Tag Archives: Moscow

“Visa shopping” in Moscow: The case of Szilárd Kiss

A young man phoned György Bolgár’s popular call-in show, “Let’s Talk It Over,” on Klub Rádió this afternoon. He was agitated over the latest public row within the ranks of the fractured opposition. “Don’t they realize that we are in big trouble? Don’t they realize that if they don’t unite, Viktor Orbán will be the ruler of this country for life just like Putin and Erdogan? It’s all very nice that LMP’s Bernadett Szél managed to get some documents out of the government, but what does she achieve with that? These politicians should try to figure out how to get rid of a dictator.”

It was only a little later that I realized that the caller was talking about documents that Szél has been trying to get from the ministry of foreign affairs and trade for almost two years. The documents were the result of an investigation into the wholesaling of Schengen visas to thousands of Russians without any vetting by a man officially employed by the Hungarian government.

When I read the details of this latest government scandal, my first reaction was: “But this is not a new story.” Two years ago I wrote two posts on the villain of this story, Szilárd Kiss, agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, who was able to extract thousands of visas from the Hungarian consulate in the Russian capital for his friends, business partners, and even prostitutes. At the time that I wrote my first post on Kiss, he was being held in pre-trial detention for defrauding a credit union in Hungary. He had been in trouble with the law in Russia earlier.

A lot was known about Kiss already in 2015. We knew that he moved to Russia in 1990, hoping to establish himself as a successful businessman dealing with agricultural products. He was especially keen on exporting Hungarian wine to Russia, but somehow all his business ventures failed. Meanwhile he developed a wide network of Russian businessmen and high-ranking politicians through his Russian wife or girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova.

After 2010, with the arrival of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Kiss thought his time had come. After all, Orbán was keen on establishing strong political and economic ties with Russia. Through his influential Hungarian friends, like Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the Quaestor brokerage firm that a few years later went under, Kiss was introduced to Péter Szijjártó, the current foreign minister who was then an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office. Szijjártó was impressed and sent Kiss on to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, who without further ado appointed him agricultural attaché in Moscow.

In 2014, however, the Hungarian ambassador was about to dismiss Kiss because he had failed to pass the vetting process by the national security office. During the investigation it became evident that Kiss had connections to the Russia mafia and perhaps even to the Russian secret service. In addition, it was discovered that Kiss had been involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side. It was known already in 2015 that he had secured Schengen visas for at least 2,500 people without the standard vetting. In 2015 Index learned that Hungarian consulates had, in total, issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share was staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa had been issued to a Russian citizen.

We knew all that two years ago, yet the Hungarian media and public act as if this revelation is brand new. I sympathize with the caller who said that politicians could spend their time more profitably than fighting for the release of documents. It took two solid years to get the documents, which only confirmed everything that Index had reported two years ago. Of course, it is good to have the proof as well as more details, which “give a frightening picture of what was going on in Moscow.”

Source: Index / Graphics: Szarvas

As a result of the newly available documents we know that half of all Schengen visas issued in 2013 were requested by Monte Tokaj Kft, Szilárd Kiss’s company. We are talking about 4,000 visas, not 2,500 as we thought in 2015. Moreover, these visas were issued to “Russian citizens with ill-defined financial backgrounds and professions” and “without any apparent documented control.” The Hungarian authorities were not even aware of the addresses of these people, their requests were granted within hours, 50% of the applicants had no references, and they didn’t even have to visit the embassy for a personal interview. What Kiss and his accomplices were doing was what we call “visa shopping.” I should add that it is likely that none of these people spent even as much as a full day in Hungary.

Without the consuls’ cooperation Kiss couldn’t have conducted this visa racket. It looks to me as if they tried to defend themselves by claiming “dishonest influence peddling, pressure, or even threats” against them. Are they talking about pressure and threats from Russian mafia bosses? Perhaps, but the internal investigation doesn’t address this topic.

What is also interesting about this case—something we already knew in 2015—is that although the foreign ministry asked the ministry of agriculture to get rid of Kiss, he was not fired outright. Fazekas worked out an arrangement that allowed Kiss to remain with the ministry. He was asked to resign from his diplomatic post, thereby avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Kiss was appointed “commissioner of eastern economic relations.” Why the change? Perhaps because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance. Kiss thus remained a public servant until January 2015, when he was arrested because of his role in defrauding a credit union.

