Tag Archives: Orbán government

Chinks in Fidesz’s political armor

There is great excitement in opposition circles because today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the current standing of Hungarian political parties. Medián, which has the reputation of being the most reliable polling company, came out with results that seem to indicate that the solid, abnormally high public support for Fidesz-KDNP has suffered a considerable setback.

Medián’s previous polling results were published on December 13 with a rather depressing title: “The voting blocks are frozen and the opposition is increasingly disliked.” Fidesz at that point had the support of 60% of respondents who were definitely planning to vote. The only bright spot in the poll was that 56% of eligible voters were planning to cast their votes as opposed to the earlier Medián poll, published on November 1, which measured only 52%. The electorate was evenly split between those who wanted the Orbán government to stay and those who wanted a change of administration.

This was the situation in the first week of December, but by January 19, when Medián began its latest poll, “party preferences conspicuously changed.” Jobbik as well as the so-called democratic opposition parties moved up while Fidesz lost. This decline is especially striking among those who were determined to vote for Fidesz at the beginning of December. The earlier Medián poll recorded that 60% of active voters would have voted for Fidesz, but in the last few weeks this number shrank to 53%. That is a significant change.

There is, as the article written by Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos points out in today’s HVG, “a degree of uncertainty that has set in among Fidesz voters.” At the beginning of December, 75% of them said that they would definitely vote on April 8; today only 70% of them are sure. As for party support, I will include here the most important group’s results: those who have a preferred party and who will most likely vote. Here are the numbers: Fidesz 53%, Jobbik 18%, MSZP 11%, DK 9%, and LMP 6%. The rest: Együtt, Momentum, Two-Tailed Dog, Workers’ Party are all at 1%. (Red = electorate as a whole; green = active voters; yellow = can pick a party; teal = have a party and will vote.)

Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos believe that “the MSZP-Párbeszéd common list, standing at only 8% among the electorate as a whole, has the largest potential because 14% of those asked are considering voting for the party.” They attribute MSZP’s growing popularity to the party’s decision to ask Gergely Karácsony, the chairman of Párbeszéd and mayor of Zugló (District XIV), to be its candidate for the premiership. In Medián’s interpretation, Karácsony’s popularity and acceptance by socialists (90%), DK voters (81%), Jobbik supporters (42%), and even Fidesz (24%) is a sign that the MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket will be a strong draw.  But this is a bit misleading since the same Medián poll shows that although Karácsony leads the popularity list among the opposition candidates, his lead is not that substantial. Karácsony got 27%, but he is followed by Bernadett Szél (22%), Gábor Vona (21%), and Gyurcsány, who is not officially a candidate (19%).

There is no question that Gergely Karácsony, a boyish 42-year-old, is an extremely attractive candidate. He is soft-spoken and, unlike many of his compatriots, is ready for reasonable compromises. MSZP’s “face,” Ágnes Kunhalmi, a 35-year-old energetic woman, who accompanies Karácsony on his nationwide campaigning, is an equally sympathetic person. I admired the leadership of MSZP for realizing that there was no viable candidate within their own ranks to lead the troops into the election campaign and for having the courage to embrace someone from the outside.

Gergely Karácsony

I do, however, take issue with Medián’s conclusion that the recent pullback in support for Fidesz is in large measure due to Karácsony’s candidacy. First of all, one can go back as far as October 2017 when Iránytű Intézet spotted Karácsony as the most popular opposition politician. Practically every month and in every poll, he, Bernadett Szél, and Viktor Orbán were in the top three spots. Now that he’s officially MSZP’s candidate for prime minister and is extensively campaigning, he is much better known. With greater visibility (+12%) it’s not surprising that his popularity also went up. As I said, Karácsony is an extremely likable man.

