Tag Archives: NGOs

Viktor Orbán’s rubber bones? No, his master plan

I thought this morning that I would be original if I wrote about a favorite word of both the Hungarian media and the opposition. The word is “gumicsont,” a dog toy made out of solid rubber or sometimes nylon. “Gumicsont” is used as a metaphor for a communication device that is designed to distract the attention of the public from something much more important. Almost everything that happens in Hungarian political life is immediately labelled “gumicsont.”

It seems that I wasn’t the only to find all this talk about “gumicsont” irritating. Almost a year ago Péter Konok, a historian and political commentator, wrote an opinion piece on the subject in HVG. He, like me, thinks that the Orbán government’s constant barraging of the population with political bombshells are not distractions intended to divert attention from something else. No, Konok says, the Orbán government’s chicaneries are genuine because “they are like this.”

Moreover, says Konok, our views on what counts as political distraction depend largely on what we personally consider important. For example, those for whom having stores open on Sunday is important may well think that talk about the size of Antal Rogán’s apartment is trivial, a distraction. Some people were certain that Viktor Orbán’s shocking announcement about the reintroduction of capital punishment was a “gumicsont” to distract attention from the Quaestor scandal.

One could give numerous examples of this Hungarian habit of labeling an action as a kind of sleight of hand to divert public attention from something else. In Konok’s opinion, these so-called artificially created distractions are unfortunately reactions to very real problems. By dismissing them as merely rubber bones to chew on, the Hungarian public fails to acknowledge that the country is in big trouble and that Orbán’s regime is only a symptom of its woes.

I would go further. Almost all of the political strategies introduced by Fidesz and the Orbán government are carefully and methodically prepared ahead of time, having very specific aims in mind. The latest “gumicsont,” according to some journalists, is the attack on the NGOs. This recent “distraction” is allegedly intended to serve up a new enemy since the migrant issue is becoming old hat and has lost its appeal. Dead wrong, I’m afraid. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the same master plan that has been systematically pieced together ever since January 2015.

The Orbán government has been preparing the ground for this move for a very long time. George Soros has been the boogeyman in Fidesz circles at least since 2010. And as far as the NGOs are concerned, Viktor Orbán made it clear in the interview he gave to 888.hu last year that 2017 will be “the year of Soros,” that is, he will get rid of the NGOs one way or the other. A distraction? A rubber bone? Of course not. It is the next step in consolidating his power and bolstering the popularity of his government.

Some observers even called the “migrant question” a rubber bone, which is total nonsense. This was again a policy initiative that Orbán had carefully crafted with a very specific goal in mind. It was designed as a popularity booster which, as Orbán rightly predicted, couldn’t fail. Just as a reminder, Fidesz’s popularity between October 2014 and February 2015 had dropped by 14%.

Orbán is aware that despite all the propaganda, his government is not popular and that it is only the weakness of the splintered opposition that makes his position safe. So, he is ready with contingency plans, the latest being to incite xenophobic Hungarians to turn against organizations that receive money from abroad. Orbán’s advisers have already managed to make Soros’s name a hated household word. Only a couple of days ago Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, released its findings, according to which “61% of Hungarians have a negative opinion of the businessman.” Eighty-eight percent of the population—on both the right and the left—consider the use of so-called “soft-power” a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty.

The attack on NGOs is a variation on the “migrant” theme. First came boosting xenophobia and simultaneously elevating nationalism. Now the government is impressing on the population that these NGOs are vehicles of foreign political influence and pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Another plan Orbán announced yesterday morning was his defiance of the European Union and his fight this time against any “economic interference” of Brussels in Hungary’s affairs. Every time Orbán announces a new fight against this or that, the normal reaction in Hungary is that the man cannot live without battling against someone. That’s his nature. But what if his duels are not merely the results of personal traits but part of a well-designed masterplan which we, the observers, fail to recognize? We naively consign them to the heap of policy “distractions,” claiming that they are just tricks to turn our attention away from healthcare, education, and general poverty. I think it is a big mistake to think in these terms. We must take everything he says with deadly seriousness. No rubber bones here.