By now Kiss is free again, awaiting trial. The last time his name showed up in the media was when he was spotted using a car with a diplomatic plate.

The foreign ministry now claims that they filed a complaint with the police regarding the case. If that happened at all, it must have occurred only recently, under pressure from a court order for the release of the report of the internal investigation that took place four years ago, in 2013.

Although it’s good that we know more about the case than we did two years ago, I’m sure the story will be forgotten within days just it was in 2015. In fact, I would be surprised if there were a police investigation at all. Kiss’s visa racket will be at best a footnote in a history book.

The Hungarian government has every reason to downplay this case. Although Szijjártó claims he never worked with Kiss, he can be seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of the visa center in Moscow with Yelena Tsvetkova, wife/girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss, partial owner of the company. It is also unlikely that the Hungarian government would be too keen to investigate the deal Fazekas made on behalf of his friend Szilárd Kiss in the ministry of agriculture.

So yes, we now know more lurid details of the visa scandal, but given the present government’s stranglehold on the police and the prosecutor’s office nothing will ever come of it. I agree with the caller to “Let’s Talk It Over.” Opposition politicians should slowly turn the job of investigative journalism over to the professionals and instead focus on the daunting task of becoming an unbeatable political juggernaut.

February 8, 2017

Shady Hungarian wheelers and dealers in Russia

When in February I wrote a post on Ernő Keskeny, “the man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement,” I was planning to write about another key figure, Szilárd Kiss, who was also instrumental in convincing Viktor Orbán of the importance of the Russian market for Hungary. At the moment Kiss is in jail in connection with defrauding the already ailing Orgovány és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet. The fraud itself involved a loan of 700 million forints that Kiss couldn’t pay back but that, with the assistance of the president of the credit union and a businessman friend, he managed to settle for 140 million, 40 of which went into the pocket of the bank president. It is unlikely that Kiss will be able to wiggle himself out of this very tricky situation because he and his businessman friend discussed all the details of the deal on a wiretapped telephone.

That was in the summer of 2013. Even after that date, however, Kiss remained a member of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. Now that he is in jail nobody wants to take responsibility for having hired him, but it looks as if it was the ministry of agriculture, specifically the minister, Sándor Fazekas, who thought that Kiss would do a bang-up job in Moscow, where he claimed to have important friends in government circles. Kiss spent the larger part of his adult life in Russia and has a Russian wife or a girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova, who also has extensive ties to Russian politicians. She is in charge of the newly established Hungarian visa center in Moscow. This is the office where Russian citizens for a certain amount of money can gain permission to settle in Hungary.

Otherwise Kiss worked as a lobbyist for business people interested in Russian or Hungarian opportunities, while making sure that he received payment for his good offices in these transactions. He usually asked people to invest in his own mostly failing enterprises. It was most likely that kind of arrangement that was behind a deal between Sergey Galitsky, a Russian billionaire, and Péter Szijjártó, then still undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, to establish a large logistical center for Galitsky’s chain of supermarkets, Magnit, in Hungary. In return, Galitsky became a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses, Winexport Kft. The logistical center has been shelved.

It is bad enough that one of the government’s top advisers on Russian agro-business turned out to be a swindler. Quaestor, perhaps the largest of the recently failed financial conglomerates, also had a role to play in the foreign business plans of the Orbán government. Quaestor, the financial empire of Csaba Tarsoly, managed the Moscow and Istanbul branches of the government’s Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház (Hungarian National Trading House), designed to encourage and smooth the way for ventures of Hungarian businessmen in Russia and Turkey and Russian and Turkish businessmen in Hungary. Yesterday the Hungarian foreign ministry broke the contract with Quaestor.

Szilárd Kiss and Csaba Tarsoly are no strangers. Kiss for years was on the board of at least two Quaestor firms, Quaestor Financial Consulting and Quaestor Energy. The two men had joint business ventures in Russia because Tarsoly believed Kiss’s fabulous stories about his extensive connections in Russia. According to Index, Kiss as usual failed to deliver.