But what really makes me doubtful about the direct connection between Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy and Fidesz’s loss of popularity is that MSZP gained only one percentage point in electoral support between the November and the January polls. It is still languishing at 11% among active voters. If Medián’s interpretation were correct, MSZP should have picked up at least two or three percentage points in additional support. Karácsony’s choice as MSZP’s candidate became finalized on December 12 and he, alongside Kunhalmi, began campaigning right away. Yet, five weeks later, when Medián began its most recent polling, MSZP’s support moved only from 10 to 11% as compared to the November Medián poll. Moreover, the other opposition parties also gained a percentage point or two.

What is dramatic in Medián’s latest poll is the 7% drop among Fidesz’s most active supporters.  So, something must have happened on the Fidesz side rather than among the opposition parties. And this “something,” I suspect, was the news that reached Hungary on January 11 that a day before Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz had revealed in an interview to The Times of Malta that in 2017 Hungary permitted almost 1,300 refugees to settle temporarily in the country. A few days later it became clear that “the government’s communication had collapsed.” Members of the government kept contradicting themselves. And the opposition parties launched a full-court press, attacking the government that for over two years had campaigned on the promise that no “migrant” will ever set foot on Hungarian soil. After a week, on January 16, the government finally made public the exact number and status of the accepted refugees. Three days later, on January 19, Medián began polling.

I propose that it was Fidesz’s propaganda going astray that caused Fidesz voters to have second thoughts about Viktor Orbán and his party. Most of Fidesz voters had believed the propaganda, and now they felt hoodwinked, cheated, taken for a ride. Not an unexpected reaction. And not surprisingly, the number of those who want the “cheating and lying” government out of office has risen. In November the population was equally divided on the subject. The satisfied group was almost as high (46%) as the dissatisfied one (47%). Now, however, 49% would like the Orbán government to be defeated and only 42% have remained faithful to Fidesz.

Of course, all this might be only a flash in the pan, but after months of discouraging sameness this latest turn of events shows the potential vulnerability of the governing party. If everything is bet on one card and something goes wrong, the result can be fatal. And yet the Fidesz strategy is still centered on the same old anti-migrant, anti-Soros propaganda which, I believe, is responsible for the polling setback Viktor Orbán just suffered.

February 1, 2018

The Iron Lady’s business venture and the Orbán government

Aside from a post I wrote about the World Aquatic Championships held past summer in Budapest, I haven’t paid much attention to the affairs of the Hungarian Swimming Association, which for a while was in total turmoil due to the revolt of the swimmers, led by Katinka Hosszú, the star of Hungarian swimming. That revolt ended with a victory for Hosszú, who managed to get rid of Tamás Gyárfás, the long-serving president of the Association.

The storm that Katinka Hosszú created has since subsided, and one hears little about the Hungarian Swimming Association nowadays. On the other hand, there is a lot of news about Katinka Hosszú, and not just because she keeps piling up gold medals all over the world. I’m much more interested in her business venture and how she managed to get the Hungarian government to be her chief sponsor. I find this process especially intriguing because Katinka Hosszú, along with her American husband, has been looked upon as the embodiment of the businesslike American spirit. Coming from an environment where sports are sponsored by large corporations, the Hosszú-Tusup couple defied expectations by ingratiating themselves with the Orbán government, seeking support for their business when Katinka will no longer be able to swim and smash record after record.

The couple has already begun preparing for Katinka’s retirement from swimming. In 2014 they set up the Iron Corporation and called their business venture, a swimming academy, Iron Aquatics. It was named after Hosszú, who calls herself the Iron Lady. Today the Iron Corporation has 30 employees and is profitable.

The problem is that Budapest doesn’t have enough Olympic-size pools for all those athletes who must spend the better portion of their day in the water. And it is here that the Hungarian state comes into the picture.

