally there are rays of hope. Here and there the Hungarian judicial system hands down decisions that allow opposition politicians and independent journalists to at least uncover some illegal financial transactions, shady business practices, or obvious corruption cases. These revelations rarely gain traction because Fidesz’s very own prosecution office makes sure that there will be no consequences. Still, the publicity surrounding these cases greatly annoys the powers that be. And so they decided to do something to remedy the situation.

One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a total reorganization of the judiciary system, about which I wrote extensively in 2011 and after. In April 2011 the government lowered the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, a decision that affected about 10% of all judges. These vacant positions could then be filled with judges who would presumably be grateful to the government that assisted in their promotion. Then, by renaming the Supreme Court Kúria, they managed to get rid of the chief justice and replace him with one of their own. Finally, they set up an entirely new body called Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH) whose head, appointed for nine years, is Tünde Handó, a good friend of the Orbáns and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of Fidesz. She alone decides on appointments and also on the venues of “delicate” cases against former politicians or government officials.

Yet it seems that Orbán didn’t do a thorough enough job. The remaining judges are not all puppets, and occasionally they rule against the government. For example, when the Hungarian National Bank had to hand over all the information about the expenditures of the five or six “foundations” György Matolcsy established. Or, when the court ruled against the government for not allowing Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to bid on government projects. Such interference in the affairs of the government is something Orbán cannot tolerate.

So, here is a new idea: to set up an entirely separate judicial system that would deal exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. Not that there were no judges who specialized in such cases. In fact, in 2013 special courts were set up to handle labor disputes and cases brought against the government or one of its related institutions. But these courts were part of the traditional court system.

What makes this new “reform” especially suspect is that, according to current plans, half of the “judges” would be “instant judges” who have at least ten years of experience in public service. Most real judges, after working for years in the judicial system, have been socialized as independent arbiters responsible only to their own consciences. On the other hand, a civil servant is by definition an obedient employee who is anything but an independent actor. The two mindsets can hardly be reconciled.

As you can imagine, the reaction was one of outrage. When the question of political motive was raised at János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference, he naturally denied it and added that Tünde Handó’s OBH supports the idea. Not so. A day later 444.hu summarized a 32-page letter written by Handó in which she severely criticized the idea of setting up a separate court system for administrative cases.

As 444.hu pointed out, Handó cannot be accused of being overly critical of the Orbán government, which she has faithfully served for the last six years. Yet she seems to have sensed the political intent behind the move when she noted that “especially important economic and political cases” will end up in these courts. She announced that “there is no need to set up a separate administrative judicial system” with its own high court. She considers “the large number of professionals coming from the executive branch” to be a threat to the independence of the judiciary. In fact, Handó sees constitutional problems with the proposed legislation. Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, expressed the same objection, though a bit more forcefully. He compared these new administrative courts to a case in which “the accused could pick the members of the jury from among his family members.” I think this is an apt description of the situation.

László Trócsányi, minister of justice since 2014, is leading the government’s fight for a separate administrative court system. In an interview with Népszabadság, he insisted that setting up such a system has been in the works ever since 2014 when he became minister. He and his ministry have been working on this system for the last two years, a claim that, if true, would undermine the position that the government decided to act as a result of the embarrassing setbacks it suffered at the hands of regular judges. Considering that the administration wants to introduce the new system only in the spring of 2018, I suspect that Trócsányi is not telling the truth. If he and his ministry had been working on the project for the last two years, it’s unlikely that the government would need another year and a half to launch it. He also tried to lull suspicions that most of the 100 judges who work on cases involving the administration would be fired by saying that they would remain. Eighty people will be added to their ranks. Since the government wants half of the judges to come from the civil service, I assume all 80 will be “instant judges” whose job will be to save the government from further embarrassments.

Trocsanyi2

Trócsányi’s interview with Népszabadság took place on September 2, and by now I see a slight change in his attitude. He is no longer as combative as he was four days ago. Today, talking to Inforádió, a conservative radio station specializing in politics, he kept repeating that it is not important to set up these courts as soon as possible. What is important is that “thinking begins about administrative procedure.” There can be discussions about the details, like structural solutions, but “as long as he is the minister he will not allow any backtracking on the control over the administration,” a statement that sounds ominous even if it’s not very clear.

To change the law Fidesz needs the support of two-thirds of the members of parliament. The government indicated that it would like to talk matters over with the leaders of the five parliamentary parties: Fidesz, KDNP (Christian Democrats), Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. MSZP already indicated that they will not attend the meeting. Jobbik and LMP will be there, but they refuse to support the bill in its present form. Let’s hope they remain steadfast through all the bill’s eventual iterations. Otherwise they will endorse a Fidesz judiciary system designed to cover up the government’s criminal activities.