Péter Szijjártó, Elena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading house, November 19, 2014

Péter Szijjártó, Yelena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading House, November 19, 2014

And now enter Viktor Orbán’s friend from Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros. While the journalists of Index were looking for Kiss’s Russian businesses, they found a company called Mадьяp that was established in November 2012. Originally it belonged to Kiss alone, but by now he has two partners, a Russian woman and Lőrinc Mészáros. The mayor of Felcsút did not include this Russian business on his financial statement. When confronted by the journalist, Mészáros sounded truly confused. At one point he thought that he was part owner of Verngerskie Produkti, but he was mistaken. That company’s sole owner is Szilárd Kiss.

Mészáros apparently decided to do business with Kiss because Kiss promised him that he would be able to sell his bacon to Magnit, the huge Russian supermarket chain whose owner is a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses. Keep in mind that it was not so long ago that Viktor Orbán himself opened his friend’s mangalica farm. But it is a modest business, while Magnit has 7,500 stores all over Russia. So, the whole thing sounds like a hoax to me, the kind Szilárd Kiss seems to specialize in.

Viktor Orbán’s new type of diplomacy has not only led to Hungary’s isolation. His reliance on shady businessmen who convinced him that old-fashioned diplomacy is a thing of the past has embroiled the country in crooked and/or fanciful business deals. And it seems to me that Orbán hasn’t learned his lesson yet because only a couple of days ago he delivered a lecture to Hungarian diplomats about his philosophy of a new-age diplomacy. Unfortunately, his ideas come straight from swindlers who are already in jail or will be there soon.

Vladimir Putin in Budapest

Four times today the Hungarian government had to revise the appointed hour of the Orbán-Putin press conference. At last the great event took place close to 8 p.m. Putin arrived late in the first place. Instead of 2 p.m. he landed at 3:20. Just to give you an idea of the scale of this visit, the Russians came with eight planes and carried along 30 some cars to protect Vladimir Putin’s armored limousine. Putin’s convoy moved to Heroes Square and from there to the Russian military cemetery.

Let’s pause here a bit because this cemetery became the object of great interest. Buried in most of the thousands of graves on this site are soldiers who died during the siege of Budapest during the winter of 1944-45. In addition, there are graves that belong to soldiers who died during the revolution in October 1956. In the cemetery there are monuments to their heroism during “the counterrevolution.” Most likely not too many people noticed these forgotten relics, which survived the regime change. But now, especially since belittling the greatness of the 1956 revolution is a punishable offense, most anti-government commentators are appalled. How is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to impress on the Russians that calling 1956 a counterrevolution is a sensitive issue in Hungary and that the inscriptions should be changed to something more neutral? After all, Boris Yeltsin apologized for 1956 and one would think that the new “democratic” regime in Russia no longer considers the Soviet intervention in 1956 justifiable. It turned out that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, suggested a change but to no avail. Knowing Vladimir Putin’s attachment to the Soviet past, I’m certain that he in fact considers the uprising in Hungary a counterrevolution. So, it’s no wonder that some of the speakers at yesterday’s demonstration denounced Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin as a desecration of Hungary’s proudest moment in the last century. Especially since Viktor Orbán claims pride of place in the events that led to a democratic regime thirty some years later.

As for the topics discussed by the two leaders, the public learned very little. On the Hungarian side almost no information was revealed. The little we learned was from Russian sources. According to one source, sputniknews.com, Yuri Ushakov, presidential aide to Putin, informed the paper that the 1998 gas contract that expires this year will certainly will be discussed. He also indicated that Putin would discuss an alternative to the Southern Stream. Otherwise, fairly mundane topics were on the agenda. Opposition circles guffawed over the news that Hungary will open a third consulate in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

Source: Reuters / Photo László Balogh

Five agreements were signed: on regional economic cooperation, on bilateral cooperation on healthcare issues and higher education, on the opening of the consulate in Kazan, and on the exchange of technical know-how on atomic energy issues. This last one is a first step toward building the second reactor in Paks. On the surface these are pretty meager achievements given the fanfare that preceded the visit.

After the press conference Hungarian talking heads announced that Viktor Orbán hadn’t achieved anything. Putin came empty-handed and didn’t seem to appreciate Orbán’s efforts on his behalf in the face of opposition by the European Union and the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, the press conference was held an hour later than originally planned. Between Putin’s arrival and the press conference more than four hours elapsed. That left plenty of time for a lengthy discussion between the two men. In my estimation Orbán had a much longer discussion with Putin than he did with Angela Merkel. If I had to judge, just on the basis of Orbán’s countenance, I would say that the Hungarian prime minister’s conversation with Putin went a great deal better than his conversation with Merkel did. At least from his point of view. Orbán certainly made sure that he would in no way show himself at odds with the Russian position. He talked about Ukraine as little as possible, and then simply repeated his desire for peace. At what price? He did not touch on any of that.