Everything Orbán does is designed to ensure the popularity of his government and his own well-being. Since his talents don’t include an aptitude for good governance, he has to rely on the country’s alleged vulnerability as a crutch. The refugees’ arrival in Europe was a godsend to Orbán. The country, he argued, must be defended against the migrants, against Brussels, against George Soros’s “soft power.” I’m afraid that nationalistic Hungarians lap all this up, including even those who wish him straight to hell. As long as Orbán can harness this kind of nationalism, the Hungarian public will never be able to get rid of him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, Hungarians don’t see the connection between their nationalistic attitudes toward alleged outside enemies and Viktor Orbán’s staying power.

January 14, 2017

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

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

The migrant question

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

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

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

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

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

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

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

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

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

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

January 13, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s first victims may be the Hungarian NGOs

An article appeared today in The Guardian predicting a new crackdown on Hungarian NGOs. The timing is no coincidence. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal government has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who will not raise his voice in defense of critics of the Hungarian government in the name of democracy.

A few hours after the publication of the article, Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, announced the government’s intention to get rid of “the pseudo-civilians” of the Soros Empire. In Németh’s vocabulary, “pseudo-civilians” are foreign political agents who represent the “global plutocracy and the world of political correctness above the heads of the national governments. These organizations should be forced back, and, I believe, they should be thrown out. I feel that the international opportunity for such a move has arrived.” The “international opportunity,” of course, is the election of Donald Trump, as Péter Krekó, an associate of Political Capital, a think tank of political scientists, pointed out to The Guardian.

The announcement of the government’s intentions regarding foreign-subsidized NGOs was not unexpected. Just before the holidays Orbán gave an interview to 888.hu in which he was quite explicit about his feelings toward the NGOs critical of his government. According to him, they are being used by antagonistic powers and their agents, like George Soros, to advance their own interests in foreign countries. Therefore, these organizations must be banished. Not only Hungary will move against them, but “all countries” in Europe. The year 2017 will be about Soros in this sense. “One can feel it coming when each country will trace the source of these monies; they will find out what kinds of connections exist between them and the intelligence communities; and which NGO represents what interests…. [2017] will be about the extrusion of the forces symbolized by Soros.” One cannot be more explicit. The only question was just when in 2017 the onslaught would begin.

It is unlikely that Donald Trump will be upset if Viktor Orbán follows in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. In 2012 Putin introduced a law requiring non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”

George Soros recently wrote an opinion piece in project-syndicate.org in which he didn’t hide his feelings about the president-elect, whom he called “a would-be dictator.” He described Trump’s cabinet as being full of “incompetent extremists and retired generals.” He predicted that “Trump will have greater affinity with dictators,” which will allow “some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference.”

Soros’s attack on Trump naturally elicited counterattacks on the financier by the pro-Trump media. Articles appeared with headlines like “Soros and Other Far Leftists Instigate Revolution against Trump,” “Billionaire Globalist Soros Exposed as Hidden Hand against Trump,” “Busted! Soros-Backed Pro Clinton Group Caught Funding Violent Protests,” and many more. Orbán can rest assured that no one will be terribly upset in Trump’s White House or State Department about the harassment of Hungarian NGOs. Under these circumstances Orbán can feel pretty safe.

By the time Orbán gave his interview to 888.hu, initial plans for the elimination of NGOs were already in place. On December 14, Zsolt Semjén, who serves as Orbán’s deputy, sent a modification proposal to a 2012 law on non-governmental organizations to the president of the parliament, which apparently will discuss and most likely enact it into law before April. One of the important changes is that “officeholders of non-governmental organizations” will have to submit financial statements just like members of parliament. What’s wrong with such a requirement? In the first place, salaries of officials of nongovernment organizations have nothing to do with the public purse. Second, knowing the Hungarian government’s practices, it’s likely that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service would immediately begin to discredit those people who are seen as standing in the way of the government. In addition to this change, there is a vaguely worded reference to “the legal environment of the civic association” that will be rewritten. For the time being, officials of NGOs have no idea what this means, but “in light of the Orbán interview” it is worrisome that the proposal includes references to “the adoption of solutions that have worked” in other countries. The fear is that the Orbán government has Putin’s solution in mind.

NGO officials believe that the elimination of organizations will take place in stages. First, the usual character assassination will take place after the submission of financial statements. Second, the NGOs will have far more administrative obligations, which will take time and money away from their useful activities. As a third step, the government might accuse them of espionage and treat them as sources of danger to national security. They could be accused of treasonous activities against the legitimate government of their own country as agents of foreign powers.

