Tag Archives: Márton Gulyás

George Soros, the omnipotent bogeyman: the focus of Fidesz’s electoral campaign

Fidesz’s framework for its electoral strategy is slowly taking shape. There seem to be two interconnected strands. One propaganda offensive suggests that outside forces are fomenting a revolutionary uprising against the Orbán government. The second concentrates on the “Soros Plan” that is being executed by the European Union. Fidesz’s task in the next few months is to uncover the conspiracy which is brewing against the government and at the same time to save the country from the dreadful fate that awaits it as a result of the European Union’s evil plans. Of course, George Soros is behind both the attempt to physically remove Viktor Orbán’s government and the potential flood of illegal migrants forced upon the country by the European Union. If Fidesz doesn’t win, disaster awaits the Hungarian people. The stakes are as high as they were in 1990. It is a matter of life or death. Everything that was achieved will be lost if Hungarians make the wrong choice.

As far as I can see, this electoral strategy has been in the making for some time. A couple of months ago I wrote a post titled “What’s the new Fidesz game plan?” in which I outlined the first strand of this strategy, pointing out that starting in the early summer Fidesz politicians were talking about a coalition that will be forged by the Hungarian opposition and the Soros NGOs. They will organize disturbances on the streets of Budapest. “They will try to create an atmosphere filled with civil-war psychosis,” as László Kövér, president of parliament, put it in one of his speeches.

At this point, government politicians were unable to point the finger at specific “members of the Soros network” who will be responsible for these disturbances, but now they have begun to identify its members. Szilárd Németh named three civil activists: Márton Gulyás, who started the Közös Ország Mozgalom to change the current unfair electoral system; Árpád Schilling, a theater director and the founder of Krétakör Színház (Chalk Circle Theater); and Gábor Vágó, a former LMP member of parliament between 2010 and 2014. How did these three names surface?

Source: Index.hu

It all started with claims put forth by Antal Rogán, the propaganda minister, who at Fidesz’s Kötcse picnic in early September brought up the possibility of violence on the streets of Budapest organized by “foreign forces.” The opposition parties, usually slow on the uptake, were urged by analysts to call on Rogán. Charging that foreign forces are behind an attempt to overthrow the government is a serious matter. Surely, Rogán as a responsible member of the government must have proof of such interference. Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, saw the light and called the committee together, asking Rogán to attend. The meeting took place two days ago. As could have been predicted, Rogán didn’t show up.

As we learned later, officials of the national security forces knew nothing about any mysterious forces behind the alleged revolutionary leaders who are contemplating the overthrow of the Orbán government. At least this is what the socialist chairman and the LMP and Jobbik members of the committee said.

On the other hand, the Fidesz vice chairman, Szilárd Németh, reported that “according to the Hungarian national security services, organizations and individuals financed from abroad pose a very serious risk” to the security of the country. He specifically mentioned Árpád Schilling and Márton Gulyás, who “openly talk about marching on the streets and organizing sit-down strikes if they cannot have their way.” Ádám Mirkóczki, a Jobbik member of the committee, said that “it seems that Szilárd Németh was attending a different meeting.”

This would not be the first time that Németh makes up stories to further Fidesz’s program. The next day government papers were full of Németh’s bogus story about “the serious risk subversive civilians pose.” On the same day Lajos Kósa, who was the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation until today, gave an interview in which he specifically mentioned Gábor Vágó, “an opposition activist,” who allegedly called for illegal and aggressive acts against the government. While he was at it, he described certain opposition members of parliament as “the men of Soros.”

A day after Németh’s press conference Bernadett Szél, the LMP member of the committee, pressed charges against the Fidesz politician on the grounds that he revealed the identity of people whose names were mentioned in a closed session of the committee.

Since Németh’s falsification of what transpired at the committee meeting didn’t get much traction, the Fidesz propaganda machine came up with a new angle. Magyar Idők learned that the Független Diákparlament (Independent Student Parliament) is organizing a demonstration in support of Central European University. What follows is rather fuzzy. Apparently, Árpád Schilling, one of the people Németh referred to, is a supporter of this student movement. Therefore, concludes the paper, “it seems that the Soros network will start its fall disturbances on the backs of the students.”