Shortly after the World Aquatic Championships came to a close, it was reported that Iron Aquatics was renting space from the newly-built Duna Aréna. The internet news site 24.hu has been trying for months to find out how much the Hosszú-Tusup couple is paying for the privilege. Its journalists were sent from pillar to post, but government officials refused to reveal details of the arrangement. About all we know is that it was agreed that Iron Aquatics could use the “teaching pool” of the Duna Aréna even before the building was officially opened. As Hosszú announced on her Facebook page, with access to this swimming pool, Iron Aquatics, in addition to training professional swimmers, can now also teach children how to swim properly. The arrangement most likely is illegal because the Duna Aréna cannot be used for business purposes, and Hosszú’s venture is an obvious business enterprise.

By the way it looks, whatever the arrangement with Duna Aréna is, it is only temporary, until Hosszú has her very own complex on Csillebérc, an area about half the size of Margitsziget (46 hectares), which was used during the Rákosi  and Kádár regimes as a campground for worthy pioneers. The famous narrow-gauge train, maintained by children under adult supervision, can also be found here. The area illegally ended up in private hands, and the Hungarian state waged a legal battle that lasted about 20 years to recover the property. This summer, with no court decision in sight, the government settled with the owners and paid an exorbitant amount of money for a hunting lodge on the property. The government refused to reveal details of the settlement, but according to inside information the government was so eager to start building a swimming center that it paid the owner 1.5 billion forints. This is apparently 26 times more than the lodge is worth.

Headlines like “Katinka Hosszú may get Csillebérc this week” didn’t sound too good, so Tünde Szabó, former silver-medalist Olympic swimmer in 1992 and nowadays undersecretary in charge of sports in the ministry of human resources, explained that it is not Hosszú who is getting a swimming academy. Csillebérc will be one of four training centers the government will build, which will be devoted to producing future champions. She stressed that the academy will be in the hands of the Hungarian state but added that “at the same time, if our successful athletes who became role models want to pass their knowledge to younger generations, the opportunity should be given to them.”

In brief, yes, Hosszú convinced the Orbán government to build a most likely very expensive sports center for Iron Aquatics. On December 28 the government gave its blessing to the creation of all four facilities. We know how much money has been spent on Orbán’s football academy, and there is no question that these four academies are going to be expensive affairs as well. In addition to the swimming academy on Csillebérc, there will be kayak and gymnastic academies in Budapest and a pentathlon academy in Székesfehérvár.

Meanwhile Katinka and her famed coach and husband are having a rough time at home, which is being watched with a certain amount of satisfaction by those who couldn’t stand Shane Tusup, who by all reports is hard to take. He made no secret of his low opinion of the luminaries of the Hungarian swimming scene. Origo has already devoted two long articles to attacking him, and Viktor Orbán’s favorite sports paper, Nemzeti Sport, published an article expressing worries about the future of the “Hosszú-Tusup brand.” The Orbán government is planning to spend billions on a swimming academy and therefore the “Iron Empire” is not in danger, the author of the article says. But what will happen to Katinka?, asks the worried sports writer.

The author of the article is worried about Hosszú as an athlete, but in my opinion Iron Aquatics is in greater danger because, after all, it was Tusup who made Hosszú what she is today. Those parents from all over the world who already envisage their sons and daughters as second Michael Phelpses and Katinka Hosszús might think twice before turning to Iron Aquatics without the famous Shane Tusup.

January 2, 2018

Another PISA test, another poor performance

It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.

The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.

In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.

The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.

In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.

The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.

One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.

A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.

November 23, 2017

George Soros’s messages and the Hungarian government’s reactions

George Soros, simultaneously with releasing his rebuttal of the Hungarian national consultation on the alleged Soros Plan, gave an interview to Andrew Byrne of The Financial Times, in which he explained his decision to break his silence. He cannot remain quiet any longer because the Hungarian government about a month ago announced its intention to investigate the so-called Soros network. Under these circumstances, he felt he had to “set the record straight in order to defend these groups and individuals who are going to great lengths to defend European values against persecution.” At the same time he urged EU countries to raise their voices against “Orbán’s treatment of civil society and address fears over the rule of law in Hungary.”