According to rumors, behind the scenes the Hungarian government has been trying to convince George Soros “to limit his presence to the financing of the Central European University” and to stop giving any more grants to the 60 or so organizations that are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

For the time being, it looks as if neither the Open Society Institute (OSI) nor the NGOs are intimidated. They insist that they will continue as before. In the first place, some of these organizations, like Transparency International (TI), receive only a small fraction of their funding from the Soros Foundation. In fact, one of TI’s largest contributors is the European Union. The director of TI, József Martin, can’t imagine that the government would dare to ban TI because by this act “Hungary would remove itself from the community of free countries.” In Martin’s place, I would be less sanguine that Viktor Orbán cares what the community of free countries thinks.

The Hungarian Helsinki Commission gets about a third of its budget from OSI. In addition, it receives financial help from the European Commission and the United Nations High Commission. Its position, I believe, is less secure than that of TI. After all, it deals with human rights, something that leaves Viktor Orbán and his friends cold. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) is unfortunately heavily dependent on the Open Society Foundation.

Szilárd Németh’s announcement of the government’s intentions to eventually eliminate NGOs prompted the usual protestations from the left. MSZP couldn’t come up with anything more original than the demand that “Szilárd Németh must leave public life.” Sure thing. He will rush to oblige. DK reminded Viktor Orbán that, no matter how strong a feeling of affinity he has for Vladimir Putin, “this place, in the Carpathian Basin, is not called Russia.”

In the past, we kept trying to convince ourselves that surely this or that move of the government would not be tolerated by the European Union, the Council of Europe, or the Venice Commission. Be it the new constitution, the media law, or the building of a nuclear power plant on Russian money by a Russian company that received the job without competitive bidding. And what happened? Almost nothing. A few sentences were changed in the constitution. So, let’s not try to shift the burden to the EU. There is only one way to put an end to this nightmare: to get rid of Orbán and his minions in 2018.

January 10, 2017

Donald Trump’s victory made Orbán “the man” in Europe

The study of Hungarian politics can take you to the most unexpected places. Here is, for example, a lengthy interview of Viktor Orbán by Gábor G. Fodor, Hungary’s modern Machiavelli and the recently appointed editor-in-chief of 888.hu, a fiercely pro-government tabloid. The title of the interview is shocking enough: “Ki a faszagyerek?—Orbán Viktor.” It sent me to a slang dictionary to be sure of the meaning of “faszagyerek.” Probably the closest translation would be “swinging dick,” but I wasn’t happy using that phrase in the title of this post. And so, from the slang dictionary I moved on to the American film industry, where I learned that a 2005 movie titled “The Man” is called in the Hungarian dubbed version “A faszagyerek.” Good enough. “The man” he is. G. Fodor must have loved the picture or its character because he has a whole series of “faszagyerekek”–for example, Zsolt Bayer, István Tarlós, and, of all people, Connie Mack. By the end of the interview, we learn from Orbán that his own “faszagyerek” is Öcsi Puskás. Who else?

Some Hungarian observers consider this interview to be as important as Orbán’s infamous “illiberal speech” in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26, 2014. That speech made an incredible splash at the time. Western politicians and members of the media began to understand that Viktor Orbán is a man with dangerous ideas and intentions. I doubt that this interview will create the same worldwide sensation for the simple reason that by now the Hungarian prime minister is widely identified as the “pocket Putin.” So his plans to expel the few remaining NGOs from Hungary will not come as a surprise.

Because this is the main message of the interview. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election has emboldened Orbán. He is sure that his time has come and that his vision of Europe will prevail. He is planning to fight the old order with Trump behind him, cheering him on.

Trump’s name came up early in the interview, with Orbán introducing him into the conversation in connection with the “intellectual excitement” that exists in Fidesz, “which comes not from school learning but from character.” This, he said, establishes “some kind of kinship with the just elected American president” in whom “one can sense the mentality of the self-made man.” Just as “Fidesz is a self-made story.”

Using this spurious “self-made” analogy, Orbán found it easy to link the new United States and Hungary. The old European political elite, who no longer have answers to today’s challenges, look upon Trump as they look upon him, except that the United States is larger and therefore they consider Trump more dangerous.

