Tag Archives: Orbán government

The Hungarian parliament “debates” the anti-NGO bill

It’s becoming really hot in the Hungarian parliament, where the opposition is waging a heroic fight against an increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous Fidesz majority. Members of the opposition are feeling increasingly frustrated by their impotence within the walls of parliament. They are desperate as they watch the Fidesz bulldozer grind on with escalating force.

One would think that the international scandal that ensued after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country would temper Viktor Orbán’s zeal and that he would conveniently forget about the bill against those civic organizations that are partially financed from abroad. But no, he is forging ahead.

Tempers are flaring in parliament. Lately I have noticed growing impatience on the part of the Fidesz majority, which often prompts the president or his deputies to forcibly prevent discussion of pending legislation. One would think that with such a large majority, the government party would show some magnanimity, but this was never true of Fidesz and it is especially not true of late. Perhaps because Fidesz parliamentary leaders are feeling the pressure of the streets they take their anger out on the members of the opposition. In turn, some opposition members seem buoyed by those tens of thousands who have demonstrated in the past week. The result is shouting matches and fines ordered by either László Kövér or one of his Fidesz or KDNP deputies.

About two weeks ago commentators predicted that the Orbán government will consider their bill on the NGOs even more important than their law on higher education, the one that affected CEU. And indeed, top Fidesz representatives were lined up for the debate, among them Gergely Gulyás, whom I consider especially dangerous because he seems to be an unusually clever lawyer with the verbal skills to match. He acted as if the proposed bill wasn’t a big deal, just a simple amendment of little consequence. As for the issue of branding NGOs by demanding that they label themselves “foreign-supported” organizations, Gulyás’s answer was that some people consider such support a positive fact, others don’t. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the bill. He accused the opposition of “hysteria” stemming from frustration.

The Christian Democrats have recently discovered an able spokesman, István Hollik, who was not as restrained as Gulyás and spelled out in detail what the government’s problem is with the NGOs. According to him, “there are people who would like their political views to become reality and who want to have a say in the events of the world without seeking the trust of the electorate. This is what George Soros does in Europe and in America.” It is through these NGOs that Soros wants to influence politics.

MSZP’s spokesman was Gergely Bárándy who, I’m afraid, doesn’t set the world on fire. LMP’s Bernadett Szél, however, is another matter. In her view, the country shouldn’t be shielded from the civic groups but from “the Russian agents who sit here today in parliament.” She continued: “You are a government financed from abroad; you are politicians who are financed from abroad; you are supposed to do this dirty work. It is unacceptable.” As for Hollik’s references to George Soros, Szél said “You people make me sick!” Szél was well prepared for this speech because she had hundreds of cards printed on a black background saying “I’m a foreign funded politician.” She placed them on the desks of Fidesz MPs. Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd didn’t mince words either when she announced that “all decent people want to vomit” when Fidesz members vote against civic groups that help the disadvantaged and the disabled. Finally, Együtt’s Szabolcs Szabó compared the bill to the one introduced in Putin’s Russia. He charged that Viktor Orbán simply lifted a Russian piece of legislation and transplanted it into Hungarian law. “Even Mátyás Rákosi would have been proud of this achievement,” he concluded.

Bernadett Szél hard at work

But that wasn’t all. It was inevitable that the pro-government civic organization called Civil Összefogás (CÖF) would come up. CÖF is clearly a government-financed pseudo organization which spends millions if not billions on pro-government propaganda. Naturally, CÖF is unable to produce any proof of donations received. Bernadett Szél held up two pieces of paper to show that CÖF left all the questions concerning its finances blank. At that very moment, Sándor Lezsák, the Fidesz deputy president of the House, turned Szél’s microphone off. He accused her of using “demonstrative methods” for which she was supposed to have permission. Such an infraction means a fine. When Szél managed to continue, she said: “Take my whole salary, but I will still tell you that CÖF has a blank report. So, let’s not joke around. How much do my human rights cost? Tell me an amount. We will throw it together. I’m serious.” This is, by the way, not the first threat of a fine against opposition members. MSZP members were doubly fined because they called President Áder “János.” The spokesman of Párbeszéd “was banned forever from parliament” because he put up signs: “traitor” on the door leading to the prime minister’s study.

Speaking of CÖF. Today László Csizmadia, chairman of CÖF, launched an attack against Michael Ignatieff in Magyar Hírlap. He described Ignatieff as “Goodfriend II on the left.” The reference is to the capable chargé d’affaires of the United States Embassy during the second half of 2016 when American-Hungarian relations were at the lowest possible ebb.