September 6, 2016

U.S. Undersecretary Sarah Sewall in Hungary

Sarah Sewall, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, paid a visit to Hungary at the end of May. As one of the Hungarian papers noted, she was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Hungary since the summer of 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a quick trip to Hungary.

Before Sewall was appointed to this post in February 2014, she taught at the Kennedy School and at the Naval War College. She served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration. She is a graduate of Harvard College and as a Rhodes scholar got her Ph.D. at Oxford.

Sewall’s name should be familiar to those who follow U.S.-Hungarian relations because, for about a week at the end of 2014, Hungarian papers gave her extensive coverage. The reason was a speech she delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In it she announced that the U.S. government had set aside $100 million to combat corruption in Central and East European countries because “corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism.” Therefore, helping these countries fight corruption is in the interest of the United States. The Hungarian reaction to her speech was antagonistic. Viktor Orbán interpreted the U.S. “action plan” as a hostile act by which the United States had declared Hungary to be a “field of operation.”

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Sewall’s visit to Hungary was a first for the undersecretary. She met with government officials, opposition leaders, journalists, and judges. She delivered a speech at the Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ), which was described by the English-language government propaganda publication Hungary Today as thinly-veiled criticism of the Hungarian government. Magyar Idők sent a journalist to the event, but his summary of the speech was brief and greatly toned down.

Since the speech is available online, it is not necessary to summarize it at length, but here are a few snippets. Sewall emphasized that democracy must be defended “not only against threats from without, but also inevitable pressures from within.” Or, “we have seen how demagogues can exploit difficult moments for political gain by playing to our worst human impulses and targeting the constitutional rights and institutions designed to limit the power of those impulses.” Or, “We all know that, at times, democratic majorities can stray from democratic values. By upholding individual rights, however, democracies protect the few from the abuse of the many, and empower them to challenge majority views that conflict with democratic values.” Or, “as undemocratic forces seek to consolidate power and escape accountability, they often target independent media and other checks and balances.” Or, “They also use corruption to corrode the rule of law and buy off opponents. Or they push through significant changes to laws and the constitution with little or no consultation with citizens and opposition parties.” Surely, anyone who’s familiar with the situation in Hungary will recognize that Sewall was talking about the Orbán government throughout her speech.

Ádám Csillag, the man who without any compensation records all important events staged in defense of Hungarian democracy, also videotaped the speech.

Of course, I quoted only a handful of sentences from Sewall’s speech, but the undersecretary covered issues like free elections, free media, checks and balances, and the need for an independent judiciary. She fielded questions concerning the independence of the Constitutional Court and the electoral law, which cannot be a guarantee of fair elections. Her staff had prepared her well because she even knew that “a Hungarian television station reported that government officials had ‘instructed’ senior managers on which politicians to interview and which topics to cover.” She was talking about the head of HírTV.

We also know quite a bit about what transpired between László Trócsányi, minister of justice, and Sarah Sewall. Magyar Idők summarized the ministry’s side of the story, from which we learn that, in addition to Trócsányi, Gergely Prőhle was also present. Prőhle is one of those diplomats who was dismissed during the summer of 2014 when, during Tibor Navracsics’s brief tenure as foreign minister, the administration got rid of close to 200 diplomats from the ministry and replaced them with political loyalists. Prőhle, as far as I know, for months didn’t know what his fate would be, but eventually Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, created a post for him. He is now deputy undersecretary responsible for international and European Union affairs. What that means in a ministry dealing with education, healthcare, sports, and Roma affairs I wouldn’t know. It seems, however, that whenever the Orbán government wants to produce “a moderate face” for foreign consumption, they drag out Prőhle.

Even from Magyar Idők’s summary it is clear that Sewall brought up uncomfortable questions about the state of constitutional guarantees. Trócsányi assured her that all disputed questions had been settled during the second Orbán government and even Hungary’s “European partners” consider the case closed. The minister gave a lecture to Sewall on the new Hungarian constitution and the institutions that safeguard basic rights. As for questions concerning the freedom of the media, Hungary settled all those issues with the European Council and the Council of Europe. The last sentence of the communiqué stated that “the two sides agreed that Hungarian-American relations are very extensive and they are solid foundations for further cooperation which both sides find important. There was also consensus about the necessity of a dialogue in the spirit of alliances.”

Sewall’s own report on the meeting wasn’t that upbeat. She described the meeting to Magyar Nemzet as “an honest and occasionally tough talk.” Both sides had an opportunity to explain their positions, but “there are many points where the Hungarian and the American positions differ.” After probing for specifics, Sewall brought up the legal changes introduced in the last few years. She also expressed her dismay over the conspiracy theories the Hungarian government concocts. She specifically objected to János Lázár’s accusation that President Barack Obama wants to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants.

