Tag Archives: Orbán government

Hungarians oppose the Orbán government’s policy toward ethnic Hungarians living abroad

Originally, I considered writing about the “gala interview” that László Kövér gave to Magyar Idők yesterday. I must admit that this decision was based mostly on the couple of reactions I read, which insisted that Kövér’s interview was the craziest he has ever given, that it’s becoming apparent to everyone that the president of the Hungarian parliament is not quite normal. Index, ahead of the interview’s publication, was sure that the interview would have “exciting” parts, while a journalist from Pesti Bulvár, a liberal internet site, was flabbergasted after reading it.

So, foolish me, I thought this interview would give us new insight into Kövér as well as into the latest mindset of the Fidesz leadership. Perhaps I have developed an immunity to everything that comes from the characters who are running the country at the moment, but I found nothing new in this “gala interview.” I guess what shocked the journalists of Pesti Bulvár was that Kövér announced that he wouldn’t be surprised if the European Union collapsed in his lifetime. Kövér is 58 years old, so the timetable is pretty tight. Aside from this prophecy, Kövér repeated his belief in the conspiracy of certain clandestine powers (háttérhatalmak) that, at the time it was first floated by Viktor Orbán a year ago, consisted of the U.S. government, the Clintons, George Soros, and the civic organizations financed by him. By now the composition of this group of evil spirits has changed somewhat. After the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, “a certain segment of the intellectual, political, and economic elite” joined the conspiracy because “they are trying their best to hamstring the democratically elected president.” So, instead of the U.S. government, Kövér considers the American liberal elite part of the hidden powers that run the world. I fail to see what is new in all that.

On the other hand, there is something that is worth discussing. A new poll was just released showing that Hungarian citizens living in Hungary have serious reservations about the financial assistance given to ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries. They also reject their participation in Hungarian elections.

Those of you who follow the discussions among readers of Hungarian Spectrum may recall that only a few days ago I expressed my personal misgivings about giving voting rights to people who have possibly never set foot in the country. They don’t live and work there, but now they have the right to determine the political fate of the country, possibly at the expense of those who have to carry the political and economic burden of it. Ex Tor especially took exception to my position, saying that there can be no citizenship without voting rights. At that time I looked at the electoral laws of several European countries and found that most of them do in fact grant voting rights but that there are exceptions. In any case, I believe that the Hungarian situation is unique, if for nothing else but the large number of votes expected from the neighboring countries. If the government’s plans materialize, about ten percent of all votes cast would come from abroad.

Now let’s see the results of the poll Publicus Institute published for Vasárnapi Hírek. Just as I said earlier, my hunch was that Hungarians wouldn’t mind giving citizenship to those who can prove Hungarian ancestry but who were born and still live in another country, be it one of the neighboring countries or countries such as Canada, the U.S., France, or Germany. The majority, however, object to certain privileges these ethnic Hungarians receive at the moment. They resent the sizable amount of money that is being spent on projects in the neighboring countries to benefit ethnic Hungarians. They oppose their entitlement to various social benefits in Hungary. They have serious objections to the voting rights of dual citizens. They consider the present law, which makes a distinction between new dual citizens and Hungarian citizens who work abroad, discriminatory and unfair. And when it comes to spending billions on the football academy in the Szekler-inhabited area of Romania, they are really up in arms (-81%).

Anyone who’s interested in all the details of the poll can visit Publicus’s website. Here I will summarize only the most important findings. On the whole, there is strong support (68%) for granting dual citizenship to those who want to become Hungarian citizens, but backing for the legislation that granted it varies greatly, depending on party affiliation. Fidesz and Jobbik are strong defenders of the measure, while the majority of MSZP voters object even to dual citizenship as a concept. (Publicus has the habit of putting all left-liberal parties under MSZP.)