And one more small item. Index discovered that the parliamentary guards, a force created by László Kövér in 2012 (about which I wrote twice, first in 2012 and again in 2013, will get new weapons and ammunition:

  • 45-caliber pistols
  • 56 mm (.223 caliber) submachine guns
  • 62x51mm sniper rifles using NATO ammunition
  • .306 caliber rifles
  • manual grenade launcher for 40mm grenades
  • intercepting nets
  • a variety of ammunition for new types of firearms
  • universal (fired, thrown) tear gas grenades with artificial or natural active ingredients
  • hand-operated teardrop grenades working with natural or artificial substances

So, they will be well prepared for all eventualities.

April 19, 2017

Central European University responds to a government plan to close it down

Central European University (CEU) expresses its opposition to proposed amendments to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, tabled in Hungarian Parliament today. After careful legal study, CEU has concluded that these amendments would make it impossible for the University to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest, CEU’s home for 25 years. CEU is in full conformity with Hungarian law. The proposed legislation targets CEU directly and is therefore discriminatory and unacceptable. CEU calls on the government to scrap the legislation and enter into dialogue to find a solution that allows CEU to continue in Budapest as a free and independent international graduate university.

“Any legislative change that would force CEU to cease operation in Budapest would damage Hungarian academic life and negatively impact the government of Hungary’s relations with its neighbors, its EU partners and with the United States,” said CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff. “I call on the government to enter into negotiations with us to find a satisfactory way forward that allows CEU to continue in Budapest and to maintain the academic freedoms essential to its operation.”

The 2004 joint declaration between the Hungarian government and the State of New York confirmed the parties’ joint agreement to support CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation, while at the same time maintaining its status as an accredited American university. Following the 2004 joint declaration, a special law namely Act LXI of 2004 on State Recognition of Közép-európai Egyetem, established Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE); literally translated, this means “Central European University.” KEE was established as the Hungarian entity which then allowed for Hungarian accreditation of 10 graduate and doctoral level programs at the University. CEU/KEE is one higher education institution with one campus in Budapest. The dual identity of CEU/KEE enables the University to comply with both Hungarian and U.S. laws and award both Hungarian and U.S.-accredited degrees. This is a common model. CEU is one of many American-accredited international universities that do not operate any academic programs within the U.S.

In addition, the amendments would require CEU to open an additional campus in the state of New York. Forcing CEU to do so would have no educational benefit and would incur needless financial and human resource costs.

The section of the amendment that most clearly illustrates discrimination against CEU is the provision that prevents Hungarian universities (in this case, KEE) from delivering programs or issuing degrees from non-European universities on behalf of CEU. Existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries (including the U.S.) to function through joint Hungarian entities, as CEU/KEE currently does. Hungary itself has been a member of OECD since 1996, and as such, should not discriminate against other OECD countries.

Another clear example of discrimination in the proposed amendment is the elimination of a good-faith waiver that currently allows academic staff from non-EU countries to work at the KEE entity without requiring a work permit. The change would create additional and unnecessary barriers to hiring and recruitment. Given that CEU relies particularly much on professors from outside of the EU, the new regulation would place the university in a disadvantageous position.

The proposed amendment also forbids the American entity CEU to continue its program under the current name of “Central European University” unless “Közép-európai Egyetem” (KEE), the Hungarian entity, changes its name. This would require both entities to change the names that were established a quarter of a century ago.

CEU celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. It has no other desire than to remain in Budapest. It is deeply embedded in Hungarian academic life, collaborating with other institutions of academic excellence in Hungary from ELTE to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, sharing research projects, teaching, knowledge, and enabling student exchanges. Of the nearly 1,800 students CEU educates each year, Hungarians make up the largest group. The majority of CEU staff and nearly half the faculty are Hungarian. CEU contributes to the Hungarian economy through tax, social security, and health insurance contributions as well as payments to local suppliers.

CEU is a private and independent institution. Many of our degree programs in the social sciences and humanities rank in the world’s top 200, and many in the top 100, some in the top 50. CEU faculty are remarkably successful in earning research grant funding from the European Union and other grant-making organizations in competitive tenders held across Europe or across the globe. From 2011-2016, CEU received €6,955,221 in ERC grants. For 2017-2022, the University will receive €14,988,163 in ERC grants. CEU has a reputation which should make Hungarians proud. We employ Hungarian professors; we have recruited many notable Hungarian scholars back home from posts overseas; our largest component in our student body consists of Hungarian students.