I often comment on the inordinate number of articles that can appear on Hungarian-language internet sites in response to certain events. Literally hundreds in a day or two. On Sarah Sewall’s hard-hitting speech, however, I found only a handful. Few reporters showed up at her speech in the headquarters of the Hungarian Journalists’ Association. To my great surprise, HVG  didn’t send anyone to cover the story. The short article they published was based on reports by Origo and Népszabadság. As for the parties, Fidesz reprinted the ministry of justice’s communiqué but MSZP didn’t consider Sewall’s visit important enough to mention. The only party that issued a statement of its own was the Demokratikus Koalicíó (DK). Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign affairs cabinet, gave it a witty title: “The United States sent a message that Orbán would also understand.” It is a takeoff on the latest mega-poster of the government that encourages Hungarians to vote in the forthcoming referendum on “compulsory quotas.” The poster reads: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so they would understand.”

A footnote to this story. Right beside Ambassador Bell was an invited guest: János Martonyi, former foreign minister of Viktor Orbán. I would love to know why American diplomats feel compelled to invite him to all functions in which there is an American presence. Why do they think that he, unlike other members of present and past administrations of Viktor Orbán, is a perfect democrat? All told, this man served under Viktor Orbán for eight years and served him loyally. I have never heard him express any misgivings about the direction in which Viktor Orbán was taking the country. He defended him at every turn. Yet, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats run the United States there is János Martonyi, everybody’s favorite. If I just knew why.

 June 2, 2016

The case of the Bálint Hóman statue from a different angle

You may find it strange that I am starting a post about the controversial statue of an anti-Semitic minister of education and culture, Bálint Hóman, with a quotation from an opinion piece on Viktor Orbán in a recent issue of politico.hu, but I hope that by the end of this article I will be able to justify this choice. Here are the crucial sentences in which the author, Luke Walker, explains why the European Union tolerates Viktor Orbán’s behavior:

Once a critic of most things Russian, Orbán embraces Putin and seeks to secure Russian energy supplies for Hungary, even as he signs off on EU sanctions against Moscow. Many Hungarians say, in hushed tones, that Orbán is better than the alternative: Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic far-right party that has a fifth of the vote [sic]. One imagines that Brussels agrees.

Those Hungarians who whispered their opinions into Walker’s ears are sadly mistaken in their belief that supporting Viktor Orbán will stave off the ascent of the worse alternative, Jobbik. And if the politicians of the European Union fall for this Fidesz propaganda they deserve what they get. Because as this Bálint Hóman statue controversy clearly indicates, Jobbik and Fidesz work hand in hand. To support Fidesz is to support the main tenets of Jobbik’s platform.

I’ve already written two posts on Bálint Hóman, one in May and another in August. The first one was published when a Hungarian court rehabilitated Hóman, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1946 for taking part in the cabinet meeting that gave its blessing to the declaration of war on the Soviet Union. The second was written when it became known that the city of Székesfehérvár was planning to erect a statue of Hóman in Hungarian gala-dress (díszmagyar) in front of a gymnasium on, of all places, Béla Bartók tér.  The anti-German Bartók left Hungary in 1940 when the strongly pro-German Hóman was still minister of education. In both posts it was Hóman’s anti-Semitism that was the center of attention, as it still is.

Ever since domestic and international Jewish organizations got wind of the impending erection of the statue protest followed protest. Just lately Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, “called on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to intervene in this matter and to ensure that this statue is not built with public funds.” A couple of days later the co-chairs of the U.S. House Bipartisan Taskforce for Combatting Anti-Semitism sent a letter to Viktor Orbán protesting the monument. In Hungary, conferences were organized where historians explained yet again why Hóman doesn’t deserve a statue, and last night a small group of people gathered in Székesfehérvár to protest. Meanwhile, work has begun on the pedestal. The statue is supposed to be erected by the 130th anniversary of Hóman’s birthday, which is December 29.

I don’t think I can add anything new to the subject of Hóman’s anti-Semitism. I have already covered what historians know to date about his political career. Instead, today I would like to take a couple of steps back and look at the issue from a different perspective.

Who came up with the idea of a Hóman statue in the first place?  In 2011 a local Jobbik politician, Gábor Kováts, obviously a great admirer of Bálint Hóman, decided to establish the Bálint Hóman Cultural Foundation. On the board of the foundation was Mrs. Marth, née Krisztina Vida, who in 2010 was Jobbik’s parliamentary candidate in Székesfehérvár. According to an article that appeared on kettosmerce.blog.hu, Kováts’s Facebook profile includes the number 88, the normal code for Heil Hitler. By now, gone with the wind.