The situation is entirely different when it comes to the fabulous amount of money the Orbán government spends on ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Slovakia. The majority of respondents disapprove of the policy of providing social benefits similar to the ones they receive to people who have never lived in the country. People feel strongly against providing dual citizens with pensions, paid leaves for new mothers, travel discounts, and welfare benefits (60-70%), but somewhat strangely 55% would provide them with healthcare. When it comes to the reasons for Fidesz’s generosity toward ethnic Hungarians, the majority of the Hungarian voters cannot be fooled. Or at least only Fidesz voters (57%) believe in their party leaders’ altruism. The most skeptical bunch are the Jobbik voters (77%), closely followed by MSZP (74%), but uncommitted voters are not far behind (63%). The fact that new dual citizens can vote via mail as opposed to Hungarian citizens working abroad, who must travel miles to reach the embassy or a consulate, is considered to be discriminatory and unfair by 81% of the people. On the crucial question of voting rights, 57% of the respondents indicated their opposition to the present practice.

Although the Orbán government’s “national policies” (nemzetpolitika) are unpopular, the government considers the “investment” worthwhile, as is obvious from its frantic spending on Hungarian ethnic groups lately. The government spends hand over fist on those “sisters and brothers” abroad who are squarely in the Fidesz camp. The extra votes Fidesz expects to receive from them are considered to be crucial in the forthcoming election. Moreover, since there is no independent oversight of the incoming ballots, their numbers can be manipulated, depending on need. Let’s not forget that Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in 2010 was announced after the foreign votes were counted. It was highly suspicious then, and it will be equally suspicious if a similar situation occurs in 2018.

August 20, 2017

Life in the Hungarian transit zones

The other day I happened upon an opinion piece in Magyar Idők written by Georg Spöttle, one of the many somewhat mysterious national security experts attracted to the Orbán government. He is allegedly a retired German army officer who has permanently settled in Hungary. His background is murky, as one can see from an interview he gave to Magyar Nemzet in 2002.

Spöttle’s op-ed piece was supposed to quiet the hysteria created by Magyar Idők, a Fidesz MP, and three mayors in the Lake Balaton area over the vacation plans of Migration Aid for a few asylum seekers. But Spöttle spent about half of the article on the conditions in the two by now infamous transit zones set up by the Hungarian government for refugees waiting for an official decision on their cases.

Access to the zones at Röszke and Tompa is severely limited. In addition to organizations of the United Nations, six aid organizations can visit the camps. Spöttle, due to his privileged position, had no problem paying a visit and gave a glowing report on the circumstances that exist there. If he had to choose between “a transit zone in Berlin and Röszke,” he would choose the latter. Let’s not quibble over the fact that Berlin has no transit zones like the ones the Hungarians set up along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian accommodations are actually prisons, from which the only escape route leads back to Serbia. According to Spöttle, the mostly Afghan families who currently live there are enjoying the few weeks they have to spend in containers enclosed by a barbed-wired fence and under heavy guard. He saw many smiling and waving children playing football.

This description is in stark contrast to what others who are familiar with the conditions in these transit zones report. A couple of refugees who, after spending some time in the Tompa camp decided to return to Serbia, described the conditions there. Apparently, this particular camp has five separate “sectors” sealed tight with a four-meter barbed-wire fence around each. Inhabitants of one sector cannot cross to another. Each sector has about 70-80 people, including 20 children who had to share a 10×10 m area. The metal containers are not air-conditioned and are therefore unbearably hot, especially given the sweltering weather this year in Hungary. There is no shade, not even any grass, only white gravel. Each person is heavily guarded. A UN official described a scene where a sick man was escorted 20-30 meters to the doctor in the other sector by five armed guards. People who had to visit a hospital are handcuffed. All in all, the conditions are horrendous and, what is more important, illegal. Also, apparently the quality and quantity of food is inadequate, especially in the case of children and pregnant women. Add to all this uncaring officials and guards. The two men could recall only one decent person in the whole bunch, a blonde woman who would actually say hello and smile at the children. Of course, the Hungarian authorities deny these charges and claim that there are all sorts of amenities the former inmates and UN observers failed to notice, like the availability of Arab-language television channels and playrooms for the children.