We are proud of our reputation, proud of our contribution to Hungarian academic life for the past 25 years and we will defend our achievements vigorously against anyone who seeks to defame our work in the eyes of the Hungarian people. The combined entities of CEU/KEE, which deliver 8 master’s and 2 doctoral degree programs accredited in Hungary, is deeply embedded in Hungarian academic life and society. It employs over 600 Hungarians and enrolls, on average, 400 Hungarian students per year – the largest national group among our students. These are just a few of CEU’s rich contributions to Hungary and to the world. Any legislation that would make it difficult for CEU to operate in Hungary would destroy this fabric of cooperation with Hungarian institutions and the Hungarian public and would damage Hungary’s long-held reputation as a center of innovation, academic excellence and scientific inquiry.

CEU will hold a press conference on Wednesday, March 29 at 2 p.m. to address these issues.

Press Contact: International Media Relations Manager Colleen Sharkey +36 30 916 2273 or sharkeyc@ceu.edu

March 29, 2017

Medián: Support for László Botka

In the last few days two opinion polls have been published that focus on the qualities and popularity of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. The juxtaposition of the two is somewhat arbitrary because Ferenc Gyurcsány is not a declared candidate while Botka is. The comparison was most likely prompted by László Botka’s steadfast opposition to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s active participation in the political process. Moreover, given the paucity of political talent on the left, Botka and Gyurcsány are the two who stand out in the crowd.

The first poll, conducted by Závecz Research, was published two days ago. In my opinion it was based on a disappointingly simplistic methodology. The pollsters asked 1,000 eligible voters who they find more capable of defeating Viktor Orbán–László Botka or Ferenc Gyurcsány–and concluded that the former is four times (44%) more likely to stand a chance against the strong man of Fidesz than the latter (11%). Forty-five percent of the sample had no idea who would do better.

In the second question Závecz Research wanted to know whether people sensed or didn’t sense a decrease in antipathy toward Gyurcsány. This question reminded me of those food experts of the Orbán government who wanted to assess the differences in quality of products sold to Hungary as opposed to, let’s say, to Austria by relying on tasters’ palates. Or of a relative of mine who decides on the popularity of different parties based on her encounters with acquaintances on the street. Well, 51% of the people surveyed thought that the animosity toward Gyurcsány hadn’t subsided whereas 30% thought it had. Needless to say, this was music to the ears of the anti-Gyurcsány factions.

Yesterday, only a day after the publication of the Závecz poll, Medián came out with a much more sophisticated and revealing poll. First of all, Medián recognized that a poll that samples the entire electorate will give skewed, misleading results about the popularity of opposition politicians. Medián therefore concentrated on those voters who “want a change of government,” i.e., those who would not vote for Fidesz. Moreover, Medián focused on Botka and touched on Gyurcsány’s role only tangentially.

According to Medián, 43% of voters would prefer change as opposed to 48% who would stick with the Fidesz government. This disappointing result may be due in large part to the disarray among the fractured opposition forces.

Only half of the anti-Fidesz group thought that Botka would be a competent prime minister, 21% thought he was unqualified, and 29% had no idea. Botka’s support was of course highest among MSZP voters (70%), but a majority of DK voters were also ready to support him. (The poll was taken at the end of January, so it is possible that the relative enthusiasm of DK voters for Botka has since waned as a result of his categorical rejection of Ferenc Gyurcsány.)

When it came to passing judgment on Gyurcsány, 37% percent of the anti-Fidesz forces thought that his participation in the political process would lower the likelihood of removing Orbán from power, 23% thought it wouldn’t, and 40% were undecided. Among MSZP voters, 30% were against Gyurcsány’s involvement while 29% had no objection to his presence in the political arena. Although Endre Hann in his article on the subject didn’t label the third category, I assume that 41% had no opinion.

According to Endre Hann’s summary of Medián’s findings, Botka is the most popular politician on the left.

Respondents were given the opportunity to describe Botka as a man and a politician in their own words and to judge him on a scale of 0 to 100. Most of the attributes were positive: clever (60%), sticking to his principles (59%), diligent (58%), courageous (59%), strong (55%), responsible (53%), and socially sensitive (52%). However, when it came to whether he would be able to solve the problems of the country he averaged only 44%. This result might not be a reflection on Botka’s perceived abilities but rather the Hungarian public’s assessment of the seriousness of their country’s situation at the moment.