Note Donald Trump’s picture on the wall of 888.hu’s editorial office

In the past Orbán always refrained from verbal attacks on the United States. He left that job to Péter Szijjártó and the journalists running the state media. But now, with the wind of a new era in Washington at his back, he openly complained about Democratic foreign policy not just toward Hungary but toward all Central European countries. American diplomats believe that in this region there are only two kinds of leaders: one kind is corrupt, the other is Putin’s man. Or perhaps both at the same time. Therefore, they have considered it their business to interfere. Their method has been “soft power, which is not just a theory but a devious action plan.” According to Orbán, this American “soft power” has been implemented through NGOs, foundations, civic organizations, and the media. The American government has believed, at least until now, that this “action plan” could be realized through George Soros.

First, a few words about “soft power,” which is not exactly a new concept. Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined it in 1990 and developed it further in a 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The idea behind “soft power” is that, instead of coercion, a smart government uses persuasion. “Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction…. The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.”

This is exactly what Orbán objects to when he criticizes the few civic organizations that act as defenders of human rights and democratic values. He is certain that the time has come to go against the Soros foundations with full force because Soros has “activated” himself against Trump’s plans to change the American political landscape. After all, it was only about a month ago that Politico reported that “George Soros and other rich liberals who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to elect Hillary Clinton are gathering in Washington for a three-day, closed-door meeting to retool the big-money left to fight back against Donald Trump.” After Trump is firmly ensconced in the White House, it will be safe to put an end to all those hated foundations in Hungary that day after day complain about the undemocratic nature of his regime.

During the discussion of Soros’s NGOs and their role as transmitters of American soft power Orbán brought up the Romanian elections in which, according to him, there were no anti-Hungarian voices because the Romanian socialists realized that it’s not the Hungarians who are the enemy but George Soros. “The winners campaigned against the Soros regime; the real opposition is not the small, inconsequential parties but the NGOs and foundations supported by Soros.”

I’m not familiar enough with Romanian affairs to pass judgment, but I am not aware of strong anti-American feelings in that country. On the contrary. However, I did find one article describing an interview that Victor Ponta, the former prime minister, gave to a publication called Stiri pe surse—Cele main oi stiri. There he explained why he had adopted an anti-Soros stance. His reasons seem to be identical to those of Viktor Orbán. Soros through his foundations produces “a certain type of people, pseudo-pseudo democrats for whom other countries’ interests are more important than the interests of Romania.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? How widespread this kind of thinking is among Romanian politicians I can’t say.

In Orbán’s opinion, all governments would do well to get rid of Soros’s foundations. “One can feel that already. They will find out where these monies are coming from, what kinds of connections exist with what kinds of secret service organizations, and what kinds of NGOs represent what kinds of interests.”

In addition to his plans for silencing the NGOs, Orbán sees other opportunities for next year. He is “convinced that 2017 will be the year of revolt, but it is another story whether the evil status quo politicians will repress these revolts or not. In Austria they managed to stop a successful march toward the radical right by rejecting Norbert Hofer as the future president of the country. But in Italy and the United States they couldn’t. Next year there will be elections in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. “A lot of things can happen.” Here Orbán clearly identifies his own party with far right parties: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) of Frauke Petry, Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen, and the Partij voor de Vrighelheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Orbán is keeping fingers crossed for these ultra-radical parties. I don’t know how often I have to repeat: Orbán’s Fidesz is a far-right radical party which is striving to turn Hungary into a one-party dictatorship.

December 17, 2016

Let’s Invalidate the Hungarian Refugee Quota Referendum!

“This is our country: Let’s invalidate the referendum!” is the title of the common statement of 22 NGOs protesting against the inhuman politics of the Hungarian government against refugees.

The Hungarian government has unleashed a xenophobic hate campaign ahead of the refugee referendum on October 2. Twenty-two NGOs are urging citizens to reject the government’s fearmongering and invalidate the referendum.

Hungarians will go to the polls on October 2 to answer the following question: Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?

We, Hungarian NGOs and citizens with a sense of responsibility for our country, believe in a country where our common matters are managed with humaneness, solidarity and mutual respect. We are concerned about seeing the government threaten our common values, therefore we speak out against the referendum scheduled for October 2, as well as the hate campaign surrounding the vote.

We decided to start a campaign to invalidate the referendum, which fails to promote our common concerns and is both pointless and inhuman.