“It is a tragedy for Hungary”

It is hard to know for sure whether this interview and rebuttal by George Soros came as a surprise to the Orbán government or not, but I suspect that it did. After all, the campaign against Soros has been going on for almost two years, yet Hungary’s benefactor hasn’t publicly criticized the Orbán government’s treatment of him and hasn’t come out in defense of the NGOs he has been supporting. During these two years he spoke out only once, thanking the 20,000-30,000 people who demonstrated on behalf of the beleaguered Central European University he founded. The devilish idea of a national consultation on the Soros Plan was born months ago, the questionnaires were sent to eight million voters more than a month ago, yet Soros said nothing. So, I assume Orbán believed that Soros would not engage verbally but would simply take all of the abuse showered on him and the employees of the civic organizations that have been the beneficiaries of his largesse.

A relatively new internet news site called Független Hírügynökség collected all the early responses to the rebuttal and the interview from pro-government sources and came to the conclusion that most of these slavish organs of government propaganda needed a few hours to recover from the shock. As is normally the case, these so-called journalists wait for the word from above. Once the government mantra is handed down, the “parrot commando” takes over. This time the magic phrase is “frontal attack.” It was Gergely Gulyás, the new Fidesz parliamentary whip, who got the assignment of sounding the trumpet. We can be assured that from this time on we will encounter the same phrase in all pro-government publications. According to Gulyás, George Soros until now has attacked Hungary and its government only “through organizations he finances, the European Parliament, and his Brussels allies,” but now he has personally joined the fight. He is attacking the government’s nationwide public survey, “making accusations, threats, and slanders.”

Gulyás, who has shed his gentlemanly demeanor since he became the Fidesz whip, wasn’t satisfied with criticizing Soros’s interview. Obviously he was told that he must announce that the investigation of the NGOs George Soros is worried about might be extended to Soros himself. Here is exactly what he said: “Civic organizations function freely in Hungary within a constitutional framework, but if there is an organized attempt at discrediting Hungary from abroad, this activity must be investigated.”

Let’s step back briefly to the Hungarian government’s “investigation” of the partially Soros-funded civic organizations. It was about a month ago that Viktor Orbán called these NGOs a threat to national security. Last week János Lázár announced that the government had asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to report on the possible dangers these civic groups pose to Hungary. This afternoon Pintér was to report to the parliamentary committee on national security about these alleged dangers. Before the hearing took place, Magyar Idők published an editorial which hypothesized that George Soros had timed his attack on Hungary in order “to divert attention from Pintér’s report” and “ahead of time to discredit it.” That sounded like a plausible theory, but to the obvious chagrin of the Orbán government, Pintér was unable to come up with any national security threats these human rights organizations present to Hungary. According to information that reached Index.hu, Pintér sidestepped the question. Obviously, he cannot go against the government’s position, but at the same time professionally he couldn’t find any national security risks stemming from these organizations’ activities. He apparently simply repeated what he had told the media a few days ago: “I don’t know whether George Soros poses any danger, but ideas he promulgates do not conform to the Hungarian conceptions and to Hungarian law. An open society, a society without borders are not accepted at the moment. They are futuristic.”

Yes, Soros stood up and fought, not so much for himself as for the people who as human rights activists are being threatened by the regime. Once he broke his silence he decided to go all the way. When RTL Klub asked for an interview, he sent a video message in Hungarian which the network immediately put up on its own website. It is a very moving video that lasts maybe two minutes. “It is a tragedy for Hungary that its present government is trying to keep itself in power by distorting reality and by misleading the population…. I’m terribly worried about Hungary; I think a lot about Hungary, and I want the Hungarian people to know that I will continue to do everything to support them.” It’s good to know that there are still people like George Soros around. The RTL Klub’s segment on Soros on its news program can be viewed here.