As for the “Soros Plan,” the new name is a way of personifying the evil scheme of the European Union, which would threaten the future of Europe. The most important task is to fight against this plan by all possible means. The struggle against it will be the most important ingredient of the election campaign. Therefore, “the Fidesz parliamentary delegation is asking the government to hold a national consultation about the Soros Plan.” Holding such a national consultation is especially important since the European Court of Justice’s verdict “opened the door to the execution of the Soros Plan,” which includes the arrival of one million migrants every year from here on.

The anti-Soros campaign must have been deemed a resounding success, and therefore the decision was made to continue it. A lot of observers, including me, think that the Orbán government has gone too far already with its Soros-bashing, but obviously we are mistaken because I can’t imagine that Orbán would embark on another anti-Soros campaign without proper research on the effectiveness of his past efforts in that direction. In fact, it looks as if Orbán decided that fighting against George Soros’s alleged agenda will be his party’s key campaign theme, which he apparently outlined in a speech to the members of the parliamentary caucus in a three-day pow wow of the Fidesz MEPs and important party leaders. Hard to fathom and it sounds crazy, but unfortunately that’s Hungarian reality.

September 14, 2017

A minor miracle: nine parties support Márton Gulyás’s electoral reform plan

Yesterday’s post turned out to be quite controversial. It reported on a poll that showed what we have suspected for some time: that Hungarians who were born in the country and who currently live and work there resent the generous financial support given by the Orbán government to Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries. Moreover, Hungarians know that their tax money that goes abroad is intended primarily to gather votes for Fidesz, the party of choice in those countries. The majority of the inhabitants of Hungary proper strongly oppose the current practice of bestowing voting rights on those Hungarian speakers in the neighboring countries who become dual citizens. I added my own personal agreement to that general sentiment.

During the resultant discussion it turned out that many of the commenters are not familiar with details of the electoral law as it applies to citizens living abroad. I suggest that readers take a look at a November 2013 post of mine called “Inequality of the Hungarian electoral law.”

Since we had such a brisk debate on this aspect of the electoral law, we might as well talk about another angle of it, its gross disproportionality. There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments, tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t have been able to form a government on its own.

In March of this year, Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. In his opinion, an alliance of all left-of-center parties is neither realistic nor is it an effective way to ensure victory. Fidesz naturally would oppose any change to the present electoral system. In that case, all the other parties should refuse to participate in the election. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore will have to negotiate with the other parties.

Haraszti’s idea was widely debated in intellectual circles. In May it got a boost when at a demonstration Márton Gulyás, a civil activist, called for a political movement whose goal would be to change the unfair electoral system. As usual, there were many who argued that, in the current political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority that would enable the new government to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. However, given the current state of the Hungarian opposition, the likelihood of such a development is unlikely. The left-of-center parties show no inclination to gather under the leadership of MSZP’s László Botka. Perhaps the growing recognition of this fact induced these parties to line up behind Márton Gulyás’s new movement, Közös Ország Mozgalom/Common Country Movement (KOM).

After the initial announcement of Gulyás’s political movement in May, there were weeks of silence. To tell you the truth, I thought that the whole program had died even before it was launched. But on August 7 the newly revived zoom.hu reported that Gulyás’s movement will make its debut on August 20. Zoom.hu learned that most of the opposition parties indicated that they would support Gulyás’s movement. “If all these parties sign the document, we will be witnessing a minor miracle.” The internet site seemed to know that Jobbik had not yet made a decision. In any case, on August 18 Alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official internet news site, published an intriguing article on the subject titled “There will be no political cooperation with the left but the electoral system must be changed.” The article quoted Jobbik PM Dóra Dúró’s personal opinion, posted on Facebook, which harshly condemned the leftist parties that “ruined the country” and declared opposition to any cooperation them. In the body of the Alfahir.hu article there was not a word about “the electoral system [that] must be changed.” These words appeared only in the title. However, if I read this article correctly, Duró’s words might not be the final ones on the subject. Her weight within the party has greatly diminished since the demotion of her husband, Előd Novák.