Pointless question

The question put to referendum fails to promote our common concerns. It does not offer a solution either to the situation of refugees or the future of the European Union. It rejects solidarity with our fellow human beings in plight, just like with the other European member states. It has no intention to create a framework for peaceful coexistence. We are convinced that nobody can feel safe in the long run where public discourse is defined by hatred.

The question put to referendum is pointless. No provision on compulsory “resettlement” quotas has ever been adopted, let alone discussed, in the EU. If such a question were put on the agenda in the future, Hungary would have a place at the negotiating table.

Moreover, the response given to the referendum question does not entail any specific legal consequences, nor does it make clear exactly what entitlement the government asks for from the citizens, as this has never been revealed.

Shattered solidarity

The question put to a vote is also inhuman. The goal of the referendum and the accompanying campaign is to incite hatred against refugees. Its only potential consequence is the further weakening of the already shattered social solidarity, thereby reinforcing the government in continuing with its hate campaign.

The real question that is going to be at stake on October 2 is whether this country will ever be able to become a humane community. This is the goal we work for 365 days a year — on October 2 and on every other day.

Some of us will cast an invalid vote, while others will boycott the coerced anti-refugee referendum. Our goal is nevertheless the same: to invalidate this referendum.

Join us, share our statement, talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors. Convince them, too, thus we can prove together: our country is based on humaneness and solidarity.

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U.S. AMBASSADOR COLLEEN BELL DELIVERED WASHINGTON’S MESSAGE TO THE HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT

You may recall that on October 20 I wrote a post with the title “Entering a new phase in U.S.-Hungarian Relations?” in which I expressed my belief that “Washington will soon be more active than it has been since January of this year when the new ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Budapest.”

There were several signs of a change in U.S. strategy as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned. At the end of September Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Berschinski spent three or four days in Hungary, during which he gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet. The reporter interpreted the recent silence of the United States as a sign of satisfaction, or at least of having fewer reasons to criticize the Hungarian government. But Berschinski corrected her. “I can assure you that the ambassador will also make more public statements in the future.” Therefore, I’m somewhat baffled at the great surprise with which the Hungarian media greeted Ambassador Colleen Bell’s first major speech last night. The speech contained the most outspoken and least diplomatic criticism of the Hungarian government in time immemorial.

The first twenty minutes were spent on niceties, mostly praising military cooperation, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism, but what followed was not so nice. Her message on energy security contained the following crucial sentences: “The United States understands that Russia is an important energy supplier–it will continue to be important in the future. But Russia and all suppliers–including the United States, by the way–should compete at market rates, on market terms. No nation should be kept dangerously dependent on any single source for its energy needs.”

Colleen Bell Corvinus

She returned to the same theme a few minutes later when she discussed the Paks II nuclear deal in connection with public trust and the lack of transparency. “It would change the game in the energy sector if members of the public could see the details of the Paks II nuclear deal. We look to the Hungarian government to increase transparency, starting with the details of this deal.”

From here she moved on to the “investment climate” in Hungary. Some investors talk about “significant obstacles to investment…. Some investors are concerned about stability in the tax and regulatory environment…. Investors must be able to predict regulatory and tax effects on their business. Otherwise, the costs of uncertainty will price many potential investors out of the market.”

After a long introduction came a list of “concerns” of the United States, which “have been echoed by the European Union, the OSCE, international organizations, and groups who track levels of freedom and adherence to rule of law in countries around the world. You will hear all their voices, and perhaps your own, in my comments tonight.”

The first of these concerns is corruption. “Corruption stalls growth, stifles investment, denies people their dignity, and undermines national security. Corruption in Hungary is a serious concern–quite clearly a top concern of average Hungarians, as I have heard, and as public polls consistently show. Wherever systemic corruption has effectively undermined fair governance, it creates an environment ripe for civil unrest, resistance to government, and even violent extremism.”

Washington has a few suggestions about how to combat corruption. “The best way to restore public confidence in the rule of law, and to show that the playing field is level, is to publicize prosecutions  [of the guilty ones]: the names, the crimes, the indictments, the dollar amounts seized, and the convictions and penalties.” I’m sure that by now Ambassador Bell knows, as do most of us familiar with the corrupt Hungarian government, that no convictions of either government officials or friends of Fidesz will ever take place as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor.