Botka got a surprisingly substantial (36%) approval rating from the electorate at large. Thirty-four percent had a poor opinion of him while 30% had no opinion. When it came to Botka’s ability to govern, Fidesz voters gave him only 35 points out of 100 as opposed to voters of the democratic opposition who awarded him 64 points.

As for the current political situation, it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be no partnership among the opposition parties. Each party seems ready to campaign on its own even though most people in the anti-Fidesz camp are convinced that without cooperation Orbán’s government cannot be removed from power. These people are also convinced that the country will not be able to survive another four years of “illiberal democracy” Orbán style.

Yet there have always been a small number of political scientists who argue that the “party alliance” effort that failed spectacularly in 2014 shouldn’t be repeated. The chief spokesman for this position is Zoltán Ceglédi. At the beginning he didn’t convince me, but I’m coming to the conclusion that, given the unbridgeable differences between the parties both ideologically and in personal terms, perhaps it makes sense to start individual campaigns and see how successful these parties are in the next few months. The really tiny ones with support only in the capital and perhaps in some larger cities will most likely fall by the wayside, while the larger ones can compete for the votes of the undecided electorate. Let the voters see the differences among them and allow them to choose. The parties on the left have to agree about only one thing at the end: there can be only one challenger in each electoral district. And then we will see what happens. If they are incapable of doing that much, then they deserve to remain in opposition for another four years.

March 23, 2017

European Court of Human Rights on Hungary’s refugee policy

The European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision yesterday that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

The case involved two refugees from Bangladesh, Ilias Ilias (24) and Ali Ahmed (27), who arrived at the Serbian-Hungarian border on September 15, 2015 and were subsequently detained in the transit zone for 23 days. The transit zone toward Hungary was fenced in and guarded. After two sets of asylum proceedings, they were expelled from Hungary on the strength of a government decree that lists Serbia as a safe country. Yesterday the Court declared that the Hungarian authorities handling the case had violated the rights to liberty and security as well as the two men’s right to an effective remedy. The court also found that “the Hungarian authorities failed to carry out an individual assessment of each applicant’s case; disregarded the country reports and other evidence submitted by the applicants; and imposed an unfair and excessive burden on them to prove that they were at real risk of a chain-refoulement situation.” The decision was unanimous. “As just satisfaction, the European Court held that Hungary was to pay each applicant 10,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 8,705 euros for costs and expenses.”

Already in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights had handed down a ruling, not involving Hungary, that it was illegal to keep asylum seekers in “detention camps.” A couple of years ago the Hungarian government agreed to abide by that ruling, presumably in the hope that most of the refugees, once free to move about, would leave Hungary for greener pastures. That is exactly what happened. But once the Hungarian government realized that it was unable to handle the flow of refugees, Orbán decided to build a fence to prevent refugees from entering the country. The few who were allowed through the fence were subsequently kept in so-called transit zones while their applications were reviewed. The government’s legal experts believed that these transit zones were different from the detention centers the Court found illegal because these “container” zones were open toward Serbia. The Hungarian government maintained that these zones have extra-territorial status, i.e., they are not situated within the borders of Hungary. Viktor Orbán likened them to airports. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, however, stated that the Hungarian transit zones are under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state and are not “extra-territorial institutions.” In brief, there is no difference between detention centers in the middle of the country and transit zones at the border.

Hungarian civil rights activists are encouraged by the Court’s decision. They find this judgment especially timely because the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, just passed by parliament and countersigned by President János Áder, envisage these container transit zones as the sole means of handling all asylum applicants.

What is the Hungarian government’s reaction to the verdict? There’s no official word yet from the government itself, but Fidesz announced that it was an absurdity. “For Hungary to pay when it observes and complies with EU rules and protects not only the country but also the borders of Europe” is incomprehensible. They stand by their belief that the migrant crisis can be handled only with a forceful defense of the borders, and they will withstand all the pressure coming from Brussels and Strasbourg. To ensure that Hungarians’ hatred of the refugees doesn’t wane, they will have a new “national consultation” so “the people will be able to tell their opinion of the immigration policies of Hungary and Brussels.”