Well, it seems that the minor miracle did happen. Nine parties support the movement, including such stalwart “go-it-alone” parties as LMP and Momentum. The two larger rivals, MSZP and DK, managed to find common ground. This is indeed an accomplishment, and most likely it happened only because the initiator of the movement is a civil activist, an outsider in a way. The nine parties that signed up are MSZP, DK, LMP, MoMa, Együtt, Párbeszéd, the Liberals, the Two-tailed Dog Party, and Momentum. Negotiations with Jobbik are still in progress. As a spokeswomen of KOM stated, “the representatives of [Jobbik] might participate in the discussions that begin on September 4.” These discussions will take place in the open, in a temporary structure called Agora on Alkotmány (Constitution) utca, where topics related to the electoral law will be discussed continuously. I guess the hope is that during these discussions ideas regarding the final shape of a new electoral law will emerge. Otherwise, Gulyás gave Fidesz a deadline of October 23 to respond. If Viktor Orbán refuses to negotiate, the activists will begin a program of civil disobedience.

How can this be a country of all?

Does this movement offer any hope? What worries most people is the lack of a specific proposal for the kind of electoral system they would like to be adopted. What do they mean by a proportionate election law? But perhaps open discussion could ignite some public enthusiasm for change. We know that the majority of Hungarians don’t want to see another four years of Fidesz rule, but they have been discouraged and dispirited by the lack of resolve on the part of the opposition parties. Perhaps the very fact that nine parties or perhaps even ten could stand behind a political cause might give them some hope that Fidesz’s stranglehold on the Hungarian political system can be broken. We will just have to see.

As for Fidesz’s reaction, it is too early to say. For the time being, at least on the surface, the party leaders seem utterly unconcerned. We know, however, that the national security forces have been keeping a watchful eye on Márton Gulyás and his camps, which are supposed to prepare his followers for the force activists may face if they carry out peaceful resistance. We have also heard often enough about the “hot fall” that is coming, when enemies of Hungary will try to overthrow the government. So, obviously there is some concern on the part of the powers-that-be.

Fidesz was undoubtedly prepared for the launch of the movement, but what might have come as a shock was that there seems to be a united front behind it. At the moment only one short editorial appeared in Magyar Idők today. It makes fun of the people, nine men and nine women, representing the nine parties, on the video released by the movement. The journalist mocks their personal appearance and their alleged political gravitas, which he suggests is feather light. He tries to minimize the problem of the disproportionality of the Hungarian law and accuses them of “ignoring the unfairness of the French electoral system.” He asks them whether they plan to stand behind the “unrealizable brainstorming” of Momentum’s program on electoral reform. “Don’t miss it! Every word of it, every picture-frame of it, worth its weight in gold. And imagine what would happen if they governed the country. It’s better not to find out.” I guess the rest of the pro-government press is waiting for Viktor Orbán to return from Croatia, where he is spending his vacation.

August 21, 2017

Hate campaigns and their consequences

President János Áder, who had been reelected for another five-year term already in March, delivered his inaugural address on May 8. If we can believe him, his original intent was to talk about all the work that still lies ahead for the nation. “Looking at the political discourse of the past months,” however, he came to the conclusion that “if things go on like this, we will destroy everything we have managed to build together since 1990. We question everything. We completely disregard every—even tacit—agreement we have made. We go beyond all limits.” So, what is the remedy? According to Áder, the simple answer is “reconciliation.”

In his speech I found only two sentences that deserve closer scrutiny. One was a Ferenc Deák quotation, the third in the short speech, which can be construed as a criticism of the governance of the Orbán government. Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown, warned that “Hungary should not be loved with inciting thoughts unsettling it, but with a series of everyday, useful deeds that promote prosperity.” The second sentence came from the section on the quality of public discourse, which has deteriorated dramatically over the years. “I don’t want to dwell on responsibilities and on who is to blame. However, political numbers and majority status dictate that the responsibility of government parties is greater,” Áder admitted.