Then came the Hungarian government’s attack on the independent civil society, which in the American view “is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy.” It is clear, Bell continued, that “wherever governments introduce restrictions on civil society organizations, to restrict the space for voices that might differ, we do not see a truly free society.” The crackdown on more than 50 NGOs, starting in 2014 and continuing until recently, signals, in the opinion of Washington, that Hungarian society is not really free. It is true that “the Hungarian justice system has provided some protection and last year the authorities ceased the criminal proceedings against them but the situation is not fully resolved…. The chilling effect of these governmental investigations is widespread, and it casts a long shadow on Hungary’s reputation in the international community. We urge an immediate end of heavy-handed tactics against civil society organizations.” In this connection Bell brought up “the diminished independence of the Hungarian Constitutional Court” and the fact that the appointment of the justices is now the sole prerogative of the ruling party.

From here Bell turned to the topic of media freedom. “Hungarian politicians, intellectuals, and members of civil society speak of a marked decline in press freedom.” Hungarian journalists are not jailed as in some other countries “but rather, the concerns have take the form of concentrated media ownership and pronounced subsidies to state media.” She mentioned that Freedom House as of this year declared Hungarian media only partially free. Note that Bell here is not talking about public media (közszolgálati) but state media, which MTV and MR have become.

The next topic was the refugee crisis. She repeated what she told the journalist of Origo about a month ago: “every sovereign nation has the right to protect its borders,” but she added “every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety.” She said that words of intolerance and the xenophobic labeling of refugees as invaders and antagonists “have no role in our efforts to find a solution.” The solution is working together within the European Union “to come up with a comprehensive, practical, and compassionate solution to this crisis.” She called upon Hungary to focus “on saving and protecting lives, ensuring the human rights of all migrants are respected, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”

I think I summarized the most important points Ambassador Bell made in this speech, so now I will turn to the reaction of the Hungarian government.

The first surprise was that MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) simply did not report on the event. Some naive Hungarian journalists interpreted the absence of such a report as a sign that the Hungarian government wasn’t aware that the ambassador would deliver a speech. As journalists they should know that news agencies are normally informed of such an event ahead of time. It is hard to imagine that the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and Corvinus University didn’t inform MTI about the ambassador’s forthcoming speech.

It seems, however, that the state television MTV’s M1 channel was there because during the early morning news today they reported extensively on Ambassador Bell’s speech from the event itself. I might add that the summary was detailed and accurate. On the other hand, MTI handled the news only in an indirect way. At 7:00 a.m. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó made a statement to MTI in which he minimized the importance of the speech by claiming that there was nothing new in it. In a way he was right. These concerns have been expressed by the United States to the Hungarian government in private. The difference was that everything was now aired in public.

Szijjártó added that “since Hungary is not one of the states of the United States but a member state of the European Union, we discuss the questions mentioned by the ambassador with the European Union. Moreover, we had discussed them earlier [with the EU] and in fact we settled them.” A huge understatement of the real situation. In Szijjártó’s opinion “the United States would like to see many more immigrants in Europe and since Hungary is the only European country which could stop the flow of migrants at its borders the United States decided to bring up this issue now.” As far as I know, only the extreme right thinks that it is to the advantage of the United States to weaken Europe by encouraging millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

MTI’s second news item that touched indirectly on Bell’s speech was a report on János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference in which he made the following remark: Hungary will not “even at her request allow migrants to pass through the country or allow any migrants to settle.”

Tomorrow I will describe the response of the non-state Hungarian media to this important event. One thing is certain: Colleen Bell’s reputation has gone up quite a few notches in the eyes of journalists and political analysts in Hungary.

The war between the Hungarian government and the NGOs continues

I’m sure that most readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the tug-of-war between the Norwegian and the Hungarian governments over the disbursement of the Norwegian Civic Funds. These funds are specifically designed to support non-governmental organizations that are involved with issues like democracy and human rights, gender and equal opportunity, youth and children’s issues, the environment, basic services to vulnerable groups, and the empowerment of minority groups, including the Roma. These issues are not exactly high on the priority list of authoritarian governments like the present one in Hungary. Hence the Hungarian government’s harassment of NGOs.

It was about a year ago, right after the election, that attacks on the Hungarian distributors of these funds began. Since that time I wrote three or four posts on the ups-and-downs of the negotiations between János Lázár, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, and Vidar Helgesen, the minister in charge of European affairs in the Norwegian government. The Norwegians, unlike officials of the European Union, have refused to cave in to Hungarian demands.