Meanwhile major international newspapers are critical of the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees in general, especially since there is increasing evidence that some of the policemen serving along the borders mistreat those who illegally try to enter the country. In addition, about 80 asylum seekers in a detention center in Békéscsaba began a hunger strike on Monday protesting their incarceration. On March 13 The New York Times in an editorial harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment. The editorial begins with these words: “Hungary’s cruel treatment of refugees has reached a new low.” The editorial justifiably points out that while “Mr. Orbán derides the European Union’s values, Hungary has no trouble taking its support, having received 5.6 billion euros from the union in 2015.” The final verdict is that Hungary treats “desperate refugees with incredible cruelty.”

To round out this post, let me say a few words about the celebrations on Hungary’s national holiday in remembrance of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence. The little I saw of the crowd gathered in front of the National Museum, where Viktor Orbán spoke, was disgusting. There was a confrontation between Fidesz loyalists on one side and followers of Együtt’s Péter Juhász, with whistles, on the other. During the encounter the loyalists hurled all sorts of obscenities at the whistlers. They also claimed that the Együtt protestors were “members of the AVH,” the dreaded state security police that was dismantled after 1956. The reporter for ATV was called a Jewish stooge. All in all, just another terrible national holiday.

I haven’t yet read Viktor Orbán’s speech in full, but one sentence caught my eye. According to Orbán, the nations of Europe are in a state of insurrection. As he put it, “the winds of 1848 are in the air.” In 1848 one revolution after the other broke out in Europe against the European monarchies, beginning in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Orbán Viktor blithely compared the democratic revolutions of 1848 to the dark forces of the extreme right on the rise today. He is keeping fingers crossed for victories by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, after his favorite Donald Trump won in the United States. Well, I’m happy to announce that Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the election, getting 31 seats in parliament, against Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PV) with 19 seats. This is the second disappointment for Viktor Orbán. The first was the Austrian presidential election, which ended in a victory for a Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, instead of Orbán’s favorite, Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ. And as things stand now, it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. What a disappointment for the Hungarian leader of the far-right Fidesz.

March 15, 2017

Amnesty International: Devastating report on Hungary

A few days ago Amnesty International (AI) released its 2015-16 report “on the state of the world’s human rights,” which includes a scathing analysis of Hungary’s record. Since the refugee crisis dominated public discourse in the European Union during this period, AI paid special attention to Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugees who gathered at the southern border of the country. AI describes Hungary as a country that “led the way in refusing to engage with pan-European solutions to the refugee crisis” and opted instead to seal its borders. The report stresses the anti-Muslim rationale for Hungary’s refusal to admit refugees.

AI’s report deals with four problem areas: (1) refugees, (2) freedom of association, (3) discrimination against the Roma population, and (4) freedom of religion. The space devoted to Hungary is fairly long. It begins with the statement that, according to a report compiled by the Eötvös Károly Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “the replacement of judges of the Constitutional Court and the 2010 constitutional amendments undermined the Court’s independence.” Thus, the whole legal foundation of the country is flawed.

The report traces out the stages of fence-building and the amendments to the Asylum Law. AI comes to the conclusion that “the application of the law could lead to the violation of Hungary’s obligation of non-refoulement,” a practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they may be subjected to persecution.

The AI report also points to the fact that “NGOs critical of government policies faced harassment and threats of losing their registration.” The section on discrimination against the Roma lists several court cases, including the so-called “Numbered Streets” neighborhood in Miskolc, which is still pending because of the municipality’s appeal. As far as freedom of religion is concerned, the Hungarian government, although it should have changed the 2011 Church Law to comply with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights judgment, has done nothing and therefore “freedom of religion continues to be restricted” in Hungary.

It’s not a pretty picture, and Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, expanded the list of complaints by pointing out that the Hungarian government in the past six or seven years has done everything in its power to deny assistance to and protection of refugees. Moreover, the Hungarian government incited a level of xenophobia in its citizens that is becoming something of a record in the western world. “Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, and other similar populists dehumanize whole groups of people and make them scapegoats,” says Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as quoted in Magyar Nemzet.

I’m sure that those of us who are familiar with the refugee record of the Hungarian government could have anticipated the findings of AI. So I will move on to the Orbán government’s reaction to AI’s assessment.

No more than a couple of hours after the Hungarian media began reporting on AI’s analysis of the Hungarian situation Magyar Idők published an article about Amnesty International which, according to the Government Information Center, encourages “the violation of the law of illegal immigrants.” This is especially unacceptable because “the government is only trying to defend the rights of European citizens and Hungarian families.”