Skeptics are certain that Áder’s words were approved by Viktor Orbán himself, who needs to cool the overheated political atmosphere. Others, like György Csepeli, a social psychologist, consider the speech a perfect example of hypocrisy. After all, Áder signed the bill that threatens the very existence of Central European University, which added fuel to the fire, but the same man now wants a world in which people of different political persuasions live in harmony. If I may add another observation. Áder admits that the larger share of the responsibility falls on Fidesz, but simply because it is the governing party with a large majority. He is wrong. The reason for this state of affairs is not political arithmetic but the militaristic style of Fidesz, which leads to both verbal and physical violence. There was a time when Áder himself, as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, practiced the same kind of verbal coercion he now decries.

Zsolt Bayer, about whom I have written 13 posts since the beginning of 2011, is certainly not helping to tone down Hungarian political discourse. Bayer, one of the founding members of Fidesz who still has the full support of Viktor Orbán and his party, is notorious for his anti-Semitism and his vile writing. This time he ranted about the handful of NGO leaders who appeared at a parliamentary hearing to silently protest a pending bill that would discriminate against those NGOs that receive financial aid from abroad. When asked his opinion of their silent demonstration, Bayer said: “If people like this show up in the parliament building again and disrupt their work, then they need to be thrown out like shitting cats. If they need to be pulled out through their snot and blood, then they should be pulled out through their snot and blood….Their faces should be beaten to smithereens, if need be.”

The objects of Zsolt Bayer’s ire

As György Balavány, a conservative journalist, pointed out, Bayer is not a lone overly active pitbull. “He is the voice of the party” which, despite all pro-government opinion polls, is afraid. Facing widespread opposition, the Orbán government has “no other strategy than the intimidation of the public and the incitement of its own followers. Both of them can serve as preliminaries to physical force.” Meanwhile, Fidesz acts as if the increasingly frequent physical encounters simply didn’t exist. Orbán, for example, said that “it is not his job” to comment on claims of that sort. Among those Fidesz members who had an opinion on Bayer’s latest, some found his remarks perfectly acceptable. For example, according to Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi, Bayer didn’t cross the line between free speech and incitement. The spokesman of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation said that Bayer is like that, “and this is how many of us like him.”

At this point TASZ’s two lawyers, who took part in the silent demonstration at the hearing, decided to offer Bayer an opportunity to discuss their differences over a cup of coffee. Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, said she would join them. The naïve souls. First of all, any rational exchange with Bayer is a hopeless task. Worse, TASZ’s invitation was a tactical mistake because Bayer countered, saying he wants to extend the invitation to individuals on the anti-government side who, in his opinion, were either violent or who incited others to violence. Bayer suggested that the following individuals should be invited: Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, the two activists who were stopped from throwing washable orange paint on the president’s office, and two journalists from 24.hu who, according to Bayer, wanted him to hang on the first lamp post. He also thinks a pro-government female journalist should be present, who could tell how frightened she was among the “liberal” and “European” crowd at one of the demonstrations. Perhaps the editor-in-chief of a regional paper could also attend, who said that he is afraid that Orbán can be disposed of only in the way the Romanians managed to get rid of Ceaușescu. “If you think that I will take responsibility for the current state of public discourse alone, then you are mistaken.” Since then, others have indicated that they will attend and suggested more people who have been verbally abused by Bayer. One of these people was András Hont of HVG, who responded on Facebook: “Thank you, but I don’t want any coffee.”

Meanwhile fear and hatred have reached dangerous proportions in the country. The following incident in the heart of Budapest tells a lot about the impact of the government’s hate campaign against the European Union and the migrants. An employee of a pizza parlor on Kálvin tér, a bona fide Hungarian, thinking that one of his customers was a tourist, addressed the man in English. In turn, the customer called him a “filthy migrant.” And he kept yelling that Hungary belongs to the Hungarians and that he is not a tourist in his own country. He called the waiter “a cockroach.” When a young woman asked him to stop insulting the waiter who mistook him for a tourist, he hit the woman on the head, knocked her glasses off, and called her a stupid woman whose brain is filled with urine. Her bitter reaction after the incident was: “Long live the politics of hate, the brainwashing, and the incitement.”