He was unctuous when he thanked Putin for the visit and stressed that his decision to come was “a great honor for us.” Hungary needs Russia because of energy. Cooperation and good relations are important not only for the two countries but also between Russia and the European Union. He emphasized the importance of “Eurasian cooperation” and expressed his delight that French leaders share his thoughts on the subject. He did not refer to Paks but said that a “political agreement was reached” on the use of the gas that Hungary had contracted for but had still not used. Hungary will be able to use this considerable amount of gas over the next few years instead of paying for it before the expiration of the contract. This “guarantees the future of Hungarian industry.” Unfortunately, we know nothing of the details–of the price of gas or the duration of the new contract. According to Magyar Nemzet, it is unlikely that Hungary will be able to purchase natural gas from Russia cheaper than, for example, Germany, a country that is not so heavily dependent on the Russian supply.

From Putin’s short speech we at last learned that it was, after all, Viktor Orbán who invited Putin to Hungary, a point of debate among Hungarian political observers. Putin talked about Paks and the 9 billion dollars Russia will lend to Hungary on very good terms. Paks will create 10,000 new jobs as an added bonus, he said. He found the talks very constructive. Putin made sure to mention that he invited Orbán to the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will take place in Moscow on May 9. Of course, Putin invited the leaders of all the countries that were involved in that war, but we don’t know yet whether, for example, Barack Obama will accept the invitation given “the deep chill in relations between Russia and the West, triggered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for a rebellion in the country’s east.” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also invited to attend the ceremonies.

Viktor Orbán had the last word. He delivered a ringing speech attacking those people “who want to shut Russia out from the energy market of Europe, a proposition [he considers] utter nonsense (badarság).” Orbán I assume was referring to the United States. It is hard to fathom why it was necessary to attack Washington, especially after Péter Szijjártó expressed his hope for improved U.S.-Hungarian relations. Orbán said he was disappointed about the demise of the Southern Stream project but announced that Hungary has been negotiating with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Greece about a pipeline through these countries. According to Orbán, Vladimir Putin “has given us encouragement” to continue these negotiations. It was not quite clear what Orbán meant by claiming that between 1998 and 2002 “awful things happened in Russia.” Perhaps this was an attempt to explain why he as prime minister during those years was such a determined foe of Russia, despite the fact that Putin became prime minister of Russia in 1999. Finally he praised Putin’s Russia as a partner one can trust.

On the same day that Orbán met with Vladimir Putin, American Ambassador Colleen Bell gave a lunch in honor of Mykhailo Yunger, chargé d’affaires of the Ukrainian Embassy. Bell minced no words:

I find it significant and inspiring that the unity of effort among us has played such a critical part.  Our unity on sanctions has sent a clear message to Russia, that we cannot be divided.  And our collective message has also made clear that we do not accept the vision of “New Russia,” we do not accept Moscow’s explanation for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, we do not accept missile attacks on civilians in Mariupol, and we do not accept continued falsehoods about the recruiting, arming and equipping of separatists who are murdering and maiming innocent people including defenseless children.  We say no to this.  We say yes to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As you are all well aware, President Putin is in Budapest today.  We could think of no better way to observe the day than to focus on our hopes for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its future, and to share those hopes with you, Mr. Yunger, among our friends and allies.

As a friend of mine, a well-known journalist, wrote to me: “after this speech they will wish Goodfriend back.”

Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse

It’s time to turn our attention eastward, to Russia. Yesterday’s dramatic events shook the world despite the fact that people keeping an eye on the Russian economy have known for at least a year that Russia is in trouble.

Putin’s Russia, which not so long ago Viktor Orbán viewed as an ascendant power–as opposed to the countries of the declining west, is close to economic collapse. Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse both politically and economically. His scheme to offer Gazprom storage facilities in return for cheaper gas fell through when Putin was forced to abandon his ambitious plans for the Southern Stream that would ultimately reach Italy and Austria. As for Orbán’s grandiose project of adding two more reactors to the already functioning Paks nuclear power plant, there is a good chance that Russia will not be able to fulfill its promise of a 10 billion euro loan to Hungary. All in all, Orbán’s Russia policy is crumbling.