A few days later Magyar Idők continued its attack on Amnesty International. It repeated Fidesz’s accusation that George Soros, who helps fund AI, was behind the negative report on Hungary. It also speculated about another reason for AI’s negative view of the Hungarian situation. The bad report card was expected because the Hungarian parliament will soon debate the government’s new proposals on restricting the free movement of migrants whose status is still pending. Of course, this is a ridiculous accusation since such a lengthy report cannot be put together in a couple of weeks and the new government proposals are of fairly recent vintage.

Röszke, September 8, 2015 / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

Today Magyar Idők once again returned to the topic of Amnesty International, arguing that last year the organization inundated the office of László Székely, the Hungarian ombudsman, with complaints. In one year the poor man had to deal with 7,500 complaints. Of that number 2,600 dealt with immigration. Only ten of these complaints came from Hungary, the rest arrived from abroad. Surely, Magyar Idők wrote, AI is behind this deluge of mail. Associates of the ombudsman’s office said that among the letters there were even some written in English, German, French, and Spanish. The associates proudly announced that all the complaining letters were answered in the appropriate language.

Reporters from the government paper confronted Áron Demeter, who deals with human rights violations for Amnesty International Hungary. Why does Amnesty International encourage its followers to write such letters? Demeter’s explanation was that HHC had asked the ombudsman to turn to Hungary’s Constitutional Court on the question of the government’s criminalization of irregular border crossings. They hoped that as a result of receiving so many letters the ombudsman would be moved to act. But the letters didn’t change the ombudsman’s mind. Magyar Idők’s reporter didn’t hide his disapproval of such “pressure tactics.” Demeter explained that ever since its foundation AI has undertaken letter-writing campaigns to authorities that keep innocent victims incarcerated. In many cases, he added, this tactic had proved to be successful.

That explanation didn’t impress Magyar Idők’s reporter, who kept repeating that the behavior of AI was unconscionable. Their letter writers burden the already overworked ombudsman, who is supposed to represent those citizens who have grievances and who seek remedies from the offending authorities.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a short video that records complaints of police brutality along the Serbian-Hungarian border.

If the stories are true, and I fear they are, one can only be ashamed of what’s going on in the “center of Europe,” as Hungarians like to refer to their country’s geographic position.

February 25, 2017

An EU prosecutor’s office would be a heavy blow to Viktor Orbán

I don’t think that anyone familiar with the Hungarian situation can doubt the economic ramifications of the institutionalized corruption of the Orbán regime. It retards growth and competitiveness and distorts the market economy.

A significant source for this institutionalized stealing is the EU’s convergence funds. Across the EU approximately 50 billion euros in funds distributed to member states is lost to fraud. The problem is especially acute in the former Soviet satellite countries: Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) gathers evidence of financial misconduct and prepares hundreds of judicial recommendations, but the prosecution rate is only about 30%.

If you think that this rate is pitifully low, you should take a look at the Hungarian situation. In 2015 OLAF investigated 17 suspicious cases, of which 14 were deemed serious enough for the organization to suggest that financial penalties be paid by the Hungarian government. As far as I could ascertain, in no case did the Hungarian prosecutors move a finger.

Yet hardly a day goes by without news of corruption. Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP who has done the most to unearth corruption, asked Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, to reveal the number of cases prosecuted since 2011. The answer was staggering. In only four cases did prosecutors bring charges. In monetary terms, in comparison to the billions most likely stolen, the sums involved were peanuts. According to their findings, the financial loss to the European Union was only 286 million forints, or 917,030 euros. Even though every day Hungary receives about two billion forints in EU convergence funds. Several notorious cases, like the street lighting business of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, were simply dropped.

For the EU, setting up a new organization–the European Public Prosecutor’s Office or EPPO–to investigate the fraudulent misuse of EU funds and inter-state or so-called carousel fraud is becoming an urgent task. In December I devoted a post to the subject, in which I reported first the reluctance and later the refusal of the Hungarian government to accept such a supranational body. We heard the old refrain: “the sovereignty of Hungarian prosecution might be undermined.” Moreover, goes the argument, since the Hungarian chief prosecutor is appointed by parliament, there might also be a constitutional problem. The latter excuse is truly laughable: almost never does the need for an amendment to the constitution cause any problem for the Orbán government.

Knowing the government’s heavy reliance on the good offices of the chief prosecutor in fraud cases, it was inevitable that Hungary would fight tooth and nail against EPPO. In the last couple of days the issue emerged again after an informal meeting of the justice ministers in Malta. Seventeen countries indicated they would participate in so-called “enhanced cooperation,” which is a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU countries are allowed to establish advanced integration or cooperation within EU structures without the other EU countries being involved. Five countries, among them Hungary and Poland, opted out.