Szilárd Németh, the embodiment of Fidesz primitiveness who is a deputy to Viktor Orbán, when asked about the incident, expressed his belief that the whole thing was nothing more than a “damned provocation” because anything can happen here “since George Soros set foot in this country and his provocateurs do what he tells them to do.” He added that this kind of incident has absolutely nothing to do with the Orbán government’s communication tactics because the government has never attacked the migrants. It has only defended Hungary and Europe. Poor Hungary, poor Europe.

May 14, 2017

Closing statements of activists Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga

The following article and translation of the closing statements of Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, two arrested activists, originally appeared in the Budapest Sentinel. It is reprinted here with the permission of the news site’s editorial staff.

♦ ♦ ♦

The following are the closing statements made by Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga at their trial on Thursday of April 13th, 2017.  The civil activists were arrested Monday night for throwing open bottles of orange paint at the Sándor Palace, the official residence and office of the President of Hungary, János Áder.

Earlier that day President Áder had signed the modified law on higher education adopted the previous week by the Fidesz-controlled parliament with virtually no debate, ignoring the advice of numerous constitutional experts and the wishes of some 70,000 demonstrators who had taken to the streets of Budapest in protest the previous evening.

“Lex CEU” contains provisions that would essentially force Budapest’s Central European University to close its doors.  The law was widely seen not so much as an attack on American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who founded CEU 25 years ago, but as an attack on academic freedom, prompting thousands to protest before the presidential palace Monday evening.

Gulyás was taken into custody at the demonstration, Varga at his home several hours later.  The two protestors were detained by police for 72 hours pending an accelerated trial ordered by the prosecutors. Charged with conspiring to “breach the peace” and “vandalize a landmark building” the two faced up to three years imprisonment if convicted.

Gulyás and Varga were sentenced to 300 and 200 hours of public work, respectively.  The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union called the verdict “absurd.”

Márton Gulyás

I’ll be brief because everyone is very tired. I would like to thank the members of the press for being here in such large numbers covering my case. Which is obviously not only my case, but without the press far fewer people would know what is happening in this country. I would like to thank my defense counsel for the speech he gave in my defense. Even I could not have said it better. Thank you. And I would also like to thank the prosecution for expressing so succinctly the charges against me, claiming that my actions amounted to disturbing the peace and public order in a defiantly anti-social and violent manner.

And now the court must decide whether this is what, in fact, happened. This is a question of legal interpretation. Though I am not a lawyer, allow me to address this as the question fundamentally is to what extent must the judicial authorities correlate or in some way coincide with society’s general sense of justice.  I am now of the view that it is not a bad thing if some correlation exists between the two. And I must say that in the event my actions really constituted disturbing the peace and public order in a defiant anti-social, violent manner, then I agree with the prosecutor that it is necessary to bring the provisions of criminal law to bear on my action. But in that case I would ask what society should do with its sense of justice which, for many years or even decades, has been continuously violated or when members of society continuously see various groups and individuals who in a provocative, anti-social manner abuse their power and misappropriate public property and other assets entrusted to them. And we can see that in these cases prosecutors never show the kind of proactive behavior that they did in my case.

I would like to emphasize that I am not saying that–in the event the court convicts me–my case can be compared to any other kinds of legal proceedings. That is not what I mean. I regard my case as different from those. I am merely saying that today’s event, and forgive me for the immodesty on my part, but I think that if I am convicted today and given a suspended sentence as proposed by the prosecutor and the court upholds it, it is a verdict on the whole judicial system. What will happen then? Will society’s sense of justice be satisfied with this decision? I dare say, and forgive me for my immodesty, that I don’t think that society’s sense of justice will be restored. It would be nice if it would be. If this sentence were enough to restore society’s sense of justice, then I would head for the Gyorskocsi Street or Markó Street jails and I would promise to stay there for the rest of my life in order for society’s sense of justice to be revived. If this is not going to happen, and I think it is not going to happen, what precedent is the prosecution setting by this judgment? The prosecution, I’ll say it again, that refuses even to investigate the various abuses of criminal organizations.