Why did I decide to return to the topic of the Norwegian Civic Funds? Because in the last three months two different independent firms looked over the Hungarian NGOs that are in charge of disbursement and found everything in order. The first firm the Norwegian government hired, Creda Consultinggave high marks to the consortium that handled the disbursement of the funds. It was praised for its “most innovative elements among the 15 NGO programs assessed across Europe.” I’m sure that Creda’s praise for “Ökotárs,” the fund operator, didn’t impress the Hungarian government, which over the last year came up with charges against it–“one for every season,” as Veronika Móra, director of Ökortárs, put it in a recent op/ed article in HVG.

In January the Norwegian government asked the accounting firm PKF Littlejohn to take a look at Ökotárs’s books because, among other things, the Hungarian government accused it of embezzlement. PKF Littlejohn found no evidence of any wrongdoing. Moreover, the accountants didn’t just look at the fund operator’s financial dealings; they also checked on the activities of several recipients of the funds. They didn’t run into any major problems.

After receiving the final results, the Norwegian foreign ministry announced that “Norway stands ready for a dialogue.” The question is whether the Hungarian government is willing to engage in such a conversation. One would think that after two independent expert assessments, the Hungarian government would give up and not risk losing the substantial amount of money the Hungarian government itself receives from the Norway Funds. But I’m not at all sure that the government in Budapest will retreat any time soon. I assume that Norway is satisfied with the way their funds are being dispersed to the NGOs and that a dialogue with János Lázár on this topic would not be a bargaining session. For Lázár to accept the current arrangement would mean defeat for the Hungarian government.

Veronika Móra in her op/ed piece rightly pointed out that the attack on Ökotárs and the Norway Civic Fund is only part of a general assault against NGOs in general. They are the victims of “a deliberate political strategy” aimed at their elimination. Viktor Orbán in his infamous speech that included a reference to “illiberal democracy” called NGOs “paid political activists.” Of course, there are “good NGOs,” those that are involved only in charitable activities. By definition, the Norwegian Civic Fund belongs to the “bad NGO” category. All of the targeted areas defined by the managers of the fund involve public policy. Lázár at one point accused the Norwegian government of deliberately trying to topple the Hungarian government. A few months later Orbán in an interview with Bloomberg talked about registering NGOs that receive funds from abroad. Just the kind of procedure Vladimir Putin introduced.

Normally, after a while, the Hungarian government retires from direct fights of this sort. For example, lately neither Lázár nor his assistant undersecretary, Nándor Csepreghy, speaks about the NGO issue. They assigned the job to the leaders of their own creation CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum/Civic Collaboration Forum), the group that organized the pro-government marches every time Viktor Orbán felt that he needed a show of force for his political survival. Although the leaders of CÖF hotly deny it, the organization is most likely financed by the Hungarian government.

CÖF’s “legal adviser,” Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr., who calls himself a “constitutional expert,” is now the designated spokesman for the government strategy. He is being touted as “one of the most eminent experts” on the subject. According to him, four-fifths of Hungarian NGOs are financed in whole or in part by George Soros. As for the causes these NGOs are involved in–the Roma, drug prevention, and the disabled, according to Lomniczi these are not the most burning issues in today’s Hungary. “The defense of mental hygiene” as a result of the negative influence of the media or the “disfranchisement of Hungarians” in Slovakia or in Serbia are causes that deserve attention. The “eminent expert” accused the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, TASZ, of not raising its voice at the time of the police attack on “innocent demonstrators” in 2006 October. In fact, it was TASZ who took up the defense of those who were the victims of unnecessary force.

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra at ATV's program, Csatt

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra on ATV’s program “Csatt”

Lomniczi’s recent preoccupation with NGOs prompted Egon Rónai of ATV to invite him and three other NGO leaders for a conversation on a program called “Csatt.” Veronika Móra represented Ökotárs and Miklós Ligeti, Transparency International. András Székely, an economist and teacher of religion, spoke on behalf of the “Három Királyfi és Három Királylány Mozgalom” (three princes and three princesses movement). The movement’s aim is to promote a higher birthrate to produce large families. I highly recommend taking a look at the program. Most educational.

Meanwhile, we can wait to see what the Hungarian government’s next move will be to “remedy” the situation with those pesky NGOs.