Justice Minister László Trócsányi self-righteously announced after the meeting that the Hungarian government’s main concern with setting up an EU public prosecutor’s office is its fear of weakening such institutions as Eurojust and OLAF, neither of which has prosecutorial powers. The former is merely a coordinating body that is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. OLAF can only make recommendations. Trócsányi had the temerity to claim that “these institutions have achieved remarkable results.” In the statement given to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, Trócsányi left open one possibility: “In case they want to establish a European prosecutor’s office, it should be created on the foundation of Eurojust.” As far as Hungary is concerned, “regulating the competence of such a body should require a unanimous vote.” This is in contrast to other countries “who believe that its establishment is possible by a qualified majority.”

Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, somewhat optimistically predicted that “the establishment of EPPO can be delayed but cannot be prevented.” We do know that the EU is reassessing its convergence program, perhaps as a result of all the fraud. Commissioner Věra Jourová, who is in charge of the project, has already indicated that there might be a modification of the rules governing the assignment of EU convergence funds. In plain language, if a member state receives more funds than it contributes to the common purse, it will get less money in the future. The European Parliament can institute “ex ante conditionalities” that would allow for such modifications. That would be a heavy blow to Poland and Hungary, the largest beneficiaries of the convergence funds.

You may have been wondering why I haven’t written about OLAF’s report on its investigation into fraud in the Budapest Metro 4 project, which was reported by Politico at the end of December 2016. It has been heralded as one of the biggest fraud cases ever in the European Union. OLAF recommended the repayment of €228 million to the EC Department of Regional and Urban Policy and €55 million to the European Investment Bank.

Although in the last month the Hungarian media has been full of accusations and counter-accusations, no responsible reporting of the case is possible for the very simple reason that the Hungarian government refuses to make the OLAF document public. As long as we have no idea what is in the document and we have to rely on the interpretations of János Lázár and Nándor Csepreghy, the number one and two men of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Budapest Mayor István Tarlós, who has definite ideas on the subject but admits that he hasn’t seen the report itself, we cannot possibly pass judgment on the case.

The investigation covers the period between 2008 and 2014–that is, two years of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government and four years of the Orbán administration. The only thing we can say is that it is unlikely that all the fraud took place before 2010 and nothing happened under the new government, which is what the Orbán government claims.

Under the present setup these OLAF reports can be an instrument for political games. The establishment of a supranational European Public Prosecutor’s Office would help prevent the kind of situation that currently exists in Hungary with the latest OLAF report.

January 29, 2017

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive has momentum

As is evident from the government media, the Orbán government is mighty upset over the early success of the Momentum Movement’s signature drive to hold a referendum on whether Budapest should host the 2024 Olympic Games. On the very first day of the campaign, Magyar Nemzet reported that people were queuing up and waiting a long time to be able to add their names to the list of those who believe that Hungary’s current financial situation doesn’t warrant such an extravagance. A host of problems remain in healthcare and education, on which in the last six or seven years the government has spent far too little money.

My hunch is that, initially, Viktor Orbán was not at all worried about Momentum’s anti-Olympics project. Two opinion polls had been held on the question, and the second one, after massive pro-Olympic propaganda, showed a slight majority supporting the idea. Therefore, I assume that the government decided to allow the signature drive in the belief that it would be a flop. Instead, here we are one week later and the activists have collected almost 70,000 signatures. Momentum has 30 days altogether to collect 138,000 signatures in favor of a referendum.

“No for the Olympics, yes for our future!”

Shortly after the beginning of the campaign, Magyar Idők must have gotten the word to begin a campaign of its own against Momentum and the opposition parties that decided to support it. Dávid Megyeri, a journalist for the government mouthpiece, tried to convince his readers and perhaps also himself that the opposition parties are actually committing “collective seppuku” by supporting Momentum’s anti-Olympics campaign, even if “they are hiding behind a phantom organization.” Megyeri’s imagination went quite far in assessing the dreadful consequences of this signature drive for the socialists. It is quite possible, he wrote, that the attack on the Olympics will be considered “a casus belli for MSZP’s voters.” He believes that the anti-Olympic drive “practically guarantees the disappearance of the remainder of the socialist party.” The “miniature” MSZP will fall into the lap of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The little fish will eat the big fish, concludes Megyeri. Perhaps a threat of this sort will further confuse the already confused MSZP leadership.