Source: Index / Photo András Földes

All this sounds pretty bad, but the story Index reported about a week ago is truly hair-raising. It is about an Iranian-Afghan couple with three children and a fourth on its way. The wife’s first husband was killed by members of the Taliban and she was raped, but eventually she managed to escape to Iran where she married an Iranian. The family for political reasons left Iran and ended up in Greece, where a human trafficker insisted that they split up. The woman and the children went by car and the husband hid in a truck. The husband made it, but the wife and children were caught in Macedonia.

In our technologically advanced age the husband knew precisely the whereabouts of his family and decided to go to Macedonia to pick them up. He made the mistake of traveling through Hungary on his way south and was caught and placed in a sealed refugee camp. In order to get out of the camp as soon as possible, he decided to seek asylum in Hungary. After four months spent in what amounted to jail and having been denied asylum, he crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border on his way to Macedonia, where he was reunited with his family. They turned north and in April 2017 reached the Hungarian border, where they were placed in one of the transit zones. But then came the real surprise. Since the husband had been denied asylum by the Hungarian authorities, he is not entitled to food rations while locked up in the transit zone. So, he must live on the leftovers of the rations his wife and two older children receive, which are meager. The smallest child gets powdered milk. In the last three months he received three food packages from the Red Cross, the Hungarian Reformed Church, and the Hungarian Ecumenical Aid Organization.

The paddy wagon / Photo taken by the Iranian husband

The wife, seven months pregnant, would need regular medical checkups, but the only means of transportation is a paddy wagon travelling on a dirt road. She is afraid to sit down on the very narrow wooden seat, fearing injury, but standing is not exactly a safe solution either. She is fearful of losing the baby and is getting more and more distraught. According to the husband, “one of the officers told us that if we want a car in which she can sit down they will bring one for 50 euros, which we don’t have.” How absolutely disgusting.

I haven’t found this particular story yet in the foreign media, but news of the cruel treatment of asylum seekers by Hungarian authorities has been spreading all over the world. Although it is the current Hungarian government that in the final analysis is responsible for this inhumane treatment of the refugees, unfortunately there are just far too many enablers who are ready to lend assistance and support to the government. The powers-that-be have been inculcating fear in the citizens, which by now has morphed into widespread hatred of all outsiders. Index asked at the beginning of its article on the Iranian-Afghan family: “What do you think of a country, dear reader, which treats a family with small children this way?” Indeed, what do you think?

August 17, 2017

What are Soros’s solutions to the refugee crisis? Not what Orbán claims

Most people will be surprised to hear that until now no one bothered to publish a Hungarian translation of George Soros’s article “This is Europe’s Last Chance to Fix Its Refugee Policy,” which appeared in Foreign Policy. This is especially surprising since it was on the basis of this article that the Orbán government declared Soros to be the devil incarnate who wants to abolish nation states, destroy European culture, and inundate Hungary with migrants.

The article was written a year ago, shortly after the Brexit vote and before the rerun of the Austrian presidential election, the Hungarian referendum on refugee policy, and naturally all the national elections in Europe that took place in 2017. Soros looked upon the refugee crisis and Brexit as threats to the very existence of the European Union. He was naturally concerned over the growth of xenophobia and nationalism, with the accompanying rise of far-right parties and ideologies. Under these circumstances, he felt that a “comprehensive policy ought to remain the highest priority for European leaders; the union cannot survive without it.” What followed were his own recommendations for such a comprehensive approach, which would be built on “seven pillars.”

Before he outlined his “seven pillars,” Soros stressed that “the refugee crisis is not a one-off event.” The world must expect high migration pressures in the coming years, and therefore the European Union and other western countries must together work out an orderly and humane immigration policy.