I would like to return to the passages from the infamous Bloomberg interview in which Orbán talked about his foreign policy objectives. Although some of Orbán’s English sentences are well nigh incomprehensible, here’s my best guess as to his intent.

I found it somewhat surprising that he admitted that the original underpinning of his foreign policy is no longer applicable. We all know that in his mind foreign policy is driven solely by commercial and financial interests. His whole Eastern Opening was based on this belief. Hungary may be a member of the European Union, but its economic future lies with the East. Well, he discovered that currently foreign policy “is based on geopolitics … which is a new challenge for all of us.” Well, not for all of us. It is a challenge for members of the new Hungarian diplomatic corps who have no diplomatic experience. It is a challenge for Péter Szijjártó whose only job until now was running around in Asian and Middle Eastern countries trying to drum up business.

When it came to Russia, Orbán was rather fuzzy in this interview. Hungary’s “Russian Doctrine”–whatever ‘doctrine’ means in this context–“is respect for international law while keeping open opportunities for economic cooperation.” This is a simplistic way of looking at the art of diplomacy. Russia did not respect international law and therefore Hungary, according to its Russian Doctrine, should stand squarely with the European Union. But that attitude most likely precludes “economic cooperation” with Moscow at the moment. How is he planning to achieve this acrobatic feat? “Hungary’s national interest on [sic] Russia is that we have to stick to principles of international law and shape economic sanctions depending on the situation. We shouldn’t throw sanctions out of the tool box but the EU should also start talks with Eurasian countries at the same time.” First of all, it is not clear what he means by “Eurasian countries.” Does he mean those countries that belong to the Eurasian Union? Belarus and Kazakhstan? Belarus used to send 80% of its exports to Russia, but because of Russia’s economic collapse those exports now make up only 40-45% of the country’s total exports. President Aleksandr Lukashenka urged his government to seek new markets. The Hungarian government, which complained bitterly about the EU sanctions that affected the country’s agricultural sector, would most likely have seen its agricultural exports to Russia slashed as well, even without the sanctions.

There is another Orbán sentence I found intriguing: “it can be expected of Hungary that it be as loyal as it can to Europe’s common foreign policy and for it not damage its efficiency.” My best guess is that this means that Hungary will be loyal as long as such loyalty does not damage its own interests. That’s not much of a commitment.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883)

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883) Source: wikiart.org

The first batch of EU sanctions against Russia expires in March, the next in April, and the most painful ones on Russian banks and energy firms at the end of July. Russia already began lobbying in the capitals of countries most likely to take Russia’s side and thus prevent the renewal of the sanctions. The three countries the Russians are concentrating on are Hungary, Cyprus, and Italy. Hungary and Cyprus are considered to be vehicles of Russian designs–not exactly countries loyal to the EU cause. For the Hungarian prime minister, loyalty to the West only goes so far.

As for the future of Paks, more and more people believe, even within Fidesz circles, that nothing will come of it. Yet on December 9 three contracts were signed by MVM Paks II Atomerőmű Fejlesztő Zrt. and the Russian Joint-Stock Company Nizhny Novgorod Engineering Company. The Hungarian government official in charge of the project claimed that five months of intensive negotiations preceded the signing of the contracts. All details concerning the deals are secret. It seems to me that the Hungarian government is trying to sign all contracts pertinent to the building of the reactors as soon as possible. Of course, these contracts have nothing to do with the loan agreement itself. Contracts with engineering firms will be useless if there is no Russian loan. One can only hope that the Hungarian side had the good sense to include a proviso to the effect that the contracts are binding only if Hungary gets the necessary loan from Moscow.

Since December 9 not much has been heard about the contracts except for an exchange between Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, and János Lázár, minister of the prime minister’s office. According to Lázár, it was decided that in building the new reactors the government will invite western managers and partner firms. International headhunters are looking for the appropriate partners, according to Lázár. According to information received by vs.hu, two such energy companies might be in serious contention: the French Areva and the Finnish Fortum. This sounds to me like an attempt to sweeten the bitter pill for Brussels. Of course, it is possible that all this effort will be in vain and that Orbán’s dream of being the supplier of energy for half of western Europe will never materialize.

Tamás Gomperz: Yankees, come here!