November 21, 2017

George Soros: “Rebuttal of the October 9 National Consultation in Hungary”

November 20, 2017

On October 9, 2017, the Hungarian government mailed a national consultation to all eight million eligible Hungarian voters purporting to solicit their opinions about a so-called “Soros Plan.” The statements in the national consultation contain distortions and outright lies that deliberately mislead Hungarians about George Soros’s views on migrants and refugees. Hungarian government officials also falsely claim that George Soros is somehow controlling the European Union decision-making process. In fact, decisions on how to address the migration crisis are made by EU member states and institutions, including the Hungarian government.

With Hungary’s health care and education systems in distress and corruption rife, the current government has sought to create an outside enemy to distract citizens. The government selected George Soros for this purpose, launching a massive anti-Soros media campaign costing tens of millions of euros in taxpayer money, stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, and employing anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s. The national consultation is part of an ongoing propaganda effort that has been underway since May 2015 that included the “Stop Brussels” consultation in the spring of 2017 and the referendum that vilified migrants and refugees in 2016.

George Soros started his giving in Hungary in the 1980s, establishing a foundation there in 1984. Since then, his support for Hungarians has totaled roughly €350 million and has included scholarships, health care services, and humanitarian efforts, including €1 million for reconstruction after the red sludge disaster in 2010. He also funds current efforts to help educate children with learning disabilities, tackle homelessness, and bring public transportation to the Hungarian countryside.

As a concerned citizen, George Soros regularly publishes commentary in newspapers around the world expressing his views and proposing policy approaches on a variety of topics, including the migration crisis. These are all publicly available on his website: www.GeorgeSoros.com.

National Consultation Statement 1:

George Soros wants Brussels to resettle at least one million immigrants per year onto European Union territory, including in Hungary.

FALSE

In a 2015 opinion piece, George Soros said that because of the war in Syria, the European Union would have to “accept at least a million asylum-seekers annually for the foreseeable future. And, to do that, it must share the burden fairly” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). A year later, when circumstances had changed, he suggested that the EU should make a “commitment to admit even a mere 300,000 refugees annually” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 2:

Together with officials in Brussels, George Soros is planning to dismantle border fences in EU member states, including in Hungary, to open the borders for immigrants.

FALSE

George Soros has clearly stated his belief that “the EU must regain control of its borders.” He believes that “the EU must build common mechanisms for protecting borders, determining asylum claims, and relocating refugees.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 3:

One part of the Soros Plan is to use Brussels to force the EU-wide distribution of immigrants that have accumulated in Western Europe, with special focus on Eastern European countries. Hungary must also take part in this.

FALSE

In his most recent commentary on the refugee crisis, George Soros endorsed “a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees.” He made clear that “the EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted.” (“Saving Refugees to Save Europe,” Project Syndicate, September 12, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 4:

Based on the Soros Plan, Brussels should force all EU member states, including Hungary, to pay immigrants HUF 9 million (€28,000) in welfare.

FALSE

George Soros did not say that Hungary should be forced to pay HUF 9 million in welfare to immigrants. He did say, “Adequate financing is critical. The EU should provide €15,000 per asylum-seeker for each of the first two years to help cover housing, health care, and education costs—and to make accepting refugees more appealing to member states.” (“Rebuilding the Asylum System,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). This would clearly be a subsidy from the EU to the Hungarian government. Last year George Soros announced that he would contribute to the financial effort by earmarking €430 million of his personal fortune “for investments that specifically address the needs of migrants, refugees and host communities.” (“Why I’m Investing $500 Million in Migrants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2016).

National Consultation Statement 5:

Another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 6:

The goal of the Soros Plan is to push the languages and cultures of Europe into the background so that integration of illegal immigrants happens much more quickly.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

National Consultation Statement 7:

It is also part of the Soros Plan to initiate political attacks against those countries which oppose immigration, and to severely punish them.

FALSE

Nowhere has Soros made any such statement. This is a lie.

November 21,2017

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017