The seven pillars are:

  1. The European Union, like the United States or Canada, should set a limit of legal immigration of 300,000 people a year from countries where most of these refugees and economic migrants are currently. The rest of the world could also take in the same number of people. This would be a high enough number that it would discourage illegal border crossings. Moreover, once this guaranteed quota is in place, those people illegally crossing the border of the European Union would be disqualified from being admitted as legal immigrants.
  2. The European Union must regain control of its borders. The chaos that exists now alienates and scares the public. The remedy is to provide Greece and Italy with sufficient funds to care for the asylum-seekers temporarily.
  3. Funds are necessary for the long-term challenges connected to the refugee crisis, which at the moment are not available. In 2014 the member states and the European Parliament reduced and capped the EU budget at 1.23 percent of the sum of its members’ GDP, which is simply inadequate. Soros thinks that 30 billion euros a year will be needed to carry out a comprehensive asylum plan, which is a lot of money but still less than the political, human, and economic cost of a protracted crisis. How should the EU get the money? “By raising a substantial amount of debt backed by the EU’s relatively small budget.” The EU has a low amount of debt, and “it should therefore leverage this budget like all sovereign governments in the world do.”
  4. The EU must build common mechanisms for protecting borders, determining asylum claims, and relocating refugees.
  5. Soros is against the stillborn resettlement and relocation programs. “The union cannot coerce either member states or refugees to participate in these programs. They must be voluntary.” He suggests a program based on public-private initiatives in which small groups of individuals, community organizations, and companies support the integration of the newcomers. He brings up the example of Canada, which in four months admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees before the summer of 2016 and promised to settle 10,000 more by the end of the year. That number for Canada would be the equivalent of the EU allowing the settlement of 4.5 million immigrants annually.
  6. The European Union and the international community in general should be much more generous in their support of the refugee-hosting countries and African nations which at the moment receive financial aid only in exchange for migration control.
  7. Soros shares the general view that, given the EU’s aging population, it “must eventually create an environment in which economic migration is welcome.” Merkel’s generous act “was not well thought through” because such great numbers couldn’t be properly handled. Nonetheless, in his opinion “the benefits brought by migration far outweigh the costs of integrating immigrants.”

Soros is convinced that “pursuing these seven principles is essential in order to calm public fears, reduce chaotic flows of asylum seekers, ensure that newcomers are fully integrated, establish mutually beneficial relations with countries in the Middle East and Africa, and meet Europe’s international humanitarian obligations.”

©AP / Anja Niedringhaus

It is this article that is the basis of the Orbán government’s accusations against George Soros as the evil manipulator who wants to flood Europe with millions of non-European, non-Christian people, as a result of which Europe would lose its character. But as we can see, Soros agrees with Viktor Orbán on many issues. He thinks that the compulsory settlement of refugees is outright wrong. It is unfair to the local population as well as to the refugees. He also puts a great deal of emphasis on the effective defense of the European Union’s borders, just like Orbán. He, like Orbán, also wants to give more money to countries outside of Europe which are the first stations in the migrants’ journey to Europe.

Viktor Orbán may agree with many of George Soros’s ideas, but when it comes to the immigration of non-Europeans to the continent the Hungarian prime minister is adamant. He refuses to acknowledge the continuing migration pressures that force the EU to find solutions. Orbán’s answer of total exclusion is unrealistic. There is no way of preventing millions of people from entering the territory of the European Union.  For one country to erect a fence is a useless exercise. His boasting about his own fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border, which allegedly defends the whole of Europe from millions of illegal immigrants, is outright ridiculous. The only thing he managed to achieve with the fence was to prevent the asylum-seekers and economic migrants from traveling through Hungary toward their final destination.

Orbán also disagrees with Soros on the beneficial effects of immigration. First of all, he believes that current demographic trends can be solved from within, which, as the trends over the last 30-40 years show, is simply not true. No matter what the Orbán government does to promote higher birthrates, a serious turnabout is most unlikely. But for economic growth you need a robust internal market and a vibrant work force. In Hungary not only is the birthrate very low, but emigration is high. According to the latest statistics, every seventh Hungarian child is born abroad.