I will continue with the same theme: U.S.-Hungarian relations, but this time in a lighthearted way. I discovered a short and very funny opinion piece in HVG which I would like to share with those readers of  Hungarian Spectrum who haven’t yet mastered the intricacies of  the Hungarian language. I just hope that my limited skills as a translator will be sufficient to capture the flavor of this short spoof. The author is Tamás Gomperz, a regular at HVG. I might add that a lot of right-wingers and Jobbik voters don’t seem to have a sense of humor. When Mandiner republished it, its readership (which unlike the editorial board is anything but moderately conservative) accused Gomperz of all sorts of  evil intentions.

The quotation at the beginning of the article should be familiar to the readers since I cited it a couple of days ago. It is one of László Kövér’s ruminations. So, here goes.

American flag

* * *

YANKEES, COME HERE!

We would be okay without Europe but only if the Americans came instead

“If that is the future of the European Union, then it is worthwhile to contemplate that perhaps we should slowly, carefully back out.” It’s hard to remember the last time that this deeply tormented man said anything intelligible or did anything useful, but now it seems that at last he wants to change his doleful course. But one should not take him terribly seriously and nobody should worry about our speedy departure from the Union.

There are two moral considerations here. One is that most of the money that can be stolen comes from the Union, and we all know that one cannot heat the swimming pool with patriotism. The second is that Hungary’s departure from the Union is not in Moscow’s interest. On the contrary, the Russians would be not at all happy if the Trojan horse suddenly bolted from the fortress and found itself outside its walls.

As long as this remains the situation, we stay. Moscow pays because it has managed to acquire an agent; the Union pays because it is stupid. Meanwhile the prime minister is convinced that he is very clever and cunning because he can take advantage of both sides. Based on his pocketbook, his reckoning is pretty accurate, although that does not mean that he would hesitate even for a second if he had no other choice. Then he would quit without the slightest hesitation. So, all those who love Europe should hold their collective breath for two things: Hungarian foreign policy will still be conducted from Moscow and the European Union will remain as stupid in the future as it has been in the past.

Given the cast of characters, the prospects are good for both. On the other hand, it is worth contemplating that America managed to do more for Hungarian democracy in one week than all the European political leaders have in the last four years. Therefore, perhaps it would be useful to rethink the situation. Perhaps we should slowly retreat from all that vacillation over Europe. Instead we could perhaps beg for a real American occupation, colonization, protectorate, whatever. They didn’t come in 56, they can make up for it now. We will take over the constitution, M. André Goodfriend could be the nádor,* governor, or sheriff, we are open to all solutions. He could start immediately with a proclamation. Because it is a good thing that people representing our worst features can’t go across the ocean. Actually, it would be even better if someone would expel them from here. We can’t solve the problem alone.

So, as the saying goes: there is life outside the Union but one must swim farther.

*nádor/palatinus local representative of the king in Hungary

Fidesz at a far-right conference in Moscow

It was only today that Cink.hu, a Hungarian internet portal, reported on an extreme right-wing gathering in Moscow on September 10-11 where the Hungarian government was represented by Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources. I myself learned about this event earlier from the excellent German-language blog on Hungarian affairs, PusztarangerThe story is quite complicated, so let’s start at the beginning.

The World Congress of Families that sponsored the Moscow conference is an American based organization that opposes same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. Because of its militant anti-gay stand, especially its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law opposing LGBT rights internationally, WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States, called WCF “one of the most influential groups in America promoting and coordinating the exportation  of anti-LGBT bigotry, ideology, and legislation abroad.” HRC claimed that their international conferences gather “the most fringe activists engaged in anti-LGBT extremism.”

WCF has organized annual congresses ever since 1997 when it was established. This year the eighth congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow on September 10-11. This particular congress was to carry the title: World Congress of Families VIII: “Every Child a Gift: Large families–The Future of Humanity.” But then came the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Three Russians–Vladimir Yakunin, Yelena Mizulina, and Aleksey Pushkov–who were involved with the conference were among those sanctioned by the United States and Australia right after the annexation. Under these circumstances WCF, which normally has very good relations with the Russian government and the Russian right, tried to make itself invisible. After all, other groups, such as Concerned Women for America, pulled out of the project, saying that they “don’t want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.” So WCF’s name was removed from the program. They decided to call it “International Forum: Large Family and Future of Humanity.” Although the organizing committee still listed two prominent leaders of WCF, they hid their affiliations.