From the beginning, the Hóman Cultural Foundation was supported by such Fidesz organizations as the Hungarian Academy of Arts led by György Fekete which, thanks to Viktor Orbán’s special favor, was given equal standing with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the new constitution of Hungary.  In 2012 the foundation received 1.5 million forints for a conference and a poetry competition. In 2013 it received, also from the Hungarian Academy of Arts, 2 million forints to organize a “poetry camp” in Szekler country in Romania. Kettősmérce has been unable to discover where the roughly 5 million forints came from in 2013 and 2014. It is also a mystery how many employees the foundation has, whose “personal expenses” last year were over 2.5 million forints.

András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár

András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár

In 2013 another conference was held on Bálint Hóman, which was opened by András Cser-Palkovics, Fidesz mayor of Székesfehérvár. According to him, during the years of socialism “they concealed the real history of the city,” a bizarre claim because the authorities didn’t prevent historians from writing local histories during the Kádár regime.

Obviously, the far-right Hóman Foundation and the Fidesz leadership of the city get along splendidly. In fact, it was the foundation that came up with the idea of a statue for Hóman back in 2011. At that time, however, Hóman was still considered to be a war criminal, and thus Cser-Palkovics couldn’t possibly embark on such a project. But then came May 2015 when Hóman was rehabilitated. The doors were opened for the foundation to realize its cherished dream, and the Fidesz majority with the one Jobbik member of the city council happily voted for the statue.

Normally one cannot extrapolate from local politics, where party affiliations are often not so sharply delineated as on the national level. But the Hóman case highlights the close ties between Jobbik and Fidesz on the national level. Otherwise, it couldn’t have happened that the Hóman Foundation received 15 million forints for the statue from the Ministry of Justice in addition to the 2 million that was given to them by the city.

There is a puzzling aspect to the grant from the Ministry of Justice. Although the rehabilitation of Hóman didn’t take place until May of 2015, the grant had already been awarded to the Bálint Hóman Cultural Foundation sometime prior to June 6, 2014 because, according to the current minister of justice, László Trócsányi, the foundation received the money for the statue during Tibor Navracsics’s tenure. This is the same Navracisics who was allegedly “exiled” to Brussels for his moderate political views. Indeed, in Brussels he tried his very best to convince members of the European Parliament that he agreed with practically nothing the Orbán government had done between 2010 and 2014. And yet this “moderate” man gave 15 million forints to Gábor Kováts’s Hóman Foundation. Surely, even if most people in Székesfehérvár have no idea of who Hóman was, Navracsics certainly does.

Tibor Navracsics, sweating it in Brussels at his hearing

Tibor Navracsics, sweating it in Brussels at his hearing

Currently three cabinet members–János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Trócsányi–are against the erection of the statue, but surely it will go up. This hideous statue is in the corner of some studio, waiting to be installed in late December. But if these three important members of the cabinet are against the statue, who is insisting on it? It can be only one person, Viktor Orbán, who seems to follow in the footsteps of Jobbik in practically everything. And his strategy is working. Fidesz’s popularity is growing and Jobbik’s is the lowest it has been since 2010. Yielding to domestic and foreign pressure and nixing the statue would show him to be weak, which might result in some Jobbik sympathizers leaving the fold.

Let me repeat: there is no appreciable difference between the two parties, and Fidesz is the more dangerous because it is the party in power. The real enemy is not Jobbik but Fidesz. The dangerous man is not Gábor Vona but Viktor Orbán. Dangerous for his own people and dangerous for Europe.

Hungarian fantasies about a radical Roma community allied to Islamic extremists

A friend sent me dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day,” which she found amusing. It is “kakistocracy,” meaning “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.” The first two syllables don’t have anything to do with the Hungarian word with which we are familiar but with the Greek word “kakistos,” which means “worst.” This word couldn’t have arrived on a better day since I had just decided to write about the Orbán government’s illustrious minister of justice, László Trócsányi, and his faux pas at a conference on the dangers of extremism and their possible remedies.

And while I am on the subject of words, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian and lover of language, also wrote today about another “misunderstood” statement by a government official. The official happened to be the same Trócsányi, who said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Linguistic carelessness has been plaguing Hungarian political life ever since 1990, Kálmán suggested. It would be time to learn to speak more precisely.