What is disgusting about the anti-Soros campaign, in addition to its anti-Semitic undertones, is that the government propaganda accuses Soros of things he doesn’t advocate. Most important, he doesn’t support the forcible settlement of refugees in Hungary against the will of the people, as the Orbán government claims. Thus, the whole anti-Soros campaign rests on a lie.

It is high time for Hungarians to read the complete text of Soros’s article which was published in HVG shortly after its publication. I just hope that people will take the time to read it. If they do, they will realize that the Orbán government concocted a whopper of a lie about Soros’s designs on Hungary.

July 9, 2017

Teaching Hungarian doctors to say hello

On June 2 several newspapers reported that a pregnant woman, after leaving the Ferenc Jahn Hospital in Budapest and while waiting for a taxi, collapsed in an epileptic seizure. The taxi driver had the good sense to hold her head to prevent her from injuring herself on the hard pavement. With the help of a passer-by he phoned the ambulance service. The dispatcher wouldn’t send an ambulance and instead suggested going to the hospital for help. But the door was locked and no amount of knocking or honking the car’s horn elicited a response. It took several more calls before the woman’s physician appeared at the door with a nurse. The taxi driver rightly pointed out that the problem is not only the state of Hungarian healthcare but also the attitude of doctors to their patients. I should add that this incident occurred at the same hospital where for several days no one noticed that there was a dead body in a restroom that served visitors to the neonatal unit.

I don’t know what our taxi driver would have thought if he had listened to a conversation between György Bolgár of Klub Rádió and a physician a day after the incident. The illustrious colleague explained to Bolgár why the hospital did what it was supposed to do. Just because the woman collapsed in front of the hospital, the institution had no obligation to accept her. He illustrated the case with the following example. Can anyone whose BMW breaks down in front of a BMW factory expect his car to be fixed right there just because the trouble occurred in front of the plant? People in a hospital have no time for such unexpected incidents. Who can go out? A doctor who is with another patient? Or a nurse who has to look after 40 patients? Yes, the taxi driver could only phone the ambulance service. Soon enough another physician, a woman this time, phoned in. She kept repeating, robot-like, that “there are rules,” and the rules say one must turn to the ambulance service in such cases. Period.

Where it all happened

And what was the reaction of the hospital administration once the story got out? The statement the hospital issued revealed that the security guard inside was fully aware of what was going on in front of the entrance. In fact, he was taking notes. “Everybody knows,” the hospital said, that between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. the main entrance to the hospital is closed. One must use the entrance to the emergency department. As for the incident itself, “it is unfortunate that an epileptic seizure may occur at any time in the case of an epileptic patient.” The hospital administration conducted “a thorough investigation” and found that everybody followed the expected protocol. I should add that the emergency entrance is almost a whole kilometer away from where the incident occurred.

Only a few days after this incident the Állami Egészségügyi Ellátó Központ (ÁEEK), or National Healthcare Services Center, published a so-called performance evaluation, covering the 2013-2015 period. It is an extremely detailed manual of more than 1,000 pages on every possible aspect of the Hungarian healthcare system. Those who are not quite ready to wade through the incredible amount of information should at least read the summary (összefoglaló), which is depressing enough. Within the European Union, Hungary, together with countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania, is at the very bottom, whether as measured by mortality rate, life expectancy, or number of healthy years. There are incredible regional differences. For example, in Central Hungary, which includes Budapest, men live 6.6 years and women 8.4 years longer than their fellow citizens in Northern Hungary. The correlation between educational attainment and health is a well-known fact, which has a large literature. A man with a grade 8 education will die 12 years earlier than a man with a college degree. In the case of women, the difference is 5.6 years.

But what made the greatest impression on those who read about the study in the media was the notion of “avoidable deaths” which, according to the study, in 2014 was 26% or 32,000 deaths. Fourteen percent of these “avoidable deaths” could have been prevented by timely and appropriate care while 12% of them could have been prevented by better public health practices. Half of those who died before the age of 65 could have been saved if people were more health conscious. With these statistics Hungary ranks 26th of the 28 member states.