In fact, the most fervent supporters of Momentum’s drive are the activists of LMP, who collected an additional 10,000 signatures in a week. And who knows how many signatures were collected by the activists of the Two-tailed Dog Party, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Magyar Idők tried to minimize the damage the drive’s success was causing by insisting that “the signature collection has lost its momentum.” That certainly does not seem to be the case.

Mayor István Tarlós, who initially was not too keen on holding the Olympics, by now has become a great fan, arguing that no sane person should sign the petition because Budapest will be the clear winner of the Olympic Games if Hungary gets the nod. After all, the construction of almost all the necessary buildings and stadiums as well as infrastructure improvements will benefit Budapest, while the government will take care of all the expenses. Of course, he is right, but the rest of the country, which lags behind the capital city in economic development, is not so enamored with the idea. Outside of Budapest enthusiasm for the Games is substantially lower than in the capital.

While the activists are doing a great job, the same cannot be said about the opposition parties. Let’s start with the opposition members of the Budapest City Council. LMP’s Antal Csárdi proposed that Budapest withdraw its bid for the 2024 Olympics. Of course, given the preponderance of Fidesz members on the Council, there was no way for Csárdi’s proposal to succeed. But at least one would have expected that the liberal-socialist members would vote for the proposal. Well, that didn’t happen. We are talking about thirteen opposition members all told, of whom only five supported the motion. Of the five MSZP members two voted for the motion, one abstained, one didn’t vote although he was present, and one voted against it. One DK member voted for it, the other against it. That will give you an idea about the state of the Hungarian opposition. Just as reflector.blog.hu remarked, “this is a sorry lot.”

Demokratikus Koalíció also showed itself to be totally inept and clumsy when the party decided “to help” the drive by setting up independent stations for non-Budapesters, letting them express themselves on the question of the Olympics even though they were not eligible to sign the petition. It soon became clear that DK, instead of helping the drive, was hindering it. Even the pro-DK nyugatifény.blog disapproved of the move that only confused people. After a day, the DK campaign was halted.

After the disastrous city council vote, the government media had a real heyday, pointing out the opposition’s double game. Pro-government journalists called attention to MSZP politicians who are now supporting the anti-Olympic drive but who earlier had enthusiastically endorsed hosting the Olympics. One of these “turncoats” was Ágnes Kunhalmi who, according to Origo, had said in 2015 that, if it depended on her, she would rather spend the money on education, but “the two together may give such strength to Hungary that it may set our country toward unparalleled successes.” She made crystal clear that she “supported the cause.” Rather embarrassing, I’m afraid, in light of her signing the petition on practically the first day of the drive.

Csaba Horváth, leader of the MSZP group in the City Council, was equally enthusiastic at the same event organized by the Hungarian Olympic Committee. However, Horváth is now trying to divert attention from this video interview available online. He made public the transcript of a speech he delivered at the council meeting on December 2, 2015. He now claims that he was the first one to suggest holding a referendum on the question of the Games. According to the transcript, Horváth said: “I believe in the Olympic movement; I believe in my politician friends; and above all, I believe that all Hungarians can unite for a good cause. However, the final decision should be based on the broadest possible consensus. Therefore, I suggest that we should hold a referendum on the question of the Olympics.” He apparently repeated the same sentiment in a letter addressed to János Lázár a few days later. Furthermore, on January 27, 2016, the opposition members put forth a motion about holding such a referendum, which was naturally voted down. By September 2016, he said, he was of the opinion that Budapest will not be able to accommodate the Olympics in 2024. But then why on earth did he abstain in the vote on Antal Csárdi’s motion? Typical MSZP waffling, I’m afraid. The party is loath to take a clear stand on anything.

Whether the Orbán government will actually allow a referendum even if Momentum and its allies get enough signatures, which by now is likely, remains questionable. Portfolio pointed out, however, that there is a good possibility that the International Olympic Committee will decide that support for the project is far too low in Budapest. In the past, cities were chosen only where popular support was over 65%, which is a far cry from the percentages measured by opinion polls in Hungary. In September 2015, only 41% of Hungarians supported the idea, according to Medián. Although the Hungarian Olympic Committee held its own poll, which showed a slight majority for supporters, most other polls indicate that only about 50% of Hungarians support a Budapest Olympics. In Paris, by contrast, popular support is 70%, while in Los Angeles it is 88%. I do hope that the International Olympic Committee will have enough brains to choose Los Angeles or Paris instead of a rather reluctant Budapest.

January 27, 2016