Tag Archives: NGOs

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.

Artemisszió Alapítvány
Eleven Emlékmű
Eötvös Károly Közpolitika Intézet
Előadó-művészeti Szövetség
Gyerekesély Közhasznú Egyesület
Hálózat a Tanszabadságért
Hívatlanul Hálózat
Platform Egyesület
Közélet Iskolája Alapítvány
Magyar Helsinki Bizottság
Magyar Női Érdekérvényesítő Szövetség
Magyarországi Európa Társaság
Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség
Migration Aid
MigSzol
Oktatói Hálózat
Oltalom Karitatív Egyesület
Opera Közhasznú Kulturális Egyesület
Segítsünk együtt!
Szépírók Társasága
Társaság a Szabadságjogokért

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.

Fidesz attack on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and conditions in the Debrecen refugee camp

Just the other day Viktor Orbán’s friend Vladimir Putin signed a new law against “undesirable” NGOs. The law gives Russian authorities the power to shut down foreign-financed organizations, introduce fines, and even mete out jail time of up to six years for those who violate the law. This new law further restricts the activities of NGOs financed in part by foreign donors. The 2012 law affected 60 groups that were branded “foreign agents.”

Hungary is not far behind Russia when it comes to harassment of non-governmental groups that receive foreign financing. Some of them, especially those that deal with human rights issues, are under constant siege. The latest attack is on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission.

The occasion for Fidesz’s assault is a dispute over the origins of immigrants coming from outside the European Union. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t warrant such an outburst on the part of the government party. In fact, the text of the press release reminded Hungarians of the darkest days of the Rákosi regime.

The pseudo-civic Helsinki Commission, which fulfills the political orders of the international financial speculators, brazenly tries to falsify black-and-white facts. As opposed to their lies, the fact is that four-fifths of those seeking refugee status, 35,000 people, don’t arrive in Hungary from war zones. They come only for the money. This year only 17.3% of the arrivals came from war zones, and hence the great majority of those who illegally cross the border are not political refugees.

We call on the Helsinki Commission to stop lying and at least in such an important and serious question not be preoccupied with stuffing their pockets with the money of György Soros.

The terms used here to describe the evil forces of international finance, with their anti-Semitic overtones, could be found daily in the notorious party newspaper of the early 1950s, Szabad Nép.

What makes Fidesz so jumpy that it feels compelled to release a Soviet-style rant about something that may have been a simple misunderstanding? There is a good possibility that it has something to do with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s involvement in the investigation into the circumstances in which refugees are forced to live in the Debrecen refugee camp.

It was about a month ago that Ombudsman László Székely and his associates investigated the situation in the Debrecen camp, and it is likely that the investigation was prompted by a request from the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. The report that was published in April is an indictment of the conditions in the camp. And that was enough for the Fidesz types to lash out at the “troublemakers.”

In the first place, the camp is terribly overcrowded. The facility can handle a maximum of 807 individuals, but right now there are 1,188 men, women, and children living in the former barracks that serves as a refugee camp. Although Viktor Orbán wants to close the Debrecen camp, an association formed to assist refugees and migrants is trying to convince the government to enlarge the facility.

The Debrecen camp has two sections. One is for people who can leave the camp during the day. There is, however, also a closed section, which is actually a glorified jail. The people held there didn’t commit any crime. They are the “lucky” ones whose refugee status is being contemplated by the Hungarian authorities. The rationale for their incarceration is the authorities’ demand that they be available at all times for “speedy decision making.” They can be kept captive for as long as six months. At the time of the ombudsman’s investigation, there were 65 people in this section. All, with the exception of one couple, were families with children from Kosovo.

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

The closed section of the camp is surrounded by a 3m-high solid fence, topped with barbed tape–a mesh of metal strips with sharp edges. The inhabitants are watched 24 hours a day by policemen situated in six guard rooms placed along the inside of the wall. The guards seem to do a thorough job screening new arrivals. For example, women complained that they had to strip naked in front of male guards. Apparently, when a family arrives in the camp, policemen strip search them as a group. So, the father and mother have to strip naked in front of their children. The armed guards even follow the new arrivals to their medical examinations.