In addition to this massive study, Political Capital together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung organized a conference, “Can healthcare be cured?” Attila Juhász of Political Capital published a short, 30-page study with the same title which he summarized at the conference. Zsófia Kollányi, assistant professor of health policy and economy, mostly talked about Hungarians’ ever worsening health and societal conditions. She gave a few intriguing examples of the depth of the problem. For example, Swedish men live 9 years longer than Hungarian men, but the “real drama” is that if we compare college-educated Swedish and Hungarian men the difference is only five years. On the other hand, if we compare Swedish and Hungarian men with elementary educations the difference is 12 years. So, a greater emphasis on education would also most likely improve Hungary’s health statistics. However, the Orbán regime’s educational policy is moving in exactly the opposite direction.

After Fidesz won the election in 2010, one of the first moves of the Orbán government was to abolish a recently established independent organization that dealt with patients’ complaints. I’m sure that this was at the request of the medical profession, which in those days at least was a strong supporter of Fidesz. This independent watchdog organization was not exactly the favorite of physicians. Márton Asbóth, the lawyer in charge of health issues at TASZ, told the audience that every year 3,000 people turn to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union with their complaints. So, there would be a great need for the resurrection of such an organization.

Finally, as György Leitner of the Primus Magán Egészségügyi Szolgáltatók Egyesülete (Association of Prime Private Healthcare Providers) said, “Hungarian doctors must be taught to greet people and shake hands.” Andrea Mezei of the Emberibb Egészségügyért Közhasznú Alapítvány (Foundation for More Humane Healthcare) also complained about the attitude of Hungarian doctors toward their patients. According to her experiences, “a cashier at the checkout counter is able to greet the shoppers, but in the doctor-patient relation this is often not true.” Healthcare facilities are like “islands” out of touch with Hungarian society at large. Her foundation tries “to bring normalcy into hospitals” by organizing training for doctors and nurses. They are not welcome in every hospital, and in fact in one hospital the nurses petitioned the hospital administration to prevent them from organizing such training. Leitner, representing the private healthcare providers, seconded Mezei’s observations by saying that not only is money missing from healthcare but also the positive attitude that adds to the satisfaction of the patients.

Which takes us back to the Ferenc Jahn Hospital’s attitude toward the woman with the epileptic seizure and the doctor who compared a hospital to a BMW plant.

June 16, 2017

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017

Orbán’s latest foray into world affairs: the Iranian-Hungarian nuclear deal

A couple of months ago I reported that Iran and Hungary were on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation. The lack of transparency of the Orbán government is such that the Hungarian public learns about deals between Budapest and countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. from foreign sources. This was also the case with the Iranian-Hungarian “declaration of intent” regarding nuclear cooperation that was signed by the two countries on April 8 in Tehran.

Cozy relations between Iran and Hungary began with a visit of Viktor Orbán to Tehran in late November 2015 and continued in February 2016 with negotiations on a joint project to develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. In November László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent a whole week in Iran where he praised Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services” and promised Hungary’s support of Iran’s fight against terrorism. In order “to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures,” Hungary’s Eximbank extended an 85 million euro line of credit to Iran.

The news that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, had signed such an agreement stunned the government-critical media as well as the opposition. After all, it was only in January 2016 that sanctions against Iran, because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, were lifted. It also seemed to be out of character for the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian laws on the books. Moreover, if the Orbán government expects better treatment at the hand of the Trump White House, making a nuclear deal with Iran is not the best way to curry favor. It is a well-known fact that Donald Trump eyes the Iranian regime with even greater suspicion than his predecessor did and until very recently was ready to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 altogether.