Sharing organizational tasks with WCF were the Russian Orthodox Church, the Vladimir Yakunin Center of National Glory, the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, and Konstantin Malofeev’s Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. Both Yakunin and Malofeev are among the oligarchs sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. According to Anton Shekhovtsov’s blog, Malofeev has high-level connections with EU-based far right parties and was deeply involved in unleashing the Ukrainian crisis. Apparently a meeting between leaders of far-right parties in Europe and Russian right-wingers, including Malofeev, took place in Vienna in June. Their goal was to “rescue Europe from liberalism and the gay lobby.” Among the participants were Aymeric Chauprade (National Front, France), Heinz-Christian Strache, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ, Austria). I wouldn’t surprised if Béla Kovács of Jobbik, whom Fidesz accused of spying for the Russians, were also present. Chauprade was at the congress in Moscow and had a large role to play in the proceedings. So was the Austrian FPÖ’s Johann Gudenus. The conference ended with the issuance of a proclamation that blasts liberal social policies in Western countries and calls for Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” bans to be enacted throughout the world.

Enter Gergely Prőhle, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. He had a distinguished diplomatic career: he was ambassador to Germany and Switzerland and in the second Orbán administration served as assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In comparison to some of the others, Prőhle seemed moderate–at least until I read an op/ed piece of his in Heti Válasz about the controversial monument to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. I devoted a whole post to that opinion piece in which Prőhle showed his less attractive side.

Prőhle was one of three hundred employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who got the boot from the interim minister, Tibor Navracsics. For a while it looked as if his government career was over. But then he received an offer from Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, to become an undersecretary in charge of international and European Union affairs. (One would think that “international” includes the European Union, but this government’s naming habits are rather peculiar.)

It was in this new capacity that Prőhle was dispatched to Moscow to represent the Hungarian government at this illustrious conclave. It is hard to tell whether the bright lights in the ministry were aware of WCF’s involvement in the congress. It is also unclear whether they knew that the French and Austrian far-right parties would be taking center stage at the gathering. In the final analysis, however, even if they were uninformed, ignorance is no excuse. If nothing else,  Zoltán Balog and Gergely Prőhle were careless and negligent. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that members of the government felt that good relations with Russia were of paramount importance to Hungary and therefore they should not turn down an invitation coming from Moscow.

Gergely Prőhle at a conference organized by far-right groups in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

Gergely Prőhle at a far-right conference in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

One thing is sure. Official Hungary did not boast about Prőhle’s presence at the Moscow conference. MTI made no mention of the conference, and neither the journalist at Cink.hu nor I found anything about the event on the ministry’s website. However, Cink.hu discovered on the Russian Orthodox Church’s website that Gergely Prőhle was among the speakers at the conference, along with Aymeric Chauprade, a member of the European Parliament, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ), a member of the Austrian parliament. Gudenus delivered his speech in Russian because, according to his German-language entry on Wikipedia, he “regularly attended summer courses at the Lononosov University of Moscow and received a Russian Certificate from the Education Ministry of the Russian Federation.”

Cink.hu put a number of questions to the ministry and got some meaningless answers. They denied that the oligarchs had anything to do with the conference; it was organized by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. When Cink.hu inquired about the gathering that was studded with extreme right groups, the answer was that “it is possible that they were also there but Gergely Prőhle represented the family policy of the Hungarian government.” The ministry proudly announced that Prőhle spoke “between Russia’s Chief Rabbi and the Russian Chief Mufti.” Well, in that case everything must be okay.

It’s too bad that the journalist failed to inquire about the manifesto the congress issued that lambasted liberal Europe and called for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.” It would be interesting to know whether Prőhle, the man in charge of European affairs, signed this document on behalf of Hungary.

Viktor Orbán the defiant

It was expected that Viktor Orbán would not change course and would continue his “war of independence” against the “incompetent bureaucrats in Brussels,” but the vehemence of his attacks surprised many. It was bad enough that he got his most trusted men to propose an anti-EU resolution, but at least he himself didn’t say much after he left Brussels. He let others do the talking. When he finally spoke, however, he only added fuel to the fire.