There is a room where children can play for a few hours, but even these small children are under constant surveillance. Although the section in which these families are kept has plenty of rooms, the authorities often put two or three families in a single room. There are rooms in which a family with three children, along with a couple without children, have to live. Men can shave for only an hour–from 9 p.m.–and the act is again watched by armed guards. After the men finish shaving, the guards collect the razors. The next day these razors are haphazardly distributed to the “inmates.” Families with children have a hard time keeping clean. Although there is a room where they are supposed to be able to use an old-fashioned washing machine, the officials had difficulty even producing the key to the room. From the look of room inside, it was clear that the place hasn’t been used lately.

Viktor Orbán was terribly upset when some members of the European Parliament dared to bring up the treatment of Hungarian refugees in 1956. He indignantly announced that those 200,000 people who fled after the Soviets decided to quell the uprising “escaped from Soviet tanks.” Well, let’s face it, most of those refugees left Hungary in the hope of a better life. There were of course some who could be considered bona fide political refugees, but relatively few.

As for the treatment of the 56ers, let me give you a few examples from my own experience. In Eisenstadt, which was a major collection center, I was asked whether I would like to go to Wienerneustadt or the Alps. It was not a difficult choice. We received train tickets to the Carinthian Alps, where a Volkswagen bus took us to Weißensee, the highest mountain lake in Austria. There we were housed in a comfortable Gasthaus. There was only one couple with us, and naturally they received separate quarters. From our mountain resort we used to go to the nearest village, where the owner of the movie theater made it a point to order films with Hungarian themes. He never accepted any money from us. Once two of the boys returned from the village with brand new shoes because the owner of the local store had noticed that their shoes were in bad shape. When in Vienna, we didn’t have to pay for tickets on streetcars and buses and received a weekly stipend. We received meal tickets in restaurants owned by the city of Vienna, where the food was as good as any decent restaurant. Compare our welcome in Austria to the way the miserable people in the closed section of the Debrecen camp are being treated.

But since the Hungarian Helsinki Commission had the temerity to call attention to the unacceptable conditions in the so-called refugee camp, they must be part of an international conspiracy.

The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs

Yesterday I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which does not endear him to Washington. Another sore point is the Hungarian treatment of certain NGOs and the attacks of late on independent organizations that receive money from the Norwegian Civic Fund. Barack Obama specifically mentioned the importance of NGOs as watchdogs over rogue states like Hungary. One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds. But no, these attacks have shifted into even higher gear.

In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case. The Norwegians consider the investigation illegal because in their opinion the money Ökotárs distributed among several NGOs was not part of the Hungarian budget. The money never entered the Hungarian treasury in any way. The funds came straight from an office entrusted with the task located in Brussels.

If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.

As usual, Magyar Nemzet was the first publication to write about the report. Their initial article indicated that the KEHI document is already in the hands of János Lázár. From that point on Magyar Nemzet kept publishing shocking reports about the frivolous items these NGOs spent their money on. The one that caused the greatest uproar was the purchase of tampons. It turned out that the Kékpont Foundation was guilty of this particular crime. The foundation, which deals with drug addicts, gave “motivational” hygienic packages to the addicts, and the tampons were in packages distributed to the women. All these stories came out in Magyar Nemzet before the report was made available to the Ökotárs Foundation.

Yesterday at last the document itself appeared on KEHI’s website. Okotárs over the years distributed 500 million forints and KEHI found something wrong with 200 million worth of the grants. Actually, the questionable items amounted to only 10 million (about $41,000). Yet Lázár is outraged and wants to renegotiate the contract with the Norwegian government. He promptly invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to Hungary for a friendly chat. Then, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his suggestion, he added that after all he would be ready to meet the Norwegian politician in Brussels.

Norwegian flag

What will Lázár tell the “appropriate Norwegian minister”? Norway should break the contract with the Ökotárs Foundation since it is not worthy of Norway’s trust. The funds should be distributed by “state or private organizations.” The English translation of the report will be sent to the Norwegian ambassador in Budapest as well as to the European Commission.

But not all accusations are in the KEHI report. Népszabadság reported that investigators at KEHI complained about Veronika Móra’s frequent meetings with American diplomats as well as her visits to the Norwegian embassy. These kinds of contacts are suspect in the eyes of the regime, as we know from Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” speech in Romania.