The timing of the signing was also unfortunate. The agreement between Iran and Hungary took place on the very same day, April 8, that Russia notified the United States that it was suspending a communication hotline between Moscow and the Pentagon following a U.S. air strike on the Shayrat airfield. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the government in the Syrian civil war. At the time of the signing of the Iranian-Hungarian agreement, Iran was considering the deployment of ground forces “to counter U.S. intervention in Syria.” Iran and the United States are also on a collision course in Yemen. Only a couple of months earlier, in February, Trump said that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with Iran. In addition, at about the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 people and 12 entities under the U.S. Iran sanctions authority. As Csaba Káncz, whose articles on foreign affairs appear regularly on Privatbankar.hu, said, the Hungarian “government poked its nose into the mid-eastern powder-keg,” which is not the wisest move in these fluid circumstances. In any case, if Viktor Orbán seriously wants to develop good relations with the Trump administration, the road to that goal is certainly not through Tehran.

A month later, on May 6, Zsolt Semjén showed up in Belgrade, where he met Iran’s ambassador to Budapest, Gholamali Rajabi Yazdi. Of course, Hungarians learned about this meeting from an Iranian source, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Why these two men had to meet in Belgrade is a puzzle in and of itself. Otherwise, IRNA’s description of the topics discussed sounded innocent enough. “Semjén called for the enhancement of cooperation between the Iranian and Hungarian cities of Tehran and Budapest, Shiraz and Pécs, and Yazd and Jászberény.” As for increased economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, he expressed his hope that stronger banking relations between Hungary and Iran would bolster trade between them.

Zsolt Semjén with the Iranian ambassador in Belgrade / IRNA

Meanwhile, Bernadett Szél (LMP), a tenacious opponent of nuclear energy and the construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, demanded the release of the agreement’s text on nuclear cooperation signed in April. Since it is only a “declaration of intent,” little can be learned about specifics from the text, but the emphasis is on education, training and research, and the free flow of information between the parties. There is, however, mention of “joint investment projects” related to nuclear energy. It is also likely that the Orbán government wants to use EU funds for some of these joint projects because the “declaration of intent” states that “the Parties shall endeavor to use the funds set up by the European Union for nuclear safety cooperation between the European Union and Iran within the framework of this Declaration of Intent.”

What truly worries people who are distrustful of Iran’s intention is that the “declaration of intent,” although it talks only about the peaceful use of nuclear power, doesn’t contain any guarantee that Iran will actually use whatever information it receives from the Hungarians for peaceful purposes. There is no bilateral monitoring or international mechanism mentioned in the document. The likely scenario is that Iranian nuclear experts and students will come to Hungary to work together on the development of the 25-watt mini-reactor. And then, critics ask, what will happen to the nuclear waste produced in the process? LMP politicians find the “the deal extremely risky.” Moreover, they don’t quite understand why Hungary has to get involved in any kind of cooperation with Iran “in the field of nuclear energy.”

Meanwhile, Iranian-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. A few days ago the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups, and human rights violations. To become law, the measure must pass the Republican-led House of Representatives and be signed by Donald Trump which, I think, can be taken for granted. I should also mention that Iran, perhaps not without reason, considers Trump’s response to the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran “repugnant.” Trump said that “we grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times.” However, he added, “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Given the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and Israel and its antagonism toward Iran, it is indeed difficult to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he signs nuclear deals, however innocent the “declaration of intent” may sound, with the Iran of the ayatollahs. Has he already decided that pursuing a U.S.-friendly policy, even with Trump in power, is a fool’s errand?

June 11, 2017

Government media on foreign affairs: The British election

For today I chose a topic that may help readers become more familiar with the Hungarian government media’s coverage of foreign news: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election that brought political uncertainty to the United Kingdom and that greatly weakened the May-led Conservative Party.

As is often the case, the inspiration for this post came from a friend from Hungary who called my attention to an article in Origo that kept insisting, even after the election results showed that the Conservatives hadn’t achieved a majority, that the Tory victory was spectacular.