Representatives of newspapers are sitting here who write about these cases. Today we know about them because there is still a small group of independent journalists who write about the instances of VAT fraud amounting to billions, about the public tenders that are actually deceitful robberies which take place in broad daylight, and we could go on, but I do not want to continue because everybody knows what I’m talking about. People do read the media and learn about these cases.

So, my question is: Is it the court’s intention to prevent such things from happening? I agree with the prosecutors that it is not a good situation when citizens feel compelled to throw bottles of paint as a way of expressing their political opinions. We can agree that it is a bad situation. But will the situation be rectified, and will a dialogue-based, more democratic order result by convicting Gergő Varga and me, or by prosecutors doing their jobs and going after the really serious crimes which today limit the ability of citizens to exercise their basic rights? Those cases should be prosecuted which paralyze this state, paralyze this government, and render the most important public institutions the subject of public ridicule. But instead of ridicule one should feel despair.

So, I ask the court to consider very seriously when it comes to a decision on my case whether a conviction will really satisfy society’s sense of justice or whether a serious investigation by the prosecution of the real offenders will, as I assume, arrest the terrible dissatisfaction which exists among a broad segment of society. Because it is not by accident that 70,000 people take to the streets. You can make people believe on Echo TV, and on M1, even TV2 that the demonstrators were flown in from Prague, because the people have been misled, and obviously European public opinion, even American public opinion, as well as the various Nobel Prize winners and so on and so forth are all misled. You can make people believe this for a short time, but society is not an assembly of stupid people. They know perfectly well that today the power of the state does not serve their interests but propagates its own enrichment and power by robbing the people. And so I very politely ask the court and the prosecutors to rise to the seriousness and loftiness of their authority and kindly initiate the kinds of legal proceedings that will really eliminate what is harming the Hungarian people. That will bring the oppressors and exploiters of the Hungarian people here, where I am standing now. Because unfortunately I am not the one who constitutes a real threat to Hungarian society. The reason I say “unfortunately” is because if the restoration of public opinion really only depended on my case, then, believe me, I would be the happiest person around. But you know perfectly well that this is not the case. Thank you for listening.

Gergő Varga

I am not a lawyer. I would just like to say that I think that in a democracy our rights and freedoms do not exist merely because some etheric force guarantees them or because they are written down in the fundamental law, which in our case changes rather frequently especially considering it was carved in granite. In this way the freedom of speech is only guaranteed if we use it and if we test its limits. It is not free speech if we say it exists but we don’t use it. It’s like saying “you can be furious but don’t be furious.” In such exceptional cases, like the current one, the two of us, in addition to a third phantom demonstrator, felt that we needed to test the limits of free speech because public life has sunken to a level that can no longer be tolerated.

But all right, let’s accept the arguments of the prosecutor that our action was simply a breach of peace and vandalism, as though thousands of other people weren’t there and hundreds of policemen weren’t standing there that day, and as though tens of thousands of hitherto politically inactive protestors and police hadn’t been staring each other in the eye for the past week. The police would rather have gone home to their families to relax, but instead they were afraid that the crowd might attack them. I’m curious whether under such circumstances this was really just a simple breach of peace, or a simple act of vandalism, which to my knowledge does not generally merit locking up people for 72 hours who, for example, scribble “Russians go home” on landmark buildings, or whatever. Such people are not locked up for 72 hours or given an accelerated trial. The fact that prosecutors forcibly detained us has antagonized so many people that there were two sympathy demonstrations on our behalf. There are so many people present at this hearing that perhaps you are in breach of the peace, except that you are a state organization.

So far it has not been allowed to say that this country is a dictatorship. But what if it really is? Then what will we call it? They say that the expression of my political opinion was a breach of the peace. What will we call what comes later? If what we did is a breach of the peace and vandalism, and every other context does not count, then the basic tone of political expression in the future will be a breach of the peace, and everything else will only be worse. I do not mean that people will be afraid, but that if we criminalize the act of speaking out, then what will be next? Next week they will break up a demonstration because loud noise after 10 pm is not permissible? Will we use violence against a community to sentence Roma? Wait a minute, that has already happened. What is happening to this country? If this court convicts me here today, I will bear this proudly. What kinds of people observe laws that are passed against them?

April 15, 2017

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017