Meanwhile Magyar Nemzet kept attacking both the Norwegian government and Ökotárs. Yesterday morning an article appeared in the paper which claimed, on the basis of information coming from KEHI, that Ökotárs passed on important documents for safekeeping to the Norwegian embassy. And that is not all. Officials at the embassy postdated certain documents. While KEHI investigators were at it, they decided to accuse the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) that handles the Norwegian funds in Brussels of complicity because its official suggested to Ökotárs that it move all its documents out of Hungary.

Late last night journalists from more independent media outlets began looking at the findings of KEHI. András Földes of Index observed that only in history books could one find examples of such accusations that used to lay the groundwork for show trials in the Rákosi period. And, he added, “the officials are actually proud of it.” The proof presented to the journalists did not convince them, but they surmised that the officials of KEHI simply did what was expected of them by the Hungarian government. The results were preordained. Without going into the details, the KEHI officials, by pasting together parts of different sentences, actually falsified the intended meaning of Ökotárs’s CEO. The reporter for Index cites several dubious practices of KEHI that call into question the validity of the charges.

In light of the above it is no surprise that Veronika Móra, CEO of Ökotárs, said to MTI today that it is impossible to respond to “accusations that are not supported by facts.” If the KEHI officials found irregularities, they should have described them precisely, but in the document one finds only generalizations. It is full of phrases like: “it also happened,” “there was also such a case.” Ökotárs is ready to go to court and hopes for a favorable verdict.

As for the Norwegian response to the publication of the KEHI report, according to a brief English-language article on the Norwegian internet site, The Local, the Norwegian government already considered the KEHI probe illegal and it is unlikely that after this most likely fraudulent report they will change their minds. It is worth quoting some passages from this article:

Hungary’s squeeze on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticized by Norway and the United States…. US President Barack Obama last month included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”…  Relations between the US and Hungary sank further last week when Washington issued entry bans to six unnamed Hungarian government officials it suspected of corruption. The US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, told AFP on Tuesday that “intimidation of civil society” as well as “centralisation of authority, lack of transparency, and corruption” could prevent the US continuing as an ally of Hungary.

Norway was tough all along but now it must feel even more hardened since the United States is supporting its stance on this matter.

Viktor Orbán picks another fight with the West, this time over the Southern Stream

I know that everybody is intensely interested in the Hungarian government’s latest brainstorm, the introduction of an internet tax, but I would rather wait with an analysis of this latest scandal until it becomes clear what the fate of the proposal will be. So far the reaction to this new tax has been so vehement that the government most likely will have to retreat. When an article in the right-wing Válasz predicts that “if we had an election today Fidesz would lose big,” I think it’s time to order a quick turnabout. I would like to add just one observation on a related topic: the Hungarian budget must be in a sorry state if an additional tax must be levied on soap and detergent, allegedly because they are harmful to the environment. Let’s not contemplate the detrimental effect of curtailing the use of soap because this would take us too far afield.

So, instead of dealing with the effects of an internet tax, I will look at other recent governmental decisions that have been detrimental to Hungary’s relations with the United States and the European Union. What I have in mind is Viktor Orbán’s flirtation with Putin’s Russia, which is being watched with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Already there have been a couple of moves indicating close cooperation with Russia that raised eyebrows in the democratic world: the building of a nuclear power plant by a Russian firm on Russian money, Hungary’s refusal to support the common European position on the Russian sanctions, a tête-à-tête between Gazprom and the Hungarian prime minister followed by the Hungarian decision to stop supplying gas to Ukraine, and the government’s decision to let Gazprom use Hungarian facilities to store gas in case Russia cuts off the flow of gas through Ukraine.

These moves worried and irritated the United States and the European Union, only compounding their concerns about all the transgressions of the rules of democracy committed by the Fidesz government against the Hungarian people. Years have gone by; at last western politicians are slowly, ever so slowly deciding that they have had enough. After Norway it was the United States that openly showed its dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policies of the Orbán government. Yet, as the last few days have demonstrated, Viktor Orbán is not changing tactics. On the contrary, as I wrote yesterday, he is strengthening ties with countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. Almost as if Viktor Orbán purposefully wanted to have an open break with Hungary’s western allies.