The Hungarian government has a clear preference for the Tories. Orbán had excellent relations with David Cameron, and Cameron’s departure after the Brexit vote was a heavy blow to the Hungarian prime minister. He lost a powerful friend in the European Council. Moreover, the Labour Party led by the “Marxist” Corbyn is an anathema as far as the far-right Fidesz is concerned.

Flórián Hecker, a regular op-ed writer of Origo, wrote a wildly optimistic forecast of the election results on June 8 when British newspapers were already full of devastating descriptions of the very poor Tory campaign and the likelihood that there would be an unexpected turnabout in public sentiment. Hecker predicted that “Conservatives are in the home stretch and Labour in the lee,” although he admitted (in a seeming lapse of logic) that the “Jeremy Corbyn-led party had somewhat forged ahead.” In Hecker’s view, the really important issues of the British election were terrorism and migration. The two terrorist attacks and May’s radical reaction were helping the Conservatives. The majority of the Brits are still pro-Brexit and May’s hard Brexit stance also helps May’s chances, while Corbyn’s desire for the U.K. to have access to the EU market is not a popular position in Britain.

After the election Origo announced the results with surprising enthusiasm. “It was the Conservative Party that finished first in the British parliamentary election. The exit polls indicated their victory with 314 seats, which they surpassed by a little.” Yes, this is an exact translation. The article dismissed Labour’s gains by saying: “266 seats were predicted for the Labour party [but] they received a bit fewer.” Moreover, nowhere in the article do we learn outright that the Conservative Party hadn’t won enough seats to form a majority government. The closest the article comes to the hard truth that Theresa May’s gamble failed is the muddled statement that “the Conservatives may be in the majority with the Democratic Unionists.”

A day later, on June 9, another article appeared in Origo, heralding that “the Conservative party has won the snap election with a convincing ascendancy.” This time the “impressive” win was interpreted as a supportive vote on Brexit. Origo consulted a foreign policy expert from Századvég, who said that the number one topic in Great Britain is still the country’s relationship with the European Union. Terrorism and national security, he said, despite the recent terrorist attacks, played a relatively insignificant role in the election results.

Today Magyar Idők ran an editorial by Zoltán Kottász, an old supporter of the British Conservatives, who a couple of months ago predicted a conservative turn from France through Germany all the way to Eastern Europe. This time he admitted that Theresa May made a lot of mistakes, but “the fact is that she won” and her situation is not significantly worse today than it was before the election. As the headline of the op-ed piece read in English: “Business as usual.”

It was difficult to maintain this phony enthusiasm for a great Conservative victory for long. Mariann Őry of Magyar Hírlap admitted today that May had made a bad mistake by calling for a snap election. She cataloged a host of mistakes that May made during the campaign and announced that many Conservatives want her to resign. Her conclusion is that May wanted to be a new Margaret Thatcher, “but according to all signs she is unequivocally not.”

Also today Origo decided to ask an associate professor of Corvinus University for his assessment of the election results. He said that “the results of the snap election have made Britain’s domestic politics unpredictable.” This was translated in the headline to the short article as “Political chaos may await the Brits.” The professor believes that Theresa May will resign shortly after the opening rounds of the negotiation talks. Accompanying the short article was the following photo.

Source Citizenside / Photo: David Whinham

Magyar Idők also eventually decided to recount the real story of the snap election. Instead of relying on MTI reports, Tamara Judi, a regular at the paper, wrote a lengthy article in which, quoting The Telegraph, she reported that the “remain camp took the election as a second referendum and supported those who offered the mildest exit conditions.” This must be difficult for the Orbán government to swallow since it has been a strong supporter of Theresa May’s position on many issues–save, of course, for the status of the half a million Hungarians who live and work in the United Kingdom.

Within two days the key government papers, Origo and Magyar Idők, wrote conflicting (I suppose one could kindly describe them as “evolving”) stories about the British election. Imagine that these papers were your only source of information about the election. Is it any wonder that there is such confusion in Hungarian right-wing heads?

June 10, 2017