So, what was Trócsányi’s faux pas? On October 19 Nikolaj Nielsen of euobserver.com reported on a conference in Brussels at which “Hungary’s minister of justice Laszlo Trocsanyi … said there is a risk Roma could end up in Syria as foreign fighters alongside jihadist or other radical groups.” It turned out that Trócsányi didn’t say what Nielsen attributed to him but, given the context in which his two-minute contribution was uttered, one could infer such a meaning from his words.

Let’s see what Trócsányi actually said. He emphasized that, unlike in Western European countries, in Hungary there are no would-be terrorists who are ready to go to Syria and fight on the side of ISIS. However, Hungary is a “transit country” through which radical Muslims would travel to catch a plane to Istanbul on their way to Syria. And he continued:

I would like to call attention to another aspect of the problem which we haven’t talked about up to now. Radicalism can reach other groups as well. In Europe there are 10-12 million Roma. During Hungary’s presidency we paid a lot of attention to Roma strategy. We believe that this is a very important task. [We are dealing with] a community of 12 million in Europe who lag behind [leszakadt] and whose integration is very important because they can be the victims of radicalization. I would really hope that the European Commission would pay special attention to the Roma integration program.

Trócsányi didn’t conjure up the image of Roma going to Syria to fight, but he made the mistake of indicating that they may join extremist groups. And because the whole conference was about Islamic radicalism, it was easy to draw the conclusion that Trócsányi envisages a time when European Roma might join jihadists to fight against the infidel.

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

Trócsányi also spoke to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, right after the meeting. What did he consider to be the most important topics of the conference? “There was a discussion about foreign nationals who fight alongside the Islamic State. We touched on online recruiting activities on behalf of the Islamic State.” It was right after these discussions that Trócsányi rose and talked about the radicalization of the Roma. It’s no wonder that Nielsen drew the conclusion that, in Trócsányi’s mind, there was a danger that European Roma would join the jihad fighters in Syria.

The reporter’s impression was further reinforced when he talked to the spokesman for the office of Hungary’s permanent representative in Brussels. The reporter was obviously so struck by what he heard that he wanted confirmation of Trócsányi’s message. When Nielsen asked the spokesman why Roman Catholic Roma would choose to fight alongside radical jihadist groups in Syria, the spokesman said “it is because they are a deprived people and they are usually more exposed to radical views.” The spokesman added that the minister’s position “was just a hypothesis” that “had not been fully explored.” So, the spokesman reinforced the reporter’s initial inkling of a connection between the two topics.

Realizing the adverse reaction abroad as well as at home to Trócsányi’s linking the Roma community to Islamic extremism, both the government and the party have been trying to minimize the effects of Trócsányi’s ad hoc, unnecessary introduction of the topic. They called Nielsen’s description of his remarks an outright lie. A reporter for the pro-government Válasz offered perhaps the most imaginative interpretation of Trócsányi’s statement. “Trócsányi might have been thinking that one day a Malcolm X type of character will be born in the Roma community who could take them along the road of radicalization. However, luckily there is no sign of such a development, and such a supposition is not at all timely. Let’s not talk of the devil, especially when government officials should know that, whatever they say, our foreign adversaries will misinterpret them.”

The explanation of the spokesman at the Hungarian permanent representative’s office in Brussels, however, indicates to me that the topic is not new in government circles. The idea didn’t just pop into Trócsányi’s head. The linkage of Hungary’s Roma population to the current refugee crisis began in May when Trócsányi in an interview with Inforádió explained that the reason for Hungary’s refusal to accept any “economic migrants” is that the country is burdened by the integration of 800,000 Gypsies. The Roma theme also emerged in early September in Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors, where out of the blue he came up with a reference to Hungary’s Roma population. Hungary’s historical lot is to live together with hundreds of thousands of Gypsies. “Someone sometime decided that it would be that way … but Hungary doesn’t ask other countries in Europe to take Hungarian Gypsies.”

As for Hungarian Gypsies sympathizing with Muslim extremists, let me tell a funny story. Somewhere near Nagymágocs, not terribly far from the Serbian border, a group of public workers, mostly Roma, noticed that a few people were hiding in a cornfield. They got scared: these people must be migrants. One of the public workers reported their presence to the police, who told them to get on their bicycles and pedal as fast as they can. Halfway home they encountered a policeman who wanted to arrest one of the Roma in the group, thinking he was a migrant. Meanwhile it turned out that the other “suspicious” group, whose members were bopping in and out of the cornfield, were not migrants either: they were surveyors. So much for the burgeoning friendship between the Roma and Muslim extremists.

Indeed, “kakistocracy” is at work. C. György Kálmán’s suggestion to government officials to improve their language skills is not enough. One needs some brainpower as well, and that seems to be lacking in most of Viktor Orbán’s underlings.