Yesterday one could still hope that Viktor Orbán would  come to his senses and would at least make some gestures, but as yesterday’s meeting between Péter Szijjártó and Victoria Nuland indicated, the new Hungarian foreign minister was sent to Washington without a Plan B. By today, however, most likely in his absence, the government came out with a new idea. What if the Hungarian office of taxation and customs (NAV) announces that in the last several years they have been diligently pursuing their investigation of those criminal elements who through tax fraud unfairly competed against the American company Bunge? Maybe it will work. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, announced this morning that four of the culprits are already in jail. Very nice, but there is a fly in the ointment. Most likely the U.S. State Department remembers, as I do, that András Horváth, the whistleblower at NAV, months ago gave a detailed description of the ways in which these criminals operated. He asked NAV to investigate and disclose their findings, but the managers of the tax office first fired Horváth and a couple of days later announced that after an internal investigation found everything in perfect order. So I doubt that the Americans will fall for that bogus story.

Yesterday Portfólió asked “how to make the USA more angry with Hungary,” but they “did not have the faintest idea that the government has been holding the best answer to that and it beats every idea [the Portfólió] have ever had.” So, what is it? In order to understand the situation we have to go back to the controversy over Russia’s new pipeline already under construction–the Southern Stream–that would supply Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, and Italy. The United States and the European Union were never too happy about the project and now, in the middle of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, they are especially leery of Putin’s plans. In fact, the European Commission asked the Bulgarians to stop the construction of the pipeline in their country. They obliged. The European Union also warned Serbia that they can forget about future membership in the European Union if they agree to support the project right now.

southern stream

In Hungary construction has not yet begun, but the Orbán government seemed to be afraid that something similar would happen to them what happened to the Bulgarians. They decided to act. Changing the law by now has become a Fidesz pastime. Today Antal Rogán proposed an amendment to a 2008 law on natural gas that will allow any gas company to construct a pipeline. The original law, in harmony with laws of a similar nature in other countries, specified that the company in charge of the construction has to be a certified transmission system operator who must conform to international rules. Since pipelines are transnational projects, the countries involved must coordinate their individual projects. What the Hungarians hope is that as a result of this amendment Hungary will not be bound by any international constraint. Starting the project will depend only on the Hungarian Energy Office, which could give permission to any company it chooses to construct the pipeline. Portfólió suspects that both the European Union and the United States will be “furious” upon hearing this latest Hungarian ruse.

Clever Hungarian lawyers, who seem to specialize in circumventing the letter of the law, might think that this scheme is foolproof, but I suspect that EU lawyers will find the legislation full of holes. Hungarian papers suggest that the Orbán government is playing for time. But the case is settled, they argue; the pipeline will be built. Surely no one will force Hungary to destroy it.

Let’s contemplate another scenario. What if the European Union and the United States in joint action put such pressure on the Hungarian government that the plan must be abandoned? As it is, according to analysts, Budapest is already between a rock and a hard place. When political scientist Gábor Török, who has the annoying habit of sitting on the fence, says that “the Orbán government is in big trouble. It was before but now it is different. It will not fall, surely not now…. But if it does not recognize the fork in the road or if it chooses the wrong road, we will mark the events of today as a definite turning point.” And in an interview this afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány twice repeated his belief that Hungary is at the verge of leaving the Union and, when it happens, it will not be Viktor Orbán’s choice.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I do predict that the screws will be tightened. Among those who will apply pressure will be Norway since the Hungarian government audit office just came out with its report claiming that Ökotárs, the organization in charge of distributing the Norwegian Civil Funds, has used the money inappropriately. A criminal investigation will be launched.

We know that Barack Obama said that the American government supports NGOs in countries where they are under fire. Today we learned that Veronika Móra, chairman of Ökotárs, was a member of a delegation that visited Washington in late September. During that trip the NGO leaders were received by President Obama in the White House. By contrast, Péter Szijjártó did not get any higher than one of the assistant undersecretaries of the State Department. If I were Viktor Orbán, I would take that as a warning.

The Hungarian right’s latest: The Soros-Clinton-Obama axis

In liberal circles almost everybody is certain that the warnings of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will not inspire Viktor Orbán to abandon his relentless pursuit to make the very existence of independent civil groups impossible. In fact, the smear campaign has only intensified in the last couple of days.