The Hungarian Parliament’s resolution was met with outrage, at least in certain circles in Brussels. Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, announced that “the text the Fidesz majority in the Hungarian Parliament adopted today is an insult to the European Parliament. It proves yet again that Mr. Orbán does not understand the values – or the role of the institutions – of the European Union.” He added that the socialists “are expecting a statement from the leadership of the EPP Group, clarifying whether they accept that a member of their political family dismisses the role and adopted reports of the European Parliament.”

I wonder what Mr. Swoboda will think when he reads that Orbán, in his regular Friday morning talk with one of the reporters of the Hungarian public radio station, called the European Parliament a “worthless (hitvány) institution.” Or that he accused members of the European Parliament of being agents of multinational financiers. Or that he called them incompetent bureaucrats who cannot solve the problems of the European Union and stomp on the only country that found its way out of the crisis while other members are re-entering the crisis zone. I have the feeling that he will not be pleased.

The key message that Orbán is trying to hammer home at the moment is that the Tavares report is not really about Hungary. It is an attempt by the bureaucrats in Brussels to transform the European Union into an entity different from the one that Hungary joined in 2004. “This is a new phenomenon … that changes the very foundations of the fundamental laws of the Union.”

Taking this contention to its logical (admittedly, never a strong suit of the prime minister) conclusion and assuming that the suggestions of the Tavares report are accepted and a standing monitoring committee is created, we might see Hungary leave the European Union. After all, the Union broke its contract with Hungary and thus Hungary is free to go its own way.  In fact, Attila Mesterházy in his speech to Parliament yesterday asked the prime minister whether his insistence on a written condemnation of the Tavares report was a first move on the road to secession.

Another focal point of Orbán’s talk yesterday was the object of the European Parliament’s criticism. He must not allow his followers to be persuaded that the Tavares report is an indictment of his own government and has nothing to do with the Hungarian people. So, he spent considerable time and effort trying to prove that the real target is the nation itself. In trying to build his case he didn’t rehash the old argument that the two-thirds majority in parliament represents the true will of the Hungarian people. Instead he adopted a new tactic. He claimed that “one million people put into writing their desire to have this constitution.” I assume he means the phony questionnaires he sent out to eight million voters, out of which one million were returned. If you would like to have a good laugh over what Orbán thinks is an endorsement of the constitution, take a look at my discussion of the first and second questionnaires. I should note here that the second questionnaire was sent out two weeks before parliament voted on the new constitution. It is perhaps worth mentioning that, according to Orbán, “the Hungarian people didn’t authorize him to adopt a liberal leaning constitution.” On what basis did he make this claim? There was one question among the many in one of the questionnaires pertaining to the rights and duties of citizens. Normally constitutions concern themselves with rights and not duties. But not the new Hungarian constitution. He recalled that 80% of the people who returned the questionnaires said yes to this particular question. Truly pitiful.

Viktor Orbán's image of Hungary's oppression by the European Union

Viktor Orbán’s image of Hungary’s oppression by the European Union

The comparison of Brussels and Moscow is obviously a favorite of the Fidesz crew, and therefore it was not surprising that the topic came up again. Since Orbán is on slippery ground here, I will  quote from this part of his talk to give you a sense of his message. “Brussels is not Moscow and therefore it has no right to meddle in the lives of the member states. Hungary is a free country. We don’t want to live in a European Empire whose center is Brussels. From where they tell us how to live on the periphery or in the provinces. We want to have a community of free nations.  There is no need for such a center because it would limit the freedom of the member states.” In brief, Brussels is not Moscow yet, but if the Tavares recommendations are adopted, it will be nearly as bad. But Hungary will not be part of an empire. Orbán further emphasized the comparison between Moscow and Brussels when he called the Soviet Union “the Soviet Empire” and added that “since the collapse of the Soviet Empire no one has had the temerity to limit the independence of Hungarians.”

Finally, he promised the Hungarian nation a policy of resistance. The government will not watch helplessly as the European Union takes away the freedom of Hungarians. “Either we allow them to pull our country out from under our feet and pocket our money or we defend our own interests. This is the question, choose!” This last sentence is a paraphrase of two lines in the famous poem, National Song (Nemzeti dal) by Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) in which the poet asks: “Shall we be slaves? Shall we be free? / This is the question. Choose!” (Rabok legyünk, vagy szabadok? / Ez a kérdés, válasszatok!) Keep in mind that this is the poem that heralded the 1848 revolution. Orbán means business. I hope the European Union does too.