Official Hungary is quiet on the subject unless one can take seriously the comments of a newcomer to the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, Undersecretary Mónika Balatoni, who just can’t get over the fact that “western Europeans don’t understand us,” the freedom-loving people of Hungary. After all, already in St. Stephen’s time Hungarians “chose Christianity.” And there is Tibor Navracsics, whose “European commitment cannot be questioned.” This is, of course, merely a repetition of Szijjártó’s reference to freedom-loving Hungarians.

It is true that the Christian Democrats chimed in by repeating the government’s claim that Obama’s criticisms are groundless. In their opinion, the attack on Hungary is taking place because the Hungarian government opted for Christian democracy instead of liberal democracy. Jobbik naturally is on the side of the government with the difference that they say what the Orbán government does not want to: The president of the United States “openly admitted that his country constantly interferes in other countries’ internal affairs.” Since Obama talked about the United States’ national security, which is served by the existence of strong civil groups, Hungary in turn should restrict the foreign-financed groups which pose national security risks to Hungary.

But the real dirty work is being left to the government media and so-called  pro-Fidesz “political scientists.” In the political scientist category there is Gábor G. Fodor, “strategic director” of the Fidesz think tank Századvég. According to him, Obama’s speech was not about Hungary and other authoritarian regimes but about the United States. The speech shows the weakness, not the strength of America. After all, the president spoke of “national security interests.” And because of Obama’s confession about American national security interests, “it’s possible the Norwegian monies don’t come from Norway.” In plain English, the United States is funneling money into Hungary and other countries through Norway.

Spiler, a blogger, goes farther than Fodor. He notes that George Soros and Norway are the most generous supporters of the Clinton Foundation, and the same George Soros and Norway support Hungarian liberal groups. With a leap of logic our blogger lays the groundwork for a charge of conspiracy. Perhaps Clinton’s critical comments are payment for the generosity of George Soros and the government of Norway. On the basis of Spiler’s blog, Szilárd Szőnyi of Válasz is already talking about George Soros’s “civilian armies.” He describes Spiler’s post as a reliable source on the Soros-Clinton-Obama-Reykjavík axis. (I trust he doesn’t think that Reykjavík is the capital of Norway.)

George Soros, the bogiey man

George Soros, the bogeyman

The attack on the Hungarian civil groups was intensified by an article that appeared in the print edition of Heti Válasz today. The author is Bálint Ablonczay, a journalist with the reputation of being a moderate Fidesz supporter. But it appears that when the chips are down and the regime he supports receives harsh criticism from important sources, Ablonczay becomes a fierce defender of the regime. In this article, which is not available online, he justifies the Orbán government’s harassment of the civil groups by trying to prove that these NGOs are not really independent but are “liberal activist groups.” After all, they approach the question of abortion only as a women’s rights issue. They are interested in families only as places of domestic violence. Or they concentrate on alternative lifestyles. Finally, he cites an article published by an Israeli organization, NGO Monitor. It was written last year by Alexander H. Joffe, who claimed that the Soros-supported NGOs were adding to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. His conclusion is that Soros’s network is a powerful international tool that works against individual governments through these civil groups.

Ablonczay did a lousy job at fact checking. Csaba Tibor Tóth, a blogger, immediately wrote a post with the title “Heti Válasz and the Israeli Right against Soros.” NGO Monitor’s founder and president worked for a number of years in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. The organization is really an arm of the present Israeli government, which hates the Israeli NGOs about as much as Orbán hates the Hungarian ones. NGO Monitor finds all independent groups “extremists.” Even groups attached to the UN are extremists. According to Tóth, NGO Monitor is something like the Hungarian CÖF, except much more sophisticated.

Magyar Nemzet published an article today about an alleged Soros conspiracy. The paper learned that George Soros cast his net over the civil groups. It was George Soros who financed the organizations in charge of the disbursement of the Norwegian funds throughout Eastern Europe. The article lists Romanian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian NGOs somehow connected to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The implication is that there is a supranational network organized by George Soros to do what? To topple these governments? How is it that no other governments in the region sent a squad of policemen to the office of one of these disbursement centers or suspended the tax numbers of all of them? Are they not worried about this conspiracy?

The problem is not with Clinton, Obama, the Norwegian government, George Soros or the NGOs but with Viktor Orbán’s government. They can concoct conspiracy theories to their hearts’ content about a supranational global attack on Christian Hungary, but I doubt that anyone will fall for that nonsense with the exception of Hungary’s right-wing voters.